The Islam of France, Year One: Time to Enter the Twenty-First Century
sample translation by Nathaniel Dennett
This book’s title and subtitle may raise some questions; they may even arouse suspicion. Not only am I perfectly aware of this, but that strikes me as normal.
Since the January 2015 attacks, we have been living in a tense socio-political environment. Everyone’s nerves are raw. On the one hand, the Muslim contingent of the French population, understandably tired of being associated, directly or indirectly, with the crimes committed in the name of the religion, takes a little too much to heart any subject related to them, which they see, almost systematically, as yet another stigmatization. As for the other parts of the French population, they wonder about Islam, its relationship with the Republic, whether it is compatible with democracy, which are legitimate concerns, too, in the face of the rising tide of actions whose inhumanity reduces every speaker to silence, making everyone grow white hair, even the bald. Speaking of Islam has become, consequently, a most dangerous enterprise, but also, let’s say it, a most juicy one, since some people have made a business of it, on either side.
The necessity of writing this book has nonetheless made itself evident to me as an obligation I couldn’t shirk, for multiple reasons. First of all, because of my religion. Today, whether we like it or not, Islam, our religion of peace, love, openness and altruism is perceived by a not insignificant number of Earthlings as a foul beast. Hateful words come from our own ranks, directed at other Muslims, members of other faiths, and non-believers. An entire literature has developed to reject the other, referring to what the Muslim I am considers most near and dear to my heart, that is, the Quran and the model of its human embodiment, the Prophet Muhammad.
Convinced as I was that in some cases, remaining silent is to be complicit, I came to the conclusion that it was up to me to enlighten my fellow believers on what I believe is the truth, in terms of the understanding and technical manipulation of a certain number of concepts, which from my point of view have been completely diverted from their true meaning. Islam has not been sent to us in order to be imposed on people: the Prophet only received the order to transmit his message. Why would it be any different for us, who wish to follow him? How can we succeed in calling people to God’s religion, if we commit errors from which He guarded His Prophet? To speak of love and mercy towards our fellow human beings should not be a sign of weakness, especially in a religion whose Prophet was described as “a mercy for all the worlds” by their Creator.
I will address, in order to defend the rights of this mercy, fundamental notions like the unchanging and the changeable, the birth of the Muslim religious sciences, the caliphate, political relations. Above all, I will strive throughout to defend what I think is the true spirit of Islam, its essence, its profound beauty, which I see too often so misunderstood, including by Muslims. In short, I will strive to give the reader from all horizons, some rudimentary concepts without which the notion of the Islam of France cannot be understood, Islam being, without these concepts, a hollow term, emptied of all meaning.
But I couldn’t give a fair idea of the Islam of France if I didn’t also address the current sociological and political state of affairs in France, at least as far as it concerns its relationship to Islam. This country could sink, if we don’t make an effort to stop it, into communitarian and civil strife, which the paternalism of certain politicians, the slight inaccuracies of many media outlets, as well as the identity crises of some French Muslims make every day more threatening. Now, there are at the same time many signs pointing to the burgeoning of a new France, strong by virtue of all her children. A France that is able to give the same opportunities to everyone, that doesn’t lose herself in tirades supposed to define her identity, because she will have understood that this identity is multitudinous. We are at a crossroads, and everything is still possible, the best as much so as the worst: it is a matter of making the right choices.
This book aspires to be a call to reconcile minds and hearts. It doesn’t by any means pretend to be unique: I simply intend to add my stone to the structure we must build together; my contribution will come before, after, and at the same time as many others. I will raise a certain number of questions and suggest a certain number of ideas which I believe may modestly contribute to this oh-so-vital task. This book is an essay, in the conventional and etymological sense. It is no more, and no less.
To return to the title, The Islam of France does not mean choosing a different religion or making the Quran’s prescriptions any less mandatory. To be of France, Islam does not need to empty itself of its meaning and its essence in any way. I will argue here, that on the contrary, what makes Islam unique and universal comes from how it has always adapted wherever it has arrived. The same clothes aren’t worn in the Comoros as in the Arabic peninsula. The grand boubou worn by Macky Sall, the current President of Senegal and a Muslim, is closer to what Obassandjo wears, a Christian who previously held office in Nigeria, than it is to King Muhammad VI’s kandura.
