Mohammed Arkoun and the modernization of Islam
23 November 2006

Mohammed Arkoun, a French academician of Algerian origin, is Emeritus Professor of the History of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne (Paris III), and visiting professor at universities in the United States, Europe, and the Muslim world. Philosopher and historian, he is Senior Research Fellow and member of the Board of Governors of The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, and Scientific Director of the magazine “Arabica”. He was born in 1928 at Tourirt-Mimoun in the Kabylia region of Algeria; Berber is his mother tongue, French his second language, and Arabic his third. He grew up in French schools, became a student of Islam and even made his way to the top of the French university system.

Professor Arkoun’s work and interests concentrate on classical Islam and contemporary issues of Islam facing modernity. He is associated with several European initiatives to rethink and reshape the relationship between Europe, Islam, and the Mediterranean world. He was decorated as an Officer of the French Legion of Honour in July 1996. He “has urged examination of the ‘unthought’ dimensions in traditional Muslim thought in order to tap recessed resources of both secular and religious insight” (Dallmayr). As the editor of Arabica, he played a significant role in shaping Western scholarship on Islam. He is the author of numerous books in French, English and Arabic, including most recently: Rethinking Islam (Boulder, Col., 1994), L’immigration: défis et richesses (Paris, 1998) and The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London, 2002).

About twenty years ago Arkoun published a book of his essays on the Qur’ân, and due to his formation as a medievalist, he began by situating his work in relation to the cumulative and comprehensive encyclopedia of the “quranic sciences” produced at the end of the fifteenth century by Jalal al-Din al Suyuti (d. 911/1505). Arkoun demonstrated through his juxtaposition of this work with that being done in the twentieth century, by both Muslim and western (i.e., non-Muslim) scholars, how binding has been the fixation and circumscription of quranic discourse, how powerfully “dogmatic enclosure” (clôture dogmatique) – to use his term – has operated. What stands within the enclosure is “thinkable”; what falls outside it is the “unthinkable” (impensable). Part of Arkoun’s project is to rescue those strands of thought, both past and present, that have been unreflectively relegated to this latter category. His is a hermeneutic of retrieval bound together with a reconceptualization of the quranic event through the lenses of contemporary humanistic and social sciences scholarship.

About “Rethinking Islam”, in 1994 The New York Times wrote that it was “an illustration of the contemporary fecundity of Islam” and defined its author “the leading French-language spokesman calling for a rethinking of Islam in a modern mode”: “Mr. Arkoun is highly critical of the past and present conditions of Islamic thought, and of contemporary Islamic societies – wrote the American newspaper – While he is a devout believer in the message of the Koran, he says that its spiritual transformative power over the hearts and minds of Muslims has been obscured. In his view, the spiritual essence of the covenant between God and man has been allowed to deteriorate into legal codes, rituals and ideologies of domination in the interest of religious and political elites. The great cultural achievements of the early Islamic era in bringing together Koranic revelation and Greek rational philosophic humanism have, he argues, long been abandoned.

“Mr. Arkoun believes the Koran must be re-experienced as a religious revelation that brings about an inner transformation of the individual, and inspires a trust and devotional love of God that transcends all ritual, legal, communal and institutional forms. This renewal of revelation depends on a revival of the philosophic, scientific, humanistic Islamic culture of the classical era (a Muslim renaissance that would allow for a thinking of the hitherto unthought in Islam) and the assimilation of the industrial and information revolutions, with their modern social, scientific, theological and philosophical insights. This – concluded The New York Times – would establish the intellectual apparatus essential to a critical formulation of an Islamic modernity. Such a renewal, he says, would not create a parochial, separatist, communalist form of Islam. Rather, it would reintegrate Islam into the monotheistic Mediterranean culture it shares with Judaism and Christianity. Mr. Arkoun’s Islam is tolerant, liberal and modern”.