Monday, August 20, 2007

Algerian thinker: Malek Bennabi

From Wikipedia:

Malek Bennabi (Arabic:مالك بن نبي) was a prominent Algerian thinker (born in 1905 and died in 1973). He wrote about human society, particularly Muslim society with a focus on the reasons behind the fall of muslim society.

The fall of Al-Muwaheed Dynasty that ruled North Africa including Spain from 1130 to 1269 marked a new devastating trend of undermining ideas. The lack of new ideas concurrently spurned the death of new civilisations. According to Malik Bennabi, with this, emerged what he coined – civilisational bankruptcy.

Algerian Malik Bennabi was born in 1905 in Constantine. Highly regarded as the most eminent scholar, and thinker, of Post World War II Algeria, and one of the foremost intellectuals of the modern Muslim world. Educated in Paris and Algiers in Engineering, he later based himself in Cairo, where he spent much of his time toiling through fields of History, Philosophy and Sociology.

In 1963, upon returning to Algeria, he witnessed modern science and technological civilisations unfold before his very eyes. This has spurred him to reflect on the question of culture in the early nineteenth century. His approach was simple; not parroting what had been discovered before his time, but rather, searching for what constitutes the essence of culture and the birth of civilisation.

From one of his works, “Les Conditions de la Renaissance” (1948), he defined culture as the mode of being and becoming of a people. This includes aesthetic, ethical, pragmatic, and technical values. When these contents have been clearly defined, only then could various formulations of ideas be born. The birth of new ideas equals to a dynamic society that leads to the movement of vibrancy of a new civilisation.

In another book, “The Question of Culture” (1954), he said, the organisation of society, its life and movement, indeed, its deterioration and stagnation, all have a functional relation with the system of ideas found in that society. If that system were to change in one way or another, all other social characteristics would follow suit and adapt in the same direction. Ideas, as a whole, form an important part of the means of development in a given society. The various stages of development in such a society are indeed different forms of its intellectual developments. If one of those stages corresponds to what is called “renaissance”, it will mean that society at that stage is enjoying a wonderful system of ideas; a system that can provide a suitable solution to each of the vital problems in that particular society. He added that ideas influence the life of a given society in two different ways; either they are factors of growth of social life, or on the contrary, the role of factors of contagion, thus rendering social growth rather difficult or even impossible.

Malik Bennabi said that in the nineteenth century, the relations among nations were based on power for the position of a nation was dependent on the number of its factories, cannons, fleets and gold reserves. However, the twentieth century introduced a new development in which ideas were held in high esteem as national and international values. This development has not been strongly felt in many underdeveloped countries, for their inferiority complex has created a warped infatuation with the criteria of power that is based on objects.

Muslims living in an underdeveloped country will no doubt feel that they are inferior to people living in a developed country. They will gradually realise that what separates people is not geographical distance, but distance of another nature. As a result of this inferiority, Muslims ascribe this distance to the field of objects. They see their situation as an abomination caused by lack of weapons, aeroplanes and banks. Thus, their inferiority complex will lose its social efficacy, leading only to pessimism on the psychological level. On the social level, it will lead to what we have elsewhere called takdis (heaping-up). To turn this feeling into an effective driving-force, Muslims should ascribe their backwardness to the level of ideas, not to that of “objects”, for the development of the new world depends increasingly on ideational and intellectual criteria.

In underdeveloped countries, which are still within the sphere of influence of the superpowers, arms and oil revenues are no longer sufficient to support that influence. Ideas alone can do the job. The world has, therefore, entered a stage at which most of its problems can be solved only by certain systems of ideas. Therefore, the Arabs and other Muslim countries, especially those that do not possess a great deal of material power, should give more weight to the issue of ideas.

Malik Bennabi then criticised the Muslim society today for frequently falling into an apologetic state, where its members keep on harping on the civilisation that once was built by their forefathers. Muslims tend to circle around the archaic archaeological process, digging up past treasures instead of bridging progress with new ones.

Muslims today are in a state of disarray. Muslim countries and societies are largely imperialised by the West. This is truly not a failure of Islam, but because Muslims and those in governance abandoned the true understanding of what Islamic values connote. In this, Malik Bennabi again pointed out, after Egypt’s humiliation in the Six-Day war in June 1964, it is the ummah’s (global Muslim community) understanding and worldview, its stock of ideas rather than of arms and ammunitions, that needs to be renewed.

Obviously corrections need to be rectified. Although looking back to what had been achieved in the Golden Age of Islam is still relevant, what is more important is to be able to appreciate the political values and culture of models and systems implemented by past prophets, re-interpret and apply these to our contemporary society. Enriching the society is part of dynamism in Islam. Colonisation of minds has driven Muslims towards a state of moral and psychological decay. Again in his book, “Islam in History and Society” (1954), moral paralysis results in intellectual paralysis.


(Partial list)

  • Les conditions de la renaissance
  • Vocation de l'islam
  • Le problème des idées dans le monde musulman
  • Le phénomène coranique
  • La lutte idéologique
  • L'Afro-asiatisme
  • Islam et Démocratie
  • S.O.S Algérie
  • Idée d'un commenwealth islamique
  • Naissance d'une société
  • Perspectives Algérienne
  • Mémoires d'un témoin du siècle, tome1 et tome2
  • Le rôle du musulman dans le dernier tiers du 20ème siècle
  • l'Orientalisme et la Democratie dans l'islam
  • Contemplations
  • Le Musulman dans le Monde de l'Economie

Killing Post-Almohad Man: Malek Bennabi, Algerian Islamism and the Search for a Liberal Governance

Author: Sebastian J. Walsh - Sebastian Walsh, Cambridge University (Sidney Sussex College), UK. The article derives from the author's MPhil thesis. T
Published in: journal The Journal of North African Studies, Volume 12, Issue 2 June 2007 , pages 235 - 254
Subjects: African Studies; Middle East Studies.


The views of this extraordinary thinker on the compatibility of Islam and democracy demonstrate that he was an Islamic thinker rather than an Islamist concerned with the seizure of power. His views also highlight the differences that exist between the various figures of Algerian Islamism and underscore the radicalization the movement took under different socio-economic circumstances since the late 1970s. Bennabi's thought evolved in a more prosperous Algeria; therefore, his concerns concentrated on psychological and cultural issues pertinent to development. Although he dealt with economic issues, Bennabi rejected what he called "economism," which in his view had become the new obsession of Arab/Islamic societies at the expense of civilizational, i.e., cultural values. It must be pointed out, however, that Bennabi did not reject socialism as a path for development in the Third World. His writings in the 1960s, reproduced in Pour Changer l'Algerie, reveal that he was a nationalist who shared much of President Houari Boumediene's revolutionary perspective. As an illustration for such an assertion one can point out to Bennabi's reaction to the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Whereas the June war is often viewed as marking the end of Arab nationalism and the start of radical Islamism, Bennabi thought that the solidarity shown by the Arabs and their mobilization during the conflict and its aftermath ought to be exploited to strengthen Arab unity. It goes without saying though that in order to confront what he perceived as imperialist challenge, Bennabi believed that it was imperative that Arabs cling to their identity and to their Islamic values if they wished to overcome their military and technological inferiority.

in Algerian Islamists' conception f democracy

No comments: