A New Book Debunks Muhammad Abed Al Jabberi’s Theory, Sources, and Interpretations

Elie Chalala

A New Book Debunks Muhammad Abd al-Jabberi’s Theory, Sources, and Interpretations


A work which would have stirred a rich intellectual debate, involving historical and methodological questions in studying contemporary Arab political thought has, instead, taken a bizarre twist. The work is George Tarabishi's book “Nakd Nakd Al `Akl Al Arabi, Nazariyyat Al Akl" [Critique of the Critique of Arab Reason, Theory of Reason]” published by Dar Al Saqi (London 1996). Theory of Arab Reason is the name of the third book of a four volume series, published in the mid-1980s by the Moroccan theorist Muhammad Abd al-Jabberi. In “Theory of Reason,” Tarabishi levels harsh criticisms at a fellow Arab intellectual, al-Jabberi. The attack appears to reveal both the intellectual limits of al-Jabberi and a scandal, alleged fraudulent usage of sources, including misinterpretations and erroneous conclusions. The attack, which set the stage of what is now known as the Tarabishi - al-Jabberi debate, unleashed another scandal: revealing a sectarian attitude on the part of al-Jabberi, namely when he explains Tarabishi's criticisms in terms of the Syrian author's Christian faith.

The current intellectual confrontation between Tarabishi and al-Jabberi dates back to 1993 when the former published“Mazbahat Al Turath fi Al Thaqafa Al Arabiyya Al Mu'asira” [The Massacre of Heritage in Contemporary Arab Culture]. In “The Massacre of Turath” (Turath, which means the Islamic element in Arab culture and history will be used henceforth), Tarabishi offers a deconstructionist reading of al-Jabberi's epistemological approach of Arab culture, according to Kamel Shaya in the London-based Arabic weekly Al Wasat. Tarabishi is reported to have devoted "half' of his book to debating al- Jabberi's. In “The Massacre of Turath,” Tarabishi criticizes al-Jabberi's “Critique of Arab Reason” on the grounds of the latter's irrational study of the nature of reason, and his bias in favor of its entrusted judgment in "categorizing the three fields of knowledge: statement, knowledge, and proof."

Besides al-Jabberi's epistemological approach and his irrational examination of the nature of reason, Tarabishi brought to light, perhaps for the first time, his "manipulation of evidence and its interpretation" in ways that contradict its original meaning. “Theory of Reason” continues its attacks on al-Jabberi's intellectual project, where Tarabishi substantiates his claims not only by "Arabic sources as he did in “The Massacre of Turath”... But this time by the French sources from which he [al-Jabberi] drew...," writes Kamel Shaya. Compared with the “Massacre of Turath,” the reader finds in “Theory of Reason” a "comprehensive deconstruction and dismantling of al-Jabberi's theoretical and bibliographical tools." Shaya cites Tarabishi to have written that "of the hundreds of citations al-Jabberi used to `constitute the Arab Reason' only very few remained free from distortion, falsification, or from illogical usage."

The intellectual confrontation that followed Tarabishi's “Theory of Reason” has assumed a strange twist, especially after the interview al-Jabberi gave to the Moroccan Al Itihad Al Ishtiraki newspaper, published on February 27, 1997. What transpired in the interview appears to have transformed a debate from being an intellectual discussion into a controversy. Portions of the interview were picked up by one critic after the other, starting with Hazem Saghieh (March 10, 1997) who writes a column in Al Hayat. When the debate intensified on the pages of Al Hayat and other Arabic dailies, Al Hayat reproduced the text of the original interview with al-Jabberi on April 27, 1997.

In the interview, al-Jabberi claims that "There are some groups who disapprove of the cause I embrace and work for, that is to revive Arab thought from within Arab-Islamic traditions; some of these are not Muslims; and many of which their names reveal their religious affiliations. They say among themselves that renewing Arab thought from within Islamic tradition means excluding non-Muslims, hence their attacks on me. Their names are known and assume special significance. They welcome my criticism of tradition and only become upset when I show one of the shining facets in our Arab-Islamic tradition."

As for his alleged misuse and manipulation of sources, al-Jabberi had this to say: "Until now, I am fully assured that everything I wrote does not include any scientific, epistemological or methodological errors. In this regard, I am fully satisfied with what I have written."

As if inciting sectarianism is not enough for al-Jabberi, he goes on to show paranoia, talking about conspiracies to discredit him. He furnishes specific details of the plot: "There was planning by fellow colleagues from the Mashreq -- Leftists and Communists -- gathered during a symposium in Tunisia. There they held a separate meeting and concluded that al-Jabberi's epistemological writings are dangerous and threaten Marxist and progressive thought."

In considering Tarabishi's religious background as determinant of his intellectual endeavor, al-Jabberi turns out to have greater affinity with the fanatical speeches of religious leaders in rural Egypt and the "mountains of Algeria, where physical slaughter is conducted on the basis of confessional identity," writes Khaled aal-Huroub in Al Hayat. In the case of al-Jabberi, we "witness intellectual slaughter" on the same religious basis. The Moroccan intellectual, al-Huroub advises, should have complied with the rules of intellectual debate rather than resorting to methods that incite emotional and irrational feelings among certain groups.

