A lesser known intellectual

Malek Bennabi (1905-1973), Algerian thinker and Muslim intellectual, is, unfortunately, lesser known outside the Arab world. Since Bennabi wrote either in Arabic or French, his incredible work regarding critical analysis and conceptualization of the cultural and civilizational issues remained relatively inaccessible. Although a few works were translated into English, but, as compared to his contemporaries such as Maududi and Syed Qutb, these translated works couldn’t appeal a wide-spectrum of audience. Most probably, for two apparent reasons. First, the language and content, given its technicality and construction, was undeniably higher than the ordinary reader’s intellectual frequency. Precisely, it lacked the popular emotional and political appeal; a dominant decolonizing articulation found in the writings of, for example, Maududi and Syed Qutb. Second, these few translated works were insufficient to describe the comprehensiveness of Bennabi’s scheme of thought. Nevertheless, having realized the significance of Bennabi’s approach and method to renaissance question, Arab intellectuals are now considerate about translating and communicating his ideas globally. In this context, Badrane’s exploration and explanation of the socio-intellectual foundations of Malek Bennabi’s approach to civilization is a worthy effort.

The book is basically revised version of author’s Ph.D. thesis. Besides Introduction, the book is divided into eight chapters; each chapter embodying one important aspect of Bennabi’s personality. In the Introductory part, author expresses the purpose behind the idea of researching this particular issue. According to author, Malek Bennabi’s approach to civilization, in general, and problems of the Muslim civilization, in particular, “seldom received seriously scholarly attention before 1980s” and his ideas were “misrepresented by different conflicting agencies” (p. XVIII). Thus, the primary aim of this study is to “present[s] an in-depth understanding of the theoretical framework of Bennabi’s approach to civilization” (p. XIX). Having realized the multidimensional nature of the problem- Bennabi’s civilizational theorization – author has adopted Ritzer’s first type of metatheorizing approach (Mu). Mu has enabled author to deep-dive into Bennabi’s thought and twig its complex dynamics. The Introduction ends at providing operational definitions of some key terms –paradigm, macro-micro continuum and schools – employed in the study. The chapters of the book, on the basis of content overlap, can be divided into four major parts.

First part comprises first three chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the concepts and approaches to civilization. Applying binary vocabulary, i.e., literal and terminological, author has defined the concept of civilization in binary traditions, i.e., Western scientific tradition and Muslim scientific tradition. The comparison provides a clear sense of overlap and divergence between the two traditions regarding the meaning and development of the concept of civilization. Having traced the overlap of literal meaning, author comes up with the notion that civites in Latin means same as what hadirah means in Arabic; i.e., city (p. 3; p. 10). Nevertheless, Muslims thinkers while referring to civilization, as author posits, have also applied other terms such as tamaddun, umran and madaniyyah denoting urbanization and city formation (p. 11). Referring to the terminological development, which is a historical process, author has first dealt with the Western scientific tradition. Subscribing the idea of civilization to French social theorists such as Voltaire and Mirabeau, author postulates that European thinkers of 18th and 19th century politicized the idea- portraying their civilization as “the ideal”- to control the self-defined “barbarism” of non-European societies (p.6). Substantiating the argument, author has provided numerous references from scholars such as Clough, Huntington, Taylor, Childe, and Chandler. German thinkers, particularly Norbert Elias, have received a special mention since, as author suggests, they accepted civilization as “plural” and distinguished between culture and civilization; treating latter as a higher and advanced form of former (p. 8). In Muslim tradition, author advances, terminological development of the term civilization happened in two stages. First stage, starting from the early 14th century, is predominantly represented by the contributions of Ibn Khaldun who for the first time used a specialized term “ilm al-umran”  or “the science of civilization” to study a civilization. Second stage, starting from late 19th century, includes the contributions of prominent Muslim intellectuals such as Rifaah al-Tahtawi, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Reda and Bennabi.

