Malek Bennabi sur la crise de civilisation du monde Arabo-Musulman
Where does the crisis of civilization that has suffocated the Arab-Islamic world for more than a century come from? This is what Dr. Malek Bennabi tries to answer in the 3 videos posted below and in his published work. Of course, his analysis neither fits the orientalist frame that the West has been enamored with for decades (and Edward Said vehemently criticized in his work) nor does it suit the radical Islamist and Salafist’s frame.
It goes without saying that one cannot judge the work of Malek Bennabi based on these 3 short videos. For a better understanding of his overall intellectual contribution–one that i deem the most important intellectual work in analyzing the Muslim society–i recommend to my dear readers the following books authored by Bennabi: Discours sur les conditions de la renaissance algerienne: Le probleme d’une civilisation (1948); The Question of Ideas in the Muslim World (republished in 1970); Vocation of Islam (1954); Problem of Ideas in Muslim World (1970); The Ideological Struggle in Third World Countries; Islam and Democracy; An Idea of Islamic Commonwealth; Islam in History and Society (1st edition 1988).
Malek Bennabi (1905-1973) wrote about 24 books. Most of them deal with the intellectual collapse of the Islamic civilization and the root causes of such a collapse. He is a harsh critic of the Muslims, the Salafists, the radicalism of the Islamist political philosophy, and the Muslim world in general.
Attempting to summarize or analyze (like I am trying to do in this post) Malek Bennabi’s work is a very hard task. However, when we read some of his work (seminal pieces), we realize that there is a coherent and substantive analytical theme and an evolution to his thinking that he presented throughout his works.
Bennabi is not shy at identifying a period that according to him represents a turning point for the Muslim world. The 1200s or the fall of the Almohad dynasty represents a critical political, intellectual, social, economic, and cultural juncture for him. The post-Almohad is a period where the production of new ideas—i.e., original intellectual work and contribution—started to slow down. The failure to produce new ideas and the failure for those ideas to move the Muslim society forward led to the sclerosis of the Muslim world as a whole. As Bennabi argues in several of his books, a society that does not move forward and is stagnating on its previous acquisitions is a dying society. With a social death comes, inevitably, the civilizational one.
It is important to understand that Bennabi conceptualizes civilization as an organic body or structure whose most basic, and yet most vital, building block is the idea. When this organism does not produce new ideas, logically the organism dies. Using this heuristic exercise, Bennabi arrives to the conclusion that the death of new ideas post- Almohad led to the death of the Muslim civilization or, as he puts it, to a civilizational bankruptcy.
At the core of Bennabi’s overarching argument of why societies emerge and prosper is the production of new ideas. Without the fuel of new ideas, societies tend to die. Not only are new ideas essential for civilizational survival, but they are also essential for the production of culture. Again, everything is organic and everything is related to each other in Bennabi’s thinking. We cannot separate culture from the production of new ideas, nor can we separate culture from the prosperity of a civilization. Culture, argues Bennabi, is the mode of being and becoming of a people, and this process of cultural production (notice here that culture is not a static concept, but a living one just like civilization) cannot be separated and must include artistic, scientific, technical, and ethical norms and values. If new ideas have to be produced, the norms and values upon which a culture is based have to be well defined and articulated because ideas do not emerge in a vacuum; they do not emerge from a chaotic society; they do not emerge from a society that is plagued by artistic, scientific, technological and ethical backwardness. The emergence of new ideas comes from vibrant and dynamic society, which would ultimately and inevitably lead to the emergence of a new civilization.
Whether a society lives or dies, vibrates or stagnates, moves forward or backward, has to do with the system of ideas at the core of every society. When the system of ideas changes, every other characteristic changes. When a society develops, then new ideas are produced, and each phase of that social development corresponds to a level of production of ideas. When a given society is in its renaissance phase of development, that society has acquired or developed a system of ideas that is able to propose solutions—i.e., new ideas—to the vital problems in that particular society. And with each phase comes news problems, and of course society produces new ideas to deal with those problems.
How does the production or necrosis of ideas relate to the civilizational crisis in the Muslim world? Bennabi argues that there was a drastic change in the conceptions of states’ relations between the 19th and the 20th century. The relation between states in the 19th century was based on a balance of power. The measure of the power of any given state was measured through the raw projection of military power and economic mercantilism. That conception of state relations changed during the 20th century in which ideas, their production and projection, became the norm among nations and the basis of national and international power (many international relations scholars would vehemently disagree with Bennabi, and would produce empirical analyses that contradict his assessment, but for the sake of argument, let us overlook this point). However, this change was not fully digested by many underdeveloped and developing states. Bennabi argues that because these underdeveloped states (and most of the Muslim world belongs to this category) had such a gap in the production of new ideas, they developed an inferiority complex, which perverted and twisted their understanding of the causes behind this new development. These states began to worship the material criteria of power. They began to value the symptoms of the new development rather than the causes or the pathologies of this new development. In many ways, they began to value material objects coming from the west rather than value the causes behind the production of those material objects.
