Draft of an Islamic Anthropology

The idea of the human being as an individual personality bears the deep stamp of the Christian religion and European culture. For Muslims, this way of thinking is not a matter of course. Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi interpreted the concept of the person from the perspective of Islamic sources, generating a dialogue between the Muslim image of man and that of Western anthropologies. An interview with Markus Kneer, expert on Lahbabi's philosophy

By Rachid Boutayeb

You recently published an annotated translation of Lahbabi's work "Le personnalisme musulman" (in English: "The Muslim Personalism") and other writings, in German. As a Christian theologian who is also interested in the inter-religious dialogue, you have been studying Lahbabi's work for several years now. Why Lahbabi? And how is his thinking pertinent for us today?

Markus Kneer: When I came upon the writings of Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi (1923–1993) a good thirteen years ago, I was searching for a Muslim approach that juxtaposed the Islamic image of man with modern Western anthropologies. It seemed to me that localising what is to a great extent a Christian and Occidental concept of the individual within a Muslim context harboured the potential for a dialogue on the Christian and Islamic images of man – potential that should by all means be tapped. Lahbabi's "Muslim personalism" consists of just such an articulation of the human individual from Islamic sources. His points of reference in European philosophy are the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950) and Jean Lacroix (1900–1986) as well as the life philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859–1941).

Arab League Meeting in Cairo (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Echoes of Lahbabi's philosophy: "I think it's no accident that in recent official publications of the Arab League on the subject of human rights the Arabic equivalent of person, 'shakhs', frequently appears," says Kneer

​​We are speaking here of the 1950s and 60s, when Lahbabi developed his philosophy, and when Mounier's dedicated thinking and that of the journal Esprit, which he founded, exercised a major influence in France and beyond. Today, personalism has largely been replaced by other discourses. Nevertheless, contemplation of the human as person is more intense today than in past decades, and what Paul Ricœur already predicted thirty years ago now seems to be coming true: "Personalism will die, but the person will return!"

This concept after all bundles together other values that are of great importance for the articulation and ethical analysis of human life: e.g. dignity, freedom, responsibility. And I think it's no accident that in recent official publications of the Arab League on the subject of human rights the Arabic equivalent of person, "shakhs", frequently appears.

Yet the question remains: How is this concept understood from the Muslim point of view? Lahbabi's topicality consists in his effort to articulate a Muslim understanding of the person, one that allows the sources of the Islamic image of man to be heard within a universal perspective so that they can be compared with other understandings of the person.

According to Lahbabi, the human is not that which he is already, but that which he should be. He is the normative ultimate goal of the personalisation process. What role is played by the Other in this process of becoming human?

Kneer: Becoming a person is a complex process, which Lahbabi analysed in his first major work "From Being to Person" ("De l'être à la personne", Paris 1954). Personalisation takes place in multiple dimensions, which can be identified by the fact that the personalising Self is always embedded in them: it is embedded in a flow of time and in a spatial horizon, it is embedded in a world of language and emotion, in a world of values and one of engagement. These are the dimensions our Self finds itself in. It has an effect on them without however determining them completely. For these dimensions only come about with, and through, our relationships to others.

Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi (photo: alacadamia)
Anti-Colonial thinker: Moroccan philosopher, novelist and poet Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi (1922–1993)

​​Time as history comes about when the Self experiences time as time shared with others, and realises that time goes on, becomes a flow. Horizons come about by the Self localising itself spatially in relationship to others. Language, communication come about solely through the encounter with others. The same can be said of our inner, mental life and our emotions. The Self, the person, transcends its own bounds in these relationships with others, goes beyond itself. The Other is thus omnipresent in the constitution of the person. The demand that arises in the context of the world of values that the person should fulfil himself more and more in a continuous process of transcending his own humanness has its origin in the process of transcending the boundaries of self that is triggered by others.

So much for the theory. The historical and practical reasons why Lahbabi chose to analyse the process of becoming a person can be found in the identity crisis experienced by the colonised populace during the colonial era – in particular by the intellectuals. Lahbabi described how the colonial system had depersonalising effects for him and many others. Instead of experiencing language, communication and mental life as fields for personalisation, his generation suffered from speechlessness, non-communication and a feeling of inner emptiness. He wondered for a long time whether he was a person equal to the others, in other words, to the Europeans. The role of the Other in becoming a person and a human is thus not unproblematic.

"Personalism", says Lahbabi, "begins where the person refuses the blind subjugation under someone or something, and recognises reason and the intellect as the highest value". Doesn't this emphasis on reason contradict Lahbabi's idea of a "humanism with God"?

