The Emir, contemporary model of the “Universal Man” (2/2)

The Emir, contemporary model of the “Universal Man” (2/2)

The rescue of more than eleven thousand Christians in Damascus in 1860 is of course another major example of the Emir's spiritual humanism.

Napoleon III who thanked him for this act, the Emir replied that he had only followed the tradition of the Prophet and the duties of humanity. The Emir indeed has absolute respect for all creatures who are, I quote, “ sacred things of God (1)”.

This ontological respect has its source in the Koranic doctrine of khilâfa, a spiritual caliphate which is expressed as a precellency with which God has endowed the human being over other creatures. But be careful, this superiority is necessarily accompanied by a responsibility, according to which human beings must constantly strive towards the model of the “universal Man”, under penalty of falling: we are always in the perspective of the Muhammadan archetype.

Likewise, the Emir's openness to other religions comes from his meditation on the Koranic theme of Din qayyim, of the immutable Religion or Adamic Religion, common core of all religions that have appeared in humanity. The Emir professes, as we know, the doctrine of his master Ibn 'Arabî, the wahdat al-wujûd : Being belongs to God alone, the One, from whom proceeds the multiplicity and diversity of created forms.

Creation is therefore only a “trace” (athar) of God on earth. The Emir even shows himself to be very daring in his conception of Uniqueness; it sometimes borders on wahda mutlaqa uttered by Ibn Sab'în, the absolute, sovereign Oneness, which makes all duality illusory and, ultimately, all created things – at least as long as it thinks itself independent of God. “He (God) is, while there is no world (lâ 'âlama)”: note the grammatical use of absolute negation (2)”.

“For the Sufis, existential beings have existence only in the sensitive faculties, and not in themselves, because Being is His (…). Existent beings are only His relationships, His points of view, His determinations and His manifestations. But all these are non-existent things ('adamiyya). (…) Real Being belongs only to Him, and the entire universe, higher and lower, has only an imaginary and metaphorical existence (3).”

No cultural or religious relativism in this approach, but a proven experience that the most diverse phenomena are interdependent, interactive because driven by a single Agent. The Oneness of Being (wahdat al-wujûd) has as a corollary the transcendent unity of religions (wahdat aladyan). All beliefs, even the most seemingly idolatrous, have a value, because ultimately they all aim at the one God: the Emir comments on this Akbarian doctrine in many Stops (4).

Through the fluidity of their consciousness, Sufis have often been smugglers between cultures and religions. “Sons of the moment”, they adapt the forms and modalities to the context to better bring to life the essence of the message. The Emir was thus an isthmus, as Bruno Etienne says, a passage between the most material realities (war, politics, the economy, etc.) and the most metaphysical realities. It was also an isthmus, horizontal this time, between the East and the West.

His project consisted broadly of instilling spirituality in the West (on this point, he knew that his forced stay in France had meaning for the future Islam of France) and of bringing technical progress to the East. It is in this sense that he was committed to the drilling of the Suez Canal, and visited the Universal Exhibitions in Paris in 1855 and 1867.

He was aware that the change in configuration of the divine Names, as he explains in the Mawaqif, determined for a time the material superiority of the West. But he also knew, as a good Akbarian, that theophanies (tajalliyât) are never repeated (5), that individual or collective situations are constantly evolving.

He also foresaw the contemporary civilizational issues with great acuteness (in the 1860s, he affirmed for example that the future of Turkey would be played out in Europe), as well as the imperative need, for current humanity, to rehabilitate the spiritual dimension of man and to connect it to other aspects of human life. If he lived in our time, he would certainly subscribe to the idea that one cannot have an authentic spiritual life without being acutely aware of contemporary challenges, linked to ecology, bioethics, North-South relations, etc. .

The humanism of the Emir, visionary in many respects, if we know how to make it bear fruit, is likely to offer an alternative to “globalization” (I use the American term on purpose), which sometimes conveys a nihilistic materialism , sometimes carries pseudo-religious slogans. This alternative can only be the globalization of the Spirit, anchored in a metaphysics of action, and freed from ideological constructions, whether secular or religious.

As a Muhammadan heir, heir of the “Universal Man”, the Emir had to embrace all the fields of Haqiqa, of plenary Reality, without amputating it of its multiple dimensions. The human experience of this great majdhûbof this great ecstatic (6), to be accomplished, had to also taste war, politics, economics, etc.

These are the laws of incarnation. Each level of consciousness and activity in the Emir therefore has a haqq, a right which corresponds to a degree of reality: he is at the same time the military hero, the fine political strategist, the man of letters, the theologian and the universalist mystic, etc. I remember that, for young contemporary Muslims, particularly those from immigrant backgrounds, and who often feel locked in a social, cultural and even religious vise, the Emir represents the sovereign freedom of the Spirit, which awakens and emancipate from the culture of resentment.

Finally, how could I deny the Algerian people – I who am a French national – the right to consider the Emir as a national, even nationalist, hero? We do the same with General de Gaulle. But it is precisely by adopting the spiritual universalism of the Emir that this people can heal the wounds of history, by going beyond the conflicting duality that causes suffering, and by anchoring themselves in Oneness.


(1) Book of Stops (Kitâb al-Mawaqif), translated by M. Lagarde, Leiden, 2000, volume 1, p. 208. In the same Stop, the Emir recalls (because we find this anecdote in previous Sufi texts) that Jesus wished hello to a pig which passed near him.

(2) Kitâb al-Mawaqif, Damascus, 1966, II, p. 519.

(3) Ibid., II, p. 526.

(4) See for example chapter IV, “Of God and the gods”, in Spiritual writings, presented and translated by M. Chodkiewicz, p. 109 et seq.

(5) See for example Stop No. 178.

(6) See on this point the introduction by Mr. Chodkiewicz, Spiritual writings, p. 24.