Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A leading Syrian exilic intellectual: Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (1934-2016)

Image result for sadiq al-azm

Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm passed away in Berlin on Sunday, 11 December 2016. Al-Azm had already been living in German exile before civil war erupted in his homeland in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Although working mainly as an academic philosopher, Sadiq al-Azm also spoke and wrote about politics. Member of the prominent Damascene al-Azm family, which has produced generations of scholars and influential political figures, al-Azm positioned himself on the left and became an outspoken critic of the Assad government, when it became clear in 2000 that Hafiz al-Assad’s family and his wider Alawi clan were turning a military regime into a hereditary dynasty. For that reason, he also became one of the signatories of the 2005 ‘Damascus Declaration’, and later decided to join the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society’.

Although mainly regarded as a representative of the political left, Al-Azm has also written perceptively about religion and engaged critically with the challenge of Orientalism by peer such as Edward Said. This also forms the wider context for his decision to throw his intellectual weight behind opposition to the Assad regime that had its origins in the mosque. In an interview he gave in 2013, he explained that he did not regard this as giving up his advocacy of secularisation or his Marxist convictions. He still finds Marx’s classical analysis convincing, but believes that its interpretation and implementation along the lines of Franz Fanon are more relevant to a country like Syria. This is also the reason for his sympathy for the Catholic Liberation Theologies emerging in Latin America and even for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which also included a very significant leftist component until its hijacking by the Islamists, which turned Iran into a ‘Mollahcracy’.

Al-Azm has always cautioned against having exaggerated expectations of what revolutions can accomplish. Structural changes to cultures are difficult to achieve and are the outcome of slow socially cumulative historical processes. In this regard, he pointed at argumentations put forward by other Syrian intellectuals like Jamil Saliba, Anton Makdisi and Tayyib Tayzini, as well as progressive thinkers from elsewhere, including his fellow philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabri and the historian Abdullah Laroui from Morocco, and the Egyptians Fouad Zakariyya and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.
As to the ideological dimensions for effecting drastic changes to a culture and society, al-Azm stresses that the key to success lies in secularisation and the creation of civil society, that is to say creating a sense of citizenship that overrides religiously-inspired one-dimensional identities.

A useful overview of the various stages of al-Azm’s intellectual life can be found here.

For some of  al-Azm's publications, click on the widget below:

Friday, 25 March 2016

Ebrahim Moosa: A critical traditionalist against imperial political theologies

Over the last two decades, Ebrahim Moosa has developed into one of the most important Muslim thinkers and proponents of 'progressive Islam'.

Ebrahim Moosa

Originally from South-Africa, but since the late 1990s based in the United States, he forms part of a diaspora of Muslim intellectuals who are at the forefront of critical and innovative thinking about Islam and its place in the contemporary world. Moosa's intellectual genealogy also betrays a family resemblance with the so-called heritage thinkers from a older generation, such as Mohammed Arkoun, Hasan Hanafi, and Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri: intimate familiarity with the legacy of traditional Islamic learning and an equally solid acquaintance with the human sciences as they have evolved in the Western academe.

Born into South Africa's Muslim community of South Asian extraction, Ebrahim Moosa was educated at both traditional madrasas in India (graduating from the famous Darul ʿUlum Nadwatul ʿUlama in Lucknow) and universities in South Africa and the United Kingdom. After a career in journalism, Moosa then opted for an academic career which took him from the University of Cape Town to Stanford, Duke, and then on to Notre Dame University, where he is now Professor of Islamic Studies with appointments in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs. At Notre Dame, he also co-directs the Contending Modernities Project.

His reputation as an original thinker drawing from great erudition was made with his first major monograph. Published in 2006 under the title, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, it offers a radically new reading of the classical eleventh-century polymath. It also demonstrated Moosa's ability to straddle different intellectual traditions. In this award-winning book, Ebrahim Moosa introduces the notion of the Dihliz -- the 'in-between'. This liminality is reflective of the position occupied by scholar-intellectuals like Moosa himself; on the interstices of different intellectual traditions. It is from here that he contributes to the articulation of a new Islamic discourse that seeks to 'preserve from the old what is good, and take from the new what is better'.

