Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History

Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History

by Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi'

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783715879
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 11/20/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 512
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi' is the holder of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities Chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Alberta. His many books include Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (1996), Islam at the Crossroads (2003), The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (2006), and Contemporary Arab Thought (Pluto Press, 2005).

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The Scope and Limitation of Post-1967 Arab Thought

"The writing of history requires numerous sources and greatly varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness. Possession of these two qualities leads the historian to the truth and keeps him from slips and errors." Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, volume 1, trans. Franz Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon, 1958), 15.

"The progress of opinion is fluid and indefinite; it does not easily lend itself to any system of dates and clear-cut chronological divisions." D. C. Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen & Co., 1929), 1.

"Facts require explanations, and all explanations, even bad ones, presume a configuration of concepts, which we provisionally call 'theory'. In other words, theory is not simply a desirable but a necessary relation between facts and their explanations." Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 34.

"Critical theory [is] the intellectual equivalent of crack." Terry Eagleton, "The Crisis of Contemporary Culture." New Left Review, number 196, November/December 1992, p. 30.

"No; defeat has more than one father. In politics, it hasn't been the modern Arab tradition to punish the leader for a defeat. He will go to the masses for sympathy, and they will console him by begging him to stay on the throne to outwit the enemy. For what does the enemy want but to bring down the leader and rescue us from the blessing of his presence? Let us therefore defeat the enemy and win a victory over ourselves as well by keeping the defeated leader as our executioner." Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 103–4.

"The progress of thought is associated with situations of confrontation and disequilibrium," writes Samir Amin, and "periods of stable equilibrium are periods of stagnation in thought." Contemporary Arab thought, just like nineteenth century Arab thought, is primarily an historical product of several decades of enormous changes in all spheres of life, and which is distinguished at heart by a number of philosophical orientations which advocate renewal at all levels of thought and society. In another sense, contemporary Arab thought has been a product of defeat, civil strife, disequilibrium, and confrontation with the "Other." It is in the face of this confrontation with the "Other" that the contemporary Arab world has been in search of its identity, roots, and foundations. Generally speaking, Arab thought of the past four decades has been embedded in various ideals, from the renaissance of the Arab people to the restoration of a democratic environment or the establishment of the Shari'ah as the main legal foundation of a new Arab civil society. However, the dominant trends of contemporary Arab thought agree that intellectual progress can be achieved only if Arab intellectuals have access to an unfettered exercise of thought and are able to freely criticize that which has gone wrong in the lives of the Arab people in the twentieth and now the twenty-first-century. In its painful exercise of criticism and its anguished and perhaps desperate attempts to rebel against the existing social, economic, and political realities, Arab thought stands apart as a truly engaged entity bounced about in a roiling sea of conflicting waves subject to the aching muscles of an aging military state.

Any intellectual historian attempting even a mere survey of the huge corpus of Arab intellectual production since 1967 will find this task daunting. Four general reasons make it quite challenging to discuss the intellectual and cultural climate of the period under consideration in a reasonable manner. The first is the fact that in the past four decades the Arab world has seen an explosion in writings on all aspects of Arab society, and that only a handful of Western scholars have attempted to follow in the footsteps of Hamilton Gibb, Anouar Abdel Malek, Albert Hourani, and Hisham Sharabi in writing down the general parameters of contemporary Arab thought. A number of prominent research centers have emerged in the past several decades, most notably the Center for the Study of Arab Unity (Markaz Dirasat al-Wihdah al-'Arabiyyah) in Beirut, the Center for Palestinian Studies in Cyprus, formerly based in Beirut, and the Ahram Strategic Center in Cairo. These and other smaller centers of research have published important works on the political, economic, cultural, literary, and religious conditions of the Arab world since 1967. In addition to these publications, migrant Arab intellectuals, especially in Europe, have published a number of important books on the Arab world that cannot be easily bought in certain Arab capitals.

The second difficulty is linked directly with the first. There is an unfortunate absence of critical studies in English on contemporary Arab thought. Compared with studies in the English language on contemporary African, Latin American or European thought, the scholarly consideration of contemporary Arab thought has barely begun.

The third reason that has rendered this discussion so difficult is the fact that there are two relatively different centers of intellectual production in the modern Arab world: one is in the Mashreq and the other in the Maghreb. There are historical as well as linguistic underpinnings for the Mashreq–Maghreb dichotomy in modern Arab intellectual history. The fact that most of the Maghreb (except Libya, if one considers it part of the Maghreb) fell under French colonialism in the nineteenth century made it necessary for a great number of distinguished Maghrebian thinkers to write and even think in French. Post-independence Arabization in such countries as Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco has not stemmed the desire of influential authors to write in French. Some of these, well aware of the colonial implications of French in their native countries, consider it a language of emancipation that enables them to reach a wider audience in the world at large. The translation into Arabic of the writings of the most distinguished Maghrebian thinkers who write in French has only very recently been accomplished. The writings of Muhammad Lahbabi, Taher Benjelloun, Mohammed Arkoun, Hichem Djaït, Fatima Mernissi, Assia Djebar, Kateb Yacine, Abdelkabir al-Khatibi, and Abdallah Laroui have been in Arabic circulation for less than 20 years.

