The following is part of a conversation with the late professor Mohammed Arkoun* on Belgian TV**. The interview is from the early 1990’s, but the reader will quickly realize that the important points raised in the discussion are still highly relevant to our context today.
For most of his prestigious academic career, Mohammed Arkoun was professor of the history of Islamic thought at the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. He also held teaching positions at a number of universities around the world.
I provide an English translation of a large part of the interview below.
Host: Mohammed Arkoun, Good evening
Arkoun: Good evening
Host: Who is indeed better than you to enlighten us on this Islam to which you devoted all your life; first as Muslim and then as Islamologist, as witnessed by the titles of your main books… Essays on Islamic Thought… For a Critique of Islamic Reason… Islam: Morals and Politics… Islam: Yesterday, Tomorrow with Louis Gardet… in addition to Overtures on Islam? You are today, without any doubt, one of the most prominent experts in the world of this Islam that intrigues [some] and worries [others]… You do not only teach in Paris where you work as professor of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne, you also teach at a number of universities in Europe, the Arab world, and the United States. All this makes the French of Algerian origins that you are a man of synthesis, a man at the crossroads. Mohammed Arkoun, it is now for you to rewrite in your own way the name of this program.
H: Mohammed Arkoun, clarify for us… This is the first time that we write an Arabic title for this program; how do we say exactly in Arabic “the names of God”?
A: Asmā’ Allah and we [usually] add the adjective al husnā which means the most beautiful, because the names of God can only represent beauty. And beauty moves and awakens human desire, the human spiritual desire, the human desire for Truth, the human desire for the Absolute. And I already pronounced [here] a number of these names that came to animate not only piety but also meditation and intellectual reflection in the Islamic tradition.
H: If I am not mistaken, there are in the Qur’an ninety nine names to designate God, the most beautiful names; let me cite a few from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Islam… The Beneficent, the Wise, the Merciful, the Eternal, the Just, the Omniscient, the Powerful, the Generous, the Noble, the Magnanimous, the Magnificent, the Glorious… But it is the same God, correct?
A: Absolutely. There was a whole discussion in Muslim theology to establish whether these names were qualifiers to designate the one God or whether they were eternal attributes of God… co-eternal with God. This theological problem, which I only mention in passing, has the ramification that the names of God allow one to have access to the Absolute of God… This is [related] to what Muslims testify when they say Allah Akbar for example. This is commonly translated as God is Greatest, which is a very simplistic translation [in my opinion]. In reality, this expression [ought to] occur each time that the human being speaks about a particular subject in order to say that for everything that the human being expresses in his thought, his culture, and his existence, there is a beyond to what he says. Allah Akbar is then [in reference to] the beyond of everything. This is the best translation that introduces us to infinite space.
H: Here, we are in theology, but also in the realities of everyday life, for this phrase is ubiquitous in the life of the Muslim…
A: Absolutely. And that is why I wrote two expressions [in Arabic]. [The other expression is] the expression bismi-llah, in the name of God, which is indeed repeated in all the actions of everyday life. For instance, when one is about to have a meal, before taking the first bite one must say, in the name of God.
H: For example, before starting this program, you could have pronounced it.
A: Normally, yes. I should have said in the beginning, bismillah al Raḥmān al Raḥīm. Bismillah… In the name of God. And the complete formula, which is used at the beginning of each chapter of the Qur’an, is bismillah al Raḥmān al Raḥīm… In the name of God, the Clement, the Merciful; which means that [we add] two of the richest attributes [of God] in the eyes of the faithful… Clemency and Mercy… this is related to the [perspective according to which] human condition is fragile. [there is] the sinful human condition [on one hand] and on the other hand [there is[ the God who forgives, the God who is receptive, the God who helps, The God who is the constant and perpetual solicitude vis-à-vis the human being.
H: This means, if I have understood well, that all the actions of everyday life are in devotion to God… that God is omnipresent.
