Abdulkhaliq Hussein

The name ‘Lafif’ (‘chaste, sober’) is very apt, for he was sober in his life, his behaviour, his thought, his frankness and in his relations with people, friend or foe. He was sober and bold in his long drawn-out fight against oppression, backwardness, ignorance and intolerance – particularly religious intolerance. It is perhaps not appropriate to philosophize when writing a memorial, particularly of someone dear. But when the one who has been lost is a great thinker and philosopher, I see no harm in it.

Readers might remember that Lafif himself cited in one of his articles a few months ago the words of the philosopher Montaigne:

Philosophy is an art that teaches us how to live well and to die well.

This philosophy Lafif applied to his own life truthfully and loyally, for whenever he spoke about the death that was awaiting him at any minute, he never failed to smile.

Every reformer is a troublemaker since he is rebelling against the tribe

Death is not the problem of the deceased, for it means rest everlasting in that, as Socrates put it, “death is but a sleep without dreams.” Rather, it is a problem for his loved ones and his followers, particularly if the departed one is a great thinker of the weight and stature of Lafif – the ‘troublemaker’ or ‘Devil’s advocate’ as his close friend Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi put it. It may be that Shaker al-Nabulsi will pen an obituary with the title: The Departure of the Devil’s Advocate, in that several years ago he wrote a work on Lafif with a title along these lines. I should therefore cite the words of Mark Twain on death:

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

Every reformer is a troublemaker since he is rebelling against the tribe, and he is departing from convention. He fights to wrest the community from backwardness and impel them towards a better future. But in so doing he inevitably splits society into two camps: a conservative camp that clings to what is ancient and wishes to return society to a bygone era, and an innovating camp that looks ahead to modernity, freedom, democracy, the rights of man and the equality of women, to the civic state and the rule of law, a state in which no distinction is made between citizens with respect to rights and duties, let alone their religious, denominational or ethnic affiliations. For which reason, in the eyes of his opponents, the reformer is a troublemaker, a rebel from his tribe!

Lafif lived a life of hardship throughout all the stages of his life, right from his childhood in poverty-stricken rural Tunisia until, at Paris, the hour of his passing into eternal life. About himself he had this to say:

When I was 13 years old my father died, and this was a terrible blow from which I have not fully recovered even today. My father died in our isolated village, and when I returned to the Tunisian capital to resume my second year of education at the Zeitouna, I would go every evening to the Al-ʽAsr Souq where peasants from the Al-Malāsīn district, one of the very poor districts inhabited by migrants from the hinterland, used to gather. And whenever I saw a peasant wearing a burnūs hood I would run ahead in front and look back at him on the chance that it might be my father – the father that I myself had buried in the village cemetery. That is, I could not accept that he had died – a condition which usually leads to a form of madness.

He was fortunate to receive an education, while still young, from a progressive teacher:

As a traumatised orphan I was driven to search out a replacement father with whom I could identify. I identified with the eminent Shaykh Ibn ʽĀshour who used to come to the Zaitouna to give lectures in higher education. At the same time I modelled myself – to the point of complete identification – with Taha Hussein; I used to wear an eye-patch as if I myself were blind, improvising with a friend of mind to act as my ‘guide’ in imitation of Taha Hussein.

As a reformer he was fated to clash with both the Left and the Right

He also identified with Bourguiba, defending his political programmes, particularly ‘when following independence in 1956 he promulgated the Personal Status Laws that liberated Tunisian women.’ Similarly, as a young man Lafif became aware of the ‘dangers of atavistic religious education’ and wrote articles in the youth section of the al-ʽAmal newspaper calling for the closing of the Zaitouna University and the harmonisation of its educational syllabus with modern educational methods that a now independent Tunisia had inherited from France. And so it was, that after a few months Bourguiba duly issued a declaration regularising the educational programmes and closing the Zaitouna.

As a reformer he was fated to clash with both the Left and the Right, the Bourguiba administration included. This forced him to emigrate to Aden which was at the time under a Marxist system. He writes:

In 1969 I attended a council of south-Yemeni ministers and advised them to adopt, instead of Marxist-Leninist socialism, modernising measures such as the promulgation of a Law of Personal Status such as the Tunisian one. At which the President of the Republic Sālim Rabīʽ retorted jocularly: “Are you an ambassador of Bourguiba or one of his opponents?” To which I answered: “Both at the same time.” He then directed his Foreign Minister to request from the Tunisian embassy in Aden a copy of the Majalla (the Tunisian Personal Status laws) and subsequently promulgated Yemeni personal laws very similar to the Tunisian ones.

He suffered greatly from grinding poverty and went in search of its causes and its remedy. He was perhaps the first one to become alive to the danger of the population explosion for the Arab world. He warned against its perils, but these fell on deaf ears. Remarking on this he wrote:

I am of course now aware that the principal objective cause of this universal poverty is the demographic explosion. But this does not absolve the world's rich countries, companies and individuals from the sins of refusing to think of how to defuse the demographic time bomb.

