by Christopher Gibbins
© 1997 by Christpher Gibbins
Paper submitted for the Online Conference on Postcolonial Theory
Although a great deal has been said in recent years about contemporary francophone Maghrebi writing the majority of that criticism perceives it, in one way or another, as an extension of European literary and intellectual traditions. From a certain perspective it is understandable why this might be so: the use of the French language seems to suggest to many the embracement of an entire culture and the rejection of another (a sentiment shared by many within the Maghreb). In addition, it is obvious that colonial presences, and in particular French occupation, have exerted a significant literary and intellectual influence throughout the Maghreb. Nevertheless, the insistence upon that influence has been limiting and has led to a significant lacuna: the very rich Islamic1 textual traditions which imbue, in diverse ways, Maghrebi literary production.
As an example of this sometimes subtle process, let us consider Winifred Woodhull's introduction to her work Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization and Literatures (1993). She devotes her introduction largely to a critique of the Moroccan writer Abdelkébir Khatibi's work. Her reasons for doing so are two-fold, and I quote:
I want to look briefly at Khatibi's writings in terms of their contribution to rethinking Maghrebian cultural politics and understanding decolonization as a process in which peoples of both the "East" and the "West" must participate critically. At the same time, though, I want to indicate some of the limitations of Khatibi's approach, particularly its emphasis on the transformative power of a subversive poetics removed from what is conventionally referred to as the political sphere." (x)
The difficulty I have with Woodhull's introduction lies not in the particularities of her critique but the site in which she consistently places Khatibi's work. Frustrated by the perceived "limitations" of Khatibi's work, Woodhull wants to argue that those limitations are a function of Khatibi's submersion in, and overly zealous devotion to, French poststructuralist thought. It is this gesture that is for me problematic for it erases Khatibi's immersion in quite another intellectual tradition: that is, his Islamic textual, metaphysical and ontological culture.
Allow me to illustrate this subtle erasure with a few examples taken from Woodhull's introduction:
Consider how, in each example, Khatibi's work is situated as secondary and subservient to French thought: in the first quote, the distinction and distance between Khatibi and France is denied; in the second, one senses a tone of chastisement, as though a Moroccan writer should not really be turning to a European thinker for stimulation. More significantly, Woodhull's assertion misrepresents Khatibi's "debt" to Derrida, but more of that later. Note the belittling use of the term "mimic", as well as the subservience, once again, such a term implies, as does the phrase "tacitly endorses" which appears in the fourth quote.
I have provided these various examples to indicate that Woodhull's procedure is not a singular moment --- it is not a question of my isolating a single instance and discussing it out of context --- but rather of a lacuna which underlies her analysis of Khatibi's work, a lacuna I might add, widespread in criticism of Maghrebi literary production. These quotes also illustrate the consequent "erasure" of Islamic interculturality: nowhere within all of this is Khatibi's Islamic "habitus" mentioned.2
Let us now look at some of those instances in Khatibi's writing where that Islamic intertextuality is explicitly foregrounded before we then consider the "hidden" intertextuality that underlies almost all of his work. An obvious example of the former is his essay "La sexualité selon the Coran" which appears in Maghreb pluriel (1983). In it he seeks to illustrate why the very notion of an "Islamic sexuality" is problematic:
