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Malek Bennabi: The Greatest Muslim Thinker of the Last 50 Years

Malek Bennabi: The Greatest Muslim Thinker of the Last 50 Years

24th February, 2011
Meinhaj Hussain


Malek Bennabi is perhaps the greatest Muslim thinkers of the last 50 years. Rather than busying himself in obtuse works of metaphysics, Bennabi has sought to address the primary issues and problems of the Muslim Ummah. This article looks to summarize the major portion of his thoughts. In doing so, we address why we Muslims are today fragmented, in disarray and our great civilization is under assault from foreign forces.

The Cosmic Void

Bennabi describes the solitude of man. He describes this as a cosmic void within man that he (Man) then attempts to fill. Two different ways to fill this void are described – either with the material or the metaphysical. Obviously, there are many other ways; for instance, filling oneself with the realm of people whose extreme can be seen in personality cults. However, all else tend to fit in between the two extremes that Bennabi mentions – the realm of objects and the realm of the spiritual.

Bennabi describes this setting beautifully with the following illustrations:

1. Man either looks at his feet or at the stars
2. Objects and forms, techniques and aesthetics, versus truth and virtue
3. Industrial time versus extemporized time[1]
4. Positivism and dialectic materialism versus morality and revealed knowledge[2]

The worldviews are also illustrated beautifully by the folk stories of two individuals in isolation – Robinson Crusoe and Hayy ibn Yaqdhan. While Robinson Crusoe fills his days with his struggle against the material world, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is shown to spend his isolation in the contemplation of the spiritual.

Bennabi also makes the observation that for each of the two civilizations, the point of failure comes to the overindulgence of its core; for Islam it is the overindulgence of mysticism and for the West it is the overindulgence of materialism.

The Embryology of Ideas

Bennabi describes the development of a child as he moves from recognizing objects to people and finally, to understanding ideas between seven and eight years of age. He notes that the effect of ideas on a child is powerful and far-reaching and points to how it even affects an individual’s physiology:

A half-open mouth, ready to grab and suck anything, is a salient feature of the small child. However, as he grows older, his mouth closes as if driven by some internal springs. This morphological detail actually corresponds to a specific phase in the child's psychological development.

He notes that these physiological differences are also observed between those who are educated and the illiterate[3]. Bennabi notes that the three realms of objects, people and ideas hold different levels of strength over an individual depending on the individual and the society he lives in. If the society is object and people focused, the aggregate of individuals that it reproduces will share that balance. Bennabi points to the object and people focus of Muslim society today as the symptom of our decadence.

Civilization & Society

Bennabi discusses three stages of a society:

1. Pre-civilized society
2. Civilized society
3. Post-civilized society

He describes the post-civilized society as one that has reversed the direction of its movement and is now moving backwards. Bennabi considers the Islamic civilization to be a post-civilized society that is now regressing back to a world of objects and persons.

Bennabi describes how Islam started in Jahili society were people lived in the world of objects and people. Islam broke this mould and brought the society into civilization and the world of ideas within three decades.

He points to the vital importance of society and civilization to man: without it, man can barely survive. He states that the will and power of society gives civilization its objective character. Society’s will and power differs depending on what phase society is in. He illustrates these stages by using a diagram similar to the one below:

Bennabi visualizes the stages of the Islamic civilization with the diagram. To him, it represents the psycho-temporal values of civilization. Our civilization began at the origin point in Ghar-e-Hira. Here was born our purpose, will and morality. Until 38 Hijri, we had a rapid rise as we remained faithful to our spirit, values and methods. In 38 Hijri, after the Treaty of Siffin and the division of our state, we lost our “soul”. Thereafter, we continued in a plateau trajectory which Bennabi describes as “reason” with many scientific developments and a continuation of the intellect. Between point B-C we began to move away from Reason and move increasingly towards taqlid on the one hand and mysticism on the other. Bennabi marks the decline of the Muslim civilization with the fall of Grenada in the West and the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in the East.

Bennabi describes the first spiritual phase as one where the newly formed society deals with its problems by suppressing needs and maximizing utilization and distribution of resources at hand. He describes this stage as the most beautiful forms of asceticism exemplified by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the generosity of the Sahabah in giving their wealth to the greater cause.

As the resources of the society expand in conjunction with the spiritual and intellectual endeavour, the power of the society also expands, marking the dramatic rise of the initial state in Medina. Bennabi notes that the power of the will is kept intact because of the strength and vitality of the ideas that creates a tension within every Muslim. He notes that this is a distinguishing characteristic of the origin-to-A phase. In the A-B phase, gradually the object takes increasing prominence until it takes hold, particularly in the B-C phase.

Malek Bennabi describes the problem of being colonized as not only one emanating from outside our civilization, but also from within; that we are only colonized because of our colonizability. We attract the mice with our lack of housekeeping.

The Contextual Power of Ideas

Bennabi writes that the conditioning power of ideas, the ability to effect changes in society, is not the same for different civilizations. He illustrates how the ability to effect change in the material world is harder for the West because of their cultural roots. He gives the example of the Prohibition in the United States and its ineffectiveness while for Muslims, it was a simple matter of the Prophet (peace be upon him) prohibiting alcohol, the drinking of which vanished overnight without any needs for extensive policing.

Bennabi believes that this conditioning power varies within the Muslim civilization’s passage through history, in the different stages that he described earlier with his diagram.

