Mohammed Abed al-Jabri: the Future of the Arab World?
Mohammed Hashas 27 December 2014

Al Jabri put the Arab house in order and provided it with a roadmap; he re-constructed the “Arab Reason” based on its past and its present for an Arab future. This is in no way the place to speak of his scholarly pitfalls that his most known contemporary critics have dealt with in volumes and for decades. His critics include major philosophers and scholars like George Tarabichi, Taha Abderrahmane, Abdellah Laroui, Mohamed Arkoun, and Hassan Hanafi. His students, however, are much more than his critics, I believe. On the occasion of his birthday (b. 27 December, 1936, in Figuig, eastern Morocco, d. 3 May 2010), I share three main points: the first is a brief testimony about my relationship with him as a young Arab reader; the second is a sketch of selected ideas from his various works, and the third is a broad reflection on the strong relevance of his works in contemporary Arab-Islamic thought and politics.

Testimony of a Reader

Al Jabri and Mahdi el Mandjra (d. 2014, a futurist and sociologist) were the first Moroccan and Arab intellectuals who I began to read in the late secondary school years in 1999-2000. I did not understand much of what they write, but I accompanied them and made them my friends and auditors at the university though I enrolled in English Language and Literature Department, and not, for example, in the Department of Philosophy at Mohamed I University of Oujda, in the east of Morocco. I tried to search for thought in literary-cultural studies, and that is how contemporary Arab-Islamic thought in particular held particular passion in my studies, besides English Literatures. It was not an easy way: literatures make you a lover of the world and its diversity, but being also interested in Arab culture makes of you always in a situation of bargaining time and passion, particularly when you are still young, trying to grow up. I was trying to understand what it means to be an Arab, a Berber, a Muslim, a citizen and a human being in a big world. They were existential questions raised in politically trying times. Growing without a close intellectual mentor to guide you may lead you to labyrinths. However, chance or/and destiny can play important roles in nurturing our passions. My elder brother used to buy newspapers and booklets of renowned intellectuals in the Arab world. That is how al Jabri became my friend through his booklets about globalization and colonialism, education, democracy, renewal, the experience of Japan in change and modernization, and related issues.

With time, al Jabri gave me more confidence in my multicultural identities. Al Jabri helped me to understand the many aspects that affect our understanding of the heritage of the past, present and future. He also helped me through his involvement in political theorizing in Morocco from the first years of his youth in understanding the responsibilities of the Arab intellectual as a citizen, and later as a growing young researcher. The way al Jabri classified the Arab-Islamic tradition in his various volumes helps researchers as well as mere readers of the tradition to understand the perplexity of factors that all contributed to the making and later on the fall of the Arab-Islamic civilization.

Systematizing Arab-Islamic Thought

Arab Reason

Besides his activism with the Moroccan Left, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces from the 1950s until his retirement from the party in the early 1980s to devote himself to academic life, al Jabri was a political theorist. His critics accuse him of having been too political in his scholarship, seeing that he belonged to the Left in post-independence Morocco and post-colonial Third World. But all philosophers are the outcome of their socio-political circumstances: did John Lock write A Letter Concerning Toleration just out of fantasy? Did John Rawls write Political Liberalism with no socio-political need in mind?

Al Jabri understood the present decadence of Arab-Islamic socio-political life and went into the past to further understand the reasons why as a way of overcoming them for a brighter future. His first book, originally a PhD thesis, was on Ibn Khaldun and the notion of al´asabiya (ésprit de corps, in Montesquieu´s terms), and it seems that it impacted his reading of the tradition immensely. The historicity he developed stems from his keen interest in the genius of Ibn Khaldun, and not in the Marxist tradition or the French poststructuralist school, though both paid some role in his early career and conceptualizations. His historicist spirit was Khaldounian – he read Marx as a fruit of the European context, that is why he did not turn Marxist though the general trend in the Arab world at the time was that.

Al Jabri´s deconstruction of the tradition and subsequently construction of Arab reason used three analytical tools or concepts which became polemical: al bayan, al irfan, and al burhan (rhetoric or linguistic analysis, gnosticism, and deductive reasoning, respectively). Broadly, the first two dominated Arab-Islamic culture and the third, which is the most rational, lived for short and died with Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun after him. This rationalist trend, for Al Jabri, was most widespread in the Maghreb, while the Machreq remained under the influence of the mysticism of pre-Islamic and Persian periods in particular – a view that brought him many critiques. For him, Ibn Sinna and al-Ghazali are among the main scholars that de-rationalized and mystified the Arab-Islamic mind. To undo this process, he calls for an epistemological break with the tradition but only at the level of concepts, and not with the divine as such so as to understand the historical factors that were involved in constructing the dominant trend in Arab-Islamic scholarship. He called for the development of tools to examine the ideological factors that may have influenced big theological-philosophical figures in building their classical concepts the effects of which are still dominant to the present. His call for this kind of epistemological break then differs from the radical epistemological break of Abdellah Laroui or Mohamed Arkoun.

