The Tarabishi — Al-Jabiri Debate

A New Book Debunks Mohammed Abd al-Jabiri’s Theory and Sources
By 
Elie Chalala

A work which would have stirred a rich intellectual debate, involving historical and methodological questions in studying contemporary Arab political thought has, instead, taken a bizarre twist. George Tarabishi's book “Nakd Nakd Al `Aql Al Arabi, Nazariyyat Al Aql" [Critique of the Critique of Arab Reason, Theory of Reason], published by Dar Al Saqi (London 1996), levels harsh criticisms at a fellow Arab intellectual, Moroccan theorist Mohammed Abed al-Jabiri in response to his work, “Theory of Arab Reason” or (Critique de la Raison Arabe), the third book of a four volume. Tarabishi focuses on both the intellectual limits of al-Jabiri and an alleged scandal, the fraudulent usage of sources, including misinterpretations and erroneous conclusions. This has not only set the stage for what has come to be known as the Tarabishi — al-Jabiri debate, but also has unleashed another scandal: revealing al-Jabiri’s sectarian predisposition when he explains Tarabishi's criticisms in terms of the Syrian author's Christian faith.

This intellectual confrontation dates back to the 1993 publication by Tarabishi of “Mazbahat Al Turath fi Al Thaqafa Al Arabiyya Al Mu'asira” [The Massacre of Heritage in Contemporary Arab Culture]. In “The Massacre of Turath” (Turath, which means the Islamic element in Arab culture and history, will be used henceforth), Tarabishi reportedly devotes "half” of his book to debating al-Jabiri, offering a deconstructionist reading of the Moroccan theorist’s epistemological approach to Arab culture, according to Kamel Shaya in the London-based Arabic weekly Al Wasat. In “The Massacre of Turath,” Tarabishi criticizes the “Critique of Arab Reason” on the grounds of al-Jabiri’s irrational study of the nature of reason, and his bias in favor of its entrusted judgment in "categorizing the three fields of knowledge: statement, knowledge, and proof."

Besides al-Jabiri’s epistemological approach and his illogical examination of the nature of reason, Tarabishi brings to light, perhaps for the first time, his "manipulation of evidence and its interpretation" in ways that contradict its original meaning. “Theory of Reason” continues its attacks on al-Jabiri’s intellectual project, where Tarabishi substantiates his claims not only by "Arabic sources as he did in “The Massacre of Turath,” but  also  by the French sources from which he [al-Jabiri] drew...," writes Shaya. Compared with the “Massacre of Turath,” the reader finds in “Theory of Reason” a "comprehensive deconstruction and dismantling of al-Jabiri’s theoretical and bibliographical tools." Shaya quotes Tarabishi to have written that "of the hundreds of citations al-Jabiri used to `constitute the Arab Reason' only very few remained free from distortion, falsification, or from illogical usage."

The intellectual confrontation that followed Tarabishi's “Theory of Reason” has assumed a strange twist, especially after the interview al-Jabiri gave to the Moroccan Al Itihad Al Ishtiraki newspaper, published on February 27, 1997. What transpired in the interview appears to have transformed the debate from an intellectual discussion into a controversy. Portions of the interview were picked up by one critic after the other, starting with Hazem Saghieh (March 10, 1997) who writes a column in Al Hayat. When the debate intensified on the pages of Al Hayat and other Arab dailies, Al Hayat reproduced the text of the original interview with al-Jabiri on April 27, 1997.

In the interview, al-Jabiri claims, "There are some groups who disapprove of the cause I embrace and work for, to revive Arab thought from within Arab-Islamic traditions; some of these [groups] are not Muslims; and many of their names reveal their religious affiliations. They say among themselves that renewing Arab thought from within Islamic tradition means excluding non-Muslims, hence their attacks on me. Their names are known and assume special significance. They welcome my criticism of tradition and only become upset when I show one of the shining facets in our Arab-Islamic tradition."

As for his alleged misuse and manipulation of sources, al-Jabiri had this to say: "Until now, I am completely confident that everything I have written does not include any scientific, epistemological or methodological errors. In this regard, I am fully satisfied with what I have written."

As if al-Jabiri does not find inciting sectarianism enough, he goes on to demonstrate paranoia, talking about conspiracies to discredit him. He furnishes specific details of the plot: “Fellow colleagues from the Mashreq — Leftists and Communists — gathered and planned during a symposium in Tunisia. There they held a separate meeting and concluded that al-Jabiri’s epistemological writings were dangerous and threatened Marxist and progressive thought."

In considering Tarabishi's religious background as a determinant of his intellectual endeavor, al-Jabiri turns out to have a greater affinity with the fanatical speeches of religious leaders in rural Egypt and the "mountains of Algeria, where physical slaughter is conducted on the basis of confessional identity," writes Khaled al-Huroub in Al Hayat. In the case of al-Jabiri, we "witness intellectual slaughter" on the same religious basis. The Moroccan intellectual, al-Huroub advises that he should have complied with the rules of intellectual debate rather than resorting to methods that incite emotional and irrational feelings among certain groups.

Muhammad al-Haddad, a Tunisian academic and critic, has joined the Tarabishi-al-Jabiri debate. He finds himself fbaffled as to how in intellectual argumentation, al-Jabiri substitutes proof and counter proof by sectarianism.

