The Question of Ethics: Taha Abderrahmane’s Praxeology and Trusteeship Paradigm
Islamic Philosophy III 17 November 2014

Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome

The point behind singling out this project as a sample of contemporary Islamic philosophy is twofold. First, a number of contemporary scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, claim that Islamic scholarship never developed a clear theory of ethics, though the sharia worldview is ethical in its entirety. A clear theory of ethics, rationally developed, is lacking in Islamic scholarship, however heavy is the ethical tone in the Quranic text. Scholars who put forward such a claim include Majid Fakhry, Fazlur Rahman, Mohamed Arkoun and Mohamed Abed Aljabri. Two brief notes can be developed as arguments against such a claim: one, there are various ways and disciplines that can embrace ethical teachings, and the first piece makes this point (Islamic philosophy I); two, ethical theories as understood in modern times is a new discipline that has developed after various socio-political and especially philosophical processes in Europe; ethical theories in the modern sense claim to replace classical religions and their rituals; they are part of the rationalization and individualization process of classical religious teachings; so, historically speaking, theories of ethics are a modern product, and the project to be referred to (Abderrahmane´s) is part of modern (Islamic) philosophy.

Second, philosophy has broadly been conceived of as a rational practice; reason is its norm. Not all philosophical traditions would agree on this, but seemingly none has gone so far as to dominantly establish another norm and to make it the strong equivalent, or opponent, of reason in this regard. George Hourani says that Greek and Islamic philosophies might be the two traditions that have discussed ethics most in pre-modern times, but such discussions seem to be marginal, compared to the place of reason within them. In both, ethics seem to come second, as a virtue to have, or a discipline among others, or something spoken about, instead of being the essence of the process of thinking, of philosophizing, or the heart of the matter. Still, Islamic philosophy, which is reconciliatory between reason and revelation, may be said to have prioritized ethics, that is why there is still a discussion about whether there is an Islamic philosophy or not. It has not prioritized reason, over revelation, nor has it elevated revelation and cancelled reason; it has often tried to reconcile them. That is why figures like Ibn Roshd and al-Ghazali seem to be pulled apart by different views.

Abderrahmane´s ethical theory, within the trusteeship paradigm he tries to re-build, brings anew this issue of ethics in Islamic philosophy. Mohamed Iqbal, who might be considered the first modern Muslim philosopher of this age (of modernity), only spoke of ethics in the Quran. His compatriot Fazlur Rahman pushed further the project, from a hermeneutical perspective. Other modern and contemporary projects also speak of ethics, without making of it their groundbreaking project (see Islamic Philosophy II). Abderrahmane appears to be so far the only leading philosopher of ethics in the Islamic tradition in particular, and modern philosophy in general. That is why he is singled out here as a sample of contemporary (Islamic) philosophy that sets ethics as the norms of philosophical practice, instead of reason. (I am putting “Islamic” between brackets because he heavily engages with modern Western philosophy in his construction of “trusteeship paradigm.”) Abderrahmane´s trusteeship paradigm modernizes a classical sharia paradigm, but that does not make it the only paradigm that claims links to the tradition.

Taha Abderrahmane: A Biographical Sketch

Abderrahmane’s project emerged in the so-called post-1967 intellectual tradition in the Arab-Islamic world. The project is also a reaction to other projects of the “contemporaries” with which the philosopher is not satisfied, projects he accuses of being mimetic of Greek philosophy or European modern philosophy. Abderrahmane exemplifies for this critique with the projects of his compatriot philosophers, Mohamed Abed Aljabri, an Averoest, and Abdellah Laroui, a Euro-modernist. The confidence of philosophical originality he enjoys stems, linguistically, from his command of Greek, German, French, and English, and, philosophically, from his early training in logic and philosophy of language at La Sorbonne, besides his immersion in the Islamic and Greek traditions, as well as modern Western philosophy. Apart from few philosophers whose work he appreciates (like al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun among the classics, Mohamed Iqbal among the moderns, and Fazlur Rahman among the contemporaries), and the (Qadderiyya) Sufi path from which he learnt a lot on the spiritual and personal level, he stands nearly against everyone else! Some consider his project a “philosophical earthquake” (zilzāl falsafī) for its originality, and some consider it a “philosophical regress” (irtidād falsafī) in Islamic thought, for its revival of metaphysics and mysticism through modern logic and argumentation (al mantiq wa al hijāj).

