Islam: The Elephant in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth
Author: Fouzi Slisli
St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, USA
Critical Middle Eastern Studies Volume 17, Issue 1 March 2008
The motto 'look out for yourself,' the atheist's method of
salvation, is in this context forbidden.1
There is an elephant in The Wretched of the Earth. It is Islam and
its anti-colonial tradition in Algeria. Fanon continuously cites and
exalts this tradition. It even can be argued that Fanon's famous
death sentence on colonial systems was properly minted only out of
his contact with this anti-colonial tradition. But if Fanon cites
this tradition everywhere, he does not reference it anywhere. He
explains the acts of resistance and applauds the culture of Algerian
peasants, but he does not name them for what they were - the
tradition of Islamic resistance to colonialism. Rather, he
attributes the successful resistance to the famous combination of
spontaneity and organization. Marxist revolutionary theory is
credited for providing the organization, and impulsive, anti-
colonial reactions of the Algerian peasantry are said to be the
source of spontaneity. This combination has become the hallmark of
Fanon's theory of revolution and is said to be capable of breaking
the back of colonial systems. In this article, however, I argue that
the peasant spontaneity on which Fanon builds his revolutionary
theory was not that spontaneous after all. A careful reading of the
famous chapter 'Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness' will show
that all the examples he gives of peasant spontaneity belong to a
distinctly Islamic anti-colonial tradition that, by the time Fanon
was writing, had been in existence for over a century. It is only by
remaining silent about the Islamic source of this tradition that
Fanon manages to present it as a spontaneous and visceral peasant
outburst. In an Algerian context, the categories of spontaneity and
organization can emerge only if all references to Islam are erased.
Rather than spontaneity and organization, what The Wretched of the
Earth actually describes is the combination of two systems of
organization - one Marxist, the other Islamic.
What Made Algerian Peasants Revolutionary?
Marxist studies of the Algerian revolution have found it difficult
to explain how the peasant class became the central component of the
revolution. By neglecting the proletariat and mobilizing the
peasants instead, the Algerian revolution made a departure from
Marxist orthodoxy and revolutionary theory. Karl Marx himself gave
little revolutionary significance to the peasantry as a class. In
fact, he believed peasants to be conservative and lacking in
revolutionary consciousness. Many anthropologists and other social
scientists often have described the peasantry as an obstacle to
social change and revolution. Scientific socialism, too,
characterized the peasantry as a conservative class. According to
Marie Perinbam, for example, the peasants' attachment to the land
and to village culture prevent them from accepting social change,
let alone revolution.2 'The peasant himself,' said the famous
Vietnamese critic Nguyen Nghe, 'never can have a revolutionary
consciousness. It is the militant coming from the cities who will
have to search out patiently the most talented elements in the poor
peasantry, educate them, organize them, and it is only after a long
period of political work that one can mobilize the peasantry'; and
Fanon, according to Nghe, failed to realize that the peasants were
not inherently revolutionary.3
What made a revolutionary like Fanon glorify a class that
traditional revolutionary theory tended to scorn and saw as
retrograde, tribal and emotional? Critics who defend Fanon note that
the working class constituted a very small minority in French
Algeria, or as Fanon himself put it: 'a tiny portion of the
population, which hardly represents more than 1 per cent [of the
population]' (p. 108). They also note that the proletariat is
usually the most favored class in colonial countries. Unlike the
rest of the natives, the proletariat are integrated into the
colonial economy. Fanon, also, assigns an important role to
the 'deviant nationalists,' the young Algerians who seceded from the
old nationalist party of Messali Hadj and founded the Front de
Libération Nationale (FLN).4 These renegades sought refuge in the
countryside where they found the popular support to launch and
sustain the war of liberation. It was these renegades, according to
critics who defend Fanon, who were in charge of planning the
revolution, educating the peasantry, and channeling their energies.5
The leaders of the FLN, in that sense, had no choice but to work
with the peasantry. Algerian intelligentsia and their parties were
interested only in pursuing assimilation, not independence. The
Communist Party itself believed the future of Algeria to be better
as a province of a socialist France. These facts show that the
peasants were the most receptive Algerians to the idea of resisting
and ejecting colonialism. It is a fact, as Perinbam notes, that most
of the opposition to the French, between 1830 and 1879, came from
rural areas. What was it, though, that made these peasants more
receptive to the call of revolution than the elite and their
Like Fanon, Perinbam finds that peasants in colonial countries have
revolutionary qualities. '[U]nlike their Western counterparts,' she
says, 'Third World peasant masses would always answer the call to
revolution.'6 Her evidence, though, is not substantial. Algerian
peasants never turned away fighters who were seeking refuge.
