Sunday 16 May 2010

Death of an Averroist: Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (1936-2010)

Only today I learned of the death of the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (a.k.a. Mohammed Abed al-Jabri). The fact that it went largely unreported in Western media is indicative of the lack of interest in intellectual developments in the contemporary Muslim world. A similar observation was posted on the blog of the Angry Arab News Service:

 If you look at the Western press today, you would not know that the most important and renounced Arab contemporary thinker/ philosopher has died today. Muhammad `Abid Al-Jabiri is dead. This Moroccan thinker is by far the most discussed among Arab and Islamic intellectuals.

However, some websites did pay attention to al-Jabiri's passing away. One is the German blog Kritik der arabischen Vernunft, dedicated to al-Jabiri's philosophy, another one the -- also Germany-based -- website Qantara. Here are some excerpts from Sonja Hegasy's* obituary:

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri was without doubt one of the most significant social theorists of the Arab world. His dissertation on Ibn Khaldun, a pioneer of modern sociology, in 1970 brought him the first doctorate awarded by the University of Mohammed V in Rabat following Moroccan independence. It was the first of a total of over thirty works.

Al-Jabri was both a critical philosopher and a proponent of a left-wing programme of social policy. From 1959 onwards, he worked with the Moroccan opposition politician Mehdi Ben Barka in the Socialist
Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP). And he remained committed to education, initially as a teacher, then as a school inspector, a writer of school books, a university teachers and mentor.

Drawing on the history of non-orthodox Muslim movements, such as the Kharijites, Ismailis, Shiites or Sufis, he called for an oppositional mode of thought. Al-Jabri saw himself in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, in that he called on his readers to insist on their right to define the world on the basis of their observations, and not on the basis of pre-defined, traditional or out-of-date authorities.

According to al-Jabri, two main elements in the history of political ideas continue to have an influence in the Arab world and are responsible for its continuing stagnation: imitation rather than critical thought has become the main form of awareness, and rulers are counselled but they are not controlled. To counter that influence, Al-Jabri wanted to strengthen the rational, intellectual tradition in Muslim thought and drew on the Andalusian commentator of Aristotle, Averroes or Ibn Rushd, as his authority.

Here I have to add a caveat. While in the West, Ibn Rushd's reputation is indeed largely due to his commentaries on Aristotle, which were instrumental to the further development of late-medieval Scholasticism and the onset of the Renaissance, in the Muslim world his influence was based on his attempts to reconcile rational thinking with revelation, succinctly expounded in his 'Definitive Statement' (Fasl al-maqal fima bayna al-hikmah wa-al-shariah min al-ittisal).

But aside from the academic philosopher, there was also the public intellectual al-Jabiri, as Hegasy continues:

Al-Jabri's attack on conventional authority is as explosive socially as the works of the Egyptian Farag Foda, who was killed by an Islamist group in 1992, or those of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Mohammed Taha, who was hanged in 1985.

It is because of this audacity that, according to Hegasy:

The Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi once wrote that, to judge from the heated debates in which students are everywhere continuously engaging, al-Jabri was probably the philosopher who was most read by young people in the Arab world.

This interest goes beyond the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, for example, he has a large and  attentive audience among young Muslim intellectuals associated with a strand of thought known as Postra, an acronym for 'Post-Traditionalists' (progressive thinkers who engage critically with the Islamic heritage without dismissing its significance). Witness this 'In Memoriam' on the website of the country's Muslim Students Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, HMI).

In this detailed assessment al-Jabiri is said to belong to a category of intellectuals who is 'prone to be selective in invoking inspirations from both tradition and modernity in order to find a kind of authentic Arab modernity', which sets them apart from Salafi reformists and liberal thinkers:

The first and the second groups of Arab intellectuals do not reflect a creative engagement with tradition or modernity. Their project is merely reviving the tradition (turath) to be applied in the present or blindly adopting Western values and practices into Arabic contexts. The third group of intellectuals whose project is searching for an authentic modernity of Arab is more interesting because they are more creative and critical in dealing with both tradition and modernity.

Aside from al-Jabiri, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi fits into this category. Dismissing the latter's ideological positions as ' as too encyclopedic, cerebral and theoretical', the author considers al-Jabiri's epistemological approach more promising 'not only in terms of understanding the turath [Arab-Islamic intellectual heritage] and the present Arab situation, but also in terms of searching for the future identity of Arab modernity'.

However, also al-Jabiri's positions are not immune to criticism. In his advocacy for an Andalusian resurgence (see also my post of 11 October 2008) and promotion of Averroist philosophy, he appears to side with Western scholars who singled out the tenth-century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali as the main culprit responsible for killing off the philosophical tradition in Islam. The South-African born Islamicist Ebrahim Moosa (now teaching at Duke University in North Carolina) disagrees:

Many scholars from the Muslim world also buy into the anti-Ghazali anti-Ashari libel, as the cause of the death of reason in Islam.  It is part of a trend in lazy scholarship, a ridiculous assumption that Mu'tazilite reason is compatible with modern modes of reasons, but it is all part of what I call a "scapegoat historiography." The latter is a kind of after the fact search for the causes of the decline of Muslim political fortunes in a post-empire world of the late 19th and early 20th century milieu.  Among the scapegoats, is Ghazali and a claim that he opened the door for a retrograde sufism to inhabit Muslim intellectual streams; don't ask me how!. All this is largely unproved but makes for great reformist stump speeches.  Among the folk who advance variants of these claims (I refuse to give it a respectability of a thesis!!) is Hasan Hanafi of Egypt, Hussein Atay of Turkey and in a more sophisticated way, the late Muhammad Abid al-Jabri of Morocco in his multiple writings. I tried to offer some push back to these claims in my Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination but it was certainly only in passing and clearly, not enough. 

As a result of the relative lack of attention, only very few of al-Jabiri's books - who wrote almost exclusively in Arabic -- have been translated into European languages. In the secondary literature on contemporary Muslim thought there is also still a paucity of works. Aside from chapters in surveys and handbooks, and two studies in German, the only English-language project I have come across was conducted in The Netherlands, but without any reference to a resulting publication.

*Sonja Hegasy contributed the chapter 'Ex Okzidente Lux: Der arabische Aufklaerer Mohammed Abed al-Jabri' to Kritik der arabischen Vernunft.

Here are some further reading suggestions for works available in English:

Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique (Middle East Monographs)The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World (Contemp. Arab Scholarship in the Social Sciences)Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought (Comtemporary Arab Sclarship in the Social Sciences)

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