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Al-Azm: the awakening of critique from

within Muslim theology

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm was born in Damasus in 1934 and died in Berlin on December
11th 2016 following a battle will illness. He has been one of the most prominent and
influential Muslim philosopher and thinker of the last century. His books, articles
and essays inspired a whole generation of liberal scholars, "good liberals", as
defined by Mohammed Hashas, that are not blind to external hegemony and
internal state oppression. He has lived in changing societies and he continued to
critically analyse them till the end, Reset Doc have had the honor to publish some
of his thoughts and to host him as a speaker at the Istanbul Seminars in 2010. In
this dossier we present both new analysis and testimonies from our archive of his

Related Stories Box

Focus in/Focus out
On Islamic Fundamentalism
Sadik Al-Azm, in video
Farewell to Nar mid Ab Zayd, Master of critical
Sadik Al-Azm
Sadik Al-Azm, Secularist Self-Criticism
Giancarlo Bosetti
Sadik J. Al-Azm
The Tragedy of the Devil. An analysis of Sadik al-
Azm's rediscovered book
Massimo Campanini
Related Stories Box end.

Dossier on al-Azm, available at:

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Journey towards Humanist Secularism

Mohammed Hashas

Sadiq was born into a prominent family in Damascus, Al-

Azm family, which made its way to the elite and ruling
class since the 18th century, under the rule of the
Ottoman Empire. Al-Azm palace in Damascus belongs to
his grandfather.

On al-Arabiyya intellectual TV programme Rawafid, broadcast in 2012 after few

months since the beginning of the Syrian social protests, Sadiq is shown to have a
very old car of the 1960s, a car he inherited and never changed (See the episode
here). Sadiq opted for the intellect for his own growth. When I met him and his wife
in May 2016 in Rome, his wife Imane told me, when he was away being interviewed
by the Italian RAI TV, that Sadiq is such a simple person when it comes to luxuries,
despite the big family he belongs to; she told me that a simple place where there is
an office and books is enough for him. When we talked of the War and Syria and
how they moved to Germany, she said that Sadiq was obliged to move abroad; he
always loved home, Damascus-Syria; it was a very difficult and touching decision
for him to leave the country, she added.

Sadiq received his BA from the American University in Beirut in 1957, and then an
MA in 1959 and PhD from Yale University in Modern European Philosophy; he
worked on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He taught at the American
University of Beirut, before he was offered a chair of philosophy in Damascus
University, which he held from 1977 to 1999. In 2000s, he held various lectureships
in European and American Universities. In 2004 he won the Erasmus Prize, shared
with the Moroccan Fatema Mernissi and the Iranian Abdoulkarim Soroush. In 2005
he received an honorary title from the University of Tubingen in Germany. In 2015
he received the Goethe Medal by the president of the German Goethe Institute,
besides many other activities and media invitations. In the Arab world, besides
Syria and Lebanon, he also lectured in Jordan, and was editor in chief of Arab
Studies Magazine, published in Beirut, in the late 1960s. He was also an important
figure in the Syrian Organization of Human Rights.

Sadiq was sincerely committed to Arab renewal on all levels. Reason was for him
the antidote to stagnation; history was the school of inspiration; human dignity and
liberation were the inalienable rights the oppressed have to keep struggling for,
especially when the oppressed have a strong tradition and rich past behind them.
Both his oral and written Arabic were fluid and sweet. Below I underline certain

aspects of his engaged intellectual life; I condense them in three themes that refer
to three generations - without this meaning the numerical equivalent of a

Defeat Generation pre-1967

The young Sadiq, at the age of 34, wrote the first widely circulated text on the
literature of defeat in the Arab world, after the 1967 War between Israel and Arab
armies, Self-Critique after the Defeat (annaqd athati bada al-hazima, 1968), which
came two decades after the first initial defeat of 1948. In the book he charges
especially the political ruling elite with full responsibility. He speaks of the
Vietnamese and how they could defeat the big power of the US, and how the Arabs
could not defeat the newly founded state of Israel for its encroachment on Arab
lands. He also critiques Arab intellectuals and artists for being regime-friendly and
unable to critique the cultural and religious thought of the masses. He cites many
examples of religious scholars, intellectuals, and professors of philosophy who
engage in metaphysical argumentation about how God wills this defeat for Arabs
because they are not true believers. Throughout the text Sadiqs anger is felt, and
his call for civilizational renewal based on modern education and science is
repeated all over the text. In this critique he already puts it on the table that the
Caliphate and the praise of glorious Arab-Islamic times cannot solve socio-political
and economic problems of our times.