Peasants' generosity and altruism obliged them to accept the hunted
man and protect him without asking questions. Citing Fanon, she says
that the peasant 'never ceased to clutch at a life-style which was
in practice anti-colonial'; that the 'authentic peasant' is an anti-
colonial peasant. She speaks of a warrior and a resistance tradition
that remained alive as late as the 1940s and 1950s.7 Perinbam speaks
of 'something which the peasant dimly felt' and which 'compelled him
to participate in community action.' She mentions 'certain types of
group dynamics,' 'conditioning,' and 'instincts' that made Algerian
peasants react automatically like a pack of wolves against the
colonizer.8 She does not inquire about the nature of this 'dynamic'
or this 'conditioning' which turned the Algerian peasantry into the
backbone of the fiercest anti-colonial war of the modern era.
Neither does she seek to know the nature and characteristics of the
warrior and resistance tradition that was active in rural Algeria
throughout the nineteenth century and remained alive until the 1940s
It is certainly true that Fanon was not a twentieth-century romantic
returning to the 'agrarian womb.' He was definitely not a Coleridge
or a Wordsworth awestruck with rural lifestyles and noble Bedouins.
Algerian peasantry and agrarian life, too, should not be confused
with its European counterpart. In spite of these stark differences,
Fanon's supporters have been incapable of explaining what made the
Algerian peasantry revolutionary. Interestingly, both critics and
supporters of Fanon point in the same direction. Toward the very end
of her essay, Perinbam mentions in passing the concept of jihad as a
concept that 'Muslim peasants would have grasped immediately.
Perhaps it is no coincidence,' she says, 'that during the 1954-62
war, combatants were known as mujahidin, or those who fight holy
war.'9 Similarly, when the Director of the Institute of
International Workers Movement at the USSR Academy of Science, T.
Timefeev, spoke disparagingly of Fanon and Algeria, he attributed
their deviance from Marxist orthodoxy to the strong influence of
Colonialism, Islam, and the Algerians
The opposition to the French that was active in the Algerian
countryside throughout the nineteenth century and to which Perinbam
refers, the warrior/resistance tradition that she says was alive as
late as the 1940s and 1950s was entirely Islamic in ideology, in
culture, in organization, and even in name. In eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century North Africa, it was the Sufi brotherhoods that
championed resistance to colonization. The Darqawiyya Muslim
brotherhood, for example, mounted a stiff rebellion against Ottoman
rule from 1783 to 1805, and again from 1805 to 1809. It was finally
defeated through a massive Ottoman retaliation and its member tribes
retreated to the Medea region south of Algiers. Between 1822 and
1827, the Tijaniyya brotherhood resisted the payment of taxes to the
Ottomans and fought them militarily in Western Algeria. They were
defeated eventually, and the Ottomans displayed the decapitated head
of their leader, Muhammad al-Kabir, in public as a warning to other
tribes and brotherhoods.11
It also took no more than two years after the French invasion for
the Algerians to develop one of their most formidable anti-colonial
revolts. Led by Emir Abd al-Qadir, this rebellion also had a
distinctly Islamic banner. From 1832 to 1848, Abd al-Qadir managed
to confine the French to three coastal enclaves. In the interior of
Algeria, he built an Islamic state based on the sharia that his
followers widely respected. The mobilizing ideology was the jihad to
free the land from the invaders. Abd al-Qadir was chosen because he
had earned the respect of his co-religionists as a result of the
sincerity of his Islamic convictions and his impeccable moral
credentials. He was learned in Islamic law and earned the support of
the 'ulamas (Islamic scholars). He organized a network of zawiyas (a
school-mosque institution) through the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood
and created a complex administration and a more egalitarian society
than had existed under the French or the Ottomans. 'I hope,' he
famously said upon his inauguration on 27 November 1832, 'to prevent
strife among Muslims, to ensure safety on the roads, to protect the
country from invaders, and to establish law and justice for both the
powerful and the weak.' The inauguration ceremony was a literal
reenactment of the one in which the Prophet Mohammad was given
allegiance by his companions in ad 627.12
Many similar anti-colonial rebellions were mobilized in the
nineteenth century throughout north, east and west Africa, and they
all were led by Sufi brotherhoods or Sufi sheikhs. Hadj el-Moqrani,
Cheikh el-Haddad and Cheikh Bouamama were the most notable in
Algeria after Abd al-Qadir. Elsewhere, Abd Allah Hasan fought the
British and the Italians in Somalia; Al Hadj Umar Tall led the jihad
in Guinea, Senegal and Mali; Mohammad al-Sanusi, founder of the
Sanusiya movement in Libya, led the resistance against the Italians;
Usman dan Fodio led the jihad in Nigeria; and Ma' al-'Aynayn in
Morocco. These are only some of the most prominent anti-colonial
leaders. They were all mystics, and most of them expressed their
ideas in writing. They all demonstrated a great deal of intellectual
independence, and developed various ideologies of jihad and diverse
methods of resistance.13 These movements, as Martin Bradford shows,
were not the expression of a stagnating Islam. On the contrary, they
constitute a pattern of renewal and revitalization that is
distinctly Islamic and that can be traced back to the practices of
the Prophet Mohammad.
