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A photograph of Fouad Zakariyya is reflected in a window of the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation in Dubai.
A photograph of Fouad Zakariyya is reflected in a window of the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation in Dubai.

Arab intellectuals gather in Dubai to debate 'the thinking man's philosopher'

Fouad Zakariyya, who died this year, left a huge legacy, and it was debated by academics this week at the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation.

DUBAI // Despite his numerous writings, the life of the late Fouad Zakariyya was far from an open book. Arab intellectuals gathered at the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation in Dubai on Tuesday night to discuss the renowned Egyptian thinker, known as "the father of Arab existentialism", who died in March at the age of 83.

Mohammad Munes Awad, a professor of medieval history at Sharjah University, said: "He did not write his biography or his history with his own pen, but his books and thoughts have allowed us to learn about him. The multitude of intellectual ideas that he presented proved that he was not a conventional man." A staunch advocate of secularism, his ideas on the separation of politics and religion often created controversy.

"Despite what many people thought of him, and their differences in opinion, there's no doubt that we lost a great thinker," Prof Awad said. The panel discussed Zakariyya's perspective on Middle East history, the first Gulf War, Muslims and philosophy, among other topics. His charisma and ability to challenge traditional modes of thinking made him popular among both the educated and the masses. "He cared about the reality of Arabs, and that was one of his distinguishing qualities," said Dr Abdullah Mohammad al Jasmi, a professor of philosophy at Kuwait University and a former student of Zakariyya. "His focused approach allowed him to highlight details through a clear lens, whether it was to the man on the street or to the intellectual. Clarity and details were very important to him."

Dr al Jasmi said that Zakariyya allowed others to look at the world via a fresh perspective. "He believed that if you start from a logical point, you will end at a logical point," he said. "Likewise, if you start at an illogical and irrational point, you will end in the same spot." One issue that the panel of academics was unable to agree upon was whether Zakariyya could be referred to as a philosopher. Dr Mohammad Abdul Wahab, a professor of international relations at Ain Shams University in Egypt, said Zakariyya liked to point out the actual state of things around him, which might make the appellation questionable.

"He's considered a thinker because he didn't have any theories, so it's best to refer to him as a thinker," he said. "He dealt with what was happening in society and with facts, but I don't believe he offered solutions, so he's descriptive and not prescriptive." Dr al Jasmi disagreed, and said he hopes to publish a book that explores the reasons Zakariyya deserves the title of philosopher. Another panellist weighed in by explaining that the issue depended on the definition of the term.

"In some sense he was a philosopher, because he had his own system of ideas that he wrote about in his works," said Dr Abdul Mouti Souwed, a lecturer at Emirates College of Management and Information Technology in Dubai. "But in the traditional or technical sense of Greek philosophy, I don't think that he was." A recipient of the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Award for Humanities and Future Studies, Zakariyya's contributions to Arab culture made him a natural subject for the gathering.

"Every now and then we hold a symposium for our winners," said Abdul Ilah Abdul Qadir, the foundation's executive director. "This symposium is meant to represent a generation of Arab thinking." @Email:balqabbani@thenational.ae

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