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Arkoun and the Passion for Arab Humanism

Les vies de Mohammed Arkoun

With the recent deaths of Mahmûd ‘Azab, ‘Âbed al-Jabrî, Nasr Abû Zayd and Mohammed Arkoun some of the most vivacious minds of contemporary Islamic thought have disappeared in a very short space of time. In the case of the last on this list, we have at least the possibility of reading a sort of biography written by his daughter, Sylvie. The title, in the plural, also refers to the affective and private affairs of this great Franco-Algerian scholar of Islamic studies which are rightly not neglected by the author who, together with others, is the co-protagonist of these pages rich in life and thought.

 

 

As regards ourselves, interested chiefly in his role as a pioneer of new approaches to knowledge and discoveries in the immense field of Islamic studies, what most strikes one is the regular correspondence between Arkoun and Father Maurice Borrmans which marks, chapter by chapter, the fundamental steps of a perhaps unrepeatable human and intellectual adventure. A pupil of the White Fathers in the land of his birth, the young Mohammed never interrupted his dialogue with his first teachers who over time became travelling companion, on the same voyage and friends bound by a deep mutual esteem. However, there was no flat and insipid identity of views between those who because of their faith made themselves the concerned and attentive accompaniers of a most singular and irreducible maturation, and Arkoun who was unable to conceal impulses, questions and even reiterated provocations in an endless attempt to draw near to a truth that could be finally shared, without easy accommodations or hypocritical concessions on the part of both parties. The story of a soul, one would say, as it always should be and as it was in particular in this case.

 

 

No kind of membership of something or purported partisan loyalty ever impeded him or his interlocutors from openly adopting a stance, personally paying the price for a commitment that otherwise it would not have been possible to propose to others as well. His tormented tie with his beloved land of Algeria, which was no less problematic than that with his adopted homeland, marked his pathway with the features of fertile pain. This was a sacrifice that was partly unresolved given his surprising burial in Morocco, which was not for this reason less significant and emblematic. His intense studies as a young man with sacred respect for his family which was supportive in obtaining for him all the peace and quiet that he required; the painful experiences of teaching while awaiting being able to have an academic career overseas; and lastly his success and the very many international awards which were not isolated or contradictory moments but steady steps towards a goal which by its very nature was not reachable. Vibrating in unison with his brothers involved in the difficult conquest of their independence, then wounded by lasting misunderstandings and forms of discrimination, and lastly upset by the tragedy of civil war, he, however, never failed to call on them, like his specialist colleagues, to engage in an honest analysis endowed with the broadest and most up-top-date methodologies in order to probe in a finally critical and fruitful way all the dimensions of the same enigma.

 

 

The passion of every page of this biography could perhaps balance the impression that some people may have had in the past of a cold and detached scholar, inflexible first with himself and then with his readers, so spasmodically directed as he was to his purpose as to make himself almost inaccessible. However, it was specifically to Arab-Muslim humanism, forgotten in a blameworthy way or retrieved on too small a scale, that he dedicated his most intense efforts and his most brilliant contributions. Always open to doubt and marked by the bewilderment that everyone perceives during this epoch of fearful deviations, he has left to us the testimony of an attempt for which the abilities of an individual alone would not perhaps have been enough…but which we hope will be able to stimulate others to follow in his footsteps, at least with the same dedication and similar generosity.

 

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