Islamic-Jacobinism: The Making of the Muslim Intellectual

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.

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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 statehood1.

This authorial gesture represents what I call ‘critical cross-dressing practices’, in which invention and assumption of voice/character creates proxy sites for the circulation of political ideas by evading legitimized forms of personhood: not to recreate personas, or emulate existing forms, but to destabilize the ‘person’ as a category altogether. A critical and fluid zone emerged with Persian Letters that sought to resist Western civilization’s monopoly of literature and history. This was made possible, I argue, through representations of Muslims as an ‘alien’, ‘extraterrestrial’ or ‘deterritorialized’ voice, who speak about a wide-reaching universal humanism. I am interested in how this space suggested ‘intellectually queer’ positions, at least at that time, that represented the thinking Muslim body, the nascent form of the Muslim intellectual, a figure who assumes great cultural power today, as an agent of global political discourse.

Montesquieu’s proposition for nationalist-republican regimes vis-a-vis the guise of Islam became a lived political apparatus, a militarized one at that, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Mediterranean Campaign. In 1798, Bonaparte arrived in Egypt not as a crusader but as a lax, non-predatory Muslim collaborator. His army’s arrival in Cairo was announced through a public performance in which Bonaparte robed himself in a sheikh’s cloak, declared his conversion to the Islamic faith, and changed his name to Ali — albeit, without renouncing wine or foreskin. Bonaparte’s transformative experience, or cross-dressing, symbolized the governmental and ideological diplomacy he desired to create in Egypt (not too dissimilar from a tactic of contemporary political leaders visiting other nations and adorning themselves in indigenous costumes).

Bonaparte’s intention in Egypt was to create the world’s first modern Islamic Republic. It aspired to connect several Muslim geographies: Ottoman Syria, Mamluk Egypt, and Tipu Sultan’s Kingdom of Mysore. Together, they would become a biopolitically modernized Islamic enterprise, regulated through reformed interpretations of the Qur’an and Shari’a Law. This imagined Republic would aid revolutionary France in spreading the values of egalitarian scientific society as well as the software of post-monarchical governance: national republic assemblies, electoral bodies, and citizen-centric ideologies — which Bonaparte perceived to be cosmopolitan and hemispherically fluid concepts.

Bonaparte’s revue, moreover, which shows him crossing through geography as well as religion, is representative of what I call ‘queer body practice’: an anthropology that is cultivated and performed almost exclusively by Westerners. In these works, that span ethnography, international diplomacy, cinema, theatre, novels, music, dress, rave culture, and so much more, their respective authors undress, in many senses of the word. During this process, they investigate the tensions and explore the anxieties of what they consider to be their ‘rooted’, ‘coded’, or ‘landed’ body; in other words, they contemplate the biopower that organizes their bodies’ gendering and sexualizing.

Culture is made, then, by performing, or declaring, an agitation on that fixed body situation: a denuding. Usually, this rupture is mediated by a Muslim encounter, other times, ‘India’ or ‘Africa’. The migrant labor/refugee crisis discourse in the arenas of Western democracy is a current example of this culture. In the modern western canon too, one can find profound and startling explorations of this dynamic, such as in the contrast between the whiteness of Desdemona and the tawniness of the Moor in Shakespeare’s Othello, to Jane Bowles’ erotic writing, most of it informed by her intimate relationship with a Moroccan woman, Cherifa: “perhaps I shall be perpetually on the edge of this civilization of theirs,” Jane wrote to Paul Bowles, her husband, from Tangiers in 1948, to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, whose protagonist undergoes a sex change while in Constantinople, the climactic moment of the novel. More contemporary is black entertainment celebrities politicizing and perverting their relationship with hegemonic white America by converting to Islam, such as Yassin Bey, Muhammad Ali, Ice Cube, and Dave Chapelle.

