Mohamed Arkoun: Unveiling Orthodoxy and Hegemony through Spiritual Responsibility
Mohammed Hashas 10 September 2015

Arkoun needs to be our companion in building a tolerant and ethicist future – “our” here stands for “we” especially the Mediterraneanists, Arabs,  Europeans, etc., for two main reasons. First, we share what he scrutinized for nearly five decades of scholarly life; he scrutinized both Arab-Islamic traditionalism and Euro-modernity and its centrism. Second, the Mediterranean geography binds us in many ways, the Mediterranean which had special place in the heart of Arkoun since he saw in it the epitome of human pluralism and interaction throughout the centuries. Though his focus was Islamic history of ideas, he also gave space to comparative theology, violence and religion, power and hegemony, which are issues that intertwine in making the current Arab world bloody and chaotic. His overall work does not point a (bad) finger to the divine per se, but to corrupt power that hides behind orthodoxy, be it religious, ideological or philosophic. That is why he needs to be our companion to overcome our shared malaise in the Mediterranean that terribly needs to recover “the dignity of man” through “spiritual responsibility” – to use his own terms. This piece is an homage to a scholar who worked to deconstruct orthodoxies so that humanistic spirits of various traditions survive, expand, and embrace diversity with ethical confidence, and without fear.

Islamic Orthodoxy and the Formation of the “Official Closed Corpus”

Arkoun’s background in Arabic literature and philosophy from his early training in Algeria influenced his approach in reading the Islamic tradition and obsession with revitalizing “Islamic reason” – briefly but importantly note here that Arkoun busied himself with “Islamic reason” while his contemporary philosopher Mohamed Abed al Jabri, of Berber descent like him, busied himself with “Arab reason”, and the difference is that the former went directly to religion as an influential factor in forging orthodoxy, while the latter went into culture, Arab culture, as the influential factor in forging religious interpretation and Arab polity in general. It was the renowned French Orientalist Louis Massignon that encouraged him to pursue his postgraduate studies (aggregation in French) in La Sorbonne in Language and Arabic Literature. Arkoun’s PhD dissertation, published as a book in 1961, on the Muslim ethicist Ibn Miskawayh (932-1030), and his work on Arab humanism,  published in 1982, were his first contributions to Islamic scholarship, and these works  must have left everlasting impact on him and the ethical worldview he defended ever after from within the same tradition. More importantly, his long sojourn in Paris acquainted him with scholarly trends that he would integrate in his study of Islamic texts afterwards. He became interested in the French Annales historiography school, and the school of poststructuralists, deconstructionists, semiotists, psychoanalysts, and postmodernists, led by scholars like Claude Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Arkoun´s work is based on reading the three sacred texts (Quran, Bible, Torah) historically, sociologically, and anthropologically in light of what the modern social sciences have achieved.  Divinity aside, the sacred text itself can be read like any other text produced in particular period of time, in a particular space and in a particular language. All these aspects influence the divine text and its interpretation. For him, every text is political, and thus an instrument of power. Richard Martin (et al.) classify him as a “postmodernist.”[1] Arkoun is simply radical in his approach in the sense that he calls for an epistemological break with the tradition. This break is not to negate revelation per se but to deconstruct the way it has been hegemonically interpreted by what he calls the “official closed corpus.” His Rethinking Islam (1994), and the Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (2002) have become iconic titles for new approaches among Islamic studies scholars.

With a focus on Islam, Arkoun detects three stages of development of the Quran. The first is the “Quranic fact/ event.” It is the moment of revelation itself, and it lasted between 610-632. It is God´s appeal to human consciousness; it has an existential meaning, and is linked to Arabic language. It is oral. It is also transhistorical since its appeal is atemporal and goes beyond the demise of the Prophet. Such a revelation is open to various horizons of interpretations and realizations. It is not systematized, and does not logically distinguish between the mythical and rational. Arkoun calls this stage the “Quranic discourse” or “fact/ event.” The Prophet, as its champion, made of it a successful stage because of his ability to merge sublimation with socio-political factors, using particular heuristic devices, like metaphors, parables, symbols, and dialectic devices.[2]

The second stage is that of collection and canonization of the Quran in a book called the Musḥaf (between 632-936). This marks the beginning of the “Islamic fact/ event,” or “Islamic discourse” which establishes itself historically on the basis of the Quranic discourse. Here, the Quranic fact was used as a pretext for the socio-political context that was developing as a power. Some aspects of the Quranic discourse are used, selectively, to serve power purposes that the orthodoxy provides. Here, revelation is no longer open but narrowed down to the Arabic linguistic understandings the orthodoxy constructs.

