Saturday, 28 May 2011

Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi and the 'anthropological turn' in Muslim thinking

This week's edition of  Qantara, the Germany-based website covering current political, cultural and intellectual affairs in the Muslim world draws attention to the work of the Moroccan philosopher and poet Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi (1923-1993) and the latter's important contributions he has made to developing an Islamic-philosophical anthropology through his 'Muslim personalism'.

Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi (1923-1993)
 The German theologian and philosopher, Pastor Dr Markus Kneer, has recently published an annoted German translation of Lahbabi's Le Personnalisme Musulman under the title Der Mensch: Zeuge Gottes: Entwurf eine islamischen Anthropology. In an interview he discusses some aspects of Lahbabi's work. Motivated to find a new way of engaging in Muslim-Christian dialogue, Kneer was looking for a Muslim thinker who could be presented with reference to Western anthropologies:
It seemed to me that localising what is to a great extent a Christian and Occidental concept of the individual within a Muslim context harboured the potential for a dialogue on the Christian and Islamic images of man – potential that should by all means be tapped. Lahbabi's "Muslim personalism" consists of just such an articulation of the human individual from Islamic sources. His points of reference in European philosophy are the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950) and Jean Lacroix (1900–1986) as well as the life philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859–1941).
Admitting that Lahbabi's ideas are very much grounded in the intellectual climate of the 1950s and 1960s, Kneer argues that, against the dramatic changes in the political landscape in North Africa, the time is ripe for a new appreciation of some of the ideas that had come to fruition in that time frame:
Today, personalism has largely been replaced by other discourses. Nevertheless, contemplation of the human as person is more intense today than in past decades, and what Paul Ricœur already predicted thirty years ago now seems to be coming true: "Personalism will die, but the person will return!" 
This concept after all bundles together other values that are of great importance for the articulation and ethical analysis of human life: e.g. dignity, freedom, responsibility. And I think it's no accident that in recent official publications of the Arab League on the subject of human rights the Arabic equivalent of person, "shakhs", frequently appears.
Although two generations have passed since North Africa shook off the yoke of political imperialism, the Muslim world's intellectual emancipation has only been partially realized. Recently, its progress has been obstructed by the positing of unhelpful theses, such as Francis Fukuyama's 'The End of History', and dangerous polarizing ideological paradigms for a new post-Cold War world order, like the 'Clash of Civilizations', advocated by the likes of Samuel Huntington. It seems in many parts of the Muslim world the time is ripe for challenging these remnants of Western hegemonism, thus giving new currency to the ideas Lahbabi developed a few decades ago. As Kneer explains: 
The historical and practical reasons why Lahbabi chose to analyse the process of becoming a person can be found in the identity crisis experienced by the colonised populace during the colonial era – in particular by the intellectuals. Lahbabi described how the colonial system had depersonalising effects for him and many others. Instead of experiencing language, communication and mental life as fields for personalisation, his generation suffered from speechlessness, non-communication and a feeling of inner emptiness. He wondered for a long time whether he was a person equal to the others, in other words, to the Europeans. The role of the Other in becoming a person and a human is thus not unproblematic.
The awareness of this philosophical problem is also reflected in Lahbabi's stance towards the place of reason in human thinking and how this can be accommodated within a Muslim Personalist philosophy:
Lahbabi is not talking about an absolute reason of the word, divorced from the religious context, but rather a reason that illuminates and lends dynamics to this context. In other words, ijtihad, the term used in Islamic theology to describe the personal and rational adoption of faith, must be rehabilitated as the fundamental method of theological work. Lahbabi's profound criticism of taqlid, the blind mimicking of and adherence to opinions passed down by the great Muslim scholarly authorities, is connected with this stance. Only shahada (profession of the one and only God, the Muslim creed) that reflects true ijtihad has personalising value, says Lahbabi.
With his dynamic concept of reason, Lahbabi takes up a position within value hermeneutics that mediates between the cultural and religious sources of values and their universal validity. In the process of transcending the bounds of the self, culturally inflected values become understandable against the horizon of other value traditions, and their universality can be tested. One-sided culturalism or universalism is not possible with Lahbabi.
Read the full article by clicking here.
Dr Marien van den Boom
Kneer is not the first Western scholar to draw attention to Lahbabi's thought. In 1984, the Dutch scholar Marien van den Boom published a PhD thesis in which he juxtaposes Lahbabi with the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi. Written in Dutch, De Bevrijding van de Mens in Islamitisch Perspektief (The Liberation of Man from an Islamic Perspective) unfortunately went largely unnoticed. To my knowledge, it was -- and still is -- the only detailed examination of the anthropological turn by two Muslim philosophers, who are not only united by this anthropocentric focus, but also by their ambition to develop a kind of Islamic liberation theology as a contribution to the liberation of the entire 'Third World'.