A: This is indeed a characteristic of Islam generally, and Islam as a spirituality in particular. It is the experience of the divine. [It is] how the believer experiences the divine within Islamic teachings. This is an expression that I believe is very appropriate to describe the spiritual exercises that are widespread and well-known among the believers, even if [these believers] have not received a deep theological formation. [In other words], it addresses itself to the average believer.
H: One of the principle teachings of the Islamic religion is that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his Prophet. This is a fundamental dogma of Islam. Islam is of course a form of monotheism like Christianity and like Judaism… We recognize today the importance of the contribution of Christianity and Judaism to humanism, to the liberal ideal… even later, to the liberal constitutions of Europe in the 18th century. You claim for Islam an equal position in this contribution of monotheism…
A: Exactly. This formula that you just cited, there is no divinity except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God, is first of all the profession of faith, through which one joins the Muslim community, [just] as one must circumcise to join the Jewish community and one must be baptized [to join the Christian community]. It is of equivalent importance.
H: It’s the first initiation…
A: It is the entrance… It is the rite of passage, as an anthropologist would say. This formula is very important to comment upon, if you would allow me to. We must explain how, at the same time, Islam is the spiritual continuation of all the prophetic teachings of the Bible and of Jesus, which are all integrated into the Qur’anic teachings… But at the same time, in Islamic practice and within the various theological schools that arose in Islam, this [continuation] gave place to a separation in relation to those two religions. This is what we must try and explain, because it is important in today’s context. As you mentioned in your introduction, European public opinion perceives Islam as a completely foreign religion… [foreign] to [European] thought and culture and [foreign] to what we call our values, our Western civilization, etc… But the history of these three religions show very well that the prophetic discourse, as it functions in the Qur’an, in linguistic terms, is the same as the one we read in the Bible and in the Gospels. I emphasize the linguistic aspect. It is very important to insist on the linguistic element of religious discourse [that] we find in what we call scriptures. Consequently, the formula, there is no divinity except God and Muhammad is his Messenger, is in reality a continuation of the prophetic function within Islam of what was known among Jews and Christians. We could have then developed a theology that conforms to this vision of continuity of the Prophetic function. Unfortunately, and it would be lengthy to [thoroughly] explain [the directions of] the theologies [of the three religions] as they developed after the appearance of Islam and especially when Islam became part of a political empire… which means after 661 with the formation of the first dynasty in Damascus and later the great Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. There is [here] the issue of empire, the issue of political power, and therefore the issue of constructing a Muslim theology in competition with existing theologies i.e. Christian theology and Jewish theology, which themselves entered into a polemical battle with the new theology. So, we must differentiate between what is said about God, The God that is said, in the prophetic discourse, [the one] that we still read today in what we call scriptures on one hand, and on the other hand, the theological systems that would come to provide an exegesis of these discourses in a way that is not only separated [from the other] but [exists] in a state of competition and rivalry [with that other].
H: … this is true of other forms of monotheism…
A: It is true of all religious systems, because religious systems provide a foundation for political power. The two have mixed throughout history which would lead [at one point] to the experience that we know in Europe of the separation of the religious from the political. This [only makes sense] because of the tight link that has always existed between the religious and the political. This is an idea that we need to stress to inform the Western public on the true locus of the separation, on the historical reasons of this separation… but also, and we should not lose sight of it, on the locus of the root of a common question that we could have on the names of God. That is why I enthusiastically adhere to the spirit and to the conception of this program, and I really thank you for it, because I think that we have great need (of such programs), precisely in Europe… This is an intellectual need, a scientific need… I am not preaching on behalf of religion.