The third stage is that of the “established orthodoxy” (since 936). Here a new imaginaire within the Islamic community emerges. This imaginaire shapes what is thinkable, what is unthinkable, and with it also remains hidden what is unthought in Islamic thought. Arkoun strives to fathom the archaeology of the imaginaire of the tradition, to find what the orthodoxy left out in historicizing revelation. The total of the unthought makes the unthinkable.[3]

The imaginaire that develops from orthodoxy impacts three levels: the religious, social, and individual imaginaire. For the religious imaginaire, the orthodoxy is taken for granted, without critical thinking. The social one combines the orthodox imaginaire and the ideological forces and discourses to maintain the idea of unity and nation. Mythologization of the Golden Age of Islam and the Medina prophetic experiences are examples of this social imaginaire. The individual absorbs these imaginaires and they all become his own, without critical thinking. For example, “the faithful still perceive religious law (shari´a) as a Divine Law rooted in revelation. That is why people demand a political regime that protects and applies this law and rejects all legislation of human origin.”[4]

For an “Epistemological Break” through the “Emerging Reason”

The critique of Islamic reason Arkoun launches starts from the “hegemonic” and “logocentric” “official closed corpus” set up by the orthodoxy after the Mu´tazilite rationalism and Averroes´ ordeal and death. He says: “[A]fter the death of Ibn Roshd (d. 1198), the creative interface between theology, religious law and philosophy was disrupted.”[5] Arkoun speaks of the “emerging reason” which can deconstruct the “Islamic fact” that grew up from an “official closed corpus” and “dogmatic” reading of the “Quranic fact.” Now, an archaeology of religious texts has to be developed in light of sociological, anthropological, linguistic, and semiotic studies of the texts to unearth the potential truth in the divine message. This enterprise can also be nourished by comparative studies of the three divine religions to unveil the unthought in revelations, beyond dichotomies that modernity has fallen into (secular vs. profane, state vs. Church, etc.). A more plural reasoning paradigm has to match the “emerging reason.” The “historical epistemology” approach in Arkoun´s project aims at deciphering the structures and forces that eliminated the philosophical standpoint of reason in Islamic thought.[6] A “historical discontinuity,” an epistemological break with such a tradition, on the methodological level, becomes imperative for Arkoun, by the utility of the “emerging reason.” The latter is not stable. It is analytical, deconstructionist, and constantly on the move. It is on constant analysis of any religious orthodoxy, philosophic postulate or ideological discourse. He defines it as follows:

“It is concerned with the philosophical subversion of the use of reason itself and all forms of rationality produced so far and those which will be produced in the future so as not to repeat the ideological compromises and derivations of the precedent postures and performances of reason. In that sense, E.R. [Emerging Reason] will be continuously emerging to reassess its critical function.”[7]

The emerging reason, or “emergent reason,” is “reason in crisis.” It is so because its meaning does not seem to emerge, or it emerges to subvert a particular discourse. It is primarily against the “hegemonic reason,” like the Western logocentric reason, or the Islamic orthodox reason. The “emergent reason” helps the subaltern voices to speak up, “we have to be able to hear voices reduced to silence, heterodox voices, minority voices, the voices of the vanquished and the marginalized, if we are to develop a reason capable of encompassing the human condition.”[8] This would shatter the walls of orthodox certainties and hegemonic reason. It leads to the end of certainty-based science, or ´ilm al-yaqin; it moves “from ´ilm al-yaqin to the end of certainties.”[9]

Because of the established orthodoxy, its official closed corpus, and the imaginaire it has hammered in the minds of its believers for centuries, political theology and political philosophy suffered immensely to the extent that they vanished from Islamic reasoning and became among the unthinkable. With the “managers of the sacred,” Islam has developed a weird combination that suffocates its reform. Arkoun puts this in a good comparative statement: “Islam is theologically Protestant and politically Catholic.”[10] The first part of the statement means that “the right of examination of the Scriptures belongs to any adherent duly prepared to enter a doctrinal controversy with his peers,” while the second part means the “absolute authority and power of the caliph or the imam vertically given coverage by doctors of law (Sunni) and clerical hierarchy (Shi‘ite hierarchy).”[11] In between the two much of orthodoxy and hegemony complexifications have taken place historically, through the three Ds, the trilogy of Din, Dunya, and Dawla (Religion, Life, and State), and how they have been connectedly interpreted. This has immensely impacted the “Quranic fact.” The latter has to be regained; it resists the Islamic orthodox discourse.  Arkoun believes that the Quranic fact has instinctive resistance devices, and they are the wealth that has to be explored to regain, besides its cognitive capacities, the “spiritual ethos of the Quran.”[12]

