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

Monday, 25 August 2014

Terrorism, Saudis, and the Trivialization of Life

This is a guest contribution by Abdullah Hamidaddin, a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and presently a PhD candidate at King's College London. His book Harmonious Being is discussed in this earlier post

Abdullah M. Hamidaddin
n the heart of every terrorist is a trivialization of life; his own or the innocent’s or both. Some terrorists come with a disposition for criminality and trivialize the lives of others for lack of empathy. Such people hold on dearly to their own lives and those they cares for – family – but can become butchers when the matter is about other people’s lives. They may seem religious, but they are nothing but criminals using a religious language. And in many ways it is only language which differentiates a criminal who uses religious or revolutionary language and the butchers in the Mexican drug cartels. On the other hand some terrorists are ideologues. They trivialize life because they are convinced that it does not merit care, or because there are things worth to die for and also to kill thousands of others. Here they learn to trivialize life, they read theory after theory on the matter, and then they teach others. Here all lives are trivialized; one’s own life, those dear and also others. Such terrorists who adopt an ideology that trivializes life (and glorifies death) are the most dangerous type. They are the fuel that sustains terrorism. A criminal terrorist will withdraw once he/she realizes that the costs outweigh the benefits. The ideologue terrorist will continue until he/she is killed or incarcerated.

Those who combat terrorism in Saudi Arabia face a major hurdle. The ideology of trivializing life is very popular. It is true that only a few members of Saudi society turn towards terrorism, but a significant segment of that society believes in many of the founding ideas of terrorism particularly the ideology of trivializing life. This becomes apparent by following or participating in Saudi debates on terrorism, even though the new terrorism laws enacted made many Saudis less willing to speak their minds on terrorism. They want to condone it or justify but they fear that it may constitute promotion of terrorism as defined by the way and lead them to imprisonment. But there had been a recent frank debate on Hamas and Palestinian military resistance and the ideas expressed say much about the popularity of the ideology of trivializing life. Though the debate was about Hamas it spoke our local reality; though it was about an event outside Saudi Arabia it reflected  a local mindset.

Following the debate on resistance can give us a glimpse on some of the highlights of the ideology of trivializing life which sustains terrorism. At the heart of that debate you find a culture of adoration to death. The debates did not focus on the military or political feasibility of resistance rather on the necessity to die and the triviality of life regardless of the gains. Some of the common phrases were: “to die as martyrs is better than to live without pride”; “what is the point of them living if it is under a siege”; “what is bad about a whole nation dying for its dignity”; “what do they have to live for anyhow”; “why is death a problem?” “it is not important how many of us are killed, what matters is that we kill from them and strike fear in their hearts”; “our dead will go to heaven so it is not a problem.”

Had we heard this from someone living in Gaza it would be understood. He/she would be living in exceptionally harsh situations and thus is expected to think about life and death in an exceptional even suicidal mode. Living under an occupation can make one hate their enemies to the point of hating their own lives and those one cares for.

Had those been said by soldier, it would have also been understood. He/she is trained to kill; to violently confront; to die. His training extracts from him respect for human life. A soldier in the end is a killing machine.
What is freighting however is to see such phrases coming out from Saudis of all backgrounds and social classes. I almost feel that some of their grievances about the deaths of Gazans is more about stirring Western conscience and less about actually being sad over them. It is almost as if they are thrilled about human loss or at least uncaring but are compelled to show a sad face. It is indeed horrific to hear such logic from the religious, the intellectual, the layman, the old and the young. All celebrate death in their own ranks – the ranks of the Palestinians actually - as much as they celebrate death in the ranks of their enemies – the Israelis.

I need to take a moment to differentiate between the undesired necessity of death to protect one’s life, dignity, rights, land and nation on one hand and the celebration of death on the other. I do not argue against the necessity of death in extreme conditions (though I still consider it evil), but I argue against celebrating it and welcoming it. We also need to differentiate between holding on to life and loving life. We do hold on to life, no doubt. But sometimes I feel it is an instinctive response; similar to that of a car or an ant. We also fight for our lives, but perhaps in the same way as an amoeba protects its own life. Yet, we – or many of us – do not love life. We do not hold it to be sacred. On the contrary we love death and sacralise it; we consider death the ultimate goodness and we may even ridicule those who love life or call for holding it sacred.  

All nations consider those killed for a grand cause to be martyrs. All nations give the family the news of the death of a dear one. And all nations cry and lament their losses. But we have a peculiar and odd phenomenon which is that we give the news as if it’s good piece of news. Many of us are actually happy to hear the news of martyrdom. Some families reject receiving condolences because they consider it to be a happy occasion. Of course there is sadness. We cannot avoid being sad. But we celebrate death. Some families even envy other families who are strong enough in their faith to the point where they announce their happiness when receiving the news of martyrdom.