In a recent interview, he self-identified as a 'critical traditionalist'; a Muslim scholar with an ability to challenge the way things are done at the centres of traditional Islam:
"the Madrasa used to be, once upon a time, a part of Islamdom's republic of letters, republic of knowledge, including cosmopolitan knowledge as well. But over time, in the Indian-subcontinent in particular, Madrasas have become more like institutions that are interested in identity formation, and also have become, what I call, a republic of piety. We have more piety, and less intellectual energy and the kinds of religious answers that deal with reality.”
The designation 'critical traditionalist' also colours how he interprets the idea of 'progressive Islam'. 
progressive Islam doesn't mean changing the Quran or changing Hadith, but is instead about having alternative methodological approaches that are going to allow us to find different kinds of answers from tradition, and answers that will be much more amenable to our experiences and our way of life, be much more equitable.
“The key thing about progressive or critical traditionalist approach in Islam, to me, is that we must see that all knowledge must substantiate and support the fulfilment of human dignity. Human dignity is at the core of all Islam's messages. And if knowledge does not deliver on human dignity, then that knowledge really is questionable. So those kinds of interpretations of the past that talked about non-Muslims in a particular way, that talked about women in a particular way, are no longer dignified. That has to change. You can only change it when you are prepared to ask questions, and are prepared to challenge the paradigm of interpretation that has been prevalent thus far.” 
In another recent occasion, he noted that this requires a reinvention of Islam or, what I consider a more accurate suggestion: a need for Muslims to reinvent themselves. According to Moosa this means shedding:
[the] imprint of what I would term imperial Islamic political theology. As a throwback to former times, this imperial political theology needs to be excised from the political and religious imagination through critical appraisal, questioning, [...]
Ebrahim Moosa breaks ground for a bold and robust engagement with the Islamic tradition, and his own writings testify of a daring rethinking of religion in postfoundationalist terms. He also demonstrated that in the Third Ibn Rushd Lecture of the Muslim Institute in London:

His ideas for a progressive reinterpretation of thinking about Islam were further unpacked in the discussion:

Monday, 23 November 2015

New Journal launched -- Re-Orient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies

After a long silence, there is some very welcome news to share in the form of the launch of a new academic journal that seeks to promote and stimulate the same strands of thinking and approaches to the study of Islam and the Muslim world as showcased on this website.

In their inaugural editorial, the board of Reorient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies explain the choice of the journal's main title as fellows:
ReOrient [...] signals a turning away from an Orientalizing gaze, and as such, it can be seen as belonging to the family of concepts and critiques associated with decolonial thinking and its call for delinking from the Western episteme.
In regards to its subtitle they observe:
Critical Muslim Studies is [...] characterized by a series of epistemological orientations, rather than by substantive properties, permanent categories, or persistent methodologies. 
In term of orientation, the journal seeks to remain committed to objectives that can be 'grouped into four broad currents within contemporary intellectual developments: The critique of a variety of Eurocentric registers; a suspicion of positivism; the recognised significance of the critique of Orientalism; and finally, the embrace of postcolonial and decolonial thinking.

The journal's maiden issue contains an article by the doyen of the study of Islamic history at Columbia University, Richard Bulliet, followed by a fascinating exchange with his fellow Columbian Gil Anidjar.

Reorient will be introduced at SOAS, on 2 December 2015, at 7pm: B102, Brunei Gallery.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Moroccan Philosopher in Indonesia: The Influence of Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri on Indonesian Islamic Thinking

Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri
On 19 February 2015, I gave an invited public lecture about the influence of the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (1936-2010) on Islamic thinking in Indonesia. The text below is a slightly adapted version of that presentation, which consisted of two parts: First, an introduction to the philosopher al-Jabiri and his ideas, followed by an explanation of the appeal of his thinking for Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia.

Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri a philosopher and his thought

Al-Jabiri’s fame rests on his so-called Critique of Arab Reason project, laid down in a set of writings published between 1980 and 1990; a decade of intense philosophical labors squeezed in between periods of more politically engaged activity.

 Personal background
Before taking a more detailed look at these writings of the 1980s, I will highlight a few relevant aspects of Al-Jabiri’s life. Al-Jabiri comes from Figuig, on the Moroccan-Algerian border – a disputed area that was later the scene of the so-called ‘War of the Sand’ between the two newly independent countries in the early 1960s. Already during his high school years Al-Jabiri became politically active in the Istiqlal Party. His political mentor at the time was Mehdi Ben Barka, who arranged for him to begin writing for the Istiqlal periodical Al-Alam. Al-Jabiri followed Ben Barka when the latter split from the party to found the UNFP in 1959. Because of his involvement in leftist politics, Al-Jabiri was incarcerated for a few months in 1963. He continued his activities in the UNFP also after the mysterious disappearance of Ben Barka in 1965. In 1975 he joined the USFP as it split from UNFP and became a member of its politburo.

Alongside his political work, in 1958 Al-Jabiri had begun studying philosophy at the universities in Damascus and Rabat. In the mid-sixties, when he was working on his doctorate, while also teaching philosophy at high schools and helping with the writing of a number of textbooks. These books were quite influential in shaping the thoughts of students during the late sixties and early seventies. They  emphasized the relationship between culture and society, and the significance of knowledge and education to effectuate social change. Thus they prefigure Al-Jabiri’s later scholarly preoccupation with epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) and its impact on history and politics.

Al-Jabiri was very much influenced by the Moroccan-born geographer and historian Yves Lacoste, especially the latter's Marxist interpretation of Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World (1965). He was so impressed by this study that he decided to make the 14th-century courtier and scholar the subject of his own doctoral research. In his findings, al-Jabiri presents this medieval North African statesman and savant’s theory of the rise and fall of civilizations as a structural and systemic alternative to the Ash‛ari projection of history, through which Ibn Khaldun nevertheless managed to keep his admiration for Ghazali’s Sufism intact

In this endeavour he was intellectually mentored by one of Morocco’s leading philosophers at the time, M. Aziz Lahbabi:  who would oversee Al-Jabiri’s first doctoral thesis on Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history, which was submitted in 1967. Another philosopher, Najib Baladi, directed Al-Jabiri’s further research for the so-called doctorat d’état; a degree somewhat comparable to the German Habilitation. This resulted in the publication of Al-Jabiri's first monograph, appearing in 1971 under the title The Thought of Ibn Khaldun: Asabiyya and State: Theoretical Outlines of Khaldunian Thinking about Islamic History.

