Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010): Trailblazer for new approaches to the study of Islam

After Mohammed Abid al-Jabiri (cf. blog post of 16 May 2010) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (cf. blogpost 6 July 2010), a third innovative Muslim intellectual has just passed away as well. Mohammed Arkoun died yesterday in Paris at the age of 82.

Carool Kersten with Mohammed Arkoun (London, October 2009)

An Algerian Berber educated in French and Arabic in Oran and Algiers, in 1954 Arkoun moved to France in for postgraduate studies. In Paris, he studied under eminent scholars such as Jacques Berque, Robert Brunschvig, Louis Massignon and Paul Ricoeur, while his teaching duties in Strasbourg brought him into contact with Claude Cahen, who in turn introduced Arkoun to the historians of the Annales School, which had emerged in that city a quarter of a century earlier. This proved to be a revelation which left an indelible mark on Arkoun's scholarship. Notions like the 'history of mentalities' and the 'unthinkable' developed by the school's founders Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, or Braudel's conceptualization of the Mediterranean as a 'geo-historical space' found their way into Arkoun's pioneering historiographies of Islamic thought.

Coinciding with the Algerian war of independence and the student uprisings of 1968, Arkoun's postgraduate studies overlap with the Aufbruch of the French political, cultural and academic scene. His years as a doctoral student  are also framed by global events like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring twelve years later, thus matching almost exactly with what Patricia O'Brien has called 'the milestone dates in the chronology of dislocation’ characterizing the intellectual upheaval in the postwar era.

In his subsequent scholarship, which must primarily be regarded as setting a new agenda for the study of Islam as a field of scholarly inquiry, Arkoun has drawn from across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences, using the latest advances made in the Western -- and in particular the French -- academe. Aside from the Annales school,  the structural linguistics and anthropology developed by Saussure, Benveniste and Levi-Strauss, the semiotics of Greimas, the sociology and political philosophy of Cornelius Castoriades, Foucault's discursive formations, as well as his archaeologies of knowledge and power, or Derrida's poststructuralist deconstructions; have all left their traces in Arkoun's rethinking of Islamic studies. 

Initially conceived as a 'Critique of Islamic Reason', he moved on to a more constructive proposition for a new research programme for studying Islam and the Muslim world. Presented under the name 'Applied Islamology'., this project envisaging a collaborative effort requiring the participation of international teams of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, was not only inspired by the French ethnographer Roger Bastide's 'Applied Anthropology', but also informed by the Luso-Tropicology (Tropicalism) of the Brazilian social scientist Gilberto Freyre. 

Arkoun's ability to draw all these different strings and strands of thought together into a coherent whole betrays the influence from yet another of his intellectual mentors, Paul Ricoeur. Just as the latter's generous or charitable interpretations had enabled him to reconcile conflicting philosophical positions on knowledge and understanding, Arkoun adhered to a similar catholic approach. Following his master through the 'narrow gate' of structural-linguistic analysis, Arkoun's insistence that 'accurate description must precede interpretation; but interpretation cannot be attempted today without a rigorous analysis, using linguistics, semiotic, historical, and anthropological tools’, reflects Ricoeur's hermeneutic adage that 'to explain more is to understand better'.

In the final years of his career, Arkoun repeatedly expressed regret that his methodological suggestions often fell on deaf ears among scholars of Islam. But that did not deter him the least. In fact, in the last ten years or so, he actually expanded his horizons from the study of Islamic thought to a critique of all forms of reason and rational thinking, proposing an almost Kantian philosophical recalibration, which he called the 'Emerging Reason Project' and continued to advocate and propagate until the very end.

Last year, in October 2009, the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London organized a symposium in honour of Arkoun's efforts to renew the study of Islam (cf. blog post of 11 October 2009). For links to some of Arkoun's publications, click on the images below.

Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon AnswersIslam: To Reform or to Subvert?The Unthought In Contemporary Islamic ThoughtLa Pensée arabeL'IslamMohammed Arkoun