Parler de la "sexualité" en islam c'est d'emblée opérer la traduction d'une langue à l'autre, d'une civilisation à l'autre. ... Or, en langue arabe, langue du Coran et donc discours primordial sur la sexualité en islam, il n'y a pas de concept ou de notion unique qui porte ce nom et qui soit la formulation d'un domaine réservé au sexe. (Khatibi 1983, 150)aIn other words, a discussion of sexuality within an Islamic context has to involve an engagement with the Qur'an; and, logically enough, one is then necessarily confronted with the question of language and of translation. As we shall see when discussing Mernissi's work, the Qur'an, as a Divine text, requires interpretation, that is, a translation from Divine density and ultimate unknowability into a practicable human ethics. The reference, therefore, to translation in the above passage is not a "tacit endorsement" of Lyotard's notion of the differend, as Woodhull suggests (Woodhull xiv) but an articulation of a basic premise of all Qur'anic exegesis. Khatibi writes: "C'est pourquoi lorsqu'on nomme l'islam, lorsqu'on en parle ou qu'on écrit sur lui (comme je le fais ici même), il s'agit toujours de traduire ... (155, emphasis in original).b
Summarizing what is a complex explication regarding the question of sexuality within Islam, Khatibi argues that the Absolute difference between Allah and humanity presented throughout the Qur'an profoundly shapes the relationship between men and women, replicating as it does that "higher" model. Drawing his reflections from and citing such Qur'anic passage as ""Dis: Lui, Allah l'Unique. Allah le Seul. Il n'a point engendré et n'a point été engendré. Il n'a point d'égal"" (quoted in Khatibi 1983, 155),c Khatibi writes that: "Pour que l'Un soit dans sa totale autonomie et transcendance, il faut exclure toute "association" avec Allah, et l'association humaine elle-même, le couple, l'homme, la femme et l'enfant sont toujours situés dans une union sacrifiée à Allah. Union sans union ... " (164).d The ins and outs of this question are not what concern us here but rather the fact that through this inquiry into "islamic sexuality" we find interwoven issues of language and identity, the sources of which are drawn from a very specific islamic site.
It is in Khatibi's wonderful study of Arabic calligraphy, The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy (1976)3, that we find the most succinct articulation of this complex relationship between language, identity and the Divine word. For Khatibi, Arabic calligraphy is far more than a decorative rendering of language:
Among people without a calligraphic tradition beautiful handwriting can of course be found anywhere --- in a private letter, for instance. But this comes from an expression of feeling not rooted in a general knowledge and technique of calligraphy. It remains an individual impulse within the totality of a culture. (Khatibi 1976, 22)For him, calligraphy means "an art which, in the pattern which it creates, implies a theory of language and of writing" (20). He later adds that calligraphy denotes "an all-embracing cultural manifestation which, at its extreme and sometimes confused limits, structures the metaphysic of regular language" (22). Calligraphy, in other words, is both form and content, signifier and signified, and therefore contains within itself a whole order of signification, one which embraces and encloses the self and the divine, intellect and inspiration. As Khatibi explains:
Excluded from a figural treatment of the divine or human countenance, [the Muslim artist] must return to the source of existence in writing, the fundamental theory which asserts that everything must pass through the sacred text and return to it again: the sacred text and the central principle. (Khatibi 1976, 228)Although Khatibi is here "simply" articulating for the reader the traditional sacred dimensions of Arabic calligraphy, I would argue that the paradigm in place within this Islamic textual discourse is Khatibi's also and fundamentally shapes the manner in which he conceives of the relationships between language and writing, and language and identity. Furthermore, it is a paradigm which he brings to French poststructuralism; contrary to Winifred Woodhull's insinuation that Khatibi's work has been "tainted" by French poststructuralist doctrines, it is French poststructuralist thought which has been "tainted" by an Islamic discourse in Khatibi's writings. Is it not presumptuous of us to imagine that Khatibi's construction of identity through language is derived from his contact with European philosophy thereby ignoring the rich Islamic cultural and theological milieu in which he was raised, to which, I might add, he draws our explicit attention in La Mémoire tatouée (1971), his first work of "fiction"?