Islam has always respected and taken into account cultural peculiarities, provided that they did not call into question a person’s most basic human rights or faith. To say that it is time to create a true Islam of France is not to call for a misrepresentation of Islam. It is in fact the exact opposite: Islam will not truly be a religion of France unless we learn to understand it better, as it actually is, and not as we would like it to be, in order for it to blossom here as elsewhere, everywhere, in fact, where humankind is present. Such is the perhaps outrageous ambition of this book. Such is in any case our task, men and women of good faith, at the beginning of this century.
From 1. Islam for Dummies
What is Islam? Against all those who, from within or without, wish to reduce it to a simple, univocal idea, we must begin by saying forcefully that this word covers different realities, and that if there is indeed one Islam, it is prudent, in approaching it, to use scare quotes.
In all the Semitic languages, the root slm designates that which has to do with peace, an origin which, in Arabic, gives us a first meaning: Islam means, then, a peaceful submission to a supreme authority from whence emanate a certain number of values, which must be understood as sent to man to help him to rise. I must insist on the word peaceful. Man, in this perspective, submits to something which is permanently in his interest; there is harmony between his being and the values he espouses.
In this sense, Islam is the genus of all monotheistic communities. That is, by the way, the definition suggested by Muslim legal scholars like Ibn Taymiyya (13th-14th century), a great scholar of the Hanbali school, to which many Muslims refer nearly religiously—in his encyclopedic work Majmu’ al-fatawa, where he says that the term Islam covers a general reality, encompassing all those who followed a prophet, and a particular reality, that of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad—or like Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (16th century) in his work Al-fatawa al-kubra, which points out that jurisconsults used both meanings. It is, above all, what the Quran says very clearly when it claims that Abraham named all of us believers Muslims.
Abraham, in this passage, says: “Lord, I direct my entire person towards he who created the skies and the lands,” which implies a foundational break with what makes men bow before creatures—what is called idolatry. He continues: “My prayer, my entire work belongs to God,” “He has no associate and that is what is asked of me and I am the first of Muslims,” that is, the first of those who submit peacefully to God and to Him alone.
In a hadith—those words, actions, or commentaries of the Prophet gathered by his companions—someone comes to see the Prophet and asks him who the best believer is. He responds: “He whose hand and whose tongue are in peace with the people,” he who does not strike, he who says nothing that shocks or injures; and for that he uses the Arab word muslim, which led to the same word being used in English, and musulman in French.
If we stick to this definition, the original seat of Islam merges with that of all of humanity; it goes back to Adam and Eve. The Quran teaches us that the first abode ever built on earth is found in Mecca, on the Arafat mountain, which matches the Muslim traditions according to which Adam and Eve, chased out of paradise and separated from one another, found themselves there, where since then pilgrims have the duty to spend an afternoon, otherwise their pilgrimage is not validated: by doing so, they celebrate the very birth of Islam, and even that of humanity.
Jimmy and Sharia
All of these beliefs make up the dogma, a word which by the way doesn’t mean anything other than faith. I was speaking of the foundations of our shared house, that is, Islam: without foundations, no house. The house exists because of them. There is the rest: life, human reality in its multiple dimensions, in regards to which the Muslim must be humble, because while he may be enlightened by faith, on these topics, unlike on the dogma, he has no certain and definitive truth.
There is, in short, on one side faith in the invisible, which is called al-ghayb, and on the other, something like a civil code, which is born of the various interpretations people draw out of the message. It is, in other words, the product of the operation which consists in making a mute text speak—mute, may I remind you, to us, to our little human brains, which have to bring it to their level. Here we find ourselves—in the area which is, say, moral—at the heart of the human part of the believer’s life. This is not by any means a minor part, but it is still second to the dogma.
