On Contemporary Arab Philosophy as a Field of Study

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab (Philosophy, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar)[1]

The Need for Drawing a Map of the Field
Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab. Photo: private

Modern and contemporary Arab intellectual history remains an understudied field. The last two decades have witnessed a growing interest in it. Among the recent works are some that revisit the nahda period (the mid-19th to mid-20th century period, known as the renaissance) and others that document the more contemporary debates critically. Modern and contemporary Arab philosophy, being part of this intellectual history, has attracted less attention so far. Writing this Arab contemporary philosophical history in the broader Arab contemporary intellectual history remains a task to undertake for two major reasons: firstly, in order to take stock of the intellectual and philosophical effort that has been made in the last five or six decades, much of which addressed a wide spectrum of issues ranging from questions of philosophical autonomy and authenticity, phenomena of cultural crisis, matters of religion to issues of reason and critique; and secondly, in order to transmit and disseminate the awareness gained through this stocktaking in view of critically developing this intellectual-philosophical thinking further. Unfortunately, there has been insufficient attention devoted to this field, in terms of not only research but also teaching. It has rarely been given a proper place in school and university curricula and generations of Arabs have graduated from educational institutions without having acquired a basic knowledge of what their immediate predecessors have been thinking and discussing just a few decades back or even at the present time. Such knowledge would offer them a necessary intellectual awareness of their own background and, with it, a base to build on their own thoughts and positions regarding numerous pressures which they face in their world today. Curating and developing contemporary Arab philosophy as a field of study would fill this gap and contribute to raising that awareness.

But drawing the contours of contemporary Arab philosophy does not need to start from scratch. In fact, successive attempts have been made by people involved in it to describe and assess their field, without, however, those attempts producing a general, consensual map of it. Throughout the years, histories, accounts and evaluations have been made in conferences convened by research centers, philosophy associations and universities across the Arab World. Edited volumes on philosophy production and teaching in various Arab countries have been published and this continues. In this sense, the work of taking stock and assessing themes, preoccupations, hopes, challenges and disappointments has been growing, offering, thus, the elements that still need to be woven together in order to form a comprehensive map of the field. What comes across in this literature is a growing dissatisfaction about the realities and conditions of producing and teaching philosophy in the Arab World: the replacement of philosophy with ‘Islamic Studies’ in public secondary schools and universities in a number of Arab countries, the restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression, the lack of democracy, the rise and domination of authoritarian ideologies and the deterioration of the quality of education, especially in the humanities.

Freedom and Contextual Knowledge Necessary for the Teaching and Practice of Philosophy

If philosophy combines the art of constructing and examining arguments with the skill of scrutinizing concepts and articulating precise problematics, the relevant question that remains to be asked is the following: to what are such art and skill to be applied? If workers in the field of contemporary Arab philosophy, teachers and writers alike, were to succeed, at least to some extent, in transmitting this faculty of working with arguments, concepts and problematics to students and society at large, would this faculty produce new ideas, new thought and new knowledge on its own? I believe that this training and this faculty are necessary but not sufficient in themselves for such productivity. They need to be informed by some knowledge of the realities about which they are to produce ideas and thoughts. Hence, the importance of integrating the teaching and practicing of philosophy with the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, both local and global. This will connect the challenges of philosophy inevitably to those of other disciplines and compound the already existing challenges in this one discipline. While the other disciplines, such as local history, economy, sociology, anthropology and literature, might have a clearer awareness of the relevance of local realities, philosophy might fall into the illusion that, given the abstract nature of its trade, it does not need to bother about such realities. This is a major fallacy that Arab, European and other non-European philosophies cannot afford to make if they aspire to produce new modes of thinking and make a difference to the intellectual and public debates. But in order to make a distinctively philosophical contribution, they need to be solidly philosophical and have the freedom and honesty to question concepts and ideas and examine some of the most cherished beliefs of their societies both critically and rationally. Hence, the relevance of democracy and freedom and the political nature of the philosophical question. Producing philosophical works relevant to the region would, thus, necessitate, on the one hand, a significant space of freedom within which robust training in philosophical thinking can be offered and practiced and, on the other hand, a solid interdisciplinary grounding in contexts and local realities. These are the political and pedagogical conditions that workers in the field need to fight for in order to make their work both possible and significant. The successive publications assessing the state of contemporary Arab philosophical writing and teaching show a clear awareness of these necessary conditions. Achieving those conditions, of course, seems to be a harder challenge, linked to the struggle for democracy and public accountability that has taken an added momentum since the 2010 Arab revolts.

