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In Memoriam, Mohammed Abed Al-Jabiri: Overcoming Civilizational Anxiety

May 05
12:18 2010

By: Mohammad Syifa Amin Widigdo

There are three general trends of Arab intellectuals. First, some Arab intellectuals cling to the tradition (turath) handed down from the past to be applied in the present. The tradition/heritage is believed to be the source of Arab-Islamic renaissance (nahdah). These intellectuals are often labeled as “Islamist”, “Fundamentalist”, “Salafist”, or “Revivalist”, which generally refers to Muslim Brotherhood movement―whose main figures are Hassan al-Banna and Sayid Qutb― and refers to the revivalist movement led by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. Second, some of them incline to adopt Western ways through an idea of revolution, rationalization, secularization, liberalization, and modernization (hadathah) in the aims of rebuilding Arab civilization. These scholars are represented by liberal thinkers like Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said), and Marxist intellectuals like Tayyib Tazini and Husain Muruwwah. Third, other Arab intellectuals are prone to be selective in invoking inspirations from both tradition and modernity in order to find a kind of authentic Arab modernity. There are two main approaches used by Arab intellectuals in this third category; the ideological approach of Hassan Hanafi and the epistemological way of Mohammed Abed Al-Jabiri.

The first and the second groups of Arab intellectuals do not reflect a creative engagement with tradition or modernity. Their project is merely reviving the tradition (turath) to be applied in the present or blindly adopting Western values and practices into Arabic contexts. The third group of intellectuals whose project is searching for an authentic modernity of Arab is more interesting because they are more creative and critical in dealing with both tradition and modernity. However, instead of discussing the ideological way of Hassan Hanafi, which is criticized as too encyclopedic, cerebral and theoretical , let’s focus on Al-Jabiri’s epistemological project. His main contribution and project reside in what he calls “contemporary reading” of the tradition (turath) instead of “turathi reading” of it, and in his critique of Arab reason which in turn generates a philosophical ground for an ‘authentic Arab modernity’.

Classical Attitudes Towards The Turath
The term turath is actually a modern term which, according to Massad, refers today to “the civilizational documents of knowledge, culture, and intellect that are said to have been passed down from the Arab of the past in the present”. The discussion about the turath emerged and accelerated after the 1967 Arab defeat with the view of understanding the reasons behind such a defeat. The underlying reason for the study and assessment of the turath is the following question that is often asked by a number of Arab intellectuals, “What are the reasons behind the defeat and how we can achieve progress?”
The above contemporary Arab thoughts, from revivalists, liberalists and Marxists, provides their specific ways of reading the turath in order to overcome such defeated feelings and to achieve the intended progress. According to al-Jabiri, there are three existing methods of reading offered by Arab intellectuals; the fundamentalist reading, the liberal reading, and the Marxist reading.

The first method of reading (al-qira`ah as-salafiyyah which is used by Salafists, Fundamentalists, Islamists, or Revivalists) is based upon two questions; “How do we regain the greatness of our civilization, and How do we resuscitate our turath (heritage, tradition)?” Accordingly, the turath is read as both means and goal in terms of regaining the great civilization. In the first place, one must look back to the turath in the past. This is a necessary means for finding ‘an authentic Arab-Islamic identity’ which resides in “the era of glory”, in which “true Islam” was genuinely practiced. Then, one could perceive the ‘era of the glory’ as the goal, in the sense that such an ideal type of civilization in the past must be revived and regained in the present time. The basic reasoning of this method is that “what took place in the past could be achieved in the future.”

In the same fashion, the second reading method, the liberal one, is centered upon the following questions, “How do we live our era and How do we assume our relationship to our turath?” If the salafiyyah reading resorts to the Arab-Islam tradition in the past, the liberal reading paves the way of Western-European tradition, in terms of living the life in the present time and in terms of reading the turath. In this method, the Arab-Islam tradition today is expected to adopt “European frame of reference and hence sees in tradition only what the Europeans see in it.” Therefore, an Orientialist-like reading of the turath is prevalent. For example, when it comes to the reading the Arab-Islamic (philosophical) tradition, this reading method would reconstruct it back to its Jewish, Christian, Persian, Indian, (and other) origins. The role of Arab-Islam is merely intermediary between the Greek and modern (European) civilizations. If the ‘glory of Arab-Islamic civilization’ in the past was achieved through the assimilation of a foreign past (mostly Greek) to Arabs, then by analogy, the future Arab-Islam civilization should also adopt and assimilate into “the European present-past”.

