By Ahmad Makia
This essay is about the Islamic-Jacobin political condition. It looks at the traditions of Muslim intellectuals and the oppositional discourses that resist Western civilization’s prophetic claim over history, identity, literature, language, and politics. The term Jacobinism is used emphatically, to echo the work of CLR James, the French Revolutionary Wars, European Enlightenment and Islam, as well as cross-continental negotiations of nationhood, and ideologies of self-determination, equality, and liberty. It proposes a ‘cross-dressing’ methodology for intellectual exchange and political practice.
In Europe a malcontent thinks of carrying on a secret correspondence, of going over to the enemy, of seizing some town, or of exciting foolish complaints among the people. A malcontent in Asia goes straight to the prince, amazes, strikes, overthrows: he obliterates all memory of his existence: in one moment slave and master, usurper and lawful sovereign — Usbek to the Same, Letter 104, Persian Letters
Persian Letters narrates an artificial epistolary exchange of two Persian Muslim travelers, Usbek and Rica, who embark on a cultural journey to France. Their letters recast observations, critiques, and contemplations on French society to friends and mullahs in their native hometown, Isfahan. The book is a literary work that was published anonymously in 1712, and was written by French intellectual and political philosopher Montesquieu.
When released, the work was widely successful, and praised as a satirical and critical portrait of Bourbon nobility and Christian society. Today, Persian Letters endures as an example of the Enlightenment’s contribution to global humanitarian values, and is also considered one of the philosophical works that inspired and paved way for the French Revolution of 1789–99 (somehow foretold in the quote above).
What I find curious about Persian Letters is the plural authorial position that Montesquieu assumed. I contend that the invented Muslim Persian voice provided the French public with an opportunity to escape conceptions of itself as a self-enclosed civilization belonging to a mono-European continental enterprise. By displacing the landlocked national voice, Montesquieu created an unprecedented political provocation around the authorities that buttressed French monarchical society. His impersonation of an ‘outside’ voice, and sympathetic literary representation of male Muslim bodies, suggested at the deficiency of Christian modernity, which led the French public to imagine, confess, and perform, something genuinely new about itself: a self-determined statehood. Continue reading “Islamic-Jacobinism: The Making of the Muslim Intellectual”