Adonis Diaries

“Why the Arab World is not free?” by Moustapha Safouan

Posted on: September 23, 2008

“Why the Arab World is not free?” by Moustapha Safouan, (July 21, 2008)

The book “Why the Arab World is not free?” is highly important and a major manuscript to read leisurely.

Each chapter contains an idea or a concept that can be developed extensively to the benefit of our retrograded societies.

Safouan believes, as I do, that the main power that allowed monarchs and colonial occupiers to enslave entire people was the adoption of a special language for the elites in any society.  The elite language was necessarily different from the language spoken by the common people or vulgar language.

The specials languages, written by the religious hierarchies, the scribes, the scientists and medical professions, left the impression to the common people that they are surely inferior in knowledge and capability, and thus logically, they had to submit to the monarchs and elites and excuse their unequal treatments and wrong doings as not comparable to the standards of responsibilities among the common people.

This paragraph is of my own.

(The invention of writing, maybe originated from Kingdom of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia before the fourth millennia, answered to an intellectual logic for organizing the real life, mostly administrative in nature, and which include laws and accounting principles. The words didn’t represent images but sounds of the spoken language that meant an object of an idea or a relationship.  It seems that the invention of writing was not attributed to a divine origin but as a human responsibility.  The invention of writing was applied independently in various civilizations with different forms, but the common denominator was that a word represented a concept, and thus for the administrative scribes, things didn’t exist unless it was given a name in writing.)

The modern man can be said to stand up on its own around the year 1250 when universities in Europe were instituted independently of States or the Church.  These universities acquired power and graduated scholars that replaced the bishops in the interpretation of the scriptures and technicians in all fields that the States needed their services.  The Renaissance would not have existed without these hotbeds of education in Bologna (Italy), Paris, London and Tübingen (Germany).

There is no critical separation between religion and sciences for the transmission of education and culture to the next generations.

Copernicus was an influential priest in Poland; Kepler who studied theology at the University of Tübingen but was sent by his professors to teach mathematics at the University of Graz; Newton wrote more on theology and the Old Testament than on physics and mathematics.  Only Galileo might have collided with the Church, simply because he realized that sciences has taken a new paradigm, which is away from the Aristotelian system to the mathematical sciences based on algebraic equations and thinking.

The Islamic mathematicians such as Thabet Bin Kura, Al Khwarazmi, and Kashi have laid the foundations of algebra and shifted the center of mathematics from geometry to algebra, simply because the complex rules of heritage in the Moslem laws required complex computations.

There are two venues for translating manuscripts; either we assimilate the text to the culture, or we subordinate our mentality to the thinking of the original author.  If we adopt the first concept we are basically regurgitating our own prejudices and idiosyncrasies. The second method should be bound to express the main philosophical thinking of the language and be faithful to the author’s philosophy and intents.

The second method pre-suppose that the translator is very familiar with the culture of the original language, so that the readers assimilate varieties of ways of thinking and ways of life.

Obviously, in our dying traditional classical Arabic language, as well as societies, not many people are familiar with the classical Arabic for ideas to be communicated and disseminated.  At least, if the second method of translation in the popular verbal language is endeavored we might expect a better return for changing our mentality.

Classical Arabic has no adequate words for the terminology of political philosophy for many reasons.

For example, Republic or “res publica” which means public affairs or public cause is generally translated as common interest “al maslaha al 3amat” which defeats the core meaning and reduces the whole politics of the republic to varieties to interests.

Another concept of sovereignty which means the right of retaining the last decision is translated as “siyada” which connote domination of masters to slaves.

The concept of politic which is the adoption of a system on how to govern among the citizens is translated as “siyasa” the root base of “sasa” which means how to lead or to control.

