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CRITICISM OF ESSENTIALISM IN CONTEMPORARY
MICHEL MOUNIR KABALAN
submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts
to the Department of Philosophy
of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
at the American University of Beirut
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT
CRITICISM OF ESSENTIALISM IN CONTEMPORARY
MICHEL MOUNIR KABALAN
Dr. Muhamad Ali Khalidi, Associate Professor Advisor
Dr. Bashshar Haydar, Associate Professor Member of Committee
Dr. Gregg Osborne, Assistant Professor Member of Committee
Date of the thesis defense: July 4, 2006
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT
THESIS RELEASE FORM
I, Michel Mounir Kabalan
authorize the American University of Beirut to supply copies of my thesis to
libraries or individuals upon request.
do not authorize the American University of Beirut to supply copies of my
thesis to libraries or individuals for a period of two years starting with the date
of the thesis defense.
To Therese and Mounir for being exceptional parents
To Professor Assaad Khairallah for being an exceptional friend
AN ABSTRACT OF THE THESIS OF
Michel Mounir Kabalan for Master of Arts
Title: Criticism of Essentialism in Contemporary Arab Thought
Many contemporary Arab thinkers/philosophers consider themselves to be
addressing issues that pertain specifically to the Arab world (rather than to humanity in
general or fundamental questions in metaphysics, epistemology, etc). For example, they
ask: How is the Arab world to enter modernity (if that is indeed desirable)? Or: How is
to forge its own way in the modern or post-modern era (if modernity is not desirable)?
Or: What compromise is possible between Arab-Islamic tradition and modern ideology?
Or: What ideology is best suited to Arab political life (nationalist, socialist, Islamist,
etc.)? Or: What (intellectual) obstacles lie in the way of Arab cultural, political, and
economic development? In asking themselves these and related questions, some of these
thinkers make rather broad generalizations about “Arab-Islamic civilization”, “Arab
culture”, “Islamic tradition”, or even ‘the Arab mind”. In so doing, have they fallen into
the trap of cultural essentialism? Is it possible to address such points without lapsing
into cultural essentialism?
First, when we look at the AlJabiri-Tarabichi debate and compare it to the
above questions around cultural essentialism, we see clearly that at least some thinkers,
namely AlJabiri, who address these issues, fall squarely into the trap of cultural
essentialism. And Tarabichi does a fairly good job of pointing out AlJabiri’s essentialist
generalizations and of highlighting the fallacies and misconceptions of cultural
essentialism (e.g. that there are many different trends and tendencies within Arab-
Islamic civilization and tradition, some rationalist, some legalistic, etc)
This brings us to another important question, which is: Is it possible to address
the kinds of questions that interest contemporary Arab thinkers without committing the
“sin” of cultural essentialism? In other words, can one talk about e.g. the possibility of
reconciling Arab-Islamic traditions with modernity, but without making sweeping and
unjustified generalizations about the essence of Arab culture or the Arab mind, etc?
Here is where we need to take a closer look at these authors: AlAroui and Nassar, to see
whether they managed to avoid the trap that AlJabiri falls into.
ABSTRACT. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I. INTRODUCTION. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
A. The Historical Background. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
B. Arab Thought Versus Arab Mind. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
C. Definition of Cultural Essentialism. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
D. The History of the Mind and Philosophical Historiography. . . . . . . . . . 7
E. Preview. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
II. CULTURAL ESSENTIALISM IN FOCUS: AlJABIRI-
TARABICHI DEBATE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A. Thought as Content and the Though as Tool. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
B. The Genealogy of the “Arab Mind”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
1. Main Characteristics of the “Arab Mind”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2. Other Characteristics of the “Arab Mind”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
C. Tarabichi’s Response to AlJabiri. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
D. The AlJabiri-Tarabichi Debate. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
III. WEAK CULTURAL ESSENTIALISM: TWO CASE
STUDIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A. Nassif Nassar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
B. Abdallah AlAroui . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
IV. CONCLUSION. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
BIBLIOGRAPHY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A. The Historical Background
Questions of cross-cultural understanding have long been considered
controversial and even hard to grasp. Herodotus the great Greek geographer was the
first historian who embarked on a discovery journey in order to describe the different
‘indigenous’ people living in the old world i.e. around the prosperous basin of the
Mediterranean, the sea of the middle earth. There and from that same geographical
position came to light and was centered the first dichotomy between East and West,
North and South: Greek versus Persians, Romans versus Carthaginians, and later Arab-
Muslims versus European-Christians.
So when did the Europeans start considering themselves as ‘the West’ and
others as ‘the East’ or ‘the Orient’? The ‘Orient’ is too elastic a word and so it has to be
used to include everybody: from the old inhabitants of Persia to those who lived under
the Empire of the Sun (Japan) and the Empire of Heaven (China), all these large
kingdoms and ethnicities were also classified under the ‘Orient’ category. In one of the
earliest systematic accounts of ethnocentrism, David Hume wrote in his essay “On
”, defending the well established psychology of stereotypes across
the earth’s nations. “Different reasons are assigned for these national characters
writes, and hence he proposes that ethnic groups are differentiated by two causal
1. Hume, David. Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Liberty Fund: London,
1987. Part I: 1742.
factors: moral and physical. Hume doesn’t deny that all rational beings share a strong
propensity to ‘company and society’ and hence to universal reason. Hume supposed
that people in every nation or kingdom have their own way of being and their own way
of thinking but he didn’t nevertheless divide the living world into East and West. The
words ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ were not obviously demarcated back then and it is
clear that Hume was not aware that he belonged to the West at any rate.
It is difficult to trace precisely the genealogy of cultural essentialism in
seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical and social thought, but it is in the
late eighteenth century and after the industrial revolution that the fracture between
Aryans and Semites was more intentionally emphasized. Many of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth century thinkers emphasized the ‘heaviness’ of the Semitic spirit
incarnated in the Islamic tradition as compared to the efficient and dynamically
creative Aryan mind
. According to this conception, the Semitic Orient invented
monotheism and is still trapped and frozen in the confines of its religious and magical
imagination; whereas the European mind liberated Christianity from its Semitic
deficiencies and secured its entrance to Modernity
. The European mythology had to
carry out its last tour de force: the Aryan ideology confiscated the Hellenic heritage
and baptized it as the very roots of the Western scientific mind. Thus and in this
manner, the cultural supremacy of the Occident in the hierarchy of the civilizations
was duly established by these thinkers.
However, it is a moot point whether it is coherent to claim that a division among
3. Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. London : Allen & Unwin, 1959.
4. Bessis, Sophie. L’Occident et les Autres. Paris : La Decouverte, 2002.
5. Hegel placed the Indo-Germanic civilization at the top of the pyramid of
languages should correspond to a division among mental structures.
stems initially from the confusion around the Greek word ‘logos’ that means
simultaneously the thought and the spoken word: if different cultures have generally
different words (logos) i.e. different languages, then it follows necessarily that they
have different thoughts (logos). The confusion served well the
European thinkers who abused it in justifying and accentuating their ethnocentrism
The Arabs have also on the other hand an accentuated awareness of their linguistic and
cultural heritages, and some modern Arab thinkers have adhered to a similar claim. For
instance, Jamil Saliba wrote in his essay “the philosophical production in the Arab
that the Arab intellectual production is as competent and as innovative as its
European homologue. Saliba referred to the young modern Arab philosophy that started
brilliantly to occupy its acclaimed position among other human philosophies and he
What we have produced up to now portends that the crescent moon of
modern Arab philosophy, which was born in the second half of the
nineteenth century, will become a shining full moon in the second half of
the twentieth century.
¿~'--' Q,--' Q- ¸-'--' ~~--' ¸- --; ¡--' ª---=-' ª--,·-' ª-~---' J>» Q'- -_--- Q7' _-= -'-=--' '- Q!
'·='~ ',-- Q-,~·-' Q,--' Q- ¸-'--' ~~--' '-» ¸- _-~-~ ,~- .
6. Olender, Maurice. « Aryens et Sémites dans les savoirs du 19eme siècle » in
Encyclopédie des Religions. Paris : Universalis, 1991. p.84.
7. Bessis, Sophie. L’Occident et les Autres. Paris : La Decouverte, 2002.
8. Jamil Saliba et Al. The Arabic philosophical legacy in the last century. AUB
Press: Beirut, 1962. p.393.
9. Ibid, p.431.
All in all, both the West and the East claim to have different sensibilities: and by
sensibilities they meant different cultures, different mentalities, different traditions and
consequently different civilizations.
B. Arab Thought Versus Arab Mind
“More conscious of their language than any people in the world, seeing it not
only as the greatest of their arts but also as their common good, most Arabs, if asked to
define what they meant by ‘the Arab nation’, would begin by saying that it included all
those who spoke the Arabic language.” With these words, Albert Hourani
provided the anthropological reasons behind the emergence of Arab solidarity
(‘asabiyyah (ª--~-)), and later the socio-political phenomenon of pan-Arabism.
However, to what extent can the claim of the linguistic bond be met and described
within the frameworks of intellectual and philosophical practices i.e. within the
framework of Arab thought? Would the “Arab Mind” simply be the ‘ensemble’ of Arab
philosophical and intellectual activities, or would it have a distinctive ethnic character?
In parallel to the Arab attempts at constantly creating a thought and a philosophy
of their own, Indian and Latin American intellectual and philosophical circles often
advocate thoughts and philosophies of their own too
. Ethnocentrism is perhaps a
universal phenomenon and its advent is linked to a strong sense of nationalism and
perhaps also regionalism. But could philosophical activity be culturally specific? Many
contemporary Arab thinkers/philosophers consider themselves to be addressing issues
10. Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. Cambridge:
CUP, 1997. p.1.
11. Frondizi, Risieri “Is there an Ibero-American Philosophy?” in Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 9, No.3, p.345.
that pertain specifically to the Arab world (rather to humanity in general or fundamental
questions in metaphysics, epistemology, etc). For example, they ask: how is the Arab
world to enter modernity (if that is indeed desirable)? Or: how is to forge its own way in
the modern or post-modern era (if modernity is not desirable)? Or: what compromise is
possible between Arab-Islamic tradition and modern ideology? Or: what compromise is
possible between Arab-Islamic tradition and modern ideology? Or: what ideology is
best suited to Arab political life (nationalist, liberal, socialist, Islamist, etc.)? Or: what
(intellectual) obstacles lie in the way of Arab cultural, political and economic
development? In asking themselves these and related questions, some of these thinkers
make rather broad generalizations about “Arab-Islamic civilization”, “Arab culture”,
“Islamic tradition”, or even “the Arab mind”. In doing so, have they fallen into the trap
of cultural essentialism? It is possible to address such points without lapsing into
In treating these questions, one has to look for an equilibrium that must
encompass the broader range of issues entertained by these questions. This equilibrium
could be achieved by the classical, say commonsensical distinction between writing
philosophy in Arabic versus thinking philosophy in Arabic. The first part of the
distinction will make of our problematic a linguistic one
and will require thus a
linguistic investigation. The second part of the distinction however will make our
inquiry squarely fall into ethnocentrism and cultural essentialism: however we construe
the general objective of philosophy, the pursuit of universals seems very central to it
and hence we cannot philosophize unless we suppose in one way or another that we are
able to reach universally valid assumptions and thus universally valid knowledge.
12. It will have to include a critical and analytic survey of the countless
translation efforts in the Arab world for the last three hundred years at least.
Hence at this level, the needed equilibrium will require an extensive definition of
C. Definition of Cultural Essentialism
We have already touched on the central place that cultural essentialism occupies
amongst the philosophical and intellectual thought in the postcolonial world in general
and in the Arab world in particular. But first and foremost, we must get clear on what is
meant by “cultural essentialism”. Essentialism is usually defined by contemporary
philosophers in terms of necessity: an essential property of a certain entity is a property
that it would have necessarily. Clearly, when we are talking about cultural essentialism,
the claim is one about necessary features of a certain culture, features which a given
culture must have in every possible circumstance. More precisely, we can define a
cultural essentialist as someone who regards
• that a certain culture, civilization, or ethnic group has a relatively small
number of fixed characteristics (in terms of character, concepts, beliefs, practices, etc)
• which remain stable over time and which more or less all the members of
this society share with few or no exceptions
• such that it becomes difficult “to break out” of these characteristics without
some kind of intellectual rupture or conceptual revolution.
On the understanding of cultural essentialism proposed here, we could
distinguish two levels or degrees of cultural essentialism in the contemporary Arab
philosophical works, weak versus strong cultural essentialism:
a) What can be established with full certainty in the case of weak cultural essentialism is
the firm belief in the universality of the human mind, expressed in most of the
contemporary Arab and Western thinkers’ conceptions of their own intellectual history.
The proponents of this line of thought in the Arab world are Nassif Nassar, Zaki Najib
Mahmoud and ‘Abdalah AlAroui among many. For them, thought is only culturally
specific on small issues particularly some ethical or political issues. In addition, most of
them tried to examine systematically, over the course of history, the characteristics of
both Arab and Western thought and then ask what modifications or results would have
brought about these characteristics and to investigate whether these characteristics are
now explicitly recognized or not within the structures of Arab thought.
b) Strong cultural essentialism has had a particular history within the recent past. In this
inquiry, its supporters are mainly Mohamad ‘Abed AlJabiri and Yusef Karam among
the Arab intellectuals. Though he admits that the human mind is universal at some
levels, al-Jabiri presents the mind to the reader as a culturally specific entity. Karam
however was adamant on a classical formulation of the problematic whereby Arab
thought cannot but be culturally specific. Karam paid no attention to the
anthropological interpretations of the problem and regarded Arab thought as the direct
inheritor of medieval and scholastic logic
D. The History of the Mind and Philosophical Historiography
According to what has been said, it is interesting to shed light on a striking
similarity between the historiography of the “Arab mind” and the historiography of
philosophy in general. In this section, I will try to show that the similarity resides in the
analytical methods used in treating both topics of discussion.
