Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Jawdat Said on Individuality, Rationality, and Democracy By Line Khatib

Line Khatib

The Middle East region has lost in 2022 one of its most inspirational and dedicated thinkers to the quest of freedom, liberal democracy, and individual rights, Shaykh Jawdat Said (1931-2022).

Jawdat Said was a prominent Islamic scholar, writer, and philosopher who is considered the father of non-violent resistance philosophy in the Arab World. Born in 1931 in Syria’s Golan Heights, in the town of Quneytra, Said studied Arabic literature at Cairo’s al-Azhar University before returning to Syria in the late 1950s. While working as an Arabic language teacher in Damascus, he was repeatedly transferred, persecuted, and imprisoned for his intellectual activism against istibdad (despotism). He was completely barred from teaching in the late 1960s, and returned to live near his hometown of Quneytra in 1973, where he continued his work of interpreting and teaching Islam.

Said’s reinterpretations of Islam have challenged the traditional and orthodox hermeneutical readings of the Quran in that they see the Quran as essentially a text about peace, individual freedom, human rationality and progress, and democracy. Theoretically and methodologically, Said placed himself in the tradition of Arab and Islamic reformers such as Islamic thinkers Muhammad Abdu and Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, the mystic poet Muhammad Iqbal, and philosophers such as Mohammed Abed al-Jabri and Malik Bennabi. He was a prolific writer, wrote dozens of books including Mazhab ibn adam al-awal (The Doctrine of Adam’s better [or first] son, 1966), Mushkilat al-‘unf fi al-‘amal al-siyasi (The Problem of Violence in Political Work, 1988), and Kun ka-ibn adam (Be like the Son of Adam, 1996). Said was regularly interviewed on Arab and European radio and television, and made many appearances, conferences, and presentations throughout the Arab World and Europe, and his teachings became the intellectual blueprint for the religiously-driven democratic movement in the Arabic-speaking region.

Thus, he captured the imagination of many pious individuals who were attracted to his pioneering views firmly rooted in theory and scholarship and to his defiance of monolithic and radical streams of Islam. Indeed, together with other Syrian activists and intellectuals, Said pushed back the repressive Syrian State from below doing so peacefully, focusing on reexamining the self, on patient teaching and writing, and on cultural production. In so doing, he helped create a space to challenge essentialist and dogmatic claims, and he advanced liberal democratic conceptualization of rights and for democracy, and asserted people’s right to choose for themselves, to believe or not in the divine, and to experience their individuality no matter what. In 2011, the 80-year old Said took part in the Syrian uprising, led some of its demonstrations and sit-ins, and funerals, and delivered inspiring speeches in which he asserted the importance of peaceful protesting, of pacifism come what may, and of democracy.

The conviction that a correct understanding of Islam promotes peace, reconciliation, and kindness drove Said’s work. He explains that in the Quranic version of the story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in history is accompanied by the first act of reconciliation and of nonviolence, a refusal to kill, even in self-defense, through mindfulness of a God who stands far above partisan conflict. He bases this interpretation on Abel’s answer to his jealous brother Cain in the Quranic version. Abel says: “If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee, for I do fear God, the cherisher of the worlds.” (Quran 5:28) It is upon this verse that Jawdat Said bases his theory of non-violence, and in which he sees the spirit of Islam, one of tolerance and serenity rather than punishment and retribution.

But Jawdat Said does not stop at pointing to the peaceful meaning of a fixed divine text. Like other Islamic thinkers before him such as Ali Abd al-Raziq, Jawdat Said sees a dynamic relationship between humans and the text. He contends that the Quran, while immutable and absolute, can only reveal itself through time and through our changing reality (since God is always in the act of creation) and, more importantly, our evolving understanding and appropriation of our condition as humans. Thus, the meaning of the text is not merely hidden within it, rather it is through a constant re-reading and re-interpretation of the text that humanity discovers God’s message. This communication between the text and humans based on our understanding of our changing empirical world is one of the essential parts of Said’s philosophy since, as he asserts, a proper understanding of the Quran can only come about gradually and progressively in conjunction with our study of objective reality.

Said’s assertion about the need for constant revisiting of Quranic meaning in turn allows him to emphasize a number of liberal democratic values that he believes the Quran promotes:

Firstly, that for humanity to discover the universal meaning of the divine text and to “know” God, we need to rely on the use of our endowed rational faculty, this is the only way for humanity to discover the laws (sunan) of the universe surrounding us. An understanding of the Quran thus involves a learning process, even scientific and technological “growth.” Thus, a Muslim never is but is always in the process of becoming. Similarly, the interpretations of the words of God are never final and thus never absolute regardless of who articulates them. In other words, the Quran is absolute and eternal, but its interpretation is always contingent and shifting, depending on humans’ overall ability and willingness to critically engage with the changing universe around us (Mazhab ibn adam al-awal, pp. 6-7 and 11). And so, one of Said’s most liberal assertions is in the way he connects religiosity and spirituality to human knowledge and makes them contingent on – rather than preconditions for epistemological investigation as well as rational, scientific enquiry.

