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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Cover Stories
Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Journey towards Humanist Secularism

Mohammed Hashas

Sadiq was born into a prominent family in Damascus, Al-Azm family, which made its way to the elite and ruling class since the 18th century, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Al-Azm palace in Damascus belongs to his grandfather.


On al-Arabiyya intellectual TV programme Rawafid, broadcast in 2012 after few months since the beginning of the Syrian social protests, Sadiq is shown to have a very old car of the 1960s, a car he inherited and never changed (See the episode here). Sadiq opted for the intellect for his own growth. When I met him and his wife in May 2016 in Rome, his wife Imane told me, when he was away being interviewed by the Italian RAI TV, that Sadiq is such a simple person when it comes to luxuries, despite the big family he belongs to; she told me that a simple place where there is an office and books is enough for him. When we talked of the War and Syria and how they moved to Germany, she said that Sadiq was obliged to move abroad; he always loved home, Damascus-Syria; it was a very difficult and touching decision for him to leave the country, she added.

Sadiq received his BA from the American University in Beirut in 1957, and then an MA in 1959 and PhD from Yale University in Modern European Philosophy; he worked on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He taught at the American University of Beirut, before he was offered a chair of philosophy in Damascus University, which he held from 1977 to 1999. In 2000s, he held various lectureships in European and American Universities. In 2004 he won the Erasmus Prize, shared with the Moroccan Fatema Mernissi and the Iranian Abdoulkarim Soroush. In 2005 he received an honorary title from the University of Tubingen in Germany. In 2015 he received the Goethe Medal by the president of the German Goethe Institute, besides many other activities and media invitations. In the Arab world, besides Syria and Lebanon, he also lectured in Jordan, and was editor in chief of Arab Studies Magazine, published in Beirut, in the late 1960s. He was also an important figure in the Syrian Organization of Human Rights.

Sadiq was sincerely committed to Arab renewal on all levels. Reason was for him the antidote to stagnation; history was the school of inspiration; human dignity and liberation were the inalienable rights the oppressed have to keep struggling for, especially when the oppressed have a strong tradition and rich past behind them. Both his oral and written Arabic were fluid and sweet. Below I underline certain aspects of his engaged intellectual life; I condense them in three themes that refer to three generations - without this meaning the numerical equivalent of a generation.

Defeat Generation pre-1967

The young Sadiq, at the age of 34, wrote the first widely circulated text on the literature of defeat in the Arab world, after the 1967 War between Israel and Arab armies, Self-Critique after the Defeat (annaqd athati ba‘da al-hazima, 1968), which came two decades after the first initial defeat of 1948. In the book he charges especially the political ruling elite with full responsibility. He speaks of the Vietnamese and how they could defeat the big power of the US, and how the Arabs could not defeat the newly founded state of Israel for its encroachment on Arab lands. He also critiques Arab intellectuals and artists for being regime-friendly and unable to critique the cultural and religious thought of the masses. He cites many examples of religious scholars, intellectuals, and professors of philosophy who engage in metaphysical argumentation about how God wills this defeat for Arabs because they are not true believers. Throughout the text Sadiq’s anger is felt, and his call for civilizational renewal based on modern education and science is repeated all over the text. In this critique he already puts it on the table that the Caliphate and the praise of glorious Arab-Islamic times cannot solve socio-political and economic problems of our times.

Renewal Generation post-1969

In 1969, Sadiq’s most controversial text Critique of Religious Thought (naqd al-fikr addini) turns out to be apparently his most known text until now. Though it has been banned in most of the Arab world, it still could be found everywhere. Only excerpts from the book were translated into various European languages; we had to wait until 2014 to see that the whole book was translated into English (Gerlach Press, Berlin), and in 2016 into Italian (LUISS University Press, 2016), for example. The Critique has become a classic in what may be called post-1969 generation, a generation of Arab intellectuals and philosophers that all moved to serious and in depth philosophical production and examination of both the tradition and modernity. Sadiq is one of the very first leading and inspiring figure of this very productive generation. His Critique was a roar in the middle of a thick forest, filled with the injuries of war, oppression, human rights violations, and during the delicate period of Arab nationalism and the beginning of the rise of political Islam and religious fundamentalism. It inspired a whole generation with its intellectual courage. It is in this period, and after it, that influential Arab intellectuals and philosophers brought to the surface their projects of renewal; most of them consider themselves to have been shaken by the 1976 defeat too; they belong to the same context, and have the same aspiration of renewal, though they express it differently.

