BY LATE MOHAMMED ARKOUN
(POSITION HELD: EMIRITUS PROFESSOR OF ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY, THE SOBORNNE)

Mohamed Arkoun and the Aga Khan. The late Algerian scholar served for many years on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.Mohammed Arkoun (left) with the Aga Khan. The late Algerian scholar served for many years on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Photo: Mohammed Arkoun Foundation.

(This essay has been adapted from a speech the late Professor Arkoun presented in 1985 to a large gathering of members of the Ismaili Muslim community in New York, USA. The unedited transcript of the speech was obtained from the archives of Jehangir A. Merchant).

“His Highness the Aga Khan [is] also very open to the whole Muslim community, knowing its problems today, knowing its needs today and very eager to make a link, a historical link, a religious link, between the Ismaili community as it is today and the Muslim Ummah.”

I am really moved and impressed to be with you and to hear that you have come from all parts of North America. This is a great event for me too because coming from Algeria, which is my country, I can tell you that you represent in Islamic Ummah a very exceptional community.

The reason is that you have since 1957, His Highness the Aga Khan as a spiritual guide, as an intellectual guide, totally devoted to the community of course, but also very open to the whole Muslim community, knowing its problems today, knowing its needs today and very eager to make a link, a historical link, a religious link, between the Ismaili community as it is today and the Muslim Ummah, which is as you know suffering from a history which has been a very hard history for all Muslims especially since the 19th century.

It is very great and it gives great hopes to know that such a guide exists and that such a community like you exists today and is open to share all the abilities that you have according to your own history, to share it with all Muslims in the world. I tell this with all my faith and conviction. Every time I lecture in several Muslim countries I speak about you and I speak about you according to my experience since I have the honour to work with His Highness in the Aga Khan Award.

I would like to insist on the necessity for the Ismaili community as a whole to start, I say to start, because it is not yet done, neither by the Ismailis themselves nor by Muslims in general, to start to study afresh the history of [classical] Islamic thought in general, because Islamic thought until today is ignored by Muslims.

You may know that this Islamic thought has been developed from the first century of Hijra until the 5th century of Hijra in a very rich way, because this Islamic thought in this classical age has been open to many trends of thinking and we have many works, many thinkers who have done this work in a relatively more free atmosphere than the atmosphere which we enjoy today, or I should say we don’t enjoy today in Islamic countries and in Islamic societies.

This classical Islamic thought developed until 5th century has been characterized by what His Highness has presented several times as a humanistic attitude, to understand not only Islam as a religion but also to understand all the problems of our societies as Muslims. What is a humanistic attitude, what does it mean?

The humanistic attitude is that attitude which considers that everything that a man can do in his existence, all activities that a man can have in his societies are related to a sense of the absolute, the spiritual absolute of God, of an existing God who has manifested his existence in a revelation which is the Qur’an. And this is done with an open mind, with a tolerant mind to the existing of many schools of thought, existing together in the same society. This is very essential and that is why His Highness has always insisted on the humanistic attitude. Because you know that Ismailis have been perceived by the majority of Muslims, the Sunnite Muslims as a heretic sect, as Muslims who have left the truth which is delivered and which is supposed to be captured and to be known and taught only by this sect of Muslims named Sunnites.

“If we speak with our children with heresiographic mind we are totally lost. We are totally away from the humanistic representation like His Highness the Aga Khan is insisting to have among us. So this is a very important issue on which we have all to reflect and to develop our endeavor.”

This is not the humanistic attitude which has been developed in the classical age because in Baghdad, in Isfahan, in Shiraz, in Cairo, in Cordoba, in Spain, in Fez, in all these great centers of Islamic thinking in the classical age there has been an exchange between all the schools, many schools, not only the Ismailis, but other Shia Schools, other schools like philosophers, like Mutazalites in Sunni thinking. All these schools have developed their thinking and have exchanged in what is called the munadarat, which means lectures, lectures given in those schools existing in those centers in the classical age. This is the humanistic attitude which unfortunately we have forgotten. That is why I insist on the necessity for the Ismaili community, because you are in a especially good position to do this work, I mean to renew this link with this atmosphere of humanistic attitude towards knowledge, towards religion, towards the relationship of man existing together in the society which existed before.

