George Tarabishi on His Book, Jabri, and Theory of Rethinking Turath Studies

Ibrahim Al-Ariss

George Tarabishi is a noted Syrian author and translator of many books that enriched the Arabic language library during the past three decades. Tarabishi, who currently resides in Paris, has been the subject of much debate and discussion after his book “Nakd Nakd Al 'Akl Al Arabi, Nazariyyat Al 'Akl [Critique of the Critique of Arab Reason, Theory of Reason].” “Theory of Reason” is part of a trilogy, the remaining two parts of which are to be published in the coming years. Muhammad Abed al-Jabberi, a Moroccan scholar and noted Arab intellectual in his own right, chose to remain silent on the “Theory of Arab Reason.” Why does this matter? It does because Tarabishi's “Critique of the Critique of Arab Reason” is actually a critique of al-Jabberi's “Critique of Arab Reason,” the third part of a four-volume series. To be sure, al-Jabberi has answered Tarabishi, but without naming him, in an interview with a Moroccan newspaper (see accompanying feature in this issue about al-Jabberi-Tarabishi debate on Turath and on Arab Reason). In his “Theory of Arab Reason,” Tarabishi analyzes al-Jabberi's work, reveals its errors and investigates its bibliography.

He then raises the question as to whether the rationalism of al-Jabberi's thought is contemporary and scientific, and identifies his position relative to the tradition of Arab thought and his views on Greek intellectual tradition.

The following is an interview with George Tarabishi conducted by Ibrahim al-Ariss in Paris. This interview was originally published in Al Hayat on February 16, 1997.

George Tarabishi...Why this book and why now in particular?

As far as the book is concerned, it is not time related; actually, its date goes back to more than ten years, when I read Muhammad Abed Al Jabberi's book for the first time in 1984.

Do you mean al-Jabberi's "Formation of Arab Reason," the first of three volumes of the "Critique of Arab Reason" since it would have been the only one published by that time?

Of course, I bought a copy just as it came out from the press, carried it with me on the plane from Damascus to Paris, where I live. In fact, I started reading it on the plane, and the reading continued for several consecutive days. I was interested in the book, in the full meaning of the word, especially in the questions it raises and the conceptual pre cision which al-Jabberi, appeared to me at the time, to be using in discussing the questions pertaining to Arab reason as well as his critical position from this reason. I have written a long article about this book in Al Wahda [The Unity] magazine in Paris, where I was working. I believe that that article was the first to be written on this book. I praised the book and was clear in stating that it will change whoever reads it. At the same time, I adopted a critical position toward some of the propositions al-Jabberi made. My views, however, remained open to debate since they tackled just parts of al-Jabberi's work. Then I had to wait for what al-Jabberi himself would write in his weekly column in Al Yawm Al Sabe' [the Seventh Day] magazine as well as in the second volume of his research project which had the title “The Structure of Arab Reason” to determine whether what I considered partial and transient was actually partial and transient. In fact, I started to revise my views and evaluation of the book which, I cannot deny, had played a critical role in my intellectual formation, positively in the first phase and then negatively in later years and until now.

Can one then consider your book a sort of settling of scores as a result of the disappointment developed in your relationship with the writings of al-Jabberi?

Yes, to a large extent. But it is more than just that. Writing “Theory of Reason” is a sort of settling of scores not only with the ideas of al-Jabberi but also with myself. Assuming your question is the following: How did this book go by me? How did I believe it with its questions? More importantly, how did I discuss the book through the answers it provides without realizing that its questions themselves should be the subject of questioning? How the main purpose of my book. The question as far as I am concerned is not rewriting a certain history, nor recalling a certain heritage. The real issue for me is the question of Arab-Islamic civilization, and subsequently the question of Arab-Islamic reason. Here I would like to insist on the link between the two attributes "Islamic" and "Arab" and caution against falling in the trap of using names that are associated with the ethnic dimension, especially knowing that Arab-Islamic civilization was not originally founded on the concept of ethnicity.