Even after these movements were defeated, Islamic ideology was still
able to mobilize anti-colonial resistance and rebellions. The reason
is simply that Islam, unlike other religions, escapes
institutionalization. Closeness to power compromises the
independence of Islamic scholars. When that happens, the masses
always look for more independent scholars to follow. This is evident
even today when governments like those of Saudi Arabia or Egypt try
to create an 'official' Islam to de-legitimize Islamic opposition.
Scholars who participate in these programs always run the risk of
finding their rulings and judgments questioned by the populace. In
moments like these, even a minor religious scholar can cultivate and
unleash a widespread rebellion. After pacifying Sufi brotherhoods,
the French and the British turned them into collaborating
institutions, hoping to foster an 'official' Islam that would
promote European colonization. In Algeria, the French created what
they called 'administrative mosques' and started organizing
pilgrimages to Mecca. They instituted civil servant cadis (judges)
who ruled by a new legal code, a 'bastard product of Muslim law and
French jurisprudence.14' There is no doubt, wrote E. Doutté in 1900,
that France can use the marabouts (Sufi brotherhoods) to its
In purely administrative matters, the marabouts have been of service
to us: we have seen them order their followers, in the name of God
and at the behest of an administrator of a commune mixte, to follow
an administrative ruling.15
The pacification of Sufi brotherhoods, though, only triggered the
Islamic Reform movement led by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed
Abduh. The latter denounced the intellectual complacencies of the
Sufi brotherhoods, developed modernizing school systems, and
promoted resistance to colonialism. By the 1930s, reformist
movements were a force to reckon with in almost every Islamic
country. In Algeria, it was led by the Association of Islamic
Scholars ('ulemas). It is no exaggeration to say that 'the most
important political development in the first half of the twentieth
century in Algeria' was the cultural and educational work that the
Association of Islamic Scholars undertook:
Without the Association's work in education and culture, the
Algerian movement for independence in the 1950's would have had to
have been postponed. Without their effort to establish a cultural
basis for Algerian nationalism, the Algerian revolution would never
have been successful.16
From the Sufis of the nineteenth century to the Reformists of the
twentieth, an important characteristic of Islamic history becomes
obvious. In moments of ideological conservatism, cultural and
religious decay, or foreign invasions, Islamic history shows the
emergence of movements that promote cultural and political
revitalization.17 These were not religious movements. They were
political movements that Islamic mandates legitimize in moments of
crises or threats. Historians attest that their leaders were
remarkable politicians and diplomats, pragmatic statesmen, shrewd
military strategists, and even original writers and poets. Abd al-
Qadir, says Danziger, was 'a pragmatic Islamic resistance leader,
and a state builder.'18 The state that he founded and ran was not a
religious state. It was an efficient bureaucracy run by an educated
elite, and the French adopted it wholesale after defeating him.19
Pessah Shinar describes him as 'a combination of sharif, Arab knight
and Muslim scholar, a poet, idealist and romantic; an ascetic and
(presumably) mystic by inclination, and a charismatic war leader, a
statesman and an administrator (albeit an able and original one) by
necessity.'20 Islamic political history abounds with such leaders,
who become legitimized automatically in times of palpable injustice,
popular discontent, foreign occupations, or even natural disasters.
