Remembering Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) by Couze Venn

In this short piece for the TCS Blog, Couze Venn pays tribute to Mohammed Arkoun, who died last month in Paris.

Arkoun’s article, ‘The Answers of Applied Islamology’, was published in the TCS Special Issue on Authority and Islam (24.2) in 2007. We’ve made his article freely available until 30th November (follow the link below).

The Arab/Islamic scholar Mohammed Arkoun, who has died in on 14th September, leaves a body of work which supports the kind of critical thinking that we need to pursue if the now distorted history of the cultures that have produced the world we know are not to continue to incite conflicts opposing Islam, Christianity and Judaism. His main interest was the Islamic humanism of the period from the 8th to the 12th centuries, when the Arab world had not only expanded across large parts of Europe and the Mediterranean region, but had become a centre of learning and great art and had produced important technological and scientific innovations (with Baghdad as a focal point). His analysis focused on this Islamic Enlightenment examined from the point of view of both its conditions of possibility and its decline from the 13th century when it was replaced by ‘dogmatic creeds’ that have perpetuated an ‘onto-theo-logical tradition’ mirrorred by similar dogmatism in Christian and Judaic thought (Arkoun, 2007: 21-23). Like a number of other perceptive analysts, he emphasised the cultural proximity of the Abrahamic religions before the middle ages and the constant and fruitful intellectual exchanges between the Arab world, the East (India and China) and Greek legacy; these exchanges and advances prepared the ground for the emergence of the Renaissance. A summary is to be found in his paper , ‘The Answers of Applied Islamology’ , which Theory, Culture & Society published as part of our Special Issue, Authority and Islam, vol. 24, no 2, 2007, whilst the recent book by Jim al-Khalili, Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science (Allen Lane, 2010), provides an informative and very readable account. The subsequent history of the period has been much explored, yet remains largely neglected in accounts of Islam, the West, and conventional histories of ideas and science (check out C.Venn’s Occidentalism for a counter-historical or genealogical take)

One of Arkoun’s abiding interests concerns the reasons for the waning of this humanism and the Enlightenment spirit that animated it, and its replacement by ‘dogmatic creeds’ (Arkoun, 2007). Shari’a laws, he argues, are predicated on this shift, a view which, not surprisingly, has not endeared him amongst Islamic fundamentalists. It is clear also that his references to the writings of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Arendt, Ricoeur, and others reflect both his grounding in French philosophy and the reasons for suspicion on the part of those who wish to see a radical cleavage between Western thought and Islam. Without going into this complex debate, one could point out that what is at stakein this debate is the possibility of dialogue, based on the recognition of a common archive and history, indeed on real co-habitation in Arab countries for centuries and that contemporary events are fast undoing through ‘cleansings’ of one kind or another, carried by all the parties in conflict. Arkoun remained perplexed about the reasons for the failure of Islamic Enlightenment. Yet, one wonders whether it may have something to do with the decline of empires and older established elites, and thus with the turn to totalitarian creeds and distorted imaginaries of the past used to bolster weakened apparatuses and narratives of power.

Mohammed Arkoun (01/02/1928-14/09/2010) was a searching critic of the various intellectual, scientific, religious and political tensions embedded in the field of Islamic Studies, and a public intellectual carrying the banner of Islamic modernism and humanism. He has been Emeritus Professor at La Sorbonne (Paris) as well as Senior Research Fellow and member of the Board of Governors of The Institute of Ismaili Studies. He was the author of numerous books in French, English and Arabic, including: Rethinking Islam (Boulder, CO, 1994), The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London, 2002; 2d edition with the title: Islam: To Reform Or To Subvert, London 2005), Humanisme et Islam: Combats et Propositions (Vrin, Paris 2006).

Couze Venn has been Review Editor of Theory, Culture & Society since 2002, and Review Editor of Body & Society since 2008. He is also a member of the TCS Books Series editorial board. Though he has taught Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies for about 30 years, his research interests cover a wide range of topics in cultural theory, postcolonial studies, social theory, science studies, ‘psychosocial’ studies. He is currently working on issues relating to the critique of neo-liberal capitalism, particularly the question of the foundation for alternatives to economies based on growth and the privilege of private property; he continues to keep abreast of developments relating to anything to do with subjectivity.

For FREE access to Mohammed Arkoun’s article, ‘The Answers of Applied Islamology’ (TCS 24.2, March 2007; Special Issue on Authority and Islam) until 30th November, go here

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