The third reading, which is the Marxist method, is derived from the questions: “How do we achieve our revolution and “How do we restore our traditions?” In the leftish reading, the turath is approached only in the aims of achieving the project of revolution; and revolution is used for restoring the turath. The problem arises when there is no “class struggle” or “dialectical materialism” in the Arab-Islamic tradition. This reading then attempts to “manipulate historical reality” for the sake of “theoretical schema.” It means that the “theoretical schema,” which is borrowed from the founding fathers of Marxism, is superior over “historical data”. As if the goal of reading the turath were ”to prove the soundness of the ready-made dialectical method” provided by Marxian theorists.” Thus, the project of this leftish reading is merely to apply the Marxian ready-made dialectical method in the Arab-Islam context.

The above three ways of reading, for al-Jabiri, are just the same from the perspective of epistemology. All of them are governed by a hidden-unconsciousness which acts as logical reasoning. Their basic mode of reasoning is what the ancient Arab scholars call the “analogy of the unknown to the known (qiyas al-ghaib `ala al-shahid).” To be more precise, for these entire reading frameworks, “the unknown (al-gha’ib)” is equal to “the future” while “the known (al-shahid)” is equal to their current epistemological references―be it “the greatness of civilization in the past”, “Western-European civilization”, or “Russia/China model of revolution.” In other words, although they have different ideologies and aspirations, their mode of reasoning is in common, namely “the analogy of the unknown to the known” or “the analogy of the future to the known others (past civilization, European civilization, or Russia/China model of civilization)”. The uncritical use of such analogical reasoning by Arab intellectuals in fact generates what al-Jabiri calls as the understanding of the turath which is confined within tradition (qiraatu at-turath li at-turath)” or what Massad literally translates as “turath view of turath.”

Al-Jabiri’s Project I: Re-Reading The Turath
Al-Jabiri’s fundamental project is accordingly to oppose this “turath view of turath” through finding a “contemporary view of the turath.” There are three stages of contemporary reading offered by al-Jabiri; first, the necessity of an epistemological break from the understanding of turath that is locked inside turath; second, disjoining the “read-object (maqru’)” from the “subject-reader (qari’)”; third, rejoining the reader-object to the subject-reader.

The first stage of contemporary reading aims to render a decisive epistemological break from the structure of the Arab reason of the “era of decline” and its extension in contemporary Arab thinking. The break is not a rejection of the turath, but it is a renunciation of the turath understanding of the turath. In other words, what would be rejected is not the turath, but our relationship with the tradition; because, the relationship with the tradition which lies on a traditional understanding of the tradition by means of the analogical mode of reasoning (i.e. qiyas al-gha’ib `ala al-shahid) leads to the stagnation of Arab reason. This kind of relationship not only locks our modern time inside of the paradigm of the “era of decline”, it also creates what al-Jabiri calls “a permanent presence of the past inside the game of thought and inside the affective domain, thus feeding the present with ready-made solution.” Therefore, this traditional relationship should be epistemologically deconstructed and replaced by contemporary relationship with the tradition (turath).

The second stage of the contemporary reading aims to create an objective reading of the turath. The objective reading of the tradition is necessary since contemporary Arab “readers” are generally restricted by the tradition, which means that tradition absorbs them, thus depriving them of independence and freedom. Al-Jabiri describes such acute absorption of the subjectivity of the Arab reader by tradition (turath) as follows: “From the day of his birth, we have not ceased to instill tradition in him, in the form of a certain vocabulary and certain concepts, of a language and a thought; in the form of fables, legends and imaginary representations, of a certain kind of relationship to things and a certain way of thinking; of types of knowledge and certain truths. He receives all this without the slightest critical reaction or critical mind.”

