Last April, I lost my father back in Morocco. I did not get a chance to say goodbye. It has been painful for me to deal with the intense emotions that emerged from that experience. Ever since my childhood, my relation with my father has been complicated and we often did not see eye to eye on issues concerning family, career, and other personal business. However, I always thought that true reconciliation was just a matter of time. I had hoped that one day, I would be able to show my father that I sincerely loved him and that I could make him proud. Happy days would then finally erase the memories of all the difficult times of the past.
I don’t know if this flowery vision was the result of my long exile from home. Was it a way for me to cope with the fact that choosing to start a new life in the U.S. really meant that my relationships with my family members would never be the same? Perhaps. But the passing of my father surely left a big hole in my heart. Without the support of my wife and best friend, things could have taken a bad turn for me.
The French often say that “un malheur ne vient jamais seul” (misfortune never comes alone). And 2010 has felt like one misfortune after another. This week, I lost a teacher and a friend. This was a teacher I never met. It was a friend who did not even know that I existed. I met him in the pages of his many books and articles. And this is where I have spent the latest decade of my life: immersed in books as I have dedicated myself to the academic study of religion. This choice was the result of an intense personal experience that I had lived in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. But that is a story for another time. It is enough to say that years of research and study have given me the opportunity to engage the intellectual output of brilliant women and men from both the past and the present. In a way, the academic world became a second family for me. Nevertheless, no one person impressed and influenced me more than the late Professor Mohammed Arkoun.
Born in Algeria to an Amazigh family in the Kabylie in 1928 during the period of French colonization, Arkoun pursued higher studies in Arabic and Islamic thought in Algeria and France. Arkoun quickly made a name for himself and ended up becoming a professor at the famous Sorbonne in Paris. During his illustrious academic career, Arkoun used a variety of modern scientific tools to deconstruct and understand the history and development of the Islamic tradition. A critic of both classical Western orientalists and traditional scholars (ulama) of the modern Muslim world, Arkoun developed a whole new approach that he called “Applied Islamology.”
Arkoun utilized anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and semiology in addition to strict historical methods. He wanted to create the basis for a rethinking of not only Islam but of the whole phenomenon of prophecy and religious dogma in the Near East and the Mediterranean Basin. For Arkoun, a vigorous analysis of the historical data and a thorough comparative study will enable the researcher to move beyond what he called “clôtures dogmatiques,” imposed by particular historical circumstances. Ultimately, Arkoun was the carrier of an immense humanist project through which not only could we better understand the religious phenomenon in the world of the monotheistic traditions, but one that would also provide modern Muslim societies with new avenues to reconcile with modernity as well as create new paths of reconciliation and peace between the “West” and “the Muslim world.”
It would take books to even summarize the thought and academic work of Mohammed Arkoun. This is certainly not the place to attempt such a task. For me, the pain of the loss of this great thinker and scholar has been extremely sharp because I believe that he had a lot more to offer. Just like with the loss of my own father, there is a sense of unfinished business. I had already experienced a similar pinch in my heart when just a couple of months ago, Nasr Abu Zayd, another great thinker and academic succumbed to illness. Obviously, these are not simply personal losses, although I have a strong intellectual affinity with these thinkers. I am even more saddened by the fact that the Muslim world was in a dire need for proponents of an Islamic enlightenment of the caliber of Arkoun and Abu Zayd.