The New Reformers

The New Reformers

The year 2010 witnessed the passing away of a number of Arab icons of enlightenment and creativity; hard times, during which pages were filled with obituaries and eulogies, as is usual upon the death of persons, especially those altruists who carry out a mission for their nation and act as a model for future generations. A relevant question here is : When should we stop mourning and continue the mission of the deceased?

Development, revival and modernization were among the basic elements of our Arab thinkers early progress projects in the early 20th century. Conceived individually or collectively, these projects which sought independence and development were replaced following liberation, political independence and he rise of Arab governments with national projects which succeeded somewhere and failed somewhere else. It seems that we have forgotten our objectives and are now in a stage similar to what was in the past, lagging behind developed nations. This requires forward thinking to revive progress projects to catch the last minute train and save the Arabs from extinction and disappearance of their heritage and culture.

Surprisingly, the year which is coming to a close this month saw the death of a number of such new reformers who devoted their life to the idea of scientific, intellectual, educational, cultural, literary and religious progress; we had to mourn them, then dry our tears to be able to read the messages they left us.

Questioning the past

Dr Muhammad Abed Aljabri, who taught philosophy at King Muhammad V University in Rabat, the capital of his native country, then at Damascus University, was not just a professor of an old discipline, as philosophy, having been connected with science, is no longer old. In addition, having chosen the East as his sphere of learning and teaching, he was not just a conveyor of such a discipline. In his projects during his academic and professional life, Aljabri questioned the past seriously in an attempt to build the present and understand the future properly. He identified the areas of backwardness in education, which is mostly true of the entire Arab world, even though he chose Morocco as an example. Accordingly, he stressed the need for using Arabic instead of French and for uniform education to face private schools for the rich. He also called for making education available to all in order to wipe out illiteracy. Besides suggesting solutions to this issue, he attempted to analyse contemporary Arab discourse and presented his intellectual critical project as part of a contemporary Arab philosophy and historical independence of our Arab discourse which is the objective correlative of thinking and existence.

Aljabri considered our Islamic heritage to be lively. In his book We and Heritage , published three decades ago, he analysed this philosophical heritage as an introduction to his major project: Criticism of the Arab Mind , in which he evaluated the advantage of questioning heritage as a lively experiment, taking from the writings of Alfarabi, Avicenna, Averros and Ibn Khaldun what benefits us and to deal with such heritage rationally as a tool, approach and thought instead of keeping it in neglected files, re-publishing it in very limited copies or investigating it in academic theses which only interest specialists.

The most significant element in Aljabri s project is his reformist call, especially following his criticism of the need for reform. He did not accept limiting reform models to Alafghani, Muhammad Abdou and Rasheed Reda, as reform, he said, should not be just a recreation of predecesoors opinions or adoption of the West s. He insisted on dealing seriously with questioning the past in terms of heritage, reform, thought and philosophy in an attempt to build the present and understand the future. Our Islamic culture is based on duties, whereas Western culture is based on rights.

Aljabri s last project to give contemporary understanding of the Holy Quran was perhaps the pick of his ideas. In a new discourse he discussed the traditional disciplines which old scholars established to be icons deriving sanctity from Quranic texts. In this way he reread the disciplines of the Quran, Prophetic Tradition and Life, Interpretation and Jurisprudence as his last message to be always open to reason in order to continue the efforts of the old advocates of progress.

Consulting the mind

Having chosen the political aspect of aboul Hassan Almawardi s writings as the subject of his PhD thesis, the late Kuwaiti thinker Dr Ahmad Albaghdadi agreed with what Almawardi believed: reason as the basis of all virtues, manners and knowledge, as Almighty God made the power of the mind the basis of religion and the pillar of the world. Duties are only required to be performed by those who have sound minds, as Sharia doesn t ordain what reason rejects, nor does reason follow what Sharia forbids. I recall Albaghdadi s project now because it best suits our current, rather harsh conditions. Like him, Almawardi lived an age of weak rule (the Abbasid Caliphate), which led him to revive logical thinking to achieve progress. Likewise, we are keen to recreate Albaghdadi s rational, enlightened opinions, as he, in addition, highlighted the role of Arab intellectuals in society which should be independent and thus have the ability to criticize and use the mind for both power and people, instead of loyalty to any particular trend or party.

Albaghdadi didn t live in an ivory tower. He called for dialogue, and with some of companions founded the Dialogue Center in Kuwait, which adopted liberalism as a channel for changes. Through his presence in the media studies, press articles, TV debates and symposiums he was involved in quarrels with his opponents, particularly extremists who strongly disagreed with his courageous call for listening to reason for the sake of the values of enlightenment, progress projects and rationalism.