H: [you are] not proselytizing…
A: Absolutely not. Quite the opposite; I am battling to open a field of inquiry in exactly the same spirit of this program that is new on the European scene. And why do I say that this is necessary at this moment of the evolution of Europe? Because the construction of Europe and the opening of a European field must not only be political and economic; it must absolutely be intellectual. [And among] the big debates that we have witnessed for a long while and that we will hopefully continue, is the debate over what happened after the end in the 18th century of political theology, as it was defined and lived within European societies… in contrast to all that was developed earlier in the name of God and within the space of [religious] knowledge, religious experiences, and experiences of the divine that were opened by the names of God. There is much to say about this…
H: …you mean the rise of secularism. Let’s now move to the second chapter of this program and let’s see what image of the 20th century you have retained for us…
H: March 9th, 1916. Two diplomats, a Frenchman, Georges Picot (d. 1951) and an Englishman, Mark Sykes (d. 1919) reach a secret agreement dividing the Middle East. They themselves drew the zones of influence, some in red for Great Britain and the other in blue for France. Mohammed Arkoun, why did you choose this image as the most important one in the 20th century?
A: It is because it represents an important historical moment in the relations between Europe and this Middle East in which exist many burning and still unresolved problems. This Middle East is obviously connected to the monotheistic traditions that we are discussing [today]. The historical study of the relations between Europe and the Middle East has ignored the cultural, religious, and intellectual dimension of the general history of thought in the Mediterranean world. I want to illustrate the break that was introduced in this history by the intervention of a political hegemonic will that can take us back to the emergence of Islam itself, then forward to the crusades, then to the conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. The [Sykes-Picot] Agreement is but an outcome, in the early 20th century and in the midst of World War I, of the rising hegemonic will of Europe which controlled the whole Mediterranean region, particularly the Middle East… [This] division was created [by the dominant European powers], designating the south and east of the Mediterranean world as Arab and Islamic and separating it from the north, which represented Mediterranean Europe. In addition to the big political problems that this division has generated and from which we still suffer, it led to an intellectual and cultural division that has become a division within our own universities… until today. For example, if you want to study the history of the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, you have to go study the Ottoman and Arab side of this history with Orientalist experts, while the general history of Mediterranean Europe occurs in the departments of history where history is studied comprehensively. There are similar partitions and similar borders within the universities in the study of the history of the monotheistic religions, of the theological systems that I mentioned earlier, [and in the study of] the history of philosophy and philosophical thought in the Mediterranean world. In other words, the Sykes-Picot Agreements not only introduce the beginning of political borders that imprison us in all the difficulties we witness today, they also introduce or rather aggravate a border of an intellectual kind and [a border] of a cultural kind. Thus, today Islam is marginalized, situated elsewhere, and [certainly] not [studied] within an inclusive vision of the history of thought in the Mediterranean world.
H: So, according to you, there is here an assault on a region that is highly symbolic, but an assault that turns back against Europe itself like a boomerang…
A: Exactly. Europe has mutilated itself of a dimension of thought that it had nonetheless used with great dynamism in the 12th and 13th centuries. Many of the philosophical and scientific works were [then] available in the Arabic language, because Arabic was the language of culture and civilization, the intellectual language from the 7th to the 13th centuries in this Mediterranean world. The translations [of these works] to the Latin language were used by the Christian thinkers of Europe at the Sorbonne, Oxford, Bologna, and within other European universities. In other words, there was a path of thought starting from classical Greece and passing through Baghdad, passing through Ray—which is ancient Tehran, passing through Cairo, passing through Qayrawan, passing through Cordoba, passing through Fez, etc… There is a path of thought that gets broken by the will and the vision that took over Europe, as a result of the hegemonic attitude [that I mentioned earlier]. This is perfectly symbolized by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreements that divided zones of influence in the Middle East between France and Great Britain.
H: In your opinion, is this division of the Middle East between the French and the British, between Europeans the result of the great European revolutions?
