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.



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. Continue reading “Islamic-Jacobinism: The Making of the Muslim Intellectual”

  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. []

Postcards from the Archives: Goodbye 2017

2017 started grim, and stayed so. Here, at CM, we started with a few pieces on the new wave of xenophobia, with guest essays  on the Spencer phenomenon  and on fake news. Sepoy responded to the ‘Muslim ban’ and reminded us that “[t]he law is not an ally,” that “the Executive power that Trump is wielding to destroy families here and abroad, has a long and checkered history that stretches back to the very foundation of this nation.” Meanwhile Sepoy also published an op-ed in NYT (ha) on FATA, and in Dawn on the colonial myths of Muslim Arrival in Sindh. He also posted his talk on Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s Memory, Power, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600Your humble servant’s favorite for the year is the post on Eqbal Ahmad.

The XQs series continued with conversations with Sarah Besky, and  Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande, and Julie Billaud. We also published an exclusive prologue to the Chinese language edition of Sarah Besky’s Darjeeling Distinction. There was also this interview with Deepak Singh.

We hosted our second book roundtable, this year on Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report with an introduction by Durba Mitra and essays by Schirin Amir-MoazamiSarah Eltantawi, and Humeira Iqtidar.

From the Michigan tandoor, here are the reports on the teach-ins on Disappeared activists in Pakistan, on the racist violence against Desis in the U.S., and on the Indigenous Peoples’ Day rally.

CM friends Francesca Recchia and Sarover Zaidi contributed as well: here, here.

Lapata was, well, lapata.

Welp, thus ended 2017 and this, the 8th postcard. Let’s see what 2018 has to offer!

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I

[To mark the Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, student and community activists organized a march. The march was followed up by a teach-in to connect Michigan’s Indigenous history with said march. Following is a report on the march. Next up will be a report on the teach-in.]

Art by Shebani Rao:


This has been a particularly tense Fall at the  University of Michigan (UM). From racist incidents, graffitis, and flyers, to the agitation against recent visit of Charles-bell-curve-Murray and the organizing and protests afoot right now for the likely visit by Richard Spencer–the campus is abuzz with discontent and activism. UM honors its greats with buildings named after them: James Angell, the architect of the anti-Chinese immigration Angell Treaty of 1880; the president of American Eugenics Society, C.C. Little; the anticommunist Harlan Hatcher, while ignoring that this campus, and the city, has had a long history of activism and resistance and a tradition of creative protest that’s alive and well


The Indigenous Peoples’ Day–the University, unlike the City of Ann Arbor, still recognizes it as Columbus Day– went unmarked last year at UM. But, this year, a coalition of students and community activist groups and individuals organized a rally, supported widely by others who helped with the crowd-sourced printing of flyers and the zine (drafted to pass around at the march), flyering, and blocking traffic on the day of the march.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Day: March of Indignation was designed as a historic “marching” tour, to sound-out an Indigenous Peoples’ history of UM, to remember and remind, to re-signify the landscape and familiar landmarks of the campus. UM is built on land gifted by the Odawa, Potawatomi and Ojibway people for the education of Indians. A plaque at a central location on campus commemorates the “Land Gift“. However, Proposal 2 limits affirmative action, in effect prohibiting the provision of equal educational opportunities to students of color. And yet, as the zine (see below) says, “this state law does not supersede the nation-to-nation promise made in the Treaty of Fort Meigs.”

Continue reading “Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I”

Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

I gave these comments at an AAAW event at Museo El Barrio some years back


I miss that which refused to become a commodity. I want that which cannot be assimilated in the histories of “Left” or “Dissent”. I seek that which dissented from participation in our purchasing power. Eqbal Ahmad is one such figure, I think – an essayist and speaker who left no one book for us to buy and put on our shelves; a thinker and activist who made no distinction between theory and praxis; a specialist only of resistance not of geography; a comrade for all, whether religious, academic, white or brown. His is not a history we can excavate from obscurity, because he was on the pages of New York Review of Books, New York Times, Left Review.

I encountered Eqbal Ahmad as a young man in Lahore, reading his sometimes weekly columns in the Dawn. I did not know him more than his sub-head, but I liked his columns. They always informed me of structural issues, drew my attention to histories elsewhere and had a clear moral eye towards critique of power. When, in the mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a small, white, liberal arts University in southern Ohio, I was assigned Edward Said’s Orientalism in a number of classes. I liked the book, but as a regular reader of British Orientalists in Pakistan, the book was not the revelation that it was for some of my class-mates. But I kept reading Said, and it was when I opened Culture and Imperialism and saw the dedication For Eqbal that I realized I needed to go back to reading the columnist. I followed Ahmad after that; reading his essays, or making vague plans of visiting him at Hampshire College where he taught. But I never managed it, before his death in 1999.


Ahmad was a prolific writer– and his Collected Works are proof. To illustrate, I will just cite one footnote from Edward Said’s 1989 essay “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocuters” in Critical Inquiry to give you a rough idea of Eqbal’s production. In Said’s essay, the first and third footnote is Fanon and the fourth is Ahmad, glossing this sentence:

“To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achivevments in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level bit who remained victims of their past on another.”

The footnote reads (in its entirety): “See Eqbal Ahmad, “From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World, ” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Summer 1980); Ahmad “Post-Colonial Systems of Power,” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Fall 1980); Ahmad, “The Neo-Fascist State: Notes on the Pathology of Power in the Third World”, Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 1981).”[^Footnote Said]

I think that is a pretty amazing sentence to get glossed by the thought of one intellectual’s work over two years.  Continue reading “Who was Eqbal Ahmad?”