13. Karam, Yusef. The History of European Medieval Philosophy. Cairo: DAM,
In an entry in The Encyclopedia of Ethics
, Jorge Secada defined the objective
of every philosophical historiography as the attempt to “elucidate the relation between
historical knowledge and philosophical understanding in the history of philosophy”
Frequent questions such as, “Could the history of philosophy itself be understood
philosophically?”, “How could one treat the questions of past philosophies?”, and
“Could we exactly recover the problematics of past philosophies?” made the
philosophers of history depart into three different directions. Hence and according to
Secada’s definition, philosophical historiography has defined three methods or
approaches in dealing with the relation between past and actual philosophical questions:
1) The Realists (including Russell and Aristotle among many others) defended a
relation of identity between old and present-day philosophical questions. According
to them, all the questions of past philosophies are utterly actual and perennial across
history and regardless of the huge diversity of historical and cultural circumstances.
2) The Idealists, who had Hegel as founding father, sponsored a dialectical and non-
eliminable historical relation between past and current philosophical questions. The
unique way to understand philosophical questions according to Hegel would be
through considering them as “the last stage of a dialectical process which is the
unfolding of Reason in Time”
3) The Pragmatists opted for an open and undetermined relation between earlier and
later philosophical questions. For Rorty, philosophy does not possess a given or a
true nature and historical philosophical discussions are hence creatively constructed
14. Becker and Becker. The Encyclopedia of Ethics. London: Garland/
so to alter the classical canons and create new ones. On this point, Rorty is closer to
Foucault who deliberately questioned the firmly-established classical canons that are
constantly generating discourses and rigid philosophical systems. Rorty invites the
historian of philosophy to work on “a free construction whose aim is to creatively
set the canon of themes and thinkers for both historical and philosophical
These same divisions could be applied in the discussion of the historiography the Arab
• The “Arab mind” realists considered the questions of past Arab philosophies,
mainly Medieval Arabic philosophy, as pertinent, relevant and very actual. Mohamad
Abed AlJabiri however runs together two distinct historiographical considerations. On
the one hand, Al Jabiri could be perhaps the best illustration of an Arab mind realist: for
him medieval concepts like manifestation (al-bayan (Q'---')), accident (al-‘ard (ç,·-'))
and substance (al-jawhar (,»;=-')) are at the heart of the definition of an Arab mind and
they are inescapable concepts and fundamental constituents of Arab culture
. On the
other hand nonetheless, AlJabiri would surely intend to break with the philosophical
problems of the past so to avoid the claims of Arab medieval philosophers, mainly
AlFarabi, who advocated the universal character of the human mind
. AlJabiri would
choose instead to support the thesis that the mind is primarily universal but culturally
18. Al Jabiri. Naqd I-first 3 chapters and Naqd II p.207. The first chapters of the
second volume of Naqd are all on al-bayan (which he considers to be the dominant
methodology in jurisprudence and philology) and al-‘ard.
19. For Färäbï, the human potential intellect is universal but it becomes fully
active only in a few select individuals. However, there is no suggestion that attainment
of this intellectual level is culturally specific in any way.
specific. This strong culturally essentialist view will draw him closer to the Pragmatists
at this level of the discussion.
• The Arab Idealists are less hardcore than their realist colleagues. They added
to the Arab traditional philosophical questions a bundle of new interrogations that
revolved around the nature of Man and social phenomena in the Arab world. Thinkers
like Nassar and Alaroui accepted the weight of the medieval legacy and its actuality but
modified the debate in a way to include several modern elements in its corpus. These
thinkers were concerned with elaborating new and different readings of the Arabs’
intellectual and cultural dilemmas that are also based on, or at least partially related to
the medieval discussions. The dialectical historical narrative would alone insure the
coherence and continuity of the corpus of the Arab Mind.
• Last but not least the Arab thinkers who are closely, though anachronistically,
linked to the pragmatist position disappeared mostly by the end of the last century.
Having done most of their studies in a European context and coming predominantly
from traditional backgrounds, they underscored a complete rupture with the issue of the
tradition (turäth (~',--')) and its subsequent complexities. Zaki Najib Mahmoud and
Taha Hussein are doubtless the founders of this intellectual tradition that was soon to
come to term because both were accused of charges against pietism. The two thinkers
suggested that Arab intellectual questions are free from an underlying historical
narrative and they are temporal developments of purely social and intellectual natures.
The current questions came out after the exposure of the Arab Mind to Modernity,
mostly in the colonial and post colonial era, either as a reaction to it or often as a
counter- reaction to it. Contrary to the Pragmatists, they suggested that the solutions to
all Arab contemporary conundrums are already found in the answers provided by the
European Mind: from the separation of state and religion which they advocated
ruthlessly to the democratic systems of education, it seemed obvious for Hussein and
Mahmoud that Mind and Reason are universal categories that could on no account be
considered culturally specific.
Since it is undoubtedly impossible to deal with all the anthropological,
philosophical and sociological issues illustrated and discussed above, I shall limit my
work to the difficulties and flaws that resulted from the use of cultural essentialism by
contemporary Arab thinkers. Accordingly, I shall now outline the way in which the
ideas of cultural essentialism have infused contemporary Arab intellectual discourse.
The first part of the work will revolve around the intellectual work of AlJabiri who was
concerned to inquire into the sociological, historical and philosophical proofs for the
existence of “the Arab mind”. For AlJabiri, “the Arab mind” was a way of picking out
what every Arab essentially is: his/her way of thinking and his/her way of perceiving
the world. He also does not hesitate to entrench these assertions in philosophy and in
Next, I will re-examine the AlJabiri-Tarabichi debate and compare it to the
above remarks about cultural essentialism and the historiography of philosophy. At this
level, I will try to explain how and why some contemporary Arab thinkers, particularly
AlJabiri, who address these issues, fall immediately into the trap of cultural
essentialism. In the following section, I will show how Tarabichi through his lengthy
volumes does a fairly good job, though somewhat pedantic, of pointing out AlJabiri’s
essentialist generalizations and highlighting the fallacies and misconceptions of cultural
Moreover, it is important to be clear as to what is at stake here: is it possible to
address the kinds of questions that interest contemporary Arab thinkers without
committing the “sin” of cultural essentialism like AlJabiri did? In other words, can one
talk for example about the possibility of reconciling Arab-Islamic traditions with
modernity, but without making sweeping and unjustified generalizations about the
essence of Arab culture or the “Arab mind”? These questions will guide the second part
of my work. There, I will show that it is useful to take a closer look at other
contemporary Arab thinkers like AlAroui and Nassar to see whether they managed to
avoid the trap that AlJabiri has fallen into. AlAroui’s and Nassar’s scrupulous
renderings are far more nuanced and careful in their treatment of the contemporary Arab
intellectual issues and are thus more interesting and far-reaching because they are
simply less essentialist.
It is finally at this level of reflection on cultural essentialism that I can properly
assert and conclude that one cannot generalize about “Arab-Islamic civilization”
without being to different degrees a cultural essentialist. Cultural essentialism doesn’t
only inspire us toward critical self-reflection in the context of rethinking what is
particularly Arab or Western or Indian, etc., but also suggests that the problematic
notion of reality is itself to differing degrees linked to our culture and tradition of
thought. Maybe a better understanding of the flaws of cultural essentialism would lead
to a better understanding of the processes that underlie our approaches to reality.
CULTURAL ESSENTIALISM IN FOCUS: ALJABIRI-
Once we begin to think of and question the validity of the claims of
ethnocentrism and cultural essentialism, we encounter a few surprises. Mohamad ‘Abed
AlJabiri, upon embarking on a critical examination of Arab culture, introduces the
expression “the Arab mind”. Thus for AlJabiri, to use the expression “the Arab mind” is
a reference for the reader sufficient to identify a culturally specific way of looking at
things. But even in its most basic form, this expression seems not to be objectively valid
or politically neutral: what is this thing or faculty that we are calling ‘The Arab Mind’?
Does such a thing exist? What are the foundations of such a mind and is it possible to
take for granted its existence? AlJabiri borrows an old French saying
, to the effect that
culture is what remains in the head of man after he forgets everything. He will project
this definition on the “Arab mind” and he will claim subsequently that the “Arab mind”
is what remains in the head of an Arab after he or she forgets what he or she learned
from the Arab culture. Thus the “Arab mind”, according to AlJabiri, is what is fixed and
stable and not what is temporary in the mind of an Arab person. This permanent thing is
what AlJabiri gives the label “cognitive unconscious”. AlJabiri’s cognitive unconscious
is timeless for it does have a different historical scale from the natural historical scale.
The “Arab mind” is also characterized by a ‘dependence movement’ (-'---' ª-,=) and
20. AlJabiri, Mohamad. Critique of the Arab Mind. Beirut: MDQA, 1982.p.30-
AlJabiri attributes it to the French politician Edouard Herriot who died 1957.
not a ‘translational movement’ (J-- ª-,=)
and hence its history is yet to be written for it
cannot be naturally divided into successive periods like the European history but is
rather an intricate homogeneous and stagnant historical corpus.
In what follows, I will summarize AlJabiri’s main arguments in his first two
chapters in the book Critique of the Arab Mind ( --- ¸-,·-' J-·-' ) and in The Problematics
of Arab Thought ( ~'--'-~! ¸-,·-' J-·-' ), and I will try to challenge some of his paradoxical
arguments in the next two sections
A. Thought as Content (Q;-~-) and the Thought as Tool (-'-')
AlJabiri claims that the common usage of the word “thought” (fikr) refers to the
content and the corpus of thought i.e. the collection of ideas and opinions forged by a
certain group of people and that basically express and reflect the problems and
occupations of this group of people along with its ethical, political and sociological
ideals. In sum, the thought of a certain group of people could be something like their
Weltanschauung (literally, their outlook on the world). When we say “Arab thought” or
“Indian thought” or “Greek thought” we respectively mean the Arab, Indian or Greek
ideology which is the result of a blend between the political, social, artistic, religious
and philosophical thought of the groups in question. Nothing would escape this general
definition of thought as actual ideology except the applied sciences which are,
according to AlJabiri, the only universal characteristic of the thought. The domain of the
sciences transcends the national dimension of the scientist or the place or subject of the
discovery so to reach an indubitable universality. Thus the semantic borders of ‘Arab
thought’ will encompass all the ideas (scientific discoveries and principles excluded)
21. Ibid, p.43.
produced and consumed by the Arabs that are reflecting their actuality and their
However, thought is not only ‘a content’ (Q;-~-), according to AlJabiri, but also
a tool (-'-'). It is a tool that (i) produces the myriad of ideas that are classified either
within the sphere of ideology or within the sphere of the applied sciences. It is a tool
because (ii) it is a systematic mindset that gets organized and confirmed starting with
the mind of a child to the fully shaped mind of the cogent adult
. It is finally a tool
because (iii) it plays the role of ‘a logic’ (_=---' _';-') or the set of principles responsible
for thinking ( _-',= JV--~(' ¸- ~--'~'; ,-----' ¸- )
. Further, he claims that it is known that
these principles and concepts are not instinctual or inherited through genes; they are
acquired by man through the continuous exposure to his environment (be it the natural,
social or cultural environment). From there stems the important particularity of the
environment in shaping the particularity of the thought itself. Hence, Arab thought for
example is Arab not only because it reflects totally or partially the opinions, theories
and expectations of the actual Arab condition but because it is the byproduct forged by
the perennial brew between nature and nurture of the Arab cultural particularities. These
elements and factors that enter in the formation of the thought as a tool or what is
simply known as ‘a mind’ are by themselves intricate and very complex: the convoluted
interaction of things result in a structure and this structure wavers between perfect
stability and some dynamicity specific to some particular but minor elements of the
thought. Therefore, the thought as a tool, or simply ‘the mind’, operates within a set of
fixed general principles that differ slightly from one subject to another and from one
22. Op cit. p.51.
23. Ibid, pp. 12-13.
group of people (within a bigger group) to another group of people (within that same
AlJabiri points out the structural aspect residing in the thought as content:
similarly to the thought as a tool, the different microscopic parts that are partaking in
the formation of the thought as content are narrowly interrelated and linked up together.
AlJabiri takes up the example of the liberation and emancipation of women in the Arab
. This issue is essentially connected to the issues of democracy, education,
freedom of expression and cultural progress in the Arab world. One cannot solve this
dilemma without having on the agenda the issue of democratization, the
acknowledgement of the right for freedom of expression and respect of human rights.
This example is meant to show that all the basic aspects of the thought as a tool are
interdependent and linked to those of the thought as content. This interdependence
between the two thoughts remains indisputable, according to him:
The integral interaction between thought as instrument and thought as
content is an indisputable fact.
')-- J'-= V ª·-'; µ;-=-- ,---'; -'-'- ,---' Q-- ¸---~-' J='---' Q' .
AlJabiri insisted on showing that the thinking process occurs within a certain
culture and through the premises of that same culture. Thus thought itself is a specific
cultural function and practice and it takes place within and through a certain specific
culture and never outside it. The cultural and social heritages along with the
Weltanschauung are the determining foundations of any culture.