Aside from his academic career as a lecturer and later professor of philosophy at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, throughout the 1970s, Al-Jabiri remained preoccupied with his political work in the UNFP and USFP. However, from 1980 onwards he decided to concentrate more on systematically writing down his ideas regarding the relationship between knowledge and power in the development of Islamic thinking.

Heritage Thinking
With this, Al-Jabiri became one of the so-called heritage thinkers or turathiyyun. This phenomenon of heritage thinking came up in the 1970s, so simultaneous with the much better known Islamic resurgence that advocates explicitly political agendas. Initially this was referred to as Islamic fundamentalism, but now we generally call it Islamism.

However, the motivations behind the rise of Islamism and the emergence of heritage thinking are the same: Disillusionment with other, imported, ideologies, such as Nationalism, Panarabism, Marxism etc. By way of alternative, Muslims returned to their religious and cultural roots in Islam. Some chose to become puritan revivalists, focusing either on personal piety or translating their renewed focus on Islam into political, i.e. Islamist agendas. This manifested itself in different shapes and forms, ranging from gaining influence and power via the ballot box to the most extreme forms of violent action. These interpretations are grounded in literalist readings and understandings of Islamic Scriptures, Qur'an and Sunna. And because the proponents of this approach claim that they are thus reviving the legacy of Al-Salaf al-Salih, the pious ancestors, they are called Salafis.

By contrast, the heritage thinkers advocate not only a more comprehensive understanding of Islam as a civilization, but also a critical and self-reflective examination of the text corpus of traditional Islamic learning. Intellectually, this places heritage thinkers on the opposite side of the intellectual spectrum from the Salafis. Their challenge of uncritical and eclectic use by Salafis of only certain aspects of the earliest Islamic tradition makes the heritage thinkers in effect an intellectual counterforce to Salafi religious puritanism and Islamism.

Critiques of Arab Reason
In 1980 and 1982, Al-Jabiri published his first two text collections on the Arab-Islamic heritage. We and our heritage and Contemporary Arab Discourse. In these texts he challenges the shortcomings of the existing readings of the Islamic tradition, namely: Fundamentalist, Liberal and Marxist readings. According to Al-Jabiri, all three fail both methodologically as well as in terms of vision. All three see themselves as extensions of the Islamic tradition, but with Marxists and Liberals being hindered by erroneous linear or teleological projections for the future, while fundamentalists and traditionalists consider themselves the sole custodians of what they have constructed as being the tradition, while they are in fact locked up within this constructed tradition. Heritage thinkers, by contrast, embrace the tradition without being taken over by it. Instead, they subject Islamic regimes of knowledge to a critical examination.

In Al-Jabiri’s case he emphatically moves away from modernity as a linear projection or a fixed historical trajectory that civilizations must follow. As Muslims grapple with modernity, they should not imagine that – like Western civilization -- they have to chronologically pass through consecutive phases of renaissance, enlightenment, modernity and postmodernity like the West did. The current situation is such that these are all coexistent and intertwined. This also means that there is no single modernity only a plurality of modernities. Al-Jabiri also makes point of stressing that: 'Modernity is not a refutation of or break with the past, but an upgrade of the way we relate with tradition'; modernization is not an 'end in itself', but tied to the 'rise of the critical mind', and an impetus aimed at 'changing mentalities'.

In his writings from the early 1980s, the core argument of his future epistemological thinking about heritage is also already discernible: Namely that knowledge consists of two aspects: A cognitive field and an ideological content. The cognitive field, in turn, consists of the material knowledge or substance  and of a thinking apparatus. From today’s perspective, other than its historical value the substance of philosophical and scientific knowledge from Arab-Islamic past is useless, but the thinking apparatus, or systemic and methodological aspects of thinking through which this substance came into being, remains of interest to Al-Jabiri’s project. Therefore Arab Muslims must rid themselves of ideologically or emotionally informed conceptions of tradition and its substance as an absolute reality that stands outside time, and instead come to terms with tradition as relative and historicized.

The only way to achieve that is through what Gaston Bachelard called an 'epistemological break', not with the tradition, but away from an understanding of tradition that is locked up within itself. Methodological cues for his own alternative interpretation of heritage, al-Jabiri found in the work of structuralists like Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean Piaget, as well as in the writings of poststructuralist philosophers such as Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. From them he learned that reason can no longer be conceived in Cartesian terms as a coherent, conscious and transcendent process. Instead, reason is more accurately described as a collective understanding shaped by culture and by what Piaget called the ‘cognitive unconsciousness’.

