Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some thoughts on hermeneutics by Arkoun

Professor Mohammed Arkoun, a progressive Muslim thinker offers some thoughts on the approach to Islamic scholarship which bears serious consideration in the depth psychological research methodolgy I am undertaking in my attempt to formulate an Integral Psychology of Islam. These comments are made in the Introduction to "The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought":

"This cognitive strategy has never been used before in interpreting the types of discourse produced by Muslims to express their Islam, or in approaching them as a subject of study, alongside the Western literature on Islam and Muslim societies. From this perspective, historical epistemology has a priority over the purely descriptive, narrative presentation of what ‘Islam’ teaches, or what Muslims say, do or achieve as social and historical protagonists. To what extent are these protagonists aware of the ideological dimensions of their discourse and historical actions? Which cognitive structures do they use for the purpose of interpreting their religion, applying it to their actual life or reshaping it on the basis of historical pressures? To what extent do they develop a critical relationship with their past and their present in order to have better control over their future, and how relevant, effective and creative would such a relationship be? These questions constitute the itinerary of this self-interrogation. Such an itinerary can be proposed and achieved only by those who accept the need to combine respect for the rules of scientific research with the capacity to submit to philosophical criticism every stance of reason, every intellectual initiative and every question arising therefrom.

For a time, during the late 1970s, I called this approach ‘applied Islamology’2 following the example set by a group of anthropologists who started the practice of ‘applied anthropology’. During the 1980s and 1990s, political scientists focused on political Islam, and in particular, fundamentalist movements, to such an extent that they succeeded in marginalizing classical Islamology, ignoring the methodological breakthrough offered by Applied Islamology. This situation applies both to classical Islamicists, long confined to the philological, historicist application of the most ‘representative’ classical texts, and to the new wave of Islamicists who have had no philological training in the main Islamic languages (Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu) and who have confined their research to socio-political issues considered from a short-term perspective. Applied Islamology insists on the need to practise a progressive-regressive method, combining the long-term historical perspective with the short-term perspective, because all of the contemporary discourse emerging in Islamic contexts, inevitably refers to the emerging period of Islam, and the ‘Golden Age’ of its civilization used as mythological references to reactivate ‘values’ — ethical and legal paradigms — which need to be reassessed according to what I call a ‘Critique of Islamic Reason’. Not only do political scientists occupy key positions in academic institutions, they also have a strong relationship with the political decision-makers as well as a tacit solidarity with the most powerful media. As far as Islamic studies are concerned, the move from classical Islamology, dominated by the classical Orientalist épistémè and epistemology, to the pragmatic, factual, too often ideological practice of the social sciences by the political scientist, has had little material effect in improving the intellectual short-comings of scholarship applied in the Islamic sphere of influence in research and teaching. It is my contention that Islam as a religion, a world vision perpetuated by a still living tradition, with a great variety of cultural, social and political expressions, remains, like all religions other than Christianity, a challenge to the social sciences. In the same way, social sciences, if applied properly, are a challenge to Islam, especially as a living tradition. For many reasons, the most decisive one being geopolitical, it can clearly be seen that the challenge has not yet been fully taken up by the opposing side. The intellectual and scientific reasons for what has been a recurrent failure since the nineteenth century will, I hope, be clarified, in this book.3

Although I often refer to the dialectic, creative tension between the thought and the unthought, the thinkable and the unthinkable, I feel there is still a need to explain this terminology which has always been unusual and remains so in current parlance and even in philosophical discourse. The question arises as to why there is such a focus on the achievements of reason, on the critical control of the rationalities it elaborates within the spatial limits assigned to the thinkable. What does a tradition of thought allow us to think in a particular period of its evolution, concerning a particular subject, within a particular domain of human existence? When we speak today about the modes of communication required by political correctness, we are clearly referring to limits imposed by political and social pressures on the innovative and critical faculties of reason. A number of ideas, values, explanations, horizons of meaning, artistic creations, initiatives, institutions and ways of life are thereby discarded, rejected, ignored or doomed to failure by the long-term historical evolution called tradition or ‘living tradition’ according to dogmatic theological definitions. Voices are silenced, creative talents are neglected, marginalized or obliged to reproduce orthodox frameworks of expression, established forms of aesthetics, currently received rules of judgement, evaluation, communication, transmission, teaching, relating to others … When social, economic, and political conditions change and new possibilities for creative thought and action open up, a struggle begins between the defenders of the living sacred and sacralizing tradition and the supporters of reformist or revolutionary change. This dialectic tension is at work, with differing intensity, in all societies, from the most conservative and traditional to our democratic, dynamic, ‘free’ societies. We know how horizons and themes of discourse change depending on whether a leftist or rightist majority accedes to power; not only are some laws changed, but the philosophical rationale underlying the creation of law shifts to a different thinkable.