Arab thought as a tool was always intrinsically linked to its basic Arab culture:
24. Ibid, p. 52.
25. Ibid, p.12.
Arab thought as a tool i.e. “the Arab mind” was itself the product of the Arab culture
and it will re-produce over and over again that same culture in the future. Under the
headline of thought as a tool (-'-'- ,---'), a new dialectic emerges out of AlJabiri’s
project. Here, AlJabiri introduced the concept of constituted reason ( ;---' Q ) versus
constitutive reason ( , Q;---') that he attributed to Lalande. Through this distinction,
AlJabiri noted what he considered to be the epistemological basis of the Arab culture
and its knowledge system. The constituted reason is the dynamic entity that produces a
culture whereas the constitutive reason is the collection of rules and principles that
make Arab culture possible. The Arab character attributed to Arab thought, according to
AlJabiri, is widely acknowledged because it grew within an Arabic context and
environment i.e. within Arab culture. Therefore, Arab culture gave “the Arab mind” its
unique and distinct character. Here AlJabiri refers his readers to three contiguous but
contradictory epistemological systems and mainstreams that invested and still constitute
the core of what is known as Arab culture. With the growing number of books and the
significant amount of translations and studies in a diversity of fields, the three
epistemological systems solely established themselves as groundbreaking yet original
products of Arab thought and the “Arab mind”
a) The first system was the expository epistemological system ( ) ¸-'---' ¸-,·--' ;'=--' . This
system is very basic compared to the other two systems. It was the first linguistic
system transferred and adopted in the domains of knowledge in the very early Islamic
era and during the Umayyad state. This system came out of a specific necessity,
conceptually and methodologically speaking, through the emergence of the first Islamic
sciences i.e. grammar, jurisprudence (ª---'), theology ( >--' ; ) and rhetoric (ª->--'). This
26. Op cit. p.59.
system inaugurated a whole new Weltanschauung established on the absence of
causality, and hence a way to produce knowledge based on the absence of the real
subject and the reliance on the simulacra instead of the original.
This expository system established a world-view based on separation and
a-causality, and a method in knowledge production whose basis was the
analogy of the unknown after the known, or the verb [action] after the
,-- ¸-'---' ;'=--' '-» _-~' ª-';- ª-,·--' ¿'--' ¸- '=')--; ·ª---~>-'; J'~--(' _-- ª--'- ;-'·-- ª-;, Q
J~V' _-- J·--' ;' -»'~-' _-- ~-'·-' Q'-- .
b) The second system is the Gnostic epistemological system ( ;'=--' ¸-'-,·-' ¸-,·--' ) that
was part of the pre-Islamic inheritance. It started appearing in the early Abbasid period
and mainly within the circles of Shi’a and Ismaili Islam. Inclined more to be a
subdivision of Sufism, this system founded a very Gnostic way of looking at things
through communication and sympathy combined with magic, astrology and alchemy
and based on direct spiritual contact and fusion.
c) The third system is the proof-based epistemological system ( ;'=--' ¸-'»,--' ¸-,·--' ) that
entered the Islamic culture with the translation efforts and during the reign of al-
Ma’mun specifically. The constitution of this system is similar to the Greek, and
Aristotelian in particular, system of thought. The proof-based epistemological system
gives causality and causal connections a fundamental role in producing knowledge. It
proceeds from well defined hypotheses to logical conclusions or results and the mind
will have eventually to accept and adopt these conclusions.
The three systems molded and endowed “the Arab mind” with its internal and
27. Ibid, p.59.
unconscious structure. The three of them also coexist to a certain extent in “the
contemporary Arab mind” but the dominant system of knowledge was historically the
Gnostic epistemological system. However, many attempts were made to join all three
systems of thought together and therefore to reconcile religion with philosophy in one
unified view of the World and Man. After making this claim, AlJabiri goes on to lament
the status quo of the Arab mind. These religious systems were compelled to coexist
within a tense atmosphere that was alternating between periods of conflict and periods
of confrontation. The frequent conflicts were always resolved by operations of
consensus ( ~'---- _--;--' ) and what resulted was more an inclusion of contradictory
positions and visions within the one cultural sphere rather than the establishment of a
unified single epistemic system. The never-ending conflicts between the three epistemic
systems ended finally with the total triumph and dominance of the Gnostic epistemic
system. Sufism therefore made its way to the hearts and minds of the Arabs as an
ultimate substitution of all other ideologies and political programs.
B. The Genealogy of the “Arab Mind”
1. Main Characteristics of the “Arab Mind”
It is clear now that AlJabiri took for granted the existence of different “minds”
or cultures. He goes on to detail how different minds or cultures are structurally defined.
At this level, he insists that the definition should be made through a certain set of
antitheses (-~-'); however it is imperative to abide by these antitheses as founding
concepts while determining the nature and the identity of “the Arab mind” or any other
mind. The antithesis by itself does not imply negation or negating the other but it should
rater imply difference.
At this juncture, AlJabiri draws the borders between what he calls an “Arab
mind” on one hand versus the “Greek mind” and “European mind”. Why these three
minds only? AlJabiri answers this question by saying that only the Arabs, the Greeks
and the Europeans practiced theoretical rational thinking ( ¡,=--' ,-----' ¸->-·-' ) in a way
that allowed the emergence of a scientific, philosophic and institutional knowledge (or
episteme) and that was liberated from the grip of mythologies and superstitions. The
Greek, European and Arab worldviews were also liberated from the animistic view of
things, which attributed an independent spirit to things in nature and hindered or
influenced human rational and cognitive capacities. AlJabiri acknowledges that in
Egypt, Mesopotamia and China great civilizations erupted and that these civilizations
produced and practiced the sciences. However, the central dogma in these ancient
civilizations was built upon magic and sorcery instead of the rational sciences or
rationality. AlJabiri asserts that the civilizations which practiced rational thinking and
thus produced and practiced philosophy and the sciences are the civilizations where the
mind or thought had either a full priority/sovereignty in matters of judgment or even
sometimes a priority that was equal to that given to magic and sorcery in the non-
Thus for AlJabiri, only the Greek, European and Arab civilizations produced
science and the concepts of science respectively; and it is clear, always according to
AlJabiri, that the process of thinking was achieved not only ‘through the mind’ but also
‘in the mind’ itself. At this level, AlJabiri notes that ‘thinking in the mind’ is more of an
abstract and advanced process than ‘thinking through the mind’. ‘Thinking in the mind’
necessitates a higher degree of abstraction and is thus more original and hard to achieve.
The principles used are not bound to a specifically strict system and they are re-
disposed, redefined, reworked, restructured and re-formed along the process of thinking
itself. In sum, thinking a certain set of concepts or principles, i.e. ‘thinking in the mind’,
overrides in importance thinking through the same set of concepts or principles i.e.
‘thinking through the mind’.
Afterwards, AlJabiri goes on to give a historical account of the development of
the Greek and the European thought. He concludes that the mind is in the end a set of
rules deduced from a certain topic:
In the final analysis, the Mind is a collection of rules derived from a
certain subject matter.
' ' Q -= J--=--' ª-')- ¸- J-·- _;~;- Q- ª~-=-~- --';--' Q- ª- '-
But despite the contrasts, real enough for AlJabiri, between thought and the
mind, there remains a central and continuous thread of intellectual and anthropological
character that links both concepts: the second is unavoidably the immediate and logical
outcome of the first. Yet we can infer from the above analysis that thought is always
primary, chronologically speaking, to the mind and hence the mind is always thought-
specific i.e. culturally specific.
AlJabiri redefines ‘the logic’ of and within a certain mind as being ‘the physics
of a certain topic’ and that necessarily differs according to the founding rules of any
scientific domain. However, the two constant features that established the Greek and
European mind and made it possible were summarized by AlJabiri under the following
a) the relationship between the mind and nature is a direct relationship on one side
b) the confirmed ability of the mind to discover and explain the secrets of nature on
28. Ibid, p. 25.
the other side.
AlJabiri will add that the relationship between the last two constants (a) and (b)
forms a unity whose unique pole (center of focus) is both Mind and Nature. Here the
absence of the divine, according to AlJabiri, will be noticed by the reader. The
breakthrough comes with AlJabiri’s definition of the Arab mind as being a tri-polar
mind (versus the bi-polar European and Greek minds); this tri-polarity or trinity is based
on the complex relationship between God, Man and Nature in the Arab mind. But
AlJabiri will suggest that there is a partial absence of Nature from the discourse of the
Arab mind that could be compared to the absence of God in Greek-European thought.
Therefore, the trinity within the Arab mind is eventually reduced to a bi-polarity
between God and Man. AlJabiri adds that God in the Greek-European mind plays the
role of mediator between Man and Nature, whereas in the Arab mind Nature will be
playing this same role between God and Man. In Arabic and Islamic culture, the mind
(Arab mind) is contemplating Nature in order to discover, to access and to reach God its
creator. However, in Greek-European culture, the mind is using God as a way or a
mediator while trying to understand Nature or at least to guarantee the mind’s
understanding of Nature
Armed with this formula, AlJabiri summarized the metaphysical structure of
both the Arab mind and the Greek-European mind. He claims that this distinction is not
definitive or aiming at consecrating a permanent rift between the two cultures. The
distinction was like a journey in the ‘back-stage’ of culture so as to discover what
helped produce, mold and form the different minds. In a more precise terminology,
what is in question here is “the subject that the intellectual activity of the thinkers of
29. Ibid, p.29.
Islam interacted with is a subject with specific characteristics that differ from the
characteristics of the subject treated by the Greek thinkers and European philosophers;
and hence, the rules that were derived within the context of Islamic and Arab culture
must be different from those that constituted the essence of the Greek mind and the
~= Q- ~--=- -,--- ç-'~= ;- _;~;- ·;>~V' ¡,---- ª--»--' ª--'·--' ª·- ~--'-- ¸--' _;~;--' ç-'
--' ª·- ~--'·- ¡--' _;~;--' · ' -' --';--' Q'- ¸-'--'-; ·'-;,;' ª-~>-; Q'-;--' ¡,---- ª--»--' ª-- ¸-
--' ')-~-=-~' · ' ª-->~(' ª--,·-' ª-'---' J='- ª--'·-' ª-,---' ª-- ,»;= ~--~ ¸--' --';--' Q- ª---=- Q;--~
¸-;,;V' J-·-'; ¸-'-;--' J-·-'
In considering AlJabiri’s style of argumentation, we should bear in mind first,
how entirely general his arguments are meant to be. However, the points laid out above
show systematically and for the first time how AlJabiri is being a cultural essentialist in
his analysis. From what has been said about the intellectual activity ( ª--'·--' ª--»--' ) in the
three cultures, one might ascribe to each one of them a specific set of mental rules or
‘logic’. Thus the ‘logic’ of “the Arab mind” for instance cannot escape being ‘a
culturally specific logic’. The justification lay in the idea that the characteristics and
mechanics that operate within the Greek and European cultures, respectively cradles of
“the Greek and European minds”, are different from those operating in the Arabic and
Islamic culture, cradle of “the Arab mind” and consequently their respective ‘logics’
should be different. Moreover, the concept of “the mind” has proven to be itself
historical ( - -=-,' ª J-·-' )
: the project of tracing the genealogy of its evolution was utterly
based on the intellectual history of the culture that produced this mind. Hence, we
30. Ibid, p.26.
31. Ibid, p.26.
cannot speak of the universality of a certain mind unless we are speaking about its
universality within the confines of its own culture;
The ‘universal mind’ is ‘universal’ only within the culture that produced
Q'- " ¸---' J-·-' " ;» " ¸-- " ª-=--' ¸--' ª-'---' J='- =-- .
That was the first subtle version of AlJabiri’s strong cultural essentialism. In what
follows, I will talk about few other minor aspects of “the Arab mind”.
2. Other Characteristics of the “Arab Mind”
The “Arab mind” is fundamentally built on an ethical approach to knowledge,
according to AlJabiri. This is an idea to which AlJabiri will dedicate the last part of his
chapter, in which he tries to explain why and how the Arab mind is by definition an
ethically oriented mind. AlJabiri goes back to the etymology of the word mind (J--).
The word in Arabic has itself ethical and behavioral connotations. AlJabiri distinguishes
between the Greek-European mind going from the cogent (or knowledge) to the ethical
and the Arab mind departing from the ethical in order to reach the cogent (or
. For knowledge in the case of the Arab mind is not a discovery of the
connections that link up the phenomena of Nature together i.e. not a process through
which the mind discovers itself in Nature, but is rather a distinction within the
subjects/issues of knowledge (empirical or social): between the beautiful and the ugly,
between the good and the bad. The purpose of the mind--its main job if not the essence
of its existence--is to lead its subject to the path of the beautiful and away from the path
32. Ibid, p.26.
33. Ibid, p.30.
of the ugly. Hence the main purpose of the mind is to make normative and ethical
judgments rather than to make empirical discoveries.
AlJabiri then inspects the linguistic origins of the word mind (J--) from the
famous classical dictionary Lisan al-‘Arab ( Q'~- ~,·-' )
to the Koran. He provides a
series of examples whereby the word ‘mind’ is linked to a value/ethical dimension
rather than being given a merely epistemic dimension. AlJabiri will add later that the
semantic borders and usage of the words ‘mind’ ( J--) and ‘thought’ ( -- , ) have always
been directed towards human behavior and not to Nature and its phenomena. He claims
that it is most likely to find the word ‘mind’ associated with a sentimental experience
(as in the expression “heart and mind”) in the Arabic language whereas in European
languages the mind is always strictly linked to the subject, the order of things, and to
what controls this order.
AlJabiri concludes that the “Arab mind” is ruled by “a criterial way of looking at
things” (-'-~V' _-! ª-,'-·--' -,=--'). The criterial way of looking at things gives a priority
to the ethical position and the value of the issues in question in comparison to the
objective method that aims at sifting out and carefully discovering the internal structure
of things. So all in all, the ‘criterial way of looking at things’ is somehow reductive
because it reduces the thing solely to its value and in most of the cases, the value has
been enunciated or set by a certain society or group of people.