In the 1980s, Al-Jabiri unpacked all this in great detail in what he called his Critique of Arab reason project: At the core of this philosophical project is a trilogy of books, dealing with the formation, structure and the political dimensions of Arab reason.

·         Takwin al-Aql al-Arabi: a historical study of the formation of Arab-Islamic thinking
·         Bunya al-Aql al-Arabi: a structural analysis of the epistemological order of Arab culture
·         Al-Aql al-Siyasi al-Arabi: an ideology critique
The historical analysis focuses on the so-called or Asr al-Tadwin ‘period of recording or codification’ during which ‘acceptable’ ways of  thinking about Islam, both in terms of content and methodology, were determined. This heralded a period of decline, because instead of encouraging the production of new discursive forms, the tradition ended up only reproducing existing knowledge. In his structural analysis, Al-Jabiri distinguishes three different thinking apparatus, systems of knowledge or epistemes. For this he used Arabic descriptor, namely:

·         bayani or discursive reasoning
·         irfani or gnosticism and intuitive thinking
·         burhani or reasoning through the use of demonstrative proof.

Bayani thinking is based on explications of texts drawing on Arabic grammar and rhetoric, and the literary legacy derived from pre-Islamic times. It is applied in philology and linguistics, Qur’anic exegesis, legal thinking or fiqh, and theology or kalam. A figure like the legal scholar Al-Shafi’i looms large over this way of thinking, especially in terms of the limitations he set on  ijtihad or independent reasoning, by restricting it to reasoning by analogy. Rather than rationalist methods such as inductive or deductive reasoning language remains the sole point of reference in bayani thinking. Pointing back to the historical study, Al-Jabiri contends that bayani thinking has eventually prevailed through the work of grammarians, jurists and theologians. Eventually, it became the definitive mode of thinking about religion in traditional Islamic learning thanks to the work of al-Ghazali,

As for irfani or gnostic thinking, its origins too predate Islam, but it then continues to develop in Islamic contexts. It is not only found in astrology, alchemy, magic, theosophy, illuminationism, and strands of Shia thinking, but also in aspects of the work of Ibn Sina, who is generally hailed as a key contributor to philosophical thinking in Islam. Irfan or gnosticism is based on a dichotomy between manifest (zahir) and hidden (batin) meanings of realities, including scripture. Al-Jabiri pronounces a rather harsh judgment, when he insists that due to the combined influences of Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, and thus of irfani and bayani thinking, the ’irrational’ (not the same as unreasonable) has dominated thinking in the Eastern parts of Muslim world.

While there have been early examples of burhani or ‘rationalist’ in the East, such as the philosophies of al-Kindi,  the Muʽtazila  and al-Farabi during the Abbasid Caliphate of Al-Ma’mun, in Al-Jabiri's mind the restoration of rationalism is associated with the 11-13th century thinkers of the Muslim west. Al-Jabiri’s heroes from this classical era are: Ibn Hazm, Ibn Rushd, Al-Shatibi, and Ibn Khaldun.

However, things are not always as straightforward with this preferred list as Al-Jabiri might suggest: For example, Ibn Hazm was a Zahiri legal scholar. Zahirism was pretty strict in its interpretations of the scriptural texts, but also intellectually regimented and I think that is what attracted Al-Jabiri. Moreover what Ibn Hazm also argues is that anything that is not restricted by text, is left to reason and free choice

In regards to Ibn Rushd  it must be noted that he actually did his work under the puritan and repressive rule of the Almohads. Although some of its emirs and viziers had an interest in philosophy, we should not forget that Almohad comes from the name  Al-Muwahhidun, the upholders of the Unity of God (Tawhid), which is – incidentally – the same name the Wahhabis of Arabia use for themselves. The affinities between the two extend not only to intellectual outlook but also to the political enforcement of their interpretations of Islam.

Here, I will only highlight a few aspects of Ibn Rushd’s thinking that underpin Al-Jabiri’s appreciation for Ibn Rushd and consider him as the epitome of critical and realistic rationalism, on grounds of:  His commentaries on Aristotle; his persistent upholding of the law of cause and effect in scientific and philosophical thinking;  and -- in relation to religious and metaphysical questions -- the establishment of a harmony between the bayani proofs of revelation and the demonstrative proofs of philosophical truth that do not pose a threat to the teachings of Islam.

Al-Shatibi’s work has been very important for a reinterpretation of the casuistry into which jurisprudence or fiqh had descended during and after the period of recording. His advocacy of more attention for the Higher Purposes of Sharia or Maqasid al-Shari’a offered an opportunity to rethink what the aims or objectives of Islamic law are supposed to be. By re-establishing these as the most general points of departure for  Islamic legal thinking it becomes possible to distinguish between the unchangeable and contingent aspects of Islamic law.

So Al-Jabiri not only privileges the burhani epistemological system over the much less rigorous bayani approach and in his view outright irrational irfani ways of thinking; when it comes to individual thinkers, he also has a preference for individuals from what are now Spain and Morocco. In advocating the importance of the Muslim west and the figure of Ibn Rushd in particular, he has used terms such as ‘Andalusian Resurgence’ and the statement that ‘the future can only be Averroist’. 