And this can be done because today we are living in modern societies, we have new tools, new intellectual tools we can use, like it has been used in the classical age by Muslim thinkers and especially by Ismailis. I have no time to describe all the contributions made by Ismaili thinkers in this classical age. I would like just to mention, in the 4th century of the Hijra which is the 10th century of Christianity, this wonderful work which is known as the Rasail of the Ikhwan al Safa, the Brethren of Purity. This is an encyclopedia of knowledge written by the Ismailis, Ismaili thinkers in the 10th century and using all the knowledge available in Muslim civilization and culture in that time to explain the role of Islam, the role of Muslims, to build a city, a Muslim city open to all trends of thinking during that time. This is the characteristic of this encyclopedia which is not well known, not well studied and it is just one example we can give to show the openness, the humanist openness, the climate of tolerance which existed and which again we need today because as you know today we have, we are speaking more on fundamentalist Islam.

That is why we have to use the tools of modern thinking, the tools of modern knowledge, especially when we are in a favorable position like the one you have here to give a new impetus to the Islamic thought today.

If we don’t use the new sciences like anthropology, like linguistics, like history, and new methods used in writing history we shall not come to a true understanding of what [classical] Islamic thought is, what Islamic thought can give us today to master our problems as Muslims, as Muslim intellectuals, as Muslim thinkers. We must absolutely come through this exercise, this modern exercise to learn not only from ourselves, from our tradition, but to learn also from new sciences which are practiced today in all western societies, and especially here, as I said, in America.

Mohamed Arkoun with speakers of the Frontiers of the Mind Symposium in 1999 at the US Library of CongressMohammed Arkoun is seen above in the front row (7th from left), in a group picture taken with speakers of the “Frontiers of the Mind” symposium held in 1999 at the US Library of Congress. Photo: Pat Fisher/US Library of Congress.

When you want to do something on this level of thinking, of becoming acquainted with Islamic thought, you have today two kinds of sources, two kinds of information. You have the literature written by Muslims themselves, Muslims who have studied Islamic history, Islamic thought. And you have another information different from this one which is the orientalist erudition about Islam, orientalist study about Islam. Orientalists are Westerners, they work in their own societies and they use their own culture to look to the other cultures and they did it with our [Islamic] culture. We have to be aware of two things.

The first thing is that the literature written by Muslims themselves in English, or in Arabic or in Turkish or in Iranian language, all the languages, are mostly dominated by this need to protect ourselves and to show that we are better than those Westerners who criticize us. This is apologetic, it is not scientific. We have to do better, and we have to address these questions on another level which is the scientific level.

If we speak with our children with heresiographic mind we are totally lost. We are totally away from the humanistic representation like His Highness the Aga Khan is insisting to have among us. So this is a very important issue on which we have all to reflect and to develop our endeavor.

The second thing about orientalist literature. It has its defect, it addresses the questions of Islamic civilization and culture only as facts, they are studied as facts, they don’t study it with a spirit. It is this spirit we have to introduce, to know what are the values in Islamic thinking, what are the values in Islamic religion. To use these values today to face our own problems. So there is a lack also in this orientalist literature.

“When I met His Highness for the first time, I thought through [Imam] Jafar Sadiq to the present Imam. Jafar Sadiq was a thinker and he was thinking in the line of the revelation, the line of the absolute of God, in the line of how to relate his life to all human beings through the truth revealed in the Qur’an. This is absolutely great and when you have an Imam who is devoted only to this and not to political intrigues than you have something exceptional, absolutely exceptional.”

