Meddeb, Abdelwahhab (1946–)

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Meddeb, Abdelwahhab

Abdelwahhab Meddeb is a Tunisian-born French novelist, poet, and essayist. He is the author of about twenty books, including Matière des oiseaux (2001; Matter of birds), a collection of poems, for which he received the Max-Jacob Prize in 2002; La Maladie de l'Islam (2002; The Malady of Islam, 2003) for which he won the François-Mauriac Prize the same year; and Contre-prêches: Chroniques (2006; Counter-preaching: chronicles), which earned him the

Benjamin Fondane International Prize for Francophonie in 2007.


Meddeb was born in Tunis in 1946 and is now a French citizen. After studying literature and art history at the University of Paris IV-La Sorbonne and the University of Aix-Marseilles, he taught francophone literature as a visiting professor at the University of Geneva (1989–1990) and Yale (1993–1994). Currently he teaches comparative literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. He has been on the editorial board of Les Editions de Sinbad and Les Editions du Seuil. He has also served as editor of the journals Dédale and Intersignes (1991–1994). Since 1997 he has hosted a Sunday radio program, Culture d'Islam (Islamic culture), on the France Culture network.


The work of Meddeb, like that of most postcolonial Maghrebi writers, crosses genres and disciplines. Meddeb's conception of literature moves beyond the Western cult of self-referentiality and immanence to link the text to the outside world. Literature becomes both a scriptural and a political practice. In Contre-prêches, he states that "poetry, like philosophy, like theology, like the artistic gesture at the origin of painting and sculpture, is always political." Here, political literature has nothing to do with the committed literature of the 1950s and 1960s. It does not adhere to a specific ideology or motto, but rather belongs to what Meddeb calls archipolitique (archepolitics): "the closeness of that which is far away, which the poet reaches when he or she breaks the link with events" (Contre-prêches, p. 156). According to Meddeb, politics is part of literary representation when narration stops reproducing reality and factual events, when it renders referents opaque, opens itself to alterity, and promotes a dialogue between languages and cultures.

Like abdel kebir khatibi, tahar ben jelloun, assia djebar, and many other Maghrebi postcolonial writers, Meddeb writes between genres and disciplines and in form and content exploits the resources of interculturality. Talismano and Phantasia are polymorphic texts written at the intersection of the novel, the tale, the fable, poetry, autobiography, and the essay. They also mix Western and non-Western generic pratices, include cultural referents specific to Maghrebi and Muslim cultures, and exploit multilinguism. Meddeb even inserts quotations in various languages, including Italian, German, hieroglyphics, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Hindi. In Phantasia he states, "The myth of Babel tells how languages multiplied themselves to divide men and pit them against one another. Separation of languages brings war" (p. 82). Meddeb's novels break with linearity and factual events in an ostensible manner. They exploit literary devices that move away from Western classical aesthetics and structural poetics. Borrowing from the French New Novel, they transform its writing by introducing cultural references specific to the Maghreb and by mixing it with parabolic and allegorical Sufi writing as well.


Name: Abdelwahhab Meddeb

Birth: 1946, Tunis, Tunisia

Family: Married; one child

Nationality: French (originally Tunisian)

Education: B.A. and M.A., literature and art history, University of Paris IV (Sorbonne); Ph.D, literature and art history, University of Aix-Marseilles


  • 1973–1974: Editor, Les Editions du Seuil
  • 1974–1988: Editor, Les Editions Sindbad
  • 1989–1990: Visiting professor, University of Geneva
  • 1993–1994: Visiting professor, Yale University
  • 1997–present: Hosts radio program Culture d'Islam (Islamic culture), France Culture network; professor, University Paris X (Nanterre)

Talismano is a complex nomadic and heterogeneous novel in which a first-person narrator imagines strolling through the Tunisian medina of his childhood. Walking and wandering are metaphors of the quest for identity, of the inscription of the body into writing, and of writing itself. This novel denounces colonial universalism and its continuation through postcolonial regimes that deny the existence of a long tradition of cultural diversity in the Maghreb. It also criticizes the theological notion of Oneness (l'Un) that Muslim academic institutions such as al-Azhar, al-Qayrawan, and Zituna emphasize in their teaching. Yet this novel does not exclusively focus on the denunciation of political and religious dogmatism in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Rather, its political dimension appears more in its modes of representation than in its thematics. The discontinuous structure of the novel as well as the broad use of parataxis, agrammatical punctuation, and allegorical representation are a plea for the recognition of the cultural diversity of the Maghreb: the latter is part of the West—"Maghreb" literally means "where the sun sets"—and also Arabic and Berber.