The  impact of the ideas of Al-Jabiri

The ideas of the heritage thinkers are erudite and sophisticated, and their appeal is limited to those echelons of Muslim societies with that have attained the highest levels of education in the humanities and social sciences. Salafi thinking by contrast holds greater appeal for professionals (engineers, doctors, lawyers) and students and scholars of the natural sciences. Given the still rather limited numbers of people in the Muslim world who make it into higher education, heritage thinking only influences a fraction of Muslim societies. However, demographics also show that most Muslim countries have a ‘youth bulge’ – as middle classes grow and the numbers of people entering education increase accordingly, I believe heritage thinking will become more important over the next generation or so.

A further and probably more problematic obstruction to the spread of heritage thinking in the present day is the continuing repression of the freedom of thought and expression in many Muslim countries, and the concomitant attempts by a religious state bureaucracy wishing to control what is taught about Islam.

Influence in Indonesia

In this respect, the situation in Indonesia is different from many MENA countries. To find an explanation for the appeal and purchase heritage thinkers like Al-Jabiri have in Indonesia, it is necessary to have some background knowledge of  how Islam operates or is allowed to function in Indonesia, and in particular what shaped the socio-political and intellectual climate.

Islam in Indonesia: Historical Background
Indonesia is located on the far eastern periphery of the historical Dar al-Islam, and it forms part of a wider equatorial Islamic island world that also includes Malaysia and Brunei, as well as the southern provinces of Thailand and the Philippines, and that is home to a distinct Malay-Muslim culture. However, Islam only began to make inroads among the local populations relatively late in the history of the Islamic expansion.  In contrast to many other parts of the Muslim world, Islam did not arrive through conquest, but through peaceful means: Centuries- or even millennia-old trade routes across the Indian Ocean were used by missionary figures, often associated with transnational Sufi orders that held the social fabric of the Muslim world-at-large together after the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-13th century.

Because of this geographical remoteness of the so-called “heartlands” of the Muslim world and this late conversion it is tempting to see Southeast Asians as superficial Muslims, with Islam only a “thin veneer” over older deposits of Indian religions and indigenous animism. That view is wrong. A growing body of scholarship on the history of Islam in Southeast Asia shows that since Islam’s arrival, the religion has firmly rooted in the region through extensive and intensive networking between Southeast Asia and centres of Islamic learning in South Asia and the Middle East. Travelers from the other side of the Indian Ocean and native scholars from Southeast Asia both played an important role in this process. That means that throughout the centuries, Muslims from what is now Indonesia were well acquainted and conversant with developments elsewhere. So also  the ideas of 19th-century Islamic reformism and pan-Islamism advocated and spread by figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida caught on with the Muslim populations of what was then called Dutch East Indies.

As a result, Southeast Asian Muslim societies experienced a division between Muslims who continued to adhere to traditional Sunni Islam, remaining part of the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a. In Indonesia and elsewhere in the region this tradition consisted of the Shafi’i Law School, Maturidi kalam or theology, and the sober Sufism of al-Ghazali, all filtered through localized cultural practices. On the other hand, there were the proponents of Islamic reformism, both in its puritan and in its modernist guises. These reformists referred to themselves as kaum muda, or the 'young group' or 'young people', in contrast to the traditionalists, whom they called kaum tua or ‘old people’. It is a division that has remained valid until today and – as will be explained later -- that also has a bearing on the reception of heritage thinkers such as Al-Jabiri.

The Dutch colonial authorities were very wary of such influences and came down heavily on any politicized manifestations of Islamic reformism. Although all Islamic activities were closely monitored and activists were kept under surveillance, the one area that the colonial authorities allowed to develop for the purpose of the emancipation of the Indies’ Muslim population was education and da’wa or dakwah in Malay. This formed part of the Ethische Politiek (1901-1942): a redefinition of colonial policy designed to give select elements of the colonized population a modest stake in political administration and equip other segments of society for making a contribution to the development of the economy and society. This has resulted in a phenomenon that makes Indonesia rather unique in the Muslim world, which remains important until now and which will also play a part in the future reception of the ideas of the likes of Al-Jabiri: the emergence of Islamic mass organizations.

The Islamic modernists were the first to take advantage of this opportunity, establishing two organizations: In 1912, Ahmad Dahlan,, the Imam the main mosque of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, founded the Muhammadiyah. Inspired by the thinking of Muhammad Abduh it is now the most important modernist Muslim mass organization. In order to meet this challenge and to counter competition for influence over Indonesia’s Muslims, the traditionalists responded in 1926 with the founding of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The NU is a much looser organization than the Muhammadiyah, relying on extensive but informal networks centering around Islamic boarding schools called pesantren, that bind scholars together through family connections and highly personalized teacher (called kyai) - pupils (murid) relations not dissimilar to that of Sufi orders.

Indonesia’s Muslim mass organizations not only predate Middle Eastern Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or South Asia’s Tablighi Jamaat by a good decade, it also dwarfs them in terms of the numbers of followers they can mobilize. In present-day Indonesia, both the Muhammadiyah and NU have constituencies numbering in the tens of millions.