Contrary to Western conceptions, then, Algerian peasants did not
rebel against French colonization out of instinctive, subconscious
reflex mechanisms, as would a pack of wolves. On the contrary,
Islam's social and political mandates provided an authentic anti-
colonial ideology capable of mobilizing the peasant as well as the
urban masses. It is true that Islam catalyzed these rebellions and
Islamic institutions organized them, but their goals were always
political and concrete. Contrary to Western conceptions, also,
Algerian peasants were not illiterate. According to colonial
scholarship, the rate of illiteracy in Algeria when the French
arrived in the 1830s was lower than that of France.21 Abd al-Qadir's
zawiyas, like all Sufi zawiyas, were centers of literacy,
jurisprudence, theology, mathematics, geography, and astronomy. They
were mosques, but they were also centers of learning with scholars
from all over the Arab world visiting and lecturing.
Finally, rather than having an aversion to change, Algerian peasants
(Muslims) made the legitimacy of their own existence dependent on
change - the ejection of the occupier from the land. As Fanon notes,
throughout the years when the nationalist parties were pursuing
assimilation and civil rights within a French republic,
the 'peasants' knew in their heart of hearts that nothing short of
the total ejection of the occupiers could create legitimacy in their
world. Rather than primitive peasant culture, though, it was their
Islamic faith that made it impossible for the Algerians ever to
accommodate unjust colonialism in their world. When Messali Hadj
turned the demonstration in support of the Blum-Violette reforms, on
2 August 1936, into the first large Algerian demonstration in favor
of independence, he invoked the Qu'ran and Islam.22
Islam in The Wretched of the Earth
Fanon was crystal clear in his condemnation of Christianity. He
famously compared Christianity in the colonies to the pesticide
DDT. 'The church in the colonies,' he says, 'is the white people's
Church, the foreigner's Church. She does not call the native to
God's ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the
oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few
chosen' (p. 42). With regard to Islam, though, Fanon's attitude was
not so clear. On the one hand, he was a secular revolutionary, and
he perceived the Algerian revolution as a secular, peasant, anti-
colonial revolt. However, he did edit the FLN's organ, El-Moudjahid.
The people he passionately supported in that uprising were called
moujahidin and were engaged in jihad. Fanon's negative attitude
toward Christianity never extended to Islam. In fact, by editing El-
Moudjahid and by championing a revolution that was fundamentally a
jihad, one can say that he essentially endorsed the jihad against
the colonizer. He did express concerns to Ali Shariati, who would
become the main intellectual force behind the Islamic Revolution in
Iran, that religious and sectarian spirits might become an obstacle
to Third World unification. But he also encouraged Shariati to
exploit the immense social and intellectual resources of Islam for
the emancipation of the masses and the creation of a new and
egalitarian society. 'Breathe this spirit,' he told Shariati in a
letter from El-Moujahid's office in Tunis, 'into the body of the
Muslim Orient.23' In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon is also aware
of the limitations of atheist ideologies in grasping the Algerian
situation: 'the atheist method of salvation in this context,' he
says, 'is forbidden' (p. 47).
But Fanon's attitude toward Islam is even more complicated. The
careful reader can discern that he makes constant references to
Islam without acknowledgement. He says, for example that 'the memory
of the anti-colonial period is very much alive in the villages.' Did
he know that Algeria's anti-colonial tradition in the nineteenth and
early twentieth century was mobilized and organized by Islamic Sufi
brotherhoods in the name of jihad against occupation? He says that
the children of the douars (villages) knew already at 12 or 13 years
of age 'the names of the old men who were in the old rising' (p.
112). Who were these old men, one would like to ask? Did Fanon know
he was referring to Emir Abd al-Qadir, to Hadj el-Moqrani, to Cheikh
el-Haddad, to Cheikh Bouamama and their tradition of jihad? He says
that 'country people as a whole remained disciplined and altruistic'
(p. 112). He says the peasant 'never stopped clutching to a way of
life which was in practice anti-colonial' (p. 138), that 'country
people had more or less kept their individuality free from colonial
imposition' (ibid.). What was this way of life, one would like to
ask, that was in practice anti-colonial?
The total submission that France demanded of its colonial subjects
in Algeria, described eloquently by Fanon, constituted an affront to
the foundation of Islam. Absolute submission in Islam should not be
given to anything or anyone except God. That would be a violation of
the first and only article of faith in Islam - the shahada. The
entire thrust of the mission civilizatrice consisted of degrading
Islam as a primitive religion and its language, which was deemed
incomprehensible, was labeled sharabia.24 By simply practicing his
religion and speaking Arabic, the Algerian was defying the mission
civilizatrice. It is no coincidence that schools where the Arabic
language and its literature primarily were taught constituted the
central nerve of Sufi rebellions. It is also no coincidence that the
Algerian insurrection of the 1950s would have been inconceivable
without the educational groundwork that the Association of Muslim
Scholars did in the 1930s. The 'anti-colonial lifestyle' that Fanon
says Algerian peasants always clutched was Islamic. The heroes and
the names of this anti-colonial tradition are Islamic in
inspiration, in practice and in organization. These facts are well
known in the cultures of North Africa. They are also well known in
colonial history. Why did Fanon call this anti-colonial culture and
tradition a peasant culture instead of what is was: a Muslim culture?