Sadiq belongs to the liberal camp of Arab scholars and thinkers, but he appeared in a particular historical moment when Arab societies had tried only shyly and failingly Arab nationalism, and its quick downfall. That made his ideas as a liberal meet with immense criticism among scholars of religion and the conservatives in society. As an insider, I can say that this was very healthy, since it continued with a liberal trend within Arab scholarship, and the fruit of that debate continues today. Sadiq appeared at that moment as its champion. He was imprisoned for his Critique in 1970, and released afterwards; he was accused in Lebanon of provoking sectarianism and religious conflict, since his critique of religious thought was not only directed to Islamic traditionalism but also to Christian traditionalism. Some accused him of apostasy as well.

Sadiq’s Critique is not an in depth engagement with Arab-Islamic philosophy, but is more of a project of renewal of religious thought in a dramatic way. He did not intend it to be a work of theology, as he himself says in the book. Rather, he proposed a critical, in the sense of liberal, reading of the ontological moment of “showing obedience to God” in Islam. Sadiq genuinely, but provocatively, says that God created Satan and most importantly allowed him to disobey him. God did not annihilate Satan when He asked him to prostrate to Adam as God’s vicegerent on Earth, as is narrated in the Quran. As I see it in his approach, Sadiq reads this as the most liberal moment in Islamic theology, though again he reads this as a literary tragedy as narrated in an influential book, the Quran. There is a great sense of tragedy in this description of dialogue between Satan and God; this tragedy of disobedience is exceptional since the “ex-communicated” Satan is still allowed to live, to tempt human beings; he is given this right by God Himself. It is like a king who allows a rebel to form secessionist movements within his kingdom! What a liberal-liberating attitude! Reading this interpretation of Sadiq in context, and bearing in mind his critique of traditional religious thought, as well has his personal defense of reason for renewal, means that his “undeclared theology”, if I can call it so, is fundamental in his overall project. And there is no need to say that Sadiq could not speak as a scholar of theology because he would not gain that legitimacy; he did not study theology or Islamic studies in traditionally reputed Arab-Islamic universities in Damascus or in Cairo, nor did he graduate from Islamic studies department from a modern university. It was then quite reasonable that he gets engaged in religious issues from a scholarly perspective, and as an “insider to the tradition” but not an “insider-scholar.” It is this “insider-but-not-really-insider” position that cornered him as a liberal, sometimes a too liberal, thinker. I had a great pleasure communicating this reading of his work in his presence when my university in Rome organized a seminar, on 10 May 2016, on the occasion of the translation of the book into Italian for the first time (LUISS University Press, 2016).

However, unlike many liberals in the Arab world, Sadiq is a “good liberal” – to draw such a line between those “bad liberals” who are blind to external hegemony and internal state oppression and those good-critical liberals who do not fear being critical of all. I give an example. When Aljazeera TV just started broadcasting in 1996, Sadiq met in the face to face famous debate-programme that is still running, Opposite Direction (al-ittijah al-muakis), the influential Qatari Islamic scholar Yussuf al-Qaradawi – the episode is available here - and they debated the issue of Religion and Secularism. Despite their opposing views, one could see that there was respect and wisdom in their talk; they differed but deferred, in the sense of postponed or froze, their difference for the common good. I could read years later that some conservatives that did not want that al-Qaradawi meets the “too secular” Sadiq on a live programme that millions of Arabs watch changed their views and milded their attitude regarding Sadiq and his secularism. In the programme, which lasted two hours, Sadiq had the time to explain his version of secularism, and he emphasized the concept of “positive neutrality of secularism” in which the state intervenes equally and positively in religious issues, especially when asked for by different denominations, for public good, without this meaning total absence of religion from the public sphere.

Sadiq’s secular perspective originates from his belief in the role of history in shaping and changing norms and customs. His philosophical background, his philosophy of history, could be felt in his three essays published In Defense of Materialism and History (difa‘an ‘ani-l-maadiyya wa-ttarikh, 1990) in which he emphasizes the importance of real history in shaping the intellectual and the development of particular worldviews. He gives examples from Greek, European, and Arab-Islamic history. It is this historicist approach that guides his views of change in the Arab world. It is also this historicist approach that allows him to launch a critique against Edward Said through his article “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” (1980). Sadiq accuses Said of falling into what he tries to debunk, i.e. essentialisms. He argues that Said essentializes the Occident as if all its history of ideas has been oriented towards othering the Orient, and consequently all the Occident’s institutional and cultural achievements have been edified through the formation of the Orient and Orientalism. At the same time, his defense of freedom of expression is confirmed when after Salman Rushdie’s Affair; he published Beyond Taboo Mentality: Reading the Satanic Verses - A Reply to Critics (mā ba‘da thihniyyat attahrīm, 1997).