On the very first page of this "roman autobiographique" Khatibi introduces his thematic preoccupation with the complex intertwining of language, identity and religious discourse:
Né le jour de l'Aïd el Kébir, mon nom suggère un rite millénaire et il m'arrive, à l'occasion, d'imaginer le geste d'Abraham égorgeant son fils. Rien à faire, même si ne m'obsède pas le chant de l'égorgement, il y a, à la racine, la déchirure nominale; de l'archet maternel à mon vouloir, le temps reste fasciné par l'enfance, comme si l'écriture, en me donnant au monde, recommençait le choc de mon élan, au pli d'un obscur dédoublement. Rien à faire, j'ai l'âme facile à l'éternité. (Khatibi 1971, 9)eThe link between Khatibi's linguistic pre-occupations and Islamic textual discursivity is reinforced when one reads that Khatibi is interested in exploring "the course of development of the letter, the written character, as it tends towards the hidden aspect of Allah" --- or one might add, "towards the hidden aspect of self" --- which he suggests lies at the heart of the nature of "the divine image of art in Islam" (Khatibi 1976, 11). When he later writes that the "absolute aim of art is, specifically, to endow with soul - a wandering soul, which reveals itself in the field of existence only to show the impossibility of a sojourn there" (192), it becomes clear that he is no longer explicating a Muslim calligrapher's understanding of his world. Inspired by Islamic calligraphic reflections upon the relationship between language, aesthetics and the divine (identity), the extent to which Khatibi's thought has been informed by this tradition is quite obvious. This thought in turn finds its expression not only in La mémoire tatouée but indeed in all of his literary production. As just one quick example consider the parallels to be found between the Muslim calligraphic belief that "everything must pass through the sacred text" and the following passage from Khatibi's novel Amour bilingue (1983). This passage, again on the novel's first page, expresses a sentiment that haunts the narrative throughout: "Soudain, il eut l'extraordinaire impression d'être écrit par la nuit. Un frisson violent le saisit. Ah, se dit-il, tout texte devrait être sans appel: il est sans appel" (9).f In other words, Khatibi understands identity as structured through language, very much like a Muslim calligrapher would understand one's "true", divine identity as necessarily passing "through the sacred text".
I am not suggesting that Khatibi's work is to be understood as religious, nor that it can only be interpreted through an "Islamic" filter; what I am saying is that although he is seen intellectually by many as being first and foremost a poststructuralist thinker I would argue that it was his immersion in an Islamic textual heritage which prompted his exploration of poststructuralist linguistics, for he found there the continuation of an intellectual tradition which extended well over one thousand years into his own Islamic past. If one needed further "proof" of this consider the following comments taken from his essay "Le tracé calligraphique": "La tradition platonicienne réduit le signe graphique à une fonction de travestissement, puisque la parole, sa vérité, est l'origine de la signification. Dans le savoir arabe, le signe est scindé, fissuré autrement ..." (Khatibi 1986, 182). And later he writes: "Le tracé calligraphique rend possible une lecture pluridimensionnelle, prise chaque fois à l'interstice d'une mise en scène circulaire, et introduit dans le système linguistique l'écoute d'une musique suspendue. Un niveau sémantique, non moins excitant: la sur-signification engagée dans ce procès fait évaporer le sens habituel que l'énoncé produit" (186, emphasis in original).g Khatibi is a poststructuralist calligrapher whose work embraces his statement that in Islam "writing is an absolute, the Absolute, the Sanctum Sanctorum" (Khatibi 1976, 35, emphasis in original).
Khatibi's preoccupation with language is shared by Fatima Mernissi, but, whereas he has "inherited" (so to speak) that aspect of Islamic thought which has focused primarily upon the signifier --- "calligraphy ... examines the nature of the language in which it resides," writes Khatibi (20) --- Mernissi's work is concerned with that which is signified; her writing is one which is deeply informed by Islam's dialogical tradition of interpretation.
"Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity". Confronted by this seemingly unanswerable hadith [the sayings and actions ascribed to the prophet Muhammad] every time she, or any one else, dared suggest that women had the right to participate in the affairs of state as full and equal citizens, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi soon realized she had no choice but to fight fire with textual fire. Hence her decision to embark upon a study "of the religious texts that everybody knows but no one really probes, with the exception of the authorities on the subject: the mullahs and imams" (Mernissi 1991, 2), for it is increasingly the case that they who control the texts control the social and political agendas. For Mernissi and for millions of women throughout the Arab world, the systemic exclusion of women from the social and political processes is not simply unacceptable but constitutes a betrayal of Islamic faith, a point consistently overlooked in the many commentaries upon Mernissi's work which, more often than not, understand her within an exclusively Western feminist framework.
