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Arab Studies Journal

Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers by Mohammed Arkoun; Robert D.


Lee
Review by: Abdeslam Maghraoui
The Arab Studies Journal, Vol. 8/9, No. 2/1 (Fall 2000/Spring 2001), pp. 157-159
Published by: Arab Studies Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27933788 .
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BOOK REVIEWBOOK REVIEWBOOK REVIEWBOOK REVIEWBOOK REVIEWBOOK REVIEW

Islam:
Rethinking
Answers
Common
Uncommon
Questions,
Mohammed Arkoun
Translated and edited by Robert D. Lee
Boulder: Westview Press, 1994

(139pages) $26 (paper)

ReviewedbyAbdeslam
Maghraoui_
idea of a modern, tolerant,and pluralist Islam is very refreshingwhen
most references to Islam and Muslim societies are associated eitherwith
the despotism of the rulers or the obscurantism of the religious groups.
a
Yet,
growing number of serious Muslim thinkerswhose works remain largely
unknown toAmerican scholars and journalists, are exploring modern, humanistic
values in Islam. Mohammed Arkoun is one of them. Prominent Algerian-French
The

intellectual and scholar ofWestern philosophy and Islamic thought, he devoted his
academic life to articulating themetaphysical and epistemological foundations of an
Islamic reason. Is Arkoun's intellectual effortfutile because it ismerely visionary?
Not ifwe are disenchanted with the theoretical limitations of current scholarly
works on Muslim societies and the persistent civilizational crisis that cripples the
Muslim world. For in "Rethinking Islam," Arkoun raises new conceptual questions
and explores daring ontological issues thatneither scholars ofMuslim societies nor
Muslim citizens can afford to ignore.
In this book?set
up as short responses to twenty four "innocent" questions

about Islam?Arkoun deplores Western scholars and Muslim thinkers and religious
authorities alike for reducing a diverse and rich religion to essentialist categories. But
ifArkoun's queries are "common" and his replies are short?sometimes frustratingly
so, the content is dense, inventive, and complex. This is how, for example, Arkoun
talks about themeaning of the Qur'an in a chapter of one page and a half: "The

written Qur'an (mushaf) has become identifiedwith theQur'anic discourse or the


Qur'an as itwas recited,which is itself the direct emanation of theArchetype book.
Abdeslam

Maghraoui
Princeton University.

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at

158

Arab Studies Journal

Fall 2000/Spring

2001

that the phenomenon of writing as a means of transition to a different


functioning of language and as an archival base linked to state authority is denied in
the name of a theological position contradicted by numerous and explicit Qur'anic
verses." (36) The strength of such insight, and of the book in general, could
unfortunately become a liability. For Arkoun's conceptual categories may not be
accessible to area specialists unfamiliar with Ricoeur's hermeneutics of revelation,
Foucault's archeology of knowledge, or Derrida's deconstruction of logocentrism.
Arkoun's analyses draw insight from these authors as well as from Islamic
discursive traditions.While Robert D. Lee does an excellent job translating and
This means

laconic and illusive writing style


commenting on Rethinking Islam, Arkoun's
and the complex nature of the issues he tackles makes the arguments difficult
to comprehend at times.
Still, what Arkoun has to say is too important tobypass. He tells us thatdogmatic
theologians have turned the Islamic tradition into a "Closed Official Corpus," while
contemporary apologists and militants reduced Islam to meaningless clich?s and
slogans. The mental tools of the former,combined with the ideological determinism of
the latter,saysArkoun, confines the epistemological framework for theproduction of
new knowledge in theMuslim world. He outlines a whole area of potential knowledge
that escapes theMuslim cognitive system and which he puts in two categories, the
"untaught" and the "unthinkable." As long as Islamic thinking obeys the rules of
an essentialized "doctrinal authenticity," theMuslim's reading and understanding
of the Qur'an, tradition, revelation, and rightswill remain dogmatic, incomplete,
and incompatible with modernity. Current political authoritarianism and cultural
backwardness in theMuslim world, saysArkoun, furtherconsecrate the "degradation
of Islamic symbols" into ideological signals and rituals of domination.
While Arkoun hopes that an Islamic renewal could come from theWest, where
free and independent thinking ismore likely,he criticizes Islamic studies programs
for lagging behind progress achieved in the social and human sciences. Limited
by "philological, historicist reading of old texts,"Orientalism presents a static and

essentialist vision of Islam. The ethnographic approach associated with classic


Islamology, lamentsArkoun, "marginalize[s] Islam in 'specificity,'particularism, and
singularities." (1) This flaw, he insists, is not due only to epistemological limitations
or the systematic shielding of Islamic studies from other disciplines; it is due to
political and ideological considerations as well. In thefirstchapter of thebook Arkoun
raises a pertinent question: "Can one speak of a scientific understanding of Islam in
theWest or must one rather talk about theWestern way of imagining Islam?"

His response is unambiguous: past and present conflicts between theWest and
Muslim countries have "fed theWestern imaginary of Islam." Such an "imaginary"
has been institutionalized in universities where Islamic studies are relegated to
departments of "Oriental" languages.
To break away from the philology of the Orientalist and the dogmatism of
the theologian, Arkoun invites us to pursue a deconstructive strategy for studying
Islam; one thatwould bypass the "imaginary" and expose the "unthinkable." But the
author does not claim to provide a blueprint for this strategy.He acknowledges

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Maghraoui

159

the exploratory nature of his project, "which . . . aims to open up new fields for
research, knowledge, and reflection in the Islamic domain." (63) In this vision,
previous (mis)conceptions, from themeaning of theword "Muslim" and "Qur'an"
to definitions of "human rights," "authority," and "the person" in Islam, are to be
understood asmere constructs of thehuman mind?in a specific timeand space?not as
essences or eternal truths.The tools of analysis thatArkoun proposes to disrupt theold
narratives on Islam are borrowed from a variety of disciplines including anthropology,

linguistics, philosophy, semiotics, and psychoanalysis.


The examination of Islamic culture and traditions through new conceptual
categories would reestablish the links, artificially severed, between Islam and the
other great religions of the book. In themanner of Fernand Braudel, Arkoun believes
that the natural, geographic, and cultural framework for reviving this link is the
Mediterranean basin. He devotes the last chapter of the book to this topic which he
treatswith much conviction and passion.
In thisbook as inhis previous works, Arkoun's intellectual contribution is brilliant
and his invitation tobypass artificial barriers between world civilizations and religions
ismoving. But the question iswhether his vision of amodern, pluralist, and humanist
Islam will echo not only inMuslim societies but also inWestern ones.

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