Dominating Themes of Contemporary Arab Philosophy

Contemporary Arab philosophical writings show a clear concern with a number of dominating themes. Among the salient ones are the questions of philosophical autonomy and authenticity, those of modernity and tradition, issues related to religion (its distinction from philosophy, religious interpretation, fundamentalism, reform and secularism) and, finally, questions of reason, rationalism and critique. In addition, one also finds in those writings an interest in questions of ethics and politics as well as questions of scientific thinking and aesthetics.

The first of the four themes mentioned above addresses the very meaning of philosophical autonomy and authenticity: What does it mean to have a philosophy of one’s own, an ‘Arab philosophy’? What would distinguish such a philosophy? How would it relate to Western philosophy, on the one hand, and to one’s own classical Islamic philosophy, on the other? What would constitute its specificity? Language? Tradition? Present realities? Identity? How would that identity be understood? What would its components be?

With a present in crisis and a future that is wrapped in uncertainty, the past takes a magnified place and the question of tradition is raised in the face of modernity, westernization and change. Tradition, thus, becomes another major preoccupation for contemporary Arab philosophy, animated by questions about the place and role given to turath, the elaborate Arabo-Islamic classical legacy: What is turath? What does it exactly refer to? Who defines it and for what purposes? What should be the right approach to dealing with it?

The other set of questions centers around the issue of religion: What is the difference between religion and philosophy? What is the margin of freedom within which questions regarding religion, here primarily Islam, are allowed to be philosophically tackled? How has the failure of religious reform in the early 20th century, combined with the failure of the post-independence state, been conducive to the growth of fundamentalism? And how has the latter created forms of censorship and intimidation that make the chances of new reform efforts and possibilities of philosophical contributions to religious thought dimmer and dimmer? Despite these dire conditions, proposals are being made for new approaches to the sacred text and to the religious tradition, using the latest methods of the humanities. Some have called for approaching the Qur’an as a cultural-linguistic text that is embedded in a specific historical context – an approach that, according to them, would not necessarily take away the revealed nature of the sacred text. They have also underlined the importance of a comparative perspective, in which Islam would be studied along with various monotheistic and other religions. Others have offered philosophical analyses and discussions of secularism, trying to discern the ideological and analytic components of the secular proposal. However, the dominant concern has been the hegemony of fundamentalism, which has imposed its own debate parameters, namely that of the sacred text taken literally, as the sole ground of legitimacy and argumentation. For some, the demise of the century-long religious traditional hermeneutics calls for an urgent renewal of that hermeneutics, which, in turn, necessitates the establishment of a modicum of liberties and democratic values. Questions of hermeneutical tradition, reform and fundamentalism, thus, occupy a central place in these reflections.

Reason and rationalism also occupy a central place in contemporary Arab philosophical debates. What should the role of reason be in articulating all those questions and themes mentioned above? Some argue that the critical reading of turath reveals the constitution and structure of the ‘Arab mind’ that has been both shaped by this turath and itself instrumental in shaping Arab modes of thinking, not only in the past but until the present day. Only such an analytical approach to turath would show the strengths of that Arab mind and turath itself, namely their rational components. These would, in turn, facilitate contemporary Arabs in reshaping their present culture into a new ‘nahda’ or renaissance. A strong and, at times, exclusive emphasis is put on the critical importance of reason in tackling the problems raised in those themes. These preoccupations come with challenges for contemporary Arab philosophy, such as the excessive valorization of rationalism, weighty written legacy and a certain identitarian will to power to the detriment of the marginal, oral, vulnerable, plural, weak and nonrational. Some Arab thinkers, such as Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi and Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, have already taken them on. But they remain mighty challenges that lie ahead!


[1] The original longer version of this essay/paper in Arabic was prepared for the conference “Recentering the Humanities” organized in May 2017 by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut and the International Center for Human Sciences-Byblos, and will be published in Volume I of the ACSS Journal Qira’at in 2021. Part of the original version was published in German under the title “Die Konturen der zeitgenössischen arabischen Philosophie: Themen und Herausforderungen”, weiter denken: Journal für Philosophie 4/1, 2021, [accessed: 16.09.2021].


Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab (اليزابيث سوزان كسّاب) teaches philosophy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar. She studied at the American University of Beirut and obtained her PhD from Fribourg University in Switzerland. Her main research interests lie in the philosophy of culture, both Western and non-Western, and in contemporary Arab thought. She is the author of Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (2010) and Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates (2019). Both were published by Columbia University Press and translated into Arabic.


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021

Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, 22.07.2021

Marko Demantowsky, “Innovationitis” and Humanities, 23.09.2021


Citation: Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, On Contemporary Arab Philosophy as a Field of Study, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 7.10.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/31052


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search