Faith belongs to the realm of intimate, private things; it fixes itself in the hearts of men, but it has a vital necessity to exteriorize, to give proof of its reality. Which it does in two very important ways: these are al-ibadat, or the rituals, and al-mu’amalat, the relationship to others, everything from commerce, marriage, your relationship to your neighbors, and how you resolve conflicts. Our duties to God, and our duties to men, are united in a double movement, horizontal and vertical, of seeking harmony between oneself and all the dimensions of reality.
The set of rules that this represents may seem restrictive, but the goal is not by any means to make man a slave. Instead, the point is to allow him to enjoy the most total and absolute freedom to fulfil his nature while respecting others and God, a condition without which this fulfilment would be fraudulent, since, by committing evil, he would harm the integrity of his own being, of the humanity within him. If you fill yourself with the dogma, that is, if you know well what God has revealed about Himself, about the world and about us, you can only follow these rules with the greatest delight.
That is what we call fiqh, or rather, in a more or less appropriate manner, sharia, this word that people cook in all sauces, including the most contaminated ones. For that matter, it is only used once in the Quran, paradoxically, and in a different sense than that which I just gave, since it is used to mean path, or way. It is in the verse where God tells us: “And we have put you on a path. Take it, do not follow their passion. They will be of no use to you with God.” Apart from this occurrence, there are only synonyms such as shir’ah or the verb shara’ah, which means to “codify”—it is found in a verse that recalls that what was codified in the Quran is the same thing that was codified to Noah, Isaac, Jesus, Abraham, etc.
This makes the definition of the word, such as the tradition forged it, based on this idea, on the one hand, of path, and on the other of codification, even more difficult to pin down: neither definition can count on the absolute authority of the Quran. Now, more than ever, we have the duty to agree on what it means, the definitions currently in circulation being far from the right ones.
Let’s take, for instance, what the great Muslim legal scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a disciple of Ibn Taymiyya, says in his book A’lam Almouwaiqq’in, a reference encyclopedia for Islamic thought: “Sharia is in the interest of humans, as much in this life as in the next.” And, further: “Sharia is entirely mercy, and entirely fairness.”
It just so happens that the man who wrote these words is taken today as a reference by the groups that murder in the name of Sharia, a monstrous and terrifying hijacking of meaning, a perverse operation that tends to make true Islam into its very opposite, its grimacing negation. How can the meaning of words be lost to this extent?
To understand why, we must give up naïve notions and not forget that, since we are operating in a domain where human interpretation reigns, history has always gone through contradictory interpretations of Sharia, including, in different eras than ours, some militaristic versions, which in the end are not too far from what we are subjected to today.
There is, to use a scholarly term, an épistémè particular to every era, that is—and I’m paraphrasing Michel Foucault, who forged this concept—a system of pre-understanding things, a sort of unconscious frame, borne of a particular state of knowledge, from which we then sort what can be thought and what cannot. But it’s also the basis from which we see what we see, because we never see things in a purely objective way: they pass through the filter of what we know about them; we think they appear, but they have been in us for a long time.
Now, some verses of the Quran can seem, provided that your épistémè pushes you towards it, to go in the direction of violence. Here we come back to the idea that the text is mute: you can make it say that you need to be violent, as long as you have in yourself the idea that violence is natural, or even better, that it is, for mysterious reasons that belong to your era, a beneficial reality.
When I think about these topics, I always think about a scene that I witnessed in my teenage years, in the Comoros. I was playing Scrabble with a friend, and at some point, since we were tired, we turned on the television—an object that had just made its appearance among us. There was a soccer game on, which was, I remember, the 1990 World Cup final, Argentina versus Germany, which Germany then won. This was a tape: the game had happened one or two years beforehand. A little boy was there with us, maybe 6 years old. For him, TV was Bollywood movies (at the time, the Comoros islands were less influenced by Hollywood than by India, whose reality was closer to ours; this is no longer the case), which featured a hero who was then very famous, named Jimmy, and that was all TV could be for him: he had seen nothing else in his life.
