Printed in islam21, London, No 28, April 2001. Pp 8-12






S Parvez Manzoor




Turning Jews into Muslims:

The Untold Saga of the Muselmänner



Paradoxically, one of the most curious and distressing facts of the gruesome world of Nazi extermination camps and gas chambers that bears the Muslim’s name has never been the object of the Muslim’s attention and scrutiny. Further, though the wretched and the contemptible figure of the ‘Muslim’ that we seek to exhume in this enquiry inhabited the historical obscenity of the Holocaust, it is the racialist imagination of European Jewry that is his true home. It was here that he was born and it is here that his memory lies buried under Islamophobic myths. More explicitly, it is the story of those unfortunate Jews who, in confronting the absolute inhumanity of the camp, lost all will to survive. They appeared like living corpses and were given by their fellow inmates the scornful epithet of die Muselmänner (the Muslims)! Leaving aside the morally intractable issues of genocide and anti-Semitism, what this grim and disquieting tale reveals is that, alas, the human propensity for despising the other takes precedence over our capacity to love, and that to the venom of collective self-worship neither the murderer nor the murdered, neither the ‘Aryan’ nor the ‘Semite’, is immune!


Oddly, in the highly prolific and fecund field of Holocaust literature, there are only a few circumspect allusions to the Muselmänner. For instance, here is it how Jean Amery, a survivors of the Holocaust who along with Primo Levi has been acclaimed as the most insightful and sensitive analyst of the camp, has to say on this: “The so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.” Significantly, however, this terse remark ends with a summary dismissal: “As hard as it may be for us to do so, we must exclude him from our considerations.” (Amery, Jean: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. Schocken Books, New York, 1986. p. 9)


Levi is less laconic but equally evasive: “All the Muselmänner who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; ….. Their life is short but their numbers are endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned from the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continuously renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty really to suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death.” (Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz and the Reawakening: Two Memoirs. Summit Books, New York, 1986. p. 82.) To this, however, he adds an evasive footnote: “With the word ‘Muselmann’, the elders in the camp designated, for reasons unknown to me, the weak, the infirm, those who were doomed to be singled out.”


Apart from these agonizing recollections by seductive stylists, there also exits a noteworthy study by Ryn and Klodzinski that remains the sole monograph on the subject. (Ryn, Zdzislaw & Klodzinski, Stanslav: “An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Ein Studie über die Erscheinung des „Muselmann“ in Konzentrationslager“ (At the Borderline between Life and Death: A Study of the phenomenon of the Muslemann in the Concentration Camp) in; Auschwitz-Hefte, vol. 1 (Weinheim & Basel: Beltz, 1987.) pp. 89-154.) Their chilling observation about these unfortunate victims is that ‘No one felt compassion for the Muselmann, and no one felt sympathy for him either. The other inmates, who continually feared for their lives, did not even judge him worthy of being looked at. For the prisoners who collaborated, the Muselmänner were a source of anger and worry; for the SS, they were merely useless garbage. Every group thought about eliminating them, each in its own way.’ (p. 127). One section of the study, entitled Ich war ein Muselmann (I was a Muselmann) also contains personal testimonies of men who somehow pulled themselves out of the state of ‘Muselmahood’, and survived. According to one such testimony: ‘In such a situation, without sufficient nourishment, drenched and frozen every day, death left us no way out. This was the beginning of the period in which Musulmanhood (das Muselmanntum) became more and more common…. Everyone despised the Muselmänner; even the Muselmann’s fellow inmates; …  His senses are dulled and he becomes completely indifferent to everything around him. He can no longer speak of anything; he can’t even pray, since he no longer believes in heaven and hell. He no longer thinks about his home, his family, the other people in the camp.’ (Ibid.)