Phantasia is another polymorphic novel that explores the relationship between writing and the body. A first-person narrator also strolls in a city, but this time it is Paris. In this text, strolling in the Parisian landscape becomes the pretext for investigating the manipulation of historical and collective memory in colonial and post-colonial contexts, as well as for questioning both Western and Islamic genealogies. In line here with Walter Benjamin's explorations of Paris, in Phantasia Meddeb celebrates modernity. He also pays homage to Ibn Arabi and the Sufist tradition. This tradition, in his view, is too often forgotten in the Islamic community due to its praise of free-thinking (al-ra'y), love, sensuality, and the body, and whose traces, he argues, could very well resonate as far as the paintings of Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich.

Like most Maghrebi postcolonial writers, postmodern historians, and deconstructionists, Meddeb attests that the writing of history is subject to oblivion and preclusion. One can access historical, collective, and personal memories only as trace and difference. This is even truer in the Maghreb, a region whose history as well as cultural and linguistic diversity have long suffered the stigmas of colonization. Yet literature for Meddeb is always political and functions as a monument that keeps memory traces readable. Thus Phantasia aims to reconcile the West and the Maghreb with their past, and their threefold Judeo-Christian-Islamic inheritance.

With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Meddeb has become increasingly involved in the denunciation and the study of the origins of Islamic fundamentalism (in French, Islamisme [Islamism] or Intégrisme [Integrism]) or what the French historian Olivier Roy calls "neofundamentalism", modern religious fanaticism and the call for jihad. His books La Maladie de l'Islam and Contre-prêches further explore political issues he had previously raised in his literary work, in particular the existence of a link between fanaticism, violence, and historical or cultural amnesia.

In La Maladie de l'Islam, Meddeb argues that Islamic fundamentalism, the "malady of Islam," is a product of both Western and Islamic cultural hegemonies and intolerance. By the same token, referring to the West, Voltaire, and Thomas Mann, Meddeb states that intolerance was the "malady" of Catholicism and Nazism that of Germany. He thus presents the conjuncture of two forms of intolerance. The exclusion of Islam from the West as well as literal and deviant readings of the Qur'an have triggered the rise of religious fanaticism within and outside the umma (the community of Muslims). Meddeb also agrees with Roy that diaspora, deterritorialization, the media, the Internet, and globalization have contributed to the construction of a mythic and sectarian Islam. As Roy also argues, such an Islam is disconnected from its original territory and has lost its original traditions and cultures. Yet Meddeb does not distinguish between a good and a bad Islam. Where Roy sees in neofundamentalism and present-day Salafism a form of contemporary Westernized militancy, based solely on faith and moral issues yet indifferent to social concerns—akin to that of born-again Christians—Meddeb traces the roots of Islamic fundamentalism far back: Medina in the seventh century, Baghdad in the ninth century and the long reign of the Abbasids (a Sunni Muslim dynasty), the development of Saudi Wahhabism, and the doctrine of Ibn Hanbal, the eight-century founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic law.

Meddeb sees in Ibn Taymiyya, a fourteenth-century radical disciple of Ibn Hanbal, especially in his call for jihad and his manifesto on Divine Law and corporeal punishment (flagellation for wine drinkers, stoning for adulterous women, amputation of hands and feet for robbers), the early symptoms of the "malady of Islam." He holds that the crisis following Crusader and Mongol offensives (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the "Europeanization" of the world during colonial times, and the present expansion of the "Americanization of the world" have amplified the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. He also contends that without the discovery of oil and without petrodollars, Saudi Arabia Wahhabi ideology would probably have had little impact.


God did not construct the question of faith on force (ijbar) and violence (qasar), but based on the possibility of persuasion (tamakun) and free choice (ikhtiyar). God made clear and obvious the path that leads to faith. When all the ways to convince are exhausted in the Book, only coercion remains to lead the hesitant to the truth. But recourse to constraint is unacceptable: the use of violence annuls the testing (imtihan) and effort prompted by assiduous application (taklif) of the rules.


His latest book, Contre-prêches, is the compilation of a series of 115 very short essays or chronicles on a variety of topics. Among them are Islam, Iraq, the fall of dictators, religious fanaticism and the reading of natural disasters, the war of images, human sacrifice in Islam, the question of the veil, multiculturalism, and anti-Semitism. Some of these texts began as radio broadcasts in France, Morocco, and Tunisia.