But he began to watch along with us. Focused as we were on the game, we weren’t paying attention to him. Except that after a while—he must have yelled louder than us—we turned around and saw him fidgeting, mimicking a fistfight, his gaze locked on the screen, and repeating: “Come on, Jimmy, hit him! Come on, Jimmy!” He saw neither Maradona nor Matthäus, he didn’t even see a soccer game: he was standing in front of the only thing he had ever seen on a screen, a Bollywood movie.
That’s what the épistémè is. If Jimmy is all you’ve ever known, you see Jimmy everywhere. No matter how much imagination you have—the little boy certainly didn’t lack any!—you cannot perceive anything but what your experience allowed you to know, you remain conditioned by what you have lived. So that when I see a pen, another could see a weapon it could become, if he grew up in an épistémè where the ability to defend yourself with everything that you can get in your hands is an obsession.
So why are there, today, in the 21st century, Muslims who, when they read such and such verse of the Quran, think they see calls to oppression and murder? We might be able to understand the historical reasons for the militaristic épistémè that shaped centuries past, but these forces are no longer at work, and yet violence grows anyway. What happened?
I believe—and this is of course a partial explanation of a mysterious phenomenon—that, in the Western world as in the Muslim world, we accept that, where Maradona appears, some can see Jimmy, as if that were a right. We tolerate that reality no longer be reality, and that imagination become real. There is a sort of supermarket of meaning, where everyone is supposed to be allowed to help themselves, as they please, even when that boils down to losing the meaning of meaning, to the benefit of some kind of fiction that has become stronger than truth itself. Why go to the effort of understanding what really is, when it is so easy to imagine what you please?
We must repair our épistémè, restore in the spirit of our times the exigency of truth, the humility that pushes scholars to submit to reality, against the endless inventions of people’s whims. That is what I am trying to do here on something I know a little about. That is what we should all do, we Muslims, in order to fight against the criminals who wrongfully claim our name, our God: to tell them what our faith is, and what it is not; to tear the Quran from the hands of criminals.
Jimmy also rages, viciously, as we all know, on the word jihad. What does the word “jihadist” bring to mind, if not a man with a Kalashnikov strapped to his back, or grasping a knife, with his victim kneeling before him? (The problem being, that’s what he saw in that word). And yet, you’ll have guessed it, this has nothing to do with the reality, even though it is true that the word means “struggle, resistance, effort…” Allow me to refer you to the work of Mahmud Shaltut, the great scholar who was Grand Imam of Al-Azhar until his death in 1963, and who deals with jihad in his Thematic Reading of the Quran, or rather, in a twenty-page epistle written in the second half of the 1940s, collected under the title “Quran and combat.”
When you read it, bizarre and perverse considerations collapse like a house of cards. Combat is, certainly, authorized by the Quran, but it is always a matter of stopping an injustice that is being done to you, never the opposite. The first verse that evokes it is very clear. It begins thus: “Authorization is given to those who have been driven out of their homes, who have been victims of injustice, to defend themselves.”
It is almost stupefying to read this passage, when we think not only of the madmen of our time but also of all the violence spread throughout the centuries. How have we been able, to this extent, to not read it? This applies, by the way, to all those who say that the Quran is violent, to whom I want to say: How is this violent? If you, your wife, your children are in danger, what do you do? Do you sit around, or do you defend yourself?
Of course, the entire problem is that some sick people, followers of Jimmy-style overinterpretation, will say that the West, or a given State, or whoever, has treated them poorly and that in a certain sense the Quran verse applies to their case. But the Quran is much more precise than that. It says: “Fight those who fight you and do not exceed the limits.” Measure, proportionality—this is an imperative rule. If someone insults you in the street, insult them back, don’t pull out a bazooka. Plus, the Quran adds: “Good and Evil will never be equal. Respond with the best.” In fact, you shouldn’t even insult. You must wish well to those who wish to harm you.
Again, this doesn’t mean that you cannot defend yourself, and therefore take arms to do so. You must understand one thing in this regard, and that is that the Quran is the most realistic book there is. It takes man as he is, it doesn’t ask him to be a superman. We all have our moments of weakness, and our moments of strength, our moments of morality and our moments of immorality; we are inhabited by trials and tribulations, which subject us to the temptation of violence.
