The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb
ISBN: 0465044352

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A Review of: The Malady of Islam
by by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala

The thesis of this thoughtful book by Abdelwahab Meddeb, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and editor of the journal Ddale, is immediately expressed in the first pages of the opening chapter: "If fanaticism was the sickness in Catholicism, if Nazism was the sickness in Germany, then surely fundamentalism is the sickness in Islam." Therefore, "the spectacular attacks of September 11, which struck the heart of the United States, is a crime. A crime committed by Islamists." This is a useful book not only for all those Westerners who have difficulty understanding why Islam is not secularized enough, but also for all those Easterners who have trouble noticing the mistaken objective in the fundamentalist interpretation of their own religion. The book is divided into four chapters: Islam: Inconsolable in Its Destitution, A Genealogy of Fundamentalism, Fundamentalism Against the West, The Western Exclusion of Islam, and an Afterword on the Iraqi war. Meddeb analyses the rise and state of Islamic fundamentalism with wide-ranging knowledge that makes use of Voltaire, Nietzsche, Goethe, Kant, T.H. Lawrence, Proust, Huntington, Nancy, Said, but also classical Arabic literature and philosophy. This is a strictly "hermeneutical" study (from the Greek hermeneuein, meaning "interpret", "explicate", "translate"), relying on the science of interpretation of Sacred Texts, not only because it shows how literal interpretations of the sacred text are always inadequate to understand the spiritual and hidden meaning of God's words, but also because it uses "interpretation" against "fundamentalism"; if modern Islamic Fundamentalism is supposed to help us to return to a "pure Islam", then the contemporary philosophy of Hermeneutics helps us return to the richness and diversity of its own religious tradition. "According to the hermeneutic system of the Ismailians," explains Meddeb, "the letter of the Qur'an that is revealed to the Prophet remains a dead letter if the imam does not give it life by illuminating the secret it conceals, one that is in his authority to disclose. The fundamentalist Wahhabites' approach to Qur'anic literature is the complete opposite of the esoteric Ismailians: The former are maniacs of the apparent meaning, the latter devote a cult to the hidden meaning. Within the Islamic landscape, Wahhabism and Ismailism constitute two irreconcilable positions." Meddeb has taken the difficult and necessary hermeneutical task that many catholic intellectuals such as Hans Kung, John Cornwell and Prieto Prini were also forced to take in recent years in order to dismantle literal interpretations of the Bible which gave birth to fundamentalist and dogmatic actions in our contemporary western society.
Fundamentalism represents a desire to modernize Islam, while preserving its foundation intact through a return to an original interpretation of its texts. According to Meddeb, the radical Islamist today is someone who preaches the Law, imposing its applications in complete integrality in order to abolish "all alterity and installs a form of being that adds a new name to the catalog of totalitarian practices that have wrecked the century." This "form of being" (which is not un-common either to other religions or political cultures) amounts to the traditional and cultural identification of "truth" or what is seen as the truth. This presupposes that there is a "pure Islam", a fundamentalist interpretation of which would restore the truth of Islamic civilization and custom: the faith in such an interpretation is the "malady of Islam".
Meddeb shows through his erudite and historical analysis how the rise of fundamentalism has its roots in European colonization and American neo-colonial domination of the Islamic world. Islamic civilization was keeping pace with European cultures and their developments in science and art until the baroque and classical period. This progress was suddenly disrupted because of the "progressive loss of international commerce. Islam had established its greatness at the very moment when Europe had fallen into lethargy (from the eighth to the eleventh century). One of the effects of the Crusades-which lasted two centuries, from 1099 to 1270-was the reestablished dynamism of the Italian city-states (Genoa, Pisa, Venice) which broke the Islamic monopoly on Mediterranean commerce." Starting from the eighteenth century, the West took the lead in intellectual and scientific discoveries, leaving the Islamic culture behind and stricken by a great sense of inferiority which turned the Muslim into a frustrated and dissatisfied "individual who believed himself to be better than the conditions imposed on him." These "conditions" are what Meddeb, echoing Simone Weil, calls the "Americanization of the whole earth." Traditional colonialism made place for alliances between sovereign countries which became "Americanized"-countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that benefited from a relatively prosperous calm, while other nations, such as Afghanistan and Iraq had to cope with sanctions and other restrictions. Meddeb truly believes that if the politicians who govern our world would have intervened to save the Buddhas from the destruction of the Colossi of Bamiyan on March 9, 2001 (the Taliban did announce they were going to destroy them a few days earlier), New York would have escaped the loss of its twin towers: they are after all two acts of destructions that belong to one single tragedy.
Meddeb explains carefully that although since the seventeenth century the Islamic world ceased generating scientific progress, during the postcolonial era it did in fact learn to use the western technology in order to crash planes into the tallest buildings of New York and kill thousands of innocent people. So, apart from being overcome by the sickness of Islam, these terrorists were also sons of their time-products of the "Americanization of the world" who refused to tolerate the inferior positions of their societies and a citizenry not allowed to integrate into the rest of the international community.
Meddeb points out that the sickness of Islamic fundamentalism cut these terrorists off from the wealth of their own pluralist Islamist tradition. Meddeb concludes his study by suggesting that the "first remedy for the sickness of Islam concerns the necessity of returning to a profound awareness of the polemics, controversies and debates that have nourished the tradition. To struggle against forgetting requires a labor of anamnesis. It is important to articulate the reconstitution of meaning (starting with medieval traces and survival) with a modern critical awareness so that the liberty of a plural, conflicting language, enduring disagreement with civility, can be established."

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