Today, the historiography of Bonaparte’s Egypt is imagined as part of the phantasma of the absolute colonialist: a white European male exploring and consuming the East to satiate his greed (and phallus) for the purpose of imperial gains. But more than just that, Bonaparte was also on his own quest for ‘queer self discovery’. He envisioned the Muslim body as an in situ technology that emboldens the dubiousness surrounding the lifestyles of Christian-European monarchies; a relation that is similar to the erotic strategy employed by Montesquieu in the authoring of Persian Letters. His overseas collaborations, meanwhile, contribute to a republican, ‘enlightened’ Muslim design, which would introduce forms of global and urban civility. In this way, the sentiment expressed by Bonaparte toward the male Muslim body is not only masculine and phallocentric, a behaviour that seeks to compete, repress, and undermine other males, but homosocial, that is, the development of affinity and friendship with men.

The practices of Montesquieu and Bonaparte, however, are the cosmetic phase of what I address as Islamic-Jacobinism — or the whitewashed adolescence — because their labor invoked Islamic republicanism to critique the idolatrous Christian orthodoxy. Therefore, their approach to deism and unitarianism, and provisions for the local-to-global outlook of France and Europe, was created through a convenient, excursionist engagement with Islam.

When liberty and self-determination, slogans of the French Revolution, were demanded on behalf of individuals for whom it “meant far more to them than any Frenchman”2, the Islamic-Jacobin relation then emerges as a radical political phenomenon. These individuals lived under colonial rule and created the discourses — sometimes organized the insurrections too — against the exploitative logistics of European imperialism. Some examples include Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful anti-slavery, anti-colonial revolution in Saint-Domingue, Messali Hadj’s lobby, Étoile Nord-Africaine, for Algerian independence, and Jamal ad Din Al Afghani’s Pan-Islamic, Pan-Asian solidarity against an increasingly hostile and militaristic West.

It’s about speaking out against oppression wherever you can. If that’s gonna be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being persecuted; or if it’s gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia — you know, if people’s basic human rights are being abused and violated, then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we’re charged to be the leaders of humanity.3 — Mos Def

Arguably the most popular Muslim intellectual, Al Afghani, holds a legacy that dislocates the ivied relationship between religio-intellectual Islam and European enlightenment. Along with other Muslim intellectuals, such as those in British India, like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, and Chiragh Ali, and the fomenting Young Turks party in the early 20th century, as well as the Persian Mirza Malkam Khan, they collectively reformed Islam into a modern interpretation and a constitutional form of governance. Through their intellectual efforts, they encouraged Islamic practices to become more than a spiritual relationship of oneness with God, ie, steered it away from being a de facto authoritative theocracy, and proposed it as an oppositional political condition to the linear narrative of Western civilization; a condition that endures today and identifiable in a variety of forms, such as urban ‘terrorist’, elite activist/academic/artist, halal capitalist.

Al Afghani’s career occupied, with greater vibrancy and efficacy, the contemplative position of Usbek and Rica, the protagonists of Persian Letters, when he published  ‘Al ‘irwa Al Wuthqah’ (The Indissoluble Link), a euphoric pan-Islamic newspaper, in Paris in the late 19th century4. Founded with Muhammad Abdu, another Islamic modernist, the pamphlet was characterized by a clever, biting, and satirical rhetoric on colonial activities, such as taxation, slavery, exploitation, conquer and divide schemes, experienced in colonized Islamic territories. It was eventually banned in all British colonies, namely India and Egypt, because of its potential to spur local insurrections. An example is the 1891 protests in Persia against the granting of monopoly to the United Kingdom’s Imperial Tobacco Company, claimed to have been inspired by Al Afghani’s publishing activities, which eventually led to the 1905 Constitutional Revolution of Iran.

Most interesting, though, especially for the premise of ‘critical cross-dressing practices’, is the mysterious and anonymous origins of Al Afghani. Up to now, popular scholarship has experienced difficulty in determining Al Afghani’s ethnic roots and biography: no one is certain where he comes from or the nature of his upbringing. Throughout his career, moreover, he performed as Sunni or Shia Muslim (this depended on his political context), spoke in multiple languages (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Dari), and lived in over ten different cities (such as Tehran, Istanbul, Hyderabad, Kolkata, London, Paris, Kabul), mostly in exile.