We need a better understanding of this mindset. We need to understand its roots. Where did the ideology of trivializing life/death come from? The Quran speaks of Jihad as something people hate: "Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you" (Q 2.216). Yet now we have people speaking about Jihad and about being killed as something they love. Is it the Marxist resistance movements which also trivialized the life of the individual for the sake of the life of the collective? There is a lot of evidence that local radical, Arab nationalists, and Islamic movements were influenced by Marxist resistance literature. So perhaps it was imported and then ‘Islamized’ by mixing it with Qur’anic verses, Hadiths and historical stories of Muslim heroism. Being Islamized is a crisis, as before that, such ideas would have been considered a pragmatic tool to encourage resistance. But when Islamists adopted it, it became an ultimate value, a religious principle, it became above everything. There is also a second crisis which is that this principle was included in our educational programs and built into the DNA of our culture and now a whole society is socialized on it.

To look for ISIS or Al-Qaeda or all forms of terrorism one needs to look into the whole of society. In a way we all belong to ISIS. We are all terrorists. We have all grown up to be soldiers for the ‘cause’ – whatever that is; soldiers who know how to obey not to think; how to hate not to love; how to fight not to make peace; how to confront not to maneuver; how to die not to live. Such knowledge is a foundation of terrorism.
We repeatedly hear that it is futile to confront terrorism if the religious clerics who are assigned the duty of confronting religious terrorism are themselves radical. But the problem in my view is deeper. Society fights terrorism but in its depth is a terrorist. The terrorist is not in discord with his society rather a loyal member of his society’s culture. The terrorist is one who disobeyed his society but not who left his society’s culture. 

This article was originally published, in an edited form and in Arabic, by Al-Hayat Newspaper and can be read here.

Another article on a related theme written by the same author for Al-Arabiya News appeared under the title 'How to Kill ISIS with the Right Discourse'.

Following him on twitter @amiQ1

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Sadik al-Azm on the crisis in Syria: Self-Criticism or Self-Defeating Critique?

Sadik Jalal al-Azm
Syria's leading philosopher, Sadik al-Azm, has written an insightful analysis of the situation in Syria, which -- from 2011 onward -- has gone from bad to worse. Known as one of the most incisive minds of contemporary Arab thinking, Sadik al-Azm made name with penetrating writings, including Self-Criticism After the Defeat, where he criticizes the general intellectual mood in the Arab world, and 'Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse' which challenges Edward Said's account of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, again holding up what must be an uncomfortable mirror for many Arab intellectuals and cultural critics. An earlier response to the uprising in Syria can be found here.

While the article's subtitle, 'understanding the unthinkable war', points up the sheer impossibility of making sense of what is pitching Syrians against each other in the present conflict, it seems that as he develops his argument, al-Azm falls victim to the very failings he seeks to highlight: The loss of an overarching sense of 'Syrianness', leaving in its place a polarized fragmentation into other senses of belonging, now increasingly of a sectarian character, which -- with a nod to Ibn Khaldun's notion of asabiyya -- are by many taken to be of a more primordial nature. There is a poignant contrast between the beginning of the essay:
The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”
I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.
After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. [...]
Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.
 ..and its closing paragraphs:
The solution can come only with the termination of political Alawitism. This is pretty much the way the Taef Agreement, in 1989, brought the Lebanese civil war to an end—by jettisoning political Maronitism and its predominance over Lebanon. In Syria’s case, that means the end of the dynasty, the end of Alawi supremacy, the end of the sway of the minority, and the rebirth of the republic. The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority. The West will inevitably intervene because the great powers will not permit Syria to fall into the hands of jihadi Islam. The question is whether that intervention will be guided by a proper understanding of the war.
As I write, no one claims to know where Syria is heading or what will end the bloody struggle. Still, I am certain that the Assad and Alawi dynasties will never rule again.
To read the full article, click here

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Islamic Post-Traditionalism: Postcolonial and Postmodern Religious Discourse in Indonesia

ln this article, I take a critical view of the dominance of postcolonial studies by South Asian and Latin American scholars and intellectuals, and present an alternative Southeast Asian strand: A discourse emerging  young Indonesian Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia, known as ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism’. 

