That he welcomed two complete strangers knocking on his door on a rainy Parisian summer day is yet one more testimonial to the late Professor Mohammed Arkoun’s kindness and humility. After being greeted on the threshold of their apartment by his lovely wife, we were introduced to him, his son and his grandson. It was a simple and warm welcome, devoid of any pomp and circumstance.
Over tea and excellent Middle Eastern pastries we thanked him for taking our call a few weeks earlier and giving us the opportunity to discuss his work in person on our way through Paris. We explained that we both had been marked by his paradigm shifting work and were eager to hear his perspective on the current rift between the Muslim world and the West.
Arkoun was an academic and a leading figure in Islamic studies and contemporary Islamic thought. He taught at La Sorbonne in Paris, was a fellow at Princeton and a visiting professor at a host of universities in Europe and the United States, including the University of Edinburgh, UCLA, New York University, Temple University and the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome.
But what set Arkoun apart from many of his peers was that he was a trailblazer, a sort of intellectual revolutionary. He wanted his audience to understand that dogmatic thinking and sclerotic ideologies needed to be questioned by intellectually free men and women making full use of their God-given gifts of reasoning using the best scientific tools available to them. Specifically, with regards to Islam, that implied the analysis – through critical thinking and the modern social sciences – of the foundational and historical episteme underlying the formation and expansion of Islamic thought.
In other words, he believed that it was necessary for Muslims today to go back to Islam’s origins and critically analyse how and why this collective knowledge accumulated over the centuries has become contemporary Islam. In that challenging process, he understood that Muslims would have an opportunity to better understand themselves, and Islam would have a better chance of remaining relevant to them in the 21st century and beyond.
It is worth noting that while Arkoun applied himself mostly to the study of Islam, he also believed that the same painstaking questioning, deconstructing and reconstructing is necessary for all of us, whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim or members of another faith. That was, for him, the best guarantee that East and West could meet in mutual respect, dignity and, above all, peace.
His message about the need to carefully examine the methodology underlying religious interpretation did not make him many friends, especially in the Arab world. He pointed his uncompromising intellectual finger at the post-colonial rulers of the region, including in his home country of Algeria. For Arkoun, the intellectual pluralism which dominated Islam’s Golden Age from the 8th through 13th centuries was fundamental to Muslim civilisation’s success. But he saw the current use of religion as a means of legitimising political power, by both the Arab world’s post-colonial rulers and their rivals who have sought a formal role for Islam in politics, as a crime.
He believed that the teachings of Islam should be free of self-serving influences and that they should be studied in an intellectual and scientific space that transcends its various cultural environments. That is where he took a stand and fought his battles.
And that is where Arkoun was the most feared. Clearly, both autocratic regimes in the Arab world and proponents of a system of governance based on Islamic principles felt threatened by this intellectual’s determination to emancipate his people from stale ideology and inadequate dogma. Unfortunately, most contemporary Muslim thinkers have rejected his approach, leaving them handicapped in their own intellectual pursuits and vulnerable to traditional ideologues who advocate a political role for Islam, and who appear to be leading the discourse in the Muslim world today.
While clearly not enough attention was given to Arkoun’s work during his life, as has often been the case with other great philosophers and reformers, there is no doubt that history will remember him as one of the seminal thinkers of our century. But for those of us who had the privilege of meeting him, even for a brief moment on a rainy Parisian summer afternoon, he will be remembered for his simple kindness, warm presence and enlightened humility, a perfect incarnation of the generous Islam he envisioned and loved.
* Hiam Nawas, a Washington, DC-based analyst, has lived and worked in various countries in the Middle East and specialises in Middle Eastern Affairs and Islamic law. Michel Zoghby is a researcher based in France. This article was written for the Commonground News CGNews