The Spartan perspective on Al Afghani’s life alongside the impressional voices harvested by Montesquieu and the Oriental, homoerotic mannerisms performed by Bonaparte, create the oscillations for what I argue as the politics of Islamic-Jacobinism. That is, knowledge emerges through the instrumentalization of the body as drag and disguise, as invention in voice and character, as device for storytelling. In these practices of hyper-corpo-real modification, philosophical concepts emerge that resist ‘deep structure’ ontology and develop ‘offshore spaces’; spaces for social critique and, most important, effacement.

I formulate this position also from CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. In the book, the constellation of slave/savage and Jacobin/savage, white/Jacobin and black/Jacobin is not constituted to claim that political positions are privileges gained over and against each other, but that whatever social capital those words might have, they represent a deliberate convergence to evade structural oppressions: Black Jacobin, or Muslim Intellectual for that matter, was a vocabulary of what was emerging.

Why am I as I am? — Malcolm X

I find Malcolm X to be a flamboyant representation of the Islamic-Jacobin practice. First, by replacing his last name from Little to X, it signified his rejection of slave naming patterns. After his pilgrimage to Mecca, he underwent a spiritual and existential development, and, to signify it, he changed his name again, this time to Hajj el-Malik Al Shabbazh. Second, the poetics of X in his practice of politics was self-costuming: adornment of browline eyeglasses, the goatee after his pilgrimage to Mecca, and ‘cool’ urban dressing: street-conscious fashion to advocate for the solidarity of black America’s urban and agrarian dwellers.

To evade imposed and inherited categories, X spoke to the public about transforming into another incarnation of himself, by attempting to queer the relationship between appearance/cloth and its intended, receiving body: “in order to get something you had to look as though you already had something”5. Third, X, is the confluence and creolization of the varying aspects of Islamic-Jacobinism: black, white, oppressed, emancipated, intellectual, Muslim. By placing the ‘whole’ of himself in his political pursuit, he creates ‘infinite selves’ — cross-dressing kinetics, if you will — who are able to familiarize themselves to a variety of spatial and temporal contexts, with and without his body.

Most evident in the political practice of X is autobiographical performativity and character invention. His work reveals the submerged dimensions of lived experience, as space, as time, as body, and expresses how they can be used for political activation. X’s intellectual technique did not approach the philosophy of the ‘holistic self’, which is a practice that aims to fulfill a personal posthumous narrative, but he contorts the ‘self’ into a multiplicitous condition. This technique demands an operation on body, soul, thought, and conduct — the ongoing nurturing of one’s soliloquy — to attain a kind of immortality — the underlying purpose for participating in politics, really — which is not cultivated through mastery of skill or in possession of material, but in the acquisition and creation of attitude. Islamic-Jacobinism, then, is not a profession or occupation, but an opalescence: in a trance of politics, affinities, bodies, and frontiers; politics with spiritual, almost psychedelic, feelings.

This mode opposes ‘queer body practice’, which I believe emerges from the fixation and certainty with a body — its code, category, race; essentially, its status quo — whose critical purpose is to subvert and/or negotiate with the presumed standard: along but inside the spectrum of two fixed poles and entities. (Greyness or Third-ness exists because One and Two make it possible to exist.) In this cartography of Islamic-Jacobinism, however, I am addressing the uncertain body, the evading body, the asexual body: the body that does not costume in relativistic terms to the status quo, but the crossdressing body; the body that does not perceive a holistic whole made of mind and heart in need of representation and validation, but the body as a bypass, an instrument, a tool; the circumventing body so that it is never able to secure a status; the body that is detached from face and vanity; the aloof body that is uncategorical, non-visual or verbal.

Epilogue: The Ambiguous Intellectual Turn

Sometimes described as stylistically similar to X, Michel Foucault stumbles upon Islamic-Jacobinism too towards the end of his career. Having traveled to Iran twice in 1978 to write about the resistance against the Pahlavi regime, what he dubbed as the greatest revolutionary force against Western hegemony, marked Foucault’s shift to “political spirituality”.

It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight that bears down on each one of us, but more specifically on them, these oil workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern, and the most insane6 — Michel Foucault

In light of his mono-European situation, and his exhaustive introspection of the making of the Western body, Foucault desired — perhaps was even regimented to desire — his own eastern encounter: the sensationally active and revolutionary streets of Tehran. In his reportage, Foucault represents the Iranian resistance, prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, as a time for reconciliation and the threshold of a new political horizon: a non-Western revolutionary and intellectual spirit. Revolutionary Iran, for Foucault, was as a moment that existed outside regulation and an emancipation from Western domination; a West he had thoroughly scienticized for its fetish for systems of social categorization and identification.