Al-Haddad does not agree with the argument that al-Jabiri has received more than his share of criticism and attention. Al-Jabiri’s study and research on Turath has received great attention by scholars and students, an interest that has led to the translation of several of his works into English (a new translation is expected by the University of Texas Press), French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. Thus, we expect that his views will be closely scrutinized and criticized, since they have become authoritative and accessible to students and scholars, Arab and non-Arab. When "we speak of al-Jabiri as a symbol of contemporary Arab thought, this derives from the fact that he developed a new approach to studying Turath,” al-Haddad writes.

In the past, the criticisms of al-Jabiri belonged to two main schools: Salafiyyah [return to the ways of the Prophet and his Companions] and Marxism, according to al-Haddad. Today, the majority of challenges to al-Jabiri spring from two names: Taha Abdel al-Rahman and George Tarabishi. The first represents a similar approach, though not a reproduction of early Salafi criticisms. "Had al-Jabiri not existed there would have been no Taha Abdel Rahman." In this regard, al-Haddad means that the Salafi criticism of al-Jabiri does not derive from the function of either a plot to sabotage the contributions of the Moroccan intellectual, nor an extension of earlier criticisms. Instead, al-Rahman offers an honest intellectual critique.

"Even if we consider the second critique (by Tarabishi) to be Marxist (Tarabishi denies such a claim), objectivity compels us to acknowledge that it remains unlike the simplistic Marxism of Tayeb Tazini [noted Syrian theorist]. There are new and important elements used in criticizing al-Jabiri," writes al-Haddad. Likewise, Tarabishi's critique proves equally legitimate and his “Theory of Reason” would not have been possible without al-Jabiri’s “Critique of Arab Reason.”

Criticisms need not be detrimental to al-Jabiri’s project; on the contrary, he could benefit from them, never mind their intensity, comments al-Haddad. A grave situation may develop only when "intellectual debates become insults and name callings." Approaching the question of Turath from a tribal and sectarian perspective proves equally troublesome, where a ready-made interpretation already exists, claiming to be the only correct evaluation.

Al-Jabiri’s ideas, as discussed in the interview, appear to follow the nationalistic project and to condone the behavioral position of its advocates, writes the Iraqi Hassan al-Alawi in Al Hayat. This nationalism from "the damned Mashreq" explains why al-Jabiri has lent his support to the Iraqi policy in fighting the "Islamic neighbor," other Arab enemies, including even the Iraqi exiled opposition. Al-Jabiri’s liberalism offers Iraq rational justifications for its policy toward its alleged enemies. Al-Alawi also mourns al-Jabiri‘s liberalism and casts doubt on his credibility as an intellectual when he received an "award for his intellectual contributions from a man [Saddam Hussein] described by the world free press as more cruel than any other ruler."

But al-Jabiri does not lack defenders, includingAbd al-Ilah Balqaziz, a former Moroccan student of his who currently works as an academic and writer. Writing in the Lebanese daily Assafir, Balqaziz labels the campaign against al-Jabiri as "ideological" rather than "epistemological," as some critics claim. 

Balqaziz believes that Tarabishi intended his text to diminish (or take away) from the "scientific integrity" of a scholar unmatched in his seriousness in studying contemporary Arab thought. Tarabishi's judgment against al-Jabiri has unfolded into a series of "defamations of the man and his research project." Some Moroccan simple-minded writers, according to Balqaziz, went as far as to call for an academic investigation into al-Jabiri’s works, even demanding his expulsion from the university. Balqaziz argues that narrow political and electoral interests have inspired the Moroccan campaign against al-Jabiri.

Apparently, Balqaziz pays more attention to the campaign emanating from the Mashreq. Hedefends al-Jabiri against the accusation of sectarianism, fueled by the charges he made during his interview with Al Itihad Al Ishtiraki newspaper, where he states, "Those who consider him [al-Jabiri] sectarian do not know him," and have not read any of his works. He continues, claiming that al-Jabiriis "the most enthusiastic of all other Arab intellectuals in attacking sectarianism and tribalism."

Tarabishi himself becomes the subject of Balqaziz' second defense of al-Jabiri. Balqaziz attempts to disqualify Tarabishi as an expert on the subjects about which he writes, and comes close to ridiculing the number of books the Syrian author read during a decade spent writing and researching “The Theory of Reason.” In fact, Balqaziz claims that Tarabishi has no credential in the field of Turath studies, with his specialty confined to "translation, Marxism and psychological analysis." These research and intellectual interests, Balqaziz suggests, should be compared with "40 years" spent by al-Jabiri studying and writing about Turath.

He also points out that al-Jabiri represents a specific approach to studying Turath and serves as one of its symbols. Here, the former student bases his third defense on the assumption that the critics, rather than unveiling an academic and moral scandal, have targeted this approach, and choice.

Tarabishi has responded to al-Jabiri’s interview in an article published in Al Hayat (March 15). His views on the intellectual controversy raised by his "Theory of Reason" can be found in an interview he gave to the Lebanese writer and critic Ibrahim al-Aris, published in Al Hayat on February 16, 1997.

"The crime of my book, in al-Jabiri’s opinion," Tarabishi writes, "is that it was written by a sectarian Christian, lingering even behind the Arab Christians, who contributed to the age of Arab enlightenment." More troubling for Tarabishi remains the fact that al-Jabiri addressed him by his religion and not his name. He states, "I cannot forgive him for inciting sectarian hostility."

Tarabishi also declares that he will sue al-Jabiri and file a complaint against him before four authorities: the court of Arab readers, the Arab Organization of Human Rights, the Union of Arab Writers, and the Union of Maghreb Intellectuals.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 3, no. 17 (April 1997).

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