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His Own Prophet

Adonis’s misguided polemic against Islam

Prophecy and Power: Conversations with Houria Abdelouahed by Adonis, translated by David Watson. Polity Books, 180 pages.

Prophecy and Power: Violence and Islam II by Adonis and Houria Abdelouahed, translated by Julie Rose. Polity Books, 240 pages.

In the nineteenth century, awed by European modernity and its achievements, intellectuals in the Muslim world split into three main currents. Secularists like Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani in Iran and the movement of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey argued that Islam was to blame for Muslim backwardness. They gradually ditched the religion (or most of it at least) and adopted Western thought—and dress. Modernists like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani from Iran and Muhammad ‘Abduh from Egypt advocated for reforms, yet insisted on keeping Islam’s “core” ideas. But they didn’t agree on what the core ideas were or what the reforms should be. Muslim fundamentalists like Abul A‘la Maududi in South Asia stressed that Islam was perfect and timeless. If Muslims were facing problems, they had brought this upon themselves by not strictly adhering to Islam’s teachings.

Each group invented a golden age, like Europeans did during the Renaissance. Secularists went back to pre-Islamic times. Muslim modernists collaged historical tidbits from early Islam and turned them into empowerment manifestos. The fundamentalists zoomed on Muhammad and his companions, setting out to recreate the “purity” and “transformative” power of his movement.

The great poet and intellectual Adonis belongs to the first group. Born ‘Ali Ahmad Said Esber in 1930 to an ‘Alawi (a Shi‘ia sect) family in northwest Syria, he adopted the pen name Adonis (after the ancient Near Eastern god) in the late forties and moved to Beirut in 1956, following a year in prison on political charges—he was a member of the pan-Syrian nationalist party SSNP. In Beirut, he launched two literary magazines, Shi‘r and Mawaqif, which became prime movers of Arabic modernism. He also wrote a steady stream of radical poetry and criticism, leading some to compare his influence to T.S. Eliot’s in English. His best-known works include the poetry collection Songs of Mihyar of Damascus (1961) and the four-volume critical study The Fixed and the Transformative (1974–1978).

In the mid-1980s, when the crisis in Lebanon deepened, Adonis left for Paris, which has since been his primary residence. Yet he remains a force to be reckoned with on the Arabic literary scene, not least because his oft-aired views on Islam, which have always been controversial, to put it mildly. He returns to the subject in two new books that take the form of conversations with the Moroccan-French psychoanalyst Houria Abdelouahed. Originally published in French, they have been translated into English by David Watson and Julie Rose. The books capture the predicament of many secular Muslim intellectuals, who idealize European ideas while displaying an ireful condescension towards their own society.

To begin with, the conversations are full of historical errors. For instance, Adonis claims that Islam refuses and even destroys sculptures and images, which it doesn’t. Some Muslims did and do ban imagery, but others (including Sunnis and Shi‘ias) have produced countless images and illustrations, especially of Muhammad. Similarly, poetry isn’t “seen in poor light by Islam.” Many of Muhammad’s close companions were poets. Besides, Muslims produced more poetry, some of it religious, than any other culture prior to the modern era. (The claim is especially shocking as Adonis has edited a three-volume anthology of Arabic and Islamic poetry.) Nor is it true that Sufism “stands opposed to what’s known as Islamic culture.” On the contrary, in most Muslim countries, Sufism is inseparable from Islamic culture. To say that “Arab Islam rejected the West” isn’t factual. There is a huge Islamic discourse since the nineteenth century that borrows from and imitates the West: the reforms (tanzimat) in the Ottoman Empire, the religious modernism of al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, Qasim Amin’s notions of women’s liberation (which do not impress more recent feminists, especially his belief that women should be educated only so they can raise men leaders), the Islamic humanism of Muhammad Iqbal, and so forth. The factual mistakes are too many to list.

Militant Islam isn’t an organic continuation of the medieval Islamic tradition. It is a political creation.