I am reminded of the poem of Baudelaire’s called “The Warner:” “Every man worthy of the name / Has in his heart a yellow Snake / Installed as if upon a throne, / Who, if he says: ‘I will!’ answers: ‘No!’ ” To deny temptation is to deny the man in us; which truth could be revealed if we were to be so blind? Man is full of his own self. He often puts what he believes to be his interests before anything else, even if that means imposing them by violence. That will be the case so long as men exist on earth.
That is, by the way, why what we call “the great jihad” in the tradition falls under the internal struggle against the impulses that drive us. Every one of us has in his heart the possibility to do evil. Why should we be surprised by what is happening in the world if we know ourselves? In saying this, I do not renounce the idea that man is fundamentally good. I have a great admiration for Rousseau, whose ideas are often very near to mine, and who, I think has said everything on this topic in the famous passage of the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men: “The first man who, having fenced off a piece of land, dared to say: ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, and murders, how many miseries and horrors could have been spared the human race by the man who, tearing out the stakes or filling up the ditch, would have cried out to his neighbors: ‘Do not listen to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that fruit belong to everyone and that land belongs to nobody!’ ”
As long as there are men, there will be conflict, because someone will always want to take that which does not belong to him. The entirety of religion, the entirety of spiritual life, has no other goal than to teach us to go beyond that, to dry up in ourselves the source of violence. The Prophet said in a hadith: “The strong man is not the aggressive one, on the contrary he is the one who is able to contain himself when he is angry.” But Islam, once again, is not naïve: the goal is not mistaken for reality, it is located at the horizon, and the horizon is far away. We must strive towards it, without ever believing that we have reached it.
We mustn’t therefore act as if we could be rid once and for all of violence, but codify its use, establish the rules that allow us to curbit as much as possible, and above all understand that only the other’s violence can justify, defensively, yours. It exists in the world, it is an evil, but a reality; the whole point is to adapt to it when we are forced to, without ever losing sight of the imperious necessity to transcend it, and this absolute rule, foundational for Islam, of the passionate pursuit of peace.
[…] For that matter, the worldview of Muslims who reject their host country, a worldview that is static in addition to being false—since it denies the very course of events—is shared by the other side, among the non-Muslims who are afraid of Islam. People have criticized Submission, the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, for many reasons, but there is one that has not been emphasized enough, and that is, precisely, that it insults the future by not believing enough in the possibility, for all of us, to change. Maybe, one day, as in the book, the French will elect a Muslim president. Why would it need to happen the way he tells it? Why would this president, for instance, forbid women from working, for instance, or enforce polygamy? Are these things Islam? Are we incapable of imagining a president who might be, at the same time, Muslim and républicain, as is already the case for so many of us?
Not only does Houellebecq project onto the future elements of the present, but he even caricatures the present, because he fails to see that this change has already been set in motion. He lacks not only lucidity but also imagination; that is a lot, for a novelist! This has to do, likely, with what we call his nihilism, the pronounced taste he has for endless repetition of the same mediocrity, this slander of life that makes up his universe.
In this, alas, he expresses some part of contemporary reality, which we find also in some Muslims. Those who say, for instance, that a non-Muslim who converts must take an Arabic name, simply because they are not accustomed to seeing Muslims named François! As if Islam were some small fragile thing, unable to open up, unable to transform itself and include ever more reality. As if it were not immense, and diverse, and unpredictable!
 For Muslim legal scholars, this means the religious obligations: ablutions, prayer, taxation—the zakat—, fasting on Ramadan, and pilgrimage. Along with these four pillars, the Maliki school adds the fighting effort, or jihad. Globally al-ibadat designates each thing whose accomplishment is seen by the Muslim as emanating from God and in which he has no interest in this world. The word (here in the plural) means, literally, “devotion,” “adoration.”
 Al-mu’amalat designates literally the fact of acting within reciprocity, or by creating it. On the legal level it is a contract established between a landowner and an employee tasked with taking care of his crops in exchange for a “salary” in the broad sense of a “reward.”
 William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)