This dream, however, was disappointed, not because the prevailing Islamic government of Khomeini had no visible relation to Foucault’s aspirations, but for the criticism he faced for admiring the Iranian revolution, which, for a Western audience, especially academics, strongly contradicted European liberal democracy: the departure from colonial ethnographic thought and the flight towards postcolonial cosmopolitanism. The critique questioned Foucault’s admiration for the political events unfolding in Iran and portrayed it as exotic tourism. This kind of commentary, of calling people out on their biases, privileges, and subjectification, reveals a contemporary shift in the intellectual project, which I believe has worked to transform Islamic-Jacobinism, an edge and cross-dressing politic, to something that is preservationist: as only, or ‘wholly’, Islamic, ie, singular, absolute, and categorical.

In response to the post-colonial, Subaltern, and Oriental literature, from figures such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, the contemporary intellectual community, at least in the arts and humanities, has been created by impregnating itself with reflections on its own infrastructures that maintain, and facilitate, biopower. Since an overwhelming number of knowledge practitioners are from the pantheon of Enlightened civilization, ‘queer body practice’ has been dismissed as nothing more than an erotic bias. To mitigate its effects, the East returns to the East, and, identity politics, inclusivity, and self-representation, for minority and repressed groups, especially their misrepresented histories, becomes intellectualism and celebrated politics. Under this logic, the merit of knowledge is assessed by verifying who it comes from.

The academy, almost weirdly, or actually not at all, re-codifies the trajectory of ‘queer body practice’ and contemplates its ‘coded’, ‘rooted’, ‘landed’ forms of knowledge production. It proposes decolonization practices, corrective history mostly, as a new method for denuding Western/White prejudice. Therefore, the ‘indigenous’ Muslim — the one who is bombed, the one who is stopped at the airport, the one who is enemized by western news and entertainment media — is the valid and genuine voice for the Muslim intellectual, which belies the findings of this essay: the Muslim is not a necessary constituency for the Muslim intellectual. It operates as an accessory and wardrobe for the circulation of political ideas; today, this role is mostly occupied by ‘dogmatic’ Islamic movements, terrorism in other eyes, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.

This has also caused a proliferation of Muslim thinkers using their ‘lived self’ — a Muslim perspective on being, feeling, speaking, seeing, dressing, traveling, and admiring — as their own horizon. What I find problematic about this stance is that it values knowledge for ‘field authenticity’ and thereby disables and distances thinkers from the political practice of the uncertain, which I believe is the creative center of Islamic-Jacobinism; and ‘being’ in general, however loaded the term. The accepted radical political proposal of today is voice verification, which works to reveal, and repeat, the anxious narrative about the location and source of ‘our/your/my/their’ origin: a discussion that has long been plaguing Abrahamic and Darwinian sciences. Instead, the transhistorical cartography of Islamic-Jacobinism I have proposed, asks that in approaching the exceedingly inhomogeneous, erotic, adoptive, and disruptive bodily and sexual practice, does one glean who and what political practice feel like, not look like.

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Ahmad Makia is a geographer from Dubai. He writes about wet matters, Gulf landscapes, and sex. He makes books with friends and employers. 

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  1. Subversive disguise was an emerging practice in 18th century modern France, especially carnivalesque transvestism, usually for the purpose of status reversal and blurring of social boundaries, as well as in international relations: Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Éon de Beaumont posed as a woman for almost twenty fours years to Empress Elizabeth of Russia to gain her confidence. []
  2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins. (New York, 2nd Edition: Vintage Books, 1962), p 198. []
  3. Hisham Aidi, “Hip-Hop for the Gods,” Africana.com, April 31, 2001. []
  4. Published in Paris because Al Afghani was exiled from Cairo, Constantinople, Tehran, and Kabul for preaching his radical political ideas. []
  5. Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora. (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2016), p 145. []
  6. Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), p 222. []

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