The books also contain countless conceptual blunders, the worst of which is the notion that Islam spread by the sword. Actually, what we commonly call the Islamic conquests were for the most part not religious in nature at all. There is no evidence that those who came out of Arabia in the 630s were seeking to convert those they conquered. On the contrary, the Arabs tried to ban conversion to Islam. Early Islamic law manuals record countless debates among jurists regarding the protection accorded to the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who live under Islamic rule, and whether it extends to non-monotheists (Zoroastrians, Hindus, etc.). There is no point denying that some verses in the Qur’an preach violence against non-believers. But the text is very hesitant. Verse 9:29 is a case in point. It enjoins Muslims to fight the People of the Book. Yet it doesn’t allow Muslims to kill them, harm them, or convert them. They can only impose on them a tax. Similarly, the Qur’an asserts that the religion with God is Islam. Yet it also proclaims: “For every community we decreed a law and a way of life. Had God willed, he would have made you a single community.” The text is rife with hesitations or inconsistencies, as if it is torn between two mentalities: harshness against non-believers and a desire to offer them another chance to repent.

The historical practice of Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages, except in a few cases, show that they tolerated non-Muslim communities. Indeed, the Arab Middle East remained predominantly Christian until the twelfth century—something Adonis and Abdelouahed seem completely unaware of. In some non-Arab areas, Muslims remained relative minorities until the dawn of the modern age. One can think of the Yazidis in northern Iraq who have seen hell at the hands of ISIS. They flourished in the heartland of the Islamic world along the most treaded highway connecting the east and west. If Muslims were set to cleanse the word of anything that didn’t conform to their ideology, as Adonis and Abdelouahed allege, why did they leave the Yazidis? Why did Egypt remain predominantly Christian until the fourteenth century? Why were Jews allowed to live and flourish everywhere in the Muslim world? Why did the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan remain intact until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001?

This points to a larger problem with Adonis and Abdelouahed’s historical perspective: they project the views held by groups like ISIS back into the past, as if Muslims have always championed them. In fact, militant Islam is an infant ideology, born of political dynamics, above all the decades of exploitative policies by the West, the USSR, and local regimes. It is well-known that the United States allied with militant Islam in order to destabilize socialist regimes in the Arab world and to combat the spread of communism. These socialist regimes, in turn, toyed with Islamic fundamentalism to score points versus rivals. Didn’t Anwar Sadat unleash Muslim fundamentalists in order to break student organizations in Egypt? Didn’t Bashar al-Assad release militant Islamicists by the thousands from his prisons, delivering them to Iraq to battle the invading Americans? What about Pakistan and its sponsorship of Islamic militancy to annoy India? Militant Islam isn’t an organic continuation of the medieval Islamic tradition. It is a political creation.

Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Aristotle, Plato among others (some wearing bowler hats) in Girolamo da Cremona’s Group of Philosophers Disputing (1483). | The Morgan Library and Museum

Adonis alleges that “all those who have written works in the fields of poetry, philosophy, music, etc., those who built Islamic culture or Arab civilization, were not Muslims in the traditional sense of the word.” Does this mean that poets like Rumi or philosophers Avicenna and Averroes weren’t true Muslims? Certainly they wrestled with the question of what it means to be a Muslim worshiping the creator. Islam for them meant the search for God, and their answers enriched the tradition.

Rationalist philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes argued that God instilled in humans a rational mind, which could lead believers back to God. They studied ancient philosophy in the hope that it would help them resolve deep religious questions, and had to match it with monotheism for it to be useful. When Thomas Aquinas wanted to harmonize Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity, he turned to Avicenna and Averroes. (The real contribution of Islamic philosophy is a subject that many scholars still refuse to address, aside from a passing footnote.) Yet Averroes was also a towering traditional Sunni jurist. His legal encyclopedia, Bidayat al-mujtahid (The Starting-point of the Seeker), is a four-volume reference on Islamic Shari‘a. If this isn’t traditional Islam, what is?

Muslims ultimately agreed on a base-text, but never on how to read it.

My rhetorical question goes to the heart of the problem with Adonis’s essentialist ruminations. Islam isn’t one thing and was never one thing. The Qur’an is full of contradictions, and not because its author was confused. The Islamic tradition (Hadith) admits that there was no Qur’an when Muhammad died in 632. It was about twenty years after his death that the official codex was written. Muslims ultimately agreed on a base text, but never on how to read it. With the Hadith (or Sunna), they never even agreed on a base text. This is the Islamic tradition.

