"Reason is a light which is certainly needed to illuminate the darkness, but it can also be useful in full daylight." - Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (27 December 1936 – 3 May 2010)
Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, who was born in Figuig, Morocco on 27 December 1936 and died on 3 May 2010, was without doubt one of the most significant social theorists of the Arab world. His 1970 dissertation on Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century North African pioneer of modern sociology, resulted in his first doctorate, awarded by the University of Mohammed V in Rabat following Moroccan independence. It was the first of a total of over 30 works.
Al-Jabri was both a critical philosopher and a proponent of left-wing social policy. He was always committed to education, initially as a teacher, then as a school inspector, textbook author, university professor and mentor.
Drawing on the history of non-orthodox Muslim movements, Al-Jabri saw himself in the tradition of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant in that he called on his readers to insist on their right to define the world on the basis of their own observations, and not on those of pre-defined, traditional or out-of-date authorities.
He was, in the best sense, a "public intellectual". In 1990, he published a North African East-West Dialogue as a kind of argument and counter-argument with the Egyptian philosopher and Cairo University professor Hassan Hanafi. His main work, The Critique of the Arab Mind, appeared in four volumes in Beirut and Casablanca between 1984 and 2001 and led to lively controversy. The work attempted to address the problem of “how to read and re-read Arab-Islamic writings without making the facts sacred”.
According to al-Jabri, two main elements in the history of political ideas continue to have an influence in the Arab world and are responsible for its continuing stagnation: (1) imitation rather than critical thought has become the main form of awareness, and (2) rulers are not often despotic all by themselves, they are counselled by those around them, who are also responsible for success or failure.
To counter these influences, Al-Jabri wanted to strengthen the rational, intellectual tradition in Muslim thought and drew on the writings of 4th Century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle and 12th century Muslim philosopher and theologian Ibn Rushd as his inspirational authorities.
Like many contemporary intellectuals in the Arab world, al-Jabri was scarcely known in Germany until philosopher and publisher Reginald Grünenberg was introduced to his works in 1995. Grünenberg plans to publish all of al-Jabri's major works in German at his Perlen Verlag publishing house.
Al-Jabri's attack on conventional authority is as explosive socially as the works of the Egyptian thinker and human rights activist Farag Foda, who was killed by two members of an extremist political Islamic group in 1992, or those of the Sudanese scholar Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was hanged in 1985 for opposing the imposition of Islamic law in September 1983 because it divided Muslims from the large non-Muslim Sudanese population and thus was contrary to national unity.
Both Taha and Foda were declared to be apostates by their states' religious authorities, and thus beyond the protection of the law. It was a sign of the greater liberalism of Morocco that al-Jabri never faced such threats. The Moroccan king even offered him national honours, but he always refused to accept them.
Grünenberg once asked him in a letter published in 2005 whether his provocative views had ever led to repression or violence against him to which Al-Jabri replied, "I have never yet found myself the object of any kind of aggression on account of my political position or on account of those of my ideas which express an ideological or cultural position… When I criticise an intellectual tendency or wish to distance myself from it, then I do so solely as a thinker who wishes to make his position clear, and not as an opponent or an enemy."
For millions of young people Al-Jabri had reconciled modernity, their desire for democracy and their cultural heritage, said well-known Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi. Young people read his works eagerly and were exposed to a Muslim history in which reason and the formation of individual opinions were a fundamental element.
Al-Jabri was a member of a well-educated generation which experienced the independence struggles in North Africa as young men; they went on to influence the formation of their society in every area. His motto was: "Have the courage to use your own intelligence!"
An introduction to his work was published in German by Perlen Verlag in 2009 and I was able to take that volume to al-Jabri last May.
He undoubtedly would have loved to also see the German translation of The Critique of the Arab Mind. An English translation is still in progress. As a result, one of the most important Arab intellectuals is scarcely known in the West, however much people may talk of the importance of dialogue with the Muslim world.
* Sonja Hegasy is a freelance writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de.