The most challenging work on the subject, however, is a recent study by the very incisive Italian thinker, Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. (Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen), Zone Books, New York, 1999) that is a very intense philosophical reflection on the seminal moral issues of the Nazi death camp, the signification of testimony and the nature of speech and silence at the crossroads of humanity and inhumanity. It is the source of much information for this inquiry and may even serve for the Muslim reader as the most convenient access to the literature on this subject. It must be borne in mind, however, that Agamben is principally concerned with the most recalcitrant text of the Western ethics of our times and that his arcane reading of this text is no more than a secular refinement of the moral grammar of Judaeo-Christianity. For all the uncanny linguistic resemblance between them and the Muselmänner, Muslims are not part of this reflection. Be that as it may, here is how Agamben’s philosophical vision unmasks the Gestalt of the Muselmann: ‘At times a medical figure or an ethical category, at times a political limit and an anthropological concept, the Muselmann is an indefinite being in whom not only humanity and non-humanity, but also vegetative existence and relation, physiology and ethics, medicine and politics, and life and death continuously pass through each other. This is why the Muselmann’s “Third Realm” is the perfect cipher of the camp, the non-place in which all disciplinary barriers are destroyed and all embankments flooded.’ (p. 48)


Without doubt, Agamben’s moral reflection on Auschwitz, just as his philosophical thought in general, is worthy of the Muslim’s serious attention. Nevertheless an earnest Muslim encounter with Agamben’s philosophy, as with the moral-theological conundrums of Auschwitz, must await its proper moment. Here, we must continue our search for the image of the Muselmann, as found in the minds of the inmates of Auschwitz, and investigate its linguistic, semantic and cultural background. We must, in other words, carry on where Levi left off. To start with, the linguistic moorings of the term are the easiest to establish: these reproduce the German word for the Muslim, the singular form of which is der Muselmann, and the plural die Muselmänner. The non-Arabic form Musulman (orig. Musliman) however denotes quite simply the Persian plural of the Arabic Muslim and has been the standard term in Iran, Turkey, India and elsewhere. As such, it entered various European languages, and though it is now obsolete in English, it still denotes Muslims in German and French. An alternative suggestion, that Muselmann actually is a distortion of Muschelmann (lit. Mussel-man; a man folded and crouched, as in a shell) has not found much support among the scholars.


Obviously, the semantic significations of the word Muselmann are less certain and more conjectural, though these always abound with prejudicial and pejorative connotations. Here, for instance, is what Ryn and Koldzinski believe is the origin of this epithet: ‘They (the Muselmanns) became indifferent to everything happening around them. They excluded themselves from all relations to their environment. If they could still move around, they did so in slow motion, without bending their knees. They shivered since their body temperature usually fell below 98.7 degrees. Seeing them from afar, one had the impression of seeing Arab praying. This image was the origin of the term used at Auschwitz for people dying of malnutrition: Muselmänner.’ (p. 94) (I have scrupulously avoided translating Muselmänner with ‘Muslims’, or removing other emblems – italics, citation marks – that suggest the alien context and usage of the term. Unfortunately, this is far from the case and even the most conscionable of scholars, Agamben included, do not always observe this simple linguistic distinction and thus fail to accord the minimum of courtesy both to the Muselmänner and to the Muslims.)


For its part, the authoritative Encyclopaedia Judaica has this explanation under the entry Muselmann: ‘Used mainly at Auschwitz, the term appears to derive from the typical attitude of certain deportees, that is, staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in the Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’ (S.V.) Not to be outdone, another observer associates ‘the typical movements of the Muselmänner, the swaying motions of the upper part of the body, with Islamic rituals.’ (Sofsky, Wolfgang: The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. (Translated by William Templer), Princeton University Press, 1997. p. 329, n.5.) Even more revealing are the synonyms which are, as if often the case with jargon, brutally forthright and non-euphemistic. Thus according to the same author: ‘The expression (Muselmänner) was in common use, especially in Auschwitz, from where it spread to other camps as well. …. In Majdanek, the word was unknown. The living dead there were termed ‘donkeys’; in Dachau they were ‘cretins’, in Stutthof ‘cripples’, in Mauthausen ‘swimmers’, in Neuengamme ‘camels’, in Buchenwald ‘tired sheiks’, and in the women’s camp known as Ravensbrück, Muselweiber (female Muslims) or ‘trinkets’. (Ibid.)