The idea that Islam can be determined with precision on the basis of what the Qur’an teaches is a modern dogma, inspired by the “protestantization” of world religions, and the claim that each must be centered around its scripture. Factually, the central texts of every religion are read alongside other texts. For example, in traditional Judaism, without the Mishnah (which is called the Oral Torah), it is impossible to understand the Hebrew Bible. In Islam, the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad plays a similar role for most Sunnis. Shi‘ias, however, refer to their imams, who they call the “Speaking Qur’an” (al-qur’an al-natiq) because they utter what is hidden in the text. Furthermore, Muslims invented a complex science called tafsīr (scriptural exegesis) to deduce from the Qur’an meanings that they wanted to find in the divine text.

There is also overwhelming evidence that Muslim jurists were “manipulative” in the way they constructed law. Their most popular prophetic hadith was: “Seek knowledge even unto China,” which they understood as encouraging them to search for knowledge, rather than be passive imitators of Muhammad. Contrary to what Adonis says, to them, Muhammad wasn’t “an absolute (ultimate, supreme) authority.” Many jurists rejected blind adherence, and often deployed rational inquiry. Jurist al-Shatibi summed it up perfectly: “Whatever is not explicitly stated in revealed text but can be arrived at by inference is intended by God.”

Echoes of that are still with us today. Subhi al-Salih was one of the most influential traditional Sunni jurists in the Arab world and vice-president of the Islamic High Council in Lebanon. He proclaimed that he wanted to “free” Islamic law “from complex issues” and bring it “in line with the spirit of the age.” He even opined that Islamic “Shari‘a is immaculate from the eternal beginning and perpetually renewed.” It doesn’t take a genius to realize what al-Salih meant. If Shari‘a is immaculate, it doesn’t need renewal. The fact that it needs renewal means that the jurists will do the job—not God or Muhammad.

The face of Islamismism. | Wikimedia Commons

Secularists like Adonis gambled on Western modernity, which they believed would “liberate” the Muslim world. Yet, despite the popularity of socialism and secular nationalism in the region in the decades after the Second World War, secularists didn’t deliver on their promises of empowerment and freedom—notwithstanding the conditions that led to these failures. Since the 1980s, secularists have been gradually upstaged by a new generation of Islamic modernists who offer visions of progress, be they intellectuals like Amr Khaled or political leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Whether they will succeed depends on many factors, including the version of Islam they forge.

Young Muslims today do not share in Adonis’s rigid separation of Islam and modernity..

This partly explains why Adonis condemned the Arab Spring. Having applauded the demonstrators at the beginning (especially in Tunisia and Egypt, where many imagined Arab secularists would claim back their golden age), Adonis soured once it became clear that Islamists were taking the lead. He repeated his old judgment that Arabs are incapable of producing anything other than oppressive regimes, a neurosis he blames on Islam. But ideologies and belief systems don’t preordain behavior. Rather, people deploy and toy with ideologies—in good or bad ways—to achieve their own objectives. For their part, the Syrian rebels did not espouse the mosque. It was the only space left for them, and the brutality of the regime, coupled with cynicism from the likes of Adonis, delivered many of them to the laps of extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

It is disappointing that Adonis misses an opportunity to reflect on why his generation, which achieved a lot during the 1960s and 1970s, has little favor with young Muslims today. Abdelouahed asks him: “What have you lost?” He retorts: “All I have lost is my old age.” We could greatly benefit from Adonis telling us what his generation of Muslim secularists would have done differently if they were to repeat their experiment.

Young Muslims today do not share in Adonis’s rigid separation of Islam and modernity. Muslim feminists such as Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, and Amina Wadud have drawn on religious thought to further women’s empowerment. Queer Muslims like Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle and the French-Algerian imam Ludovic Mohamed Zahed have explored sexuality through the lens of the Hadith. Similar developments are happening in the realm of Islamic banking (Western banking with Islamic terminology), political liberalism, human rights, and countless other issues. Seemingly unaware of these conversations, Adonis and Abdelouahed repeat old polemics. What is practiced by ISIS or in some rural villages isn’t representative of all of Islam.

In private conversations, the views of Adonis and Abdelouahed might be stomached. But when published for everyone to read, they become weapons of misinformation and stigma.