Awareness raising

Awareness is a legendary being which needs arousing if buried under a heap of backwardness or lost in the darkness of ignorance. Someone to do this is awaited for in each age, but throughout the course of our Arab progress march only a few persons were able to raise people s awareness. Foremost among those was the Arabist poet Ahmad Alsaqqaf. The epithet Arabist is significant here as it best describes him; he dedicated half of his poetry anthology to his Arab nation and nationalist causes, mainly Palestine. Not only did he express his concern for his country s issues and boast his countrymen s spirit in poetry but he also adopted an approach during his lifetime which served as a model with its strong implications which will continue giving light at the end of the subordination tunnel. He urged the younger generation who he believed are able to bring about change to do their best in this endeavour; and praised the symbols of the Arab Revolution he believed were able to achieve progress.

Contemporary Arab culture tells the story of his very famous journey to found Al-Arabi, following his appointment as Director of the Department of Guidance and News in 1957. The journey provided the ingredients for a brilliant chapter in Kuwait s cultural history. Having visited major Arab capitals he hose Dr Ahmad Zaki as Al-Arabi s editor- -in-chief in addition to its editorial team who contributed to the birth of a still lively project created by Alsaqqaf even 52 years after the appearance of the first issue in December 1958.

Clarifying religion

Since the start of Western studies of Islamic heritage (Orientalism) language, religion, texts, figures and thought European and American historians, thinkers and philosophers only listen to their own voices. Hence emerged the message of the late Algerian thinker Muhammad Arkoun, which ushered a new age of linguistic studies of the Holy Quran at the most prestigious French university the Sorbonne, where he obtained his PhD in philosophy and taught for three decades. Since then he has been profusely writing in search of the truth and belief in dialogue. He didn t mind writing about sensitive issues, but he did care about unifying Muslims awareness. That perhaps led him to rewrite and edit his topics in search of a greater truth: clarifying religion for his students in the West and disciples and opponents in the Arab East alike.

Arkoun promoted pluralism, out of respect for others thinking, religion, heritage and culture. He, meanwhile, called for a new era of enlightenment similar to the Renaissance following the Dark Ages which coincided with and marked the religiously motivated Crusades.

During forty years of painstaking research, Arkoun suffered like those who break new ground which requires understanding that s perhaps ahead of his time. Criticism of his writings in the Arab world didn t stem from understanding them but rather from opposing his free thinking to restore the spirit of enlightenment not only as criticism of minds engrossed in religious ideas but to create minds critical of and concerned with post-modernity.

Exploring the future

Never has the role of philosophy been just to replicate old ideas but to explore the future, as appears in the works of another great late Arab philosopher Fuad Zakaria. Thirty years ago he stressed the need for reviving scientific thinking as a crucial issue in the Arab world. As we investigate our heritage today as far as scientific thinking is concerned we feel deeply depressed as we are lagging behind others shackled by superstitions and defeatist ideas. He predicted what we were duly to find ourselves in today regression and decline, and suggested ways of thinking whose two wings are reason and freedom.

Continuing hope

Writing can long continue about the above-mentioned prominent figures who passed away and many others who also contributed to progress endeavours. We can t forget Dr Nasr Hamid Abou Zaid s attempts to examine heritage, which cost him dearly but used his plight to be an outspoken Arab-Muslim voice in exile in the Netrherlands. Nor can we forget uncle Altaher Wattar, the champion of Arabic, which not only formed his Arabist sentiments but gave the characters in his well-known novels a purely local, and a strong pan-Arab, spirit, which enriched our literary imagination for decades. Likewise, we remember Dr Ghazi Alqosaibi, who put his culture in the service of his nation and defended his ideas and was thus a brilliant model of a nationalist Arab creative writer and poet for his fellow Arabians.

Continuing hope means that we keep the torches left by those persons alive. We don t want Muhammad Abed Aljabri s project for questioning the past to flounder, or Ahmad Albaghdadi s concern with consulting the mind to be neglected. Nor should we stop raising Arab awareness following the death of the late poet Ahmad Alsaqqaf, clarify religion after the demise of Muhammad Arkoun or explore the future after the passing away of Fuad Zakaria. Let s keep Nasr Hamid Abou Zaid s message of examining heritage alive. Let s continue Altaher Wattar s call for preserving the language of our identity. Let our culture, which is indebted to Ghazi Alqosaibi s achievements keep the torch he left behind alive.

This is a call to those disciples who learned from the works of those who passed away as well as to their opponents, so that there may be renewed hope in reason and rationalism in order to serve the purposes of intellect and humanity and remove ignorance from Arab culture.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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