Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Muhammad `Abid Al-Jabiri (or why you need to know Arabic to study the Arab world)

If you look at the Western press today, you would not know that the most important and renounced Arab contemporary thinker/philosopher has died today. Muhammad `Abid Al-Jabiri is dead. This Moroccan thinker is by far the most discussed among Arab and Islamic intellectuals. I don't have time to write a lot about him but I will say a few words. What is very revealing about him is that he received his PhD in Morocco from the Muhammad V University in Rabat. Many people think that he received his PhD from France, but he did not study in the West. His first work (his dissertation), dealt with Ibn Khaldun. But he came to prominence in the late 1970s with his book "Nahnu wa At-Turath" (We and the Heritage). That book marked the beginning of his investigation in Arab and Islamic political thought. I did not like his writing style: he made himself unreadable by the masses, and he was really only read among the highly education and scholars. Even his memoirs is not readable really and offered no insights about his personality. He writes weekly columns but they are not that interesting. But his books are very solid and original and he deals with abstract concepts and ideas with ease that he can't translate to the readers. He certainly carries the influence of his early Marxism and his later structuralism. The dogmatic Marxism shows in his categorization and classification of thoughts into two or three categories: and this leads him to offer sweeping generalizations about the entire span of Arab thought. He wrote a lot on what he called "al-`Aql al-`Arabi", and while he did not mean it in the same way as in the vulgar work (the Arab Mind) by the vulgar Israeli pseudo-anthropologist, Raphael Patai, he was criticized by Lebanese thinker, `Ali Harb, for his promotion of the notion of an Arab mind. I read Al-Jabiri, or most of his, but was not a fan of his. His first book on Turth is quite original but his zhdanovian split of Western and Eastern origins is not convincing to me. He also proposes a simple resort to rational thought of Ibn Rushd and Western rationalist to "save" it. I have not finished yet his latest study of Al-Qur`n but it has been rightly criticized for its limited bibliographical base. I mean he focused on Siyuti and ignored the entire body of Western Orientalist studies of the Qur'an. He even ignored Arab and Islamic studies. He dedicated his last book to Prince Talal bin `Abdul-`Aziz and he toured Saudi Arabia and made peace with the Saudi government after decades of opposition to its government and ruling ideology. He even made nice remarks about Wahhabiyyah. He explained in an interview that he dedicated the book by the Saudi prince paid for his hospitalization. He went from dogmatic Marxism to vulgar Arab nationalism and recently seems to reconcile his stance with those of modern Islamic bent (although his study of the Qur'an is hated by Salafis). He also disappointed me and other secularists by distancing itself from it and saying that Islam is by definition not in need of secularization. I have to run. Bye.