A: Indeed. We can rethink history in this sense by correctly and openly asking the question that concerns what we call in the francophone world Laïcité: this elimination of political theology, as it is called by historians of philosophy, in comparison with what happened previously. It is clear that there are very dangerous misunderstandings today. And they are indeed misunderstandings. They are not real differences in terms of intellectual production and in terms of the production of meaning for human existence. What separates us are historical lags, resulting from the evolution of what Fernand Braudel (d. 1985) called material civilization in Europe, starting from the 18th century. This material civilization has raised European societies by giving them hegemonic power as a result of the progress in science and technology, etc… But this is not due to an integration of the history of the metamorphoses of meaning, going from the prophetic period that I mentioned earlier and continuing simultaneously with the path of prophetic discourse in the three scriptural traditions and with what we call Greek philosophical thought. These two currents, these two axes are constitutive of all thought in our European as well as Arab-Islamic societies. These two axes continue to engage us today and we see how the religious is resurgent, not in the form of an adequate interpretation that [would be] based on a comprehensive rather than shattered history. Instead, the religious is resurgent in the menacing form of ideology on both sides. Therefore misunderstandings increase on both sides. And this is where intervention is necessary. We must intervene where our modes of perception and our modes of interpretation are forged, concerning our respective histories and particularly around the issues of meaning before the end of political theology and after the end of political theology.
H: And in your opinion, there is a similarity between what happened in this context and [the fall of the] Berlin [Wall] (1989)…
A: Indeed. In fact, I wanted to use two symbols to discuss the 20th century. [First of all], the Sykes-Picot map and the divisions planned at Yalta are of the same ilk. The same actors were dividing the world and drawing the borders and creating the problems in which we are drowning today…with all the tragedies we have witnessed in [former] Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the world. As for Berlin, I wanted to say the following: [the fall of the] Berlin [Wall] is the result of an evolution in Western thought… in the sense that Marx (d. 1875) is a product of Western thought; Marx emerged in the 19th century from this material civilization that created capitalism on one side and the workers class on the other side and that created all the exclusions that we know in European society. The Berlin Wall, at the time of its construction, shows the cleavage between two worlds within the heart of Europe itself, [in relation to] how European thought functioned. The fall of the Berlin Wall shows an evolution of this same thought, but this time, I ask the question of whether the fall of the Berlin Wall will affect all the societies in our world. Will we [all] reflect on this new international order that has been discussed and that was promised to us? Or will Europe again close on itself and continue to produce events like those of Sykes-Picot, by perpetuating that hegemonic vision on the rest of the world? In other words, the Berlin Wall must be seen as a symbol, opening a new page of history that is different from the one we have lived since the 19th century and in connection with the theme of our conversation [today].
God becomes God when creatures say God (Meister Eckhart)
H: Mohammed Arkoun, you surprised me [with your choice]. I expected that you would choose a great Arab or Muslim thinker. Surely, you chose a great mystic, but a great German mystic of the 12th and 13th centuries [sic]…
A: Exactly, and I did that on purpose. First, I wanted to show that Islamic thought was always open to the other. [Islamic thought] has had an interest in the other expressions of culture and of the divine, of course. Classical Islamic thought let itself be shaped by a big number of currents, in addition to the one emanating from the Qur’an itself. In other words, I insist on re-establishing this pluralism of Islamic thought, a pluralism that allowed this thought to produce an authentic humanism, centered at the same time on the human being and on human beings as they connect to the divine, to God through revelation. This is very important [given that] today, Islam has a tendency [to do otherwise] in order to defend or protect itself, as a result of all the dominations that [Muslims] faced ever since the 18th century. So, [I seek to] re-establish, within the contemporary context a more solidary history of Europe and the Muslim world, a common ground where men and women express themselves on the divine as did Meister Eckhart (d.1328). And I could have cited many Muslim thinkers among whom is a great mystic by the name of al Hallaj (d. 922), a man as important as Meister Eckhart. He lost his life and was executed after a resounding trial at the beginning of the 10th century in Baghdad, because he developed and described his experience of the divine in esoteric terms and in poetic language. He ended up being condemned by the theologian-jurists for the phrase, anā al ḥaqq or “I am the Real/Truth.” The word ḥaqq is a Qur’anic term that is extremely difficult to translate and which connotes what we call today truth/right/reality. I also chose this phrase because within Islam, there is a whole theological current that we call the Muʿtazilites who insisted on the importance of language. What does Meister Eckhart tell us? He says that God becomes God when the creatures, i.e. human beings, say God. The verb to say…To say God is to put God in language. In other words, there is here a theological and philosophical dilemma of the utmost importance that is posed in the same fashion among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Here is [more] common ground, an intellectual field that sends us back to the importance of language as a space in which meaning is constructed. When I say God, I propose meaning, starting from the perception and experience that I can have of God. And this experience and perception cannot occur without my reading of the prophetic discourse itself. Therefore, we are still [working] with language.