Writing more than fifty years after the event, the most sober, knowledgeable and philosophical of the commentators, Giorgio Agamben, has to concede: ‘The most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God. It is this meaning that lies at the origins of the legends concerning Islam’s supposed fatalism, legends which are found in European cultures starting with the Middle Ages (this deprecatory sense of the term is present in European languages, particularly in Italian).’ (p. 45). However, Agamben also notes that the particularly stark and persistent prejudices of the European soul that identify Islamic ‘submission’ with loss of will constitute a travesty of the Muslim’s faith. He accepts that ‘while the Muslims’ resignation consists in the conviction that the will of Allah is at work every moment and in even the smallest events, the Muselmann of Auschwitz is defined by a loss of will and consciousness.’ (Ibid.) Still, according to the accepted convention of the camp, only ‘those men who had long since lost any real will to survive …. were called “Moslems” – men of unconditional fatalism.’ (Kogon, Eugen: The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the Systems Behind Them. (Translated by Heinz Norden), Octagon Books, New York, 1979. p. 284.)


There can be little doubt, then, that the contemptible image the fatalist Muslim predates the arrival of the pitiable figure of the Muselmann at Auschwitz. And even if at the camp if resurfaces from the netherworld of Jewish consciousness; it was the Islamophobic European imagination that gave birth to it in the first place. Be that as it may, it is disconcerting to learn that even for the inmates of the camp, the Muslim was the Untermensch, the lowest of the low. This is certainly what Agamben has in mind when he, in a moment of brutal encounter with the truth, he seeks refuge in ‘the postmodern irony’ and belittles the import of this realization: ‘In any case, it is certain that, with a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews. (45) For others, there’s no escaping the perverse logic of the Holocaust: While the Nazis killed the Jews, the Jews in turn sacrificed the ‘Muslims’ (die Muselmänner)!


If we dismiss the putative connection between ‘fatalism’ and the Muslim’s faith, an enduring topos of European imagination to which we shall return later, but try to gaze upon the disquieting figure of the Muselmann, we’ll discover that he is regarded as ‘the true cipher of Auschwitz’ and the silent, yet most compelling, witness of the Nazi evil. Levi expresses this fact quite starkly as, ‘If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with heads dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.’ (op.cit. p. 90) For Agamben, the discovery that being a Muselmann in the camp constituted an actual form of human existence leads to the claim that ‘this knowledge has now become the touchstone by which to measure all morality and all dignity. The Muselmann, who is its most extreme expression, is the guard on the threshold of a new ethics, an ethics of a form and life that begins where dignity ends. And Levi, who bears witness to the drowned, speaking in their stead, is the cartographer of this new terra ethica, the implacable land-surveyor of Muselmannland.’ (op. cit. p. 69)


Given the fact that the Muselmann is regarded by Agamben as not only the symbol of the evil of Auschwitz but also the defining characteristic of a new, post-Auschwitz, paradigm of ethics, we’ll do well to listen to the same philosopher in order to learn more about the attributes and qualifications of that unfortunate being: ‘The Muselmann is the non-human who obstinately appears as human; he is the human that cannot be told apart from the inhuman’ (81-2); ‘the Muselmann is not only or not so much a limit between life and death; rather, he marks the threshold between the human and the inhuman’ (p. 55); ‘to be between life and death is one the traits constantly attributed the Muselmann, the “walking corpse” par excellence. Confronted with his disfigured face, his “Oriental” agony, the survivors hesitate to attribute to him even the mere dignity of the living.’ (70). In short, the Muselmann, ‘a bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life’ (157), symbolizes ‘the inhuman capacity to survive the human.’ (133).