Analysing approaches, justifying his metatheorizing/interdisciplinary approach, author has applied two dominant paradigms; the Philosophy of History Approach and the Social Science Approach. This has allowed author to unpack the complex dynamics of a civilization; its nature, evolution, and orientation. Exploring further, author has applied two sub-paradigms of social science approach; anthropological and sociological. In this section, a number of scholars such as Plato, Augustine, Carlyle,Vico, Hegel, Ibn Khaldun, Toynbee, Spengler, Tylor, Kroeber, N. Elias, Braudel, Weber, Durkheim, Lauer, and Marx, ranging from classical to contemporary socio-cultural thought, have been referred, adding credibility to author’s argument. However, in this long list of names, the mention of Muslim social thinkers is relatively negligible. Pushing a notion that either there were no Muslim social thinkers on the subject or author has avoided them for a reason. Reason is better known to author. Having understood the methodological limits of available approaches, not capable of addressing the complexity of a civilizational problem, author concludes, “[T]herefore, there is a need to use either “ilm al-umran,” the term “science of civilization” given by Ibn Khaldun…, or the “interdisciplinary approach” (p.29).”

The chapter 2 starts with following opening remarks, “[I]n the 1930s, Bennabi realized that the crisis of the Muslim world could not be diagnosed by means of a superficial analysis” (p. 32). Suggesting, the crises demand a new analytical and pathological study of the elements of civilization. In this chapter author discusses Bennabi’s conceptualization of the elements of civilization. Author has painstakingly presented Bennabi’s approach in a sequential order of: definition of civilization, civilizational equation, concept of three realms, and the concept of social relations network. In author’s assumption, Bennabi has criticized the notion proposing colonization, lack of resources and lack of scientific progress as the major causes of the decline of Muslim world. Instead, according author, Bennabi theorizes the idea of colonizability– “vulnerability to be colonized”- as the fundamental cause of decadence (p. 33). While critically examining how and why decadence emerges and functions, author has provided an organized- in a coherent flow- explanation of different dimensions of Bennabi’s core diagnosis that, “[T]he problem of every people, in its essence, is that of its civilization (p. 33).” Having casted thorough light on the interactive dynamics of the three elements of Bennabi’s civilizational equation, i.e., civilization= man+time+soil, author has also explained the catalytic role of religion- provider of the milieu of progressive synthesis- in the civilizational equation (p. 40; p. 48). The outcome of this equation navigates the orientation of the civilization. This is followed by the elucidation of Bennabi’s three realms; realm of people, realm of ideas and realm of objects. After this, comes the description of the idea of “social relations network”; a medium were these three realms produce three different kinds of interactions (pp. 55-60). Consequently, three different types of people exhibiting different characteristics and attitudes. Besides brilliantly presenting Bennabi’s clarification of different concepts spread out in his different works- speaking volumes about author’s inclusive reading of Bennabi- author has contributed his own reflections complementing Bennabi’s arguments.

Chapter 3 presents Bennabi’s interpretation of the movement of civilization. Author begins with unpacking of Bennabi’s view of the cyclical movement of civilization; its pattern, psycho-temporal conditions, identity and character, and the notion of cycle (pp. 66-67). Then, the three phases of the “cyclical phenomenon,” i.e., spiritual phase, rational phase and instinctive phase are explored with special reference to Islamic civilization. Bennabi’s view of the interaction- starting point of the civilizing process or historical action- between idea (religion in Bennabi’s theory) and the natural man (man of fitrah) and the sociological and psychological changes, as a result this interaction, have been analysed (p. 69). Author has used Bennabi’s diagram to illustrate the cyclical movement of civilization; from the spiritual stage (stage of interaction) to the rational stage (stage of expansion and material development) and, finally, to the instinctive stage (stage of disintegration and decline). It seems that author agrees with Bennabi assertion that cyclical movement is general pattern of every civilization in its march (p. 75). This is followed by exploration of the evolution of the three stages of human society, i.e., pre-civilized stage, civilized stage and post-civilized stage. Author has explained, peeling off Bennabi’s construction, the organization, structure, and function of the society at every stage. And finally, the three states of the social relations network, i.e., the state of compactness, the state of looseness, and the state of disintegration – characterizing the three stages of the society respectively – are thoroughly explained (pp.92-97). Bennabi’s interpretation on the psycho-sociological behaviour of man and the interaction of the three realms- realm of people, realm of ideas and realm of objects- in the each state of social relations network and their interrelatedness has been coherently and painstakingly described.