Trying to grapple with the ever-widening gap between the west and the Muslim world, Muslims have attributed (and still attribute) the causes of this widening gap to material objects. They analyze their backward situation as a disgrace mainly caused by the lack of sophisticated and powerful weaponry, or advanced banking systems, or rapid means of transportation and so forth. By thinking that the gap between the west and the backwardness of Muslim society is mainly due to “new shiny” objects, Muslims absolved themselves from all societal necrosis. Instead, this object-laden gap led to a pervaded psychological depression and general pessimism, which can only be cured by the acquisition of those shiny objects, and a perverted mimicry of the symptoms of this new development.
In this new cognitive framework, Muslims doubt their capacities to produce any new substantial ideas; they doubt their ability as a community t0 produce and/or trigger change. So when change happens and new genuinely produced ideas emerge, Muslims, intellectually crippled by their inferiority complex, ascribe those new ideas automatically to the west and blame the ever-conspiring west for the change that is occurring within their societies. This is one way to understand why conspiracy theories in the Muslim world are culturally produced and reproduced out of sheer intellectual paralysis and deep low self-esteem.
A way of dealing with this gap is through the acquisition of objects. However, the problem is deeper than that, and cannot be solved by the simple acquisition or the worship of those shiny objects. Muslims forget to look inward. They forget to look into the deep layers of their society. They forget to understand that their backwardness is caused mainly by the necrosis of ideas, and by the abysmal level of production of new ones. They forget that those new shiny objects are the by-products of a vibrant production of new ideas, of a vibrant society, and of a vibrant civilization. The boom in the new world, argues Bennabi, is based on ideational and intellectual norms. Of course, colonization of most of the Muslim world did not ease the rapid necrosis of new ideas in the Muslim world; it did actually worsen it by deepening the complex of inferiority and strengthening the false belief that the acquisition of object is the solution. In this vacuum of new ideas, backward ideas have come to flourish and dominate the Islamic society. Ideas, that again misdiagnosed the real disease of the Muslim society and prescribed the wrong medication, come to be the only sanctified ones that dominate the intellectual marketplace at all levels–from our primary schools to our universities to our hospitals, the disease of archaic and dying ideas has taken over. Instead of deeply reforming our society to reignite the engine of ideas, yesterdays and nowadays Muslim leaders preach the return to the source; they preach for a jump in time and space toward the source. This obsession with digging up the past and lamenting on a vanished glorious time distract the Muslims from asking the real questions and from working hard in order to bridge the gap of ideas. When Nasser called upon the Ummah to rise up and rearm itself after the debacle of the Six-Day War in 1967, Bennabi argued that the Muslim world was not in need of more cannons, planes and bombs, but it was in a dire need of intellectual renewal. He further argued that it is not by going back in time, and absurdly and mistakenly imitating the life of the prophet and his companions that Muslims would revive their society. Rather any revival would only come through learning from that prosperous period the political values that worked, and discarding those that did not. Only then, we can use those values–such as hard work, meritocracy and popular consultation–to lay down the foundations of a more modern society; a society driven by new ideas and moving toward a civilizational renaissance. But for the production of new ideas, the Muslim world would stay in its rigor mortis phase.
This is the overarching argument of Bennabi. He is not enamored with the West nor is he enamored with the past. For him, a modern society and civilization are measured by the level of new ideas they produce. For him, Islam can produce a backward society (this is the major difference between Bennabi’ and Sayd Qutb) if it becomes a hurdle and obstacle to the production of new idea. Therefore, importing and transferring knowledge without producing it is perpetuating and deepening the complex of inferiority. Maybe in the first stages, such a transfer is necessary, but it cannot last forever. Sooner or later, production of new ideas is a must, otherwise societal and civilizational decay is unavoidable.
During this transitory and tumultuous period that the Muslim world is undergoing, it is very important to reflect on Bennabi’s intellectual contribution to the body of knowledge. One is tempted to ask, what would Bennabi think of the Arab Spring? And i guess he would say, this is a good beginning, but it is not enough. He would urge us to dig deep and build political, economic and intellectual institutions that reflect our values and norms–but again he would warn us that our values and norms have been in a comatose-like phase for centuries, and that they need new fresh blood, and new fresh ideas.