On Arkoun’s “Towards a Critique of Islamic Reason”

Hashem Saleh

I recently translated a book by Mohammed Arkoun titled "Towards a Critique of Islamic Reason." The title of this book is controversial, as many traditional Muslim scholars would argue that "critique" should not apply to religious thought, let alone to Islamic religious thought, and therefore would consider the book an affront against religious beliefs. However, I believe that this dreadful, not to mention rigid, attitude towards criticism is a result of a misunderstanding of the word "critique." Instead of referring to the practice of passing harsh judgment, "critique" here relates to the practice of evaluating, understanding and explaining complex problems. This practice, called "intellectual criticism," dates back to the time of the Enlightenment and its greatest philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, who used it to develop a profound understanding of human experience. Since then, a number of philosophers have published important "critiques" of human thought, including Kant’s "Critique of Pure Reason," Sartre’s "Critique of Dialectic Reason," and Regis DeBray’s "Critique of Political Reason."

When Mohammed Arkoun published his book "Towards a Critique of Islamic Reason" in French in 1984, he intended to subject Islamic thought to the same type of intellectual criticism. After all, it was the application of this modern critical methodology that resulted in a renaissance in Christian thought and the enlightenment that followed. Before this time, Europe was home to a number of Christian terrorist organizations and suffered from fanaticism, extremism, and sectarian violence, similar to the problems posed by organizations like Al Qaeda in the Islamic world today. What allowed Europe to emerge from this historical dead-end was the courage to meet the challenge of these groups head-on, and it did not fully succeed in eradicating them until it had applied rational and critical methodology to its Christian heritage.

Personally, I believe that the Arab and Islamic worlds cannot escape their present predicament without initiating a comprehensive examination and critique of their own religious and cultural traditions. This is a reality that has become evident to many and it has been acknowledged by scholars world-wide. Historical stagnation has lasted centuries, since the beginning of the age of decadence when the door was shut on ijtihad [religious interpretation] and criticism, and it remains a problem in our society today. Breaking this stagnation has become an inevitable historical necessity. I believe that if we fail to meet this challenge, we will remain controlled by dark and reactionary forces until the end of time, and remain stuck far behind other peoples and nations. Consider the intellectual and even physical terrorism perpetrated by extremist organizations like Al Qaeda and others on our daily lives and even against our intellectual and political leaders. Consider the extent of the damage, not only in terms of distorting the image of Islam and Arabs all over the world but also the hindrance of efforts to lift ourselves out of this chronic state of historical underdevelopment, so that we may join the ranks of the developed nations. Whenever we push forward they drag us backward, so that we have become a target of ridicule by the world community.

I believe that the challenge that we are facing does not call for a critique of Arab thought but rather for a critique of the traditional and fundamentalist Islamic thought. Why? Because there is no such thing as an Arab thought, or a Turkish, or Persian, French, American or Japanese thought, for human thought is one in the same, although it may pass through various phases of historical development. However, there is a distinction between pre-reason and post-reason thought, and in this sense, Arab thought is closer to the Persian, the Turkish or the Pakistani than it is to the French, the American or the German. Why? Because the latter are fully immersed in an environment of scientific modernism, philosophical rationalism and enlightened religious thinking, with the exception of marginal fundamentalist and extremist groups, especially in the U.S. Generally speaking, there is a difference between the mentality of the Middle Ages, steeped as it was in myths, superstitions, narrow-minded and fanatical environment, and the mentality of modern times that has been liberated by the manifestations of science and philosophy. If we applied this broad standard, we would find that large segments of our societies are still subject to old mentalities and worn out thoughts due to fanatical and backward teachings in our schools, universities, and academies of higher learning, thus making it difficult for us to confront these puritanical tendencies and the extremists that subscribe to them. We need a new educational strategy that is completely different from what has existed previously. For every school that teaches religion in a closed coercive and repressive method that is against reason and the essence of the Quran, we should start a new school that teaches religion in an open-minded, rational, and tolerant manner that is consistent with the essence of the great Islamic religion. In all Arab and Islamic universities, we should inaugurate new colleges for teaching the history of comparative religions, religious sociology, and the science of comparative fundamentalisms, or the science of comparative enlightenments. Only if we follow these steps will the popularity of these deviant and stray extremist movements recede, perhaps even by more than half, as a prelude to their total marginalization. It goes without saying that we cannot win the political battle with them before we win the intellectual one. So, let those who care to act, act!

 Translated from the Arabic by Basil Samara.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64.

The Arabic version of this article appeared in Asharq Al Awsat newspaper

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