Hashem Saleh

The France-based Tunisian thinker ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib is the product of the two great currents of Arab Islamic enlightenment and secular European enlightenment. But as opposed to European scholars he does not speak of Islam from the outside but rather from within, since he was born, grew and matured in Islam. His father was one of the shaykhs of the famous Zaitouna University and his grandfather was one of its distinguished professors.

Islam has two heritages: the heritage of self-isolation and the heritage of openness

He therefore comes from one of the most famous Tunisian houses of scholarship and religion and this means that he is imbued from head to toe with Arab Islamic culture. At the same time he is fully versed in French culture, not only since he writes in French and has been living in Paris since the mid 1960s where he has been teaching in one of the French universities, but because he has great affection for the culture of the Enlightenment and is steeped in it. He has an equal fondness for the Arab Islamic Enlightenment and the European Enlightenment, being fascinated by Ibn ‘Arabī and at the same time by Dante, Voltaire, Diderot and Ibn Rushd. Hence the importance of his researches and his illuminating insights into our heritage, our problems and our concerns.

Al-Mu’addib sees that the Arabs participated in the Enlightenment in two phases: the first phase was during the Golden Age at Baghdad and Cordova, and the second phase was during the era of the Nahda that extended from the 19th century to the mid-20th century. During the first phase the Arab Enlightenment preceded the European Enlightenment by a number of centuries and, indeed, was a teacher to the latter.[1] In the second phase we became students of Europe. Regarding the first phase al-Mu’addib sees that the Arabs inaugurated culture and enlightenment between the years 750-1050. During this period they demonstrated an amazing intellectual fertility at a time when Europe was immersed in a profound darkness. At that time the Arab Muslims demonstrated a brilliant intellectual freedom with respect to the study of religions and the phenomenon of thought in general. Al-Mu’addib says that this is a point he wants to insist upon, since the Enlightenment constantly aimed at dismantling religious dogmatism, blind intolerance and the popular superstitions that religious belief occasionally, if not predominantly, carries with it.[2]

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib: child of two enlightenments, Arab and European

In their criticism of fanaticism and religious, dogmatic self-isolation, the thinkers of the Arab Islamic Enlightenment placed themselves at the service of the intellect. This is one of the first principles of enlightenment, for there can be no enlightenment without the intellect or without rationality. The phenomenon emerged a century or more after the appearance of Islam at a period of brilliant cultural efflorescence. But who were the exponents of this first enlightenment under Islam? They were people of the calibre of Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ, Ishāq ibn Hunayn, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, the Muʽtazila school and many others besides. In the introduction to his work Kalīla wa-Dimna we find Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ (720-756) criticising religious fanaticism and extolling the intellect. He even went so far as to say that ethics were independent of religious belief. This is because, on the one hand, one could make pretence to faith, piety and the observance of religious ritual, and yet on the other hand, commit fraud and theft and all the other vices. One could also dispense with the observation of rituals and yet at the same time remain an honest and righteous man in one’s personal life.

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib sees that Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ resembles Kant to a certain extent. Kant is recognised as the greatest Enlightenment philosopher in Europe after Voltaire and Rousseau. Like Kant, Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ restricts the definition of religion to good behaviour and the commitment to high moral values, values that are represented in the following commandments: do not kill, do not steal, beware of gossip and backbiting, do not commit fraud and do not steal and so on. Anyone who keeps to these values is a true believer, as far as Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ is concerned, whatever religion it happens to be that he is practising. This is a very advanced concept for its age, and reminds us of the features of Kant’s practical intellect. For Kant also confined religion to ethics, in much the same way as the Prince of poets Ahmad Shawqi expressed this idea:

Nations are none other than the ethics they embody.

When their ethics go, they will follow soon enough.

