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Fatema Mernissi

Is the Satellite Reawakening Sindbad?
Adab or Allying with the Stranger as the Strategy to Win the Globalized Planet

4 postcards summarizing Fatema Mernissi's Erasmus Prize speech, 4 November 2004
Calligraphy by artist Ouida
postcard 1
Postcard N° 1
Adab is to add the brains of others to your own.
Jahiz: "Life on Earth and Beyond"
postcard 2
Postcard N° 2
Transform yourself into a stranger! Travel! It is the only way to renew yourself.
From a poem by Abu Tammam
postcard 3
Postcard N° 3
Every man is a hostage of his own deeds.
Koran, Sura at-Tur (The Mount), N° 52, Verse 21
Believers, honor your contracts.
Koran, Sura al-Maida (The Table), N° 5, Verse 1
postcard 4
Postcard N° 4
The principle of the universe is movement... If it stops moving, it will return to non-existence.
Ibn 'Arabi: "The Book Unveiling the Effects of Travels"
(The calligraphy is a property of Marsam Gallery Rabat - Editions Marsam, 15 avenue des Nations Unies, Rabat, Maroc)
© Fatema Mernisssi, October 2004

Postcard N° 1

Adab Power is Communication
To kill or to dialogue? The sword or the pen? This is the eternal question the rulers of empires, be the Chinese or Arabs yesterday or Americans today, have asked their strategy experts to answer. 2400 years ago, the Chinese warrior philosopher Sun Tzu answered the question in his famous book "The Art of War" and he cautioned those who wanted to rule empires against the use of military power: "To win without fighting is the best." In the 8th century, it was the turn of the Arabs to rule empires, and military advisors had to take stand on what was the winning strategy: to rely on force (the sayf or sword) or on communication (the qalam or pen)? After the collapse of the first Arab dynasty, the Omayyad, the second one, that of the Abbassid learnt the lesson. They chose the communication (qalam) and relied on strategists who advocated adab.

Adab means both, the norm of ethical behavior and the descipline of self-teaching it requires. Caliph al Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph, who created Baghdad in 750 A.D. (145 Hijra), launched a huge translation movement of key books from Persian and Sanskrit. The book of Sindbad was among the latter. Treating the stranger as an equal is the first step to communicating successfully with him. Equality was the issue the Prophet Mohamed insisted on during his last Mecca pilgrimage speech (hajjat al wada') in 632 A.D. (11 Hijra) : "O men, the Arab has no advantage over a non-Arab... Did I make myself clear?"

One of the scholars who advised the Abbassids to adapt adab as a strategy was Jahiz (776-868 A.D/160-255 Hijra), whose master-piece "The art of communication and demonstration" (kitab al bayan wa tabyin) suggested translating the books of foreign cultures to understand how they thought and to encourage travel and trade. It was thanks to their reliance on adab as a strategy that the Abbassid caliphs invested in expanding travel, trade and dialogue, managed to create and sustain the 'Empire of Islam' which stretched from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to Kashgar in China.

Postcard N° 2

Safar (travel) as Self-discovery
For Jahiz, the Adab strategy to empower oneself by adding the stranger's brain to one's own, implies that you avoid getting stuck in your hometown and force yourself to travel: "Staying too long at home is one of poverty's causes. Movement creates prosperity." (Book of Metropolises and Wonders of the World, Kitab al Amsar wa 'ajaib al buldan)

It is the key idea of Jahiz's Adab strategy, to travel far to communicate with the stranger and make yourself useful to him by exchanging goods, that was celebrated by poets of the Abbasid court like Abu Tammam (born in Syria, ninth century): "Travel! It is the only way to renew yourself," he chanted in Baghdad streets.

This idea of traveling as a quasi biological need to regenerate oneself was expanded in later centuries to its cosmic dimension by the Sufis (mystics of Islam) who identified movement (haraka) with life (hayat) and inertia (sukun) with death. The poet At-Tinnisi (born in Egypt, eleventh century) entranced his audience by reminding them what they gain from going to strange lands: "Travel! Trips provide you with five advantages: entertainment, earning one's living, self-discipline, knowledge and the opportunity to be in the company of splendid creatures." It is from the adventures of real Arab travelers, who described their trips to China and India, Africa and Europe once back to Baghdad, that the story-teller, who invented the "1001 Night Tales", got their inspiration when they crafted the figure of Sindbad.

Postcard N° 3

Adab is 'Iqd (contract): Individual Responsibility
Adab as a communication strategy, necessarily implies the individual's global responsibility, since constant travel dwarfs the importance of geography: "O man, there is no special link between you and the country you happen to be born in! The best of countries is the one which benefits you." (Jahiz: "The Book of Trade's Prospective Strategy") This dwarfing of geography erects therefore the individual as the only world-ordering agency: "Every man is a hostage of his own deeds" (Sura N° 522, Verse 21). The planet's security is not the job of the state alone, but that of each single individual: "Believers, honor your contracts." (N° 5, Verse 1) Therefore the contract ('iqd), the individual's capacity to engage his responsibility without the intervention of the state is the foundation of a mobility (haraka) engineered planetary order. To implement Adab as a planetary communication strategy, the Abbassid caliphs invested not so much in the military but shifted assets in the production of books equipping Moslems with the information they need to become responsible travelling traders.

Ibn Khurdadbih, one of the Baghdad Abbasid court's most powerful Persian officials, who was in charge of both the intelligence and the postal services, wrote the first official authoritative geography travel manual: "General Survey of Roads and Kingdoms" (al-masalik wa l-mamalik). These road's manuals, similar to our modern tourist guides, which would remain best-sellers even after the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, provided Moslem travelers with the basic geography, astronomy and cultural information they need to direct themselves correctly.

Postcard N° 4

Future Conflict: Geocentrics versus Cosmocivis
Now, the next conflict likely to split our planet will not be between a military camp, which encourages the state to rely on force, and a pacific one, which advises it o rely on information. As strange as it might sound, one of the most influential pacific camps today exists within the US Pentagon research universities and think-tanks, lead by 'cyber-war' advocates who get their inspiration from Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who advocates that "to win without fighting is the best".

An internet Google search reveals that among the 227.000 digital references to Sun Tzu, the Pentagon warfare researchers and their students occupy a preeminent position. But the problem with Chinese Sun Tzu is that his peace strategy is geocentric, based on the defense of a territory perceived as the primary source of wealth and the stranger as a negative intruder. Sun Tzu's strategy seems to have rooted itself in the earliest pre-Ptolemaic theories which assumed that the earth was the center of the universe with the sun and the stars turning around it. The danger of geocentric peace strategies inspired by Sun Tzu is that his advice not to kill the enemy is cost-motivated. To knock the enemy's brain off costs too much: "Who wishes to fight, must first count the cost... Therefore the one, who is good at martial arts, overcomes others' forces without battle, conquers others' cities without siege, destroys others' nations without taking a long time."

The pacifists like myself, who get their inspiration from the Jahiz' Adab strategy, share his Einstein-like vision of a universal gravitation where "a gravitational force is experienced by all matter in the universe, from the largest galaxies down to the smallest particles". In the Arab adab theory, expanded by the Sufis, Islamic mystics who were often astronomers and mathematicians, geography had no importance since the fate of the human being is to tune to the universal movement and be in constant motion. For Ibn 'Arabi, "we never stop traveling from the day we are born". So, investing only in police and dogs to guard territorial frontiers instead of joining the planet's states and citizens' forces to invent a planetary global responsability, is not only a waste of our tax-money, but a total surrender to the terrorists, who want to drive us into a paranoid self-inflicted isolation and paralysis.