SOUAD MASSI – What can Ibn Arabi do against Daesh?

Souad Massi's gentle struggle with ignorance on her latest album El Mutakallimûn

Souad Massi

Souad Massi. Photo by Jean Baptiste Millot

A few weeks ago, an article called ‘What can Ibn Arabi do against Daesh?’ appeared in the pages of the Algerian daily El Watan (one of Souad Massi’s favourite newspapers). The question in the title neatly summarizes the ideological struggle that rages in almost every corner of the Muslim world; it also lies at the heart of Souad Massi’s new album El Mutakalllimûn, although she might balk at avowing as much in public.

Daesh hardly need any introduction; many readers might know the organisation by the acronyms more commonly used by non-Arabic speakers: ISIS or IS. This latter-day ‘caliphate’ is busy preparing the ground for the annihilation of all infidels and apostates, and putting anyone who doesn’t agree with their brutally literalist interpretation of Islam to the sword. It already occupies large swathes of eastern Syria and northern Iraq – the prophesied battleground for that final apocalyptic showdown with the non-believers. And though it professes a desire to rewind the human clock back to the 7th century AD, the organisation has turned a local conflict into a global battle of hearts and minds with its gruesomely brilliant manipulation of modern digital media. In fact, ISIS is a paradigm of modernity, as much a part of the age we live in – like it or not – as Grand Theft Auto or Taylor Swift.

The name Ibn Arabi requires little more clarification perhaps. It belongs to a Muslim mystic and philosopher, many would say ‘saint’, who was born in Murcia, southern Spain, in 1165AD and died in Damascus 75 years later. Posterity bestowed him with the honorifics ‘al-Shaykh al-Akbar’ (‘the great Cheikh’) and ‘Doctor Maximus’. Amongst his many works is the seminal al-Futuhat al-Makkiya (The Meccan Illuminations) which comprises over 7000 pages of densely packed manuscript that elucidate, in language both complex and beautiful, his metaphysical philosophy of Oneness and the divine role of love and mercy in human existence.

Ibn Arabi was both venerated and reviled in the centuries following his death; venerated by those who admired the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his mystical insight; reviled by those, such as the 13th century scholar and jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, who were wary of unfettered philosophising of any kind and preferred to adhere to a strict, literal and unquestioning (though selective) interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings are still revered by Sunni literalists and followers of ISIS to this day.

The article in El Watan was a report of a conference held last June at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Algiers to mark the 850th anniversary of Ibn Arabi’s birth. The event gathered together eminent professors of philosophy, history, poetry and linguistics from all over the Arab world to venerate the great man, and contemplate the hotly topical question of how his fiqh or ‘philosophy’ of love can be deployed against the bigotry and hatred of ISIS and their ilk. The path to enlightenment propounded by Ibn Arabi is poorly suited to modern lifestyles and expectations; it demands silence, solitude, contemplation and self-abnegation – a retreat from this world rather than a more exhilarating involvement in it. What, in comparison to Daesh’s thrilling brew of guns, adventure, brotherhood and, above all, certainty, can his philosophy possibly offer today’s ardent young Muslim minds, apart from boredom perhaps?

Well, let’s start with peace, tolerance and love. Ibn Arabi and the ‘golden age’ of Islam in al-Andalus (southern Spain) that gave him birth are like beacons that shine a light across the centuries into Islam’s current heart of darkness. They offer examples of how not only Muslims, but all human beings, can live in state of peaceful coexistence and tolerance. Medieval Spain had its share of despots, bigots and jihadists, but it was also, in its heyday, the greatest centre of learning, science and religious tolerance in the western world. Muslim caliphs employed Jewish viziers, philosophers and architects. Christian kings were buried with Arabic inscriptions around their tombs. Poetry, especially Arabic poetry, was prized by all men of education – Muslim, Christian or Jew. Muslim and Jewish philosophers had no fear of assimilating the ‘pagan’ thought of Aristotle and the ancients into their discourse. Reason nourished faith. Tolerance towards the other was matched by a tolerance of inner contradictions and doubts.

Ibn Arabi is often held up as the guide and poet of what is often referred to as jihād al-akhbar, ‘the greater jihad’ – in other words, the endeavour to master the self. In comparison to that immense struggle, in which we’re all engaged, beheading innocents in northern Iraq is, at best, a lesser jihad. It’s this message that those professors and intellectuals who gathered in Algiers to venerate the memory of Ibn Arabi wished to convey. ‘One left the hall astoundingly relieved and calmed,’ wrote the El Watan journalist who covered the conference, ‘with the gentle conviction that another discourse is possible.’

