David Hall finds Islam in urgent need of a cure
Abdelwahab Meddeb is a writer, poet and novelist, born in Tunis and now resident in Paris. He teaches comparative literature at the University of Paris X at Nanterre and has been visiting professor at Yale. In this work he has produced a most intelligent and wellinformed survey of Islamic history and culture and the plight of modern Islam.ISLAM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
translated by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid
In four sections and thirtythree short chapters he traces those strands of Islamic thought that led to the events of September 11th 2001. Originally published in French in 2002, the English edition includes an Afterword that takes in the author's comments on events up to the end of the war in Iraq in midApril 2003.
As a Europeanised Arab it is unclear to what extent Meddeb regards himself as a Muslim. He addresses his book to all readers, but has a special concern for those who, like himself, have "constellated themselves symbolically within the faith of Islam". Put briefly, his attitude toward Islam seems to be: Islam good, fundamentalist Islam bad. Taking his cue from Voltaire on the excesses of Roman Catholic fanaticism, he regards the fundamentalist version of Islam as a 'sickness': "If fanaticism was the sickness in Catholicism, if Nazism was the sickness in Germany, then surely fundamentalism is the sickness in Islam."
If Meddeb is somehow still a Muslim, he is a Muslim deeply influenced by the intellectual innovations of the West. He is an admirer and advocate of the ideals of the European Enlightenment, and laments the failure of Islam to develop its science in any way comparable to the Western 'scientific revolution'. These developments have led latterly to the 'Americanisation of the world', and like it or not, the perpetrators of 9/11 are the children of that world, children who: "suffer from the open wound the Muslim subject feels from having been turned from a ruler into someone ruled." But even this situation is best articulated by a representative of the culture that has inflicted humiliation on Islam. Meddeb finds in Nietzsche's notion of 'ressentiment' the definition of an aristocrat impoverished, which is the state of the Muslim world today.
Even Meddeb's vision of the Islam he approves seems to be coloured by European Romanticism, a kind of wilfully naïve nostalgia, reminiscent of that of European 'Traditionalists' such as Guenon or Schuon. His ideal of true Islam is embodied in the figure of Ibn Arabi (11651240), the Sufi mystic who espoused religious universalism in a vast corpus of writings, at once exoterically orthodox and esoterically subversive. He also shares with the fundamentalists he despises a romantic vision of the Medina of the Prophet. Whereas the fundamentalists see that place and time as a puritan paradise of sober sharia observance, Meddeb sees it, admittedly at a slightly later date, as a venue for wine, women, and song.
Perhaps the most useful feature of this book for those unfamiliar with Islamic cultural history are the chapters tracing the genealogy of modern fundamentalism. From Ibn Hanbal (780855) and Ibn Taymiyya (12631328), via Abd al Wahhab (17031792), to contemporary advocates of Wahhabist fundamentalism, is to trace the curve of an ever increasing ignorance, narrowmindedness, and semieducated stupidity. A curve that, for Meddeb, represents an abandonment of the true nature, nobility and universality of Islam. Yet it has to be said that some of the sentiments expressed by these figures are not without foundation in certain integral features of the Islamic canon. The fault lies in their unbalanced natures and fixation on the divine names of severity and judgement, rather than those of compassion and mercy.
So what is the remedy for this sickness? Externally, Meddeb recommends an integration of Islam into the dialogical diversity of the nonMuslim world, so that it is no longer seen as the universal other, but as simply another experiment in the course of human attempts at making sense of life, with much in common with other such attempts, especially in terms of ternary monotheism. Internally, he recommends a radical change in Muslim education, much of which is at present in the grip of fundamentalist Wahhabism, thanks to the ubiquity of Saudi petrodollars. This reform would familiarise young Muslims with the diversity and heterogeneity of Muslim history, thought and origins, and make willingness to debate and to question as much of a virtue as blind belief.
Unfortunately the prospects for the application of these remedies are not good. Power is not in the hands of the enlightened, in either east or west, and without power good intentions come to nothing. Despite this gloomy prognosis Meddeb's diagnosis of the patient's sickness can be recommended for its many learned asides and illuminating insights. We may all be going to hell in a handcart, but we might as well be well informed as we go.
Islam and its Discontents is available from Amazon (UK)