Then, where are the books you have to use when you speak with your children?  You have to speak with your children on all questions related to Islam as a religion, Islam as a culture, Islam as a way of life, Islam as a thought.

You have to learn, and where are you going to learn? In which books are you going to learn? On one side you have this Muslim literature which as I have said is more apologetic than scientific and we need a rigorous scientific approach to these questions. On the other side, you have the cold representation or facts in the orientalist literature. Yes, this is a fact. We must be aware about this fact. There is something lacking to face this practical question which is the involvement in the problems of our children. When we speak with our children, how to deal on all these problems, educational problems with our children, if we don’t have the relevant information, the relevant methods, the relevant vocabulary to speak on religion today, to speak on the relationships e.g. between Ismailis, Twelvers, Sunnite, other schools which could exist, to come out from the spirit, the dogmatic spirit which up to now many Muslims are having, which is the spirit imposed on us by the literature which is called the heresiographic literature.

This heresiographic literature describes all the sects in Islam from one point of view, the Sunnite point of view, the Shiite point of view, telling that ‘we, we have the truth, and the others don’t have anything’. This is the heresiographic interpretation of Islam which is totally irrelevant for us today.

And if we speak with our children with this heresiographic mind we are totally lost. We are totally away from the humanistic representation like His Highness the Aga Khan is insisting to have among us. So this is a very important issue on which we have all to reflect and to develop our endeavor. Everyone has to be mobilized and has to participate in this work because it is a work which is required by the societies in which we are living, because all the problems which you have because you live in America, we have them too in our societies because they come there through the technology and through the economy which is coming to these societies.

That is why if you do it well here in this society you will create a model, you will be the model to which all Muslims in the world will look and they will come to us for this model. I insist also on this responsibility. This is a mission, this is a ‘DAWA’, which in Arabic means cause, the noble cause.

Jafar Sadiq, the 6th Imam who is one of the greatest for his knowledge and I can assure you, when I met His Highness for the first time, because I studied precisely the life of ]afar Sadiq, I thought through Jafar Sadiq to the present Imam. I say this because I was extremely impressed by the personality of His Highness and by the wonderful initiative that he had by creating the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. This is a wonderful project. I have to say this because I have discovered through this project and through my contact with His Highness in the project the meaning which I learnt in books when I studied the life of Jafar Sadiq. He was a thinker and he was thinking in the line of the revelation, the line of the absolute of God, in the line of how to relate his life to all human beings through the truth revealed in the Qur’an.

This is absolutely great and when you have an Imam who is devoted only to this and not to political intrigues than you have something exceptional, absolutely exceptional. That is why I repeat you can create a model. And in Muslim societies like it is today because it has so many difficulties which I would like to describe to you but it would need many lectures and perhaps we shall have time to give it, you will understand the dimension of your responsibility. If you see the contrast between the handicaps existing between them, to find a model somewhere which could be used to solve the problems of all Muslims today and your chance here precisely to offer this model, to create this model, to incarnate it in concrete action.

Date posted: Monday, March 27, 2017.

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Mohamed Arkoun - Photo: Charlynn Spencer Pyne/Library of CongressDuring his lifetime, Professor Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010)  was regarded among his peers around the world as one of the most influential scholars in Islamic studies contributing to contemporary Islamic reform. When he passed away, Algeria’s Minister of Culture, Khalida Toumi, said in a  tribute that Professor Arkoun “believed in dialogue between cultures and civilizations of which he was an ardent activist” and that “his sincerity and dedication to bringing people and religions together have made him a true messenger of peace and harmony between different societies.” Professor Arkoun was a member of the board of the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture and was himself the recipient of numerous international awards, including the prestigious French decorations of the Officier de la Legion d’Honneur and Officier des Palmes Academiques. He lectured and taught worldwide and was also widely published. He was emeritus professor of Islamic philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, a visiting professor at the Ismaili Studies Institute in London and editor of the academic journal Arabica.

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