What I try to establish is to what extent this strand of Muslim thought can be considered a contribution to the engagement with postcoloniality and an application of deconstructionist discourse critique developed by postmodern philosophers within the context of rethinking religion, and Islam in particular, in Indonesia. Identifying a vivid interest among Indonesian Muslim intellectuals in the work of pioneering and controversial contemporary Arab-Islamic thinkers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, and Mohammed Arkoun, the article interrogates the influences exercised by these Arabophone and Francophone Muslim intellectuals on the formation of Indonesia's Islamic Post-Traditionalism and how this is reflected in this discourse. It is illustrated with a précis of the writings of a key exponent of the Islamic Post-Traditionalist discourse and a brief excursion into the new philosophy of religion and Islamic education combining modernist and traditionalist strands of thought by M. Amin Abdullah, a Turkish-educated Indonesian philosopher and former rector of the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta.

For access to the full article, click on the image below

Members of can access a full version here.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Indonesia's Muslims between religious pluralism and intolerance

 This article was written for the Middle-East Asia Project (MAP) of the Middle East Instite (MEI) in Washington DC:

Religious pluralism has been under threat and sectarianism on the rise during the ten-year (2004-2014) tenure of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (also known as SBY).  During his two terms in office, Indonesia has seen rising tensions both between and within religious groups, increasing religious intolerance, and more cases of religiously inspired violence. This antagonistic climate has led to the closure and burning of churches, the displacement of Shi‘i communities, physical violence against civil society activists campaigning for religious pluralism, and even the lynching of Ahmadis. Colluding local and regional authorities not only undermine the rule of law by failing to prosecute the perpetrators, but even seek to “resolve” tensions caused by the presence of minority groups by condoning—and sometimes stimulating—intimidation and hate crimes against them.

Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
These apparently domestic issues have wider significance for three reasons. First, in addition to being the largest Muslim nation-state in the world and a regional heavyweight in Southeast Asia, Indonesia also has the potential to become a global force on par with countries such as Russia and Brazil; second, its strategic location in an area where the United States, Chinese, and Indian interests meet makes it an important factor in the repositioning of a future world order, and finally, fifteen years of experience with a democratization process demonstrates that shaping a democratic political system for a pluralist society is hard work that must involve both institutional reform and the formation of a civil society capable of facilitating peaceful coexistence among diverse members of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.  As a self-proclaimed “natural bridge” between the Muslim world, Asia, and the West, Indonesia offers a cautionary lesson for other Muslim countries planning alternative political trajectories in the aftermath of regime change.
 To read the full article click on the image below

Click on the image to read the full article

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Exploring Critical islam: Muslims and their Religion in a Post-Islamist World

This article was released as part of the Singapore Middle East Papers series, published by the Middle East Institute at NUS
The term ‘critical Islam’ can mean a host of things and therefore needs to be qualified. Here it will be used to describe a strand of contemporary Muslim thinking arising  and developing both in parallel with–and in contrast to–what scholars of Islam from different academic disciplines refer to as the ‘Islamic Resurgence’ beginning in 1970s.The exponents of this other current are called turāthiyyūn, or ‘heritage thinkers’, because they do not take Islam as a narrowly defined and fixed set of doctrines and tenets, nor do they regard it as offering a set and concrete political model that works as a panacea against all the ills affecting Muslims and Muslim societies. Instead, they regard Islam as a civilizational concept with a rich legacy of religious, philosophical, and cultural expressions. This is not to imply that the advocates of political Islam, or Islamists, can’t be critical too. In fact, a case could be made that their views of the role of religion in human life refers to another meaning of ‘critical’; in the sense of considering it crucial or critically important to human felicity. However, rather than projecting Islam as an ideal, the heritage thinkers–depending on their disciplinary backgrounds–take religion as an idea or a social fact. 

The full text can be accessed by clicking on the image below

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dr Budhy Munawar-Rachman: Defender of Religious Pluralism in Indonesia

Dr Budhy Munawar-Rachman
Budhy Munawar-Rachman, a leading figure in what I call Indonesia's third generation of postcolonial Muslim intellectuals, has received was doctorate by the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, on the basis of a thesis entitled Titik Temu Agama-agama: Analisis atas Islam Inklusif Nurcholish Madjid (Points of Agreement between Religions: An Analysis of Nurcholish Madjid's Inclusive Islam).

For many years, Budhy was a close confidante of Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005, affectionately known as 'Cak Nur'), one of the most important Muslim intellectuals during Suharto's New Order (1965-1998) and founder of the Movement for the Renewal of Islamic Thinking. As the founder of the Nurcholish Madjid Society, former executive director of the Paramadina Foundation and editor of many of Cak Nur's books, he is the prime custodian of the latter's intellectual heritage. Thus Budhy was uniquely positioned to write this dissertation on his mentor's views of interfaith relations and interreligious dialogue.