Ibn Arabi’s writings stress the importance of the night as the time best suited for the inner journey. Souad Massi admits that she’s attracted to the silence of nocturnal contemplation. This was especially true when she was a young teenager living in Algiers during the late 1980s and 1990s, a time when her homeland was being ripped apart by political turmoil and religious fanaticism. “I was always very solitary,” she told me. “For me the night was an important time. If you wanted to cry, no one could see you. Because I lived in a large family and you can’t do anything during the day, everybody can see you, but in the night I spent hours looking at the stars, sometimes until three in the morning. Especially in summer, I found it amazingly beautiful.”

Many years later, after she had moved to France and become a singer of global renown, Massi chanced across a documentary on TV about the Spanish city of Cordoba and its golden past during another nocturnal vigil, at around 4am in the morning. She was immediately “bewitched by the city”, to use her own words, and fascinated by its former intellectual grandeur, sophistication and spirit of tolerance. She started reading books about the place, wondering why she hadn’t ever paid much attention to its history and legacy, despite her early love of flamenco and Spanish culture. “I was ashamed,” she says. “I’ve been all around the world but I’ve never been there.”

She read about a sort of cultural assembly that existed in Andalusia during the early medieval period, frequented by wise men – ‘masters of the word’ – who were called El Mutakalllimûn. The word is the plural of mutakallim, which means a scholar of Ilm al-Kala – the Islamic science of discourse. The object of the mutakallim is to defend the word of God by means of reasoned argument and reconcile faith with non-Islamic traditions of deductive philosophical reasoning. As such it was and still remains highly controversial. Strict Sunni scholars, of Salafist or Wahabist tendency, consider the kalam to be a dangerous innovation and generally forbid their students to indulge in it. The word of God is uncreated by man and therefore human reason cannot and should not be applied to it, or so they say.

To Souad Massi however, her personal discovery of Cordoba and the tradition of kalam served as a gateway into Islam’s glorious intellectual past and the accumulated cultural wealth of the Arab world. She was infused with a missionary zeal to share what she discovered, and, by celebrating the beauty of Islamic philosophy, poetry and calligraphy, to find “another discourse”. “I think we’re lacking a lot of tolerance,” Souad says, “and I think that we must give the power and the opportunity to the learned people in Islam, the university professors. They’re the ones who will show us the way and who won’t lead us astray. Because when you’re ignorant, anyone can tell you anything they want, and you’ll follow him.”

She prepared to fight her own gentle ‘cultural’ battle with two types of ignorance. The first was the ignorance of non-Arabs who see the Arab world and Arabic culture as a monolithic threat to their well-being; a source either of angry youth who refuse to integrate into the culture of their adopted homes in Europe and prefer to spend their time rinsing violent rap lyrics and stealing cars, or angry bearded zealots whose only purpose in life is sow terror and murder innocents. The second is the ignorance of Arabs, especially the youth in her own adopted country of France, of their own history and cultural heritage.

“How come nobody ever talks about those wise men? Avicenna, Ibn Arabi, great men of learning, writers?” asks Massi, “Why do people always talk about little hoodlums who’ve stolen some nonsense?…We don’t have the right to marginalise and hide away this treasure, and emphasize all the stuff that’s happening right now. We can’t reduce Arabic culture to that.”

Massi tells me that she set to work creating El Mutakallimûn the album “like a police investigator.” She read widely, surfed the net, visited archives and libraries and posted requests for information on Facebook. She corresponded with professors of Arabic literature and translators. She came across the work of the calligraphers Mohamed Bourafai, and his son Ayman Bourafai. Despite her longstanding love of poetry by Leonard Cohen, Mahmoud Darwish and Victor Hugo, she had never considered herself a very ‘literary’ person. Grappling with early medieval Arabic wasn’t easy.

But, as she delved deeper, wonders kept emerging. She discovered the 9th century Iraqi poet Al Mutanabi – ‘The Would-be Prophet’. “There are miracles in his poems,” she says. “No one has scaled the same heights as him. It’s just not possible to come out with beauty like that.” She discovered the ‘hanging odes’ of the pre-Islamic poet Zouhaïr Ibn Abi Salma and the astonishing depth that the Arabic language is capable of in some of the words he used, words like sa’imtou: “It means more than ‘I’m tired’. When you say it, you include all the years you have lived. I remember that when I was a child, it was the only word that really left its mark on me. When I couldn’t go on, I always thought discreetly about sa’imtou.”

