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.