Second part comprises chapter 4 and chapter 5. Chapter 4 is devoted to examine the internal-social factors that influenced Bennabi’s civilizational theorization. Author has applied internal-social dimension of Mu to analyze the impact of internal factors such as family, religion, education, intellectual interaction, and social activism on Bennabi’s approach to the functionality of civilization. The chapter provides details of Bennabi’s exposures and experiences in Algeria and France. The author has begun with setting the socio-political context of the Algerian society- a French colony at that time- at the birth of Bennabi in 1905, in the region of Constantinople. The content of the chapter is divided into two sections; Background and Intellectual Pursuits. The Background section has covered the three important aspects of Bennabi’s life, i.e., family, religion and education. Basically, it has covered all; influence of his grandmother, the role of the zawiyah (sufi institutions) kuttab (Qur’anic centres), madrasah (formal Islamic schools) and al-hakawati (storytellers) on Bennabi’s  religious education and, subsequently, his formal schooling both in Algeria (right from the Official Primary School) and France (upto Polytechnic Institute) (pp.100-122). Author, as an unbiased researcher, has also shed enough light on Bennabi’s interaction and association with a Christian organization namely the Christian Unit of Young Parisians at Paris that influenced his early activism (pp. 116-119).

Similarly, the Intellectual Pursuits section has covered two important dimensions of Bennabi’s intellectual life; the activist life and intellectual connections. The activist life provides details about Bennabi’s criticism of reformist and modernist Islamic movements, criticism of Sufi orders and involvement in the socio-political activities of anti-colonial organizations (pp. 124-127). It also includes Bennabi’s scholarly activities- publishing books- in Egypt -from 1956 to 1963- and serving Independent Algerian society, in different capacities, until his death on October 31, 1973. The intellectual connections provide details about Bennabi’s response- critique as well as influence- to ‘ulama, particularly Shaikh bin Badis’s reformist ideas. Author has also provided reference of other early Muslim intellectuals such as al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Wahhab, al-Afghani, Abdu, Rashid Reda and Arsalan who influenced Bennabi’s thought, in any capacity. The chapter ends with a special mention of Benssai, Bennabi’s friend, who, as per author, influenced him and introduced him to the study of philosophy, sociology and history (p. 116).

Chapter 5 has examined external-social factors that influenced Bennabi’s diagnosis of civilizational problems. Author has applied external-social dimension – macro level analysis- of Mu to analyze the impact of two external factors, i.e., colonization process and decolonization process on Bennabi’s approach to civilization. The chapter is divided into two major sections; the Colonization Process and the Decolonization Process. First section starts with definition, drive and means of colonization in general (pp. 140-144). Then author moves into the colonization of Algeria. Author has provided a picture of Algeria before colonization in order to make it understandable, by comparing, how “totalitarian colonialism” raptured and damaged the Algerian society; its culture, polity, religion, and identity. Author has also underlined the operating tools of French colonialism; Christianization, imposition of French language, demographic change and impoverishment policy (p. 147). According to author, analysis of the interface between Algerians and colonizing factors, led Bennabi to develop the concept of “colonizability”; an internal propensity to accept external effect (p. 154). Colonizability, author posited, is Bennabi’s core diagnosis of the problems of Muslim civilization. Second section, i.e., decolonization process, provides insights of the relation between Bennabi and the new socio-cultural context. Starting from the political changes world over, author comes down to liberation movement of Algeria; represented by both the ulama and the nationalists (pp. 159-167). Bennabi, author asserts, considered himself a product of the national movement. Thus, he maintained relations with different groups involved in the process of Algerian reawakening. The wide-spectrum of relations- introducing Bennabi to different methods and objectives- led him, author postulates, to assess the pitfalls and strengths of each group and develop his own theorization of “conditions of renaissance”.