The starting point of Agamben’s reflection on the Muselmann is the rather striking realization that though all witnesses speak of him as a central experience, he is barely named in the historical studies on the destruction of European Jewry. The Muselmann remain, even some fifty years after his appearance in the camp, as the unwitnessed and the unwitnessable. Further, Auschwitz, for Agamben, before being a camp, ‘is the site of an experiment that remains unthought today, an experiment beyond life and death in which the Jew is transformed into a Muselmann and the human being into a non-human. And we will not understand what Auschwitz is if we do not first understand who or what the Muselmann is.’ (52). Drawing upon the insights of Carl Schmitt and Foucault, Agamben also links the entry of the Muselmann on the historical-political stage to the transformation of power that has taken place in modernity. The ‘sovereign power’ of traditional politics – the ancient right to kill and let live – has given way to the ‘biopower’ of the modern, scientific state that has the authority and means ‘to make live and let die’. In the domain of biopower, people and population are merged together and the essentially political body of the state becomes coterminous with the biological body of the nation.  


Given this radical transformation of power, Agamben concludes, ‘it is possible to understand the decisive function of the camps in the system of Nazi biopolitics. They are not merely the place of death and extermination; they are also, and above all, the site of the production of the Muselmann, the final biopolitical substance to be isolated in the biological continuum. Beyond the Muselmann lies only the gas chamber.’ (85). Little wonder that in the camp, the Muselmann ‘not only shows the efficacy of biopower, but also reveals its secret cipher, so to speak its Arcanum….. In the Muselmann, biopower sought to produce its final secret; a survival separated from every possibility of testimony, a kind of absolute political substance that, in its isolation, allows for the attribution of demographic, ethnic, national, and political identity.’ (156). The above remarks by a gifted philosopher may give some idea of the semantic, philosophical, and hence moral, associations that are aroused by this term that carries the Muslim’s name.


Another distinguished Jewish philosopher of our times, Emil Fackenheim, has also made an attempt to express, ‘in a language of “restrained outrage”’, some of the pain and puzzlement that he feels at the spectacle of the Muselmänner. Though his scattered comments do not constitute any systematic and sustained reflection in the manner of Agamben, they do deserve our attention, if for no other reason than that Fackenheim, who started his academic career as a scholar of Muslim philosophy, cannot be dismissed for being a stranger to the Islamic tradition. Remarkable then is the fact that he never feels called upon to comment on the ‘Islamic connection’ of the camp jargon, something for which he has both the expertise and the mandate. Whether it is because that Fackenheim feels too embarrassed to explore the dark, contingently if not intrinsically Islamophobic, recesses of the ‘Jewish psyche’ itself, or whether his imperious disregard of any Muslim stake at Auschwitz is part of the awesome silence that the victims of the Holocaust is always entitled to exercise, may remain unresolved. What is certain is that for Fackenheim the Muselmann ‘is the most notable, if not the sole, truly original contribution of the Third Reich to civilization. He is the true novum of New Order.’ (Emil Fackenheim: To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Schocken Books, New York, 1982. p. 215). (Should one also add that, if the Muselmann is the most original, most characteristic product of the entire Nazi Reich, as Fackenheim asserts, is he not, by the same token, the most original, most characteristic product of the Jewish imagination as well?)


Fackenheim also believes that the manifestation of ‘Musulmanhood’ at the camp tells us something novel and extraordinary about the human condition: it reveals a truth about man in general that is universal and irrefutable. Hence, the disconcerting thought: ‘who dares assert that, had he been there and then rather than here and now, he would not have been reduced to a Muselmann?’ (100). Nevertheless, such an insight also generates its own paradoxes, as when he questions whether any, Kantian, belief in humanity is warranted in the age of Auschwitz? For, ‘then and there, one kind of common man – the Muselmann – was made into a uniquely uncommon victim, while the other, the manufacturer of the victim was made – let himself be made – into a uniquely uncommon criminal.’ (273). However, the most bizarre and pointless display of Fackenheim’s philosophical dexterity concerns the following theological query: ‘At Auschwitz other free persons were reduced to Muselmänner, to the living dead. This is a novum in human history and an unprecedented human scandal. We ask: Could Jesus of Nazareth have been made into a Muselmann?’ (286; italics by the author.) Clearly, the Muselmann is no more than a figure, a pawn in the hands of disputing theologians and philosophers and a recent addition to the theo-political imagery of the West. But what has the Muslim to say about him, the ‘walking corpse’ that bears his name? In default of any authentic reflection and comment, whatever that one may presently say can only be probing and provisional. The following remarks are no exception.


