The ordeal of Islam /2. How can we safeguard the theological validity of the definition of the Koran in use for centuries by all the Umma and be able to condemn without any equivocations the use that Ban Laden and his supporters make of the text? In reality, people are content to select passages favourable to peace and tolerance so as to oppose them to those exhibited by militant fundamentalists on recourse to a 'just' war. A proposal for the opening of a 'subversive work', which is at the same time prophetic and rational, so as to escape the vicious circle.

This article was published in Oasis 3. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:51:32

After the successive failures of the so-called socialist nationalist revolution (1950-1980), and then of the religious revolution Iranian-style, few 'Muslim' intellectual voices open to the incontestable advances of modernity have made themselves heard to support, if nothing else, the idea of an updating of Islam, taking into account the new obstacles generated by thirty years of 'revolutionary' wanderings. To tell the truth, secular intellectuals prefer to remain distant from religious thought as a field of critical scholarly work: either they remain practicing believers to the point of adopting the analysis of the guardians of orthodoxy or they reduce Islam to an affirmation of identity shared with society as a whole, and these approaches accentuate their delay in relation to the challenges of modernity, which are more complex and more impelling during a stage that involves the modernisation of the forces of production of history.

Given that updating is more demanding as regards criticism of conservatism and more innovative in the search for emancipation, its supporters are in a position of political and sociological weakness compared to the class of ulama, who are able contemporaneously to cultivate an able solidarity with regimes in power on the one hand, and an effective impact on the expressions and the claims of populist religion, on the other. The failure of 'Abd al-Rahman Wahid in Indonesia illustrates the ambiguous positions of intellectuals and the ulama; the political weaknesses of the former and the precarious successes of the latter.

Thus the old but always obsessive myth-ideology of islah, that is to say the restoration of the authentic inaugural form (asala) of Islam with a capital 'I', can mutate into unreal political delirium, into an irrepressible desire for revenge against the prevaricating, selfish, all-powerful and even 'rogue' states that the social sciences and political science continue to describe with the cognitive postulates of their 'Western rationality', which are compared with situations of collective acute poverty, with ways of acting, of protesting, and of contesting, with expectations that they are neither able to trace to their historical and psycho-cultural genesis nor to conceptualise by attempting a descriptive and explanatory adaptation that would enrich the debates about political action. The way in which the crisis of meaning that was opened up after 11 September has been addressed has not, in fact, led to anything similar in the West, and even less in Islam. The essential question remains without an answer: how can the necessary repressions of blind violence be integrated with the protection of innocents, legitimate contestations and the programmes of action of the dominated, and the radical and simultaneous criticism of the religious fact in general and of modernity?

All the actors who exercise a 'knowledge-responsibility' and/or a 'decision-responsibility' have to join forces to speed the meeting of the requirement for suitably organised authority as compared to the requirements of power so as to dismantle not only terrorism as a symptom of structural forms of violence but the systems of inequality that perpetuate the objective conditions of internalisation by dominated subjects, groups and nations of the values that legitimate and at the same time veil their condition of being dominated. Not only is this work not written in all the agendas of scholars, educators, the mass media and political regimes, but it remains unthought about, and to a major extent unthinkable, in the 'cultures' that nourish explicit and hidden alliances between forms of religious fundamentalism and forms of political activism. These observations seek to establish two facts: placed in front of an event of international importance, Islamic thought must finally forgo every form of interpretational bricolage of the so-called founding texts so as to accept the programme of subversive criticism of Islamic reasoning. I inaugurated this programme in a work published under this title in 1984.

The social frames of knowledge and the ideological oppositions that have continued to prevail in the West and in all Islamic contexts after the launching of movements of national liberation have kept in the realm of the unthinkable the very idea of this intellectual, scholarly and spiritual subversion. With respect to the West, the religious fact has been put to one side and it is not recognised as one of the factors that determine the production of the history of societies, even under the rule of so-called secular religions, which involves the rejection or the marginalisation of the theory of 'symbolic capital' as what is at stake in the mimetic rise of groups, communities and nations to conserve a monopoly over its exploitation in the struggles for power; to this is added the weight of what Pierre Bordieu has defined as 'raison scolastique' in the praxis of the social sciences and of political science (see his Méditations pascaliennes).

With respect to Islam, one can recall the irruption of nationalist ideologies of struggle that transformed the liberating promises of the secular socialist revolution into obscurantist and overly frequent totalitarian statist forms of voluntarism, the manipulation of the mighty demographic waves of the years 1960-1990 to dissimulate the political and economic failures, and the cultural and intellectual regressions under the rarely kept promises of national construction. I argue that the 'war against terrorism', to use the slogan coined by CNN after 11 September, will not be won until a new position subversive of reason has managed to re-impose the eminently subversive work of the prophetic, reactivated, re-appropriated, and broadened by reason, analysis of the Enlightenment thinkers to put an end to the absolutist and scholastic negative tendencies of all forms of clericalism. In Islamic contexts, the liberating importance of these tasks entrusted to a reason that is emerging under the pressure of the struggles underway is rejected as iconoclastic and blasphemous not only by the salaried guardians of orthodoxy but in a much more virulent way by certain intellectuals who seek to refer to the modern critical position.

