Friday, 21 November 2014

Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946-2014): The disloyal loyalty of a critical Muslim

The French-Tunisian literary writer and essayist Abdelwahab Meddeb passed away on 6 November. Born into a North-African family of religious scholars, he moved to France in his youth to pursue a literary career. In the course of his life he became increasingly fascinated with his Muslim roots, but re-interpreted these in his own original manner. His re-readings of the Islamic heritage were often considered controversial by Muslim traditionalists and certainly outrageous and unacceptable to narrow-minded literalists on the reactionary side of the Muslim spectrum. Earlier posts about Meddeb and his work on this blog can be found here and here and here. The following excerpts are taken from an obituary that appeared on the Qantara website. 
Meddeb's act of crossing boundaries did not extinguish or deny the traces of his roots, which remained for him a powerful reference point and source of creative interplay. Again and again, Meddeb made reference to his dual ancestry in the East and the West, especially in the light of his origins in the Maghreb, which from an Arab perspective is the "West". He saw himself as a decidedly secular, Arab-European cosmopolitan individual whose chief concern was a revival of the intellectual convergence of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian history of thought that had been lost for centuries.
He set himself the long-term task of carving out an image of Islam that does not accentuate dogma and norm, but divergence, and of issuing insistent reminders of the critical, bold and even blasphemous thought that has also existed within Islam and among Muslim thinkers.
In this regard he saw points for launching a fruitful dialogue between the freedoms of the Western modern age and the polyphonic, multicultural legacy of Islamic societies.

Meddeb never tired of bemoaning the cultural amnesia fostered by westernisation and fundamentalism, a condition that affects both Western and Islamic societies in equal measure. What remains is the fatal polarisation of totally entrenched identities perpetuated by phantasms of supposed purity and clarity that are blind to history.
Like few others, Abdelwahab Meddeb made a convincing case for the argument that creativity, development and vitality are only possible through free thought, the crossing of boundaries and "disloyal loyalty" – and not through rigid morals, the pressure to conform, or the other extreme of denial and contemptuous rejection of tradition.
The full obituary can be read here.

For those who read French, here are a few excerpts from the 'In Memoriam' that appeared in Le Monde
 « Je porte en moi la maladie de l’islam », disait-il encore [...]Une position singulière, qui lui valut d’avoir des adversaires dans chaque camp. Mais aussi de nombreux amis et soutiens, tels l’islamologue Christian Jambet, le philosophe Jean-Luc Nancy, l’historien d’art Jean-Hubert Martin, l’essayiste Olivier Mongin, ancien directeur d’Esprit, qui lui proposa d’entrer dans le comité de rédaction de la revue. Ou encore le musicien Michel Portal, qui vint jouer Mozart et Schubert et improviser à la clarinette dans sa chambre d’hôpital, afin d’apaiser les souffrances de cet irréductible amoureux des arts. 
The rest can be read here.

French philosopher and friend Jean-Luc Nancy wrote an hommage, in which he noted that:
Tu es parti pour ton dernier voyage, Abdelwahab. Comme tous tes voyages il a déjà son retour en lui [...] De tous tes voyages tu reviens, à Paris, Tunis ou Tanger, à Rome, Le Caire, Berlin ou Résafé (souviens toi) parce que dans tous tu rencontres le retour éternel du même, de ce même qui n’est jamais identique, chaque fois nouveauté d’une même présence, chaque fois inscription d’un trait de la même présence. Dans la suite de tes poèmes son nom est Aya, une femme, quelqu’une, toutes, nous tous. « Tu es parti avec le poème / et tu resteras avec nous à jamais » - c’est toujours toi qui le dis et nous le récitons avec toi.»
Just three weeks before his death, Abdelwahab Meddeb recorded his last radio contribution for Medi Radio, where he had a series on Islamic civilization, broadcasted every Saturday evening. His last meditation can be heard here.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Hasan Hanafi on the Arab Spring and Muslim ambiguities towards Secularism

In a brief interview with Moncef Slimi on the aftermath of the Arab Spring posted on the Qantara Website, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi made some interesting observations on Muslim attitudes towards secularism.
Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi
In response to the question whether it is possible at all to establish a secular order in Muslim countries without religious reforms, he noted that  'in the Arab world that's partically impossible. The concept of secularism is generally rejected by the majority of the population'. The reasons for that are the long-time effects of the defeat of the 1882 uprising of Egyptian officers led by Ahmad Urabi (1841-1911) against British tutelage; the impact of Ataturk's hardcore laicism and abolition of the caliphate in 1924; as well as the continuous and continuing repression of progressive Muslim intellectuals by successive autocratic Arab nationalist regimes.

