A New Life for Arab Rationalism

Elie Chalala

Nassif Nassar has a long-term research project and his latest book, titled “Al Zaat wa al-Hudur, Bahith fi Mabade’ al-Woujoud al-Tarikhi” (The Self and Existence: a Study in the Principles of Historical Existence), and published in Beirut by Dar al-Talia (2008), is the next step in this endeavor. In it, he characterizes Man, as the free and sovereign maker of his own social and political life, a depiction that has been routingly impunged by all types of of deterministic theories.

Nassar’s project goes back to the 1960s -- to "Nahou Mujtamah Jadid" (Towards a New Society) -- and as he mentions in the book’s introduction, it is a continuation of a philosophical inquiry developed in two other previous books, "Mantiq al-Sulta" (The Logic of Power), and "Bab al-Huriyya" (Freedom’s Door).

To be sure, the crisis of rational and liberal theories is both political and intellectual, and more evident since the 1967 War and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Nassar’s most recent work is a philosophical inquiry (and a difficult read for the non-specialist) that sets attention on Arab liberal and rational thought. This type of thinking has been marginalized, besieged, excluded, and threatened, according to Karam al-Helou’s review of Nassar’s book in Al Hayat newspaper. Thus Nassar, also in al-Helou’s opinion, has stood steadfast in the face of an onslaught of ideological challenges to his commitment to secular and rational thought.

Nassar insists that individual and human consciousness forms the basis of our existence, determining past, present, and future values. Since ideas like these fall clearly under the umbrella of secular idealism and rational-liberal traditions, Nassar’s goal is to re-introduce these traditions into contemporary Arab thought.

In fact, Arab liberals need all the help they can get nowadays. They have been on the defensive for quite some time -- more so since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. They suffer from “guilt by association.” Since the dominant ideology of the West has been liberalism, and since Western powers have been at war with the Arab and Muslim world (both directly and indirectly), liberal ideas have tended to be viewed as apologia for Western interests, and, on the extreme side, as indications of support for American policies in the Middle East.

Nassar is not defending Arab liberals, but is instead advancing principles that might nourish their thinking in the Arab world. His project may be even more ambitious than that, if we listen to al-Helou. Although there is some disconnect between the ideas of the Nahda intellectuals of mid 19th to early 20th to centuries and those writing today, Nassar’s contribution is considered as important as of his precursors. When scholars search for traces of rationality in Arab discourse, they immediately turn to the age of Nahda, a legacy to which Nassar is linked. Nassar’s book, according to al-Helou, is a contribution to the open battle for Arab rationality since the age of Nahda. Al-Helou goes even further by saying that Nassar insists on challenging the position that denies the existence of authentic Arab philosophical thought, concluding that the Arab reader could now undertake “The Self and Existence: a Study in the Principles of Historical Existence” alongside Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” without any a sense of one being inferior or subordinate to the other.

In his own introduction, Nassar writes that the book’s seven parts and 28 chapters all focus on one question: What does it mean that man makes himself? According to him, this key quandary invites a host of others that pertain to man's consciousness.

Man in control of his destiny and history is a constant theme that is highlighted by Nassar’s publisher. The book cover states: “This book raises a radical question which tries to examine it in a method that is as radical: What does it mean that man makes himself and history?” Given the popularity of religious books in the Arab world, the evidence of which is found at one book fair after the other, this book could not have been more timely.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009, 2018 by Al Jadid

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