Algerian militants who knew Fanon recall that he was astonished to
discover that Algerian resistance had been a prominent feature of
Algerian life before 1954.25 Fanon's late discovery of this
tradition could explain its partial treatment in The Wretched of the
Earth. In his letter to Shariati, however, Fanon seemed aware of
what he called 'the work of cultural resistance' that the
Association of Islamic Scholars was doing throughout the first half
of the twentieth century. Although he did not agree with the Islamic
Scholars entirely, he told Shariati that he respected 'their
efficient contribution in the struggle against French cultural
colonialism.'26 While it is clear from this letter that Fanon was
aware of the Association's work in the twentieth century, this
knowledge hardly ever gets a right of citation in his publications
on Algeria. To be more precise, the actual work of the Association
is cited extensively in Fanon's work, but it is always stripped of
its Islamic references and never attributed to the Association. Even
when he describes insurgency tactics that used traditional Islamic
symbols, like the veil in 'L'Algérie se dévoile' [Algeria unveils
itself], Fanon is silent on the Islamic source of these tactics and
does not recognize the part that the Association of Muslim Scholars
played in them.27 Thus, while Fanon relies heavily on this Islamic
tradition to argue that the peasants had an authentic anti-colonial
tradition, he also seems to weed out all its Islamic references. Was
he ignorant of this Islamic tradition or did he choose to ignore it?
Even when he talks about the Algerians' religion, he mentions 'an
atmosphere of solemnity,' a 'veritable collective ecstasy,' but he
does not name it for what it is: Islam. He goes out of his way to
borrow words from other religious traditions like 'confraternity'
or 'mystical body of belief.' He even describes the spiritual
atmosphere of Algerian villages as that of a church: 'All this is
evocative of a confraternity, a church, and a mystical body of
belief at one and the same time' (pp. 132-133). Curiously, though,
Fanon does not name this spiritual tradition Islam, even once. He
even says that the 'mass of the peasantry continue to revere their
religious leaders who are descendent of ancient families' (p. 136),
but he does not name this culture, these people, these practices,
and these religious leaders for what they were: Muslims.
From the start of the book, in its very title, Fanon clearly is
determined to talk about the 'wretched of the earth.' His passion
for their cause and his full engagement are both concrete and
remarkable. By failing to name them as Muslims and their anti-
colonial culture as Islamic, however, Fanon has no choice but to
attribute that anti-colonial culture to tribalism and primitivism.
He attributes their opposition to colonialism simply to a
peasant, 'noble savage' culture. Sometimes, under noticeable
surrealist influence, he even degenerates into an orientalism
reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The Algerian
peasant, he says, 'defends his tradition stubbornly' (p. 111).
The 'wretched of the earth' are comparable to 'hordes of rats' who
act when moved by the primordial spirits of their environments - the
bush, the jungle, or the desert (p. 130). The Algerians are,
ultimately, 'the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty
criminals' who 'throw themselves into the struggle for liberation
like stout working men,' but they have to be 'urged from behind'
first (p. 130).
The fact is that Fanon's distinction between peasants and city-
dwellers in Algeria is to some extent inaccurate. The anti-colonial
culture to which he refers was not restricted to the countryside.