Abderrahmane graduated in philosophy from Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco, and received his PhD from La Sorbonne on the logic of reasoning. He taught philosophy, and developed the study of logic to the Moroccan university in his home university in Rabat from 1970 to his retirement in 2006. Recently, he was invited by the President of Tunisia, Moncef al Marzuki, in June 2013, to lecture in Carthage Palace. National and International conferences have been organized in Moroccan universities around his works, the last of which gathered scholars from the Arab world in Agadir in February 2014. Abderrahmane lectured in front of King Mohamed VI of Morocco earlier in 2006, received the Mohamed VI’s Prize for Islamic Thought in January 2014, and received The Moroccan Book Prize twice (1988, 1995), and that of ISESCO for Islamic Thought and Philosophy in 2006. He is, among others, a member of the “International Society for the Study of Argumentation” which he represents in Morocco, a representative of “Gesellschaft für Interkulturelle Philosophie (GIP)/ Society of Intercultural Philosophy,” and director of “Wisdom Circle for Thinkers and Researchers.”

Nonetheless, English and French contemporary scholarship on Islamic thought still do not refer to Abderrahmane, though they refer to the projects of his compatriots Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi, Abdellah Laroui, and Mohamed Abed Aljabri. It may be because he has been silent about his project, which came to prominence only in the 1990s, though he started it earlier; his first voice was noted in an unrepeated encounter with Mohamed Abed Aljabri in a conference in Rabat university in 1978. Among the “major” works that have appeared for the last decades on contemporary Islamic thought only Nelly Lahoud and Wael Hallaq refer to him, in Political Thought in Islam (2005) and The Impossible State (2013), respectively. Lahoud devotes two pages and a half to his project, and Hallaq refers to him in a footnote as a major contemporary project on Islamic ethics. Works that present Islamic scholarship to Western readership and scholarship have failed to pay attention to this philosophical project; reference is made to the works of renowned scholars like Majid Fakhry, Charles Kurzman, John Esposito and John Voll, Vincent Cornell, Ibrahim Abu Rabiʻ, and Seyyed Hussein Nasr in English, and Abdu Filali Ansari and Rachid Benzine in French.

Re-grounding Islamic Philosophy: Ethics for Trusteeship Paradigm

Abderrahmane’s overall work could be divided into three thematic (and chronological) stages, which culminate in his current focus, philosophy of religion and ethics. In the first stage he worked on logic and argumentation (1970s, mid-1980s), before developing methods of reading and renewing the tradition through theology and reason (late 1980s). In the second stage he substantially worked on one of his major philosophical contributions, i.e., the idea of praxeology, or what he calls in Arabic fiqh al falsafa, or the “science of philosophy,” theorized in two heavy volumes; it is in this same period that his earlier work becomes clearer and contained within this new orientation he brings to philosophy. This period also witnesses the development of his contribution to the study of language and the role of translation in the flourishing of genuine philosophy (1990s).The concepts he coins and generates from Arabic language render his project more authentic; his language appears unique, compared to the rest of contemporary Arab philosophers.