Like the Dutch, also Indonesia’s postcolonial governments have made efforts to keep Islam at arm’s length of the political process. Since 1945, Indonesian constitutions have never made any reference to Islam. Attempts to introduce a reference to Islamic law into the constitution were sabotaged by the secular nationalists led by president Suharto. While Indonesia recognises that its population is in majority Muslim, it does not identify as an Islamic state. Instead, the country has emphasized its ethnic and religious diversity through the Pancasila or doctrine of five principles – the first one of which states that every Indonesian must believe in a Supreme Being – but without further specification

Except for the first decade of independence, when Indonesia briefly experimented with liberal democracy, Islamic parties were not able to operate freely. From 1960 until 1998, they were actually outlawed, except for the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP) -- that was tolerated by Suharto’s New Order regime from the 1970s onwards as a symbolic opposition party in the electoral charades and rubber stamp parliament that was allowed to function during those years.

After taking power, New Order regime envisaged a role for Muslim professionals in its new economic development policies, and a number of Muslim intellectuals saw this as a window of opportunity to advocate the expansion of the Islamic education system and proposing a constructive role for Muslim activists in developing the country. This presented the interesting spectacle of a vast expansion of a network of State Islamic higher education institutes (called IAINs in Indonesian), in a country that still refuses to identify as an Islamic state.

The key figures in this process, were two senior intellectuals, Abdul Mukti Ali, who served as Minister of Religious Affairs (1973-1978) and Harun Nasution, the rector of the IAIN in Jakarta, and the leader of the largest Muslim student union, Nurcholish Madjid. They formed part of a newly emerging Muslim intelligentsia combining a secular state education with Islamic learning, often complemented with postgraduate studies abroad to obtain advanced degrees, in particular in places such McGill University in Montreal and the University of Chicago.

The IAINs began promoting an interpretation of Islam that was very different from either the traditionalist form of Islam prevailing among Indonesia’s rural peasantry or the reformist tendencies found among pious urban Muslims. Drawing on the historicized interpretation of Islam by scholars such as the American-Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman, who acted as supervisor and adviser to numerous Indonesian postgraduate students,  in Indonesia this came to be referred to as cultural, civil, and even cosmopolitan Islam.

In 1983, promoting this cultural Islam became government policy through the so-called the Reaktualisasi or Reactualizaition Agenda. For ten years this policy was coordinated and directed by Religious Affairs Minister Munawir Sjadzali, a former Muslim diplomat with a political science degree from Johns Hopkins University. This shift in policy was part of an important political reorientation on the highest government level.  As part of the Reactualization Agenda, the Islamic education system was expanded further, and the writings of heritage thinkers started appearing in the IAIN curricula and reading lists. Also growing oil revenues ensured the availability of money to send talented young scholars in larger numbers overseas for postgraduate studies, not only in the Middle East, but also in North America, Australia and Europe. 

The growing appetite for new ideas on religion, and Islam in particular, also led to the emergence of a large translation and publication industry of works on Islam, religion and politics. As intellectual omnivores, Indonesia’s Muslims were not only interested in the writings of Arabic-speaking Muslim intellectuals, but also in the work of Western scholars on Islam, as well as the ideas of postmodern philosophers and postcolonial theorists. These respective literatures reflect the scholarly interests of the heritage thinkers, and the critiques they have written of both Islamic thinking and Western scholarship about Islam.
Heritage thinking in Indonesia
I must point out that Indonesian Muslims are not just interested in al-Jabiri, but also in the other heritage thinkers from that generation, including Mohammad Arkoun, Hasan Hanafi, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. Together they form what I call the Arab quartet that has left a distinct mark on contemporary Islamic thinking in Indonesia. In first instance, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hanafi and Arkoun were better known in Indonesia than Al-Jabiri.  For example, the leader of the NU in 1980s, Abdurrahman Wahid also known as Gus Dur introduced, Hanafi’s notion of the ‘Islamic Left’ in Indonesia. Thus we find that the leader of the largest traditionalist Muslim organization promotes a set of ideas that many modernists in the Muhammadiyah considered too progressive!

For the purpose of today’s lecture, I will concentrate on the attraction of Al-Jabiri for certain Indonesian Muslim intellectuals. In fact, given the way Al-Jabiri used to privilege the ideas of thinkers from the supposedly “rational” West of the Muslim world, it is somewhat surprising and puzzling what appeal such a Maghribi 'chauvinist' thinker holds for Muslims from the allegedly 'irrational' East

Al-Jabiri’s breakthrough coincided with the regime change of 1998-1999, when President Suharto’s cozying up to the Muslims provided to be too little and too late to avert the inevitable. The aging president was forced to step down  and the two leaders of the largest Muslim mass organisations in the country rose to the highest offices in the land, with Abdurrahman Wahid from the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama becoming president and Amien Rais of the modernist Muhammadiyah taking the position of Speaker of the National Assembly.  It is in this vibrant -- and to a degree also unstable and even polarized -- milieu that the ideas of Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri found root.

