x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri : Arab champion of the secular state

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri was one of the most important contemporary Arab intellectuals of the 20th century.

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri was one of the most important contemporary Arab intellectuals of the 20th century. His studies, written in Arabic, French and English, drew widely on historical sources and focused on the failure of the Enlightenment in the Islamic world and the implications of that failure on the complex process of negotiating an Arab identity in the modern era. He argued that the changes effected by modernity in the Islamic world also had an impact on the religion itself and the manner in which it was practised: Islam could not exist in a social, cultural and political vacuum, resistant to external influences. Islam in Morocco, for example, differed considerably from Islam in Malaysia.

He vehemently opposed the notion that individualism and the desire for protest and criticism were ideas imported from the West that had no place in - and could even be detrimental to - the Muslim world. His best-known publication, The Critique of the Arab Mind, epitomised his approach. Informed by his reading of two Arab thinkers, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Averroes (1128-1198), in this protracted analysis of Arab thought al-Jabri attempted to address the problem of "how to read and re-read Arab-Islamic writings without making the facts sacred".

Born in Figeeg, in southern Morocco, he worked as a teacher, while simultaneously enrolled as a student of philosophy at the Faculty of Humanities in Rabat. He completed his doctoral thesis in 1970. A member of the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires, the left wing of the main Istiqlal (Independence) party that emerged as Morocco sought to determine a post-colonial identity, he was regarded by many as its most articulate voice, who promoted a radical, secular and leftist model for the newly independent state.

Later, he withdrew from the political sphere to concentrate on his academic work, co-authoring two textbooks on Islamic thought and philosophy in the late 1960s, which were designed for final year pupils at high school. From 1967 until his retirement in 2002, he served as a philosophy professor at the University of Mohammed V, in Rabat. In his 1980 publication, We And Our Heritage, he warned his reader that, "unless we practise rationality in our heritage, and expose the essence of oppression in this heritage, we will never succeed in establishing our own modernism, a modernism which we can contribute to contemporary global modernism with as doers and not merely responders".

The book was followed in 1982 by Contemporary Arab Discourse: A Critical And Analytical Study and in 1984 by The Critique of the Arab Mind. He was born on December 27, 1935, and died on May 3. He is survived by his wife and four children. * The National