Reviewing the book in the Domenica del Sole 24 Ore, Sebastiano Maffettone wrote that al-Azm is the greatest living Arab philosopher. Being Mohammed Arkoun, Nasr Abu Zayd and Muhammad al-Jabri dead in 2010, this is likely. Hasan Hanafi, however, is still alive (b. 1935), and personally I believe that Hanafi is the greatest living Arab philosopher. I say this not for the sake of polemics, but because al-Azm and Hanafi have two completely different ideas of religion and Islam. For al-Azm religion and Islam mean backwardness, for Hanafi revolution.
Actually, in this book al-Azm denounces the instrumentalization of religion by political power and the poorness of religious thought in front of science and rationality, but his posture is openly anti-religious and anti-Islamic. An absolutely legitimate position of course. But I find disturbing an excess of laicism as such as I find disturbing an excess of religiosity and religious fanaticism. Laicité (in the French sense, like that of Dawkins or Hitchens) is a kind of disguised and reversed form of fundamentalist religion in my view. I prefer medietas (wasat in Q. 2:143) solidly grounded in history and balanced in approach.
The fact is that al-Azm’s book, although translated in Italian in 2016, was published in 1969 together with the other famous al-Azm’s pamphlet Self-criticism after the Defeat. The defeat is the big disaster of the June 1967 Six Days War, when the Egyptian (Nasser’s), Syrian (al-Azm is Syrian) and Jordanian armies were annihilated by Israel. Thus, the book under review was written almost fifty years ago in the aftermath of the most devastating defeat the Arabs suffered in modern history. At that times, the so-called Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism were moving their first steps and were practically unknown to the public opinion. Al-Azm charged Nasserism to be counter-revolutionary and Islam as a religion (not present Islamic radicalism, which did not exist in the form it has today) to be guilty of the Arabs’ backwardness. His broad target was religion, judged from a Marxist point of view. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalism and armed radicalism are undoubtedly very far from sharing a “scientific” and “rational” spirit, although al-Qaida and IS show a free and easy use of military, mass-medial, and propagandist devices. They are largely modern or even post-modern and their same idea of the Islamic state is by no means characteristic of the classical (Medieval) Islamic political thought. Al-Azm’s book appears opportunely in Italian when contexts and circumstances are completely changed in respect of the epoch when it was written. In itself it is the product of the struggle between Marxist materialism and religion in the Sixties and the Seventies when the decolonization process in the Arab world was not yet over.
Secondly, al-Azm discussed the “tragedy of evil” – which significantly gives the title to the volume -, that is the rebellion of Iblis/Satan against God, as symbolic. The episode is narrated a number of times in the Qur’an, but the most meaningful passage is Q. 2:30-34. God commands the Angels to bow to Adam, who has been appointed “caliph” of God on earth; all the Angels obey except Iblis who is cursed and expelled from Paradise becoming “Satan”. Al-Azm reads the rebellion of Iblis against God as the hopefully rebellion of humans against religious (better, Islamic) obscurantism and despotism. But there is a basic misunderstanding to avoid. In Islamic literature Iblis rebels for pride and self-assertion, believing to be best than Adam who had been preferred by God. In mystic literature, Iblis rebels not for hate, but for love of God. He refuses to bow to Adam for the passion of tawhid/Oneness, for the burning love (‘ishq) he feels for God. Thus, the episode is fully within the Islamic outlook, not outside it. In the Book of Tawasin, the celebrated mystic al-Hallaj (d. 942) charged Iblis of having affirmed proudly his “Ego” against God’s sublimity and Unity, refusing to submit to God’s orders.
Obviously, anybody is free to give a story the symbolic value he/she pleases. But in the Qur’an it is not Adam – the man – who rebels, but the first of the angels. Adam has been given the loftiest position, while Iblis seems only furious to have been put aside. Therefore, al-Azm’s choice reveals that his book has a clear ideological stance. As an ideological book, composed in a specific historical period it must be read, although a more general moral input could be deduced.