When the field of the unthinkable is expanded and maintained for centuries in a particular tradition of thought, the intellectual horizons of reason are diminished and its critical functions narrowed and weakened because the sphere of the unthought becomes more determinate and there is little space left for the thinkable. The unthought is made up of the accumulated issues declared unthinkable in a given logosphere. A logosphere is the linguistic mental space shared by all those who use the same language with which to articulate their thoughts, their representations, their collective memory, and their knowledge according to the fundamental principles and values claimed as a unifying weltanschaung. I use this concept to introduce the important dimension of the linguistic constraints of each language on the activities of thought. When a language such as Arabic or English is currently used by different peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, it becomes a common logosphere which will affect the configuration of the faculties of the human mind and, consequently, will contribute to the creation of frontiers between the thinkable and the unthinkable, the thought and the unthought. This is evident in the case of the Arab philosophers who introduced the Greek philosophical thinkable into the Arabic language, thereby creating friction with the religious thinkable defended by the traditionalist builders of Islamic orthodoxies. Similarly, the concept of the logosphere assists in the understanding of how Islamic values taught in Arabic to Indonesian, Bangladeshi or Tajik peoples, for example, share the same unthinkable about religion with the rest of the world's Muslims. The impact of the unthinkable and the unthought is immediately identifiable in the discourse articulated in a given language; language is the authentic memory of what thought has achieved, or failed to achieve, in each logosphere. From this perspective, an hypothesis could be attempted to explain why the terminology that I am trying to produce on the subject of thinkable/unthinkable, thought/unthought, has so far been neglected by the historians of thought. Historiography has always been linked to a political focus, such as a king, a prince or other leader; it reports what is relevant in order to illustrate the glory of the ruler, the authority of a spiritual leader; only positive achievements and the related outstanding cultural, and intellectual works achieved by thinkers, artists, jurists and orthodox religious authorities are quoted, celebrated and regularly taught as classical references for the living collective memory. The modern nation-state has been built and is supported by the selective creation and reproduction of the glorified national identity. A highly convincing illustration of this ideological practice, in contradistinction with the free, open, creative quest for meaning, is provided in Les lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nora, which discusses the strategies used by the French Third Republic to unify the nation in accordance with the principles of the Republic. All the post-colonial states that emerged in the late 1950s, used the same strategy, with a much more authoritarian, obscurantist, intolerant will-to-power. In Muslim countries, this policy helped to expand the space of the unthinkable and the unthought because a dual censorship has been and still is imposed on intellectual and cultural activities, censorship from above exercised by the state and censorship from below imposed by public opinion, especially on matters related to religion. Many intellectuals came to interiorize this dual control in the name of the Nation, or the religion, adding self-censorship to that already imposed from outside.

An important remark is in order here. I have explained in my various writings how my Algerian origins, and my involvement in Algerian contemporary history since the late 1950s (especially in the War of Liberation) imposed on me, as a scholar and professor of the History of Islamic Thought, the obligation to rethink and rewrite this entire history within the dialectic framework of the thinkable/unthinkable, thought/unthought. As an historian, I have been struck by two major historical facts, namely the spectacular success of Greek philosophy and sciences in the Arabic logosphere under the political control of an Islamic regime from the eighth to the thirteenth century, and in the same period, the expanding of the horizons of religious reason through dynamic schools of theology and law. The Mu'tazilite school contributed to having thinkable issues — such as the issue of God's created speech — declared unthinkable afterwards by the Caliph al-Qādir. Many schools of thought started to be weakened and disappear after the thirteenth century. Philosophy, as inherited from Classical Greece, disappeared after the death of Ibn Rushd (1198), though it survived in Iran in the form of theodicy and theosophy; the Mu'tazilī school was banned by the well-known decrees of al-Qādir in 1017–18 and 1029 and to this day, the ‘ulamā’ officially devoted to the defence of orthodoxy, refuses to reactivate the thinkable introduced and developed by original, innovative thinkers in the classical period.