Abderrahmane started to advance his theory of ethics since 2000 within what has grown to be a larger project of philosophy of religion; this phase deals with major issues like his “critique of Western modernity,” the “Arab-Islamic right to difference,” the “spirit of modernity,” the “spirit of religion,”and “religion and practice” which marks his contribution to applied ethics. This stage also witnesses the introduction of one of his major concepts: “trusteeship paradigm” (al iʿtimāniyya), or “trusteeship critique”(annaqd al-iʼtimā), as a critique of atheist secularism, modern ethical theories, Islamism (political Islam), and some classical dichotomies like reason vs. revelation and religion vs. politics. Trusteeship is not only a concept, but a whole paradigm rooted in the tradition, and modern in its claims. It targets the re-construction of ethical reasoning, and not (only) rational ethics. (Trust, al amāna, here is linked to a Quranic concept by which man is believed to have willingly accepted the divine responsibility of doing good on earth; this human bond with the divine conceives of man as a whole, and not in parts, in relation to himself, the others, nature, and all creation; Abderrahmane believes than only a holistic approach to understanding man can save this “trust”, which can render the world, with its diversity, an enjoyable place to share for good).

The bulk of Abderrahmane’s ethical theory is that (the four of) revelation, reason, ethics and doing (or practice) are neither separable nor antagonistic to each other in the Islamic philosophy he aims at re-grounding; their centripetal force is essentially ethical; this ethical force is what can regenerate the politico-philosophical awakening of the Arab-Islamic world in particular, and can contribute to the formation of a pluralist civilization of ethos worldwide. His re-grounding of philosophy in general originates from putting ethics at the heart of the practice of philosophy. That is, he puts ethics as the essence of man and humanity, and not reason.

Abderrahmane’s theory of ethics distinguishes three types of ethics, “abstract, guided, and supported,” which he puts in symmetry with three types of reason, “abstract, guided, and supported.” The concerned ethicist divides “rational ability” into three basic levels: “rationality of abstraction,” “rationality of living experience,” and “rationality of Sophist belief,” which match three terms “abstract reason”(al ʻaql al mujarrad), “guided reason” (al ʻaql al musaddad) and “supported reason” (al ʻaql al muayyad). “Abstract reason” is limited to description of things; “guided reason” is devoted to doing things; “supported reason,” “or supported reason,” represents the capability of knowing its internal identity. Similarly, he speaks of three levels of ethics. Accordingly, while “abstract ethics” and “guided ethics” match “abstract” and “guided” reason because they (ethics) are broadly scene as separate from religion and reason and thus can be applied only partially, Abderrahmane refers to “supported ethics” (akhlāq mu’ayyada) when he speaks of his theory. He develops principles of ethics, as well as principles of doing and practice (al fi´l wa al´amal) to consolidate his project. Succinctly, he believes that the first two categories of reason and ethics are the maximum Greek and Western philosophy have been able to debate and reach, while the path for the third one is what he thinks Islamic ethical worldview can contribute for the formation of a new universal civilization of ethos. He calls the Western civilization a “civilization of wording” (adāratu alqawl), because according to it man is a speaking or rational animal, and this speaking/rationality is the result of his abstract reasoning. As to the theory of ethics he builds, it is part of the Islamic spiritual worldview, rooted in practical ethics, which he calls a “civilization of doing” (adāratu al fiʻl), or a “civilization of ethos” as opposed to the “civilization of logos,” as he sometimes refer to them.

Simplistically put, he theorizes the following: religion = ethics = reason = practice (doing). For him, religion means ethics, and man without ethics is impossible. He argues in length that religion equals ethics, “religion and ethics are one.” He does not separate the two. He sees them as one ontological unit. “The existence of man […] does not precede the existence of ethics, but accompanies it.” Since religion (and consequently ethics) has existed with the existence of man, the following syllogism is reached: there is “no man without ethics, […] no ethics without religion, […] and no man without religion.” Linking ethics to work he says, “ethics in Islam are the origin of any work.” His ethical theory aside, it is Abderrahmane’s critique of the philosophical question that is of primal interest here. It is posing the “responsible question” that contributes to the formation of multiple philosophies, and multiple modernities.