AlJabiri mentions AlJahiz’s (=='=-' )
famous text on the difference between the
Persians and the Arabs
where AlJahiz defends openly the Arabs as being very
34. Ibid, p.30.
35. ‘Amrü bin Bahr bin Mahboub and his nickname “AlJahiz”(Basra 775-869).
36. Op cit. p.32.
spontaneous, not building on previous/old inherited knowledge, retaining simply what
was retained on their ‘chests and hearts’ and without much effort or scholarship.
AlJabiri also recalls AlShahrastani’s thesis on the difference between the Arabs and
Indians on one side and the ‘Ajam (;=·-') i.e. the Persians on the other. Both examples
highlight the systematic structural difference between the mind of the Arabs and that of
the non-Arabs in addition to the intrinsic functional differences between the two.
There is an obvious tension between the different elements that constitute
AlJabiri’s analysis at this stage. It is not altogether surprising that AlJabiri wants to add
finally an ethical dimension to “the Arab mind”: the West was long considered as the
source of moral decadence and evil deeds for the imagination of the Arabs and the
‘Arab virtue’ strain, in “the Arab mind”, would be an effective antidote to encounter this
absence of morality.
Thus, the specificity of the Arab mind is not only justified by the way this mind
processes, creates and understands theories, hypotheses and ideas but is also justified by
its different/special internal structures, its intimate relationship to the Arabic language,
and finally its ethically oriented objectives fully expressed through the ‘criterial way of
looking at things’.
C. Tarabichi’s Response to AlJabiri
To address AlJabiri’s main argument on the independent existence of an Arab
mind, Georges Tarabichi worked on five detailed remarks in ª-,=- J-·-' (the Theory of
regarding the Lalandian distinction-‘constituted’ versus ‘constitutive’ mind-
that AlJabiri borrowed and heavily relied upon while analyzing the conditions that lead
37. Tarabichi, Georges. The Theory of the Mind. Beirut: Dar AlSaqi, 1999.
to the emergence of “the Arab mind”. In what follow, I will present Tarabichi’s
response in a few paragraphs and I will try to adjudicate the debate between him and
Tarabichi inspected first the definition of the constitutive mind that AlJabiri used
and attributed to Lalande himself. His aim was to discredit AlJabiri’s argument at least
for the flagrant inaccuracies in the translations he adopted for the French philosophical
terminology. “The Arab mind” model encounters a range of problems, but for the
present purpose, Tarabichi wanted to concentrate on just two of them: the deficiency of
AlJabiri’s hasty translations from French and his serious misunderstanding of the ideas
However, the question remains… to what extent AlJabiri was actually a
Lalandian, not merely in his use of Lalande’s distinction, but even in his
understanding of it and in actually going back to the author of La raison
et les normes in his citations in particular?
'--'- J';~-' _--- Q-- ... ,----- ª--=;- ¸- V ·>·- '---VV ¡,-'=-' Q'- µ-- ¡' _-' V V ¸- _-= J- ·~~=- --
~-;- _-' ·~'--'- --»';~ ¸-·¸-·--' ª-;=, ¸-; ª- ª-)- " J-·-' ,--'·--'; " º
Tarabichi showed that AlJabiri used a modified translation of Paul Fouquié’s
of the constitutive mind: it is the unique and universal faculty that makes
possible, and through the perception of relationship, the formation of universal and
La faculté, immuable et identique en tous, de former, grâce à la
38. Ibid, p.13.
39. Ibid, p.14.
perception des rapports, des principes universels et nécessaires.
Tarabichi also noted another inconsistency in the translation of the definition of the
‘constituted mind’ that AlJabiri attributed to Lalande.
Les principes ou normes, plus ou moins variables avec le temps et les
personnes (quoique tendant à la limite vers l’unité), sur lesquels se
fondent nos raisonnements.
The latter definition was also taken from Fouquié’s dictionary and AlJabiri,
always according to Tarabichi, added more confusion to the definition itself while
loosely translating “les principes et les normes” to Arabic as ‘rules and foundations’
( -µ-'---' --';--'; ). Tarabichi argues that rules and foundations are not part of the
Lalandian definition of the ‘constituted mind’ and they squarely fall in the definition of
the ‘constitutive mind’ instead.
The third and the fourth remarks are also part of the ad hominem charges that
Tarabichi dressed against AlJabiri. Tarabichi provides enough evidence to prove that
AlJabiri did not read Lalande and never had a look at La raison et les normes.
Moreover, AlJabiri’s reference to Levi-Strauss came out of his ignorance of the specific
subject matter discussed in La pensée sauvage. Tarabichi reads Levi-Strauss as
engaging in a debate with Jean-Paul Sartre criticizing the latter’s famous book, Critique
de la raison dialectique and not engaging in a debate with Lalande personally or
Lalande’s theory at any rate. Tarabichi also mentions that Levi-Strauss and Lalande
were listed under that same section in Fouquie’s dictionary as illustrative examples; and
hence AlJabiri copied and pasted these references and added them to the discussion as
part of a one single debate not taking into account the absence of their interrelatedness
40. Foulquié, Paul. Dictionnaire de la langue philosopique. Paris: PUF, 1969.
quoted in Tarabchi.
and the lack of internal coherence when it comes to disparate dictionary definitions.
In the fifth point, Tarabichi gives a more substantive blow to AlJabiri’s analysis.
Lalande’s distinction gives a priority for the unity of the mind and underwrites very
clearly the universality of the constituted mind and its common patterns across all
cultures. AlJabiri seems to neglect this point made repeatedly by Lalande
distorted the latter’s distinction emphasizing and building his theories more on the
division within the constituted mind and not on its unity within or across cultures.
Therefore, AlJabiri failed at working on a critical reading of the history of “the Arab
mind” because of the many fundamental flaws in his understanding of Lalande.
AlJabiri’s tripartite division of “the constituted Arab mind” respectively into:
expository, Gnostic and proof-based epistemological systems, is completely arbitrary
and lacks coherent basis. Thus, AlJabiri missed the opportunity of constructing a unitary
and dialectical reading of the history of the “Arab mind” history and he failed to meet
the main objective he set at the beginning of his ‘intellectual’ project.
Despite the fact that Tarabichi manages to score several dialectical points in this
first attack, this is by no means a persuasive analysis and critique of the assertions made
by AlJabiri. Even if he got Lalande wrong, AlJabiri would still be making fundamental
and significant claims about the intellectual structures that form the ‘ensemble’ of the
Arab culture. The important question, which will be postponed to the second chapter,
remains whether these ideas and claims make sense by themselves or not.
Tarabichi’s second chapter focuses on the ethnocentric character of AlJabiri’s
theory of the mind. He thinks that what unites different human cultures is itself what
separates them: they all believe in their unique references in matters of rationality and
41. Lalande, Andre. La Raison et les Normes. Paris: Hachette, 1953. p.17 and p.
that they are actually at the center of the world. AlJabiri’s analyses are no exceptions to
this rule of thumb: the Arab mind is itself at the center of the world to a certain extent
and all other minds or cultures except the Greek and European are excluded from this
classification. Tarabichi does a good job at pointing out several flaws and
inconsistencies in AlJabiri’s analysis. For him, AlJabiri drastically fails to recognize
what is universal in the human mind.
Is it necessary to conclude by saying that AlJabiri has missed an
opportunity to develop a truly critical position towards this mind, that is
a position that departs from the constitutive mind, … and which views it,
in a contextual manner, in its relativity and historicity, as a mind that
characterizes a particular historical time period not for history, a mind for
a certain culture not for culture, a mind that is a captive of its own
assumptions and therefore eligible to be surpassed by the mind.
ª-- J)- ¡,-'=-' Q! J;--'- ;-=- Q' _-' ª='= ... '-» Q- >·- ¡--- ~-;- ,-;=-- ª~,- ª~-- _-- ~;- --
Q;---' J-·-- ª------' ¿-';--' Q- _-=-- ~-;- ¡' ·J-·-' ... ª---~- ¸- ·_'=,-~(' Q- ~,~- ·-',--;
)--·- -,'~=- >-- ·_-,'--- V ---=- ª-=-,'- ª--=- >-- ª-~;- ª--=-,'-; ª-'-=·-- ',-~' >-- ·-,'~=-- V '
J-·-' -,;'=-- QV ¸-'--'- '=~,-; .
Tarabichi refused AlJabiri’s division of the sciences and thus of culture between
magical and rational sciences or cultures. The rift is unjustified and very naive:
conceptual transformations are what allow and govern, anthropologically speaking, the
progression in the sciences in most cases. Tarabichi insists on showing the
anthropological and rational hierarchy that is holding the sciences and magic together.
He bases this hypothesis on countless anthropological discoveries whereby the concept
42. Op cit. p.24.
of rationality itself was extended to include what was known before as ‘primitive’ and
To what extent is there really a radical separation, and to what extent can
we say that the magical-mythical position is to be classified as a different
system from that which includes the rational position?
¡,=~-' ~-;--' Q' J;-- Q' Q--- -= ¡' _-' ·¡,-= J'~--' J·--'- ;;-- -= ¡' _-' - ;'=- ¸- ¿,--- ¡,;=~V'
~-;--' ª-- ¿,--- ¡--' 4'- ,-- ,=' ·-' º¸--
Moreover, Tarabichi takes AlJabiri as imposing an extreme imperialist view on the
cultural history of the “Orient” by reducing its ancient cultures to “structures that were
founded and constituted mostly by magic”.
Has any ‘Orientalist’ scholar been so radical in practicing an
‘imperialism’ on the history of ancient eastern civilization as to label the
‘general structure’ of the entirety of the cultures of the Middle East and
Far East as ‘a structure for which magic or myth constitutes its active and
~='- ¡V =- _-~ J» " ¸-',~-~' " ª~,'-- ¸- ~,=- Q' " ª--'-,--(' " _,~-- ¡,'~=-' _-,'--' _--
¿-- -= _-' ;----' " ª-'·-' ª----' " _~-V'; =~;V' Q--,~-' ~'-'-- ª--=- ')-~;; ')-'- " ,=~-' J-~- ª---
·- '- ¸- ;' ¸~'~V'; J-'--' ,~-·-' -'- ')-- .
He insists that AlJabiri’s views are so simplistic and reductionist regarding
eastern cultures, noting for example that Chinese civilization knew magic only in minor
and marginal practices. He quotes Benjamin Farrington
as saying that the Greeks
43. Ibid, p.35.
44. Ibid, p.35.
45. Ibid, p.37.
inherited from ancient cultures not only scientific techniques but also a huge bulk of
scientific knowledge. These techniques were very specific, meticulous and specialized;
and it is vital to conclude that when it comes to culture, the difference in degree does
not imply a qualitative difference. AlJabiri’s epistemological distinction, as Tarabichi
underlines it, between magical versus rational practices became a sort of
epistemological myth linked to the unique trio of civilizations, respectively the Greek,
Arab and European, which monopolized rationality and rational practices and gave
themselves the ultimate right to discriminate between societies, cultures and
civilizations according to a flawed and ethnocentric set of classifications. The adjective
“primitive” has lost its credibility for serious anthropological inquiries and what is
‘magical’ or ‘primitive’ should be from now on subject to scrutiny in the light of new
anthropological observations and the need for continuities now becoming a new trend in
the studying of history.
Tarabichi refused also AlJabiri’s attempt at placing “the Arab mind” (or more
precisely “the Arab medieval mind”) between “the Greek” and “the European mind”, as
if in a desperate Aristotelian mean. The ‘mean’ itself is not a definable mean i.e. not a
temporal, nor a geographical nor an intellectual mean, or any describable mean
whatsoever and for that matter, the positioning is solely justified by the opposition
(-~-') and not by the difference, insists Tarabichi
. The opposition system taken to the
level of the epistemological has evidently obvious demeaning purposes. It enhances
always an impoverishing and belittling system of antinomies. We have democracy and
science on the one side which immediately implies that the other side is living under
dictatorship and ignorance.
46. Ibid, p.118.
Moreover, is not the method of opposition a criterial methodology? A
methodology that always hides an evaluative or denigrating goal?
;' ª------ ª--'- ;';--' _-- ¸-=- '=)-- º'-,'-·- '=)-- ª--~-' ~~--' ;- Q-; ºª-~-=--
Tarabichi questions AlJabiri’s intentions in establishing these antinomies and
distinctions. It is evident that these antimonies will deepen the rift between the Arab
mind and the other minds and the epistemological distinction would not be a positive
Tarabichi also objects to the appropriation of the Greek mind by the European
and hence the Western mind. Greek culture should not to be monopolized or made
exclusive to any contemporary culture. He thinks that confiscating the Greek cultural
past and annexing it to the European cultural tradition comes out itself from an
unacceptable lack of historical and cultural accuracy
. Finally, the appropriation and
expropriation efforts came to light because of specific economical and socio-political
reasons and therefore the Mediterranean, African, and Asiatic roots of Greek culture
were totally and intentionally undermined in a process that was baptized “the
occidentalization of Greece” ( ~-,·- Q'-;--' )
Contrasting Tarabichi’s approach with that of AlJabiri, we can notice that the
former is more on the weak cultural essentialist side of the debate. Tarabichi was more
scientific in his analysis: his assessment of “the Arab mind” problematic was based on a
systematic and structural approach to Arab culture. Tarabichi through his lengthy
analysis summarized all the secondary readings that are necessary to understand the
47. Ibid, p.119.
48. Ibid, p.121.
49. Ibid, p.121.
nature of the “Arab mind” problematic. He carefully revised and invalidated AlJabiri’s
hasty generalizations and archaic understanding of the structure of human societies. All
in all, Tarabichi embarked on a counter project to what was labeled by AlJabiri as the
D. The AlJabiri-Tarabichi Debate
The difference between AlJabiri and Tarabichi is the difference between an
initial action and the subsequent reaction to it. AlJabiri’s project was the originator and
the text of reference around which grew the counter-analytic work of Tarabichi. In this
section, I will entertain some general answers to the points raised by AlJabiri in his
analyses and I will try to link them to similar claims made by Tarabichi in attempt to
adjudicate the debate between them.