The objective reading of the turath operates within the idea of the necessity of two reading moves; one, the separation of the subject-reader from the object of reading; two, disjoining the object of reading from the subject-reader. The first move of the reading enables us (the subject) to regain our dynamism, in order to rebuild the turath (object) in a new perspective. The second move of the reading enables the turath (the object) to “regain its independence and its personality, its identity and its historicity.” By employing these two reading moves, one could achieve “objectivity” in terms of building a relationship with the tradition (turath) and the turath can have its own “contemporareinity.”

Accordingly, one would be aware of his own identity, consciousness and freedom with regard to the tradition, and the tradition would be understood and placed within its desires, aspirations, problematics, and historical stages as a whole (episteme). This makes the tradition contemporary to itself.
The third stage of the reading is directed to make the turath contemporary to us as the subject-reader; therefore, rejoining the read-object (turath) to the subject-reader (a contemporary reader) is necessary. In Al-Jabiri’s mind, this can only be achieved through intuition (hads). It is however not intuition used in the sense of mystics. This intuition is more identical with a logical or mathematical intuition which enables contemporary readers to unveil what the read-object had silenced. The intuition which must “decipher signs within the text undoubtedly folded inside the game of thought that are hidden by the strategy of discourse.”

If the silenced aspects within the text (i.e. tradition) are unveiled, contemporary readers could identify its ideological contents besides its cognitive contents. Unfortunately, according al-Jabiri, the cognitive contents of Islamic tradition―which are primarily taken from the physical sciences of Aristotle―are dead subjects, incapable of reviving. They are collapsed with the advent of modern science. However, the ideological contents of the tradition are still alive, in the form of a dream. This dream projects a possible future. It is not a dream when we project our future into the past (like those who want to revive the greatness of past civilization). We call it “a dream” when “the future” is projected into the time to come. Therefore, the task of contemporary readers of tradition is to interact critically with the tradition, seeking an enlightened dream from the surviving tradition, and making it engaged with our desires, aspirations, and concerns. In this way, the turath will be considered contemporary to us modern readers.

Al-Jabiri’s Priject II: A Critique and Reconstruction of Arab Reason
Al-Jabiri utilizes the above stages of reading to reexamine all Islamic scholarships, which includes Islamic jurisprudence, theology, Arabic grammar, Arabic poetry, rhetoric, Quran exegesis, Hadith criticism, and philosophy. For him, these scholarships began to be systematically written down and codified by Arab scholars in the age called “The Age of Tadwin/The Age of Codification,” starting from the middle of the second century of Islamic era. The process of intellectual recording and its codification extended to the Abbasid era when the oral tradition of Islam was collected, translations from non-Arab cultures are made, and the system of Arab-Islamic thought was established. As a result, when Arab scholarship reached the age of maturity, there were three major intellectual disciplines that eventually shaped what al-Jabiri calls “Arab Reason”:

First, the discipline of explication (`ulum al-bayan), whose epistemological method applies analogical thinking (al-qiyas al-bayani) in almost entire early Arab Islamic scholarships ranging from grammar, rhetoric, prosody, lexicography, Qur’an exegesis, Hadith sciences, Islamic law and legal theory, to Islamic theology (kalam). This analogical reasoning requires the availability of a certain kind of origin/original case (aṣl), the derivate/new case (far`), the reason/the cause (`illah), and the logical/judicial conclusion (hukm). For example, drinking wine is prohibited because it is intoxicating. Taking drugs, although its explicit legal ruling is absent in either Quran or Hadith, is also prohibited based on the analogical thinking, which refers to the case of wine. The reason for the prohibition of drugs is its similar effect to wine, namely the intoxicating effect. In this case, drinking wine is the aṣl, taking drugs is the far`, the intoxicating effect is the `illah, and the prohibition is hukm. So, the legal ruling in the new case (taking drugs) can be known by means of analogy to the original case (drinking wine) based on its similarity (intoxicating effect). This kind of reasoning is also used in the other disciplines, although they may have different terms. In theology, for instance, the aṣl is called as- ṣahid, (the known) whereas the far` is al-gha’ib (the unknown). To know the reality of the unknown (e.g. God) can be achieved through analogy to the reality of the known (e.g. human attributes). In Quran studies, furthermore, all contemporary issues (far`) are supposed to be assessed by the aṣl, which is the Quran. The reason underlying the use of this analogy (qiyas bayani) is to seek the harmony between reason (`aql) and revelation (naql).

