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Obituary: Abdelwahab Meddeb

Internationally renowned writer and scholar of Islamic studies Abdelwahab Meddeb died in Paris on November 6 after a months-long battle with lung cancer.

Meddeb was a truly singular thinker in terms of both the uncommon viewpoint he cultivated from a vast range of knowledge, and his determination to advance the discussion on the relations between Islam and the West. His prolific body of work, which has been translated into over 15 languages, includes over 30 novels, essays and poems. He was also the producer of the weekly talk show “Cultures d’Islam” on France Culture, where he had been a producer since 1997. Equally inspired by the developments of the Enlightenment and Muslim traditions, the poet and novelist turned to social and political commentary after 9/11. "If, as Voltaire states, intolerance was the disease of Catholicism, if Nazism was Germany's disease, Islam's disease is fundamentalism," Meddeb writes in the introduction to La Maladie de l’Islam (Seuil, 2002).

Born in Tunis in 1946, Meddeb was drawn to French literature from a young age. He studied at the University of Tunis, then at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 1967 on, he lived in Paris, where he published, in the 1970s, his first essays and poems. He taught comparative literature and Sufism in universities all over the world, including Paris-Descartes, Genève, Yale and Florence.

Sufism, a branch of Islam Meddeb found to be particularly open to a wide variety of world views, was the focus of his last writings: Portrait du poète en soufi is a collection of poems edited by his friend Michel Deguy at Belin, while Instants soufis is a collection of his radio talks on the Moroccan Francophone channel Médi1. As he wrote in his last article published in Le Monde during his hospitalization, Sufism for him embodied the “wonders of Islam that should be shared in these times of despair.” Addressing his fellow Tunisians days before he died, he said of the then-upcoming election: “We now face the choice between a society that is open, dynamic, and compatible with modern life, and a society that is closed off, regressive, and archaic.”

The Cultural Services of the French Embassy will pay tribute to Meddeb in February at the start of the second season of its Minds In Migration series. Benjamin Stora, who co-edited, with Meddeb, the encyclopedia A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day, will discuss his work with the late author (Princeton University Press, 2013, 1145 pages).