Lafif's Marxism

On being asked by ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Janābī: “what now remains of the Marxism that you embraced and promoted during the 70s?” he gave the following answer:

Poverty, which is still my fellow traveller, was and I still is, something that lies behind my Marxist convictions that I adopted in 1963 ... At the time I was not motivated by theoretical convictions but purely by a class instinct. ... My theoretical convictions crystallised subsequent to my embracing Marxism ... However, from the 1960s I began to wonder about how far the Socialist bloc was socialist.

He went on to add:

When I visited Czechoslovakia and East Germany, I found these to be closer to a prison for their inhabitants than a society. When I asked a Czechoslovakian factory girl to define for me the system that governed her, she answered ‘a fascist system’. And while I was in East Germany I would daily listen to workers jokes made at the expense of the ‘German socialist paradise’. Once, while drinking a beer in a pub in western Berlin I asked a group of young workers for their view on Marxism; one of them took me outside the pub and pointed to the famous Berlin Wall, remarking: “This is Marxism.”

In fact my illusions about Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union, China and Korea and so on, and in Communist parties in the Arab world and globally had already collapsed beforehand. I went on to engage in a war of attrition with the Socialist camp and with Arab Communist parties. They gave as good as they got, and then some. In 1967 they accused me of being an agent for West Germany due to my standpoint on East Germany ... In short, the Communist parties made war on me with slogans.

During this period my feelings were a mixture of the sense of oppression, isolation, and pride: pride that I was misunderstood. A blamed the East and the West for these hardships: the West rejected me because I was a Marxist, while the Marxist-Leninists rejected me because I was an agent of the West. This helped me to think for myself, independently of eastern or Western authorities.

For a number of years Lafif lived in Beirut as a revolutionary, publishing progressive ideas in weekly seminars, and writing articles criticising Marxism-Leninism and Arab regimes. In the magazine Dirāsāt ʽArabiyya he described the Soviet Union and China as two empires, which drove those who sympathised with these trends up the wall. “The Left saw me as right-wing, and the Right saw me as an extremist Lefty.”

Lafif's standpoint on political Islam

Lafif saw that “mediaeval Islam constitutes a huge religious obstacle imprisoning the minds of Muslims, and is no longer able to think realistically, let alone rationally, about issues relating to its religion and the world it lives in ... Muslim women, and non-Muslims, at the beginning of the third millennium are treated immeasurably more harshly than the way rampant 19th century capitalism treated its women and children.”

It is worth mentioning that Lafif’s problem is with political Islam and not with Islam as a religion, and he maintains that “science recognises that religion has its own arena – one of spiritual matters and the provision of solace and consolation to those who mourn”. At the same time he criticises political Islam thus:

The reverse direction led by political Islam and terrorist Islam, which seeks to return to a fictional Golden Age in its hoary past, does not appear to hold the reins of the future ... It is a disaster for Muslims since it is Christians now who possess the leaven of modernity – that is, secularism, democracy, equality between the sexes and equality between the Muslim and non-Muslim.

As for the solution to this crisis, it lies in the dispensing with the jihadist, takfirist teaching and in

demanding an alternative religious instruction, one that is reconciled with science, with women, with non-Muslims, democracy, the rights of man and the rational and humane sciences of modernity. All of this is entirely possible.

He maintains that:

religion has its own spiritual and psychological functions that remain strong in the human psyche that is happy to accord life a meaning after death in the form of eternal life in the Hereafter. There is no harm in this so long it does not object to the prevailing secular religion that in its turn grants others a meaning for their own lives while they are alive and not merely after they have died.

Meeting Lafif

He lived as a rebel and died as a rebel, he rebelled even against death

There is no doubt that meeting with a great thinker is a singular pleasure, particularly when you are in harmony with him intellectually to the point of identification. The first thing I read of Lafif was an article of his published 15 years ago in the London newspaper Al-Hayat. With this article I became addicted to reading everything that Lafif published, since he had a weekly column in the above-mentioned newspaper. To our great misfortune he was barred from publishing in this newspaper on the order of its proprietor the Saudi prince Khalid ibn Sultan, due to the fact that in one of his articles he had launched a criticism against Saudi backwardness. After this his articles appeared systematically for a number of years in Īlāf until they too stopped publishing his writings for some unknown reasons. Finally his articles appeared on a regular basis on al-Hiwār al-Mutamaddin right up to the time of his death.

Lafif’s personal problem was that he was not au fait with technology – he did not understand computers nor even how to use a keyboard. He stuck to using pen and ink in writing his articles. A few years ago he was afflicted with a disability in his hands and for a while was unable to write altogether, and could only publish with the help of some friends who would visit him from time to time and take down his articles in dictation. Hearing about this, the head of the Tunisian Nahda party Rachid al-Ghannouchi expressed his Schadenfreude: “God has paralysed his hands in punishment for his Unbelief”. This is how al-Ghannouchi treated God – as if He were a man who has rancour and takes revenge!