A critical distancing from the Word of God that is more audacious then in certain famous intellectuals is indeed to be found in young imams who work for certain communities of immigrants in Europe. This is how Mohammed Talbi, the well known Tunisian historian who lays emphasis upon mastery of the rules and instruments of criticism of texts and documents defines the status of the Word of God in the Koran: 'The Koran [is] authentically theandric. A Word that is entirely divine at its source, in the mountain, and entirely human, 'in clear Arabic' (Koran, 26, 195) at its arrival, in the valley'. This definition has been commonly accepted since the tenth century in the whole of the Umma. How can its theological validity be safeguarded although condemning without equivocations the use that Bin Laden and his supporters make of the founding tests of the Islamic faith? Nobody requests the reopening of theological work which was practically abandoned after the adoption of what I have called the Closed Official Corpus (COC).

People are satisfied with selecting the verses that are favourable to peace between nations, to religious toleration, to respect for human lifeand lost Muslims (like the lost soldiers of every good cause) are denied the right to use other explicit verses to refer to the 'just' war of Jihad. Modern exegeses are thus improvised, throwing back into the historical times of the past the verses that an increasing number of Westerners irritated by the apologetic opportunism of the process oppose to the ideological bricolage of 'believers'. Here we touch upon the shared infirmity of believers who are protagonists and secular people who are democratic in pluralist societies.

For different reasons, neither the believers nor the modernist secular people above all those who ostentate the fact that they are not believers with a significant insistence are capable of opening and animating a fertile workshop on the fundamental subject of 'believing and the formation of the human subject', in the terribly falsified contexts of societies subjected to cascades of forms of domination, on the one hand, and in societies troubled by the forces of the market economy and technological innovation, on the other. It is important to know in what psycho-socio-cultural conditions what is usefully called 'faith' is constructed, unfolds, and incessantly re-establishes itself with the test of time. As an expression of beliefs that structure the human subject and motivates his or her behaviour at a practical level, faith as it is conceived and experienced merits total respect in a way that is proportionate to how it gives itself the means to contribute in all circumstances to the tasks of the liberation of the human condition beyond the categorisations and hierarchies imposed by religious doctrines and modern systems of inequality. It has been demonstrated to what point the attention devoted to the revealing word is still weak and marked by two scepticism for two principal reasons.

The first is connected with the successive defeats of humanistic thought which, after the First World War, led to the death of man and the human subject (structuralism) after the death of God (Marxism-Stalinism and militant political secularism), with all its correlated effects, such as the expansion of a generalised relativism, of radical scepticism, of the precariousness and inconsistence of 'values', of the near impossibility of saying Ethics, in short everything that enlarges the field of the absent word.

The second reason is the illusion created by the seductive return of the religious with the 'Revenge of God', announced a little time ago by the political scientist Gilles Kepel. Yes: God has returned with two different figures who attest to the permanence of the contradictory forces at work in every human subject. There is the figure of the bloodthirsty terrorist, of the negation of the person, of dogmatic fundamentalism whose historical, political and cultural genealogy remains to be identified by taking up again and broadening the research launched by Nietzsche with a tragic sense of the truth indefinitely altered by men, political animals; and there is, secondly, the figure of the claimant of spiritual authority finally liberated from all ambitions of power and who wants to bear witness to the fecundity of the human experience of the divine in its most ancient paths and its most errant modern itineraries.

In its mystic trajectory that was promising but soon interrupted by orthodoxies, Islamic thought has known and celebrated the tragic sense of 'Truth through God, in God, for God' (al-Haqq bi-l-Haqq li-l-Haqq), dedicated to the vicissitudes of a history that nobody prior to the years 1930-1940 would have been able to predict would have dragged the Islamic experience from the divine to suicide attacks and the murder of so many innocent people, even within a community lacerated by the old and inaugural great querelle, so rightly called 'power of the seduction of evil', Fitna.

I would like to add with emphasis that the unanimous condemnation of the attack of 11 September will not receive its full and fecund legitimacy until historians have established with their own instruments what I would call the genealogy of the successive deaths of God, of man, and of the subject, leading almost to the elimination of the revealing word as I attempt to define it. The concept of the revealing word is in fact contemporaneously more modest and more pertinent in checkmating inconsistent uses of the so-termed revealed Word.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Muhammed Arkoun, “The Deceptive Challenge of the Verses”, Oasis, year II, n.3, March 2006, pp. 36-38. 

Online version:
Muhammed Arkoun, “The Deceptive Challenge of the Verses”, Oasis [online], published on 1st March 2006, URL: /en/the-deceptive-challenge-of-the-verses