H: So, Mohammed Arkoun, you wanted to put this quote of Meister Eckhart next to a verse of the Qur’an. It is verse 35 of Chapter 24.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within a glass, the glass is as if it were a brilliant star; kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. God guides to His light whom He wills. And God sets forth parables for the people, and God is Knower of all things.
H: So, what similarities exist, according to you, between this verse and the phrase of Meister Eckhart?
A: This verse has allowed creatures, thanks to its rare symbolic and metaphorical richness (there is great richness in symbols and metaphors about God using the concept of light)… this way of saying God has engendered an almost infinite number of ways to say God by the faithful who find themselves, while reading this verse, projected into an esoteric vision of God and therefore say God, as Meister Eckhart writes. [We have access to] a [large] literature [of this kind] that we have yet to fully engage. And I would like to mention [a work] among the great works that we can study today and that engages us not only for religious reasons, but also to comprehend the functioning of creative human imagination, as it emerges from these texts that say God. [This is] the work of the great Muslim mystic of Spain, Ibn ʿArabī (d.1240) who was contemporaneous with but younger than the famous Averroes (Ibn Rushd, d. 1198). [Ibn `Arabi] left us an exceptional, monumental, and extremely rich legacy that is yet to be [sufficiently] engaged and that shows us [a particular way] to say God. Texts like [the previous Qur’anic one] act through an aesthetic sense, through the substance of their content, and through the experiences that they solicit from the audience.
H: This is what you call the metaphor of the olive tree…
A: There is in this verse a magnificent metaphor, that I always cite, of an olive tree that is “neither from the east nor from the west,” says already the Qur’an, as if it was thinking of this East, presented today as fixed, ideological, and polemical and that is made into the opposite of [that] West that functions as the model for culture, civilization, and knowledge. The East is reduced to being the place of regress, the place of backwardness in thought, culture, and development… [terms] that have become common in the way we speak about this East.
H: In an article in Le Monde of March 15th, 1989, you wrote, “emerging from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, secular thought has marginalized this stock of symbols and signs from which we all drew in our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.”
A: Exactly. [This is what] I have been trying to explain [today]. You are citing a text from 1989, and it tells you that we still need to address an extremely large public and to make this public participate, within a pedagogical framework, [in discussing] these essential problems. Many people are weaned within these cultures and these traditions. [But, these traditions cannot be] approached [anymore] in a polemical fashion, or taken as dogmatic theological systems that have functioned inside each community to legitimate wars in the Mediterranean world. This time, [they can be] approached [differently], thanks to the intellectual context. [This is] the new context of liberty created by secularism. In my eyes, secularism, when understood correctly is a [useful] attitude for the issue of knowledge (how to know, how to say meaning)… And if we [have] meaning and [know] how to adequately communicate it within society, it [would] flow… without conditioning the audience by the way we say [that] meaning. Here again, we find the concept of saying… To say God is to say meaning.
H: The symbol [that you brought to us] comes from far away. It’s a Buddhist sanctuary. Built in the year 800 AD in the Indonesian island of Java, the Borobudur Temple was rediscovered in the beginning of the 19th century and was restored thanks to the collective efforts of UNESCO and the Indonesian government. The restoration took nearly 15 years and in 1983 this wonder was declared common heritage of mankind. It is a site of prayer and a site of pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that you have personally performed…
A: Yes indeed. I am very happy to introduce this [site] into our conversation, because Indonesia, as we all know, is a Muslim country. There are more than 180,000,000 people in Indonesia; and there are more Muslims in Indonesia alone than in the totality of the Arab world. And in Indonesia, we find a very open and tolerant form of Islam. And as you said, on the eve of the independence [of the country], the Indonesian government has encouraged the restoration of this great site that engages the whole of humanity. When I arrived at the site of Borobudur… and I was with a large delegation, [representing] the Agha Khan Award for Architecture and studying Indonesian architecture… I was immediately taken by the spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic message that the site instantly generates.
