11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude

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Q. 11: Professor Muhammad Arkoun insists that there is a need for a fresh theology for approaching Islam and religion in general, and emphasizes that this is still hardly touched upon. Arkoun mocks those who cite the Qur'an in the course of a debate – according to him, any such attempt would stir all the problems of moving from a mythical to a scientific age. So how would you rate this stance of Arkoun's?

Interview with "Current Islamic Issues"
1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
3: The main features Jawdat's project
4: Two sources of knowledge
5: Are you advocating the discarding of jihad
6: The basic tenets of Iqbal's project
7: The challenge of globalization
8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility
9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?
10: The present Arabic cultural scene
11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude
12: Interpretation of the holy texts
*Download the full Interview

A. 11: You puzzle me, Abdul-Jabbar! What occurred to you to ask me about Arkoun! I never had Arkoun feature prominently in my writings, nor is he high in my priorities. I admit of course that I read him intently; I worked hard to get to the deepest recesses of his mind, to fathom what he was after. The first time I came across his name was when I read an article in a UNESCO journal, Diogenes, entitled 'Islam and Development,' and I found that there was something about his writing which called for thought. He was different from Malek Bennabi – he in fact mocked him, and depicted his ideas and conceptions as void of any modernity. This did not put me out, as I knew that contemporaries were often incapable of doing justice to each other – his contempt for Bennabi detracted nothing of the latter's worth in my eyes. At the same time Arkoun is not talking nonsense; he is in fact intensely concerned about the welfare of Muslims. It now seems to me that Arkoun's insistence on a new theology could have been an incentive to me to think again about the concept of 'tawheed, unity of God' as being an econo-sociopolitical issue rather than a metaphysical one.

It is not that this thinker said the above; but it was pressing on his mind; and I sensed the truthfulness and honesty of his endeavors. The way tawheed was handled by Muslim scholars did not do justice to the very high place assigned to tawheed and polytheism in the Qur'an. It was a central issue in the accounts about all prophets, but we somehow, most unaccountably, pass it by. That the Qur'an assigns so much importance to belief, disbelief and hypocrisy should have awakened us to the impact of such concepts on the life of a community. Not even today do we seem to appreciate this aspect, and that is what makes me say that what the prophets taught has not yet descended to the earth, that is, it has not yet taken its place in people's worldview. But it will come to be appreciated by and by; people will discover it as they have discovered the laws of matter, though they have not so far given enough time to the laws of man, nor have they learned how to activate his great potential. They certainly have not seen in man what Iqbal saw in him, an organ of the Divine will. This reminds me of a curious thing about Arkoun, that he never mentions Iqbal, not once (as far as I have seen, and I have read much, with all dedication, trying to get to the depth of his terminology and intellectual tools.) It honors Arkoun that he laid his hand on the necessity of a new theology; and by this I understand the necessity of correcting our conception of God. It is a mistake that we do not go to God's creation to know more about Him, and the Qur'an does warn that people may hold mistaken conceptions about God that will have harmful effect on their lives: "By this thought of yours which ye did entertain concerning your Lord, hath brought you to destruction, and now have ye become of those utterly lost!" (41:23) "moved by wrong suspicions of God – suspicions due to ignorance;" (3:154). What Muslims need is to know God through His laws, for at present Muslims do not possess a guiding light, after they have regressed to pre-Islamic ignorance. They have lost sight of the message of the prophets.

What the prophets promulgated is, as far as I see it, a social revolution. This idea has so settled in my mind that it makes me appreciate their message as being worthy of the Almighty and All-knowing Lord; this has been His will, to guide His servants through the messengers He picked. But little do we know about God, and little do we know about the message of the prophets. But we shall rediscover their message – and when we do we shall be amazed to see how early in the human history did the prophets teach that which is worthy of attributing to the Creator of the universe. How difficult people find it to comprehend and accept the above fact is manifested in the Qur'an's reporting the people opposed to Prophet Muhammad as saying: "Has he made the gods all into one God? Truly this is a wonderful thing!" (38:5) One equally learns from the prophets, something that has been as difficult to accept as the above principle, that human beings are equal. How alien this has been to the minds of people is dramatically shown in Pharaoh's attitude to Moses' message, as reported in the Qur'an: "Am I not better than this Moses, who is a contemptible wretch and can scarcely express himself clearly?" (43:52) In another verse we have: "Similarly, no apostle came to the peoples before them, but they said of him, in like manner, 'a sorcerer, or one possessed!' " (51:52)