The fourth reason relates to the explosion of information technology, made possible by the transition capitalism has been able to make since World War Two, from extensive industrialization to an intense technological revolution. In one sense, the globalization of information technology has something to do with the origins of ideas. Ideas are not insular by nature and with advanced technology tend to move quickly from one culture/nation to another or from one social formation to another. Although the process of assimilating ideas is very complex and varies from one situation to another, the fact remains that with the colossal advances made by the capitalist civilization in recent years, the contemporary transfer of ideas is a much more accessible process than before. However, one must note that the transfer of ideas in the information age is subject to ideology and is therefore selective by nature. This has a direct bearing on our topic in the sense that far from being insular, modern Arab intellectual history has been open to new ideas from a variety of cultures. That is to say, modern Arab intellectual history is indebted to indigenous as well as external epistemological formations that are essentially the reflection of a multitude of social formations under way in the post-1967 Arab world.

Attempting to survey, analyze, and critique the tremendous output of Arab writings requires a familiarity with the main original sources (most but not all written in Arabic), as well as the (few) secondary sources appearing on modern Arab thought, especially in Western languages. The original sources are numerous and widespread. Most published material has appeared in the Arab world, but a significant number has appeared in Europe as well, especially in France and England. Also, against the tremendous output in recent Arab writing, it is important to fathom the different methodological approaches and worldviews, which underpin contemporary Arab thought. Arab thought has been subject to various interpretations, each belonging to a distinct intellectual and epistemological tradition.


It is only by using a well-thought-out critical theory that one can understand the complexity of contemporary Arab intellectual history, its constituent trends, social/economic/political origins, and interrelatedness. My intention is to apply critical theory to post-1967 Arab intellectual history, a theory that must be guided by the insights gained from the most advanced theories developed by both Western and Eastern intellectuals in the fields of the social sciences and humanities. Modernization theory is in itself too feeble to offer us significant insights and globalization theory, used recently as a means of spreading neo-liberal ideas, is too arrogant to offer us any constructive insights. As shall be amply illustrated in this chapter, contemporary Arab intellectual history is interwoven with the complex cultural and economic processes of Arab society and their historical transformations since the advent of capitalism to the Middle East in the nineteenth century. As such, Arab intellectual history has accurately registered the cultural, religious, and intellectual responses to this encounter and documented the rise of new classes and new blocs of power in society. It has also highlighted the intersection of power, culture, and religion in the course of modern history.

Bearing this in mind, this chapter offers a preliminary reading of the post-1967 intellectual map with an attempt at some systematic analysis of the ideas of the main representatives of these trends, their historical and social origins, their present predicament and their future hope. However, this book is far from exhaustive on the matter. It cannot claim to cover every credible intellectual voice in the contemporary Arab world. Although the book is not Egypt-centered, I have failed to cover many voices in the Gulf states, Iraq, and Algeria. By implication, this work is a study of the post-defeat, perhaps post-nationalist, phase of the Arab world. It is the study of neo-colonialism in an age that has witnessed the defeat of the Arab nationalist project, the rise of Islamic resurgence, the re-tribalization of the Arab world, the strengthening of authoritarian regimes under the aegis of Western (including American) democracies, the demise of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the United States as the only superpower in the world, the creation of a new world order after the military defeat of Iraq in the second Gulf War, and the expansion of the Israeli Zionist project.

Modern Western (both European and American) strategic political and economic interest in the Arab world (and the Third World for that matter) has been a blessing in disguise to Western academia: institutional money has poured in creating new academic jobs in order to come to grips with new movements of Arab and Muslim politics and thought. Specialization has underscored the need to study in as much detail as possible all manifestations of Arab and Muslim societies. This is perhaps the age of Orientalism triumphant. Different disciplines have coalesced to more or less produce a general history of the Arab world. In the political area, many journalists and political scientists have written the general outlines, at least, of the political history of the modern Arab world. In a more specialized way, due to academic division of labor, a number of scholars have written the social and political histories of each Arab country. Undoubtedly, Western academic interest in the Arab world, which has impinged on political factors and matters of national interest, has taken new forms in recent decades, either for internal or external reasons.

In general, one may propose three broad rationales for the current American interest in the fields of Arab and Islamic studies:

1. The complexity of the Arab and Muslim world and the consequent American entanglement in this world since inheriting the classical colonial positions of mainly France and England.