6 Responses to "“Why the Arab World is not free?” by Moustapha Safouan"

I have only just read this book by Professor Moustapha Safouan which I accidently discovered whilst browsing through the Middle East Department of Waterstone Piccadilly London.
I was disappointed as there were no books about Egypt till I stumpled on the most amazing book I have read for a long time’ Why Are the Arabs NOT Free’
Professor Safouan is of the great intellecual age of the Egypt that brought to the surface great minds like Taha Hussein , Sinhoury, Nahas Pasha and King Fouad.
As a Doctor who came to London more than 30 years ago, with passion in politics has led me to read dozens of books about Egypt ,Arabs and Islam as a religion and Empire.
It is sad that students of politics and sociology and indeed the public were not made aware of this Egyptian literary giant.This is no exageration as I have tried to find Egyptian contemporary writers which was a shocking disappointment in content and presentation.I studied in Cairo University in 70s Egypt. Debate was banned and free thought was swiftly stifled.The first time to see serious books about Egypt was in the UK.Safouan writtings are rare ,educational , couragious, with deep insight
I wish he would write more books and give us lectures.
Dr Wafik Moustafa
Acton Town Medical Centre
122 Gunnersbury Lane
London W3 9BA

0208 9931314

Thanks for patronizing my blog. I hope my book reviews are detailed enough. I posted a short review by an Egyptian writer on “Barsomnian Building”; pretty good reading.

“…How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting? Better go drunk and begging round the taverns. Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours will make a cup, bowl, one day a jar….”

Great, provocative and ground breaking article.”Copernicus was an influential priest in Poland; Kepler who studied theology at the University of Tubingen but was sent by his professors to teach mathematics at the University of Graz; Newton wrote more on theology and the Old Testament than on physics and mathematics. ”

Modern Nobel laureates within the world of Islam refer to Abul-‘Alaa’, Ma’ari, Avicenna or Farabi, Khayyam or Razi in their Nobel addresses; these rationalists of Islam are nearly forgotten in the maddarassas.

Najib Mahfouz in his Nobel prize acceptance speech said:

“Permit me, to present myself in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one. One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.

I will, instead, introduce that civilization in a moving dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits: In one victorious battle against Byzantium it has given back its prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge, even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of a pagan civilization.

It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk, to feed on their literature and art. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucherer, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases. Our great poet Abul-‘Alaa’ Ma’ari was right when he said: “A grief at the hour of death is more than a hundred-fold Joy at the hour of birth.”

When Prophet’s Armies emerged from Arabian isthmus, seizing territory from Spain to Persia, they took possession of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes, and other Greek thinkers. One of the prime reasons attributed to Muslims’ intellectual enhancement throughout the middle ages is the considerable contact of Greek rationalistic Philosophy on Muslim intellectuals. Scholars say science found such goodwill in medieval Islam for numerous reasons. Part of the charisma was based on experience of the unity of creation that was the essential meaning of Islam. Moreover as a result of the influence of Greek philosophy,
the vast majority of the Muslim intellectuals of the middle Ages preferred reason over faith as a guiding philosophy.

It is this interaction with our rich past, which makes our present day heroes associate themselves with the rationalists of the past.

The history of the philosophical debate that was started by al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd would continue at the hands of authors in the Islamic East in general, and in the Ottoman lands after the eclipse of the Muslim rule of Andalusia. In fact the famed sultan, Mehmet II (a.k.a. fatih [conqueror] r.(1451-1481), ordered two of the empires’ scholars to compile books to summarize the debate between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. Both of these works have been published one of which in a critical edition. This part of history needs yet to be written, but there are no takers yet. Orthodoxy in Islam rarely allows the treatise of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), Kindi (800-865 and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to become the syllabus of mainstream thought process.

A talib rarely knows about the real heroes of Islam; only in a selective reverence we refer to Avicenna and Averroes, but their thinking is not part of the Islamic milieu. We own them as success of Islam but we down their thoughts. If Avicenna and Averroes’s thinking were to be the dialogue within Islam, the sun of the golden era would have never set. We cannot cite Khayyam as an example of a great poet and completely forget the message he gave. We may disagree with him, but introduction of his thinking will help us to determine what pluralism is all about. These thinkers of the golden era need to be revived and their books should form an integral part of our academia. Khayyam is described as an atheist, philosopher, and naturalist. The constant themes of Khayyam’s poetry are the certainty of death, the pointlessness of asking unanswerable questions, the mysteriousness of the universe, and the necessity of living for and enjoying the present. This is clearly reflected in the following verses taken from Rubaiyat:

“…How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting? Better go drunk and begging round the taverns. Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours will make a cup, bowl, one day a jar….”

