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Islam's forgotten culture and the meaning of Sufism

What kind of change has happened to a culture that has fascinated explorers and free thinkers for centuries?


Islam is at one time a civilization, a religion and a political strategy. But today, the first two dimensions of violence, perpetrated by rebels who claim to act in the name of Islam, are overshadowed. However, as Tunisian-French idea historian Abdelwahab Meddeb (see below) demonstrates, it is easy to show that radical groups' revival of Islam as a belligerent religion manipulates concepts, rips them out of context, denies historical mutations that are precisely the result of existing ideas are influenced and transformed. Unfortunately, the behavior of radical Islamists reaffirms the widely held notion of Islam as inherently warlike, hegemonic and politically violent. It's a story selling tickets. But there is also no effort to trace among journalists, opinion makers, politicians and academics to delve into history, to spot the rich cultural and spiritual connections that actually exist between Islam and the West. 

From the early Middle Ages and almost until the Enlightenment, Islam was a pluralistic religion with an open reading of Bible texts, an inclusion of Western philosophy as well as a strong artistic development in architecture, garden art, calligraphy, poetry and literature. For years, tales from A thousand and one night animated imagination, captivated by the European traveler, liberated the West and created the fantasy of the Arab harem that flowed into modern enlightenment. But this flourishing stopped in the period around the 1800th century and buries a rich culture. What kind of change has happened to this cultural circle that engulfed Flaubert, inspired Proust and Ekelöf, and which has for centuries captivated explorers and free thinkers? What happened?  

Islam of resentment: from yes to no

Sufi dancers

I Islam and Its Discontents og The Malady of Islam Meddeb traces a particular psychology that leads to the reduction of Islam to religion for no-sayers who say no to art, technology, sexuality, sensuality and science. There is a psychological-moral disposition as a central element in all forms of Islamic fundamentalism, but especially Saudi Wahhabism. An "Islam of resentment" that draws on Nietzsche's distinction between the proud, aristocratic and yes-saying gentleman and the Judeo-Christian slave. The latter are the weak of resentment, envy, and guilt infused with the strong. The result is a no-no to the world, and according to Meddeb a constitutive element of all forms of Islamic fundamentalism. The feeling is enhanced by a combination of submission, loss of sovereignty and the recognition of inferiority, brought about by the European colonization of the Arab-Muslim world in the 1800th century and up to the early 1900s, and the subsequent scientific, economic and technological stagnation and decline. . Precisely this loss of former strength and world-leading creativity, and weakness technologically and economically, creates an Islam that, around the 1800th century, fails to say yes to the world, but which from then on is constantly in a deficit position. It is this psychological-moral disposition that is reinforced in a contradiction with the West. The result is a mix of deficits, submission, addictions and envy that cannot affirm its own autonomy and tradition, but only maintain itself through a negative reaction against the other, the West. There is a direct link between the resentment's no and the current fundamentalist movements in Islam (Meddeb). With the lack of affirmation of life, self-criticism, exchange and self-transgression also stop. Remaining are the sad culminations of an oppressive and destructive religion that has become the dominant image in recent decades. Critics point out that Islam as a political ideology has detached itself from Islam as an open spiritual religion (M. Ruthven: Islam. Oxford 2012). To remind us of Islam's pluralism, but also of the necessity of the revival of this idea, Meddeb takes up the thread of the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (14th century), for whom civilization and barbarism are the engine that turns the wheel of history.  

Yes to the world: architecture

I Islam and the Challenge of Civilization Meddeb makes the thesis that "Islam has brought civilization to a climax that it has never known before Islam". However, he does not view Islam's entry into the Mediterranean scene as a rupture, but as a continuity of the civilization process under Islamic supremacy, at least in the period between the 8th and 11th centuries. In order to understand the state of things, one must study the forms in which they appear most clearly. Architecture, urbanism, mathematics, decoration, poetry, garden art. Another highlight is the calligraphy, often used as an inscription ornament, for example, in the Jerusalem Mosque of the Rock (year 692) and Isfanhan. The writing here has a monumental dimension, which may well be called the origin of calligraphy (Meddeb). 

Abdelwahab Meddeb

Nor should it be forgotten how the Arabs took over the Roman cleansing rituals in the Roman baths (hammam). The steam room is characterized by an intelligent and expressive approach, something that western spas and swimming pools today are trying to imitate. But this very tradition that honors the body seems to have disappeared from Arab societies, now destroyed by a moral order that the semi-cultured ill of resentment can unabashedly impose on its surroundings. Both in public and in private, this view of the body has turned paradise into hell for countless women. Go for a walk in Cairo, says Meddeb and you will understand what I mean. Also, the muezzin that once called for prayer, and for centuries had its own modulating chorus-like voice coming from the chest and throat, has today turned into a noisy mechanical speaker.  

