cover image Malady of Islam

Malady of Islam

Abdelwahab Meddeb. Basic Books, $24.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-465-04435-1

According to this impassioned but unfocused disquisition on the decline of the Muslim world, Islamic culture in its medieval heyday was tolerant, open-minded, rational and urbane, its science, literature and government a beacon unto benighted Europe. But""ancient Islam, intelligent and likable"" is vastly different from""the political forms of present Islam, stupid and detestable"" and steeped in xenophobia, fanaticism, prudery and resentment, according to Meddeb. Two factors are responsible for this""sickness."" The first is modern strains of ultra-conservative Islam, especially Saudi Wahhabism and Egyptian fundamentalism, which distort Islam from""a tradition based on the principle of life and the cult of pleasure into a lugubrious race toward death."" The second is""Americanization,"" which has spawned an amnesiac, TV-hypnotized but socially archaic consumer culture in which fundamentalism flourishes while Islam's humane heritage is forgotten. Citing European intellectuals like Voltaire, Kant and Camus alongside Muslim thinkers, Meddeb, a Tunisian novelist and poet now living in Paris, has an outlook best described as French: he wants Muslims to embrace the Enlightenment, but in its classical European form, not its corrupted American form. Meddeb's cultural history is wide-ranging but cursory and disjointed, and his often turgid style (""Hierarchical mobility and hegemonic restructuring can only be developed on the globalized world, and can only be involved in a shared axiology"") doesn't make it easier to follow. His call for open debate and respect for difference in the Muslim world is welcome; but his insistence on the easygoing compatibility of Islam and modernity, based on cherry-picked progressive-sounding passages from the Koran and other medieval texts, is unconvincing.