Shirin Ebadi in Iran is another Nobel laureate suffering at the hands of the radicals. Shirin Abadi, Islam’s most famous daughter and a Nobel Prize winner in her speech to accept the prize referred to her rich cultural integration with Islam. She said,

“Allow me to say a little about my country, region, culture and faith. I am an Iranian. A descendent of Cyrus The Great. The Charter of Cyrus the Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights. I am a Muslim. In the Koran the Prophet of Islam has been cited as saying: “Thou shalt believe in thine faith and I in my religion”. That same divine book sees the mission of all prophets as that of inviting all human beings to uphold justice. Since the advent of Islam, too, Iran’s civilization and culture has become imbued and infused with humanitarianism, respect for the life, belief and faith of others, propagation of tolerance and compromise and avoidance of violence, bloodshed and war. The luminaries of Iranian literature, in particular our Gnostic literature, from Hafiz, Mowlavi [better known in the West as Rumi] and Attar to Saadi, Sanaei, Naser Khosrow and Nezami, are emissaries of this humanitarian culture.”

A dark age within any civilization is characterized with dogmatic extremism that denies civil liberties, including freedom of religion and justice or the right to a fair trial. ‘Golden age’ on the other hand should be about the freedom of expression and availability of justice for the downtrodden. A society is judged not by its standards of the richest but by the way the under privileged and the poorest live. A minor renaissance within the regions under the influence of Islam can be traced but the conditions that help ‘seeds of reason’ to take roots that are essential for freethinking were just not allowed to be nurtured.

Unfortuntely in the Arab world, the true values are rarely ever discussed freely, during the glorified ‘Golden Age’ there was particularly strong tradition of rationalists, the Mutazilites. They stressed a human being’s inherent free will countering the predestinarians, who taught that everything was foreordained. The Mutazilites carefully cultivated an ‘enlightened moderation’ and allowed for the growth of knowledge and in their active promulgation and acceptance of Science as a part of the religion doctrine they brought to the Islamic world her Golden Age.

Muslim countries supply 70 per cent of the worlds energy requirements and 40 per cent of its raw material exports. It’s appalling statistic that with all of their oil wealth, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people live in Muslim countries? This state of misery is unparalleled; Islam’s inability to translate its economic prowess into general good has baffled the intelligentsia of the world. Perhaps one can argue that why, in the last 20 years, have over million people died in conflicts involving intra Muslim wars? Why are democracy and the rule of law nonexistent in most Muslim states? Why are most of the worst acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam? Whenever wicked fundamentalists have taken over reins of affairs they have gone for the jugular. Extremists have a single point agenda whereby ‘worldly decadence’ needs to be abolished for blessings and rewards of the after world. None of devotion but their kind can gratify them, every strain of deviancy over times have its own brand of virtuous approach, these anarchists at one point have inflicted devastation on embryonic societies of Islam.

Renaissance cannot be tainted with colour of ideology, it cannot be ‘Islamic or Christian,’ it is collective effort of minds to seek freedom from dogma and seek answers to complex questions of purpose of existence on this planet. Free thinking, logic and rationalism have to be the foundation stone of any serious attempt to induce renaissance in the Islamic world. Pluralism of Ideas and the prosperity of any land are intertwined. Freedom of minds and skill of intellect to ‘think the unthinkable’ is how humanity has progressed; when minds are incarcerated nothing endures.

Renaissance within all three monolithic religions was built around norms of free mind; renaissance was about literature, architecture, arts and chiseling of marble to exquisite forms. David could only be created by the love of the free labor of Michelangelo an enslaved mind cannot be an artist or a creator. Enslaved man can be a revolutionary and many a enslave people have helped changed the world but their minds were free they accepted death instead of compromise with totalitarian or dogmatic despotism.