Re-grounding Philosophical Practice: Posing “the Responsible Question”

Abderrahmane develops a new task for philosophy. If the Greeks considered that the task of philosophy is to “raise questions” (Aristotle in focus), and the Europeans considered “criticism” its primal task (Kant in focus), this age considers ethical responsibility its priority; so, the task of philosophy now is to raise “the responsible question” (assu’āl al mas’ūl). When there is a question, then there is a responsibility that follows to answer it (in Arabic, the move is from “assu’āliyya” (questioning) to “al-mas’ūliyya” (responsibility) in philosophy). Accordingly, a question receives an ethical dimension through responsibility; if it is posed, it has to be answered, and the feel of responsibility makes the exercise of answering ethical – “there is no philosophizing without ethics.” Otherwise put, the new task of the philosopher is to raise questions that are challenging not only to the society where they are posed, or to the world at large, but most importantly they have to challenge the philosopher himself. As will be made clearer with his theory of ethics, Abderrahmane is challenging especially the gap there is in contemporary Western philosophy in distinguishing posing questions with the real acts of the poser of the questions, the philosopher. He merges thought with deeds, al-ilmwa alamal. The “civilization of ethos” he aspires to see taking place should replace the current “civilization of parole” – in which philosophers raise questions, critique everything, but do not meet their thought with the practical ethics required. Abderrahmane’s “responsible question” is an ethical question that challenges the agency of the philosopher in the first place.

In so thinking, Abderrahmane is actually corroborating his idea of “praxeology of philosophy” (fiqh al falsafa) that goes beyond the limitations surrounding the cognitive as well as practical capacities of the philosopher. Abderrahmane argues that philosophy as a discipline of inquiry and questioning is a limited one. What seems more open as a discipline is fiqh alfalsafa that could be as expansive and inclusive as usul alfiqh (the sources of fiqh). The latter includes disciplines like language and linguistics, logic, sciences of tafsir, hadith, fiqh, spirituality, among others. In other words, Abderrahmane is regrounding Arab-Islamic philosophy in its “original sources” (al manhaj al usūlī) for the practice of thought from within, as if going back to the early stage of Arab-Islamic philosophy. He targets what he calls in The Spirit of Modernity (2006) “the second birth of the Islamic message.” Without such a renewal, a “second death” –meaning decline/decadence- is possible. Put more clearly, in Arab-Islamic tradition, to be a scholar in usul al fiqh meant not only cognitive capacities but also grounded acts that support this high cognitive skills: to be a scholar meant to apply what one thinks and writes about. It is this link of learning and agency, alilm wa alamal, that Abderrahmane underlines. That is why he considers the meanings of fiqh al falsafa – to think, understand and also apply what is understood – more inclusive that mere practice of philosophy.

Binding philosophy to questions that have to be answered responsibly is the task the Arab and Muslim philosopher has to engage with – and the call is also directed to all philosophies, in defence of his idea of multiple modernities, to be presented later when critiquing Western modernity. Abderrahmane here calls for prioritizing some questions over others. He wants Arab-Islamic philosophy to raise questions that concern its current status and needs. He aims at concentrating its energies on questions the Arab-Muslim philosopher faces, and not questions imposed by external/hegemonic philosophy of the West that has its own questions.

The Localization of Philosophy: The Arab-Islamic Right to Philosophical Difference

At this point, Abderrahmane weakens two practices or fallacies that he believes many other Arab-Muslim philosophers have fallen into: 1) universal thought (alfiqr alwāḥid), and 2) le fait accompli (alʻamr alwāqiʻ). For the first, he believes that if philosophy in the past sought convergences among cultures, now the opposite is the case. Against falling under the power of questions raised by hegemonic philosophies, as that of the West, current philosophy has to seek difference, otherwise its role of liberating thought and thus its welcoming of criticism and disagreement die and all philosophical traditions become the same, raising the same questions (as imposed by the hegemon). This is against the ideal of philosophy: the liberation of thought. As to the fait accompli, it is so much tied to the previous point. Accepting questions raised by a philosophical tradition that is supported by a political-economic hegemon means the intellectual death of the other traditions, a death which the “responsible question” and ethical philosophy do not allow. Unitary thought (alfikr alwāḥid or attaswiyya athaqāfiyya) is against criticism and difference principles of exercising philosophy, “we, the Arabs, want to be free in our philosophy,” he says. It is only when this freedom is granted, and “our particular philosophy” takes shape that “dialogue” takes place. Liberty brings difference, and difference leads to dialogue, and this dialogue is part of the “responsible question” process. Difference is the essence of dialogue, he argues.