Budhy Munawar-Rachman's own views on the subject are shaped by a lengthy and meandering intellectual trajectory. The sketch below is taken from one of the chapters in my upcoming book Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values:

Although regarded as an exponent of progressive Muslim thinking, Budhy Munawar-Rachman earlier education firmly integrated him  into the mainstream of Sunni orthodoxy, where ‘fiqh became the science that underpinned social reality’. His interest in physics kindled a desire for finding a rationalized understanding of religion, changing fixed religious convictions and received rituals into an intellectual and spiritual quest, which he expanded further through readings into popular psychology and the writings of Krishnamurti. However, Munawar-Rachman‘s key educational experience was the time he spent at the Higher School for Entrepreneurship (Sekolah Tinggi Wiraswasta, STW). This unconventional adult education institute by Utomo Danajaya, who later joined Nurcholish Madjid in establishing the Paramadina Foundation, teaches through participatory training and does not offer any formal degrees or qualifications. This approach is based on Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education, called the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, and geared towards grassroots level social development and empowerment.

In this milieu he was also introduced to the world of Islamic theology and philosophy, becoming captivated by the writings of Harun Nasution and especially his advocacy of a rehabilitation of the Mu‘tazila. Another deep impression was left by the publication of the diaries of AhmadWahib (1942-1973), Mukti Ali’s protégé in Yogyakarta who had died in a traffic accident. This influences ‘turned him into a free thinker, who had the courage to think for himself without fear of error’. Thus Munawar-Rachman was drawn into a study circle run by Ahmad Wahib’s close friend Djohan Effendi, where he learned to understand that the Qur’an must be seen as a phenomenon ‘reflecting the structures of that society, culture, economy and government, its foreign relations, customs, climate, the personality of the Prophet and his Companions’. Here he was also introduced to Nurcholish Madjid’s ideas on secularity and learned to appreciate the distinction between secularism as an ideology and secularization as a social process, captured in a new anthropology which made humankind God’s vicegerent on earth.

After a few years as a social research, during which he undertook a project investigating religious motivation where he tried to use the categories of Muʽtazili philosophy learned from Nasution for determining the level of rationality in pre-urban societies on the outskirts of Jakarta, Munawar-Rachman joined STF Driyarkara, which was equally unconventional as STW and used a  teaching philosophy called ‘conscientizing research’ also modelled after the work of Freire. It stimulated Munawar-Rachman to engage seriously with the work of Marx, Wittgenstein and Popper, as well as other academic fields such as economics and the sociology of development and education. These studies provided him with a more solid philosophical underpinning for rethinking theologies, such as the one formulated by the Mu‘tazila, as functional-rational approaches to modernity and transform them into an ideology for social change -- a Liberation Theology shaped by a new paradigm standing in stark contrast to the privatization of religion found in conventional liberal theology.

All this forms the foundation for Budhy Munawar-Rachman’s later involvement in defending religious pluralism – especially in the wake of the controversial fatwa by Indonesia’s Council of Islamic Religious Scholars (MUI) – culminating in a hefty study entitled Reorientation of the Renewal of Islam: Secularism, Liberalism and Pluralism, A New Paradigm for Indonesian Islam.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Recapturing Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Youssef Rakha on Contemporary Muslim Identity in a Post-Enlightenment World

The 2011 regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are not only transforming the political stage, but also impacting on the cultural scene, articulated  through what Hamid Dabashi calls the ‘indexical utterances’ of a new ‘language of revolt’.  Street art and poetry may first come to mind as media for these alternative expressions of creativity, because novels need a degree of critical distance to evolve and mature. And yet, an upcoming generation of younger writers is using the new opportunity space that has opened up in the wake of the Arab Spring to also take the novel into unexplored directions.

Youssef Rakha
One such author is the Egyptian Youssef Rakha, who admits that he was actually overtaken by events when the publication of Kitab al-Tugra: Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars)[1] coincided with the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Although years in the making, this novel prefigures some of the concerns that led to the uprisings in the first place, as Rakha explains in an essay entitled ‘Islam and the Caliphate’:

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. […]. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity[…] Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

Perhaps Youssef Rakha is a bit too harsh on himself, because the paradoxical juxtapositions he makes seem to reflect the turbulent social and political changes, indicative of the concomitant polarization in Arab societies:

the Arabic edition of The Sultan's Seal
I placed the Wahhabis, against whom the Pasha had fought on behalf of the Sublime Porte, in the same camp as Mustafa Kemal, whose military nationalism my protagonist saw as the other side of the Islamists’ totalitarian coin. Kemal—and Egypt’s own Gamal Abdel Nasser with him—were more like jihadis, Al Qaeda, Salafis and, yes, Muslim Brothers than the sultans.

