Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Arab Spring: Intellectual Underpinnings

The newly launched  Fair Observer Website has published an essay by yours truly on the intellectual discourses underlying the current social volatility and changes in the political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East.
 the outside world appears to be realizing that the region’s future is not limited to a choice between authoritarian strong-man regimes providing a precarious stability, or the uncertainties associated with an Islamist take-over. But what is still missing in analyses of these peoples’ revolutions - driven by rising Arab middle classes - is how political pluralism depends on intellectual opennessThis is not only because policy makers, political pundits and other Middle East watchers focus primarily on the antagonism between existing regimes and their Islamist detractors. 
The article showcases Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi as an example of  what Mohammed Arkoun called the chercheur-penseur or 'scholar-thinker', whose contributions to a rethinking of Islam as a civilizational legacy were considered suspect by the political elites and controversial by the religious establishment and Islamists.
Hasan Hanafi
A former Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, by 1960 Hanafi had already moved away from the Islamist agenda, focusing instead on the potential of Islam’s wider intellectual legacy for the emancipation of not just the Middle East but the Third World in general, from regressing into a theocracy.  Hanafi was no stranger to controversy. Because of his revolutionary reinterpretation of Islamic thinking along the lines of Latin American liberation theology, he had been in trouble with both Egypt’s state security apparatus and the Islamists before.  
The ‘Heritage and Renewal’ Project which he has been developing for the last thirty years envisages a new way of thinking for citizens of Egypt, the Muslim world, and eventually the entire Developing World, by critically examining the failings of their heritage as well as the shortcomings of the West.  Unfortunately for Hanafi, it caused not only suspicion among the state authorities, but his criticisms of atrophied traditional Islamic learning and rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood slogan ‘Islam is the Solution’ also caught the ire of the Azhar establishment and the Islamists.
However, it appears that these progressive ideas are now finally percolating through to the growing middle classes of increasingly better educated and critical young Egyptians and Muslims elsewhere.
 Amr Hamzawy, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment whose name briefly circulated as the new minister of youth after Mubarak’s fall, used the Islamist attacks on Hanafi to illustrate Egypt’s lack of intellectual freedom.
Amr Hamzawy
 Only now, in the wake of the February 25th revolution, is there a chance for the openness Hanafi has advocated for decades. In an article for al-Arabi Weekly, entitled ‘The Awakening of the Giant’, he  noted that: “The people broke the barrier of fear. They jumped forward along the historical path.” 
It seems that the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world are catching up with other countries, where the space for lively intellectual debate has been less constricted:
Ironically, many of these thinkers have found more receptive audiences elsewhere in the Muslim world, in particular in Indonesia and Turkey [..]It is interesting to note how Indonesia and Turkey, two countries careful to avoid any direct reference to Islam in their constitutions, also appear to be the most open to lively debates on the place of religion in public life. This intellectual vibrancy is a crucial factor in the remarkable political transformations of the most populous Muslim nation-state in the world and the largest Muslim country in the Mediterranean. Indonesia and Turkey, too, suffered under military dictatorship while witnessing an increased display of personal Muslim piety. However, this is no longer pursued through political Islamic doctrines. Instead it has been translated into an agenda advocating economic development, universal standards of human rights, and democracy compatible with a moral compass based on Islamic values.
Hasan Hanafi in Indonesia
The read the full article, click here

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Legacy of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd: One Year On...

A year ago this week, the leading Egyptian Islamicist Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd died rather unexpectedly in Cairo (see my post of 6 July 2010). The Qantara website carries two articles to commemorate the event, the first one reports on the conference organized by Navid Kermani and Katajun Amirpur, bringing together scholars such as the Syrian scholars Sadiq al-Azm and Aziz al-Azmeh, the Iranian intellectuals Abdolkarim Soroush and Muhammad Shabestari, South Africa's Farid Esack and Amina Wadud from the USA.
But the fact that this conference with its star-studded guest list took place in Essen and not in Cairo, Tehran or Lahore is an indication of the lack of acceptance with which innovative approaches are met within the Islamic world. It is also a reminder of the fact that Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was declared divorced from his wife against his will in 1995 as a result of his very cautious attempts to stimulate reform in Egypt.
To read the whole article click here.

The other contribution was Yoginder Sikand's last interview with the Egyptian scholar.In response to the question how he sees his work, Abu Zayd replied:
 I see it as part of my long interest in Islamic hermeneutics, the methodology of understanding the Koran, the Sunnah and other components of the Islamic tradition. Of particular concern for me are certain assumptions in popular Islamic discourse that have not been fully examined, and have generally been ignored or avoided. Thus, for instance, Muslim scholars have not seriously reflected on the question of what is actually meant when we say that the Koran is the revealed 'Word of God'. What exactly does the term 'Word of God' mean? What does revelation mean?
In a historical understanding of the Koran one would also have to look at the verses in the text that refer specifically to the Prophet and the society in which he lived. Some people might feel that looking at the Koran in this way is a crime against Islam, but I feel that this sort of reaction is a sign of a weak and vulnerable faith. And this is why a number of writers who have departed from tradition and have pressed for a way of relating to the Koran that takes the historical context of the revelation seriously have been persecuted in many countries.
I think there is a pressing need to bring the historical dimension of the revelation into discussion, for this is indispensable for countering authoritarianism, both religious and political, and for promoting human rights
 For the whole interview, click here

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Intellectual historian Ibrahim Abu-Rabi' dies in Amman

M. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi'
M. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi', a leading expert on contemporary Muslim thought passed away in Amman on 2 July 2011. An academic with appointments as Professor of Islamic Studies and co-Director of the Duncan Black MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut and at the University of Alberta in Canada, Abu-Rabi' began making a name as a specialist in the intellectual history of the present-day Muslim world in the mid-1990s.

 A graduate of Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, Nazareth-born Abu-Rabi' held two MAs from the University of Cincinnati and Temple University, where he also completed his PhD in the study of religions. His studies of the writings and ideas of contemporary thinkers and scholars from the Arabic-speaking parts, published under the titles Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World and Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History are now regarded as seminal works on the intellectual history of the modern Middle East. He also edited the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought.

More recently, Abu-Rabi's interests turned to Turkey, focusing in particular on the writings of the leading 20th-century thinker and Sufi, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (ca. 1875-1960) and Fethullah Gülen. This shift prefigures the new awareness among Arab-Muslim activists associated with the recent  seismic shifts in North Africa and the Middle East of the relevance of developments in Turkish civil society and its intellectual underpinnings for the further unfolding of the 'Arab Spring' of 2011 (cf. also my blog post of 5 February 2011). Sadly, Abu-Rabi' will no longer provide us with insights and reflections on what will most certainly be recognized in future assessments of these developments as both a political watershed and intellectual paradigm shift of magnitude even greater than the traumatic events of 1967.

For links to Abu-Rabi's publications, click on the images below

Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual HistoryIntellectual Orig Islamic Resurgen (Suny Series, Near Eastern Studies)Islam at the Crossroads: On the Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Suny Series in Near Eastern Studies)Spiritual Dimensions of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi's: Risale-i-nurTheodicy and Justice in Modern Islamic ThoughtThe Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam
 September 11: Religious Perspectives on the Causes and Consequences (One World (Oxford))Contemporary Islamic Conversations: M. Fethullah Gulen on Turkey, Islam, and the WestThe Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American CenturyThe Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (Blackwell Companions to Religion)