This kind of tradition for al-Jabiri is not worth emulating. This tradition traps contemporary readers in the problematic systems of reference (sulṭah al-marji`iyyah)―namely associating the unknown with the known (in the realm of epistemology)―and infinite attempts to harmonize reason with revelation (in the realm of ideology). Contemporary scholars unfortunately still use this system of reference. The past heritage or the Western-Europe civilization functions as the aṣl or the ṣahid (the known) whereas the future functions as the far` or al-gha’ib (the unknown). Although deficiency in this analogy is apparent―i.e. the aspect of reason/similarity (`illah) is absent―, they still impose the logical conclusion (hukm) insisting that the future (the unknown) should be filled with the known (either the past or the West). The extension of this epistemological reasoning and ideological vision from the age of tadwin into the present cannot be tolerated. Therefore, al-Jabiri advocates the above deconstructive reading projects, namely the necessity of the epistemological break and of the historical reading. Without such epistemological break and historical reading, the contemporary Arab Reason will always be locked within the turath.

Second, the discipline of Gnosticism (ulum al-`irfan), which is based on inner revelation and insight as an epistemological method, which includes Sufism, Shi`i thought, Islami`ili philosophy, esoteric Qur’an exegesis, oriental illumination philosophy, theosophy, alchemy, astrology, magic, and numerology. Gnosticism claims that philosophy and religion can be synthesized by means of its Gnostic reasoning. Al-Jabiri however denies the epistemological method of Gnosticism not only because of its ideological contents―which is the revenge of Persian aristocracy using the cover of Shi’ism or their heritages like Zoroastrianism. But more importantly, he refuses it because of its heretical and irrational characters. One, the epistemology of Gnosticism is basically Hermetic, which is neither Arabic nor Islamic in content, but, it covers itself with the cloth of Islam. Second, this epistemological method is founded upon neither reason nor senses, but upon an inner revelation and insight (kaṣf). It claims that the conclusion/knowledge is not derived from analogical reasoning (qiyas) or demonstrative reasoning (Aristotelian syllogism), but it is acquired through the claim of a direct experience with the divine.

Third, the Gnostic epistemology is colored with a mythological, mystical, and magical way of thinking. In this light, the truth does not result from religion, philosophy, or science. It is generated from finding esoteric-mystical meanings which are preserved in mythologies. For al-Jabiri, this kind of epistemology cannot be an inspiration for Arab intellectual progress. The dream that it offers is not the enlightening dream, not inspiring the emergence of the independent Arab reason and Arab authenticity.
Third, the discipline of inferential evidence (`ulum al-burhan), whose epistemological method is based on empirical observation and intellectual inference. They include logic, mathematics, physics (all branches of natural sciences) and even metaphysics. The epistemological foundation of al-burhan’s disciplines however is basically rooted in the Aristotelian tradition, especially the method of logical demonstration, which uses deductive and inductive logical reasoning through syllogism. In Arab-Islamic context, this tradition was developed by al-Kindi and al-Farabi, then reached its peak in the hand of Ibn Rushd. According to al-Jabiri, al-Burhan is unlike others whose epistemology is based on revelation, consensus, and legal reasoning (their main logic is analogy) or based on the sainthood (wilayah) and inner-insight (kaṣf). Al-Burhan is the only discipline whose epistemological reasoning is based on human intellectual and natural capacities including senses, experiments, and rational judgment. This is the tradition which al-Jabiri is looking for. It is the tradition whose dreams and epistemology are worth emulating although its contents may be disputable. Al-Jabiri calls this tradition as “the spirit of Averroism/Ibn Rushd (ar-rūh ar-ruṣdiyyah).” In the Rushdian scheme of truth, in addition, religion and philosophy coexist; although they have different epistemological systems, their truth is the same and not contradicting each other. At this level, Rushdian spirit contains the spirit of “rationalism, realism, axiomatic and critical approach.”