Al-Jabiri, Young NU Cadres and Islamic Post-Traditionalism
Two figures from younger generations of NU cadres and intellectuals, called Anak Muda NU were instrumental to opening up Indonesia Muslim thinking to the ideas of Al-Jabiri: Said Aqil Siradj, who is now the General Chairman of the NU; and Ahmad Baso, a young writer who was the first to translate some of Al-Jabiri’s writings from Arabic into Indonesian.

Said Aqil Siradj
Said Aqil Siradj used Al-Jabiri’s ideas for a book in which he reinterpreted the notion of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’ah (in Indonesian abbreviated to Aswaja). Instead of understanding it as a historical school of thought or mazhab, Siradj interpreted it as a  manhaj or method. In his view Manhaj Taqlid did not mean blind imitation. Rather it meant a method of thinking, in other words an Manhaj al-Fikr or epistemology which in fact accommodated a lot of different approaches.  For the later he drew inspiration from NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid, who quoted a saying of the prophet that 'difference within the Umma is a blessing' – to promote intellectual debate in the NU.

It was also Said Aqil Siradj who introduced Ahmad Baso to Al-Jabiri’s writings, and thus motivate Baso into producing the first Indonesian translation of a number of essays by Al-Jabiri, which were published under the title Post Traditionalisme Islam or Islamic Post-Traditionalism. From then on Islamic Post-Traditionalism became a new term of reference for a way of critical thinking about Indonesian Islam among young NU cadres and intellectuals. In his introduction to the translated essays, Baso says that al-Jabiri’s return to the tradition is not a matter of picking and choosing, but a holistic appropriation for the purpose of analyzing Arab-Islamic thought in its theological, linguistic, juridical as well as philosophical and mystical aspects. This is an approach that fits with the  NU’s mission of rethinking Aswaja as defined by Siradj and Gus Dur

In Baso’s interpretation of al-Jabiri bayani or discursive thinking is more at odds with its irfani or gnostic counterpart than with burhani or demonstrative reason. The reason for this affinity between discursive and demonstrative reason is that the Qur’an, Islam’s core textual point of reference, recognizes and encourages the use of human reason.  However, Irfan, or Gnosticism, by contrast calls into question the independent role for the human intellect. According to Baso, this is why Al-Jabiri calls irfani thinking 'irrational'. It is understandable that as an NU intellectual subscribing to the Shafi’i Mazhab, Maturidi theology and Ghazalian Sufism, Baso has reservations against Al-Jabiri’s outright dismissal of the spiritual legacy of the Muslim East.

Ahmad Baso
But what Baso finds valuable is Al-Jabiri’s use of French poststructuralism and postmodernism because it can help Indonesian Muslim intellectuals in developing critiques of their own turath or heritage. Baso also draws attention to Al-Jabiri calibration of different types of reason on the basis of their shurut as-sihha, or ‘preconditions of validity’ (syarat-syarat keabsahan in Indonesian). In Baso’s view that procedure that is comparable to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, who also investigated the conditions that make human rational activity possible.

By bringing the philosophy of al-Jabiri into the discourse of Islamic Post-Traditionalism, Baso claims that he is continuing Abdurrahman Wahid’s pioneering efforts of introducing Indonesian audiences to Arab-Islamic heritage thinking about political action, such as nationalism, indigenization (pribumisasi), secularization, and feminism. Al-Jabiri’s concern with text criticism and discourse analyse will make thinking about heritage and tradition in the NU intellectually more rigorous. It shows an awareness that ‘language is not just a world-disclosing, but also a world-constituting exercise, producing a discourse and a new reality in terms of politics, religion, and imagination.  Baso also sees Islamic Post-Traditionalism as a‘new cultural strategy’ modelled after the articulation of the voices of marginal people by intellectuals from South Asia who are involved in subaltern studies.  Al-Jabiri helps the new NU intelligentsia to become organic intellectuals centered on NGOs engaged in emancipating rural and newly urbanized Muslims through grassroots level initiatives.

As a translator of Al-Jabiri’s writings, Ahmad Baso observes that Al-Jabiri provides a strategy, an “epistemological rupture” and paradigmatic revolution that will overturn current Western-inspired modernist-liberal ideologies and replace them with Indonesian Islamic alternatives. Through the ideas derived from Al-Jabiri, Ahmad Baso and other Anak Muda NU see themselves as continuing the anti-essentialist and non-reductive social ethics of their mentor Abdurrahman Wahid, which was grounded in Pribumisasi Islam – that is the ‘indigenization Islam’ into culturally specific contexts of Indonesia.

At the same time, however, Baso is acutely aware that the NU’s holistic framework with it strong Sufi dimensions, stands in tense relationship to al-Jabiri’s unambiguous privileging of rational (burhani) thinking. This shows also that Baso is no uncritical admirer of al-Jabiri, but – on the contrary – very acutely aware of ‘nationalistic’ tendencies that seem to infuse al-Jabiri’s interest in the philosophies of the Muslim West, or Maghreb. As a Moroccan, al-Jabiri’s preference for the intellectual heritage of the Maghreb may indeed lay him open to the charge of chauvinism.