Al Jabri´s analytical tools in deconstructing the tradition to accommodate the modern challenges aim at reconciling faith and reason, following in that his “mentor” Averroes. Each of the two, faith and reason, has its own path to the truth; each has its own methodology of apprehension, and they are complementary, and not contradictory. This becomes clear with his views on Sharia law and the sources of jurisprudence, uṣūl al-fiqh: He says “What is needed is a renewal, stemming not from a mere resumption of ijtihad in the branches, but from a ‘re-rooting of the sources (ta´sil al-uṣūl).’” He elevates reason above the classical jurisprudence schools that have contented themselves with rulings and interpretations by analogy/ qiyās, instead of going back to the sources and the occasions of revelation, asbāb annuzūl. According to him, studying “occasions of revelation” over particular rulings (like the penal code and women inheritance division) should be conducted on two conditions: 1) understanding the intent of revealed law, maqāṣid asharia, and 2) serving the public good, maṣlaḥa ʻāma. This leads to “perpetual renewal and ijtihad.” Henceforth, applying Sharia can be carried out only in a “relative manner,” since its perpetual renewal does not allow it to settle down with a particular model. Its norms change as society changes. This adaptive view of sharia rulings based on public good is part of the Averroist spirit Al Jabri calls for in order to modernize the tradition from within. His statement “The future can only be Averroist!” is often quoted. 

Arab Political Thought

Al Jabri’s three concepts of reading the epistemological foundations of ‘Arab reason’ above were supported by other three more concepts that categorize and analyse ‘Arab political mind’: al qabīla, al ghanīma, and al ʻaqīda (Tribe, Bounty, and Creed, respectively). The latter have impacted the evolution of a democratic political life in the Arab world. The three have been mythologized and ideologized historically, according to diverse dynastic political wills, and have all produced a stagnant mindset that neglects State rule of law (because of tribalism), socio-economic fairness and institutionalization (because of bountism, cronysm and the rentier state), and freedom of conscious and expression which sectarianism and dogmatism bring about (because of dogmatic creed). For al Jabri, the three concepts have to be rationally critiqued and revisited to rebuild modern Arab-Islamic states from within. There is no alternative to the state to enter the democratic process, and there is no way out if the three concepts are not re-visited and filled in with new interpretations of the tradition.

Al Jabri did not see the problem with religion per se. He refused the projection of European history on the Arab-Islamic world, that is why he was leftist but not Marxist, for example, as was common among both Arab and non-Arab leftist scholars and politicians in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that he read Arab-Islamic intellectual history based on the main concepts mentioned above allowed him to distinguish his discourse from the Eurocentrist-Orientalist one that many of his Arab contemporaries borrowed. That is, the problem in his eyes was not religion but a chain of factors at the lead of which are state-powers, when it is corrupt and undemocratic, and economic factors, when social justice is not an aim. Religion is only a factor that is used by these two main factors to block change. Al Jabri held a high view of Islam. He considered it an enrichment, the way it was in advancing the Arab civilization to world scale. That is why he avoided using the controvertial term of ‘secularism’ though his reading of the tradtion through his categorical terms cannot but mean that he has a secular approach of the tradition. That approach has roots, among others, in the work of his mentor Ibn Roshd, the defender of the idea that religion and philosophy are two independent but not necessarily antagonistic disciplines that aim at the same thing – seeking ‘truth.’ Al Jabri believes that Europe enriched itself with the work of Averroes, besides others, and claims that secularism in this sense then is not alien to the Arab-Islamic tradition. It is not a pure European product. In other words, religion is in no way outside the scope of the modern Arab state al Jabri theorized. Yet, a number of classical interpretations of religion have to be re-adapted to the contemporary context, always based on the plurality of the tradition itself, with openings to the global changes.

