The Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri is one of the most prominent modern thinkers in the Arab and Islamic world. The collection of essays published under the title ARAB-ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY. A COMTEMPORARY CRITIQUE is the first of al-Jabri's works to appear in English and it provides an excellent introduction to al-Jabri's ideas.
Al-Jabri's project is an endeavor to establish a link between modernity and tradition. He wants it to be clear that modernity does not imply a break with the tradition, but rather an upgrading of the way modern Arabs/Muslims can relate to that tradition. Modernity is also something that has to be developed from within Arab culture instead of just copying European modernist methods. For according to al-Jabri the main insight to be gained is the awareness of the relativity and historicity of each and every tradition. Tradition does not represent an absolute reality transcending history.
The essays are organized into two parts. In the first section the author opts for a systematic approach of the subject matter, while the second set of essays provides the historical setting in which the tradition took shape, and identifies the germination of rationalist approaches developing within that tradition.
In the first chapter on the shortcomings of traditional discourse, al-Jabri presents three alternative readings of tradition. The fundamentalist reading presents the past as a means to establish and confirm identity. Taking the form of a retreat into a defensive stand, it projects a 'radiant future' based upon an 'ideological fabrication of the past'. Then there is a liberal reading of the tradition. Clearly derived from European thinking it has espoused an 'orientalist discourse' and reads one tradition through another. Such modern Arab liberal thinking contains a real danger of identity alienation. The third reading, the Marxist one, is qualified by al-Jabri as a ready-made dialectical method that must be considered as scientifically unsound because it posits an outcome before engaging into the analysis.
The second chapter is the most lucid portion of the book, and it provides a convenient summary of al-Jabri's thinking as detailed in his main work 'Critique of Arab Reason'. Referring to the three alternative readings of Arab tradition, al-Jabri points out that they suffer from two major weaknesses: a weakness of method - caused by a lack of objectivity - and a weakness of vision - due to a lack of historical awareness.
The lack of objectivity is a result of the flawed epistemology of Arab-Islamic thought, caused by the wrong application of the analogy method. In the Islamic context this became the scientific method par excellence, but it was applied wrongly by jurists, theologians and grammarians alike. In a similar vein can the lack of historical perspective be contributed to a limited view of the past, which is taken as transcendental and sacral, and must therefore be considered as a-historical.
Next al-Jabri poses the question how to escape from this deadlock. From the outset the author makes it clear that this epistemological break does not constitute a break on the level of knowledge itself, but takes place on the level of the mental act. Thinkers should not be 'taken by tradition' but rather 'embrace tradition'. This necessitates a 'disjunction between object and subject' as al-Jabri calls it. Without it objectivity is impossible.
First of all the subject should be disjoined from the object in order to get rid of a biased understanding of tradition based on that tradition itself. This can be achieved by a meticulous dissection of texts. The next step is to disjoin object from subject. For this operation al-Jabri suggests a process that is made up of three steps: a structuralist approach, which searches for the constants in a text tradition; a historical approach that links the author's thinking to his historical context; and a ideological approach, which envisages a synthesis between the structuralist and historical readings of the text.
Then follows what must be considered the most difficult part of al-Jabri methodology: reconnecting subject and object into a meaningful relationship. Here Mohammed al-Jabri's project of rationalist critique appears to suffer a relapse, for the author suggests nothing less than that this rejoining can only be achieved through intuition. Although he adds immediately that he is not talking about a mystical, personalist or phenomenological intuition, this reviewer is of the opinion that the search for the 'unsaid' or the 'hidden strategy' of a discourse constitutes a breach in the original train of thought. Al-Jabri's claim that all philosophers kept some ideas to themselves sounds unconvincing and appears to be at odds with the writer's outright hostility towards to Gnostic elements in the thinking of, for example, Ibn Sina [Avicenna].
After having dealt with the methodological flaws of Arab-Islamic philosophy, al-Jabri shifts his attention to the issue of vision. Whether we like it or not, vision makes up the framework of method. All systems of thought gravitate around a specific 'problematics', in the case of Arab-Islamic philosophy the reconciliation between reason and transmission. This problematics was approached through a specific Islamic reading of Greek philosophy. But the modern students of this Islamic philosophy have failed to make a distinction between the cognitive and ideological perspectives of this reading. This failure has resulting in the qualification of Islamic philosophy as being immobile and 'avoid of progress and of dynamics'.
This qualification is taken up by al-Jabri at the beginning of his historical essays. Their main purpose is to dispel this myth of immobility. For although the cognitive material has remained intransigent, the ideological use of it was dynamic. Al-Jabri characterizes Islamic philosophy as a militant ideological discourse around the problematics of reason and transmission, constantly facing challenges by the reactionary and conservative elements of society. In the second essay al-Jabri identifies these enemies as the Gnostics on the one hand, and the rigorist legal scholars on the other.
In the third historical essay entitled 'The Andalusian Resurgence' al-Jabri prepares the ground for his own version of the future of Arab-Islamic thought. Sketching the specific pluralist setting of the Islamic extreme northwest its thinkers were uniquely well positioned and prepared to tackle philosophical questions. Far removed from the ideological and political controversies raging in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world, the thinkers of Muslim Spain and Northwest Africa could almost at their leisure internalize founding scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, and logic before engaging into metaphysics. The two major exponents of this philosophical tradition, according to al-Jabri, were Ibn Hazm (994-1063) and Ibn Rushd [Averroes] (1126-1198).
Rejecting the flawed analogy methods of the tradition and Gnostic mysticism alike, Ibn Hazm was a great promoter of the demonstrative method. Ibn Rushd further continued this axiomatic approach in his simultaneous rejection of the Gnostic residues in Avicennian thought and al-Ghazali's offensive against the philosophers. Although in the west he is generally known as a commentator of Aristotle, al-Jabri insists that Ibn Rushd did not intend to defend Aristotle against all cost, but merely sought to understand him.
According to al-Jabri, it is because of the critique of all epistemological principles that he considers Ibn Rushd as the greatest inspirer for all future Arab-Islamic thought. Translated into modern terms: the Averroist legacy of realism, axiomatic method, and critical approach can help Muslims to construct their own reality. Instead of reading a future in the past, such an expression of a native experience would bring Muslims in touch with their historical consciousness.