The Islamic Association of Scholars was even more active in the
cities, especially Algiers, Oran and Constantine, than in the
countryside. By the 1930s, however, their educational and cultural
associations had penetrated the countryside, the mountainous areas,
and the Berber regions, and were smashing the then complacent and
collaborationist culture of the Sufi brotherhoods.28 By 1935, and
despite French obstructions, the Association had established 70
elementary schools and three seminaries. By 1947 the Association
increased the number of its elementary schools to 90, and by 1955 it
had established 181 schools, 50 seminaries, and 441 educational
centers with branches all over Algeria as well as in Paris and
Cairo.29 The Association also boasted a number of newspapers and
magazines like al-Muntaqid and al-Shihab. Its famous motto - 'Islam
is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my country' -
became the rallying cry of the armed insurrection of 1954. This can
hardly be the work that visceral peasant energy alone could
accomplish, and these are hardly the people who can be compared, as
Fanon does, to packs of wolves or 'hordes of rats' (p. 130). The
educational and cultural effort of the Association of Muslim
Scholars was, as John Damis and others have noted, 'a necessary
psychological precondition for the Algerian revolution.' This
intellectual revolt (thawra fikriya), as the Algerians call
it, 'paved the way for the armed insurrection.'30
It might no longer be possible to ascertain for sure whether Fanon
was truly ignorant of the Islamic anti-colonial tradition of
Algeria, or whether he simply chose to ignore it. One thing is sure,
however: Fanon's description of the Algerians' anti-colonial
ideology as 'spontaneous' and primitive is possible only if one
ignores Islam and its culture based on the Arabic language and
literature. Without that exclusion, Fanon's combination of
spontaneity and organization would have had to be substituted for a
combination of two systems of organization: one Islamic, with its
schools, mosques, its intelligentsia, its language, its literature
and its anti-colonial ideology, and the other Western, Marxist, and
revolutionary. What The Wretched of the Earth presents, instead, is
the famous combination of spontaneity and organization. The first is
presented as the illiterate culture of the majority peasant
population, while the second is presented as a Marxist revolutionary
culture introduced by the small Westernized elite.
Algerians who knew Fanon and fought alongside him have highlighted
his lack of knowledge about Islam.31 They simply wanted to stress
that there were other anti-colonial ideas in Algeria besides those
of Fanon. Western critics tend to accuse these Algerians of
being 'ungrateful' to Fanon, or of trying to appease the post-
independence regime.32 While Fanon contributed greatly in explaining
the revolution to a Western readership in a language and a
terminology that they understood, it certainly would be preposterous
to assume that Algerians had to wait for Fanon to teach them the
ABCs of anti-colonialism. It would be equally preposterous to claim
that he had any decisive impact on the course of that revolution.
The war of liberation in Algeria was mobilized, organized, and
fought following patterns of rebellion and insurgency that had been
simmering there since the days of Emir Abd al-Qadir. Fanon himself,
as shown above, cites this tradition extensively and praises it
without referencing it. His failure to reference it is
understandable given his ignorance of Islam in Algeria. It is also
understandable given that he was addressing a Western, atheist
readership that had no epistemological frame of reference to
understand the role of a non-Western religion in wars of national
liberation. Fanon simply used a revolutionary terminology familiar
to Western readers and cleansed from his content all references to
More importantly, the foundation of The Wretched of the Earth is the
combination of spontaneity and organization. Bringing in Islam would
have upset this theoretical framework. Instead of a combination of
spontaneity and organization, Fanon would have been forced to look
at a combination of two systems of organization - one that was
Islamic, literate, and indigenous with its own anti-colonial
ideology and modes of organization through schools and mosques and
its own intelligentsia, and the other Western, Marxist, atheist, and
revolutionary. Fanon would have been mired in theoretical problems
whose existence academia hadn't even recognized at that time.
Moreover, Fanon was waging a people's war, and The Wretched of the
Earth has to be understood as a contribution to the military effort.
In the midst of a people's war, one does not always have the time or
the luxury to scrutinize the theoretical foundation of everything
that is written. Finally, Fanon was also passionate about making the
Algerian revolution applicable to other Third World countries,
especially black Africa. One would not be surprised if he excluded
aspects that he thought were specific to Algeria from his discourse
(like Islam) simply to make the lessons of that war as relevant as
possible to other African countries.
These considerations provide ample justifications for why Fanon did
not reference the Islamic tradition on which he heavily relies in
The Wretched of the Earth. His book openly aims to be a contribution
to the Algerian war effort in its final years. Under such
conditions, it would be safe to say that Fanon simply did the best
he could with the resources and the knowledge he had at his
To a large extent, though, Fanon's partial perspective still informs
Western discussions of the Algerian revolution. If Fanon recognizes
no other epistemology in Algeria besides Western Marxist ideology,
Western scholarship has made no effort to find one either. Fanon is
considered in the West to be the chief ideologist of the Algerian
revolution. Of the small camp of Westernized elite, his account has
been considered most representative. His portrayal of the Islamic
anti-colonial culture of Algeria as primal, illiterate, and
instinctive still goes unchallenged. This attitude hardly reflects
the fact that this culture had a written language, a literature, an
organized and text-based religion, and an effective school system
that could spread with minimum resources. It also had newspapers,
magazines, cultural centers, an Arabophone intelligentsia, and an
ideology that strongly encourages social action to effect change.