Arab Ethical Mind

In his volume dedicated to The Arab Ethical Mind, his fourth volume of Critique of Arab Reason project, al Jabri speaks of five main sources that influenced the making of the Arab ethical mind. These are the following: the Greek influence, with its major value of the search for happiness, the Persian influence, with its major value of submission to the king as the protector of religion, the Sufi/Mystic influence, with its idea of leaving this world to live the other one, the Arab influence, with its value of magnanimity, and the Islamic influence, with its value of public good. This categorization originates from what al Jabri considered a remarkably inacceptable lack in theorizing ethics in the Islamic tradition based only on its major references. His overall idea on this is that the Persian influence became dominant due to the use the the Arab dynasties, beginning with the Umayyads, made of ethics of submission to strenghten their powers. The Arab value of magnanimity was fused with the Islamic various values of generosity, mercy, etc., and Islamic ethics based on the value of ‘public good’, the second most important value after ‘faith’ as first categorically theorized by Al ‘Iz Ibn Abd Assalam (d. 1262), never managed to become dominant. Otherwise put, public good is the most important value besides faith, and faith without it is incomplete, because both (faith and doing good) are often referred to together in the Quran, according to this reading.

The emphasis of al Jabri on the idea of the public good as a high value that should be revisited in the Islamic tradition is part of his vision of a newed Arab culture based on its most revered text, the Quran. Public good here is the equivalent of what he calls in other texts social justice, or part of his dream of a social, democratic, and modern Arab state. If the idea of the public good is politically institutionalized, if the creed is personalized, if state power is not divinized, and if economy is liberalized for social justice purposes, the modern Arab state could renew itself without radically breaking away from its past. Modern concepts have echoes in the tradition, if updated.

Arab Unity vs. External Hegemony and Colonialism

Besides these blocking factors, European colonialism and its current postcolonial manifestations are never absent from al Jabri’s political vision of the future Arab world. While he heavily worked on Arab reason, his works on the crisis of modern Arab politics gives clear space to his critique of European hegemony and its disinterest in seeing the Arab world modernizing. That is why he called for ‘Arab unity’ based on a ‘historical block.’ Arab states cannot modernize and democratize in isolation; cooperation is a historical must.

Al Jabri was planning to write a critique of European reason, à la ‘critique of Arab reason.’ But the terrorist events of 9/11, 2001, turned his attention further to the sacred text of the Arab-Muslim world, the Quran, seeing the violence Islam and the Quran became tarnished with for ideological reasons, according to him.

Understanding the Quran

Henceforth, in the last decade of his life, al Jabri produced Introduction to the Quran as well as three volumes entitled Understanding the Quran, in which he reads it based on reasons of revelation. Until now his volumes on the Quran are hardly studied nor read in the light of his earlier work of Critique of Arab Reason, despite the strong lines of analysis one finds between these different stages of his project. The main idea to retain of his reading the Quran is that it emphasizes the act of reasoning, that is why the verses that concern social affairs have particular and contextual reasons of revelation, which ultimately means that there is no reference to the idea of an Islamic state in the Quran. Reading the text in its context shows that a literal interpretation of its especially juridical verses can betray its overall message of moral teachings and social justice. Al Jabri’s reading of the Quran adds to the earlier note that religion is not outside his reformist project. While this has scholarly evidence from the Arab-Islamic tradition, as the neo-Averoest has shown, it also has evidence from his personal life.

In Archaeologies of Memory (1998), the first volume out of five of his autobiography, he speaks of his faith and says that he chose to believe instead of not-believing. In his introduction to Introduction to the Quran (2006) he says that this “sacred book” has been a lifelong friend. Despite his textualist and historicist approach, al Jabri kept his belief in God and in the sacredness of the Quran, but not in the sacredness of its interpretations. He desacralizes the tradition, including the Quran and the Sunna, which he read historically, but the divine for him remains ahistorical, thus vivid in his heart and mind. One of his close friends and companions in travels, the Mauritanian philosopher Abdullah Seyyed Ould Abbah, narrates that al Jabri used to listen to the Quran in the airplane in their travels together, a common practice among some believers. Being Leftist politically and rationalist theologically did not hinder the philosopher from being a believer.