The aggressively secular orientation of Kemalism had after all broken with even the highest peaks of Muslim heritage; and it was such severance and complete identification with Europe that eventually gave rise to Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in response to Kemal abolishing the caliphate altogether in 1924 (following which several attempts to reinstate it across the Muslim world all failed).

To my protagonist, both Kemal’s and the Islamists’ collective self-definitions were forms of glorified provincialism. […]

[…] how inward-looking and small-minded is the fellahin-oriented legacy of both Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat. Neither father of the nation truly introduced the judicial and institutional rigour modern Egypt had always lacked; neither adequately replaced the far less pretentious patriarchy founded by Muhammed Ali, or lived up to the standards he set for economic development.

The reference to Muhammad Ali -- the Albanian officer who took control of Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman empire after the British had evicted Napoleon, but in effect becoming an autonomous ruler to whom then fell the task of ousting the Wahhabis from Islam’s Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina – reminded me of a conversation I had with a London-based Egyptian corporate lawyer. When asking him whether it was al-Sisi’s ambition to become a second Nasser, he opined that it was more probable the field marshall wants to emulate this Ottoman viceroy.

The alternative Rakha seeks to recapture is reminiscent of what Abdelwahab Meddeb set out to do in his novel Talismano. The latter’s hallucinatory journey through Tunis and other Mediterranean cities is not dissimilar to the itinerary of the protagonist in The Sultan’s Seal, both of which tap into the rihla genre which offers an appropriate trope for celebrating a past that was much more sophisticated and cosmopolitanism than the coarse essentialism of nationalist, Pan-Arabist and Islamist ideologies.

For the full essay, click here.

[1]An English translation will appear in the Fall of 2014 under the title The Sultan’s Seal – not to be confused with a Jenny White’s book published under the same title as part of her Kamil Pasha detective series.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Islam and the Other: Abdelwahab Meddeb, Levinas and Ibn Paquda

The French-Tunisian scholar and intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb recently posted the text of a broadcast entitled Le Besoin de l'Autre -- 'the Need for the Other' . Drawing on both the Qur'an and on Sufi thinking demonstrate, in this meditation he seeks to demonstrate that also Muslim identities are in effect formed in dialogue with otherness. As this was posted in open forum on his facebook page, those competent in French can read the full text below (with some added images and links):

Abdelwahab Meddeb
 Le Besoin de l'Autre
par Abdelwahab Meddeb

Un des problèmes que rencontre l’islam est la question de l’Autre. Toute une tradition cherche à l’escamoter, à le minorer, sinon à l’annuler, à le proscrire. Et, de nos jours, cette tradition a trouvé, avec la maladie de l’identité, un contexte favorable pour croître. C’est ce qui conduit à l’exclusivisme, au culte de soi qui abolit l’altérité. Cette situation s’avère anachronique car, dans la pensée moderne, le fondement de l’éthique passe par l’épreuve de l’autre.

C’est ce à quoi convie Emmanuel Levinas qui étend à tout homme le devoir de responsabilité que chacun pratique naturellement pour ses proches. Tout humain a statut de frère, de sœur, de père, de mère, de fils, de fille. Notre subjectivité se configure par l’accueil de l’autre. Tout sujet est un autre. Et cette hospitalité de l’autre en soi fait de vous l’otage de cet autre qui vient à vous pour vous définir. En effet, l’accueil de l’autre (au risque d’en être l’otage) définit la subjectivité. 

Tel accueil devient une exigence de sainteté. Nous avons à considérer l’inconnu de l’autre rien qu’en lui-même, sans le rabattre sur les plis du connu. Dans notre connaissance de l’autre nous n’avons pas à procéder à des identifications qui effacent l’altérité radicale. Il nous faut rester ouvert au mystère de l’autre. Il nous faut aussi subir le choc que provoque la vulnérabilité de l’autre dont la sensation suscite le sentiment de responsabilité envers lui.

Pour revenir à la tradition de l’islam, la panne de l’altérité se manifeste sur de multiples plans. D’abord, elle s’exprime à travers le lien avec le Tout Autre (Dieu) lorsqu’il se fait absent inaccessible, invisible, cantonné à sa transcendance (tanzîh) comme, à l’opposé, lorsqu’il est en tant qu’inconnu rabattu sur le connu par l’anthropomorphisme (tashbîh), aliment de la superstition et de l’enchantement magique. Fort heureusement, les soufis ont réparé cette panne en vivant Dieu soit entre transcendance et immanence (Ibn ‘Arabî qui analyse admirablement la tension entre tanzîh et tashbîh, entre visible et invisible, entre figural et abstractif), soit en le logeant comme lâhût en soi en tant que nâsût : vivre le divin dans l’humain à travers l’opération du hulûl, résidence de Dieu en l’homme (Hallâj). 