Human beliefs and practices vary across societies and throughout ages; this is
the first observation on human societies that a sociology or anthropology student would
make. But for what reasons and under what conditions could we judge the practices of
the belief of another culture to be ‘unscientific’ or irrational? Are we allowed to
characterize some social practices or beliefs as pertaining solely to the realm of
witchcraft and magic? A difference of beliefs and practices will immediately imply a
difference of behaviors, conventions, structure of institutions, traditions and customs.
AlJabiri is not practically very far from this commonsensical observation. He advances
the thesis that non-Western and non-Arab systems of thought are naturally primitive,
never practiced or produced the sciences, and mostly deficient (if not totally lacking) in
rationality in their internal structure. But how could such a claim be validated after
twentieth century anthropological discoveries and conclusions?
AlJabiri frankly ignored that what he is calling “the mind” has at least partly the
possibility of being universal. For him only ‘the constitutive mind’ is universal and this
is equivalent merely to saying that the biological mind is universal.
As for the constitutive mind, it is the characteristic that differentiates the
human being from an animal, that is the ‘rational faculty’, to use the
expression of the ancients. Based on this consideration, it can be said
that the human being shares with all people, wherever they may be and
in whichever era they may be, a constitutive mind…
¡' Q';-=-' Q- Q'~-(' ,---~ ¸--' ª-~'=-' 4-- Q;--~- Q;---' J-·-' '-' " ª-='--' -;--' " -'----' _>=~'- .
,-;-- ª-;- ¸- ';-'- ,~- ¡' ¸-; ·';-'- '-' ·Q'--' ¿--= ¿- 4,-~- Q'~-V' Q' J;--' Q--- ,'---V' '-)-;
Q;-- J-- _-- ...
But the latter observation is a truism in most cases.
It should be stressed too that AlJabiri totally ignored that there are fundamental
principles of rationality common to all human beings. Rationality, according to the
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
, “has to do with how people acquire beliefs
from evidence and connect reasons to actions. At the most basic level, rationality
concerns the standards for truth, consistency and deductive and inductive inference. The
concept of rationality is standardly used in a normative sense, that is, one that conveys
commendation or endorsement.”
An action is considered rational if it has enough good
reasons or grounds to justify it; this principle is by itself universal and Kant’s
50. AlJabiri. p.15.
51. definition of Rationality of beliefs in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
52. Ibid, p.81.
categorical imperative, for instance, pretends to be one of these rational principles of
action. Some of the adaptive behaviors could be also enlisted in the rational principles
of action too. Having said that, it is clearly impossible for AlJabiri to maintain that some
cultures are irrational. Rationality is simply a human universal, found in all cultures.
One way to escape this conundrum of rationality would have been to adopt a blind
relativism while comparing and studying different societies and different set of beliefs.
Relativism, nonetheless, in matters of beliefs and practices could lead sometimes to
absurd conclusions and results. Accepting one belief in one society and rejecting it in
another one would be a source of controversies if not disputes and potential conflicts
between the two concerned societies. AlJabiri clearly never touches upon relativism in
the actual discussion. For him, systems of thought are clearly classified as either rational
or irrational (thus magical and primitive) systems, and relativism has no room in his
discussions at all.
Tarabichi pinned down AlJabiri’s simplistic distinction between rational and
irrational systems of thought and worked on a historical genealogy of this simplistic
distinction. He pointed out that AlJabiri’s claim was resting on the binary division
between the noble process ‘thinking-in-the-mind’ and the less noble process ‘thinking-
. According to him, the binary division between ‘thinking-in-the-
mind’ and ‘thinking-through-the-mind’ has historically its first roots in Aristotle
perennial discussion became part of the western canon of rationality
. Yet, it is this
same western canon of rationality and the idea of ‘thinking-in-the-mind’ ( ,-----' ¸- J-·-' )
53. Tarabichi. p.25.
54. Aristotle. De Anima-on the Soul. Princeton: PUP, 1984.
55. Gislon, Etienne. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. New York: Schribner,
versus ‘thinking-through-the-mind’ ( ,-----' J-·-'- ) that we should put into question at this
level. The canon itself was made very rigid as to fit only the European canon of
rationality. He accuses AlJabiri of falling into the same mistakes of the Enlightenment
project of rationality in Europe and which was followed later by the famous slogan “la
mission civilisatrice” that justified colonialism as a cultural and ethical necessity (the
white man enlightening and helping the retarded dark-skinned man). An earlier instance
of this segregation came down from the Greeks who were the first to distinguish
between Greek people and none-Greek people including the Persians and the Barbarians
on the other side of the Mediterranean. So the beliefs of ‘different’, and most of the time
‘primitive people’, are merely false according to this view.
How can we accept a judgment that a belief is rational or not is when this
judgment is coming out from and within the social context that considers itself superior,
regardless of whether the beliefs in question are considered rational/valuable or not
within the society under inspection? And is the western canon including “the Greek-
European mind” or its homologue “the Arab mind” ideologically neutral enough to
judge the other cultures or ‘minds’ and classify them as rational or not or as scientific or
not? And why should ‘thinking-in-the-mind’ be considered more noble or advanced
It seems evident nowadays that the values of the western canon cannot be
considered totally or universally true outside the limits of the canon itself. The
credibility of the authority behind constructing the canon is itself repeatedly put to
scrutiny and to examination. In the light of all this, Tarabichi’s analysis seems more
relevant to the ways in which we should think about rationality in contemporary
intellectual social discourses. The particular significance of Tarabichi’s points is that
they showed that magic and scientific literature stem out of same origin or way of
and that are two periods in one historical narrative
With the advent of the nationalistic states born out of a long struggle with
colonialism, the nascent nationalist units tried, each on its own, to reinstate a certain
number of founding myths and ideologies including bundles of historical, geographic,
religious, cultural and linguistic bonds. The specter of a single unified corpus of “the
Arab mind’s” history is haunting the writings of AlJabiri. Any reading of history of a
certain people is prima facie influenced by the historian’s political and dogmatic
affiliations. AlJabiri is no exception for this rule of thumb though his reading is more at
fault in many logical and anthropological respects.
A culture, in normal circumstances, would come out of an interwoven mixture
and influence of ideas, art practices and rituals along with some typical social
characteristics. Gramsci best described the process of culture-formation with the word
‘consent’. The political and dogmatic institutions should be spared from the burden of
culture-formation in theory because culture was observed to be forerunner, historically
speaking, of politics in general. The coercion however exercised in some totalitarian and
quasi-totalitarian regimes in molding and recreating homogeneous cultures have been
more or less effective but not for a long period of time. Cultural minorities are always
prone to be the prime victims of such practices and thus first to rebel against the newly
imposed status quo.
AlJabiri is writing from a pan-Arab perspective. He looks at the Arab world as
one monolithic and homogenous entity while he is obviously and utterly ignoring the
56. Tarabichi. p.35.
57. Ibid, p.37.
complex and diverse nature of Arab societies, temporally as well as geographically. He
even repeatedly talked about a whole millennium as though it were one moment in time.
However, it would be commonplace to notice constant schemes of variation among the
very different Arab societies be it in their social or cultural or political constitutions.
Except for the classical Arabic language, which is the only horizontal constant across all
Arab societies, the Arab world is formed by a huge number of ethnicities (Kurds,
Berbers, etc), religious minorities (Copts, Nestorians, Alawites, etc.) and linguistic
variations (Levantine dialects, Egyptian dialect, Gulf dialects, etc.) that are scattered all
over Arab world and that have their own claims to difference (from political difference
or autonomy as it is with the Kurds in Iraq to the cultural and linguistic tensions
between the Berbers and Arabs in Algeria). These ethnic minorities and linguistically
diverse groups cannot simply be looked at as small amorphous exceptions in a larger
homogeneous phenomenon. Consequently, AlJabiri failed to take into account the
historical developments in the Arab world across time and significant differences within
the Arab world across space.
After Foucault, it may be claimed that every history-writing enterprise should be
archeological i.e. it should look at the discontinuities and multiple stratas existing
within a same history and try not to emphasize the apparent ideological need for
The old questions of the traditional analysis (what link should be made
between two disparate events? How can a causal succession be
established between them? What continuity or overall significance do
they possess?)... are now being replaced by questions of another type:
which strata should be isolated from others? What type of series should
be established? What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each
In light of this, can it still be maintained that there are widespread yet common
basic principles of thought, beliefs and argumentation in Arab culture today despite all
these cultural and linguistic differences? Could there be substantive beliefs, ideas,
theses that are common to all Arab culture throughout its different manifestations over
more than a millennium? The answer is definitively negative. AlJabiri used the
adjective ‘Arab’ very loosely (“Arab mind”, “Arab culture”) without explaining what he
meant by ‘Arab’ or what kind of Arabs he has in mind. In case the people across the
hugely diverse Arab world shared common substantive beliefs and ideas, they would be
so minimal that they are probably shared by some other cultures too. Besides, AlJabiri
accentuated the confusion of the reader by repeatedly placing the adjective “Islamic”
next to “Arab” in qualifying the culture or mind, in an attempt to stress the religious
bond that supposedly unites all adepts of the same faith. But the Islamic character of
Arab thought adds to the discussion more mystification and controversy. If an equation
is made between “Arab” and “Islamic”, that is tantamount to saying that Pakistani or
Indonesian Muslims belong also ultimately to the Arab cultural identity or ‘mind’.
AlJabiri makes an effort to identify the epistemological and ontological
distinctions that are characteristics of “the Arab mind”. He even claims that his analysis
is an attempt at taking “the Arab mind” debate from the ideological to the
epistemological realm. But writing history, in the traditional sense, obliges the historian
to make a coherent selection of a number of documents (oral, written or archived
documents) available from that period in order to establish causal links and meaningful
58. Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon
continuities between these documents. Thus all historical readings of this sort are
predetermined to be ideological. Eventually and while working on a non-ideological
objective history of “the Arab mind”, AlJabiri ended up writing an ideological version
of the history of “the Arab mind” as Althusser predicted for this kind of endeavor
Recalling AlJabiri’s initial claim about thought itself and specifically Arab
thought, he pretended that any thought could generally be equated with a corresponding
ideology and in this instance the Arab ideology. For that same reason, he opted for the
usage of the word ‘mind’ instead of the word ‘thought’. In short, it is clear that he has
fallen into that same old trap by describing the mind itself as an actual ideology and
what was labeled the “Arab mind” by him could be simply called “Arab ideology”
instead. The “Arab mind” in AlJabiri’s analysis is plainly a set of ideological positions
be it in the expository or the Gnostic or the proof-based epistemological systems. These
ideologies were used by the Arabs in order to define, establish or justify their cultural
attitudes and positions throughout time or even timelessly as AlJabiri suggested. He did
not mention however that these ideologies are neither constant nor monolithic but they
do change and evolve in time. AlJabiri’s pan-Arabism seems to lead him to see the Arab
world as one homogenous whole without ethnic or religious differences. By
exaggerating the Gnostic and mystical elements that have allegedly dominated Arab
thought, he’s obviously trying to disparage this system of thought. Moreover, he’s
clearly trying to argue that the rational epistemological system has been unfairly
submerged in Arab culture. Therefore, there seems to be an ideological commitment to
the process of rational Enlightenment associated with Modernity. Moreover, he is keen
to demonstrate that this project has an antecedent in Arab culture or “the Arab mind”,
59. Althusser quoted in Foucault Archeology of Knowledge, p.5.
which however has been submerged and needs to be revived. Isn’t this the ideological
position that motivates most of AlJabiri’s skewed and biased reading?
On a similar note, Tarabichi pointed to the ideological character of AlJabiri’s
analysis that he labeled an ideological war ( '-,= ª-=;-;---! ) but certainly not an
epistemological critique (¸=;-;--~--' ---)
. Tarabichi, though his use of the adjective
‘epistemological’ is very charitable, did not examine specifically the relationship
between what is ideological and what is epistemological in AlJabiri’s analyses.
Tarabichi would concede perhaps that he himself was also writing an ideological
critique of AlJabiri.
Undoubtedly, AlJabiri is borrowing various concepts from recent European
thought and philosophy. Perspectivism, relativism and ethnocentrism are all ‘Modern’
concepts and by ‘Modern’ here I mean European inventions. But the real problem lies in
the over-emphasized dichotomies between magical versus rational societies. These
binary divisions between what is modern versus what is magical and charismatic were
first introduced in the works of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Weber introduced the
binary division to shed light on the importance of family bonds, religious structures and
the figure of the father in shaping and influencing so-called “primitive” societies.
Meanwhile, Durkheim in les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse confirmed this
dichotomy by stressing the importance of the religious element in forming and
structuring societies in general. Durkheim also used the binary division to highlight the
opposition between modern European societies that abandoned their religious values
compared to the primitive societies that are keener on preserving their religious
character. Later works in structuralism and post-structuralism came to discredit these
60. Tarabichi. p.24.
divisions and dichotomies.
Across all the cultural and historical diversity mentioned above, one could
maintain that there is a common baseline or certain continuity beneath all diversities.
