Those who call for the return to the text via a return to the legacy of Arabic rhetoric in its “golden age” accuse the proponents of modernity of perpetrating an epistemological rupture with this heritage and claim that the future cannot be guaranteed other than through a cultural connection with its past civilisation.


BY SO DOING they are erecting a formula whereby progress cannot be achieved without being based upon a formula of past + present = future. This would constitute a formally irreproachable equation if the future were the aim. But this is not the case with the proponents of the return to the past, since in their equation the future is synonymous with the past. They forget that Islam – the fashioner in ancient times of the resurgence of the Arabs – was the first to practice this type of rupture with the inheritance of the past. Not only that, it discredited this past by giving it the description of jāhilī – ‘ignorant’.

So what is this resurgence equation founded upon? Is it upon making a break with the past – particularly when this past becomes an instrument for stagnation rather than progress? Or is it upon fusing the two? What sort of break or fusion is required in this context? Is the fusion with the past something that will guarantee us a fusion with rationality? What is the role of rationality in this past? We are talking here about a historical, not a theoretical past, a world of an Arab Islamic ideal. In this last reality one may fabricate, forge and reinterpret things so that this past turns into an intellectual Eden brimming with thought. As Tarabishi noted, “in this autopsy room of history things appear differently through the looking glass of the higher ideal.”

In their equation the future is synonymous with the past

By contenting ourselves with speaking about history we are lead to speak of the single, brief experience of the Muʽtazila in the history of Islamic thought. So are we meant to revisit this historical moment? Can we actually do this? What form should this revisiting take – a celebration of that past and a recollection of its glories, or an adoption of its voices and methodology? Can these voices and that methodology perform the role that was required of it in a different and backward historical context? In other words, is the cure for past ailments appropriate for the maladies of the present?

These are not so much questions as answers, for this past which we are meant to return to we can see and witness in action on the prevalent, predominating Salafist pulpits, pulpits which have a troubled relationship with rationality and science and which see progress only in terms of a complete reincarnation of all the dimensions of the past in matters of dress, food and drink, and even the way one walks and talks!

The fusion with the inheritance of the past, from the point of view of its proponents, means the rejection of contemporary thought by imprisoning it in the mindset of the past. In other words, it is the cancellation of the thought of the living and the promotion of the thought of the dead, to the point that we adopt the reality of the past in order to illuminate our present and future realities. Yet they do not say this overtly; in the context of their propaganda and promotion of this return, they depict this past as something that is synonymous with light, but something which can only shine in the darkened room of the past. “The lamp of the past”. Tarabishi writes,

shines in the darkened room but fades from view whenever one walks in the daylight.

This return means that we are to squat down and take our starting point from there – a position inconsistent with the equation of modernity, which is

the free exercise of the human mind and the philosophical rupture with the attitude of faith and metaphysical alienation.[1]

The law of modernity provides for constant development without repudiating the past, but at the same time without halting at any one of its moments, however important these may be. The return which they call for contains divergent ideological conceptions that are not in keeping enough with the law of progress to allow them to hang on and survive, even in their own divergence and inapplicability to the new reality. In so doing these conceptions seek to take the place of scientific conceptions which self-correct whenever reality is proved divergent to them, to be replaced by concepts derived from the nature of the new reality. In short, as Tarabishi states,

Modernity would no longer be modernity. Any extending of what has become a part of the heritage can only reproduce mummification.

The fusion with the past cannot be anything other than a fusion with rationality, while the fusion with rationality requires the secularisation of knowledge, reasoning, language and society as a mechanism and a cultural springboard, starting from the school, society and the various institutions of state. This is not an easy task and will require decades to implement. Similarly, progress cannot take place by looking backwards unless this be to study the problems and falterings of the past, so as to avoid reproducing them in the present and in the future. If this is what they are calling for then it is to be welcomed.

[1] A philosophical starting point whereby the human individual searches for harmony in a transient life. The concept was first popularised by Gabriel Marcel (Ed.)

“The Arab is enamoured of his past and his predecessors and entirely ignores his present and his future” – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

“As in all cases of rupture the primary role goes to human intellect; the human intellect alone, freed by secularism from the shackles of reverence for predecessors and for obscurantism, can arise and unleash technology and the means to production … Any extending of what has become a part of the heritage can only reproduce mummification” – George Tarabishi

George Tarabishi: promoter of the free exercise of the human mind