Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri’s new Averroism
11 July 2011

Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri, a world famous Moroccan philosopher who died recently (1935-2010), is the author of many philosophical and historical-philosophical books of great interest of which sadly only a few have been published in English. The main objective of this philosopher, who for many years taught at the “Mohammed V” University in Rabat, like many of the authors featured here, was to harmonise tradition and modernity in the contemporary Muslim world and philosophy. According to Al-Jabri, the conflicting situation that appears to prevent Muslims, and above all Arabs, from harmoniously reconciling contemporary events with the legacy of the Islamic tradition, the so-called turath, already appeared in the Middle Ages.

In its political dimension, this problem is the consequence of centuries and centuries of domination by powers, the representatives of which (Caliphs and then Sultans, “kings of the human city”), ever since the Omayyad dynasty allegedly voluntarily replaced God (“king of the cosmic city”) on earth, thereby sanctifying their own tyrannical and oppressive authority. This situation, later made worse by western colonialism and 20th century dictatorships, resulted in the political immobility and stagnation of Arab-Islamic societies.

The only solution to this impasse, according to Al-Jabri, is democracy, for which the author identifies the principle foundations in the Qur’an itself as well as in the hadith, the provisions and acts of the Prophet. More in detail, the “endogenous” path to democracy in the Muslim world, preferable to importing or imposing a democracy with clearly western characteristics, is to be found precisely starting with the koranic principle of the shurà, or “consultation,” that offers Muslims a way of taking possession of democracy by referring to their cultural heritage and religious traditions.

According to the Moroccan philosopher, it is precisely up to Arab intellectuals to play an active role in harmonisation between the modern world and Islamic tradition. It is to them that he addressed much of his work, above all in a book dated 1995 in which he studies two cases of intellectual persecution that took place in the 9th and 12th centuries – involving the leading scholar Ibn Hanbal and then Averroes – inviting contemporary intellectuals to assume a progressive attitude and begging them not to follow examples involving connivance with power, which according to him is a sin all too often committed in the Arab-Muslim intellectual world in past centuries.

From a scientific and philosophical perspective, Al-Jabri believes that the Arab-Islamic school of thought’s current problems in entertaining a harmonious and balanced relationship with the demands of the contemporary world depend on the progressive loss of a rational and scientific dimension that had instead inspired philosophers such as Averroes, Ibn Hazm and Avempace and with which the Islamic religion is, in his opinion, intimately permeated. The “rationalist” and methodologically scientific philosophy of these three thinkers from Andalusia – the advocates of science’s autonomy from religion, and convinced preachers of the impossibility of applying human cognitive means to transcendence – did not manage to gain the upper hand over an inclination for Gnosticism and “spiritualist irrationalism” of the Islamic philosophy developed in the East. In Al-Jabri’s opinion the supremacy of this latter Islamic philosophy over the centuries resulted in that “irrational obscurantism” that power and bad politics exploited to their own advantage, distorting the original messages of the Islamic religion and preventing a methodologically rigorous exegesis. It is no coincidence that Al-Jabri saw in Averroes a hope for the future of Arab countries, whose rebirth could begin precisely with the establishment of a “new Averroism.”

Finally, Al-Jabri is responsible for the broad project called Critique of Arab Reason, the first book of which appeared the same year as the one in which Mohamed Arkoun, the other famous Muslim reformist of Algerian origin who died recently, published an essay entitled Critique of the Islamic Reason. Subdivided into four books (The Development of Arab Reason, 1984, The Structure of Arab Reason, 1986, Arab Political Reason, 1990, Arab Ethical Reason, 2001), this work by Al-Jabri represents one of the most complete attempts of an epistemological investigation of Arab and Islamic philosophy’s historical-theoretical evolution in its various articulations (methodological, theological, political, ethical, etc.). The book has been translated into Italian with the title La ragione araba [Arab Reason] (Feltrinelli, 1996) and a collection of texts by al-Jabri have been published in French with the title Introduction à la critique de la raison arabe (La Découverte, 1995). In English, the books Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought and The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World. Have been published by J. B. Tauris &Company (2008 and 2010).

Please also refer to Fred Dallmayr’s essay “Opening the doors of ijtihad” about Nasr Abu Zayd and Mohammed al-Jabri



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