That we have not got to the core of the prophets' message is not unlike when men for many centuries took the earth to be at the center with the sun orbiting it. As I see it, we should regard the social, political, and economic problems in light of three verses of the Qur'an:

1. "Say: … come to common terms as between us and you;" (3:64) at the social level;

2. "Serve God, and eschew the taghoot, i.e. the trespasser, the tyrant," (16:36) at the political level; and

3. "Seest thou one who denies the Judgment to come? Then such is the man who repulses the orphan with harshness, and encourages not the feeding of the indigent;" (107:1-3) at the economic level.

One thing that Arkoun addressed in earnest is the mythical conception of people; People with the mythical conception think of God as not dealing with humankind on the basis of 'sunan, laws'; although God tells us in the Qur'an: "Are they but looking for the way the ancients were dealt with? But no change wilt thou find in God's way of dealing: no turning off wilt thou find in God's way of dealing;" (35:43). God has willed that laws should be consistent and constant. To the degree that man is ignorant of the laws of the world, he is dominated by the phenomena of the universe, and to the degree that he discovers the laws he dominates the phenomena of the universe. We of course like to think that we have rid ourselves of the dominance of wonders, but if we look well we shall discover that we still find our mind more contented with dealing with life on the basis of wonders, and not on the basis of 'sunan, laws', and that is why we are still afflicted with lots of catastrophes.

But when Arkoun insists on separating religion from the state, he is contradicting himself and ruining his call for a new theology. Indeed, a new theology will turn religion into a science. He puts himself quite in a quandary when he clings to two incompatible principles. I will not go so far as to deny that Arkoun sincerely wished to find the common ground between science and religion. In his last book, A Window on Islam, one senses his coming closer to the necessity of setting a harmony between science and religion on a basis of sound knowledge. He quotes Habermas, the German philosopher, who stresses the need for reviving the covenant with God, as propounded by the prophets; says Habermas: "When someone raises a protest against treachery, he does that not just in his own name, but in the name of other humans. Every human is potentially an ally in the struggle against treachery, including the one who betrays himself. The principle of honesty is something that is incomprehensible without a comprehensive pact against treachery."

While Arkoun urges us to follow the West in its separating religion from state, the prophets worked for a harmony between state and religion. This confusion and this separation, a reflection really of the Western way, do not give satisfaction even to Arkoun himself: that is why you find him at other times calling for a more careful study which establishes harmony between religion and state and between religion and politics. His stance is rather similar to that of uneducated Muslims, who have learned from experience that politics was based on treason and dishonesty, on opportunism and wrangling; while religion is based on honesty, uprightness, kindness and selflessness – that the two are just incompatible.

The prophets, however, introduced politics that is characterized with honesty, uprightness and kindness; their truthful and honest policy subdued treacherous politics. This is what is lacking in the world now; politics stands for dishonesty, from the United Nations to the smallest Muslim state. It is this form of politics which the Prophet had in mind when he warned that people crave to be appointed in political positions, though a person so stationed will regret it on the Day of Judgment. In another tradition, the Prophet, peace be upon him, distinguishes between a person who does all he can to get a political job, and another who is urged to accept such position: the former, as the Prophet says, will be left to his means, while the latter will be provided with support from God. It seems at present that humankind is moving slowly towards honesty and equality, and towards adhering to non-violence, even when one has to uphold it unilaterally, should the other side decline to accept this attitude, but without any compromise concerning honesty. It is opting for the prophets' principle rather than the way of treachery.

Arkoun is all for modernity; but modernity is undergoing an overhaul. It now reexamining its bases; hence the emergence of new trends like postmodernism. That Arkoun quotes Habermas, as shown above, is an indication that, as Jesus Christ had predicted, the Kingdom of God is coming. Actually, the social system cannot operate effectively and smoothly with dishonesty and privileges. A system that works on the basis of dishonesty and privileges will, before long, have cracks and begin to decay. We saw what happened in the two Gulf wars; and unless we regain the principle of equality (the word of common terms, in Qur'anic terms), the decadence will be worse and more severe. And this present situation of dishonesty cannot be put right with further dishonesty. Man has been created to find his contentment in nothing but uprightness, no matter how far men are lured by the devils. So our only hope is in spreading once again the message of the prophets; since there will be no more prophets, their task is now to be carried by those 'who teach just dealing with mankind' (the Qur'an, 3:21); it is for these to bear the heavy yoke, the trust which, as the Qur'an tells us (33:72,) was too heavy for the heavens, the earth, and the mountains; but it was borne by man. We should be sure that man, as hinted by God in His discourse with the angels (2:30,) will be able to rid himself of mischief and the spilling of blood. For man will discover, sooner or later, that any mischief he does, will backfire and it is he who will suffer from the results. If anyone is in doubt about how far man has advanced towards fulfilling God's plan for him, let him remember the cavemen and the men of today.