Accordingly, al-Jabiri launches two major projects in terms of finding the authenticity of Arab Reason. First, a complete historical independence of the Arab self (al-istiqlāl at-tārikhī li adz-zāt al-`arabiyyah) ; and second, building a foundation for A New Age of Tadwin (aṣr tadwīn jadīd). The first project necessitates the modern Arabs to free themselves from two exemplary systems of reference, the Arab-IsMatuslamic past and the present Western-Europe. Alternatively, he proposes the Rushdian spirit, as explained above, as a point of departure for the independence of Arab historical identity. By adopting this spirit, on the one hand, modern Arabs will not be alienated from their own tradition (because the Rushdian spirit is rooted in Arab-Islamic tradition); on the other hand, they also will not be deprived from Western-European modernity (because its foundation is rationalism which both the Rushdian spirit and Western civilization advocate). The second project of al-Jabiri however seems to be utopian project, which suggests the beginning of a new age of Tadwin founded upon the Rushdian spirit. All Arab-Islamic sciences and disciplines should be based on the burhan’s system of thought, abandoning the bayan’s and the `irfan’s epistemology. Accordingly, al-Jabiri argues that if the Cartesian spirit is present in French thought or the spirit of empiricism inaugurated by Locke and Hume is present in English thought, so the spirit of Ibn Rushd must be also present in the Arab modern thought.

The above exposition is an attempt to show the internal dynamics of a modern Arab intellectual, namely Mohammed Abid al-Jabiri, in dealing with Arab-Islam intellectual tradition and with the Western-Europe civilization. Here the Arab, the Orient (using Said’s term) and Islam are not represented and not spoken by others, either Orientalists or Arabs who live in the West. Rather, the real Arab intellectuals, represented by al-Jabiri, speak for themselves about their struggle to find their own way, ideal, and identity amidst “civilizational anxiety”. In this respect, al-Jabiri offers the Arab intellectuals two ways by means of which the authenticity of Arab modernity can be achieved and the Arab civilizational anxiety can be resolved. First, by rereading Arab-Islamic traditions and heritages (turath), and second, by reconstructing Arab reason based upon the Rushdian spirit.

The first way enables al-Jabiri to criticize his fellow Arab intellectuals, ranging from Islamist scholars to the liberal and leftish intellectuals, such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sayid Qutb, Adonis, Ali Abdur Raziq, Hassan Hanafi, Tayb Tazini, and others. Although these modern intellectuals may have different ideological agendas, their epistemological way of reading the tradition is the same, namely the analogical reasoning (qiyas). This reading method for al-Jabiri renders “Arab reason” locked within a circle of tradition. Contemporary Arabs become unable to think and to act out of such traditional references and ways of thinking. Al-Jabiri therefore offers a contemporary reading which; one, enables us to keep our identity, freedom, and independence from the cycle of tradition; two, enables the tradition to be contemporary to itself because it is understood in its own context; three, enables us to engage critically with the tradition in the aims of seeking a tradition (turath) which can participate in dealing with our present concerns and aspirations.

The second way of al-Jabiri (the reconstruction of reason) however enables him to first of all criticize many classical and medieval Arab-Islamic scholars including Imam Shafi’i, Abu Hasan al-`Ash`ari, Abdul Qahir al-Jurjani, Imam Sibawaihi, Imam al-Ghazali, and Ibn Sina. They are accused to be the founders and the advocates of analogical reasoning, which is regarded by al-Jabiry as the cause of the decline of Arab-Islamic civilization. Ibn Sina in particular is also attacked by al-Jabiri for his inclination towards Gnosticism, which is deemed irrational and incompatible with the project of Arab rationalism. Instead of using analogical reasoning (qiyas bayani) and Gnostic insight (`irfani), inspired by Ibn Rushd, al-Jabiri suggests the demonstrative-inferential epistemology (buhani) as the foundation for the Authentic Arab Modernity or the Authentic Arab Rationalism. By paving the way of Ibn Rushd, he believes that modern Arabs will be able to have their civilizational independence and to establish a new age of Tadwin.
Although al-Jabiri’s exposition of the turath and his critique of his fellow Arab intellectuals may not be immune from ideological motives (i.e. reviving the superiority of Maghribi’s intellectuals), his contribution to the discourse of Arab nahdah is undoubtedly very significant. His valuable contribution is not only in terms of understanding the turath and the present Arab situation, but also in terms of searching for the future identity of Arab modernity.[]

By Muhammad Syifa’ Amin Widigdo (Candidat PhD Indiana University)

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