Thursday, 21 June 2012


Although technically he does not qualify as a 'critical Muslim', because he was a Marxist thinker of Coptic descent, the sociologist and philosopher Anouar Abdel-Malek deserves to be mentioned in these annals, if only for the fact that he beat a fellow Arab Christian in criticizing the Western discourse on Islam and the Muslim world by a full fifteen years. This week, the doyen of social scientific analysis of Arab societies passed away in a Parisian hospital. The French capital had been his home since the 1950s.
Anouar Abdel Malek
As early as 1963, Abdel-Malek wrote an essay entitled 'L'Orientalisme en Crise', in which he critically examined Western approaches to the study of non-Western societies, and the Muslim World in particular. Written in French it never received the same exposure as Edward Saids' more extensive and illustrative Orientalism, but Abdel-Malek's examination has  impacted on Said's own investigations into this field.

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, Abdel-Malek became one of the foremost commentators and critics of social and socio-political developments in the Arab world, including his native Egypt. One of his most famous books is a study on the role of the military in Egypt (Egypt: Military Society). Against the background of the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring, the subject has not lost any of its currency and relevance.

As indicated by his study of Orientalism, Abdel-Malek's interests were much wider; encompassing the Third World-at-large. In that sense his work formed part of the now obsolete discourse of Tiers-Mondisme, somewhat awkwardly translated as 'Third-Worldism'. This strand of thinking emerged from the 'Spirit of Bandung', set free at the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. Tiers-Mondisme found its political translation in the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, which -- aside from the conference host, Indonesian President Sukarno -- also included among its founders, Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito, and China's Zhou En Lai.

Syed Hussein Alatas
In the early eighties, Abdel-Malek worked together with Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007), an Indonesian-born scholar of Hadhrami (southern Yemeni) descent who later worked at universities in Singapore and Malaysia (he is the brother of Syed Naguib al-Attas, the scholar of Islam who established the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, ISTAC, see also post of 21 January 2012). Trained in Amsterdam as a sociologist of religion, Alatas' interests were more in the domain of intellectual history. During his student years he edited and published a periodical called Progressive Islam. Later he made name with The Myth of the Lazy Native,  a study of Javanese, Malay and Philipino intellectual traditions, and a book on the role of intellectuals in developing societies.

What united Abdel-Malek and Alatas was a critical attitude towards the overeasy dismissal of non-Western ways of thinking as intellectually less rigorous than the European tradition of reason which began its global spread from the Enlightenment Era onwards. The fruits of the collaboration led to the introduction of a notion of 'endogenous intellectual creativity' (For a comparative study of Abdel-Malek and Alatas, see Mona Abaza's Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt).

Hamza Qinawi
Although, with the advancement of years, he became less prominent, Abdel-Malek never let go of his interest in other non-Western civilizations, as became clear as recent as 2006, when he talked about his enduring interest in China as an emerging (or, more accurately, re-emerging) power, when he was interviewed for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. More recently, there was a bit of furor over a book, entitled The Intellectuals (المثقفون) written by Abdel-Malek's former assistant, Hamza Qinawi. It was said that the book was unduly critical of Abdel-Malek's thought and that, again allegedly, it had greatly upset the nestor of Egyptian sociology. Qinawi has denied this in a piece in Al-Ahram in 2009. To dispell any lingering impressions of hard feelings between the two, Qinawi contributed this obituary.


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