Historians report these facts without opening up new fields of historical research devoted to the interaction between the changing sociological frameworks of knowledge and the emergence, or disappearance, of fields of intellectual and scientific endeavour. The same sociological, political, linguistic, economic and demographic factors that eliminated Ibn Rushd in his own logosphere helped to tremendous and enduring success of the same Ibn Rushd in Latin Catholic Europe until as late as the sixteenth century. Historical research reveals the consequences generated in Islamic thought by the elimination of the philosophical standpoint of reason, while we know the decisive role played by this standpoint in the development of scientific reason as well as the democratic regimes in modern Europe.

It is not sufficient to describe the increasing gap that has emerged between modern Europe and the so-called Muslim societies since the sixteenth century; we need to determine whether this evolution is related to internal forces and mechanisms operating independently in each historical sphere, or whether it is also subject to correlative factors. The development of ‘material civilization’ in Europe since the eighteenth century, accelerated the collapse and the conquest of all the non-European societies in the world. In other words, material modernity has been used to enhance the political and economic expansion of the European capitalist bourgeoisie; it prevented, deviated or perverted the simultaneous transmission of intellectual modernity in non-European cultures and traditions of thought. This ambiguous process, often described as the clash between tradition and modernity, conservatism and progress, religious fundamentalism and historical change, led to the ideology of liberation with its radical political and social opposition to colonial domination from 1945 until today. During the Cold War, the struggle against ‘Western imperialism’ was inspired by the dialectical materialist option of the Socialist-Communist vision of human liberation. The philosophical dimension of political liberalism had been rejected as the weapon of the imperialist bourgeoisie. The dogmatic totalitarianism of the nation-state controlled by a single political party has dominated the intellectual and cultural life of all the countries emancipated from colonial domination. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideological support of third-world countries, an ‘Islamic’ vision of the historical process of emancipation replaced the previous secularized socialist model in the so-called Muslim societies. Both visions share the will to eliminate the struggle of reason to autonomously perform the specific function of enabling unrestricted criticism of the initiatives of social protagonists through historical development (discourse, behaviour, political and economic options, cultural and intellectual achievements). From this perspective, more attention should be paid by historians to making explicit the historical correlation between the expanding European hegemony and the reactions, the ideological responses and the regressive changes seen more in the unthought, than in the thought in contemporary Islamic thought.

As a member of a society which went to war to liberate itself from colonial domination and had to ‘welcome’ a ‘democratic popular republic’ based on the model of the Soviet Socialist Republics, I felt more keenly than scholars without this revolutionary background, the intellectual responsibility to rethink in terms of social sciences and historical epistemology, the whole legacy of Arabic culture in what I came to call the ‘Maghrebian space’.4 The Algerian one-party state tried to legitimize its ‘socialist’ collectivist option in a strong, formal political will to protect and recover the ‘Arab-Islamic personality’ of the Algerian nation. Morocco followed suit, defended by the Istiqlāl party, but under the supreme authority of a king opposed to any kind of socialist revolution as defined and imposed by the leadership of Nasser, Tito, Nehru and other ‘historical’ leaders who met at the famous Bandung Conference of 1955. The spirit of Bandung was an significant reference point for all those who embraced the socialist model of economic and political action as a way of quick deliverance from historical backwardness. The great majority of leading intellectuals, scholars and artists supported the socialist revolution with their works, teaching, militant rhetoric and their strong desire to reach high positions as political decision-makers. Historians, sociologists and political scientists have not yet assessed the negative intellectual and cultural consequences of this massive adhesion to a dogmatic, totalitarian ideology imposed on societies in which peasant cultures, traditional modes of thinking and oral communication were still the norm. That is why I have chosen to concentrate on this neglected aspect of the history of thought in contemporary Islamic contexts. To do this, I had to create methodological and epistemological options in order to conquer new territory not only to explore new fields of meaning, but primarily to initiate new levels and types of understanding of many inherited issues which remain unexamined. Religion, and all matters related to religious life and expression, is one of the most important fields where political and social forces generate a confusing and obscurantist thought which requires the problematisation suggested in my title The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. Islam everywhere has been put under the control of the state (étatisé); but the religious discourse developed by the opposing social forces shifted to a populist ideology which increased the extent of the unthought, especially in the religious, political and legal fields." (2002, pp.10-15).