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Nausikaa Schirilla

The Islamic Sickness of Fundamentalism

On Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam

Background to Violent, Political Islam

Abdelwahab Meddeb:
The Malady of Islam.
Translated from the French by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid.
New York: Basic Books, 2003.
241 pages
ISBN 0-465-04435-2
book cover
Basic Books:
external linkWebsite


Abdelwahab Meddeb:
La Maladie de l'islam.
Paris: Seuil, 2002.
222 pages
ISBN 2-02-078847-0
book cover
Éditions du Seuil:
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1 With The Malady of Islam Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb presents a journey through the Islamic history of thought and the relationship between Islam and the West in a manner that is highly informative as well as rather confusing. A note in advance: this book is irritating as it is not clear whom it addresses and what its intention is. Nor does it follow through with the intentions that it indicates. Nonetheless – or perhaps despite of all this – The Malady of Islam makes an extremely interesting reading.
2 Meddeb wants to describe the background of contemporary violent and political Islam and therefore provides an introductory survey of the history of thought of the Arabic-Islamic civilisation. He, however, does not define this history more closely, always speaking of »Islam« in a general manner, regardless of whether dealing with Arabic love lyric, Islamic theology, or philosophy in the territory of Islam. According to Meddeb, this broadly understood and never differentiated Islam is suffering from a disease, the disease of fundamentalism – which is also the disease this book is suffering from. Although plenty of nuances of what Islam might comprise are illustrated again and again, the book consistently speaks about »the Islamic religion« or »the Islamic subject« in a generalising manner, not concerning itself with more precise labels or descriptions.

The Present and Past of Islamic Fundamentalist Thought

3 The book is divided into four parts, this however not being a historical division. Meddeb repeatedly looks at strands of the Islamic history of thought from different points of view and makes references to the present, as happens in the first two parts of the book, »Islam: Inconsolable in its Destitution« and »A Genealogy of Fundamentalism«. The last two parts of The Malady of Islam have the relationship to the West at their centre, the section entitled »Fundamentalism against the West« adopting the perspective of fundamentalists. This part deals with the hatred of foreigners in fundamentalist thought – described very critically by Meddeb – as wells as with the closeness to the West that Meddeb perceives within technology and the way of living. The final part, »The Western Exclusion of Islam«, is devoted to the lack of recognition practiced in the relationship between the West and Islam.
4 Meddeb diagnoses fundamentalism as the disease of Islam, describing this fundamentalism in a theoretical and detailed, but not exhaustive manner. His description of Islamic fundamentalist thought goes all the way back to the bases of its historic intellectual roots in the 14th century (Ibn Taimiyya), taking the reader via a description of the wahhabite renewal movement – which is considered the foundation of modern-day Saudi Arabia – and contemporary thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb to the present. Meddeb declares that his aim is »to identify the anthropological conditions in which … terrorists were born« (10), but mainly describes analyses relating to the history of ideas and makes cultural-theoretic observations. He never refers to any concrete intentions or sociological/socio-psychological studies on Islamic movements and groups. Because of this, he does not live up to the aims just stated, but does provide a range of interesting traditions of thought.
5 As a catalyst, though not as the cause of the diagnosed disease – this distinction being something that Meddeb emphasises repeatedly – the reception of Islam in the West and European colonial politics are identified, the latter being described as one of the external reasons for the sickness »that gnaws at the body of Islam« (7).

Liberal Thinking in the Clutches of Dogmatism

»If fanaticism was the sickness of Catholicism, if Nazism was the sickness of Germany, then surely fundamentalism is the sickness of Islam.«

Abdelwahab Meddeb
6 Meddeb aims at an inner-Islamic theoretical analysis, tracing a rationalistic, liberal and educational strand of Arabic-Islamic literature, philosophy and theology, which, as he repeatedly illustrates, was thwarted by dogmatic thinking fixated on the literal meaning of the holy script. He acquaints readers with the rationalistic mu'tazilite theology of the 8th and 9th century, the love lyric of Abu Nuwas, the mystic Ibn Arabi and many other thinkers. In contrast to many contemporary, especially North African thinkers, Meddeb does not see the end of this liberal strand in the death of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), but refers to the vitality of creative and rationalistic thinking in e.g. Persian philosophy.
7 Time and again he however asks one question – »Why?« Why did mu'tazilite theology become a minority doctrine, why was someone like Ibn Hanbal victorious, why did the liberal mysticism of someone like Ibn Arabi not become a common property of the Islamic civilisation? Again and again Meddeb reaches the limits of explanation, again and again a perplexity about the way things developed is reflected in his analyses.
8 The Malady of Islam thus constitutes a process of clarification that has not yet been concluded. It is the clarification process of a liberal-minded, Arabic thinker, attempting to reconcile himself with one strand of his intellectual development while simultaneously raising a number of questions: Why did that, which is dear and precious to him in this tradition, not become the common property of the entire group? Why did instead dogmatic thinking, full of contempt for humanity, prevail?
9 Meddeb's rejection of fundamental thinking is accordingly harsh. He identifies the main reasons for the strengthening of such a political Islam in the thinkers that have already been mentioned as well as in the specific political situation, i.e. the disastrous combination of repression and promotion of Islam in the Egypt of today. The exclusion by the »other« is mentioned several times as a contributing element, but – and this is an inevitable consequence for Meddeb – the »sickness of Islam« is in the end a home-made problem and can only be resolved through an internal process. Whether such a confrontational and over-simplifying diagnosis, as provided with this book, can start such a healing process, is however to be doubted highly.
Translation from the German by Marlies Gabriele Prinzl.

polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/5/rsn-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Nausikaa Schirilla, Frankfurt/M. (Germany)
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.
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