Abdelmajid Charfi, Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought, University of Tunis (Tunisia)
Dr. Charfi, Professor Emeritus of Arab Civilization and Islamic Thought at the University of Tunis (Tunisia), spoke in memory of Mohamed Arkoun as a respected colleague and valued friend. Charfi described his difficulty in preparing this speech, both because of the close nature of his friendship with Arkoun, and because of the erudition of Arkoun’s work.
Charfi knew Arkoun for four decades and they often met in Paris and at academic conferences in Europe and the Middle East. When Arkoun would visit Tunis, Charfi welcomed him as a houseguest. Drawn together by intellectual affinity and a shared love of long walks, they enjoyed frank discussions on a range of personal and professional matters. Charfi learned to recognize the fragility and anxiety Arkoun hid beneath his intellectual brilliance.
Charfi described how Arkoun’s background and personal experiences informed his friend’s academic perspective. Arkoun acquired French nationality after Algerian independence, when he was dismissed from his university post in Algeria on the grounds that his teaching was subversive. The benefit of this experience, Charfi postulated, was that it gave Arkoun the opportunity to combine intimate knowledge of both Islamic and Western cultures. Despite living in France, Arkoun always identified as Kabil, Algerian, and Maghrebi. Moreover, his encounters with authorities from the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria taught him to remain aloof from political rhetoric. Instead, he adopted an overview of the problems in Maghrebi societies and sought to analyze their underlying causes. Because Arkoun avoided taking a public position on such political matters, he was often reproached for lacking compassion. Yet, as Charfi witnessed, Arkoun was consumed by the topics he studied and believed that his work was capable of effecting change.
Charfi commented on the difficulty of discussing Arkoun’s work due to its richness and depth. Leaving more in–depth treatment to presenters later in the symposium, Charfi said he would limit his comments to a few aspects of Arkoun’s work. He first noted Arkoun’s brilliant speaking ability in three non–native languages: French, English, and Arabic, which he learned relatively late in life (at the age of 17). He then outlined Arkoun’s primary contributions to the history of Islamic thinking.
Above all, Charfi said, Arkoun was adept at deconstructing established dogmas and critiquing seemingly self–evident beliefs. Even if one disagrees with his concepts, or finds them destabilizing, one cannot remain untouched after reading an Arkoun text, Charfi observed, for Arkoun’s approach encourages readers to think critically for themselves.
Arkoun employed ideas from the modern social sciences and also developed his own concepts, many of which — Charfi said — have become indispensable for understanding religion in general and the Qur’an and Islam in particular. Some of these original concepts have been popularized, such as demythication, demystication and demytholigization, as well as unthought and unthinkable.3 Other concepts have met with objection. For example, Arkoun’s admonitions to transgress and displace certain theological constructs previously regarded as sacred have been widely resisted. Notably, Arkoun believed that religious texts must be re–interpreted in a new light to overcome the early official closing of the mushaf — the standardized collection of Qur’anic verses in a single volume.
Charfi concluded by summarizing the implications of Arkoun’s approach beyond its importance to Islamic studies alone. Arkoun’s assessment of the need to criticize and question everything is relevant, Charfi said, in a modern world characterized by dehumanization and the creation of docile consumers. Regardless of whether we agree with Arkoun’s own ideas, he continued, believers and nonbelievers alike must take responsibility for developing their own intellectual and spiritual potential. Charfi suggested that this is where Arkoun has often been misunderstood. Olivier Carré, for example, compared Arkoun to Sayyid Qutb in his “fundamentalist” fixation on original texts and in his claims about the performative nature of prophetic religious discourse.4 Indeed, both Qutb and Arkoun see the Qur’an as unique in being highly performative and all–encompassing. However, Carré attacked Arkoun for rejecting positive rationalism and questioning the original text as a product and source of religion.Back to the top.