The fact that the few Algerian voices that have been included in
this post-independence debate have almost all been secular (if not
atheist) does not help, either.
If Fanon's silence is ethically and operationally understandable,
the continuous refusal to recognize the central contribution of the
Islamic anti-colonial tradition to all the rebellions and
insurrections in Algeria is not. This attitude, one might add,
concurs with France's mission civilizatrice that Islam in Algeria is
an archaic and pre-modern tradition, and that civilization
(understood to be exclusively a Western affair) should extinguish
it. The fact is that it hasn't. While scholarship persists in seeing
the world exclusively through its 'atheist method of salvation,'
that Islamic anti-colonial tradition is again clearly at work today
in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in other
Muslim lands. In the same way that it was incomprehensible then, it
is still incomprehensible today.
The Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth is himself a product
of Algeria's Islamic anti-colonial tradition. The extent to which he
draws on this tradition makes one wonder whether his intransigence
to colonialism was minted coherently only out of his contact with
this tradition. Without the physical ejection of the colonizer, he
says, 'there is nothing but a fancy-dress parade and the blare of
the trumpets. There is nothing but a minimum of readaptation, a few
reforms at the top, a flag waving' (p. 147). How much was the
Islamic anti-colonial tradition of Algeria behind Fanon's legendary
death warrant (or should we say fatwa?) on colonial systems?
References 1. Aron, R. (1962) Les Origines de la guerre d'Algérie Fayard ,
2. Bradford, M. (1976) Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth Century
Africa Cambridge University Press , New York
3. Buss, R. (1970) Wary Partners: The Soviet Union and Arab
Socialism Institute for Strategic Studies , London
4. O'Brien, D. Cruise (1967) Towards an 'Islamic policy' in French
West Africa, 1854-1914. Journal of African History 8:2 , pp. 303-
5. Damis, J. (1974) The free-school phenomenon: the cases of Tunisia
and Algeria. International Journal of Middle East Studies 5:4 , pp.
6. Danziger, R. (1977) Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians Holmes &
Meier , New York and London
7. Mili, M. el (1971) The Algerian revolution and Fanon. al Thaqafag
8. Mili, M. el (1971) The Algerian roots of Fanon's thought. al
Thaqafa pp. 22-45.
9. Mili, M. el (1971) Fanon and Western thought. al Thaqafa pp. 10-
10. (Emerit, M. ed.) (1951) L'Algérie a l'époque d'abd-El-Kader
Edition Larose , Paris
11. Fanon, F. (1982) L'Algérie se dévoile,. Sociologie d'une
révolution pp. 16-48. Maspero , Paris
12. Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth Grove Press , New
13. Gendzier, I. (1973) Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study Pantheon
Books , New York
14. Laremont, R. R. (2000) Islam and the Politics of Resistance in
Algeria 1783-1992 Africa World Press , Trenton, NJ
15. Chatelier, A. Le (1910) Politique Musulmane. Revue du Monde
Musulman XII:September , pp. 1-165.
16. Nguyen, Nghe (1963) Frantz Fanon et les problèmes de
l'indépendance. La Pensée no. 107:February , p. 29.
17. Perinbam, B. M. (1973) Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry -
the Algerian case. Journal of Modern African Studies 11:3 , pp. 427-
18. Revere, R. (1973) Revolutionary ideology in Algeria. Polity
5:4 , pp. 477-488.
19. - Shariati, Sarah (2004) Le Fanon connu de nous. Ghorba, 14
December, available at <> (accessed 20 February 2007).
20. Shinar, P. (1965) Abd al-Qadir and Abd al-Krim: religious
influences on their thought and action. Asian and African Studies
1 , pp. 139-174.
21. Sivan, E. (1979) Colonialism and popular culture in Algeria.
Journal of Contemporary History 14:1 , pp. 21-53.
1 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press,
1963), p. 47. All subsequent references to this edition will be
given in the text.
2 B. Marie Perinbam, 'Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry - the
Algerian case,' Journal of Modern African Studies, 11(3) (1973), p.
3 Nguyen Nghe, 'Frantz Fanon et les problèmes de l'indépendance,' La
Pensée, no. 107 (February 1963), p. 29.
4 Messali Hadj's party was the PPA-MTLD (Party of the Algerian
People-Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties). A splinter
group founded the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), which
eventually led and won the revolution.