Cette panne de l’altérité apparaît aussi dans la relation de l’homme à la femme. En cette première épreuve de l’autre, la reconnaissance de la vulnérabilité de la femme n’enclenche pas la responsabilité de l’homme mais confirme l’inégalité et l’infériorité, lesquelles désamorcent la problématique de l’altérité et la vident de sa complexité et de ses ambivalences.

Telle panne de l’altérité se repère aussi dans le rapport avec l’autre de l’autre croyance : le juif, le chrétien, le païen, le manichéen, le mazdéen, le zoroastrien, le bouddhiste, et plus près de nous, le bahâ’i. Tout autre dans la croyance est soit nié au point d’être anéanti – comme le païen, l’athée, l’apostat ou le croyant à une religion post islamique, tel le bahâ’i contrevenant au dogme qui scelle la croyance -- ; soit reconnu dans une infériorité qui ne peut plus faire de lui le sujet par lequel s’éprouve l’altérité : tel est le statut de dhimmi qui « protège » en inférieurs les « gens du livre » (ahl al-kitâb), juif, chrétien et l’énigmatique sabéen en lequel ont été identifiées bien des obédiences (des néo-pythagoriciens du Harrân aux zoroastriens et autres bouddhistes). 

Or, à l’intérieur de l’islam, dans le texte coranique lui-même, est déposée la matière qui peut nous accorder en toute légitimité avec l’éthique fondée sur l’épreuve de l’altérité et la conscience de sa vulnérabilité engageant le sentiment de notre responsabilité à son égard. C’est le verset 48 de la cinquième sourate al-Mâ’ida (« La Table servie ») qui cristallise cette matière. Ce long verset affirme que Dieu n’a pas voulu que les humains constituent une seule communauté articulée à une croyance unique ; la diversité des croyances est voulue par Dieu afin que les uns soient éprouvés par les autres. Ainsi l’altérité comme épreuve de soi qui est au fondement de l’éthique proposée par Levinas est littéralement un impératif coranique. Et cette dimension éthique est confirmée dans ce même verset qui finit par dire : peu importe la croyance à laquelle vous adhérez, ce qui compte c’est d’ « entrer en course pour l’œuvre de bien » (voir comment nous commentons ce verset dans notre essai Pari de civilisation, 2009). 

Ainsi le critère de l’élection divine n’est plus le privilège de la croyance mais le résultat de l’émulation éthique. Cette expression coranique (istabiqû al-khayrât, « entrez en course pour la bonne œuvre »), nous la retrouvons chez cet autre qu’est l’auteur juif de langue arabe le Dayyan, le Rabbin Bahiya ibn Yûssif ibn Paqûda l’Andalou de Saragosse. Cette expression est présente dans l’introduction de son fameux traité Al-Hidâya ilâ Farâ’izh al- Qulûb wa at-Tanbîh ilâ Lawâzim al-Zhamâ’ir (« La Guidance aux devoirs du Cœur et l’Avertissement des Obligations de la Conscience »). Simplement l’expression coranique passe sous sa plume de la forme verbale (istabiqû…) au substantif (istibâq…). Ainsi l’impératif : « Entrez en course… » se transforme chez lui en « course » pour le bien : l’émulation entre soi et les autres par l’œuvre bonne est corroborée par un auteur juif se fondant sur une réminiscence coranique, une quasi citation. 

Ainsi Ibn Paqûda semble connaître assez le texte coranique pour se souvenir du verset qui justifie au mieux l’éthique fondée sur l’épreuve de l’autre. C’est le juif – subissant le statut dégradant de dhimmi, du minoritaire protégé dans l’humiliation et l’infériorité, ce qui le dégrade en tant que autre -- c’est donc le juif humilié qui perçoit dans ce verset la possibilité pour le majoritaire qui l’humilie, le musulman dominant, d’entrer dans la course éthique où il aura à éprouver l’autre. Le choix de ce verset est d’autant plus remarquable qu’il appartient à une sourate égrenant bien des méchancetés et des anathèmes à l’encontre et des juifs et des chrétiens ; il y est même écrit que le musulman n’a pas à les avoir pour awliyâ, pour « proches », « alliés », « amis ». Mais Ibn Paqûda est allé vers l’essentiel. C’est comme s’il avait lu d’instinct cette sourate comme l’a analysée Michel Cuypers 
dans son livre Le Festin). En la soumettant aux grilles que propose la technique de « la rhétorique sémitique » appliquée depuis le XIXe siècle à la Bible, Michel Cuypers montre que le message contradictoire de cette sourate trouve sa résolution en classant le sens en faveur de l’éthique ouverte à l’autre : en effet, les versets qui appellent à une sorte de « théologie des religions » où les trois alliances (islamique, chrétienne, juive) se trouvent légitimées, de tels versets ont pour eux une haute intensité rhétorique tandis que les versets exclusivistes dénigrant l’autre sont de basse intensité rhétorique.