And the continuity is insured by processes like translation, cultural exchanges and last
but not least through trading and commerce. On this point, the role of translation from
Arabic to Latin at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance
could be compared to the role of the translation from Greek to Arabic through Syriac in
the early Islamic era. Translation insures continuity in this sense by incorporating the
old legacy into the new emerging system of thought: medical medieval manuals had
almost the same impact on European medicine that the newly translated Greek
philosophy had on early Islamic culture. Thus, the Arabs were never hermetically
confined to one narrow place or living in a vacuum as never were the Indians, the
Chinese, and the old Egyptians and so on. The gist of the argument here is this: the
ideas did get carried over and were assimilated into these different cultures, a fact which
makes it hard to maintain that these cultures nevertheless had an entirely different
mindset, even an incommensurable one, as AlJabiri seems to imply.
Tarabichi pays tribute to the role of translation in the Arab culture. He disagrees
with AlJabiri about the role of translation movement and the need for a new translation
. Tarabichi maintains that AlJabiri’s analysis of the first era of translation is what
really introduced essentialism ( ç-'~= ª-;»'- ) to the “Arab mind” that lost its
momentum and started its decline that was followed by the ongoing stagnation. There is
no real need for a new era of translation because there is nothing new to introduce.
Thus, there is a dire need today… not for a new era of translation, as
61. Tarabichi. p. 21.
AlJabiri assumes, for there is nothing set today to be translated…
;;--' ª='=-' Q-- '-» Q-; ... ¡,-'=-' ç,--- '-- ---= Q-;-- ,~- _-' V : ;--- ;;--' ,»'= -¸~ 4--» Q---
The essentialism that AlJabiri introduced will hence undermine the historical and
intellectual progression of Arab culture.
We will note that talk of ‘essential characteristics’ in modern and
contemporary Arab discourse negates the dynamism of this mind, and
with it its historicity.
Q- ~--=-' Q' ==>-~ " ª-;»'- ç-'~= " J-·-' ¸- ¸-'--'-; ,~'·--'; ~--=-' ¸-,·-' ~'==-' ¸-
¸-,·-' ... ª--=-,'- ª---,= ¿- ¸·--; J-·-' '-» ª--,= ¸·-- .
Thus from what we discussed above, we can narrow down the AlJabiri-
Tarabichi debate into two main points and positions. The first position is undoubtedly
associated with the concept of “the Arab mind” itself. Both Tarabichi and AlJabiri used
the expression “the Arab mind” repeatedly and as a valid concept. This “Arab mind”,
holds AlJabiri, is at the core of all the assumptions of the Arab culture and its cultural
instances and characteristics stand on their own as a way to measure and to assess
different (Western and nonwestern) modes of thought and cultural practices. “The Arab
mind” is the historical and social mindset that encompasses the sum of all possible
principles and ways of thinking of an Arab. Someone following the investigation up to
this point might easily jump to a conclusion and say that “the Arab mind” is Arab qua
Arab. This move on the part of AlJabiri’s is what leads us to classify him as a strong
cultural essentialist par excellence. By contrast, Tarabichi recognizes at least partly the
62. Tarabichi. p.22.
63. Tarabichi. p.21.
existence of some universal characteristics common to all culturally-specific minds.
Furthermore, Tarabichi saw this mild cultural essentialism as a credible objection to the
hardcore essentialist position taken by AlJabiri. The second point, in contrast to the
first, is the most pertinent and the most evident from AlJabiri’s analyses. AlJabiri adopts
a staunch cultural essentialist attitude while he wanted to undermine the rationality of
the practices of all the world cultures that fall outside the Greek, or Arab or European
umbrella. Moreover, he totally rejected the contributions of these cultures by
considering them mythical, magical and apparently incommensurable. These cultures
could not develop the sciences because they rely on a less advanced ‘thinking through-
the-mind’ process. Against this “imperialist” attitude, Tarabichi
thesis and highlighted, in a long historical analysis, the structural flaws and
anachronisms of AlJabiri. Both of these moves can be argued to be ideological on the
part of AlJabiri. The first move, which homogenizes and essentializes a diverse reality,
may stem from an ideological commitment to pan-Arabism and a nationalist viewpoint
that sees a monolithic whole instead of a diverse Arab reality. The second move seems
influenced by a different ideological commitment, namely to the classical
Enlightenment project of rationality. AlJabiri wants to argue that this rationalist
mindset was always present in Arab culture, however, it was always submerged by a
more dominant religious element, and it should now be revived.
64. Tarabichi. p.35.
WEAK CULTURAL ESSENTIALISM: TWO CASE STUDIES
In this chapter, I will leave the strong cultural essentialist views and move
towards weak cultural essentialism, with Nassif Nassar and Abdallah AlAroui. Given
the analytic and systematic organization of their intellectual works, we can pick out,
from both Nassar and AlAroui, more interesting interpretations and analyses of the
foundations and dysfunctions of contemporary Arab culture. Both philosophers worked
towards a philosophical interpretation of the current Arab cultural crisis. However,
Nassar was more keen on presenting a theoretical diagnosis of the issues whereas
AlAroui’s analyses hinge more on the political and sociological dimensions of the
A. Nassif Nassar
In the preface to his book Tariq al-Istiqlal al-Falsafi (' _-,= ¸-~---' J>--~ (The
Road to Philosophical Independence)
, Nassif Nassar observed that the role of
philosophy and its objective for the Arab philosopher will be spelled out in the
philosopher’s position regarding the history of philosophy.
The goal of this inquiry is to analyze the problematic of the relationship
of the philosopher in the contemporary Arab world to the history of
65. Nassar, Nassir. _-,= ¸-~---' J>--~(' (The Road to Philosophical
Independence). Beirut: Dar Al Taliyat,1975.
ª-~---' _-,'-- ,~'·--' ¸-,·-' ;-'·-' ¸- ~;~----' ª->- ª--~- J-=- Q' ~=--' '-» Q- ç,·-' .
Nassar devoted fully the first essay of his book to tracing the evolution, the
nature and the complexities of the emerging modern Arab philosophy. He carefully
elucidated the position of the historian of philosophy compared to that of the
philosopher in modern Arab culture. The philosopher’s position will hitherto set out the
central features of the Arabs’ position within intellectual history.
The understanding of philosophy and its mission will be determined for
the philosopher in the Arab world through his solution to the problem of
his relationship to the history of philosophy. Because of the deep links
between the history of philosophy and the history of civilization, this
solution will be a part of the general stance towards the problem of
=--; ª-~---' ;;)-- ,,--- ª-->- ª--~-- ª-= J>= Q- ,~'·--' ¸-,·-' ;-'·-' ¸- ~;~----' --- ')--)- --
ª-~---' _-,'-- . ~-;- Q- '-,= J=-' '-» Q;-- ·-,'~=-' _-,'-; ª-~---' _-,'- Q-- _--·-' ='--,(' ~-~-;
-,'~=-' ª--~- Q- ;'- .
Nassar’s challenge came as a major jolt to the rigid and unoriginal enterprise of
modern Arab philosophy. He will tacitly demonstrate how the established paradigms in
modern Arab philosophy are vulnerable, poorly equipped to withstand serious analyses
and sometimes historically anachronistic.
For Nassif Nassar the “Arab mind” is fully embodied in the renewal of the act of
philosophizing ( ---=- ¸-~---' J·--' ) that should pave the way for the creation of a real
66. Ibid, p.15.
67. Ibid, p.16.
Arab philosophical contemporary thought ( Q-;-- ---= ¸-,- ¸-~-- ,-- )
. The expression
“Arab mind” itself does not exist in Nassar’s vocabulary, and the existence or
nonexistence of the Arab mind is never called into question. Nassar’s reading is rather
dealing with the actual position of the Arabs within the general framework of
philosophical and intellectual history, their potential contribution to it, along with the
internal structure of the Arab philosophical thought.
It is thus within the context of the history of philosophy’s problematics that
Nassar identified the crucial marker of the modern and incomplete Arab philosophy.
Nassar’s particular concern was to show precisely what the Arab philosophical positions
and not Arab philosophical schools amounted to.
We are inquiring into positions and not schools.
~»'---' Q- Q--; ·~-';--' Q- J'~- '--' .
His analysis in a way was reacting against strong cultural essentialism: how
could a philosophy be merely Arab or European or Indian? Philosophy as an act is
expressed and practiced by Arab or European individuals but it remains at its core a
universal enterprise. Coherent it might be and very ideologically appealing, but there
was a fatal flaw at the very core of Nassar’s hypothesis. By trying to avoid strong
cultural essentialism, Nassar slipped into a kind of mild cultural essentialism: though he
admitted the universal nature of philosophy, he openly promoted the emergence of an
Arab philosophical movement
. If we narrow down our objection to this hypothesis, we
end up with one question--characteristically an anthropological and a positive one--
68. Ibid, p.9.
69. Ibid, p.17.
70. Ibid, p.9.
would a culture determine a philosophy?
To belong to one philosophical current is to engage into an idiosyncratic attitude
towards the history of philosophy: that was the starting point of Nassar analysis.
To demonstrate this point, Nassar divided Arab philosophers’ positions regarding the
history of philosophy into two broad categories: (a) the position of subordination ( ~-;-
ª-·---') and (b) the position of independence ( ~-;- J>--~(' ).
Under the subordinate (ª-·---') category, Nassar identified two subcategories: i)
those who give medieval philosophy the ultimate priority in matters of interpretation
and understanding, and are thus anachronistic in their analyses, ii) and those who
unquestionably adopt the conclusion of western philosophy with no reference
whatsoever to the medieval influence. The philosophers of the first category are
generally more conservative and traditional than those of the second category.
Yusuf Karam is according to Nassar a defender of the scholastic philosophy
approach to the history of philosophy. His Aristotelian-Thomist grounding and
methodology made him thus be one of the main protagonists under the subordinate
. Karam is anti-modern par excellence for he refused all the philosophical
tradition that came after the Enlightenment. What matters most for him are the
questions related to the epistemology of existence and the life of man as defined by faith
and certainty (Q----'; Q'--(' ;» '-- Q'~-(' -'-=)
. Karam overlooked the social and political
changes that occurred in the Arab world in the last four hundred years and maintained
that philosophy is better framed within the context and the history of the medieval
71. Ibid, p.18.
72. Ibid, p.19.
metaphysical trilogy: God, Nature and Man
. Karam was according to Nassar the most
methodical philosopher in this category and he represents a group of philosophers that
insure the continuity of medieval culture in contemporary Arab culture.
It is clear that the existence of this group of philosophers… is an
expression of the continuation of medieval culture in the contemporary
,--·- ª-~>--' Q- ª--'=-' --» -;=; Q' _~';-' Q- ª-!; ... ;-'·-' ¸- _=~;-' Q;,--' -,'~= ,',--~' Q-
Q»',-' ¸-,·-' .
Nassar did not spare the other ‘subordinate’ subcategory. Zaki Najib Mahmoud,
another representative of the ‘subordinate’ category, called for a firm commitment to
the principles of logical positivism which will lead to a better logical and structural
formulation of philosophical arguments.
The duty of the philosopher is to work towards correcting the
methodology of thought and specifying the conditions of meaningful
=;,~ Q--·-; ,-----' ¿)-- _-=~- J=' Q- J-·- Q' ;» ~;~----' ~='; -----' ;>--' .
He added that the answers provided by analytical philosophy are convenient
tools to revise and answer the problematics of the history of philosophy and those of
contemporary philosophy. For these reasons, Nassar amply criticized Mahmoud for his
blind faith in the answers of analytical philosophy to the contemporary problems of
Arab thought. He emphasized the need for a big-picture view and understanding of Arab
73. Ibid, p.20.
74. Ibid, p.20.
75. Ibid, p.21.
contemporary intellectual discussions. According to Nassar, real mastery of the issues
in contemporary philosophy cannot be achieved without a full grasp of the issues of
Nassar also points to the exclusively restricted metaphysical nature of the
medieval questions versus the diverse nature (epistemological, scientific, ethical and
metaphysical) of the contemporary problems. So the solution to the ongoing tension
between the two respective standpoints is a synthetic position (something like the
Aristotelian mean) between the advocates of medieval philosophy and those of
Nassar deduces from this comparison that the contemporary Arab philosophers’
attitudes towards philosophy and intellectual history perfectly coincide in terms of being
. Mahmoud was on the one hand insisting on the vitality of cultural and
intellectual renewal (¡,'~=-' --=--') in the Arab world based on scientific,
methodological and modern improvements whereas Karam on the other hand had more
faith in the scholastic philosophy and its metaphysical dimension in looking up new
answers for modern dilemmas. Both however were followers and not innovators. Nassar
will thus go on to describe what would be the path for intellectual and philosophical
The Arab philosopher would be able to liberate himself from ‘the complex of the
history of philosophy’ once the goals of his/her philosophy are clearly defined while
taking into account the actual cultural situation ( ;-' ª-·~ ª-,'~=-' ) in contemporary Arab
societies. The contemporary Arab world poses different questions nowadays than those
76. Ibid, p.23.
77. Ibid, p.24.
asked a century ago. Needless to say these questions are also different from the
questions that were entertained in the Middle Ages. Philosophical consciousness ( ¸-;-'
¸-~---') is relentlessly challenged by these questions; and every time it tries to answer
these questions it gains in maturity and experience. It is important to notice that
questions related to the nature of knowledge or epistemology are perennial questions in
the history of Arab culture, according to Nassar, who is implicitly criticizing his
contemporaries for not posing these questions.
The basic philosophical question posed by the new historical era that is
being lived by the Arab world today is the question about humanity [or
Man] rather than the question about knowledge.
;;--' ¸-,·-' ;-'·-' ')~-·- ¸--' ----=-' ª-,'~=-' ª-=-,'--' ª-=,--' ª=,=- ¡--' ¸~'~V' ¸-~---' J';~-' Q!