Renewal Generation post-1969

In 1969, Sadiqs most controversial text Critique of Religious Thought (naqd al-fikr
addini) turns out to be apparently his most known text until now. Though it has been
banned in most of the Arab world, it still could be found everywhere. Only excerpts
from the book were translated into various European languages; we had to wait
until 2014 to see that the whole book was translated into English (Gerlach Press,
Berlin), and in 2016 into Italian (LUISS University Press, 2016), for example. The
Critique has become a classic in what may be called post-1969 generation, a
generation of Arab intellectuals and philosophers that all moved to serious and in
depth philosophical production and examination of both the tradition and modernity.
Sadiq is one of the very first leading and inspiring figure of this very productive
generation. His Critique was a roar in the middle of a thick forest, filled with the
injuries of war, oppression, human rights violations, and during the delicate period
of Arab nationalism and the beginning of the rise of political Islam and religious
fundamentalism. It inspired a whole generation with its intellectual courage. It is in
this period, and after it, that influential Arab intellectuals and philosophers brought
to the surface their projects of renewal; most of them consider themselves to have
been shaken by the 1976 defeat too; they belong to the same context, and have the
same aspiration of renewal, though they express it differently.

Sadiq belongs to the liberal camp of Arab scholars and thinkers, but he appeared in
a particular historical moment when Arab societies had tried only shyly and failingly
Arab nationalism, and its quick downfall. That made his ideas as a liberal meet with

immense criticism among scholars of religion and the conservatives in society. As
an insider, I can say that this was very healthy, since it continued with a liberal
trend within Arab scholarship, and the fruit of that debate continues today. Sadiq
appeared at that moment as its champion. He was imprisoned for his Critique in
1970, and released afterwards; he was accused in Lebanon of provoking
sectarianism and religious conflict, since his critique of religious thought was not
only directed to Islamic traditionalism but also to Christian traditionalism. Some
accused him of apostasy as well.

Sadiqs Critique is not an in depth engagement with Arab-Islamic philosophy, but is

more of a project of renewal of religious thought in a dramatic way. He did not
intend it to be a work of theology, as he himself says in the book. Rather, he
proposed a critical, in the sense of liberal, reading of the ontological moment of
showing obedience to God in Islam. Sadiq genuinely, but provocatively, says that
God created Satan and most importantly allowed him to disobey him. God did not
annihilate Satan when He asked him to prostrate to Adam as Gods vicegerent on
Earth, as is narrated in the Quran. As I see it in his approach, Sadiq reads this as
the most liberal moment in Islamic theology, though again he reads this as a literary
tragedy as narrated in an influential book, the Quran. There is a great sense of
tragedy in this description of dialogue between Satan and God; this tragedy of
disobedience is exceptional since the ex-communicated Satan is still allowed to
live, to tempt human beings; he is given this right by God Himself. It is like a king
who allows a rebel to form secessionist movements within his kingdom! What a
liberal-liberating attitude! Reading this interpretation of Sadiq in context, and
bearing in mind his critique of traditional religious thought, as well has his personal
defense of reason for renewal, means that his undeclared theology, if I can call it
so, is fundamental in his overall project. And there is no need to say that Sadiq
could not speak as a scholar of theology because he would not gain that legitimacy;
he did not study theology or Islamic studies in traditionally reputed Arab-Islamic
universities in Damascus or in Cairo, nor did he graduate from Islamic studies
department from a modern university. It was then quite reasonable that he gets
engaged in religious issues from a scholarly perspective, and as an insider to the
tradition but not an insider-scholar. It is this insider-but-not-really-insider
position that cornered him as a liberal, sometimes a too liberal, thinker. I had a
great pleasure communicating this reading of his work in his presence when my
university in Rome organized a seminar, on 10 May 2016, on the occasion of the
translation of the book into Italian for the first time (LUISS University Press, 2016).

However, unlike many liberals in the Arab world, Sadiq is a good liberal to draw
such a line between those bad liberals who are blind to external hegemony and
internal state oppression and those good-critical liberals who do not fear being
critical of all. I give an example. When Aljazeera TV just started broadcasting in
1996, Sadiq met in the face to face famous debate-programme that is still running,
Opposite Direction (al-ittijah al-muakis), the influential Qatari Islamic scholar
Yussuf al-Qaradawi the episode is available here - and they debated the issue of
Religion and Secularism. Despite their opposing views, one could see that there
was respect and wisdom in their talk; they differed but deferred, in the sense of

postponed or froze, their difference for the common good. I could read years later
that some conservatives that did not want that al-Qaradawi meets the too secular
Sadiq on a live programme that millions of Arabs watch changed their views and
milded their attitude regarding Sadiq and his secularism. In the programme, which
lasted two hours, Sadiq had the time to explain his version of secularism, and he
emphasized the concept of positive neutrality of secularism in which the state
intervenes equally and positively in religious issues, especially when asked for by
different denominations, for public good, without this meaning total absence of
religion from the public sphere.

Sadiqs secular perspective originates from his belief in the role of history in
shaping and changing norms and customs. His philosophical background, his
philosophy of history, could be felt in his three essays published In Defense of
Materialism and History (difaan ani-l-maadiyya wa-ttarikh, 1990) in which he
emphasizes the importance of real history in shaping the intellectual and the
development of particular worldviews. He gives examples from Greek, European,
and Arab-Islamic history. It is this historicist approach that guides his views of
change in the Arab world. It is also this historicist approach that allows him to
launch a critique against Edward Said through his article Orientalism and
Orientalism in Reverse (1980). Sadiq accuses Said of falling into what he tries to
debunk, i.e. essentialisms. He argues that Said essentializes the Occident as if all
its history of ideas has been oriented towards othering the Orient, and consequently
all the Occidents institutional and cultural achievements have been edified through
the formation of the Orient and Orientalism. At the same time, his defense of
freedom of expression is confirmed when after Salman Rushdies Affair; he
published Beyond Taboo Mentality: Reading the Satanic Verses - A Reply to Critics
(m bada thihniyyat attahrm, 1997).

