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The "Crisis of Man" in Modern Arabic Thought

Panel XI-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel brings together scholars whose papers shed new light on what we call ‘the crisis of man (insan)’ in modern Arabic thought. Questions that ranged from man’s true nature and rights, the place of faith, and the role of technology loomed large in the mid-20th century, during and in the aftermath of colonial violence, totalitarianism, and world war. Focusing on these debates in a variety of contexts—the journalistic public sphere, institutions of higher learning, and political networks—this panel brings new perspectives to recent scholarship (e.g. Di-Capua, El-Shakry, Šabasevičiūtė, Weiss). These range from diagnoses of crisis, the recovery of intellectual resources, the formulation of ‘humanisms’ (insaniyya) with alternative intellectual genealogies to Europe’s, to the afterlives of these discussions. Amongst other things we ask: what is ‘human’ for intellectuals writing in Arabic and how can it be recovered? What use is recourse to the sacred in discourses of liberation? How do formulations of a ‘new man’ relate to understandings of history and time? What can Arab theorists teach us about the possibility of a true universalism beyond Europe’s? To answer these questions, each paper looks at debates over ‘the crisis of man’ from hitherto underexplored perspectives. Paper 1 shows how Egyptian philosophers re-read Avicenna as the paragon of a new humanism to overcome the crisis of the Western humanist tradition. Paper 2 sheds light on the interplay of the new and the eternal in Michel ʿAflaq’s thought, particularly with regards to the aspiration of realizing the ‘New Arab Man’. Paper 3 discusses Sayyid Qutb’s early diagnosis in the 1950s of the crisis of humanity as a crisis threaded with capitalism, colonialism, and the spirit of the crusades. Paper 4 turns to the recovery and rethinking of the mystical notion of ‘the total man’ (al-insan al-kamil) by scholars in mid-century Egypt.
  • This paper looks at contributions to mid-20th century discussions over ‘the crisis of man’ by Egyptian scholars’ of mysticism (tasawwuf). Against the backdrop of the rise of the academic study of mysticism at Egypt’s institutions of higher learning and its diffraction in the journalistic sphere and beyond, scholars such as Abu al-‘Ila ‘Afifi, Muhammad Mustafa Hilmi, and ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi turned to mysticism in attempts to redeem ‘man’ (al-insan) in the shadow of world war, colonialism, and the dawn of the nuclear age. My focus is on scholars’ recourse to the idea of ‘the total man’ (al-insan al-kamil). A long-established notion in Islamic mysticism and philosophy, the ‘the total man’ for mid-century scholars and intellectuals denoted different things; at its very core, it denoted the unification of the worldly and the sacred in ‘man’ and the ability to ‘connect’ to a plain of spiritual reality beyond matter. In my paper, I highlight the complex genealogies of this idea—from Ibn Al-‘Arabi and Al-Jili over Weimar Germany to the institutional context of Egyptian academe—while highlighting the potentials that recourse to it opened up. These included, as I will show, an understanding of man that transcended tradition and race; a “religion after religion” beyond the law; and an aspirational ideal of being an authentic Muslim subject in an enchanted modernity. I do so by situating a close reading of selected texts in the institutional, cultural, and political history of mid-century Egypt.
  • In the 1950s, Islamist intellectuals and publics diagnosed the crisis of humanity as geopolitical, material, educational, and spiritual. This paper recovers their theorization, and it proceeds in two parts. First, it engages with how Sayyid Qutb’s books on capitalism and on peace discussed the precipice and crisis of humanity by directly naming and analyzing three converging forces. These forces are capitalism as it sanctions violence and transforms human self-understanding, colonialism as it remakes pre-existing institutions of education and finance and rewires the consciousness of the colonized; and the continued aftershocks of the crusades in the dominant ideological narration of Muslim history and in the frenzied energy of territorial dispossession. In these ways, Qutb analyzed the crisis of humanity--understood as the rise of inhuman violence and the loss of the morality that informs mankind—as having a material basis, an ideological structure, and a longer genealogy. The second (and larger) half of the paper situates Qutb’s arguments in relation to the pre-existing discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood. It turns to the weekly journal al-Da‘wa (The Call), focusing on the first three years of its publication. The journal was published by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and included Qutb among its regular contributors. Like Qutb, the journal’s articles theorized violence, colonialism, and capitalism as nodes of contemporary crisis. The language with which the periodical’s articles diagnosed these structures was authorized by an Islamist key that blended multiple ideological and historical idioms together. Attention to how the journal’s articles situated the crisis of humanity in relation to democratic hypocrisies and fictions, class structures, colonial interests, and the resurgence of a crusader spirit also shows that Qutb was embedded in a set of discourses to which he was only one participant. Finally, the paper draws out the implications of shifting the location of theory along these lines, in which the Muslim is not the source of crisis, but the theorist of how the crisis of modern man is an entire geography of violence that is maintained through colonialism, capitalism, and Orientalism.
  • From the early to mid-twentieth century, thinkers across the globe of a variety of political tendencies—as well as theological positions—envisioned the emergence of the New Man in history. In the context of the Arab World, Michel ʿAflaq (1910-1989), founder of the Arab Baʿth Party, dedicated himself to formulating a compelling anticolonial nationalist vision that would usher forth the New Arab (al-ʿarabī al-jadīd). In his view, this agonizing process of self-constitution at the level of the singular human person would lead to the emergence of the virtuous New Arab Generation (al-jīl al-ʿarabī al-jadīd) collectively on the world stage as an expression of the Arab nation’s eternal message (al-risāla al-khālida). For ʿAflaq, revolution begins with the metaphysical revolution of the soul, and likewise any struggle towards progress and renewal must derive its vitality from eternity (al-khulūd) itself. While a number of works have meditated on one concept or another in the intellectual tapestry of ʿAflaq and his followers, the task remains to integrate them together to fully capture their vibrant meaning. Such an endeavor brings about a key question: how to understand the new and the eternal in ʿAflaq’s thought? Therefore, in this paper I argue that ʿAflaq’s ultimate goal of realizing the New Arab Man who would create the united Arab nation—that is to say, realizing true decolonization—rested upon a foundation of the concept of the eternal. Indeed, it is precisely in this interplay of the new and the eternal that one fully begins to understand the higher aims of Baʿthism.
  • In the spring of 1952, international congresses convened in several Middle Eastern and European capitals to celebrate the thousandth birthday of the great tenth/eleventh-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna and across the lands of Islam as “the Preeminent Master.” Like the better-known Afro-Asian solidarity conferences being held simultaneously, these scholarly forums were sponsored by UNESCO, the Arab League, and other international organizations founded in the 1940s with mandates to usher in the new, global era heralded by the end of World War II and advent of decolonization. At the helm of the Ibn Sina millenaries was a rising generation of reformist scholars from the Muslim world who championed the Preeminent Master and his Islamic interpreters as paragons of a “new humanism” which—unlike its European counterpart—offered a truly universal philosophy of humanity by virtue of its multicultural genealogy and accommodation of religious belief. Drawing on heretofore unexamined archival records of the Ibn Sina millenaries plus the voluminous body of multilingual scholarship produced for them, my presentation situates these largely forgotten scholarly forums as generative sites in the much-discussed “humanism debate” of the postwar era. In so doing, I recast this debate—usually represented as a watershed in continental thought driven by European philosophers—as a transregional conversation that entailed not only a critical reckoning with Europe’s compromised humanist tradition, but also the creative reconstruction of Islamic thought traditions as grounds for an other humanism than that realized by Western modernity.