In effect, Hanafi thinks that Muslims -- and Arabs in particular -- need to start from scratch, returning to the ideas of the nineteenth-century Islamic reformers Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905).
We should remember the reformist legacy of this movement, and realise that back then, the rejection of worldly thought was a reflexive reaction by influential progressive thinkers to the failure of efforts by the Islamic peoples to achieve liberation from European colonialism. 
This also corresponds to the points of departure of Hanafi's own lifelong mission for defining and establishing an Islamic way of progressive thinking. Known as the Heritage and Renewal Project, the evolution of this project is discussed in great detail in my book Cosmopolitans and Heretics. Where al-Afghani and Abduh represent the first and second phases of trailblazing and breaking ground for the development of an Islamic philosophical method, Hanafi sees himself as following in the footsteps of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), taking up and implementing the final and third phase of this reform process which the poet and philosopher from British India had laid out in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Throughout his career, Hanafi has oscillated between this philosophical project and more engaged writings on current affairs in the Arab world. In the interview, he brings up the hostility of many Arab regimes against religious activism, even if it is strictly intellectual. These state interventions are not helpful in moving the Arab world forward:
The aggressive banning of religion from the public sphere by the state, and the introduction of a kind of "State Islam", is not going to lead us out of this dilemma. The tension between religion and politics would remain even then
Religious reforms in the Muslim world will need to take place within their appropriate context and its own terms, because as Hanafi observes:
Islam actually has no structures like the Church. Neither the Sunni Al-Azhar University nor the International Union of Muslim Scholars functions as an authority for the whole of Islam. In my view, the only Islamic authority comes from open, unbiased, scholarly discourse. And this is why is it quite simply structurally impossible for Islam to undergo the same kind of reforms as other faiths
To read the full interview click here

For some earlier critical observations on the role of Muslim intellectuals such as Hanafi in the Arab uprisings, read the post of 31 July 2011.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Ethnicity and Religion: Navid Kermani's visit to Iraq

The German-Iranian academic, writer and intellectual Navid Kermani spent a week traveling in war-torn Iraq. Here are some excerpts from his interview with the Muslim world news website Qantara about his findings. It paints a depressing picture of what once was a cosmopolitan country.

Relations [among Iraqis] are increasingly characterised by ethnicity. The old multicultural Baghdad – up until the 1940s, the Jews represented the largest and leading intellectual population group in the city – this multicultural Baghdad no longer exists. Now, people rely on the other members of their denominational group. Solidarity prevails within the group; people help each other. On the other hand, people are less likely to help members of other denominations. The sense of togetherness has dwindled to almost nothing.
Regarding the role of religion, in this instance Islam, Kermani stresses the prominent role played by people from 'secular' backgrounds (by which he means scientists and professionals), including members of the former Baathist regime, who use and manipulate religion for their own political objectives and who are willing to associate with organisations such as ISIS for these purposes.
One should take the religious façade seriously. Many European jihadis, many jihadis active on the ground and Wahhabism, which has contributed to the fact that this ideology was able to spread: all of that is religious; it should be taken seriously. It's a religious thought process. However, this process is turning against its own tradition. It is – and this is the protestant element involved – doing away with tradition in order to return to the basic scripture. It is, therefore, an anti-traditional movement.
To read the whole interview, click here.

For more on Navid Kermani and his work, visit  his website.

Links to some of his publications can be found by clicking on the widget below.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Critical Muslims of the Past: A History of Philosophy in the Islamic World without Gaps

Although this blog is primarily geared towards contemporary Muslim thinking and present-day critical Muslims, I want to draw attention to a mega project of a former colleague at King's College London, historian of philosophy Peter Adamson, who remains a visiting professor at the College, but is now based at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich.

Over the past few years, he has built up a collection of podcasts, which have now been put online as part of his History of Philosophy without any gaps. Although focusing on classical Greek and Roman philosophy, because of Adamson's personal interest in early Arab philosophy, it also includes an extensive section on the history of philosophy in the Islamic World, which can be accessed here

The material is now being developed into a book series, the first volume of which has recently appeared under the title Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps. In an earlier instance, he has also edited a volume on Arab philosophy. For further details click on the image below:

Hereunder is an impression of his audiovisual presentation of philosophy on youtube.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Iran executes 'heretic': innovative thinking about religion still a capital offense

Mohsen Amir-Aslani
In some Muslim countries, entertaining your own ideas or engaging in re-interpretations of religious texts and tenets is still a liability. Unfortunately, quite recently other countries than the 'usual suspects' such as - in this case -- Iran or Saudi Arabia, are also tightening the screws on religious freedom. Not only Egypt, but also supposedly more tolerant majority Muslim states such as Turkey and even Indonesia have made a turn for the worse (click here for an article on that subject).

In the present instance, after a tortuous nine-year ordeal, Iranian Mohsen Amir Aslani was sentenced to death and executed on account of insulting the Prophet Jonah and engaging in unlawful interpretations of the Qur'an.
Amir-Aslani was hanged last week for making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”, but human rights activists said he was a prisoner of conscience who was put to death because of his religious beliefs. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.
“Mohsen held sessions in his own house dedicated to reciting the Qur’an and interpreting it. He had his own understandings [of the religion] and had published his views in the form of a booklet and made it available to his fans,” an unnamed source told the New York-based group, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI).
Possibly because of the weakness of their case, authorities also added 'illicit' sexual activities to the list of charges -- notwithstanding the equally flimsy evidence for those accusations. While this shows the shaky legal foundations for heresy or apostasy cases even in countries such as Iran,  'deviant beliefs' and 'unlawful innovations' (the technical terms are takhayyul, bid'a, khurafat) remain capital offenses, and are used to prevent people from exercising universal human rights such as the freedom of belief, turning the concomitant freedom of expression into real liabilities in some Muslim countries.

To read the full article on Mohsen Amir-Aslani click here