Secondly, for Jawdat Said, dogma is repressive and to be shunned. He explains that medieval clerics have attempted to confine Muslims in the world and words of the fathers’ (al-aba’ and al-aba’iya) (see Iqra’ wa rabika al-akram, pp. 17-18). The problem of the orthodox mind, he explains, is that it believes itself to have already answered all questions. Said writes, “A dogmatic mind is that of a person who, when the objective circumstances call for a change in attitude…fails to make that change.” He calls on Muslims and Islamic clerics to free themselves of the dictates and rituals of their forefathers, to stop raising leaders above their human place, and to accept their fallibility.

Thirdly, and related to the previous points is Said’s conceptualization of individuality which is determinedly liberal. Previous reformists, he explains, have been keen on safeguarding society from the ills of disunity and degeneration (inhilal), so much so that in an attempt to create order they produced a uniform world with established ways of behaving and thinking for all. Here, Said announces his most liberal idea: that, orthodox jurists and clerics forgot that the destiny (masir) of peoples depends more on the value of the individual than on order, and that societies that are too orderly crush the individual, who benefits from all the fruits of collective thinking and yet loses his or her soul. Thus, only a strong sense of our individuality can safeguard us from degeneration and zulm (injustice) as only it can allow us to craft innovative solutions to our present problems (Mazhab ibn Adam al-awal, p.7).

Finally, the assertion of Muslims’ right to democratic rule and the rule of law is clear. Said explains that the Quran opposes ikrah (coercion) and favors rushd (rationality, maturity): “There is no coercion in religion: rushd (moral and intellectual maturity) stands out as clearly distinct from ghay (domination, wickedness): who-ever rejects taghut (tyranny) and believes in God, has grasped the most secure handhold that never breaks loose. And God hears And knows all things. (Surah 2 Al Baqarah: 256).” He explains, not only equality and choice (which are the outcome of his principle of non-coercion) are the most important principles within the Quran, but indeed that pluralism and democratic rule are the logical practical outcomes of these concepts. Indeed, for Said, rushd and la-ikrah are positive and mature values that lead a society to democracy. The word “taghoot” (tyranny), he tells us, is explained by orthodox clerics as “evil”, “Satan”, or “the idols”. And yet: “No one is held up in the Qur’an as the prototype of taghut more than Pharaoh; not any name – apart from that of Allah – is mentioned in the Qur’an more often than that of Moses, the man who stood in the face of Pharaoh; and that in the greatest civilization of the ancient world. The Quranic Pharaoh thus represents the tyrant and all that which an oppressor says and does, while Moses is the exemplary human who challenges the tyrant and who leads people away from their ‘submissive state’.” Said then argues, “It must be revealing that the story of Moses and Pharaoh has been repeated in the Qur’an more than any other story…”

And so, the “upright condition” according to Jawdat Said, is one in which humans’ freedoms of thought, belief and expression are safeguarded, and in which the protection of these rights is applied in the same way to everyone, whether believer or not. Here, Said proclaims what he calls the universal and inclusive message of Islam, that the good can only be known through difference, and through constant human exchange and disagreement. He writes, “In difference we deepen the right” (Mazhab ibn adam al-awal, pp. 12-13) [author’s translation]. He then praises certain nations for creating democratic political systems that allow for the transfer of rule without any sort of physical violence, that safeguard a person’s right to her opinion. Said concludes that the old paradigms of obedience, worship and power seeking are creating “a perpetual, glaring violation of the principles of human rights and hence giving capital and justification to the small dictators of the developing world.” (The Role of Religious Actor in Peacebuilding) He explains that only once the entire world becomes liberal democratic does the institution of war (mu’asasat al-harb) end and international justice can be achieved. Said’s work on non-violence has acted as a guidepost for Muslim and Arab (whether Muslim, Christian, atheist, or other) activists calling for civil and human rights in the region. His first book, Mazhab ibn Adam al-awal, published in 1966, has sold thousands of copies, and has subsequently gone on to have five further editions.

During the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, Said joined hands with thousands of liberal intellectuals and was one of the most influential activists in a movement uniting thousands of intellectuals, doctors, artists, actors, professionals, journalists, professors, and activists, all pressing for the authoritarian government to end emergency laws and to uphold and guarantee rights, pluralism, and civil and political freedoms.

For thousands in the Arab region, Said’s work embodies the hope and kindness that are all too often eclipsed by the more sensational and frightening discourse of militant Islamism.

Quest for Democracy by Line Khatib

About The Author

Line Khatib

Line Khatib is a fellow at the Center for Syrian Studies, the University of St Andrews. She was previously Associate Professor of Political Science at the American University of Sh...

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