As in La Maladie de l'Islam, Meddeb insists on the dangers of cultural amnesia, in particular the illusory attempts of the West to erase traces of cultural exchange between itself and Islamic civilization prior to the development of capitalism. He takes the example of the cities of Seville and Grenada as sites of resistance to cultural amnesia. In his view, the Alcazar and its mudejar art demonstrate a will to "adapt Islamic architectural discourse to a Christian destiny" (Contre-prêches, p. 100). The Alhambra and the Puerta d'Elvira also testify to the place that Arabic and Islamic memory holds in Western history even though it remains spectral, in a state of trace or haunting as in Louis Aragon's Fou d'Elsa or Federico Garía Lorca's ghostly "Islamic forest" (p. 416). Contre-prêches continues Meddeb's critique of Wahhabi Islam and the denunciation of intolerance and fanaticism. Making use of the short text and the radio speech format, Meddeb does not hesitate to take a polemical and provocative tone. Although diversity is part of every culture including that of Europe, Meddeb argues that multiculturalism has opened the door to Islamist fanaticism, that it has led to such events as the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Meddeb has strong reservations about the role that images play nowadays in our societies, yet he believes in the positive power of images. He condemns the war of images as displayed both by Western and non-Western media, especially regarding the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos and the status of the situation and execution of hostages in Iraq, the display of human sacrifice as contrary to Islam (the sacrifice of Abraham's son is symbolic), and the interpretation of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami as proof of God's punishment. Yet he welcomes the way that the Western media exploited saddam hussein's pitiful image and showcased his fall when he was dug out of his dark hole. He also states that Islam does not strictly condemn iconography, but rather its social use: "the image can exist in itself but cannot constitute a socially shared event." In this sense, Ibn Arabi's notion of a "mental icon" that cannot be shared "recuperates Christian iconography" (p. 124).

On the issue of the veil, Meddeb takes a clear and radical stance: He points out that he comes from a country where women took off their veils and that Arabic satellite TV "participates in its [the veil's] diffusion by exploiting a sense of guilt" (p. 265). As he understands it, the veil is a symbol of inequality between men and women; its return as the hijab is the sign of "the polemical return of the moral order" (p. 476) and of the "evacuation of Eros from Islamic society" (p. 477).

Meddeb also denounces anti-Semitism in both the Western and the Muslim worlds. He notes that are two kinds of anti-Semitism: Western anti-Semitism, which is rooted in the fantasy of a Jewish conspiracy to take over and rule the world, and Islamic anti-Semitism, which is rooted in the oblivion of the massacre of the Jews in Medina under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad. He finds that the latter should be addressed in order to distinguish it from European anti-Semitism.


Meddeb writes in French and is considered in France to be one of the leading authorities on the culture of Islam. The radio program Culture d'Islam aims to demystify the simplistic and caricatural image of an Islam dominated by fundamentalism often displayed in the media. Meddeb's work addresses French and francophone readers of all religious beliefs and cultural origins, and has reached well beyond the Western world and the Maghreb. La Maladie de l'Islam has generated a worldwide interest and has been translated into English, Arabic, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Bosnian, and Turkish. Meddeb's work has garnered mixed reactions. Because he has made efforts to open the Muslim world to classical Europe and the Enlightenment, and criticized Americanization along with Wahhabi and Egyptian fundamentalism, he has been perceived as both pro-Western and anti-American.


It may be too early to speak of Meddeb's legacy. His work has been read as that of a postcolonial writer of great talent in the same vein as Khatibi, Ben Jelloun, or Djebar. His interest in Islam, in Sufism, in the long tradition of cultural diversity in the Maghreb, his gestures at reconciling Europe and the Muslim world with their pasts, and finally his fight against political dogmatism and religious fanaticism in all cultures will continue to have an impact over the years and throughout the world.



Talismano (1979)

Phantasia (1987; Fantasia)

Tombeau d'Ibn Arabi (1987; The tomb of Ibn Arabi)

Aya dans les villes (1999; Aya in the cities)

Matière des oiseaux (2001; Matter of birds)

La Maladie de l'Islam (2002; The Malady of Islam, 2003)

Face à l'Islam (2004; Facing Islam)

Contre-prêches: Chroniques (2006; Counter-preaching: chronicles)


Memmes, Abdallah. Littérature maghrébine de langue française: Signifiance et Interculturalité. Rabat: Editions Okad, 1992.

                                              Dominique D. Fisher