Kneer: At no point in his work does Lahbabi set up religious faith and reason in such opposition to one another. Like the persons who apply it, reason is also found in prescribed contexts. And one of these contexts is for Lahbabi the religious one. Here, as in other contexts, reason takes on a central function: it allows the person to understand the religious context, i.e. belief in God, his commandments, etc. Understanding, which Lahbabi clearly distinguishes from explaining, means here working out the rationality inherent in religious faith.

Three points are connected with this process: 1. Through the understanding of his faith, it also becomes a field for the personalisation of the person. 2. The person makes the faith understandable for others as well and hence part of their mutual mental horizon. Faith must stand the test of this communication horizon. 3. Understanding faith also means that it becomes dynamic. The religious person transcends his own boundaries in his continuous rational reflection on his beliefs and develops himself and his faith further.

Cover of Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi's Der Mensch: Zeuge Gottes' ('Man: Witness of God')
"A humanism with God": Cover of Markus Kneer's book on Lahbabi, "Man: Witness of God – Draft of an Islamic Anthropology"

​​The passage you quoted is to be understood in this context: Lahbabi is not talking about an absolute reason of the word, divorced from the religious context, but rather a reason that illuminates and lends dynamics to this context. In other words, ijtihad, the term used in Islamic theology to describe the personal and rational adoption of faith, must be rehabilitated as the fundamental method of theological work. Lahbabi's profound criticism of taqlid, the blind mimicking of and adherence to opinions passed down by the great Muslim scholarly authorities, is connected with this stance. Only shahada (profession of the one and only God, the Muslim creed) that reflects true ijtihad has personalising value, says Lahbabi.

With his dynamic concept of reason, Lahbabi takes up a position within value hermeneutics that mediates between the cultural and religious sources of values and their universal validity. In the process of transcending the bounds of the self, culturally inflected values become understandable against the horizon of other value traditions, and their universality can be tested. One-sided culturalism or universalism is not possible with Lahbabi.

"Liberation" is a central concept in Lahbabi's philosophy. How can we apply this concept today to the "Arab revolutions"?

Kneer: I'm almost inclined to cite "liberation" as the central concept in the philosophy of Lahbabi, but one that takes on different nuances. In the introduction to "From Being to Person" Lahbabi confirms that he means with this term the individual path the human being takes toward mastering his instincts, drives and passions. In the search for a balance between emotion and reason, the person goes through a process of liberation from natural fixations. A second nuance can be discerned in "Liberty or Liberation?" ("Liberté ou libération?", Paris 1956), a work published the year Morocco gained its independence. Based on the critique voiced by a certain school of European philosophy that freedom was solely a subjective human category, Lahbabi shows that the human person strives for different kinds of freedom in different contexts – not only the subjective variety, but also the economic and political.

These forms of freedom must however never be regarded as static, so that persons can possess them once and for all. Freedoms, too, are embedded in the process of liberation, so that, after individual liberties are gained, the new economic, political and social contexts that result then call for new liberation movements. By placing freedoms in context, Lahbabi demonstrates that liberation can never be understood as an individual process alone, but rather one in which persons share in the struggle for common values.

Syrian protesters hold a poster saying 'Assad kills freedom with tanks' (photo: AP)
"Every human is a person". The current fight for human and civil rights in the Islam-dominated countries of North Africa and the Middle East casts a new light on Lahbabi's philosophy of the person and liberation, says Kneer

​​The current fight for human and civil rights in the Islam-dominated countries of North Africa and the Middle East casts a new light on Lahbabi's philosophy of the person and liberation. For, just as he describes the way persons transcend their respective contexts and are able to act within them to liberate themselves, we encounter there Mohamed Bouazizi as exemplary of the many people who are risking their lives to demonstrate for their freedoms – the man from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia who, through his desperate act of self-immolation, set the whole movement in motion. Bouazizi, too, felt that depersonalising structures violated the dignity of his personhood, and he therefore sought liberation from them, which he then – hopefully – ended up achieving for many others.

In his later works, in which he developed a philosophy for the so-called "third world", Lahbabi denounced the depersonalising structures brought about by neo-colonialism and its aftermath, and described the resulting traumas. At the same time, he stood by his thesis that every human – ineluctably and irreducibly – is a person. And that it is an innate trait of the human person to strive for freedom and dignity – including, and in particular, in a culture and society shaped by Islam. We are currently witnessing just such a striving in North Africa and the Middle East.

Interview: Rachid Boutayeb

© Qantara.de 2011

Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi (1923–1993) was one of the first chairs of General Philosophy at Muhammad V University in Rabat/Morocco. He was president of the Moroccan Philosophy Society. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 based on his literary writings.

Markus Kneer (born 1972) studied Catholic Theology, Philosophy and Islamic Studies and is Commissioner for the Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Archbishopric of Paderborn.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi: Der Mensch: Zeuge Gottes. Entwurf einer islamischen Anthropologie. Selected writings, translated into German and annotated by Markus Kneer. Herder 2011.