All this attention for heritage thinking among NU intellectuals strengthens the impression that traditionalist Indonesian Muslims are more progressive than their modernist counterparts. This may be the case to some degree, but also in the Muhammadiyah one finds an interest in the ideas of Al-Jabiri. It forms part of a re-appreciation for the cultural context of religions by certain Islamic modernists in Indonesia.

Al-Jabiri and Indonesia’s Muslim Modernists
One such figure is M. Amin Abdullah, a leading figure in the Muhammadiyah and philosopher trained in Turkey, who eventually became rector the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta. Building on his research from the early 1990s, in The Study of Religion; Normativity or Historicity? In which he argues that contemporary Islamic philosophy has to come to terms with its Western counterpart, but at the same retain the normativity of Islam’s doctrine. Too often this is interpreted as an ‘intellectual invasion', or al-ghazwu al-fikry,  and this makes it difficult to change the resulting ‘reactive-defensive-emotional’ response into a ‘proactive-conceptual-argumentative’ one which was pioneered by heritage thinkers such as al-Jabiri.

M. Amin Abdullah
It forms the starting point for a new philosophy of education and a new curriculum for the study of Islam which Amin Abdullah explored in another book called Islamic Studies in Higher Education, An Integrative-Interconnective Approach. Here Abdullah proposes comprehensive approach to the study of religions as an open and interdisciplinary field, which looks at Islam as a living religion. It seeks to examine Islam through a civilizational lens by using both traditional religious and modern secular disciplines in combination with an ethical-philosophical approach that does not pretend to be value-free

Amin Abdullah draws predominantly from the triptych of the bayani, burhani, and irfani epistemes which Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri had developed in his Critique of Arab Reason. He says that Al-Jabiri’s critical approach covers a domain that is very similar to that of Western philosophy of science, and it is for that reason that Amin Abdullah proposes something that has not been tried before in Islamic Studies.: Applying the findings of leading philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos, to the study of Islam.

Amin Abdullah considers the dialectical historiographical meta-method of Lakatos particularly relevant because it formulates an alternative that navigates between the falsification process outlined by Popper and Kuhn’s paradigm shift. The distinctive aspect of Lakatos’s research programme is that it consists of a ‘hard core', corresponding to Kuhn’s paradigm, and a ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary hypotheses meant to defend the core from being challenged and undermined – or from being falsified, as Popper would call it.

Transposing these concepts of these concepts of the philosophy of science to Islamic studies, the field’s core is ‘normative Islam’ transmitted through traditional Islamic learning, while ‘historical Islam’ forms the ‘protective belt’. It is the conflation of the two that prevents a critical study of Islam.

This is Amin Abdullah’s plan as far as methodology and research agenda for a philosophy of Islamic sciences goes, but – as mentioned earlier – the aim of this new way of studying Islam is not just epistemological but also axiological: Namely To help find the fundamental value lying behind the Islamic doctrine. The new way of doing Islamic studies on the basis of the findings of the philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge requires a new research programme combining linguistic-historical, philosophical-theological, and sociological-anthropological approaches, offered by the historical, structural, and ideological analyses found in Al-Jabiri’s Critique of Islamic Reason.

The main challenge of this comprehensive research programme is how to reconcile the absolute truth claims of the disciplines of traditional Islamic learning representing religious knowledge with relativized truths claims and the scepticism of the modern humanities and social sciences, which produce knowledge about religion(s) by taking them as social phenomena. Navigating between extreme absolutes and relativities, the outcome of Abdullah’s negotiation between religious sciences, on the one hand, and the human sciences on the other is the ‘relatively absolute’ approach.

Amin Abdullah also explains that transcending the bipolarity of religion and science as two separate entities with their own formal-material concerns, research methodologies, criteria for truth or validity, and functionality means  that a new foundation needs to be found for the epistemological unity of religious and positivist-secular knowledge of, what Abdullah calls,  Etika Tauhidik -- an ‘Ethics grounded in Transcendent Unity’. This clearly resonates with Ibn Rushd’s conclusion that revealed and demonstrative scientific and philosophical truths are not incompatible.

For Amin Abdullah, Al-Jabiri’s bayani, irfani and burhani systems of thought provide the structure for transforming contemporary multidisciplinary Islamic studies into a twenty first-century version of al-Ghazali’s equally comprehensive approach to conventional eleventh-century religious sciences. It creates a dialogue between the two in order to ‘humanize’ Islamic learning rather than ‘Islamize’ knowledge. The triangulation of Al-Jabiri’s critique of discursive, gnostic, and demonstrative reason connects the domains of textual-normative and contextual-historical-empirical analyses and offers the circularity which defines the desired dynamical hermeneutics of Abdullah’s integrative-interconnective approach.


Here we have then a few examples of the use of al-Jabiri’s philosophy by Indonesian Muslim intellectuals from NU and Muhammadiyah backgrounds for their own respective agendas.

However, the fact that a Moroccan rationalist philosopher appeals to both of them, seems to show that Al-Jabiri’s thinking has brought about a kind of meeting of the minds between Islamic traditionalism and modernism that transcends a almost two-centuries old divide.