The “Arab right to philosophical difference” is a right to liberation from blind imitation (taqlīd) of three philosophical projects: Greekization (attaghrīq), Westernization-Europeanization (attaghrīb), and Judaisation (attahwīd). The first project is the Greek one. For example, unlike many contemporary Arab philosophers as well as Orientalists, Abderrahmane considers Ibn Roshd (Averroes) a mere “imitator” –his word- of Aristotle. On the other hand, he appreciates the originality of al-Ghazali who tried to distinguish Islamic philosophy from Greek influence, and has been misread as an opponent of reason for that. Abderrahmane considers Aljabri’s work an imitation of an imitator (i.e. Averroes) of Aristotle. He considers that the division between reason and religion (or ‘aql and sharʻ) is a mere Greek philosophical problem that a number of early Islamic philosophers integrated to Arab-Islamic philosophy, either because of imitation or because of mistranslation and inability to find more adequate Arabic terms to Greek philosophical terminology. Abderrahmane denies originality in the work of classical and pioneering Muslim philosophers like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina, besides Ibn Roshd, the champion of Islamic rationalism for many. He says they were unable to seek “difference” from Greek philosophy nor were they able to profoundly see the particularity in the Islamic worldview; they sought “reconciliation” with this philosophy that is based on abstract rationalism instead of developing one from their own worldview and language; that is why Abderrahmane claims to be re-grounding Islamic philosophy on its own resources, instead of mimicry and language borrowing. A similar critique is launched against contemporary Muslim philosophers whom he considers mere imitators of the modern European-Judaic philosophy.

As to Westernization-Europeanization (attaghrīb), Abderrahmane is critical of the European appropriation of the Greek heritage and henceforth the monopoly of all philosophy, as if it were only Greek and now only European. Abderrahmane refers to original texts of Heidegger and Husserl, for example, to defend his idea that German philosophy has tried to appropriate European philosophy and claim itself the only or main heir of Greek philosophy. This aspect belittles the idea of the universality of philosophy that this same philosophy claims. Further than that, Abderrahmane argues that the German claim of leading European philosophy has been influenced by Jewish philosophers that have not hidden their Judaic heritage in philosophizing. He refers to the influences of Ibn Maymun (Maimonides) on Leibniz through Nicolas de Cues, and the influence of Spinoza and Mendelssohn Mosses on Kant. Hegel and Nietzsche note the influence of the Judaic tradition on Kant, too. Succinctly, the Judaic philosophy mediated the Greek philosophy and the German one through its positioning of the “logos” as the mediator between God and man, which Christian theology would integrate in its theology by interpreting the Holy Spirit as the “logos.” This philosophical aspect aside, it is the politicization of the Judaic tradition through the search for a geographical place for the materialization of the “promised land,” in turn, through the Zionist movement that makes German philosophy substantially Judaic. Since German philosophy claims the lead in European philosophy, and also the heir of Greek philosophy, then the universality aspect it claims is Judaic as well, seeing the Judaic influence – hence the name “Judaization/attahwīd.”

The point here is that (Western) philosophy is first local and national before it is universal, thus the right of other traditions to have also their local and national philosophies first, without this meaning that they cannot be universal, too, or that universality is a negative aspect in philosophy. Rather, the idea is that liberation of thought starts local. If it starts universal, it certainly follows the philosophical guidelines of the universal hegemons, supported by economic and political influence. The target at the end is to shape one’s own modernity, thus his idea of “multiple modernities.” If “first modernity” claims to be purely European, why then is this same right of shaping one’s own modernity – through one’s own philosophy – denied to the other? A “second modernity” is possible, according to Abderrahmane. It is what he also calls “spiritual modernity,” based on his theory of ethics, within the constructed “trusteeship paradigm.”