Muhammad al-Haddad, a Tunisian academic and critic, has joined the Tarabishi-al-Jabberi debate, as it has become known. He is baffled as to how in intellectual argumentation, al-Jabberi substitutes proof and counter proof' by sectarianism. Al-Haddad does not share the argument that al-Jabberi has received more than his share of criticism and attention. Al-Jabberi's study and research on Turath has received great attention by scholars and students, an interest that led to translating several of his works into English (a new translation is expected by the University of Texas Press), French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. Thus it is expected that his views will be closely scrutinized and criticized since they have become authoritative and accessible to students and scholars, Arab and non-Arab. When "we talk about al-Jabberi as a symbol of contemporary Arab thought, it is because he developed a new approach to studying Turath,” Haddad writes.

In the past, the criticisms of al-Jabberi were of two main schools: Salafiyya [return to the ways of the Prophet and his Companions] and Marxism, according to al-Haddad. Today, the challenges to al-Jabberi come from two names: Taha Abd al-Rabman and George Tarabishi. The first represents a similar approach, though not a reproduction of early Salafi criticisms. "Had al-Jabberi not existed there would have been no Taha Abdel Rahman." What al-Haddad means is that the Salafi criticism of al-Jabberi is not the function of either a plot to sabotage the contributions of the Moroccan intellectual nor an extension of earlier criticisms. In a word, Abd al-Rahman offers an honest intellectual critique.

"Even if we consider the second critique (by Tarabishi) to be Marxist (Tarabishi denies such claim), objectivity compels us to acknowledge that it is unlike the simplistic Marxism of Tayeb Tazini [noted Syrian theorist]. There are new and important elements used in criticizing al-Jabberi," writes al-Haddad. Likewise, Tarabishi's critique is equally legitimate and his “Theory of Reason” would not have been possible without al-Jabberi's “Critique of Arab Reason.”

Criticisms need not be detrimental to al-Jabberi project; on the contrary, he could benefit from them, never mind their intensity, comments al-Haddad. A grave situation may develop only when "intellectual debates become insults and name callings." Equally troublesome is approaching the question of Turath from a tribal and sectarian perspective, where there is a ready made interpretation, claiming itself as the only and correct one.

Al-Jabberi's ideas, as discussed in the interview, appear to follow the nationalistic project and to condone the behavioral position of its advocates, writes the Iraqi Hassan al-Alawi in Al Hayat. This nationalism from "the damned Mashreq" explains how al-Jabberi lent his support to the Iraqi policy in fighting the "Islamic neighbor," other Arab enemies, including even the Iraqi exiled opposition. Al-Jabberi's liberalism offers Iraq rational justifications of its policy toward its alleged enemies. Al-Alawi also mourns al-Jabberi's liberalism and cast doubt on his credibility as an intellectual when he received an "award for his intellectual contributions from a man [Saddam Hussein] described by the world free press as more cruel than any other ruler."

But al-Jabberi is not without his defenders. One of these is Abd al-Ilah Balqaziz, a Moroccan student of al-Jabberi and currently an academic and writer. Writing in the Lebanese daily Assafir, Balgaziz labels the campaign against al-Jabberi as "ideological" and not "epistemological," as some critics claim.

Balqaziz believes that Tarabishi's text is intended to diminish (or take away) from the "scientific integrity" of a scholar unmatched in his seriousness in studying contemporary Arab thought. Tarabishi's judgment against al-Jabberi unfolded a series of "defamations of the man and his research project."

Some Moroccan simple¬minded writers, according to Balqaziz, went as far to call for an academic investigation into al-Jabberi's works, and even asking for his expulsion from the university. The Moroccan campaign against al-Jabberi, Balqaziz argues, is inspired by narrow political and electoral interests.

Apparently, Balqaziz pays more attention to the campaign emanating from the Mashreq. Balqaziz defends Al Jabberi against the accusation of sectarianism, fueled by the charges he made during his interview with al-Itihad al-Ishtiraki. "Those who consider him [al-Jabberi] sectarian do not know him" and have not read any of his works. al-Jabberi was "the most enthusiastic of all other Arab intellectuals in attacking sectarianism and tribalism."

Tarabishi himself becomes the subject of Balqaziz' second defense of al-Jabberi. Balqaziz attempts to disqualify Tarabishi as an expert on the subject he writes about, and he comes close to ridiculing the number of books the Syrian author read during the decade spent writing and researching. The Theory of Reason. In fact, Balqaziz says that Tarabishi has no credential in the field of Turath studies, and his specialty is confined to "translation, Marxism and psychological analysis." These research and intellectual interests, Balqaziz suggests, should be compared with "forty years" spent by al-Jabberi studying and writing about Turath. 

Al-Jabberi represents a specific approach to studying Turath and serves as one of its symbols. Balqaziz's third defense rests on the assumption that the critics are targeting this approach, choice, rather than unveiling an academic and moral scandal.

Tarabishi has responded to al-Jabberi's interview in an article published in Al Hayat (March 15). His views on the intellectual controversy raised by his "Theory of Reason" can be found in an interview he gave to the Lebanese writer and critic Ibrahim al-Aris, published in Al Hayat on February 16, 1997. 

"The crime of my book in al-Jabberi's opinion," Tarabishi writes, "is that it was written by a sectarian Christian, lingering even behind the Arab Christians who contributed to the age of Arab enlightenment." More troubling for Tarabishi is that al-Jabberi addressed him by his religion and not his name. For that, "I cannot forgive him for inciting sectarian hostility."

Tarabishi also declared that he will sue al-Jabberi and file a complaint against him before four authorities: the court of Arab readers, the Arab Organization of Human Rights, the Union of Arab Writers, and the Union of Maghreb Intellectuals.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 3, no. 17 (1997)
Copyright (c) 1997-2010 by Al Jadid