Abdelwahab Meddeb's "Counter-Sermons" Break Taboos

"The Malady of Islam" made Abdelwahab Meddeb famous overnight, a scathing critique of the current state of Islamic thought. Now his "counter-sermons" have appeared. Ludwig Ammann has read them

Abdelwahab Meddeb
Abdelwahab Meddeb has diagnosed the dominance of narrow-minded Islamicist discourses as the final stage in a century-long history of decline

​​Abdelwahab Meddeb's "counter-sermons" are made up of 115 brief radio essays from 2003 to 2006 in which the French-Tunisian thinker presented weekly commentary on a cultural or political event, from the death of Derrida to the war in Iraq, on Medi 1 in Tangiers.

They are pedagogic lectures in the best sense of the word, combating the demon of a puritanical Islamicism that seeks salvation in xenophobic isolation and preaches the battle against supposedly "un-Islamic" innovations on every channel.

In contrast, as a passionate cosmopolitan and Maghreb who is the product of both western and eastern education, Meddeb sets his hopes on learning about the other, and above all – making it easier for his North African countrymen to escape their self-imposed ignorance – on learning about another Islam, namely the bold and unfortunately forgotten innovations of past times that anticipate a liberal understanding of Islam.

Burn the veils!

​​An especially striking example graces the cover: the first visual representation of the prophet in a chronicle which a recently-converted Mongol sultan commissioned around 1300 from his vizier, a converted Jew. What a boon it is when the evocation of a great moment of progress in the Islamic tradition deflates the chatter of the indoctrinated Wahhabite guardians of public morals who would love to stop the march of time!

With the same pugnacity Meddeb campaigns for women's right to act as prayer leaders, as Amina Wudud does in New York, sparking a howl of outrage in the Arab world. He does so by citing the great Sufi thinker Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), who had good arguments for considering it permissible.

Apart from that he advises women, plain and simple, to burn their veils and reject the Koran's patriarchal precepts regarding the relationship of the sexes; according to him it is the only way they can truly remain loyal to their faith while being modern at the same time.

This is clear speaking, and in principle it is the medicine which Kemal Atatürk prescribed for his people with no little success. As a true free spirit, Meddeb does not shy away from naming the price of this aspired-to freedom. Citing the example of Sibel Kekilli – after her success in "Head On" the young German-Turkish actress was attacked due her previous appearances in porn movies – he defended the individual's categorical right to do with their bodies as they please, to the point of prostitution.

And of course Islam must learn to accept the fact that Algerians and Moroccans, for instance, renounce their faith under the influence of evangelical preachers. Perhaps, Meddeb suggests, Islam would emerge strengthened by the test if its adherents were able to choose their faith of their own free will.

Incorruptible judgment

Where does a man like this stand as a reformer? Certainly not in the camp of those who recommend jettisoning Islam entirely. And certainly not in the camp of the conservatives, who would prefer to get back in step with the times by twiddling with a screw here and there.

"Everything sets me apart from Tariq Ramadan," Meddeb announces in the 84th counter-sermon. But there is one point of agreement with his antipode: "The attack on taboos is the key to reform which Islam needs, the key the ulemas never dared to turn."

And that is why he, in contrast to the outraged French public, recognizes how effective Ramadan's demand for a moratorium on corporal punishment is in the countries of origin: because it is none other than Tariq Ramadan – the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, a founding father of Islamicism – who is vigorously encroaching on the untouchable and agitating the "worm-eaten councils of Cairo".

It is this power of judgment, uncorrupted by intellectual fashions, that makes Meddeb's constructive criticism of Islam stand out from the masse of well-meant, but poorly thought-out analyses. To pick up on one of the author's thoughts, perhaps it is in fact the "strangers" – more precisely: the spirits at home in more than one tradition – the Meddebs as well as the Ramadans, who can release contemporary Islam from its childishly defiant paralysis.

Ludwig Ammann

© Ludwig Ammann/Qantara.de 2008

This article has previously been published in the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Abdelwahab Meddeb, Contre-Prêches (Seuil, Paris, 2006).

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole


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