The first and foremost challenge nations of Islam faces is freedom of intellectual enquiry, ability to ask the unthinkable and still be able to live in peace within a society is the ultimate hall mark of any efforts of kindling renaissance.

Prof. Ahmad Zewail’s use of the fast laser technique can be likened to Galilei’s use of his telescope, which he directed towards everything that lit up the vault of heaven. Zewail tried his femtosecond laser on literally everything that moved in the world of molecules. He turned his telescope towards the frontiers of science. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because he was the first to conduct experiments that clearly show the decisive moments in the life of a molecule – the breaking and formation of chemical bonds. He has been able to see the reality behind Arrhenius’ theory. His acceptance speech like Ebadi’s referred to his richness of twin civilisations that of Islam and Egyptian.

“Let me begin with a reflection on a personal story, that of a voyage through time. The medal I received from his Majesty this evening was designed by Erik Lindberg in 1902 to represent Nature in the form of the Goddess Isis – or eesis – the Egyptian Goddess of Motherhood. She emerges from the clouds, holding a cornucopia in her arms and the veil which covers hercold and austere face is held up by the Genius of Science. Indeed, it is the genius of science which pushed forward the race against time, from the beginning of astronomical calendars six millennia ago in the land of Isis to the femtosecond regime honoured tonight for the ultimate achievement in the microcosmos. I began life and education in the same Land of Isis, Egypt, made the scientific unveiling in America, and tonight, I receive this honor in Sweden, with a Nobel Medal which takes me right back to the beginning. This internationalization by the Genius of Science is precisely what Mr. Nobel wished for more than a century ago.”

Professor Ahmed H. Zewail, the only Arab to ever win a Nobel prize for science and, since the death of the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, the only one among the 1.2 billion Muslims with that honor, quoted Dr. Taha Hussein in his Nobel acceptance speech and said: “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievements.” Unfortunately the embryonic renaissance in the late 700’s to 1300 of Islam was not extinguished by the satisfaction of its scientist’s queries, rather it was killed on the altar of dogma. Abdus Salam once wrote: “The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.” Sad and tragic is the reality that this scion of Pakistan was not allowed to be buried in his homeland. His has been one of the most touching speeches; an orphaned son of a nation thanked the luminaries on behalf of a nation who had disowned him.

“… I thank the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Academy of Sciences for the great honor and the courtesies extended to us, including the courtesy to me of being addressed in my language Urdu. Pakistan is deeply indebted to you for this. The creation of Physics is the shared heritage of all mankind. East and West, North and South have equally participated in it. In the Holy Book of Islam, Allah says:

‘Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.'”

On the global stage, it is these heretical scientists disowned by us who have earned the greatest respect for Islam and not the orthodox clergy. Historically, we have distorted our real heroes into heretics, and the witch-hunt still continues. Dr. Abdus Salam is not the only one treated as a heretic, we have the modern rationalist, Naguib Mahfouz – Nobel laureate in literature. Citation of his work, ‘Awlad Haratina,’ in the Swedish Academy’s declaration of award of the Nobel Prize to Mahfouz in 1988 greatly angered the Islamicists. His novel appeared in English under the title, “The Children of Gebelawi.” Shortly after the eruption of the Rushdie affair, the leading fundamentalist, Omar Abd al-Rahman currently imprisoned in the US for his role in the attack on the World Trade Centre—declared that if they had killed Mahfouz in 1959 for writing ‘The Children of Our Alley,’ Rushdie would never have dared write his novel. This was taken as a fresh fatwa to kill Mahfouz. In 1994 an attempt on his life failed, although the assassin plunged a dagger into his neck, leaving him paralysed in his right arm. The crime of association of present day heroes of Islam with their past intellectual ancestors have marginalised them. It was same Mahfouz who presented the case of his twin civilisations so adequately in the august forum of ‘Swedish academy of sciences’ and quoted great Muslim rationalist poet Abul-‘Alaa’ Ma’ari, who was a supreme rationalist and asserted everywhere “the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition and authority.”