Among the enlightened thinkers of this Golden Age who populated Arab Islamic culture, we should mention the great Christian translator Hunayn ibn Ishāq (808-873). He played a major role in transferring the Greek philosophical and scientific works into the Arabic language. He was a highly gifted polymath who mastered three languages and cultures – Syriac, Greek and Arabic – and was a scholar of two additional cultures – the Persian and the Indian. He reminds us of the great thinkers of the age of the European Renaissance, and it is for this reason that some have compared him to Erasmus the ‘Prince of the Age of the Renaissance’. In some of his works he was able to go beyond his personal faith and avoid the religious deference that many ordinary believers fell victim to. Instead of this he began to employ the science of rational logic in the study of religions and, moreover, posed highly audacious questions such as: how is it that error can at times seep into an area of religion and impose itself upon religious believers as if it were an absolute truth? This, par excellence, is a groundbreaking question and one that was far ahead of his time.

Ibn al-Muqaffaʽ went so far as to say that ethics were independent of religious belief

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib sees the medical scholar and philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (845-925) as one who, more than any other, advanced in the direction of rationality and thus comes close to the spirit of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. But we may also recall al-Jāhiz, al-Tawhīdī and al-Maʽarrī who represent the highest pinnacle of heroism in Arabic literature. There is also the Muʽtazila school who held out for two centuries before finally succumbing to the Hanbalites around the year 1000.

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib wonders why it is that critical thought in Islam came to an end after such a brilliant efflorescence. Why was it that rationalist philosophy died? It died because the closing of the door to independent interpretation, which took place around the year 1000 AD, spelled ‘the end of history’ in the Arab Muslim world. History became frozen and placed in the refrigerator over the long centuries of Seljuk, Ottoman and Safavid decadence. There are many who criticise the imam al-Ghazālī for being the cause of the death of philosophy with his violent attack on it in his work The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Mu’addib sees Ibn Taymiyya as playing a crucial role in defeating the intellectual enlightenment of Islam when he attacked Greek philosophy and any cultural interaction with other civilisations. The antibiotic to Ibn Taymiyya was Ibn ʽArabī who recognised the legitimacy of all religious beliefs and was astonishingly open to all religions, yet without ceasing to be a true Muslim believer. He penned the following scarcely believable verses which we would not dare to recite among Islamist circles at the beginning of this 21st-century:

Before this day I covered with blame

A friend whose faith was not the same;

Now my heart all forms can frame:

A plain for a gazelle, a coenobite's cell,

The pilgrim's Ka‘ba, or the idols' homes,

Qur’ānic leaves, or the Torah's tomes,

Wheresoever its footsteps lead,

Love's faith I serve - for Love is my creed.[3]

We find the sum total of the comparative history of religion in these verses! This is also the faith of the modern age too: an open faith, one that is free, broad and as wide as the Universe. It is, moreover, a tolerant faith that goes beyond all the sectarian and religious exclusivities we were perforce brought up with. For this reason the arch fundamentalist extremist Ibn Taymiyya declared Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī an ‘infidel’ and violently attacked him. Indeed, many other faqīhs also declared him to be an infidel, and among these we may mention al-Shawkāni, al-ʽIzz ibn ʽAbd al-Salām and Burhān al-Dīn al-Baqāʽī. The latter actually authored a work entitled Tanbīh al-Ghabī ilā Kufr Ibn ʽArabī (‘Alerting the Fool to the Disbelief of Ibn ‘Arabī’)!

Al-Baqāʽī's tome: 'Alerting the Fool to the Disbelief of Ibn ‘Arabī' still in print

What distinguishes the researches of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib is the fact that he reveals to us the illuminating side of our inheritance and knows how to distinguish it from its darker or obscurer side. He extracts it much as you would extract a hair from a ball of dough, and in so doing allows Arabs and Muslims to feel that the adoption of European Enlightenment or European culture does not imply any betrayal of their own great heritage. On the contrary, it puts them directly in contact with it once again by establishing the connection between, on the one hand, the Arab Islamic Enlightenment and, on the other hand, the European Enlightenment of the Renaissance and the eras that followed it. It is well known that the Renaissance of the Europeans did not take place until after translations of our scholars and philosophers were carried out. This is a highly intelligent intellectual strategy which the Tunisian thinker is employing to confront the exclusionist, fundamentalist current in our present culture and heritage. It is par excellence an effective strategy and explains his focusing in upon all the enlightened thinkers, past and present, in our tradition.