Third part comprises chapter 6 and chapter 7. Chapter 6 has examined the internal-intellectual factors, applying Mu, which influenced Bennabi’s approach to civilization. The chapter is divided into two sections; the Paradigm of Philosophy of History and the Paradigm of Social Science. First section discusses the impact of the school of historical progress propounded by scholars such as Hegel (advocate of rational freedom), Comte (advocate of positive philosophy), and Marx (advocate of classless society) on Bennabi’s theorization of movement of civilization in general (pp. 176-184). It also discusses the impact of the cyclical school advocated by scholars such as Toynbee and Ibn Khaldun on Bennabi’s theorization of the cyclical movement of civilization in particular. These two scholars, author posits, have profoundly influenced Bennabi’s theorization of the “three stages of civilization” and the factors pushing “historical action” to trigger a civilizational cycle (pp. 185-197). Bennabi, author argues, studied these theories and acknowledged them but was not convinced to accept one in totality. In the second section, author has referred to social science theorists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Sorokin who influenced Bennnabi’s understanding of “human conditions”, “typology and definition of society”, “social function of religion” and “cyclical conception of change” (pp. 200-205). According to author, in Bennabi’s works there is both appreciation as well as criticism of these social science conceptualizations.

Chapter 7 analyzes the impact of “externally borrowed” intellectual concepts, terms and methods on Bennabi’s formulations. According to author, in Bennabi’s case, the external-intellectual dimension involves the impact of the Qur’an and Sunnah, Muslim reformist thought, psychology, philosophy, and natural science. The Quran and Sunnah, author posits, have shaped the ontological and epistemological aspect of Bennabi’s intellectual attitude toward understanding the meaning of civilizational change (pp. 209-215). Author has explained how the Qur’anic verse, “Verily, never will Allah change the conditions of a people until they change their inner selves” inspired Bennabi’s idea of “change in human conditions” (p. 211). Referring to Bennabi’s response-appreciation and criticism- to reformist thought in the Muslim world, author has mentioned some important names such as Abdal Wahhab, al-Afghani, al-Kawakibi, Abdu, Iqbal, and Ibn Badis. According to author, Bennabi criticized the taqlid (imitation) and adopted the reformist ideas such as islah (reform), tajdid (reform) and nahdah (renaissance). According to author, psychology, particularly the ideas of Freud, Jung and Piaget, helped Bennabi to understand the two important ideas related to his civilizational equation; the “psychological role of religion” and the “transformation of human personality” (pp. 223-231). This is followed by author’s exploration of Bennabi’s interaction with philosophers such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl, al-Ghazali, John Locke, Ibn Khaldun, Hegel, and Comte. However, Descartes analytic method or Cartesian thought has received a special attention vis-à-vis its impact on Bennabi’s adoption of critical thinking attitude towards decadence of Muslims civilization. The chapter ends with a brief discussion on the impact of modernity discourse and natural science on Bennabi’s intellectual development. It encapsulates Bennabi’s critique of reductionism, positivism and his appreciation of mathematics and physics (pp. 235-240).

The fourth part is Conclusion. In the Conclusion author sums up with the two fundamental remarks. First, recognition of Bennabi’s contribution to the study of civilization. This  includes his critical analysis of the other dominant paradigms, methods and approaches to the study of civilization. And his distinctive theorization of civilizational equation- problems and solution- through applying interdisciplinary approach. Second, author’s justification for applying Mu to explore all dimensions of Bennabi’s multidimensional civilizational thought. The book finally ends with Notes for each chapter and a long bibliography.

To conclude, despite few repetitions (seemingly unavoidable) and typos, I will recommend the book to all those students and scholars who are interested in; Muslim reformist thought, Muslim renaissance movements, Muslim personalities, Islam and decolonial discourse, and Muslim cultural and civilizational thought. The book provides, through the exploration of Bennabi’s ideas, convincing answers to many critical questions related to the decadence of Muslim civilization, rise of Muslim liberation movements, Muslims and scientific progress of the West, and renaissance of Muslim civilization. More profoundly, the book suggests, applying Bennabi’s framing, alternatives to modernism, political activism and Sufi quietism; approaches to the renaissance phenomenon developed and applied within the Muslim world.

Bilal A. Malik is a Research Scholar, Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. He is expert at the Alternative Perspective and Global Concerns (ap-gc.net)