To start with, the Muslim is not a partner to the interminable, and intractable, intra-biblical debate on the (original) sin and atonement, divine wrath and human sacrifice, election and retribution. Nor has s/he anything to gain from any blasphemous and sterile reflection that would circumscribe the divinity of God and the humanity of Man to the parameters of Auschwitz. Nevertheless, the Jewish ‘christening’ of the ‘damned of the camp’ as Muselmänner does implicate the Muslim in the Holocaust. And it does so, brutally and scornfully, neither in the name of the executioners, nor in that of the victims, but as the victims of the victims; it implicates them in the name of the living-dead, the non-men whose death cannot even be called death. Indeed, the Muslim is implicated for his/her submission to the Divine will, which for the anti-Islamic spirit signifies a mere loss of will, an extinction of the human lust for living. Whatever self-gratification such a phantom Muslim may have provided to the condemned of the camp, the authentic Muslim of history could never have been his model. For, the Muslim of Islamic faith needs no apologies for acting like a Muselmann. Indeed, he need hardly go beyond the testimony of recent history, from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Chechnya to Palestine, to amply demonstrate to the world that for all the deprivations of his life, the Muslim will not accept an ignoble death. He may be destroyed but not defeated; he may be deprived of life and limb but not of humanity and dignity, and for him, the biological imperative to survive does not abrogate his submission to the will of God.


The Muslim submits to the will of God only because he may not submit in the same manner to the will of man. He does not give absolute allegiance to any earthly regime so that his humanity may not be decided by any powers-that-be. It is in affirming the dignity of his death, through struggle and jihad rather than through inaction and ‘Musulmanhood’, that the Muslim gives testimony to his faith. Paradoxically, the Muslim’s refusal to relinquish his humanity to anyone but God leads not to a loss of will but to its affirmation, not to subservience but to recalcitrance. Against all the sanctimonious squeamishness and self-serving morality of the reigning order of the day that rails against the Muslim’s jihad with unmitigated fury, we must therefore uphold it as the most inalienable of human rights. For jiahd is nothing but the struggle to maintain, in the face of the utter inhumanity of political power, one’s humanity.


Little wonder that even a modern Western political analyst has to admit: ‘Jihad ignores the ABC of war according to Clausewitz. ….. Jihad, in fact, knows no political space, no state….; it is a symbolic space that one traces in an ascending direction …. Jihad knows no borders; it has an instrumental vision of the state, which ends up being devalued. The state ….. exists only in crises and is not institutionalized. The ethical model that is at the heart of the notion of jihad prohibits political structures.’ (Oliver Roy: The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press, 1994. p. 154). Even according to Jean-Paul Charnay, the source of Roy’s insights above, jihad is an affair between the believer and God and not between the believer and his enemy. It is an act of faith and a passion of penitents which is essentially religious and mystical and not political. (Jean-Paul Charnay: L’Islam et la guerre. Paris, Fayard, 1986. pp. 13ff.) In short, jihad is an act of personal piety, not a strategy for collective combat. And, it is beyond any political calculus, beyond victory and defeat, beyond the logistics of survival and the indignity of Muslelmanntum.


No matter what great horror the Muslim may encounter at the camp, or the immeasurable pity that he may feel for its hapless victim, the Muselmann, the Muslim’s own pain is not mitigated by the realization that this wretched figure, the living dead, the scorn of the condemned, has been conceived in his own image, that in suffering the inhumanity of the camp, its inmates were inflicting their own wounds on a faith community whose principal sin is its belief that subservience to the will of the Supreme Being relieves man of all obligations to obey any human Führer and his murderous henchmen - something that the Muselmänner themselves ought to have recognized. Had the camp been inhabited by the Muslim, and no the Muselmann, had the spirit of jihad been present there, its moral complexion would certainly have been quite different.