In the past he may call as witness Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sīnā, al-Fārābī, the Muʽtazila and other distinguished personalities. In the present he may call as witness the great thinkers of the Arab liberal age lasting from the 19th century to the mid 20th century. But in order to combat puritanical fundamentalism on their own ground, he adduces as evidence the emir ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī or Muhammad ʽAbduh. Can anyone cast doubt upon the Islamic credentials of the great emir or of the pious professor? Al-Mu’addib sees that the emir ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī was a noble student of his professor – the great shaykh Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī. He was the one who renewed the interpretation of his message so as to harmonise with his own age, and he was the one who adopted some of the propositions of European Enlightenment philosophy, just as enlightened Muslims had done. The fact is, that in confronting the challenges posed to us we have to become familiar with developments in Europe that are the product of the Age of Enlightenment. Some major Muslim theologians have re-prioritised the employment of the intellect over blind repetition, and among these enlightened fuqahā’ (doctors of law’) we may mention the mufti of Egypt Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh (1848-1905) who argued to the effect that whenever a difference emerges between the intellect and tradition (or the Sunna), the last word should go to the intellect.

No one dares  to speak of  the positive elements of European civilisation, for fear of being labelled a poodle of imperialism

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib sees that contemporary doctors of law have restored to the concept of ‘innovation’ its positive meaning, one which was predominant during the era of the Abbasid fuqahā’ who wished to derive benefit from the innovations of conquered societies that were more advanced than the Arabs. For the Arabs were coming across new things that they did not know of beforehand in Mecca or Madina, and they considered them to be positive innovations and licensed their adoption in the interests of Muslims and Islamic civilisation. The reformist Ottoman sultans depended upon these ancient fatwas to legitimise the adoption of a constitution on the European model. Reformist doctors of law added to the concept of positive innovation another concept which was that of the concept of ‘interest’, in the sense that if anything acted in the interests of the Nation then it had to be adopted, even if it ran contrary to scriptural texts.[4] Consequently, not all Muslim doctors of law are obscurantists who reject modern culture in toto in the way that hardline Wahhabi Salafists do. This is what ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Mu’addib is trying to say: that in fact Islam has two heritages: the heritage of self-isolation – following Ibn Taymiyya and his ilk, and the heritage of openness – on the lines of Ibn Rushd and Ibn ʽArabī and those who follow them, right up to the exponents of the Arab Renaissance of the liberal age.

Abduh: target alike of local potentates and foreign imperialists

For this reason enlightened clerics of the likes of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad ʽAbduh came into conflict both with local potentates and foreign imperialists. And here al-Mu’addib makes a very important point: that European civilisation itself has two faces which persist to this day – an illuminating, enlightened face which is of great benefit to us, and an expansionist face. Many great Muslim thinkers at the time felt the glaring contradiction between these two faces – that is, between the idealistic principles of the Enlightenment and the arbitrary acts of European invaders carried out in the name of ‘modernisation’ – but all the while betraying it. For by their savage, bloody invasion of Algeria, the French trampled over the noble principles of the French Revolution.

And it is for this reason that the credibility of enlightenment in the Arab world has been dealt a severe blow. No one dares any more to speak of the philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment or the positive elements of European civilisation, for fear of being labelled a poodle of imperialism.

And this is the worst thing to afflict the Arabs. For a state of confusion and ambiguity now obtains. Arabs are no longer able to make a distinction between the positive elements of Western culture and its negative elements. These negative aspects have cast their shadow over everything so that, as they say, good follows after bad. In the end this has led to the era of the Arab Renaissance being stillborn and the halting of any creative interaction with European modernity. It has also led to a powerful blowback, to the resurgence of movements of self-isolation that pronounce excommunication upon any opening up to the modern, enlightened philosophy on the grounds that it is Western – that is, a ‘Satanic abomination’!


[1] See Roger Garoudi’s book: L’Islam en Occident. Cordoue capitale de l’esprit. L’Harmattan.1987.

[2] See his work Pari De Civilisation. Seuil. Paris.2009.P.121 fol.

[3] From Ode XI of Ibn ‘Arabī’s  Tarjumān al-Ashwāq. Translation by Almuslih (Ed.)

[4] On all of this see al-Mu’addib’s aforementioned work, p.132-133.