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Averting the clash of civilisations

By Jyotirmaya Sharma

The significance of Abdelwhahab Meddeb's book lies in recalling a powerful and relevant tradition within Islam that could help a return to dialogue, discussion and dissent.

IN THE middle of the 15th century, Juan de Segovia, a Spanish cleric, sent to his superiors in Rome a proposal on the subject of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. The period was that of the reconquest of Islamic Spain and the outbreak of religious, political and military conflict. It was one of those periods that help escalate mutual ignorance and fan dangerous stereotypes in the name of an inevitable clash of civilisations. Against this background, de Segovia got the Quran translated and suggested that a Council of the two religions be called to help lay the foundation for lasting peace throughout the world. This was the first step. Next, he suggested three steps towards reconciliation with Islam: a negotiated truce between the two sides; resumption of commercial and cultural links in order to create a climate of understanding and co-existence; and once trust was established, an assembly of religious authorities to delineate the common ground that existed between Islam and Christianity without emphasising the differences of dogma that separated them.

Juan de Segovia's proposals were rejected and he was confined for the rest of his life in a Swiss monastery where he died unsung and forgotten. In the 21st century, Juan's noble words are likely to get drowned in the shrillness of Samuel Huntington's `clash of civilisations' rhetoric, though the urgency to recall them has never been greater. The world over, there is a mad scramble yet again to make sense of Islam, especially so if Islam is not to be confused with the terror tactics and obscurantist agenda of the Islamists. After 9/11, but more so after American acts of `redeeming violence' in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a veritable deluge of works across the world attempting to `understand' Islam.

Amidst this cacophony, Abdelwahab Meddeb's voice is unique because it is the voice of a novelist, poet, translator and essayist. It is also the perspective of a Tunisian Muslim who straddles both cultures, the Islamic and the Western, with equal ease. Mr. Meddeb's book, "The Malady of Islam," is closer to de Segovia's project than to Salman Rushdie's elegant self-indulgence. It begins by asking uncomfortable questions but proceeds to find answers within Islam in order to marginalise the baleful shadow of the Islamists. Do the Quran and the tradition it gave birth to lend themselves to a fundamentalist reading? If so, are there elements within the tradition that equip a Muslim to resist such a limiting interpretation of tradition and the Holy Book? Are there ways to overcome a reading of the Quran that limits Islam to a call to war and a relentless pursuit of jihad? Mr. Meddeb admits that there are aspects within Islam that positively predispose it to appropriation by fanatics. This is the sickness of Islam, but there are potent remedies available to cure the faith of its affinity to the malady. The solution lies in not confusing Islam with the sickness, says Mr. Meddeb, "even if I can see the undeniable component of it that predisposes it to that sickness."

The first strategy is to recall that Islam was an affirmative, positive and joyful faith. There is, therefore, a need to return to an awareness of the polemics, controversies and debates that for centuries nourished the faith before the agents of intellectual closure sealed it from this tradition. Anamnesis, the act of recalling, must wage a war against amnesia, the act of forgetting. Amnesia about the greatness of their own civilisation had led Muslims to partaking of a culture that was sterile, and one that did not participate in creating knowledge. But it was a different Islam when the Mu'tazilites in the ninth century challenged the dogma that the Quran, like God, was uncreated and had been handed over as it is from heaven. Poets like Abu Nuwas (762-813) sang praises of wine and illicit love, while Ibn `Arabi' (1165-1240) laid greater emphasis on the continent of the soul rather than politics and invented the method of ta'wil, a way of creative interpretation of the Quran.

Ibn al-Muqaffi, writing in the middle of the eighth century, preferred the Manichean ethics than that of his co-religionists. Ibn Rawandi (ninth century) questioned the inimitability of the Quran, the impeccability of the Prophet and the instrumentality of the Revelation. al-Ma'arri (973-1058) was a sceptic who came up with a dazzling formulation: "Each generation of man follows another and turns the old lies into the new religion. Which generation was given the right path?" Averroes, the rationalist of the 12th century, rejected bid'a, `the reprehensible innovation', that the fundamentalists invoke to forestall borrowing of knowledge from non-Islamic sources. He believed in the universality of knowledge and its cumulative merits, arguing that one must borrow what is true from the ancients as well as others, while rejecting obvious errors. This, argues Mr. Meddeb, was the most precious legacy of Islam, and manifested itself in a profusion of spiritual texts, poetry and lyrical sayings, an attribute that made the faith spiritually rich while disengaging it from politics.

What, then, accounts for the rise of fundamentalism within Islam? Mr. Meddeb divides the answer into two sets of reasons, external and internal. The external causes are familiar: Exclusion and non-recognition of Islam by the West as representing its own uniqueness and internal cohesion; double standards of the West, especially of America. However, Mr. Meddeb's enumeration of the internal reasons is at once provocative and original. Muslims, he suggests, had for some centuries now lagged behind the West in technology, innovation and the creative spirit. At one time, they illuminated the world with their insights and were givers of these civilisational gifts to the world. Now they had become reactive and negative. They had learned to accumulate hatred and were consumed by the idea of revenge. Why was this so? Mr. Meddeb laments the loss of doctrinal and interpretative boldness with Islam for this turn of events. Islam had fallen into the hands of the semi-literate and the culturally illiterate guardians of faith. It had lost its aristocratic morality, its fascination for the master of `learned ignorance', the Sufi, and fallen prey to the mentality of the slave who constantly indulges in the politics of revenge and retribution.

The hankering after a return to the purity of the letter and building a community of faithful around the immutable word of the Quran and the tradition (sunna) can be traced back to figures such as Ibn Hanbal (ninth century), Taymiyya (1263-1328) and Ibn' Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792; the father of Wahabism, the Saudi theology). Yet while this early form of fundamentalism was anti-Christian, it never transformed itself into anti-Westernism. In fact, the West in matters of the intellect fascinated many of the later ideologues. They invoked categories such as parliamentarianism and freedom of expression to fight local despotism. Mr. Meddeb identifies the period of the 1920s and the 1930s as the decisive phase for the rise of an exclusive, essentialist, non-discursive and anti-Western model of Islam.

The Syrian, Rashid Ridha (1865-1935) asked his followers to fight the moral influence of the West through a recourse to a purely Islamic ethic. Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for primary schools to be attached to mosques and the elimination of all Western influences. But the central figures in the fundamentalist pantheon are Abu al-A'la Mawdudi (1903-1979) from Pakistan and his Egyptian disciple, Sayyid Qutb (1929-1966). Mawdudi constructed an entire political philosophy through the manipulation of a single Quranic verse: "Hukm is God's alone" (12:40). The verbal root of hukm lends itself to multiple meanings and the original context of the verse was an address to idolaters. Mawdudi chose to associate hukm with sovereignty and translated it as: "Sovereignty belongs to none but Allah". In this way, he transformed the political arena into an extension of the divine. If sovereignty belonged to God alone, then so did legitimacy. This made democracy, parliament, class, political parties, human rights and even aristocracy completely irrelevant. Sayyid Qutb, his pupil, argued that everything that did not conform to the word of God as enumerated in the Quran must disappear or be eliminated.

The significance of this book lies in helping us recall a powerful and relevant tradition within Islam that could help a return to dialogue, discussion and dissent. But more significantly, it serves as a warning to Hindus who are increasingly capitulating to the bellicose theatricality of `semiliterate agitators' who burn libraries and vandalise art exhibitions in the name of preserving Indian civilisation. The irony is that in the case of Islamists and the Hindu right, the masses seem to fall for their simplifications.

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