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Philosopher Al-Jabri and his “Critique of Arab Reason”, a bridge between European and Arab thought

Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabri passed away on 4 May at the age of 74. He was one of the most prolific and controversial intellectuals of the Arab world. His texts have been widely read around the Middle East for more than 20 years, and continue to represent a point of reference in Arab philosophy.



A great expert of Arab-Islamic and Western ideas, he has the great merit of being the first Arab intellectual who offered an articulate and coherent analysis of the speculative tradition in the Arab Islamic world. Compared to the works of his predecessors, the complexity of his broad canvas appears self-evident, methodologically well founded and ahead of its times in the study of Arab thought, both ancient and modern. By studying his works, some of the clichés found in the West concerning the Arab tradition could be put aside.



Jabri’s thought has been the object of many studies in Arab countries but he has remained largely unknown to a broader Western audience. One of the main points of interest in Jabri is his deep understanding of Arab-Islamic and Western ideas. He taught Islamic philosophy at Rabat University since 1967, but was well versed in Western philosophy thanks to a PhD he earned at the Sorbonne in the 1960s, an experience that introduced him to Western ideas, especially in French.



From the start, his many works were inspired by both traditions, beginning with a study of Ibn Khaldun published in 1971, who was analysed using the critical tools of Western culture, until his latest works on Qur‘anic exegesis in which he puts to good use all the knowledge harnessed from studying hermeneutics. His books are full of references to Western thinkers. In addition to classic authors like Kant, Hegel, Marx, Bachelard or Heidegger, he also relied on Western anthropologists (especially Levi-Strauss) and well-known Orientalists (Gardet, Gabrieli, Watt, etc).



In his works, Jabri paints a complex canvas. Starting from an analysis of the components of Arab reason, he tries to describe the history of ideas in the Arab-Islamic world, stressing critical problems, strong points and foreign influences. Moreover, he became interested in critically rethinking the Arab Islamic tradition and the relationship Arabs have towards it. The relationship Arab Muslims entertain with their tradition is in fact one of the main topics of reflection for today’s Arab intellectuals, even though only that part that focuses on fundamentalism is known in the West.



From this reflection comes his masterpiece, Critique of Arab Reason, which takes the good part of 20 years of his professional life (1984-200, four volumes). This opus earned him great fame throughout the Arab world, and started an intellectual debate that is not over yet. Whatever one may think of the theses presented in the work, some of which have been harshly criticised, Critique of Arab Reason remains a milestone in contemporary Arab Islamic thought. In it, Jabri proposes an analysis of the speculative tradition in the Arab Islamic world in an articulate and coherent way.



His great merit lies in the innovative ideas he proposed, backed by a rigorous method and scientifically based approach. For instance, let us remember his notion that three different cognitive levels coexist within classic Arab Islamic culture, his argued opposition to the notion that classic Arab philosophy was a simple link in the history of Western philosophy, or his idea that Arab Islamic civilisation entered a period of moral crisis at the time of Muhammad’s death lasting until now, something that earned him a lot of criticism. In fact, his interpretation of the Qur’an has been very much criticised for being historically based, and set him somewhat apart from what many Muslims usually feel.



His detractors never shied away from criticising him, whether at a methodological level—in particular Tarabishi, Nader and Abdelrahman—or in terms of content. Jabri’s reading of the history of Arab philosophy appears in fact unconvincing, too radical and rigid in its classifications. Another criticism that hits the mark is the author’s attempt to minimise the role played by the Christian world in the history of classic Arab Islamic culture.



Despite such criticism and his limits, Jabri will remain, and this for a long time, a fundamental and unavoidable thinker for anyone interested in understanding modern Arab thought, something that can be surmised by the important impact his ideas have had and still have on generations of Arab thinkers.