The year 2010 has turned its last pages. For people of the Maghreb, or at least for those who are interested in the intellectual life, 2010 will undisputedly be associated with the heaviest harvest of intellectual and political figures of the region. As if death plotted against the region and decided to take away the emblematic figures of a glorious period of intellectual and political life. This article is more of an exploration of the symbolic sides of the transition of these figures from a state of intellectual anxiety to a state of plenitude (spiritual lucidity). As intellectual “engagés,” their lives were full of questions. This transition, from here to there, is an opportunity for us to re-explore their lives and their main contributions to the intellectual and political lives. Mohamed Abid Al Jabiri, Edmond Emran El Maleh and Abraham Serfaty from Morocco; Mohamed Arkoun and Tahar Ouettar from Algeria and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd from Egypt, took their leave in 2010. They colluded to leave in the midst of an identity crisis that is ripping the Arab and Muslim world, in a region beset with complex questions related to identity, the place of religion in society and politics, modernity, the process of democratization, the status of minorities in Islamic societies and the concretization of a borderless Maghreb. They left without the big open questions, that have for so long plagued the Arab and Muslim worlds, being resolved.
The passing of El Maleh and Serfaty happened at a critical moment when the world needed a model of the possible cohabitation between multiple ethnicities and faiths under the roof of citizenship in an area that has always been presented as being inherently authoritarian, chaotic and unfriendly toward minorities. They lived first and foremost as Moroccan citizens. Then they asserted their Jewish roots. Their assertion of their Moroccan identity through the complete and rational integration of the Moroccan life could be an inspiring model for many people in the Middle East of the possible future in which everyone could belong. A future that could be built on the values of citizenship and the unshakable conviction that religion is for God and the nation is for all its citizens. Serfaty and El Maleh were models for this possible world, for this possible Maghreb that is reminiscent of what Edward Said called the Andalusian model. The paths of El Maleh and Serfaty embody the contradictions of a country that needed reconciliation with itself. They also embody two different “chemins” in their relationship to the circles of power in the country. Yet, their funerals were more of a festival to celebrate the Moroccan exception in embracing its Jewish component than a moment of mourning. Death as a moment of reflection became, with the passing of El Maleh and Serfaty, a moment to evoke the Jewish dimension of the Moroccan culture, and the pride Moroccans—all social classes included—take in their Jewish heritage as a nation.
The Moroccan cultural and academic arena lost in Al Jabiri a critical mind and a prolific philosopher. He strove to deconstruct Arab reason and made a substantial contribution to the elevation of the status of philosophy among Moroccan youth. Al Jabiri is best known for his seminal works “Nahnu Wa Turath: We and Heritage” and “Critique of Arab Reason.” Al Jabiri’s main contribution is his call for a “contemporary” reading of the Arab-Islamic “heritage” — instead of the dominant “traditionalist” reading. This contemporary reading, if done, would have as a result the entry of the Arabs to the era of authentic modernity. His work was also seminal in the unearthing and revitalization of Islamic philosophy texts, such as the works of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun. Al Jabiri was convinced that his vital space was in academia which underpinned his decision to turn down many lucrative administrative positions. His last work was entitled “Understanding the Holy Koran.” Instead of hailing the innovative approach he brought to the study of the Koran, the puritans accused him of apostasy. The irony of the matter is that Al Jabiri’s rational work ended up being judged by the irrational dogmas he worked hard to deconstruct.
Arkoun is credited with the creation of applied Islamology which is an eclectic methodology that drew on social sciences, particularly anthropology, philosophy, linguistics and other disciplines to study Islamic texts. He was also behind a serious effort to rethink many problematic Islamic ideas about modernity, civilization and the role of human reason in deciding the evolution of societies. Arkoun spent his life working on the reconciliation of Islam with modernity. He tried to find ways to reconcile Islam, and Muslims by extension, with such new ideas like democracy and human rights. Arkoun’s elaborate and deep analysis of the need to rethink Islam without subverting its foundations provided a counterpoint to the politicized ideological interpretations that have overarched the debate for a long time both in the Muslim world and in the West. He strove to find what went wrong after the 13th century in Islamic history and precluded the arrival of an Islamic Enlightenment. In his last appearance on the Moroccan television station, 2M, he talked about “sacred ignorance” and the “institutionalized ignorance.” The latter describes the crisis of education in Islamic countries. The school has ceased being the locus of “learning to think” and it instead spreads superstition and ignorance. Therefore, reform of the educational system was a precondition to integrate modernity.
Tahar Ouettar cannot only be described as the founder of the Algerian Arabic novel: He is the master of all Algerian novelists in Arabic. He wrote among other things, “Allaz,” “Wedding of a mule,” “The Clean Saint” and “Martyrs are coming back this week.” Uncle Tahar, as Algerians call him, summarizes the history of a country that gained its independence through a painful process. His works delve into the depth of human love of power and the ensuing conflicts. “Allaz” epitomized the idea that “the revolution eats its children.” Like Arkoun he was born in a small Algerian Berber village, his father sent him to Arabic school. He deepened his knowledge of Arabic language and literature at Zaitouna University in Tunis. Parallel to his study of the Islamic jurisprudence and the Koran, he discovered literature and had a lifelong love affair with it. His role was instrumental as a path-blazer for generations of Algerians who wanted to write and publish their works in Arabic. Asserting the pan-Arabic belonging of Algeria was dear to Ouettar. It was his way of asserting Algeria’s cultural independence.
As much as these intellectuals’ works are widely studied in Western academia, especially in Europe and America, they remain unknown to large sections of the Arab world. Many factors inform this ignorance. First, the objective discontinuities that exist in terms of free circulation of knowledge between the Mashriq (the east of the Arab world) and the Maghreb (the west). Second, the historical jealousies that have always existed between the two sides of the Arab world: a Maghreb that wants to be equal to the Mashriq, and a Mashriq whose intellectuals see the Maghreb and its culture as its mere extension. Third, the Maghrebi intellectuals were marginalized in Mashriqi media for a long time. Fourth, the geographical situation of the Maghreb as a middle ground between Europe, Africa and the Middle East blurs the homogeneity of the “Arab world.” What Western scholars see as a vital component that makes the Maghrebi intellectuals a bridge between modernity and traditionalism of the Middle East is perceived by the intellectuals of the Mashriq as alienation. Therefore, the Maghrebi intellectuals are seen through two prisms, the prism of Western scholarship that considers them the hope for a better future, and the prism of conservative Arabs who deny them the intellectual equality with their counterparts in the Mashriq, and instead see them as a force of alienation that implements projects of Westernization of the Arab world.
We will continue to remember these five giant intellectuals for many reasons. We will remember them for their prolific intellectual production, their moral integrity and their rigueur. This is their legacy for us. Their works and inspiring stories will take other dimensions, make lives of their own and discover new horizons that had never occurred to their original authors. Younger and more daring intellectuals will keep their intellectual embers ablaze. One thing is sure, the “middle ground” where Islam and universal values can meet is getting wider thanks to the legacy of these great thinkers—and many others whom this article is not about—who paved the way, and the work of young scholars who are exploring this “middle ground” and pushing its borders even further.