5 Irene Gendzier, Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1973), p. 209.
6 Perinbam, 'Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry,' p. 432.
7 Perinbam, 'Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry, p. 436.
8 Perinbam, 'Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry, p. 433.
9 Perinbam, 'Fanon and the revolutionary peasantry, p. 442.
10 See Gendzier, Frantz Fanon, p. 215; see also Robin Buss, Wary
Partners: The Soviet Union and Arab Socialism, Adelphi Papers, no.
73 (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, 1970), p. 22.
11 See Ricardo René Laremont, Islam and the Politics of Resistance
in Algeria 1783-1992 (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000), pp. 27-
12 For an extensive study, see Raphael Danziger, Abd al-Qadir and
the Algerians (New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 1977).
13 See especially Martin Bradford, Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth
Century Africa, African Studies Series, 18 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1976).
14 A. Le Chatelier, 'Politique Musulmane,' Revue du Monde Musulman,
XII (September 1910), p. 80.
15 E. Doutté, Les Marabouts (Paris: Leroux, 1900), p. 118, quoted
here from Donal Cruse O'Brien, 'Towards an "Islamic policy" in
French West Africa, 1854-1914,' Journal of African History, 8(2)
(1967), pp. 306-307.
16 Laremont, Islam and the Politics of Resistance, p. 80.
17 This is one of the main conclusions, for example, of Martin
Bradford, Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth Century Africa.
18 Danziger, Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians, p. 218.
19 'Perhaps the greatest tribute to the effectiveness of Abd al-
Qadir's governmental system was paid by his French enemiesWith few
modifications, this replica of Abd al-Qadir's administration was
maintained in Algeria's interior until the elimination of military
rule after the suppression of Muqrani's insurrection in 1871.'
Danziger, Abd al-Qadir and the Algerians, pp. 215-216.
20 Pessah Shinar, 'Abd al-Qadir and Abd al-Krim: religious
influences on their thought and action,' Asian and African Studies,
1, p. 173.
21 France's rate of illiteracy in the 1830s was estimated to be
higher than 40 percent; see Marcel Emerit (Ed.), L'Algérie a
l'époque d'abd-El-Kader (Paris: Edition Larose, 1951), p. 199.
22 France's rate of illiteracy in the 1830s was estimated to be
higher than 40 percent; see Marcel Emerit (Ed.), L'Algérie a
l'époque d'abd-El-Kader (Paris: Edition Larose, 1951), p. 71. Part
of Messali Hadj's speech is quoted in Robert Aron, Les Origines de
la guerre d'Algérie (Paris: Fayard, 1962), p. 70.
23 Quoted in Sarah Shariati, 'Le Fanon connu de nous,' Ghorba, 14
December 2004, available at <> (accessed 20 February 2007).
24 The foremost single element the French used to develop Muslim
stereotypes of backwardness was the Arabic language. Sharabia
remains a French word today denoting any language perceived to
be 'incomprehensible.' See Emanuel Sivan, 'Colonialism and popular
culture in Algeria,' Journal of Contemporary History, 14(1) (1979),
25 Gendzier, Frantz Fanon, p. 247.
26 Quoted in Shariati, 'Le Fanon connu de nous.'
27 Frantz Fanon, 'L'Algérie se dévoile,' in Sociologie d'une
révolution (Paris: Maspero, 1982), pp. 16-48. Among the literature
surveyed for this paper, only Robert Revere recognizes this fact. In
a footnote, he says: 'Fanon fails to recognize the reform effort of
the Society of Algerian 'Ulema and their work of secularization of
education, an important step in the reawakening of Algerian
nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s which led to the revolution
itself'; see Robert Revere, 'Revolutionary ideology in Algeria,'
Polity, 5(4) (1973), p. 483, n. 22.
28 John Damis, 'The free-school phenomenon: the cases of Tunisia and
Algeria,' International Journal of Middle East Studies, 5(4) (1974),
29 Laremont, Islam and the Politics of Resistance, p. 84.
30 Damis, 'The free-school phenomenon,' p. 449.
31 See especially the three articles by Mohamed el Mili: 'Fanon and
Western thought,' al Thaqafa (March 1971), pp. 10-25; 'The Algerian
revolution and Fanon,' al Thaqafa (May 1971), pp. 40-54; and 'The
Algerian roots of Fanon's thought,' al Thaqafa (November 1971), pp.
32 These accusations are made in Irene Gendzier, Frantz Fanon, pp.
231-260. The fact that the study of Fanon's text continues to happen
in the abstract with no real reference to the social, political, and
religious context of Algeria at the time of the revolution is proof
that the indigenous Algerian perspective still does not have a right
of citation in what has become a decidedly Western debate