The Second Awakening: Political-Philosophic

Abderrahmane sees that the Arab-Islamic world is still far from being ready to accommodate such an ethical project for both political and philosophical renewal. The ethical wo/man he envisages is lost between past and present tyrannies and mimicries. In his views, political Islam, like other ideologies and movements, has failed to advance a truly modern, rational, ethical, and spiritual model. If philosophy suffers from above-described ailments, politics suffers alike. Of course their domains differ but their scopes converge; philosophical questions are supposed to solve human inquiries, as they stem from real life, from the political domain. Failure in the modern Arab-Islamic world is double, political and philosophic, and the required awakening should be double, too (qawma siyyassiya wa qawma falsafiyya).

Abderrahmane refers to the ethical man that is able to bring about a political awakening and renewal in the Arab-Islamic world as the “awakened youth” (alfatā almuntafiḍ, and alfutuwwa almuntafiḍa in the plural) that trespasses the levels of humanity, and magnanimity to reach awakening – “youth” is a spiritual concept that is above the meanings of humanity and magnanimity; it should not be translated literally here. The awakening is a revolution that does not only change the material status quo of a nation but also changes or renews its spiritual specificity. A revolution, for Abderrahmane, may stop at the material level, and may also be violent and cause some damage instead of repair and order; what is required for the ethical productivity of a nation is a “qawma,” an awakening that is especially philosophic-spiritual, and touches the value system of its own people, with the aim of expanding, through philosophical dialogue, these spiritual and ethical values to the world at large. Only an ethical awakening can build what he calls “a living nationhood” (qawmiyya hayya) that is free and just within, fraternal and solidary outside, with the world.

Trusteeship: A Paradigm among Others, Unlike Others!

Last but not least, Abderrahmane´s trusteeship paradigm claims to be a corrector of Islamic philosophy, and its innovator. The search for a new paradigm that Islamic thought has been into for the last two centuries or so has begot an ethical paradigm that challenges Greek and Western philosophy alike. It does challenge classical and contemporary Islamic philosophy in the first place. It claims ethics as the essence of philosophical practice. Such a claim finds opponents from within and without, i.e., modern philosophy, be it Islamic or not. Various projects in especially contemporary Islamic philosophy aspire for further rationalization of understanding of the tradition and the sharia worldview. Abderrahmane has taken a different view, which may be dismissed for being “too shariatic,” in the sense of being heavily engaged with the metaphysical in its construction of practical ethics and thus heavily abstract, though rationally and logically argued for. At the same time, it may be embraced and championed as being very original and unprecedented in Islamic philosophy. The latter´s horizon is vast to be captured in one paradigm. On the more practical level, who decides to opt for this or that paradigm? The politician or the philosopher? It is the ethical man that should decide, or the “awakened youth.” In the Arab-Islamic world in particular, this awakened youth is not awake yet, and may not be allowed to at a time of horrific socio-political chaos. However, after the tempest comes a moment of cleaning the house, a moment of socio-political reconstruction; at that moment such philosophical projects, Abderrahmane´s and others´, will be direly needed, and will come into handy. Intellectually at least, there is no void.


[1] “Taha Abderrahmane as a Political Philosopher: The Concept of the Awakened Youth in the Context of the Arab Spring,” in Baylocq Cédric, Hlaoua Aziz eds., Maroc : les enjeux du religieux dans une société en transition [Morocco: Religion in a Changing Society] (Actes du colloque de Fès, Collections électroniques du Centre Jacques Berque pour les Etudes en Sciences Humaines et Sociales, CNRS USR 3136), 2014. pp. 30; (2) “Taha Abderrahmane’s Trusteeship Paradigm: Spiritual Modernity and the Islamic Contribution to the Formation of a Renewed Universal Civilization of Ethos,” (being reviewed, 2014) pp. 30.