Reclaiming the “Dignity of Man” through “Spiritual Responsibility”

Arkoun is for the development of “spiritual responsibility” that caters for the emancipation of the modern “human spirit.” More precisely, Arkoun is critical of the orthodox marginalization of the “person” from the focus of Islamic theology and political philosophy. He is critical of the centralization of the male and the marginalization of the female and child, from classical thought. Equal critique is launched against Judeo-Christian traditions and modern secular and material philosophy that has categorized Islam outside of the traditions that can contribute to the emancipation of the human condition.[13] Western philosophy now shies away from debating the human condition. Western philosophers avoid measuring the ethical debate starting from personal experiences.[14] For these reasons, Arkoun recognizes the “need to rediscover what I [Arkoun] venture to call “spiritual responsibility,” as a means of resistance, on the part of the human spirit, against the operations of reason itself as the latter works with the “unthinkables” and “unthoughts” of each socio-cultural environment and each historical period.” He does not mean archaic religious self-centred spirituality, but that which revisits the debate on the “dignity of man,” “I am introducing the concept of spiritual responsibility, not to reactivate the idealistic claims for religious spiritualism, but to problematize the current reference made to the “dignity of man.”[15] The “person” or the “human spirit” Arkoun wants to see developing is that which liberates itself from any orthodoxy whatsoever, be it religious, ideological, or philosophic. Such a person is simply pluralist, epistemologically able to see what goes on in building a particular tradition, philosophy, or worldview. He provides a heuristic definition for it, which goes as follows:

“For the human spirit, assuming a spiritual responsibility means providing oneself with all the means, and at all times the necessary conditions, for resisting all activities (once they have been duly identified) that aim to alienate it (the spirit), enslave it, mutilate it or mislead one or several of its faculties in an attempt to achieve an end contrary to what makes it the seat, the agent and the irreducible sign of the eminent dignity of the human person.”[16]

Arkoun cautions that he is not calling for a return to “mythologized values” but to “opening new spaces of intelligibility and more reliable possibilities for the emancipation of the human condition.”[17] He says that religions have for centuries guarded values for societies, but with time that turned into control of these same values. So, “secular religions” have started to propose themselves as the alternative. He does not blame religions per se but the human interpretations that imprison them. “Spiritual responsibility” is in the hands of the person, more than it is in religions’ control, “It is illusory and dangerous to ask of religions more than they can give. Only human beings, with their creativity and innovative boldness, can constantly renew and augment opportunities for their own liberation.”[18] From Arkoun’s historiographical perspective, Islam has this potential of rehabilitating the debate on the dignity of man and human emancipation. “There exists a liberal, critical Islam open to change, an Islam still little known and rarely taken into consideration.”[19]

Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome


[1]Richard Martin, et al., eds., Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997) 204.

[2]Mohamed Arkoun, Islam: to Reform or to Subvert? (London: Saqi Books) 239.

[3]Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: Saqi Books and The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2002) 9-23.

[4]Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers, trans., and ed. Robert D. Lee (Oxford, Westview Press, 1994) 112.

[5]Arkoun, Islam: to Reform or to Subvert? 357.

[6]Ibid., 20-21.

[7]Arkoun, The Unthought, 23-24.

[8]Ibid., 22.

[9]Ibid., 38.

[10]Arkoun, Islam: to Reform or to Subvert? 258.

[11]Arkoun, “The Vicissitudes of Ethics in Islamic Thought,” in Stefan Reichmuth, et al., eds. Humanism and Muslim Culture: Historical Heritage and Contemporary Challenges (Goettingen and Taiwan: V&R Unipress and National Taiwan UP, 2012) 69.

[12]Arkoun, Islam: to Reform or to Subvert? 282.

[13]Arkoun, “The Vicissitudes of Ethics in Islamic Thought,” 82-83.

[14]Arkoun, Islam: to Reform or to Subvert? 292; 359.

[15]Ibid., 284.

[16]Ibid., 284.

[17]Ibid., 294.

[18]Arkoun, Rethinking Islam, 113.

[19]Ibid., 3.