Emmanuel Levinas
C’est donc un juif écrivant dans un contexte religieux islamique au milieu du XIe siècle (Ibn Paqûda) qui annonce un juif écrivant dans un contexte séculier occidental de la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle (Levinas). Par le détail que nous avons analysé, Ibn Paqûda propose en prémices ce que Levinas pensera souverainement en affirmant que l’altérité s’éprouve hors le rapport de pouvoir, hors l’acte de connaissance qui réduit par identification l’inconnu au connu, hors l’expression du manque. C’est une pensée qui consonne aussi avec cette phrase de Dostoïevski, souvent citée dans l’environnement levinassien : « Nous sommes tous responsables de tout et de tous devant tous et moi plus que les autres ». Formule qui élimine du rapport à l’autre le rapport de dominant à dominé, de supérieur à inférieur, d’offensant à offensé, d’oppresseur à opprimé tout en engageant sa propre responsabilité après avoir été confronté à la vulnérabilité de l’autre. C’est comme si Ibn Paqûda renvoyait le musulman à cette vérité qui provient de son livre saint. Plus encore, Ibn Paqûda l’utilise aussi pour son propre compte et à l’adresse des siens.

La participation à la course pour l’œuvre de bien s’avère le critère de l’altérité éprouvée dans l’égalité. Toute inégalité qui disqualifie telle épreuve est corrigée. C’est par la course, et rien que par elle, qu’il y aura un premier et un dernier. La hiérarchie s’établira selon le rang obtenu par l’œuvre.
Et le même Ibn Paqûda dans ses Devoirs du cœur dit combien il doit aux autres. Il destine en effet son ouvrage aux siens : par son écrit, il éclaire les juifs en les sermonnant. Il leur apporte une science qui n’est pas encore née chez eux et qui a prospéré depuis le milieu du VIIIe siècle chez les musulmans. C’est la science du Bâtin, de l’ésotérique, de l’herméneutique qui conduit au sens caché que comportent les Ecritures. 

Sens qui insiste plus sur l’éthique que sur la loi, qui s’adresse au secret des cœurs et non aux réflexes du corps (qui eux sont gérés par la Loi, laquelle comporte, rappelle-t-il, « 613 devoirs »). Pour cet apport inaugural dans la tradition juive, Ibn Paqûda s’appuie d’abord sur sa propre tradition scripturaire pour légitimer l’avènement de cette science nouvelle qui, non seulement ne contredit pas ladite Tradition, mais met en acte ce que certains de ses aspects portent en puissance. Il s’inspire en second de la sagesse des autres, qui ne sont que les sages d’islam et à travers eux les sages grecs. Ainsi, trouvons-nous dans ce livre, nombre de concepts et de termes techniques appartenant au lexique des soufis (comme le ikhlâç, « purification », le tawakkul, « appui sur Dieu », la muhâsaba, « introspection », le zuhd, « dépouillement », la mahabba, « amour »). Mais c’est probablement la lecture de l’ensemble ismaélien néo-pythagoricien qui est la source majeure d’Ibn Paqûda, les fameuses 52 épîtres des Frères de la Pureté (Rasâ’il Ikhwân as-Safa’) qui datent du Xe siècle et qui ont migré d’Orient en Occident, d’Iraq à al-Andalus à l’orée de l’an mil.

Cet usage de l’autre, Ibn Paqûda le légitime en se référant à la tradition juive elle-même. Toujours dans son introduction (tout ce que nous disons du Devoir des cœurs se limite à notre lecture de la quinzaine de pages de l’introduction), l’auteur cite par deux fois le Sanhédrin, ce mot d’origine grecque utilisé par les juifs pour renvoyer aux dits attribués au haut tribunal du Ie siècle de notre ère comptant 81 rabbins experts en Loi. « Sanhédrin » désigne un des chapitres du Talmud. C’est un mot qui adapte le grec sunédrion qui veut dire « assemblée ». La première citation rappelle que les juifs vivant parmi les nations agissent à l’instar de ces nations – mais souvent « ils n’agissent pas » comme agissent les vertueux parmi ceux qui peuplent ces nations. Ibn Paqûda entend par là que nous juifs qui vivons parmi les musulmans, nous avons à imiter les vertueux d’entre eux, ceux qui sont dignes de l’impératif coranique qui convie à la course pour le bien, au-delà des croyances, qui incite à l’émulation éthique, laquelle s’instaure critère d’élection et de salut.