Philosophy and Sufismeb

As far as the relationship between Islam and philosophy is concerned, it is repeatedly emphasized how modern Islamism not only supports a spirited confrontation of violent extremism, but that it also denies Islam's earlier spiritual sources, not least Sufism. Many, therefore, see the weakening of Sufism as one of the causes of the spiritual deficit of Islam. Sufism is sprouting up in several places, and it is also gaining ground in the West, but it still does not play the crucial role in Islamic societies as it did before. 

So what is Sufism? According to the great French Islamists Henry Corbin and Christian Jambet (Corbin: The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism; Alone with the Alone; Jamba: The Act of Being: The Philosophy of Revelation in Mulla Sadra) the Arabic mysticism, also called Sufism, appears as a result of very different speculative traditions. Among the spiritual sources of the Quran are both New Platonic interpretations, the Church Fathers' monk discipline, the spirit of light which Zarathustra propagated, the Brahmanic ascetic meditations and the paradoxical philosophy of Taoism where contradictions meet. This is precisely why Sufism is so powerful. The ability to absorb various elements gives it its depth and the realization of the Qur'an's message of spreading Islam as a “nation-in-the-world”.the center », a center-seeking community. Three great Sufi masters illuminate: the author Ibn-Arabi (1165–1240); the Suhrawadi philosophers (1154–1191); the poet Rumi (1207–1273). Ibn Arabi's work is open and multifaceted and has been called everything from Christian, New Platonic, Shiite, Gnostic – and the Japanese Izutsu sees him as one who is close to Taoism. Shortly before his death, Meddeb released his own Tombeau or Ibn Arabi, a reinterpretation of Ibn Arabi's life and writings based on Dante's Divine comedy - a living journey in the underworld. In the now rich literature, common features are also pointed out between Sufism, the philosopher Spinoza and modern philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres. They all revolve around the real as a unique event in which the light – the creative – is expressed and we ourselves are transformed. Bergson's description of the world as a great cinema hall, where every moving body emits light, inspired Deleuze to his two movie books. Things light up and think of themselves (throw away signs and thoughts) without anyone informing them. This is a basic idea in his film philosophy, which has several parallels to the philosophy of light of the Islamic mystic Suhrawardi (1154–1191). whose main work (The Philosophy of Illumination) is now published in English.

Digital Sufidance

In order to preserve the complexity of Islam, according to Meddeb, it must be regarded as both a religion, a civilization and a political desire. Through Sufism, it is possible to approach the religious question through the poetic intensity and metaphysical glow. Central to Sufism is the notion that “the inner experience can transcend the buildings of faith in all directions. Perhaps the most important thing is the energy it evokes, and the substance of the questions it causes us to ask. "Since it is just a matter of questions rather than of certainty, it now seems attractive to us, and it has been the subject of countless actualizations, ranging from Hölderlin, Nietzsche and Georges Bataille and to contemporary video artists such as American Bill Viola, for whom Sufism is a crucial source of inspiration. Viola juxtaposes Sufism's work of uniting with the invisible through the Sufidance and her own work through the camcorder exploring and capturing the attention of her own creation. In a recent interview it reads: «The digital revolution in its essence is an opening towards the unseen dimension, an articulation of the invisible world. In our normal way of experiencing the world, we are surrounded by something visible from all sides. But it is the invisible world of the details of human existence – their desires, conflicts, motivations – that is hidden from our view and which creates this intricate and seeming web of changing relationships that meets our eye. The real energy always comes from the invisible things, and that is what I try to capture with my camera, to record their emotional energy, which transcends optical vision. ”(Bill Viola: Electronic Renaissance, 2017)

Barbarism and civilization

If barbarism is the denial of civilization, then one can assume that barbarism has always existed in Islam, but that time and again it has been slowed down by the political authorities who were aware of its duty to protect the buildings of civilization from those who would overthrow it. 

From the early Middle Ages and almost until the Enlightenment, Islam was a pluralistic religion with an open mind reading Bible texts.

"We know," Meddeb writes, "that the building of civilization can only flourish when very differently meet and merge." The battle is about finding new areas where the transcending acts are welcome, keeping in touch with the soul of Islam and bringing it forward in new forms. When considering the breathtaking amount of works and civil-spiritual exchange between East and West, one must finally say about a peaceful coexistence: Only by taking in the other is I able to preserve my own culture.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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