The work involved in such an inquiry was monumental; Mernissi's textual excavation included the thirteen volumes of al-Tabari's Tarikh [History], the thirty volumes of his Tafsir (commentary on, or explication of, the Qur'an), and the Hadith collections of al-Bukhari and al-Nasi'i. It is in the work of al-Bukhari (810-870)4 that the "implacable" hadith in question is to be found. Al-Bukhari's collection is so highly esteemed that the mere presence of the hadith within his work makes it "a priori considered true and therefore unassailable without proof to the contrary" (49). According to him it was Abu Bakra, one of the Prophet's closest Companions, who reportedly heard the Prophet pronounce the hadith upon learning that "the Persians had named a woman to rule them" (49). Summoning forth the rigorously scientificmethodology of hadith collection and verification that insists that "the believing reader has the right to have all the pertinent information about the source of the Hadith and the chain of its transmitters, so that he or she can continually judge whether they are worthy of credence or not" (35), and undaunted by the stature and authority of al-Bukhari's work, Mernissi asserts her right, as a Muslim woman, to ask: "Who uttered this Hadith, where, when, why, and to whom?" (49).
The tradition Mernissi is drawing upon with such an inquiry is a dialogical one explored in great and fascinating detail by Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi in their book Debating Muslims (1990). In the chapter entitled "Qur'anic Dialogics" they write that:
Three sorts of dialogue are central to the reading of the Qur'an: dialogue in the colloquial sense of oral communication between two face-to-face persons; dia-logue in the Greek etymological sense of cross-play between arguments; and dialogue in the sense of juxtaposition of points of view in a political struggle for hegemonic control of interpretation of how the world should be seen (be it, today, between fundamentalist Islam and liberal Islam, or between Islamic nationalisms and cosmopolitan secularism). (97)Somewhat later, in a section that specifically explores "The Hadith Game," they write that:
The Qur'an intends to provoke thought, not lay everything out for passive reception ... Where this leads, of course, is to (a) the ultimate unknowability of much of the Qur'an, and thus to (b) an openness of interpretation that requires (c) moral struggle, as well as (d) access to the disciplines and traditions of interpreting the Qur'an. Four important guides are available: (1) the disciplines for laying bare the plain meaning of the Qur'an (including most importantly the identification of which verses abrogate other ones, the historical circumstances of revelation, and grammatical analysis); (2) interpretive means of tafsir and taw'il (exegesis, prolepsis) and dialectical disputation (bahth); (3) "those firmly grounded in knowledge" (rasikhun fi al-'ilm); (4) and the politics of the hadith game also played through dialectical disputation with taw'il and grammatical analysis. (115)Clearly Mernissi's inquiry into the origins of that "implacable" hadith is one that is firmly entrenched within this Islamic dialogical and exegetical practice.
What interests us more, in the context of this essay, than Mernissi's findings (which are striking enough for they undermine this most famous, and, for women, most paralyzing, of hadith), is her insistence upon her absolute right to challenge the hadith, and, in so doing, her alignment with Islam's rationalist dialogical tradition: "Islam was, at least during its first centuries, the religion of reasoning, responsible individuals capable of telling what was true from what was false" (Mernissi 1991, 35) she argues.
In a chapter entitled "Fear of the Imam" in her work Islam and Democracy (1992) Mernissi insists that the defenders of a rationalist philosophy within Islam "appeared on the scene very early in Islamic history and continued ... to be active throughout Muslim history" (Mernissi 1992, 33). The Mu'tazila, as these early Islamic rationalists were called, included "not only philosophers, mathematicians, engineers, doctors and astronomers, but also Sufis, who found in religious texts everything they needed to bolster the idea of the thinking, responsible individual" (34). A classic example of such a mystical thinker is el-Hallaj (857-922) who insisted that "each person reflected divine beauty and as a result was necessarily sovereign" (20). Such teachings undermined the authority of both imam and Caliph which depended upon their claim to greater proximity to divine truth. Indeed, rationalist teachings of the Mu'tazila helped to bring about the fall of the Umayyad empire (661-750) but the Mu'tazila's brief period of influence quickly came to an end when the Abbasid's who followed (750-1258) soon insisted upon absolute rule also. In order to break the Mu'tazila's influence the Abbasid rulers condemned "private initiative ... as a "foreign" enterprise" and cultivated an alternative tradition based on ta'a (obedience) which banned reflection (37). The fruit of that tradition can be found today in the fundamentalist's insistence that "all calls for a rational relationship between the imam and his followers as well as any criticism of the leader be discredited as a rejection of Islam and a lack of respect for its principles and ideals" (37).