2. The recent eclipse of the Soviet bloc and the official end of the Cold War, which necessitated the creation of an outside entity, that is, an antagonistic "Other." The Soviet Union and communism, as the antagonistic "Other" during the Cold War, created a substantial academic and political industry in American and Western societies. In the same vein, Islam and Muslims as the "Other" have been a blessing in disguise to academicians and politicians who owe their employment to this recent shift of interest in the world. This factor has become more significant since the tragic attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

3. The increasing presence of Muslims in America.

These factors have more or less described the burgeoning American interest toward the Islamic factor.

As a scholar of contemporary Arab intellectual history, I am indebted to two particular types of work. The first is the important Western writing on the Arab world in different fields of specialization, most of which can be defined as an outside and professional type of writing where the scholar usually (except in a few cases) does not make a living in the Arab world and develops his/her research interests in the Arab world from his/her academic post in the West. The second type of work is the intellectual production of a vast array of Arab intellectuals, most of whom have lived mainly in the Arab world. Of course, a good number of professional Arab intellectuals and thinkers have held important positions in Western academia. In this regard, one may mention such people as 'Abdel Latif al-Tibawi, Isma'il Raji al-Faruqi, Mohammed Arkoun, Afaf Marsot, Ghada Talhami, Leila Ahmad, Samir Amin, Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Naseer Aruri, Hisham Sharabi, Aziz Azmeh, and Halim Barakat, to mention but a few.

Although some reference will be made to the contributions of migrant Arab intellectuals, my main interest in this particular work is to wrestle with the huge subject of post-1967 intellectual history in the Arab world. Modern Arab intellectual history has been distinguished by a variety of trends – Islamic, Arab nationalist, liberal, and Leftist – which will be explained in greater detail in the second chapter of this book. One must be careful not to confuse modern Arab intellectual history with Muslim intellectual history. These are two somewhat different domains. Arab intellectual history is written mainly in Arabic, whereas Muslim intellectual history, if such a category exists, is basically written in other Islamic languages in addition to Arabic. However, in Arab intellectual history, the Islamic trend is distinguished and multifaceted. Herein lies the complexity. Each sub-current that makes up post-1967 Arab intellectual history is very diverse, extremely complex, and is the product of various vital political, philosophical, religious, social, and historical conditions and formations.

The first question one must raise concerns the meaning and nature of the discipline of intellectual history. As Perry Anderson correctly notes, intellectual history "is not a Darwinian process. Major systems of thought rarely disappear, as if they were so many species become extinct." What are the salient features of contemporary Arab intellectual history? What are its central problematics? A simple definition of intellectual history is impossible; however, one may discern different and often conflicting interpretations of this important term. Some scholars, mostly notably A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas, argue that intellectual history is an autonomous discipline since one may trace the influence of an idea of a group of ideas from one particular historical phase to another, or from one country to another. This position, articulated in the first half of the twentieth century in American academia and represented in the main by the Journal of the History of Ideas, was an outgrowth of the "Great Texts" approach, still adopted by departments of philosophy and religious studies, which stipulates that intellectual history is the product of a few geniuses, especially men, who reflect on the human condition in full isolation from their surroundings and who usually end up writing coherent and complete thought systems. Lovejoy's idea-centered method was a great improvement on the "Texts" approach. For example, he enumerates twelve different categories by which Western academia, to his mind, has studied ideas:

1. the history of philosophy;

2. the history of science;

3. folklore;

4. semantics;

5. literary history;

6. history of religious beliefs;

7. comparative literature;

8. the history of the arts;

9. economic history;

10. the history of education;

11. political and social history;

12. historical sociology.


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Table of Contents

Foreword by Ghada Talhami,
1 The Scope and Limitation of Post-1967 Arab Thought,
2 Contemporary Arab Intellectual Trends,
3 Secularism and its Hazards: The Recent Debate in the Arab World,
4 Contemporary Arab Philosophical Views of Secularism,
5 Formation of Contemporary Identities: Nationalism and Islamism in Contemporary Arab Thought,
6 Traditional Values, Social Change, and the Contemporary Arab Personality,
7 Globalization: A Contemporary Islamic Response?,
8 Contemporary Arab Thought and Globalization,
9 Rashid al-Ghannushi and the Questions of Shari'ah and Civil Society,
10 Muslim Self-Criticism in Contemporary Arab Thought: The Case of Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali,
11 Islam and Muslims in Crisis,
12 Towards a Critical Arab Reason: The Contributions of Muhammad 'Abid al-Jabiri,
13 Towards Modern Arab Reason,
14 Costantine Zurayk and the Search for Arab Nationalism,
15 Mahdi 'Amil and the Unfinished Project of Arab Marxist Philosophy,
16 Abdallah Laroui: From Objective Marxism to Liberal Etatism,
17 Conclusions,

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