Another thing about Arkoun, he is not as Muslims take him to be, a defector from Islam or a lackey of the West. Indeed, he is in the difficult position of having to fight on two fronts, confronting the orientalists on the one side, and his own people, the Muslims, on the other. He says for instance that it is a mistake to assert that Islam is different from Christianity in that Jesus Christ taught that you render to Caesar what is Caesar's and you render to God what is God's, while in Islam there is no diving line between the religious and the mundane. This, as Arkoun says, is just an illusion that resulted from inter-religion disputes. In brief, Arkoun has something to add, and it will not do to dismiss it in contempt. He actually puts us face to face with a new world. The principle to adopt in dealing with him is, as with anyone else, to apply the Qur'anic principle, to "accept the best of their deeds and pass by their ill deeds;" (46:16). So let us be tolerant, especially with people like Arkoun, who has had to confront critics on all sides. Let us learn a lesson told by Abdul-Qaher al-Jailani concerning a controversial mystic: "Al-Hallaj did slipped, for there was no one at his time to show him the right way; but I am here to show the way to whoever slips." I hope that we can learn from this. When Arkoun says that any person who quote the Qur'an to prove a point is really raising all the problems of traversing from the age of wonders to the scientific age, this assertion of his is not without a real justification. Indeed, even Ali bin Abu Taleb had to warn people that when one quotes the Qur'an he has to bear in mind that the Qur'anic discourse has multiple meanings. When God sends down a Sign, as He says in the Qur'an (2:26) 'by it he causes many to stray, and many he leads into the right path.' Therefore, the Qur'an, just as a book, is not enough for guidance. This is the simple fact. It is the Qur'an itself that tells us what to refer to to understand it: the signs of the world around us, and within our souls. The facts of the world will put right our understanding of the Qur'an. Otherwise, the Qur'an will be there for every party to find in it what it likes. Is it not the less truthful party, the opponents of Ali, who held the Qur'an, stuck and raised high on the tip of spears? From that time until today, we are using verses of the Qur'an to spite our adversaries. But you will often find a truthful piece of Islamic writing without one verse of the Qur'an, without one tradition of the Prophet's, peace be upon him, and perhaps without one quotation from the great scholars of the past. A writer may be more convincing by citing the realities of history and modern or old events.

The Qur'an itself does not address us by uttering its verses; it is invariably quoted by men, and men can quote it rightly or wrongly. Let me remind you here of the Messenger's, peace be upon him, saying that the Jews and Christians, have the Scriptures in their hands, but benefit nothing by their truths. And this is exactly true of us. But things will not be as they are for long. We shall learn to be guided by the Qur'an, having for reference the signs of the world around us and the inner world of our souls. When Muslims do that, they will put a stop to their misinterpretations and misquotations.

Let me wind up with Arkoun's last words in his book, A Critique of the Arab-Muslim Mind: "It is right to conclude our search with something deeper, to help us understand the great potency of the Qur'anic phenomenon, potency that went on unabated over the centuries… It is there, though we are unable at the moment to lay our hands on its particular place in the Qur'an itself; the same as it is with the words of Jesus Christ … the fact remains that there is that immense power of the Qur'an which gave birth the Qur'anic phenomenon, in a particular place, and not anywhere else: these are vital questions that are waiting for our answer, and our answer must be different from the orientalists'… We call for the establishment of a new science, broader than what we find in the field; and when I campaign for this, I feel that it contributes actively to a rejuvenation of human sciences, through the Islamic model. This new discipline, which I suggest to be called 'applied Islamics', I am dedicated to see established and launched." Again I am not quite sure that I have given a satisfactory evaluation of Arkoun.