This opposition to all that is "foreign" is the object of inquiry in Islam and Democracy and Mernissi comes to the startling conclusion that the "Orient is seized by terror, not because the Occident is different, but because it reflects and exhibits the very part of the Orient that it is trying to hide from itself: individual responsibility" (16). It soon becomes clear that what is at stake is not "simply" political structures, social control and individual rights, but more profoundly, personal identity. The underlying question in Mernissi's work is: Who is to determine the construction of identity in Muslim societies --- the clergy, the state, or the individual? What is fascinating in Mernissi's work is to realize how profoundly textual the construction of that identity. Mernissi's challenge to current political and religious structures, as radical as it is, is nevertheless situated within an Islamic discursive tradition. Consider, for example, the following passage from Islam and Democracy:
Two ways lay open to the Muslims confronted with arbitrary rule: the way of rebellion ... which leads to violence and murder; and the way of 'aql, glorifying reason ... and which intellectualized the political scene. ... In the modern Islamic world only the violent, rebellious way is being taken by those who loudly proclaim their wish to rule. The rationalist tradition is apparently not part of their Muslim heritage.That is why outlining it and thinking about it is so critical. (32)
Paradoxically, it would seem that Mernissi's methodology is remarkably similar to that of a fundamentalist's: where a fundamentalist turns towards one tradition, she calls upon another; where he draws upon certain hadiths and certain interpretations of the Qur'an, she counters with others. On the one hand, she seeks affirmation of her Muslim female identity within the sacred texts, but on the other, she insists upon the Muslim right to interpret those texts, on an individual basis. Her Muslim identity, in other words, is both divinely decreed, and individually and humanly constructed. Mernissi's work embraces this paradox, which lies at the heart of the Islamic dialogical discourse, as a source of spiritual and intellectual richness; for the fundamentalist, however, such a paradox can never be admitted for his theological tradition insists upon mukham (literal meaning) only, as opposed to mutashabih (allegorical meaning), and he seeks to impose his reading of the text as its "true" and indisputable meaning.
An identity such as that posited by Mernissi's dialogics, rooted as it is in the signified, may strike one as on rather more solid ground than Khatibi's more metaphysical theorizations which struggle with the signifier itself. Nevertheless, it is as vulnerable to manipulation and distortion --- as millions of Arab women know only too well --- for interpretation is, as Mernissi is herself aware, a linguistic affair. A wonderful example of her awareness of the constant interplay between the "moral struggle" and the "grammatical analysis" alluded to by Fischer and Abedi appears in The Veil and the Male Elite. In the debate regarding the true meaning of the Qur'anic verse, "Give not unto the foolish al-sufaha what is in your keeping of their wealth, which Allah hath given you to maintain" (Sura 4, verse 5), the great Islamic scholar al-Tabari (839-923) sought to resolve the question linguistically. Under dispute was the interpretation of the word al-sufaha, the foolish, for there were those who insisted that the term included women and children so as to exclude them from the laws of inheritance. Rather than address the issue directly on principled grounds al-Tabari argued that "if Allah meant that women were foolish ... the [more] appropriate plural form" would have been used (128). Mernissi is incensed that "never at any time does al-Tabari take a stand on a principle" (128), but admits that "it remains to us as believers to find the best way to understand the word sufaha (127). Furthermore, she recognizes that "since [the fuqaha (religious scholars)] gave to each person the right to have an opinion, the end result is a literature of juxtapositions of opinions" (128).