The world cannot remain hostage to medievalists, this modern fight has to be seen in its intellectual, historical and geographical context, the Islamic world today is trying to reignite its lost renaissance, this is the age of Islamic renaissance, people who are meant to cure our ills are out in the open to slaughter and maim thousands, apparently educated are mentally demented, this the age that was for 500 years escaped the region and hence helped establish a void of reason and rational. Respect of life is the first sign of an educated mind, the most important creation of providence being subject to dynamite is a work of an evil soul, lets not mix it, any mind that plots to maim and kill has not evolved, it has remained stuck in medieval hatreds of the past.

The Arabic language was synonymous with learning and science for 500 hundred years, a golden age that can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities, algebra, and the names of the stars and even the notion of science as an empirical inquiry. Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because there was within Islam a strong rationalist tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites. This tradition stressed human free will, strongly opposing the predestinarians who taught that everything was foreordained and that humans have no option but to surrender everything to Allah. Under the Mutazilites ‘enlightened moderation,’ knowledge grew. These rationalistic customs confronted its reverse when in the twelfth century, Muslim conventional Puritanism reawakened that was led by Ghazali who championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. The Imam described mathematics and medicine as Fard-E-Kefaya; he decisively placed those as secondary to religious-ilm. It’s ironical that with the kind of Muslim thinkers we had in the past, many of today’s Muslim orthodox model themselves on perhaps Ghazali, and none on any of the great Muslim rationalists such as Al-Raazi, Al Ma’ari, Omar Khayyam.

The philosophical ideas that al-Ghazali was attacking were the ideas of Avicenna and Farabi, some of which came from Aristotle while the majority came from Plato and Plotinus. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), is one of the foremost philosophers of the golden age of Islamic tradition that also includes Farabi and Ibn Rushd. He is also known as al-Sheikh Rais (Leader among the wise men), a title that was given to him by his students. His philosophical works were one of the main targets of Ghazali’s attack on philosophical influences in Islam. In the west, he is also known as the “Prince of Physicians” for his famous medical text Qanun “Canon”. In Latin translations, his works influenced many Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas. The spread of Hellenistic philosophy in the Muslim world would be first expounded on by the first Arabic philosopher Kindi (800-865). He wrote many works on Greek science and philosophy. He laid the foundation for others to follow in studying philosophical works. His main contribution was the firm conviction that Greek heritage contained important truths that Muslims could not afford to overlook. As a mathematician he realized the importance of Aristotelian Logic. Farabi’s ideal rulers would be chosen for their intelligence and carefully educated in science, philosophy and religion. According to Farabi, the best ruler for this Muslim state would be a “philosopher-king”, a concept described in Plato’s Republic. One of the most important contributions of Farabi, beyond his political views and scientific philosophies, was to make the study of logic easier by dividing it into two categories – Takhayyul (idea) and Thubut (proof). He wrote several sociological books, including his famous work – Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila (The Model City).

The war of ideas where Islamic clergy, for its own limited interests, has tried to introduce elements of bigotry and fanaticism in mainstream Islamic thought is not new to Muslim societies. It has made them weak and backward and if it continues in its most dangerous form, such a schism will fragment any country whose only reason to exist as a nation is theological unity of belief.

Our modern day laureates depict equally a sense of great connectivity to the rich past and that has to become a standard. Most likely the Islamic Renaissance that was about to be born 1000 years ago did not. We shall never know the extent of the harm that some celebrated religious zealots caused to mankind and civilization. We are once again at the crossroads; the only ways forward is to connect with the world and help make ours a true charitable society, the only way prosperity of mind can be ensured is through pluralism of ideas.

[…] Note: I decided to post a reply to the comments on my book review “Why the Arab World is not free?” by Moustapha Safouan […]

[…] Note: I decided to post a reply to the comments on my book review “Why the Arab World is not free?” by Moustapha Safouan; the length of the reactions demanded to be slpit in two parts. […]

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September 2008

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