Nous lisons ceci dans la deuxième citation du Sanhédrin (même référence, B39) : « Quiconque profère une sagesse acquiert le statut de sage, fût-il gentil. » Cette référence autorise Ibn Paqûda à utiliser la sagesse des musulmans ; il va même jusqu’à butiner le suc d’une des fleurs de leur livre saint quand même tel livre appellerait à se substituer au sien et à le rectifier.

Ibn Paqûda, avec ses Devoirs du cœur apporte ainsi aux siens la sagesse de l’autre jusque-là inouïe, restée non exprimée dans sa propre tradition. Et c’est par cette imitation de l’autre qu’il mettra en acte ce qui était chez les siens en puissance.

Voilà un bel exemple médiéval d’une éthique à l’épreuve de l’altérité, proposée par un minoritaire de la cité d’islam. Voilà une œuvre qui témoigne du divers qui colorait une telle cité. Belle leçon à méditer aujourd’hui par les musulmans en manque, sinon en panne d’altérité.

Je fréquentais ce livre au moment des derniers débats sur la constitution tunisienne en décembre 2013. D’abord, j’ai été ému par le fait que c’est le même mot de « conscience » (zhamîr) qui est au centre et de ce débat et de ce livre : dans le débat il s’agissait d’inscrire d’une manière inaugurale en langue arabe Hurriyat azh-Zhamîr, « la liberté de conscience » ; dans le livre, c’est le zhamîr, la conscience, qui accueille de soi à soi le tribunal éthique mis en scène pour l’exercice quotidien de la muhâsaba, de l’introspection pour juger de sa compétence ou de son insuffisance, de sa performance ou de sa défaillance dans la course pour l’œuvre de bien. Comme quoi, le concept de conscience, de zhamîr est en langue arabe éthiquement à l’œuvre depuis des siècles. Il fallait simplement l’accorder avec ce que l’humain, fût-il autre, a apporté de plus. En adoptant la liberté de conscience, nous avons, en tant que Tunisiens, imité l’autre occidental dans son avancée éthique. Et nous avons éclairé par cet apport d’un heureux inouï la tradition dont nous provenons. 

En même temps, je constatais dans ce débat la continuité de la panne de l’altérité. Elle s’est manifestée particulièrement à travers le refus d’inscrire dans la loi fondamentale la dimension méditerranéenne de notre pays, pourtant évidente. La raison invoquée est que telle explicitation faciliterait la reconnaissance d’Israël. Cette obsession anti sioniste confine à l’absurde. Et elle approfondit la panne de l’altérité. Elle provoque le fantasme qui voile. Telle appréhension injustifiée nous coupe de tant d’héritages qui nous constituent : puniques, latins, romains, byzantins, andalous, ottomans, francophones. En plus, la phobie d’Israël nous coupe de notre part juive, illustrée ici par un exemple arabographe andalou et qui peut être confirmée par tant d’exemples du même type déposés en Africa/Ifriqiyya, première appellation en latin et en arabe de la Tunisie, métonymie de tout un continent. Cette réalité africaine me ramène aux deux autres attributs de l’identité tunisienne, strictement continentaux : berbère (avec, en saillie, le temps de gloire numide, celui de Jugurtha, figure d’identification de l’Emir Abdelkader selon Rimbaud dans son poème latin) et subsaharien, avec tous les restes de l’esclavage que recueille notre citoyenneté. 

Vous voyez que la réalité historique et anthropologique du pays est autrement plus riche que le caractère arabo-islamique, le seul explicitement inscrit dans la constitution qui a été votée le 26 janvier 2014. Je vois en cet escamotage la parfaite illustration de la panne de l’altérité comme maladie de l’identité. Nous avons les moyens de la réparer par une matière puisée justement dans ce legs arabo-islamique. Ce legs, dans ce qu’il a de meilleur, a été honoré par un juif agissant à l’horizon coranique de l’éthique au fondement de l’autre. Un juif médiéval s’avère ainsi, en bonne logique coranique, plus pertinent que bien des musulmans contemporains à l’horizon bouché par le fanatisme. Comme il en est de certains des constituants tunisiens marqués par l’idéologie exclusiviste islamiste ou par l’anachronique nationalisme arabe populiste et tout aussi exclusiviste.