Of course, other thinkers from the Muslim world, such as Hichem Djait, Mohammed Arkoun, and -- in Indonesia -- Nurcholish Madjid have also developed personalist and humanist ways of thinking, drawing on concepts such as Kardiner's 'basic personality structure' or advocating new epistemologies that make a clear distinction between theological and anthropological approaches to the study of religious phenomena. For a more detailed discussion of the contributions of Arkoun, Hanafi and Madjid to these debates, see my Cosmopolitans and Heretics, which has just been released by Columbia University Press.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Muslim World in 2011: Another landmark Event

Mark Juergensmeyer's article, published by the Religion Dispatches website, carrying his first commentary on the death of Osama bin Laden and its impact on the future of radical Islamism and Muslim political extremism reiterates the point he made in an earlier essay on the impact of Egypt's 25 February 2011 Revolt and other uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa: That the war on terrorism was not won by US special forces or high-tech intelligence operations, but tweeting youths in the Arab world and elsewhere. It confirms the underpinnings of the Critical Muslims blog that -- in the long run -- the ideas of progressive, cosmopolitan and liberal-minded Muslims will outlast the nihilism of Islamist agendas. Here are a few excerpts corroborating this position:
Osama bin Laden 1957-2011
The imagined war of the Bush era may indeed be over. And the jihadi insurrection associated with bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization may also be dead. But I suspect that the real perpetrators of their deaths may not have been the elite American military cadre some hours ago in Pakistan, but the legion of cell-phone toting protestors earlier this year in Tahrir Square. They have helped to complete the erosion of legitimacy that has undermined the jihadi activists in recent years within the Muslim world. 
  What brought down the tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a series of massive nonviolent movements of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their protests through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of electronic social networking.
  The religiosity of Tahrir Square is far from the religion of radical jihad. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shi'a, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in Tahrir Square were emblems of interfaith cooperation; they showed the cross of Coptic Christians together with the crescent of Egypt's Muslims in a united religious front against autocracy.
Tahrir Square is a profound anti-jihadi lesson, and its significance has spread around the world. It has ignited similar nonviolent protests elsewhere in the Middle East, and it may also have altered the thinking of activists in other cultures as well. Intense discussion is underway in Palestine, where the Hamas-dominated strategy of strategic violence has been largely counterproductive; will a new nonviolent and non-extremist movement of young educated Palestinian professionals create a different kind of impetus for change in their region of the Middle East?
 Read the entire essay by clicking here.

Mark Juergensmeyer
The above assessment echoes his earlier observations on the Tahrir Square phenomenon in the Huffington Post:
What brought down Mubarak, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a massive nonviolent movement of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their mass protests through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of electronic social networking. No doubt the passivity of the Egyptian military was also a critical factor; the army did not forcibly resist the protests, as the military has in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Yet one cannot underestimate the importance of Tahrir Square, and similar protests in Alexandria and throughout Egypt. Clearly, they constituted the catalyst for change. The rallies at Tahrir Square often seemed more like rock concerts than like urban warfare, and when fighting did break out it was largely promulgated by thugs hired by the Mubarak regime rather than the anti-government protestors. Perhaps not since the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines has the world seen such a dramatic demonstration of the power of nonviolent resistance. The protests were not the weapons of jihad, nor were the voices of opposition the strident language of Islamist extremism.
Cairo's Tahrir Square, 25 February 2011
Here are his musings on Bin Laden's reaction to recent events in the Arab World -- not that these conjectures matter anymore:
Imagine what Osama bin Laden must have made of all of this as news trickled into the cave or cellar or whatever lair in which he is hiding. Imagine even more the puzzled chagrin of someone like bin Laden's primary lieutenant, Zawahiri, the Egyptian medical doctor who joined the most extreme Islamist jihadi movement years ago, convinced that only violent guerrilla warfare would topple someone like Mubarak. Tahrir Square clearly showed that Zawahiri was wrong. 
 However, he also added a cautionary caveat:
Does this mean that al Qaeda is finished, and the radical struggles of jihad will fizzle into history?Perhaps, in part. It is unlikely, however, that the al Qaeda organization, such as it is, will be abandoned. The small group of people who comprise the inner circle of the bin Laden organization will no doubt harden its resolve. Like the followers of millennarian movements who become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs when the prophecized end of the world does not terminate on schedule, the true believers of al Qaeda will soldier on. (The whole essay can be found here).
In today's commentary he repeated that warning:
 The rise of a new nonviolent popularism in the Middle East may seriously undercut the viability of the jihadi image of violent social change. On the other hand, a significant number of failures of nonviolent resistence may lead to a violent backlash once again.
Indeed, we are not there yet...Specialists in religiously inspired violence such as Juergensmeyer will have their work cut out for  many years to come, but so will the analysts of the alternative discourses on the other side of the spectrum. 2011 may very well enter history as the watershed year for the amplification of those other voices.

For some of Juergensmeyer's books, click on the images below:

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, Vol. 13)Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution, Updated with a New Preface and New Case StudyRadhasoami Reality