Towards the end of last year (December 2012) fortune granted me the opportunity to meet with him along with a distinguished élite of Arab and non-Arab reformist intellectuals. My wishes were granted by our presence at the Rome conference on Islamic reform organised by Stephen Ulph the director of The Reform Project. It was a really very happy opportunity; despite the illness he was suffering, he was brimming with intellectual fervour, full of mirth, and with a constant smile on his face.

He lived as a rebel and died as a rebel, in that he rebelled even against death. He told me about his illness, how his doctors told him that he only had six weeks left to live. This meant that he was in a race against time and death if he wanted to complete a series of articles and studies on religious reform. He attempted to publish as much as he could in the life that remained to him. He defied both death and his doctors, holding on for eight months rather than six weeks, and during which time he wrote the finest of his articles in the struggle against obscurantist thought.

So, in the end, who was Lafif Lakhdar?

In a colloquium with his readers the writer and friend Ashraf Abdelkader asked him: “There are many who say that you change your ideas. One critic on Aljazeera television even said [punning on the name Lakhdar which means ‘green’] that you were green, yellow and red; is it right for any writer or thinker to change his views or go back on them? Is there a difference between ‘reviewing’ and ‘abandoning’?

The following was his reply:

Yes, I do change my ideas the moment that I discover that reality goes beyond these or indeed never corresponded to them in the first place. Remember, Ashraf, Marx’s fine words: “Everything is subject to change except the law of change.” In my view, he who remains arrogant in the face of events and real life cannot really be a cultured man. You referred to that Islamist who described me as ‘green and yellow and red and all colours of the rainbow’. That is actually no bad thing, for I am a revolutionary and a reactionary, a religious believer and an atheist, a materialist and a spiritual person, a poet in secret and a prose writer in public.

'I am an atheist to any religion that is the religion of a state'

I am an exploding mass of contradictions that coexist with each other in harmony ... I’m a revolutionary when it comes to standing firm against suicidal Arab wars against Israel and others, but a ‘reactionary’ when it comes to signing peace treaties. For I am for peace whatever the price, since peace is the most precious thing ... I am a believer in every religion that provides a spiritual refuge to those who are overwhelmed, broken-hearted and in pain, any religion that represents the sigh of human beings afflicted with chains, that represents the heart in a heartless world and the soul in a soulless age. I am a believer in every spiritual religion; that is, one that makes a separation between this world and the life Hereafter, whereby Jesus – the spirit of God – embraces one such as Gandhi ... And whoso seeketh as religion other than tolerance it will not be accepted from him[1]. As my friend Dr. ‘Abd al-Muttalib al-Houni put it: “Remember the words of Ibn ʽArabī:

Before this day my friend I’d blame,              if the faiths we held were not the same;

Now my heart can don each form:                  a park for deer, a monkish dorm,

A hajji’s Kaaba, an idol’s hall,                       the Torah’s table or Qur’ānic scroll;

Where’er it wends I serve Love’s name –       and in Love alone my faith proclaim.[2]

So I proclaim Ibn ʽArabī’s religion. But I am an atheist to any religion that is the religion of a state, to any intolerant religion or jihadist religion of ‘martyrdom’, to any religion that oppresses the individual, womankind or the non-Muslim with his primitive instincts and corporal punishments. I am a materialist in the ‘physics’ sense of the word, one that holds that ‘material is energy that has taken on form.’ And I am a spiritual person in the sense that the spirit is an energy that courses through the world.

His enlightened ideas will remain as beacons

It behoves the writer to continually rethink his thoughts, to constantly re-examine them and subject them to examination in the light of the dynamics of real life, and to review them whenever he finds out that they no longer, or never did, correspond to reality. So there is no essential difference between reviewing and abandoning, since the purpose of either is always the same: to seek out the truth – something which is always ‘historical’, that is, relative. Why so? Because our knowledge of the real world is relative and our minds’ capacity to accommodate the tools required to understand it, is also relative. Or, more precisely, we cannot claim to possess an unaltering, perpetual truth without falling, God forbid, into the abyss of intolerance.

Yes, this is Lafif Lakhdar. He stands for the law of change, and it is for this reason that Lafif has not died; he is a searcher for the historical (relative) truth that is free of intolerance. He will remain alive in the hearts of his friends and followers, just as his enlightened ideas will remain as beacons lighting the path of those who fight for freedom, democracy, social justice, emancipation and renewal. The death of this giant thinker is an irreplaceable loss for us all. Our heartfelt condolences go to his family, his friends, his readers and to ourselves.

He will always be remembered with affection.


[1] Here Lafif Lakhdar is deliberately altering the famous Qur’ānic verse: And whoso seeketh as religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him [Qur’ān III,85] (Ed.)

[2] (Ed.)