Sunday, September 26, 2010

Muhammad Arkoun

There are so many tributes written in the Arabic press about Muhammad Arkoun.  Of course, the US press does not notice matters relating to Arabic culture and thought.  If the driver of the assistant of Anwar Sadat's nephew died, the New York Times would have assigned a reporter to write a long obituary about him or her.  But a Lebanese scholar, Dalal Al-Bizri (with whom I disagree on all political issues) wrote an interesting little piece about him: he headed her dissertation committee at the Sorbonne and she wondered how many of those who are writing about him in the Arabic press have actually bothered to read him.   Arkoun is praised because people have taken him to be a symbol of progress and enlightenment without knowing what he stood for actually.  Professor Bob Lee of Colorado College is an the US expert of Arkoun and he has tried to introduce him to American readers.   Arkoun is not easy to read and he wrote mostly for his French colleagues in the academe.  So he did not write for the general reader.  He himself associates his name with a "project" in Islam but what is that project really, aside from the general titles of rationality and modernity?  Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd certainly can claim to have been working hard to launch a project within Islam.   The loyal translator of Arkoun into Arabic (Hashim Salih) spent so much time and space in the books to try to decipher Arkoun, but he was close to him so that interpretation was helpful (I can't stand Hashim Salih, i met him once in London and he shocked me with some of his views that there are enlightened Arab dictators (like Saudi King and Husni Mubarak) and bad Arab dictators like Bashshar Al-Asad, etc).  One person I read in As-Safir made a good point: that there are two phases in the writings of Arkoun: the early phase and the later phase.  In the later phase, he sounded like an unsophisticated neocon in what he had to say about Islam (like his role in that commission about religious symbols in public schools--although i at the time supported the recommendations).   Take his notion of "Applied Islamics" for example: to subject any Islamic phenomenon to the critical examination of the mind as tool.  Taha Husayn suggested that back in the 1920s.   His solutions are often moderate and not radical: like reconciling some community standards in Morocco with tolerant version of Islam.  Many of the writings about him mentioned the number of books he wrote in Arabic: of course, he did not write in Arabic at all.  Those were translations of his French work.  He was masterful in writing in French but that translates badly in English and Arabic.  Arkoun can't be compared to Ibn Rushd.  Ibn Rushd had impact on the elite adn the masses while the impact of Arkoun was mostly felt among a segment of the French academic elite.  Not really anywhere outside of that.   Now, i should write a tribute to Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd once I have time.  The latter tried to influence the religious elite, the political elite, and the masses.  And he was quite effective if he was not fought by the Mubarak clerics at Al-Azhar.