ª-,·--' Q- J';~-' Q--; ·Q'~-(' Q- J';~-' ;»
Hence the answer to the question of knowledge in general and of humanity
[Man] in particular lies in the path that the history of philosophy took from the days of
Al Farabi to the days of Russell. Nassar is convinced that the answers provided by
experimental philosophy (his coinage for analytical philosophy) and rational philosophy
(probably the group of continental philosophies: German Idealism, positivism,
structuralism, etc.) combined would be more than enough to solve all contemporary
issues in the realm of epistemology. The problems of knowledge are themselves
intrinsically linked to the course of the history of philosophy, ancient and modern
philosophy, and thus any preoccupation with these issues will delineate Arab
philosophy from its normal course into modernity. Consequently, some contemporary
Arab philosophers would be tempted to espouse one philosophical school instead of the
78. Ibid, p.33.
other; the utterly divergent views on epistemology in Arab philosophy lead to two
hardcore positions. On the one hand, Zaki Najib Mahmoub solved all the
epistemological riddles relying solely on the methods of logical positivism and on the
other hand Yusuf Karam relegated all epistemological problems to the ‘metaphysical
nature’ of things and thus entirely relied on the rationalists’ (idealists’) answers. Nassar
however thinks that neither of these philosophers was addressing the right question.
For Nassar, the question of ‘Man’ (what is Man?) was never central in medieval
and Islamic philosophy whereas it was ‘the question’ that haunted the Enlightenment
and remains nowadays a central question in philosophy.
This means that the question of humanity [Man] was never the central
question in Arab and Islamic philosophy in the medieval period, by
comparison for example to the question of reason and revelation, and it
has become the central question in this era.
Q' -'-·- '- '--!; ·ª-->~('; ª--,·-' _=~;-' Q;,--' ª-~-- ¸- '-,-,- V';~ Q-- ;- Q'~-(' Q- J';~-'
¡,-,--' J';~-' ;» ,~·-' '-» ¸- _-~'; ·¸=;-'; J-·-' ª--~- _-' >-- Q'---'-
In the Middle Ages, the Koranic doctrine was the theoretical background for all
philosophical theories and public legislations. Contemporary Arab societies however
became more demanding after they were exposed to new doctrines, ideologies and
forms of government. Arab thinkers had to look to answers outside the Koranic doctrine
which became less efficient and reliable in treating contemporary issues. Accordingly,
the question about Man and the purpose of philosophy dramatically changed for Arab
culture. Averroes’ conception of philosophy became outdated since philosophy has
altered its goals: philosophy is no longer simply inquiring into the essence of things
79. Ibid, p.33.
( ,=--' ¸- -'-~V' ) but at human existence itself as an active existence ( -;=;-' -;=;- ¸-'~-V'
¸-·-) rather than a passive one
. Nassar portrays the ‘active human existence’ as part of
the larger project of ‘social and historical existence’ ( -;=;-' ¸·--=--' ¸=-,'--'; ). The main
objective of philosophical investigation would be in looking at the existence of man as a
social first and then a historical existence while trying to answer the question ‘who are
.At this level, the real philosophical inquiry formed and imposed by civilization
and culture takes shape, as a full philosophical consciousness, through the question of
the historicity of human existence ( J';~-' -;=;-' ª-=-,'- Q- ¸-'~-(' ).
So could it be that the system of ideas and questions that constitute
contemporary Arab philosophy can be observed directly and indirectly in other
philosophical systems, namely European, Indian and Latin American? Is it that
philosophy always formed an integrated and structured universal whole and spoke only
in this case through Arabic tongues? These questions are distinctive to those parts of
the world that did not happen to participate in modernity and the Enlightenment at the
time. Nassar devoted the bulk of his theoretical dissertation in order to reveal the nature
and the origins of the urgent issues of contemporary Arab philosophy. He decided that
the purpose of his exposition is to show that the questions of Arab culture or philosophy
are not Arab qua Arab, but Arab insofar as they are ‘a part of the world’ that was not
part of philosophical modernity at the time as in Latin America or India or Africa.
Nassar’s account is by far the most theoretical among the authors I treated in my thesis.
80. Ibid, p.35.
81. Ibid, p.35.
B. Abdalah AlAroui
Abdullah AlAroui was inexplicit about the need for the existence of an “Arab
thought” as such. Reflecting on Maghrebian cultural and philosophical issues in the
immediate aftermath of the wars of independence, AlAroui was moved to rethink the
same cultural and philosophical questions that were asked throughout the Arab world.
In the preface to his book al-Idiyulujiyya al-‘Arabiyya al-Mu’asirah '-=;-;---(' ª--,·-'
-,~'·--'(Contemporary Arab Ideology)
, he insisted somewhat defensively that words
and concepts in whatever philosophical treaties should be carefully demarcated and
meticulously defined. For that reason, AlAroui briefly divided the current Arab ‘social
problematic’ into four issues:
• The “issue of the self” ( ª-'~- ~'--' ): While defining something, the Arab
thinker or any thinker for that matter, will have to bring to light and later employ a
negation or exclusion
. In short, any definition of ‘a certain other’ for the Arabs will
have to involve and portray ‘a certain West’. It is nearly impossible thereafter to unpack
the ‘issue of the self’ without embarking on the history of the encounter between the
Arabs and the West.
• The “issue of history” (_-,'--' ª-'~-): The long and tormented Arab history
does not look like an integrated whole. The Arabs’ interpretation of their own history
however comes down necessarily from their understanding of themselves. Thus, the
issue of history is intimately linked to that of identity.
• The issue of ‘theoretical and practical methodology’ ( ª-'~- ¸--·-'; ¡,---' ¿)---' ):
What guarantees or disproves the equality between an Arab way of thinking and that of
82. AlAroui, Abdalah. -,~'·--' ª--,·-' '-=;-;---(' (Arab Contemporary Ideology).
Beirut: MAA, 1967.
83. Ibid, p.24.
a Westerner? Despite very different political, economical and cultural sympathies, their
approaches have much in common. They all certainly participate in the universality of
the human mind.
• The ‘issue of expression’ ( ª-'~- ,--·--' ): What are the stylistic forms that
would best reflect the universality of our ways of thinking? From this perspective, the
‘issue of expression’ is basically addressed.
These were in a nutshell what AlAroui termed the central questions of the Arab
nationalist problematic. Considering how central these questions were to his account, he
has chosen four key words to summarize them in a nutshell: integrity (ª-'~V'),
continuity (,',--~('), universality (ª--;--') and means of expression (,--·--' _-',=). “Who
are we and who are the others?” AlAroui wondered ceaselessly under the first section
entitled “The search for the self” ( ~=--' ~'--' Q- ) of his book. Arab intellectuals,
according to AlAroui, were moved to constantly rethink the meaning of self, identity
and culture for almost eight decades. He remarked that the ‘others’ for the Arabs were
the Christians in the beginning, and then the inhabitants of Europe for some time, and
later on the West in general. This concept of ‘the other’ has often been vaguely
understood, according to AlAroui. He goes on to trace a historical genealogy by
claiming that the Arabs knew a sort of ‘ethnology’ but under multiple forms: letters and
reports (similar to Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes) were written describing a fanatic
Europe, a rich Europe, a morally decadent Europe, a commercially oriented Europe and
finally a melancholic and nostalgic Europe. Most of these documents were brought
together to generate a unified view of a West that has obviously a diverse nature, a
confirmed military superiority and incessantly expanding frontiers
. Thus the concept
84. Ibid, p.36.
of ‘West versus East’ developed in tension with the notion of ‘the other’ whether in the
Arab world or in Europe. Soon the geographic dimensions and borders will be modified
so to assimilate a metaphysical element ( V;--- '---- ) noted AlAroui.
Both claims are very persuasive. The East and the West are both historical and
cultural constructs and to describe them one has to uncover the different layers, layers
of meaning and signification that could be read into the respective discourses. It must be
conceded at once however that the rupture between East and West has become more and
more real with time and through the hegemonic discourses of the media, international
politics and other consent-making mechanisms. All attempts at reconciling the two
eternally opposed traditions were doomed to failure: it seems to be an intractable task to
bridge the metaphysical, cultural and social gaps between the two sides. It could be
argued nonetheless that the layers of difference vary from one discourse to another.
One discourse would accentuate the role of metaphysics in the East, another would
emphasize more the difference in cultural practices for instance.
In any case, AlAroui’s analysis was able to avoid drifting or sliding into cultural
essentialism. Weighing both Western and Eastern values, AlAroui tacitly objected that
East and West should be used as serious concepts: from a critical perspective, the rules
of thinking (rules of logic, reasoning, etc) are always universal and never culturally
specific. Despite all forms of divergence and differences of emphasis, both East and
West share common premises. AlAroui thus never used the expressions ‘Arab
philosophy’ or ‘Arab mind’ and preferred to use the more nuanced form ‘contemporary
Arab ideologies’ in his analyses. In order to illustrate the movements of thought that
partake in the ‘contemporary Arab ideologies’, AlAroui offered three case-studies of
three major aspects and characters in contemporary Arab societies:
• The ‘Sheikh’ (_-~-'), henceforth ‘the cleric’, represents the traditionalist
standpoint. He is convinced that the conflict between Christianity and Islam is the
underlying reason behind the rupture between East and West. It is also imperative for
the cleric that the laws of individual behavior should be dictated according to the rules
and legislations handed down from God in the Koran and the Sunna. The cleric’s
position was to be understood as a response to perennial assumptions and accusations
made to assert the irrationality of some religious beliefs and lack of tolerance in Islam.
The cleric however has constructed an entire discourse around the decadent morals and
practices of the Christian West: the more decadent they will become the easier and the
quicker their fall will be.
By and large, the cleric concludes that the will of God will
eventually find its way to become concrete. Here is a form of the religious order apt for
troubled times and a disenchanted world. Incoherent it might be, and ideologically
attractive, at least to some, there was clearly a serious weakness at the very core of the
• The legitimate historical successor of the cleric, the politician ( J=, ª~'-~-' )
embodied a ‘leap of reason’ for Arab intellectual development. The daily confrontation
with the West and its techniques became increasingly unbearable and old methods of
struggle, mainly religious, looked very ineffectual and did nothing but widen the gap
between the Arab societies and Europe. So the cleric’s maneuver (from Mohamad
‘Abdo to ‘Ilal al Fasi), which was widely accepted for a long moment, started raising
questions on its own terms. The clerics’ explanations, guidelines and examples ceased
to provide what might assess and warrant the discrepancies between the Arab status quo
in the nineteenth century and Europe. The troubling matter is particularly what the
85. Ibid, p.39.
Turks left behind them in the Arab world. Here, Alaroui quotes AlKawakibi, Khaled
who evoked the practices and procedures of the Ottoman systems of
governance, case-by-case in their very subversive aspirations and tyrannical values.
These tyrannical measures--consequential and autocratic enough in themselves--
therefore raise the issue of ‘despotism’, which was broached by Abdel Rahman
AlKawakibi in his famous book The Characters of Despotism (Taba’i’ al-Istibdad wa
Masari’ al-Isti’bad) -'-·-~(' _,'~-; -'---~(' ¿-'-=)
. Ultimately, the newly diagnosed but
long practiced despotism (-'---~!) lays a crushing burden on Arab societies. AlAroui
suggests a further move by introducing the character of the politician who comes to
rescue the cleric and hence institutional Islam itself:
In this manner, the politician managed, in his turn, to rescue Islamic
ideology by denying that it was one of the factors leading to the collapse
of the Muslims. The reason was despotism, and despotism was an
intrusion on the Muslims and Arabs.
='==-' J-';- Q- Q;-- Q' _-- -! ·ª-->~(' ----·-' ,=7' ;» ---- Q' ¸~'-~-' ;--,-' _'=-~' ª--~;-' --)-;
Q---~--' . _--; Q---~--' _-- -µ,'= -'---~('; ·-'---~(' ;» ~-~-' ~,·-' .
The politician’s thinking concerning the role of Islam, and simultaneously on
the structure of democratic institutions, would be pushed furthest by adding to it a
necessary liberal touch: the perennial practice of consensus (_'-=(') is a real democratic
ritual. In addition, the Sunna and shar‘ (_,~-') themselves do not recommend or impose
any political system on believers; the politician will insist on presenting despotism as a
86. Ibid, p.43.
87. AlKawakibi, Abdel Rahman. -'-·-~(' _,'~-; -'---~(' ¿-'-= (The Characters of
Despotism ). Damascus: dar alMada, 2002.
88. Op cit. p.45.
fragmented and inherently unstable system and thus dividing Islam into two factions, a
strong and liberal Arabic Islam versus a weak and despotic Turkish Islam
according to AlAroui, the egregious error of the politician was that he has fallen again
into the trap of cultural essentialism. AlAroui, who is against strong cultural
essentialism, offers subsequently an elegant endorsement and summary of the
politician’s essentialist project: the Arab man is free by nature and would spontaneously
support a natural democratic system.
The Arab is free by nature, and if left to his own devices will
spontaneously establish democratic system.
-=- ,= ¸-,·-' Q' ª· · '-=',--- '-'=- '-;-- Q~' ª--=~- 4,- Q'-
This naïve proposition lacks firm anthropological groundings and does not
promise any potential development towards a new social or political theory. Above all,
the politician’s message is mirroring an ornamentally inverted version of Gauthier’s
that the Arab is a chaotic Bedouin and natural born enemy of order.
The Arab Bedouin is chaotic by nature and an enemy of order.
;'=--- ;--; ª·-=- ¡;~;- ¡;---' ¸-,·-' Q!