H: Love at first sight…
A: Love at first sight [indeed]. There are four entrances, one on each side. The pilgrim within the Buddhist tradition must enter on the East side and start his ascension towards the light in the third level, the highest level. And when he gets up there, he must make a left; so that on his right, there are frescos with a large number of statues that narrate the spiritual journey of the Buddhist towards what Buddhists also call the light… You see that we are still within the symbol, the metaphor of the light.
H: It is an initiation
A: It is an initiation in which we find rituals that are reminiscent of the Muslim ritual of the Hajj to Mecca, of the ritual of the Hindus around a [consecrated] fire, of the ritual of the Stations of the Cross that commemorate the Passion of the Christ… You see here elements that have fashioned the ways of humanity towards what we would call meaning.
H: And every Muslim must perform the Hajj. Did you perform it?
A: Yes, I performed it twice, but I performed it in this openness [that we are discussing]. I always insist on openness. I often use this term, because the Muslim intellectual and spiritual experience is an experience of openness. And what is occurring currently is an apparent closing on the self, resulting from the pressures that Muslim societies have experienced since the 19th century. It corresponds to a defensive system for protection and not to a closing on the self that is inherent to the Islamic tradition. And again, in a country like Indonesia, contact between various religions is better than we experience between the monotheistic religions, because we have developed exclusionary systems, because we have lived next to each other, conflicting over the same religious and symbolic heritage.
H: To go back to what you were discussing previously, the Borobudur sanctuary is another way of saying God…
A: Exactly, it is another manner of saying God. And one of the reasons for which I have chosen [this symbol] is to open a new space of intelligibility of the religious phenomenon. This space must be open to critical and scientific knowledge of the various religious traditions and [open] to new questions, using modern analytical tools, within the perspective of a religious anthropology; and at the same time ask ourselves about the validity of what we consider modernity to be, but without creating this break, that many want to unfortunately create, within human communities and cultures. This stance does not correspond to the notion of humanism, which is an important concept in all the traditions. The humanist experience is not the privilege of Europe, as it is often presented. I myself, when I prepared my doctorate thesis on Arab humanism in the 10th century, I faced challenges from my colleagues and from my committee members who argued that one could not speak within the Arab and Muslim context of humanism in the sense of the humanism that was created in Europe, starting in the 16th century. And there are some who still oppose the notion, because we lack this openness to experiences that were developed in various cultures. And I cannot accept that a religion that produced something like Borobudur can be excluded from what we can call a humanist experience. Certainly, it expressed itself in different terms and with different modalities, but the project and the struggle for meaning is the same.
H: So, for you the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an say God; and so do temples, churches, and mosques. Is it the same God?
A: That is a different question. It is precisely because this God is said by the creatures, as Meister Eckhart says, meaning by humans, and that humans speak their languages within different cultural conditions and different historical conditions, then we have a different coding… a different semantic coding, a different semiotic coding, a different semiological coding of this God that we might call the Absolute, we might call Transcendence, but I prefer to use [the term] meaning. And the problem that we face today is how human beings engender meaning in society and in history, while going through the mediation of language. To Say is to use language, it is to be within language… to inherit a language that was already utilized… This creates a challenge for us today. For centuries, we considered meaning to be delivered from above by God, that we received [this meaning] from [God] through authoritative voices, and that we simply needed to learn what was revealed in this fashion and to make our thought and our actions compliant with what we could understand of this meaning. So, it is radical revision of the question of the meaning of human existence.
* For more information on Arkoun, visit the French site of the Mohammed Arkoun Foundation for Peace between Cultures, established by his wife Touria Yacoubi Arkoun. http://www.fondation-arkoun.org/
** The video of the whole interview in French can be found at http://www.rtbf.be/video/detail_noms-de-dieux?id=602121