Al Jabri’s strong belief in the possibilities of reform from within the tradition maybe goes back to his early childhood – a number of philosophers build on the values they receive as kids. He grew up in a very modest family that faced periods of poverty, but this did not prevent it to educate its only kid of values that he would stick to in his life. He learnt a good part of the Quran as a kid, as were most people of his times in Moroccan traditional schools. He studied in French schools for a very short period of time, and his education before and after that was in Arabic. He grew up reading classical Arabic literary texts, and later on went for philosophy at the university, though he had mathematical orientations in high school. Even though he started journalism and political theorizing for the Socialist Party very young in the 1950s, this again did not push him to become an irreligious leftist or irreligious socialist. The Arabic and Islamic tradition he first devoured in his early childhood seemed to have convinced him that the tradition is rich and has all the potentials of reforms from within. The fact that he spent some three months or less in Paris in an attempt to continue his studies there does not make of him an Arab intellectual of the European school. He went back to Morocco because the third worldist and leader of the Socialist Party at the time, Mehdi Ben Berka, advised him to return and work on his projects from there since the country needed his energy. Al Jabri has left three volumes on his political autobiography, which include rich chapters on Moroccan contemporary political history and narrate his and his party’s struggle for democracy and social justice in the country – and social justice has nothing to do with the socialism of the Socialists of the time.

This to say that al Jabri may be liked to the Machreqi figure of Hassan Hanafi, the epitome of the Islamic Left, but in the Maghreb. Many scholars may differ in my description of him as part of those few big scholars that make the Islamic Left because al Jabri in no way identified with any Islamic movement. My characterization of him as an Arab-Muslim Leftist finds arguments in what was provided earlier about his project: his faith, his belief in reform from within, his admiration of the Arabic tradition, and his defence of modern state institutions. This is also supported by the famous intellectual exchange the two, Hanafi and al Jabri, held in the 1980s, and the book that came out of that enriching exchange that many Arab intellectuals followed with great interest.

Al Jabri: the Future of the Arab Revolts?

Al Jabri is neo-Khaldounian with his historical approach of reading how cultures rise and fall, and is neo-Averroist with his view of religion and reason. He is Cartesian with his conceptual categorization of Arab reason and Foucauldian with his archeological escavations in the epistemologies of the Arab mind.

The disappointments of the so-called Arab Spring, or better call them Arab revolts while waiting them to turn into revolutions that change the status quo (to use Albert Camus’ differentiation), originate from a dire lack of clarity in mind. Tradition and modernity have been debated for the last two centuries and politics on the ground have not managed to bring them together harmoniously for the reason that politics are under the influence of various internal and external sovereignties. The Arab Youth that ignited the Arab revolts have found themselves outside the political game after having dethroned the main figures of old regimes (like Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saleh in Yemen, and Ghaddafi in Yemen). Yet, the political culture has remained the same: state power is held undemocratically; the economy is in the hands of the ruling elite and its entourage; and religion is controlled and used by the same ruling powers. This has resulted in political misery, poverty, illiteracy or low education, and religious dogmatism. What is marketed to the internal and external public via the media is that religion is the real problem, and thus it is better to go back to old tyrant regimes for stability rather than opting for religious fanaticism. At the end, the terrorist so-called Islamic State (IS) was born, and the stakeholders, internal and external, disclaim it while they have been, directly or indirectly, behind its development because of their blocking of slow and serious democratic change in the region.

Al Jabri has deconstructed the imaginery of the perfect Arab-Islamic world and desacralized its history. He has put the Arab reason in clearer order through his categorical concepts, and religion is only part of the problem and not the whole problem. The current Arab world needs these categorizations to overcome its malaise. Particularly the Arab Youth, or Arab Springers, need to know that a tyrant state deprives its people of decent socio-economic standard of life and the liberty to understand religion as they want, freely. Tribalism is damaging to democratic states if not turned into mechanisms of democratic procedures; cronysim and favouritism enrich the governing elite and indebt the state and improverish the present and future of the Arab world; faith becomes a dogma and ignorance if not practiced in a democratic and free society. Critical mind is a requisite to help in advancing such an approach among the political and intellectal elites in the first place.

The Arab revolts have unveiled the Islamists’ naive political minds; as to the seculars, they were unveiled a long time ago, since the early post-independence era. Now, none of them can claim to be on the right and able to govern alone. It is a historical moment for compromises and unity, otherwise many decades have to pass by before things go right enough. Reaching that culture of compromises without fear of backlashes requires radical intellectual awakening and cultural pluralism. For that to happen, politics, economy, and culture, the heart of which is religion for now, have to be revisited. Not everyone of the Arab Youth that went to the streets are ready to do that, and that is one of the deficits that have to be fixed – let alone the other blocking factors, internal and external, as seen above. It is because the Arab house needs order that al Jabri seems a serious project for the future Arab world. His categorical concepts can substantially contribute to polishing the Arab house.