She discovered Majnūn Layla – ‘[The Man] Possessed by Layla’ – the Arab world’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, about a young man called Qays who falls in love with a girl called Layla but goes mad and dies of hunger because her father disapproves of him and he cannot have her: “I said to myself that it just wasn’t possible to die of love, just like that. It doesn’t exist. But, well, yes…it does.” She discovered The Song of the Whistling Nightingale (‘Sawtou Safiri el Boulbouli’) by the 9th century poet Asmaï, with its intricate verbal refinements and frankly untranslatable word play. “You think you’ve written, you’ve composed,” says Massi, “but you’ve done nothing at all. They were geniuses who left traces, marvels. We’re nothing in comparison to them.”

Perhaps most encouraging of all, she discovered that the poetic prowess of the ancients had survived into the modern era, reincarnated in poets like the Tunisian Abou el Kacem Chebbi who wrote the irresistibly stirring hymn ‘To the Tyrants of the World’ (‘Elā Toghat al-Alāam’) with its prophetic lines “You dare to defile the magic of existence / And scatter needles of misfortune at will / Beware! That the springtime doesn’t trick you / Nor the clarity of the sky, nor the light of day.” Although el Chebbi died in 1934 at the age of 25, his verses stoked the passion of the crowds that marched down Avenue Bourguiba and occupied Tahrir Square in the spring of 2011, alongside the rap of El General du Bled, the protest songs of Cheikh Imam and the poems of Ahmed Fouad Negm.

'Houria' ['Freedom'] by Mohammed and Aymen Bourafai

‘Houria’ [‘Freedom’] by Mohammed and Aymen Bourafai

To illustrate el Chebbi’s incendiary lines, Bourafai father and son created a calligraphy set against a chain and barbed wire fence. “What’s interesting about this man [Mohamed Bourafai] is that he has a very open spirit,” Souad says, “and dares to do contemporary things. I discovered a whole new world thanks to him.”

Souad Massi avows an admiration for poets and artists who take risks. “I have a lot of respect for people who can put themselves in danger of death to tell the truth,” she says. She cites the modern Iraqi poet Ahmad Matar as a luminous example. He was forced to flee his adopted city of Kuwait and settle in London in the 1980s. In 2011, he wrote about the power of poetry and words, a power even greater than the forces shaking the Arab world at the time: “Poetry is not an Arab regime that falls with the death of the ruler. And it’s not an alternative to action. It’s an art form whose job is agitating, exposing, and witnessing reality, aspiring beyond the present. Poetry lights the road, and guides our deeds.”

Massi set Ahmed Matar’s poem ‘El Houriya’ (‘Freedom’) to music and included it on El Mutakallimûn. It’s the tale of a teacher who writes the word ‘freedom’ up on the black board only to be met with the blank stares of his pupils. “It’s heartbreaking to see the youth / Who understand nothing about Freedom” says the teacher. The calligraphy by Mohamed Bourafai’s that accompanies the poem looks like the manuscript of a poem that has been saved from the flames, with the word ‘Freedom’ glowing bright at its heart.

There are young Muslim men and women all over the world who are caught in a vortex of identity-politics, weakened, disorientated and prone to apocalyptic rhetoric. In France, where Souad Massi now lives, the problem is acute. “The youth here have nothing. They’re made to feel like foreigners. All they have is football pitches, because the state has cut the funding for all kinds of activities in the housing estates. So either you become a football champion, or you’re nothing. If there was a place to meet and someone who could say ‘Look at your ancestors…like Ibn Firnas, the first guy to try and fly. He was from Muslim Andalusia. Or all those hospitals named after Avicenna. That is ‘Ibn Sinna’, a Muslim.’ That would already give them a little confidence, allow them to gravitate towards something.”

Talking To Souad Massi, it’s clear that she prefers to play the role of educator, sharing the beauty of Arabic culture, rather than risk career, family, life by taking the fight to the bigots and the haters. Her adopted home of France is one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the war of words and ideas that rages through Islam and the Arab world. As a public figure, she already stands exposed. She doesn’t want to become another Charb. Even though the passion with which she talks about the injustices perpetrated against Arabic culture and Islam, both from without and within, is palpable, her strategy is seduction rather than confrontation.

“All I’m trying to do is to make people aware [of all this beauty], by means of pop, of a beautiful poem,” she says. “Then perhaps that person will be attracted by that culture and will make his own way. That’s my aim. I have nothing to prove. I did for love, really, and I was very well supported by musicians. Then again…I’m sure there’ll be those who say that poems are sacred; but poems aren’t sacred. For Muslims, what’s sacred is the Qur’an, and I won’t tamper with that, that’s for sure.”


Andy Morgan.  (c) 2015

This article is an amalgamation of the sleeve notes for the album El Mutakallimûn and an article that was published in Songlines in July 2015

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