• On comparative grounds, it is straightforward to notice that the technocrat
(ª-----' ª--'-) is the latest stage of a historical-ideological system that kept adapting and
modifying itself for almost three hundred years so as to create, provide and fit a certain
self-image. A potent challenge is presented by the new technologies and new applied
89. Ibid, p.44.
90. Ibid, p.45.
91. Gauthier Ernest Felix.
92. Ibid, p.45.
sciences. It is more plausible to suppose that as scientific discoveries became the order
of the day the powers of the cleric were eroded, and the promises of the liberal
politician turned perforce to marginal and symbolic politics. The West is not a religion
that abandoned mythologies or a state that eradicated all forms of ‘despotism’ but
simply a material force that feeds on well planned work and applied sciences. Now it is
all very well to summon up the ethos of the West in order to assert that freedom alone--
be it political or religious--is not solely the sine qua none condition for the
establishment of a strong and modern state. The Japanese miracle was the perfect lesson
and example according to AlAroui’s technocrat: their religion is degenerate and the
farthest from monotheism, their history is amongst the bloodiest and most aggressive in
human histories and their population among the most effete and resilient under a
perennially feudal regime. Yet in spite of these observations and distinctions, the
Japanese were able in no time to bridge the gap between them and the West. Their
astounding achievement inadvertently draws attention to a particular strategy that they
adopted: industry first and noting but industry. According to AlAroui’s characterization
of the technocrat:
The truth is that what lies between us and civilized Europeans is industry
and nothing but industry.
ª-'-~-' ,-- -¸~ Q--; ·ª-'-~-' ;» Q-------' Q---;,;V' Q--; '---- ª---=-' Q' ¸» .
was sufficiently moved by the peculiarities of European culture
and societies. Hence, he decided to undertake a special journey into the core or ‘the
secret’ of the Western civilization: East and West are never meant to be geographical
93. Ibid, p.47.
94. Ibid, p.47.
dimensions or ethnological realities or religious denominations. East and West are only
possible to be interpreted or explained through the scope of technology and industry:
Nowadays, civilization is industry, and the culture of this civilization is
science, just as the culture of agriculture [agrarian civilization] is
literature, religion and philosophy.
Q---'; ~-V' ¸» ª-',,-' ª-'-- '---- ·;-·-' ¸» -,'~=-' --» ª-'--; ·ª-'-~-' ¸» Q7' ¸» -,'~=-'
The technocrat objected pertinently and fundamentally to the ideas of both the
cleric and the politician. As a first step, the technocrat refuted the entire critical project
of the cleric, a rereading of Islamic intellectual history, and absolutely had no room for
it on his agenda. The technocrat’s second move was to consider that the politician’s
‘despotism’ might not hinder progress and modernization but might be a necessary
condition along the way nonetheless. Another puzzling issue is the total absence of
historical sensibility from the sociological and political reading of the technocrat for
whom the only slogan and central claim was: “our future is our truth, and it resides in
technology” ( '-----= ª-----' ;»; '-----~- )
The three characters represent three historical moments in Arab sociological and
intellectual realities, according to AlAroui. These contrasting aspects and positions
frequently fuelled a nationalist and pseudo-intellectual rhetoric across the Arab world
along with stirring up atavistically some regionalist and chauvinistic emotions. Until
very recently, there was a high level of consensus among Arab intellectuals on adopting
95. Ibid, p.47.
96. Ibid, p.48.
the old epistemological rules and methods of the medieval period
. Thus there was a
general agreement about looking at the conclusions that the human mind might reach
from a positivist perspective: the anthropological, social and psychological observations
and dilemmas are the same for all mankind and the actual opposition is nothing but
religious, an ascending Islam and a declining Christianity. This is a rather dated cultural
and philosophical image, according to AlAroui, who divided Arab ideology makers into
three categories: the cleric, the politician and the technocrat. It goes without saying that
to accept the three pairs of contrasted ideals--the cleric, the politician and the
technocrat-- one has to admit that the Arab countries had and still constitute a cultural
unity that is mutually beneficial for the ‘ensemble’ of these countries and that the
modern era in the Arab world started with colonialism
These are by no means the only problems raised by AlAroui’s analyses. But the
gist of AlAroui’s work is this: East and West are two concepts that are in a constant flux
and they cannot be taken for granted in a serious intellectual work. In stark contrast, the
logic of AlAroui’s critique implied that there must be better ways to write or interpret
the rupture between East and West. AlAroui announced a new historical era where the
very object of cultural studies was being transformed: the Orientalist reading had been
rendered obsolete and the cultural essentialist reading could not be swallowed either.
East and West were never insulated from one another and both had spread their
tentacles into every last crevice of their respective worlds. Therefore, a critical reading
of the dilemma is more than needed for the East and the West are intrinsically the same
97. Ibid, p.145.
98. Ibid, p.49.
(,»;=-'; J~V' --=;) though they differ on secondary level issues ( _;,--' ~>-=!).
Our inquiry constitutes an urgent call to adopt a critical consciousness, or
in other words, a call for a continuous transcendence for the passive
consciousness in particular. The two societies, Arab and western, are
intermingled to a degree that renders this a real possibility. What we
mean by a critical consciousness is the contiguous and simultaneous
summoning of two historical realities, while renouncing all seclusion and
segregation, in order to avoid worthless defensiveness and bravado.
¸-'----' ¸-;-- ,--~- ,;'=- _-' -;-- µ,=' -,'-·- ;' ·¡--- ¸-;- ¸-=--' _-' ª=-- -;-- --» '--~',- J---
~'--'- . '-,'; '--~ ,-V' '-» J·=- ª=,- _-' ·¸-,·-'; ¸-,·-' ·Q'·--=--' J='-- --- . ;» ¡----' ¸-;-'- ¸-·- '-
-~'=-- ·Q---=-,'- Q--,;,-~- Q-',--; ;,>-- ,'~=-~' >·-' J-; -'---' J- ' ª---,---' ~-';--' ~-=-- _
('; ª~-=,-' ª-~',·-~ .
The critical reading will be the byproduct of a critical consciousness (¡--- ¸-;)
that firmly urges and advocates a universal way of understanding things: a new
anthropology will emerge formed by closely linked propositions and revolving around
countless central themes.
99. Ibid, p.251.
100. Ibid, p.254.
101. Ibid, p.254.
When we try to make sense of the notion of “the Arab mind”, we find ourselves
on a controversial journey. What is this “Arab mind”? And could we trace the sequence
of events that led to its emergence? Why do the Arabs have a mind of their own after
all? Could the Arab mind be an anthropological error after all?
AlJabiri’s project The Critique of the Arab Mind (Naqd al-‘Aql al-‘Arabi J-·-' ---
¸-,·-') was the controversial result of a series of anthropological, social and
philosophical analyses and essays aiming at a critical examination of Arab thought and
as part of the author’s firm engagement in the issues of contemporary Arab societies.
His ideas in the first three chapters of the first volume offer very revealing and essential
clues to understand the rest of his work. There we can find the first significant mention
of “the Arab mind” concept that will acquire an almost unprecedented and contentious
authority in the analysis of the modern discourse on contemporary Arab intellectual
production. Once the idea of the existence of an “Arab mind” is swallowed, one can
hardly object to the intellectual implications that one will have to assume in
consequence. AlJabiri could not dispel the confusion arising from the controversial
aspect of a concept such as “the Arab mind”. First, AlJabiri did not succeed in making a
substantive distinction between the thought itself and “the mind”. His distinctions
between the thought as a tool and the thought as content and later between the
‘constituted’ versus the ‘constitutive mind’ were deemed unsuccessful. Second,
AlJabiri’s analysis was obliterated by a series of hasty generalizations and unsupported
claims about the rationality of “the Arab mind” and its Greek and Europeans
homologues in contrast to the irrationality of the ‘rest of the world’ cultures. The
rationality/irrationality patterns were foisted upon “the Arab mind” by the strong
cultural essentialism that AlJabiri couldn’t escape. He took rationality, like numerous
other intellectual characteristics, as culturally specific and thus failed to recognize partly
or totally the universality of the mind. Third, AlJabiri’s strong culturally essentialist
analysis led to questionable assertions and conclusions regarding the nature of “the
Arab mind”: a) the unique ethical dimension of this mind is already present in the very
literal meaning of the word ‘mind’ (J--) in Arabic; b) “the Arab mind” has God as third
constituent epistemic pole whereas the European and Greek minds are respectively ’bi-
polar’ .i.e. their division is impoverished for it only includes man and nature as
subdivisions. None of these assertions, whether the ethnocentrically exclusive
rationality claims or the ethical dimension of the mind or even the presence of God as a
third division of the mind, would have been possible without introducing the theory of
“the Arab mind” at the outset.
AlJabiri’s work stimulated numerous reactions all across the Arab world.
Georges Tarabichi’s four-volume project was a critical reaction to the intellectual
turmoil that was being stirred up around AlJabiri’s theses. Despite their differences,
however, these two authors are not as separate from each other as one would imagine.
Tarabichi was a weak cultural essentialist who did not reject the claims for the existence
of “the Arab mind” per se but was only addressing AlJabiri’s analytic incoherence
He backed up his statements by a lengthy analysis stretching from the study of the
agrarian and magical societies in the Near East to the study of ‘mentalities’ in
102. Tarabichi. Op.cit. p.8.
contemporary French philosophy
. Tarabichi underlined however what is universal in
the human mind and utterly dismissed AlJabiri’s divisions and redistributions of the
internal structures of “the Arab mind” (the tri-polarity and the ethical dimension, etc).
He was very critical too regarding the often vague usage of adjectives like “European”,
“Oriental”, “Arab”, and so on. Tarabichi’s analysis culminated in considering AlJabiri’s
intellectual concepts as obstructing the historical and intellectual progress of “the Arab
So general a category as “Arab mind” is capable of quite interesting variations.
Nassif Nassar’s essay
, nonetheless and unlike Tarabichi, was centered on the Arab
philosophical activity or thought and did not come out as a reaction to AlJabiri. He
insisted that the role of philosophy and its real objective for the Arab philosopher will
be determined by the philosopher’s position toward the history of philosophy. Nassar’s
analysis drove him to consider that thinking generally, and philosophical thinking
particularly, cannot be culturally specific. The basic philosophical question that is posed
by the modern Arab world is the question about humanity [Man], which is ultimately a
universal question. Nassar ended his essay by calling for the integration of Arab
philosophy into the universal philosophical spectrum in order to insure its viability as a
philosophy for the future.
AlAroui’s work is like that of Nassar so complex and systematic that a quick
account of it would result in a very sketchy and incomplete summary of its ideas.
AlAroui like Nassar treated contemporary Arab intellectual questions as being not Arab
103. Tarabichi. p.284.
104. Tarabichi. p.24.
105. Nassar, Nassif. The book was also in print five years before AlJabiri’s.
qua Arab but rather as being Arab insofar as they pertain to a part of the world that was
not part of intellectual modernity at the time that it occurred in Europe. He recognized
three intellectual and historical moments in contemporary Arab ideology: the cleric, the
politician and the technocrat
. All three characters played a part in despotism in its
worst forms, especially in the case of the technocrat character. Decadence was
omnipresent too. Contrasting his approach with that of AlJabiri, AlAroui always
understood the concept of East and West as being in a constant flux and as concepts that
should be used cautiously in serious intellectual works. AlAroui wanted to attune his
intellectual work with finding a better way to construe the rift between East and West.
He also held persistently that East and West, engaged in an intricate but dialectical
relationship, are intrinsically the same though they might differ on secondary-level
It seems that we are culturally the victims of ubiquitous and perennial binary
divisions. AlJabiri’s project for the systematic establishment of an “Arab mind” was not
very far from that. He projected and installed similar dichotomies and divisions on what
he called “the Arab mind”. The problem with cultural essentialism generally and AlJabiri
particularly is that they throw together too many disparate elements or questions which do
not cohere entirely. The heavy complexity of the Arab philosophical and intellectual past
has led the Arab intellectuals to make sometimes hasty chronological and cultural
generalizations. Thinkers like Foucault and others have taught us that such readings of
intellectual history can be “unmasked” or analyzed as being a result of certain ideological
commitments. For instance, in AlJabiri’s case, I argued that the reason that he adopted
this strong cultural essentialist position could be seen as a result of two ideological
106. AlAroui. Op.cit. p.36.
commitments: pan-Arabism and secular modernist rationalism. The former led him to
homogenize Arab culture and history in a simplistic way. The latter led him to see within
Arab history a latent rationality which has been submerged by a religious element, and
which is in need of revival. Although Tarabichi responds to many of AlJabiri’s points in a
piecemeal fashion, he does not adequately uncover AlJabiri’s ideological biases.
But how do Nassar and AlAroui in particular manage to make generalizations
about Arab culture and thought without lapsing into strong cultural essentialism, as
AlJabiri does? In the case of AlAroui, it’s presumably because he historicizes his
generalizations and casts them in a dynamic model. Although he stereotypes three
characters in contemporary Arab thought, the cleric, the politician, and the technocrat,
he shows them in a state of flux in which one gives way to another, without any single
one dominating for long. In the case of Nassar it is because he regards Arab thought as
having distinctive characteristics not because of its ethnic or religious character, but
because it simply belongs to a neo-colonial world with a particular historical tradition
and philosophical past. For both AlAroui and Nassar, the distinctive aspects of Arab
culture and society are given a universal dimension and put in historical context.
Any timeless generalization of contemporary Arab intellectual or philosophical
activities, resulting from the practices of cultural essentialism in both of its phases:
strong and weak, would lead again to the crystallization of these activities if not their
total paralysis. Arab thought and culture should never stop re-inventing and re-defining
themselves as in the Greek ‘energeia’ contrasted to the other Greek ‘ergon’. For cultural
essentialism, like ethnocentrism, is inward-looking, self-regarding, naïve, and pumped
up with an inane pride about the importance of a particular culture and its claims to
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