Let me reiterate: I have no desire to reduce the complex and varied writings of Khatibi and Mernissi to a "Textus Islamicus", to paraphrase an expression coined by Maxime Rodinson; I simply want to situate a criticism of their work in a site which lies somewhere other than a Western modernist or postmodernist literary and intellectual debate. I am not arguing that such a site is any more "true" or "authentic" than other sites but it is one which functions outside of a colonized francophone discourse. Furthermore, it is one that is central to both the form and the content of the works of not only the two writers discussed here but, in one way or another, all Moroccan writing. I do not wish to effect my own "erasure" of the obvious presence of European and North American thought in their work but suggest that their work is in constant dialogue with "other" intellectual traditions, be they "Western", or, as in Khatibi's work, with Japanese aesthetics and Chinese calligraphy. For both writers it is precisely this plurality and diversity that is enriching. As Khatibi writes: "Islamic art is by no means centred upon Mecca, nor on Timbuctoo; it presents a varied landscape, without any precise centre. ... Each culture has its own particular joys, displacing the other on the ground of its difference. Creativity flourishes when the seeds are scattered far and wide. (Khatibi 1976, 226)
Khatibi, Abdelkébir. La Mémoire tatouée: Autobiographie d'un décolonisé. Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1971.
---. "La sexualité selon le Coran." Maghreb pluriel. Paris/Rabat: Denoël/SMER, 1983. 147-176.
---. Amour bilingue. Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1983.
---. "Le tracé calligraphique." La blessure du nom propre. Paris: Denoël, 1986. 175-209.
Khatibi, Abdelkébir and Mohammed Sijelmassi. The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy. Trans. James Hughes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.
Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1991.
---. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1992.
Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
1. Here the term "Islamic" is to be understood in a broad cultural sense and not in its more restricted religious connotation. Back to the earlier position in the text.
2. As I have already mentioned, I am not trying to dismiss Woodhull's work, nor her argument that Khatibi's work has opted for a "subversive poetics" which is of no relevance to the daily struggles of "ordinary" Moroccans, or Maghrebians. Back to the earlier position in the text.
3. Co-authored with Mohammed Sijelmassi, Khatibi was largely responsible for the textual component of the work, whilst the work's rich visual component was principally Sijelmassi's concern. Back to the earlier position in the text.
4. All dates are C.E. Back to the earlier position in the text.
a. To speak of "sexuality" in Islam involves an initial translation from one language to another, from one culture to another. ... Now, the Arabic language is the language of the Qur'an, the essential and defining discourse regarding sexuality in Islam; as a consequence there does not exist within the Arabic language the concept or unique notion of "sexuality" which designates a distinct field set aside for sex. (My translation). Back to the original passage in the text.
b. Which is why, when we designate Islam, when we speak of it or write about it (as I am doing here at the moment) translation is always involved. (My translation). Back to the original passage in the text
c. "Say: "He is God the one the most unique ... He has begotten no one, and he is begotten of none. There is no one comparable to Him." (Sura 112, trans. Ahmed Ali). Back to the original passage in the text
d. For the One to exist in complete autonomy and transcendence, all "association" with God must be denied, and human association itself, the couple - man, woman, child - is always situated in the context of a union submitted to God. A union without union. (My translation). Back to the original passage in the text
e. Born on Aïd el Kebir day, my name recalls a millenial rite and it happens, on occasion, that I picture Abraham in the act of slitting his son's throat. Regardless, even if I am not obsessed by the song of the slaughter, there remains at the root a nominal rupture; from the maternal bow to my conscious will, time remains fascinated by childhood, as though writing, by placing me in the world, repeated the shock of my initial flight to the fold of an opague and divided identity. Regardless, I have a soul open to eternity. (My translation). Back to the original passage in the text
f. "All of a sudden, he had the extraordinary feeling that he was being written by the night. He shivered violently. Ah, he said to himself, every text should be final: he himself is final" (trans. Richard Howard). Back to the original passage in the text
g. The platonic tradition reduces the graphic sign to a corrupted representation for it is the truth of speech [which is seen as] the source of all signification. In Arabic thought the sign is split, divided differently. ... The calligraphic practice makes possible a pluri-dimensional reading caught each time at the fissure of a circular production, and introduces the resonance of a suspended music into the linguistic system. A semantic level no less exciting: the over-signification involved in this process evaporates the meaning the text normally produces. (My translation). Back to the original passage in the text
Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
I would like to acknowledge the support I have received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada as well as the Alberta Heritage Scholarship Fund.
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