In Islam and Secular Humanism (al-islam wa-nnaza al-insniyya al-ilmniyya,

2007) Sadiq distinguishes in historical Islam between two antagonizing entities.
On the one hand stands the new creed of Islam that refuses abusive submission to
kings or monarchs or religious mediators, since the only submission is to God
directly; this liberating theology stood against the pre-existing orders in Arab-Islamic
lands; he calls this a Creedential-No (l al-aqidiyya) [with reference to creed,
and not credential], i.e. a negation of the Islamic creed of other creeds or ideas
that suppress or oppress human freedom, spiritual and temporal. On the other hand
stands the Historical-Yes (naam attrkhiyya) which dominated over the
Creedential-No. The point Sadiq underlines is that the ideal virtues of the Islamic
faith were not always lived as Islamist movements claim nowadays; rather, various
Islamic societies, of different ethnicities, languages, and political systems, adopted
the faith and adapted it to their context, even when there appeared contradictions
between the ideals of Islam and reality. That is why he says that the historical Islam
was dynamic and adaptive, and the creed was lived accordingly, thus his view that
the Creedential-No was subdued by the Historical-Yes. He uses the concept of
public good (al-mushtaraq al-insn), which is equivalent to the Islamic concept of
al-maslaha al-mma to refer to this historical consent (tawfuk trkh) or harmony
between realities, driven by various socio-economic, cultural and political factors,

and the creed and its ideals. This historical consent, for him, is what builds a
universal humanist trend or secular humanism, in his words.

Spring Generation since 2011

Sadiq dreamt of a revolution that changes Arab societies. If he were not

revolutionary, he would not have written Self-Critique or Critique of Religious
Thought! His various media interviews and lectures have shown a picture of an
engaged intellectual. He enjoyed seeing the Arabs protesting in the streets in
thousands in the so-called Arab Spring of 2010-2011 since he saw that they all face
similar problems, even when Arab states declare to be different. He believed that
the so-called Damascus Spring (rab dimashq) that short-lived for a year or so in
2000, upon the coming of the new president Bashar al-Assad to power after his
father, opened peaceful horizons of change in his first discourse to the public; he
said that in those months various forums for intellectual and political debates
flourished in Syria and all over Damascus, before they were oppressed again; he
refers to the Communiqu 99 that was signed by some 99 Syrian intellectuals,
including himself. That Damascus Spring of 2000 discussed the issues Arabs called
for in 2010-11 uprisings, he says.

Sadiqs pessimistic optimism, an optimism colored with fear, grew up as the Arab
Spring started to turn into bloody civil wars since 2012-2013. His critical tone did
not change; he did not applaud any Arab ruler. He described the situation as fairly
as he could, and hoped that Arab democracies would emerge, one day. He did not
adopt conspiracy theories nor did he adopt one critical stance towards only one
party or religious party-movement; he was a free and independent thinker. He
understood how complicated the situation is. He also understood and spoke of the
external factors and their play in the region, Israel, the West, Russia, Saudi Arabia,
Iran, and alike powers. He criticized the invasion of Iraq, and its dire consequences.
His staunch critique of al-Assad is known; he entered in polemics with the famous
Syrian poet Adonis for the latters silence over the atrocities of the Syrian regime;
Sadiq accused Adonis of being sectarian, i.e. an Alevi in support of al-Assad.

Sadiq lived in changing societies, to which he remained committed through his

voice and pen. He believed that the Arab intellectuals played a major role in paving
the ground for the awakenings of 2010-2011. Sadiqs love for this part of the world
may not be grasped in words, but his ideas may be. His humanist and richly simple
spirit can be described by his eloquent words in the introduction of another
interesting aspect of his work: Arabic literature. In On Love and Ideal Love, in which
he examines classical and modern Arabic texts on love, he says that only
experience, personal experience, can enlighten the person to the meanings of love,
be it ordinary, virtuous-platonic, Sufi, mystic, or philosophical love. Only those who
go through that path can know what it contains. The book explores some of the in
depths of femininity which males cannot grasp, and vice verse, and which Sadiq
tries to free from patriarchalism, and traditionalism, reminding us in so doing of
mystic works in the field, but this time with his own philosophical touch. In the blurb
of the book, the renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani writes that the book shakes

all our understanding of love and ideal love; it uncovers human desires and egoism.

In theology as in politics, Sadiq lived revolutionary. Thank you Damascus School of

Philosophy for having given us such a big name to read, besides the many others
you have enriched the Arab tradition with. He does not die he who writes.