In Islam and Secular Humanism (al-islam wa-nnaz‘a al-insāniyya al-‘ilmāniyya, 2007) Sadiq distinguishes in “historical Islam” between two antagonizing entities. On the one hand stands the new creed of Islam that refuses abusive submission to kings or monarchs or religious mediators, since the only submission is to God directly; this liberating theology stood against the pre-existing orders in Arab-Islamic lands; he calls this a “Creedential-No” (lā al-‘aqā’idiyya) [with reference to “creed”, and not “credential”], i.e. a negation of the Islamic creed of other creeds or ideas that suppress or oppress human freedom, spiritual and temporal. On the other hand stands the “Historical-Yes” (na‘am attārīkhiyya) which dominated over the “Creedential-No.” The point Sadiq underlines is that the ideal virtues of the Islamic faith were not always lived as Islamist movements claim nowadays; rather, various Islamic societies, of different ethnicities, languages, and political systems, adopted the faith and adapted it to their context, even when there appeared contradictions between the ideals of Islam and reality. That is why he says that the historical Islam was dynamic and adaptive, and the creed was lived accordingly, thus his view that the “Creedential-No” was subdued by the “Historical-Yes.” He uses the concept of public good (al-mushtaraq al-insānī), which is equivalent to the Islamic concept of al-maslaha al-‘āmma to refer to this “historical consent” (tawāfuk tārīkhī) or harmony between realities, driven by various socio-economic, cultural and political factors, and the creed and its ideals. This “historical consent”, for him, is what builds a “universal humanist trend” or “secular humanism,” in his words.

Spring Generation since 2011

Sadiq dreamt of a revolution that changes Arab societies. If he were not revolutionary, he would not have written Self-Critique or Critique of Religious Thought! His various media interviews and lectures have shown a picture of an engaged intellectual. He enjoyed seeing the Arabs protesting in the streets in thousands in the so-called Arab Spring of 2010-2011 since he saw that they all face similar problems, even when Arab states declare to be different. He believed that the so-called Damascus Spring (rabī dimashq) that short-lived for a year or so in 2000, upon the coming of the new president Bashar al-Assad to power after his father, opened peaceful horizons of change in his first discourse to the public; he said that in those months various forums for intellectual and political debates flourished in Syria and all over Damascus, before they were oppressed again; he refers to the “Communiqué 99” that was signed by some 99 Syrian intellectuals, including himself. That Damascus Spring of 2000 discussed the issues Arabs called for in 2010-11 uprisings, he says.

Sadiq’s pessimistic optimism, an optimism colored with fear, grew up as the Arab Spring started to turn into bloody civil wars since 2012-2013. His critical tone did not change; he did not applaud any Arab ruler. He described the situation as fairly as he could, and hoped that Arab democracies would emerge, one day. He did not adopt conspiracy theories nor did he adopt one critical stance towards only one party or religious party-movement; he was a free and independent thinker. He understood how complicated the situation is. He also understood and spoke of the external factors and their play in the region, Israel, the West, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and alike powers. He criticized the invasion of Iraq, and its dire consequences. His staunch critique of al-Assad is known; he entered in polemics with the famous Syrian poet Adonis for the latter’s silence over the atrocities of the Syrian regime; Sadiq accused Adonis of being sectarian, i.e. an Alevi in support of al-Assad.

Sadiq lived in changing societies, to which he remained committed through his voice and pen. He believed that the Arab intellectuals played a major role in paving the ground for the awakenings of 2010-2011. Sadiq’s love for this part of the world may not be grasped in words, but his ideas may be. His humanist and richly simple spirit can be described by his eloquent words in the introduction of another interesting aspect of his work: Arabic literature. In On Love and Ideal Love, in which he examines classical and modern Arabic texts on love, he says that only experience, personal experience, can enlighten the person to the meanings of love, be it ordinary, virtuous-platonic, Sufi, mystic, or philosophical love. Only those who go through that path can know what it contains. The book explores some of the in depths of femininity which males cannot grasp, and vice verse, and which Sadiq tries to free from patriarchalism, and traditionalism, reminding us in so doing of mystic works in the field, but this time with his own philosophical touch. In the blurb of the book, the renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani writes that the book shakes all our understanding of love and ideal love; it uncovers human desires and egoism.

In theology as in politics, Sadiq lived revolutionary. Thank you Damascus School of Philosophy for having given us such a big name to read, besides the many others you have enriched the Arab tradition with. He does not die he who writes.

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