x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fouad Zakariyya, Arab existentialist with a secular vision

Fouad Zakariyya, the leading Egyptian philosopher, was a prolific author on Islam and a ierce advocate of secularism.

Fouad Zakariyya, the leading Egyptian philosopher credited as one of the founding fathers of Arab existentialist thought, headed the philosophy department at Kuwait University from 1974 until 1991 when Saddam Hussein invaded the Gulf state. A prolific author, he wrote a number of books on the subject of Islam, arguing that the notion of a western cultural invasion of the Muslim world was a fallacy. He also claimed that Muslims should look to the means by which they practised their own faith if they wished to address tensions within Islam. A fierce advocate of secularism, he called for the separation of state and religion and a focus on creating meaningful political platforms and ideologies to stem the growth of more radical elements within Islam, such as al Qa'eda and the Taliban, and to prevent their accumulation of influence.

Of the many works he published - including a book on Nietzsche and a study of Spinoza - Zakariyya's volume Myth and Reality in the Contemporary Islamist Movement (English version, 2005) articulated most clearly his intellectual position. Written in the aftermath of the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, at the height of global debates about the relevance of Islamism in contemporary Muslim societies - and in the wake of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979 - it offered an important analysis of the several different tendencies operating within current Islamism.

Zakariyya's conclusion - that a secular, democratic civil society should serve as the model for Muslim countries, together with his claim that secularism had, in fact, been an integral feature of Islamic culture since its early days - won him as many vehement critics as it did fervent admirers. As one of the key figures behind the Kuwaiti Aalam al Maarifa (World of Knowledge) series, he remained committed to the project up until his death and envisaged its transformation from a series into a serious encyclopaedic work for the general Arab reader.

Fouad Zakariyya was born in 1927. He died on March 13. * The National