The question of reason becomes central for me because it is associated with the claims of the dominant group among the students of Arab-Islamic Turath, namely those who argue that philosophy is the action of reason in history, born and died foreign in Islam. In the past, this view was advanced by Abed al-Rahman Badawi, and later advocated by al-Jabberi. In this context, al-Jabberi is considered a step forward compared with Badawi. In the case of Badawi, he confined himself to concurring with the "Hellenists" that philosophy was imported by Islam to expel it later on to the outside. The Hellenists believe that this is a temporary and passing step diverted from the immortal river of philosophy to return to its natural watercourse after leaving the world of Islam. Al-Jabberi goes beyond that. He recovers the same formula and adds: yes there was a river and there was a diversion. However, when the river dried up it happened only in the Mashreq, because it resumed moving along in a natural path in the Maghreb, where it established its connection with the European watercourse, thus the Maghreb's rationality faced the irrationality of the Mashreq. Al Jabberi thinks that the deviation of the current of philosophy from its river, which resulted in reason devouring itself and the Mashreq becoming irrational, accompanied the birth - or what he considers the great disaster - of modernized Platonism in its "Mashreqian" formula. Al-Jabberi bitterly attacked this formula and its representatives in Islamic thought like Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, and al-Ghazali. He tells us that genuine philosophy returned and appeared within the Andalusian-"Maghrebian" thought represented in the rationalism of Ibn Hazem, Ibn Rushd, all the way to Ibn Khaldun. Al-Jabberi adds that Europe experienced its Enlightenment through adopting the "Maghrebian" Andalusian project. After that, the Maghreb became "easternized" and thus irrationality returned to dominate again, and the connection with Europe was lost.


When reading your book, and that of al-Jabberi, one feels a notable absence, that of contemporary Arab thought. When you interpret, describe, analyze, comment and discuss, you rely on Arab-Islamic Turath from its beginnings until Ibn Khaldun only, passing by Ikhwan al-Safa, for example. Al-Jabberi does the same. We do not find any source supporting your ideas among the modern and contemporary Arab intellectuals. This comes to mind when thinking of the achievements of modern Egyptian thought, or while reading your propositions - even though similar propositions existed but weaker in their analysis and convincing power - in the intellectual magazine "Afaq" in the 1950s, which included among its editors Adel Daher, Rashid Zeinoun, Halim Barakat, and Muneer Bashour. The discussion in the magazine was clearly focused on Syrian and "Mashregian" roots of the Greek thought.


In fact, while working and preparing this book, I had surveyed the Arab library in its entirety, including sections of philosophy, Sufism, language and jurisprudence. I read most of its inventory in these areas, and unfortunately fell behind in catching up with all modern and contemporary writings of the Age of Enlightenment. These limitations aside, my impression is that most of these writings basically reflect an ideological concern and have little epistemological-historical or critical value. I need to mention, however, that I have cited in my book an essential work in this field about the Phoenician legacy in philosophy. This book, which is in French, represents the source and the real support of the trend you discuss. But we should note that, despite its distinction, this book also reflects an ideological concern with finding a Syrian, Phoenician or Mashriqian "miracle" to confront and overcome the Greek "miracle." Here I stress that no miracles exist in the world of ideas and the history of ideas. Also, I do not believe in the existence of miracles in this area. To believe otherwise means that there are peoples "philosophized" by nature and others "unphilosophized," an assumption that recalls racist tendencies. In fact, miracles do not come by nature; when they exist they are the product of interaction between cultures. Even if such a miracle exists, it emerges when reason sets out on a dialogue with itself, through overlapping and intermixing with cultures.

It is worth stating in this context that I do not consider my book the beginning of anything; rather, it is a continuity. I owe great debt to pioneers who preceded me in treading the same path, particularly in Western thought, adopting a critical position toward a "hellinized" history of the culture of reason. I have found scattered answers to my questions, answers which I have attempted to reconstitute into a proposed theoretical structure, and which I consider as continuations of their pre decessors and a movement to a slightly higher level. In sum, there is no giant thinker among us. Rather, all of us are ordinary people, part of the evolutionary process, falling short of being at par with those genuine intellectual giants who critiqued reason and history, and who believed in science and its experiments, in the evolution of the human mind and species, and in the historicity of the idea.

When you talk about al-Jabberi you refer extensively to what is silent in his works. I would like here to reverse the equation and point to what I feel is silent in your own book, or to what is made absent despite its implicit presence. By this, I precisely mean your Marxist history. I noticed, for example, some similarity be tween several of your proposi tions and those of Marx in his critique of Hegelianism and Hegel's implicit rationalism in "The Eighteenth Brumaire," and those in his "Theses in 1844," or what is known as the "Theses of the Young Marx," as well as those in his "Theses on Fuerbach. "Furthermore, I noticed the resemblance of some of your conclusions to those in Lenin's "Critique of Ernst Mach's Empiricism." Despite that, I search for Marx and Lenin among your sources and I find none. It seems as if fright has taken hold of you so that you refrain from mentioning either of them.

Let me clarify this for you ... My intellectual formation is Marxist and subsequently Freudian. But today, I cease to be Marxist.

What do you mean by "I cease to be Marxist?"

What is precisely meant is that I do not believe in the intellectual propositions, including the critique of rationalism as formulated by Marx, Engeles, and later Lenin, to be still relevant for our times.

The Arabic version of this interview appeared in Al Hayat newspaper.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 17, April 1997.

Copyright © 1997 AL JADID MAGAZINE