Bennabi describes the power of ideas as dependent on how effective the impressed (or original, universal principles) are in their transformation to the expressed ideas (or derived ideas). In their original use, the impressed ideas are in their peak of potency. However, as time changes and the world around us changes, the ideas become less effective in their application. An attempt to create an effective new interpretation of the original ideas can often lead to the expressed ideas becoming betrayals of the original ideas. Bennabi explains that this betrayal can lead to vengeance from the original idea. He gives the example that an ill-constructed bridge will collapse and the tragedy that follows would translate to the vengeance of the betrayed ideas.

Bennabi explains that society, civilization and empires fall in the same way. He explains that dead ideas leave a void in the brain which in turn causes an inability for society (and individuals) to express themselves effectively as we saw earlier with the Islamic scholar’s peculiar use of words. Closer to the end of the book, he describes dead ideas as attracting deadly ideas[4]. He considers the state of dead ideas as causing the basis for colonization and expresses this state as colonizability.

Bennabi identifies three levels regarding the parameter of actions where ideas can be betrayed:

1- The political, ideological and ethical level concerning the realm of persons. (Perhaps also the psychological level).
2- The logical, philosophical and scientific level concerning the world of ideas.
3- The sociological, economic and technical level concerning the world of objects.

Bennabi describes the distortion of original ideas, on these three levels, over time and space. He compares the original message of Islam, to the distorted message today with a description of Jeddah airport, “Office of Enjoining Good” and the actual practice of the people observed there. He points to dead and betrayed ideas being supplanted with ideas from a foreign civilization, which end up being deadly to the host civilization.


Bennabi states that the Muslim world, while recognizing its decline, has two archetypical responses as to the cause of this decline. He describes one side as the supporters of the colonialist thesis who blame Islam and the other side he defines as the nationalist thesis that blames colonialism. He notes that the supporters of colonialists disregard the role of Islam as one of the most magnificent civilizations of mankind. On the other hand, the opposing side ignore that the most backward countries have not experienced the colonial challenge, such as Yemen.

To Bennabi, neither side has the solution and are part of the problem. He notes that any solution must begin with beginning from an unprejudiced mind (unprejudiced by either group). He finds that we are stuck in the world of objects, peoples and the betrayal of impressed ideas. He blames our inability to adapt our impressed (or original) ideas effectively on the one hand, and our lack of faith in our ideas when we transplant them with ideas from foreign civilizations.

Ignorance as Paganism

Bennabi argues that if paganism is ignorance, ignorance is necessarily paganism. The ideas of Islam defeated the objectification of the idols of jahaliyah. He gives the example of how zawiya, veneration of saints and seeking of spiritual blessings through talismans, prayers at shrines, etc, is in fact a return to our age of jahaliyah. He notes that when the idea disappears, the idols reappear. He describes the role that the “ulema” have played in Algeria to push Islam backwards to the world of ignorance and idol-worship. Bennabi marks an important turning point in the move from ideas to idols when Islam moved from ijtehad to taqlid. He gives the example of how al-‘Izz b. ‘Abd al-Sallam blamed the jurists of his time for taqlid.[5] Yet today, taqlid is untouchable.[6]

Genuineness & Efficiency of Ideas

Bennabi makes the point that Europe has given primacy to efficiency in its colonial order. This has caused the secular elites in the Muslim world, who are impressed by the Europeans, to focus exclusively on the efficiency of ideas. He notes that Europe’s other face is one of an inward ego and a peculiar ethical order. This is not visible to the secular elites who are impressed by the efficiency of her ideas and adopts wholesale all ideas in the belief of their effectiveness. Because they can only view this one side, they are unaware that ideas have another key aspect: their truthfulness or genuineness.

Ideas and social dynamics

Bennabi views the world of ideas as not merely an intellectual endeavour that does not impact the world, but rather one which is centrally important to reviving society. He states that the purpose of planning is to revive social dynamics and the methodology and formation of the plan must be honest to the intrinsic ideas of the civilization. He notes that this planning can only be effected from a wider viewpoint than Economics can provide; for the economist inevitably denigrates the non-economic aspects and does not have a holistic view of society. Bennabi notes that sociologists are more suitable for this role.

He notes that our plans cannot be a mixture of planning methodologies because “any project conceived according to the ideas of one doctrine and implemented according to the means of another will lead nowhere”. Thus we cannot accept a mixture of capitalist and socialist theories. We have to look at the problem and build on our own methodology that is honest to our intrinsic principles if we are to have the desired effect on our society’s problems.

Beyond Revolutions

Bennabi notes that revolution takes place at the point of utter exhaustion of a society. He however notes that revolution by itself cannot solve the problem. He notes that revolutions can end up taking the society back to the pre-revolutionary stage or worse. Bennabi writes about the Marxist dialectic and its importance in studying revolutions. He finds that the Marxist dialectic cannot solve the revolutionary issues in the colonized and ex-colonised countries.

This is because Marx’s dialectic method is used to analyze countries that have a single cultural universe while the ex-colonized countries have to share the ideology of not only the host cultural universe but also the alien cultural universe.

Bennabi also notes that Marxist thought could rely on ideas alone as a force of change, given that they were propounded in a society which had entered the world of civilization (a world of ideas). However, the Muslim world is living in the world of objects and persons, thus they need the ideas to be validated by objects or persons before they can be a force in society.

Bennabi explains some key salient for enlightened politics. This includes the need for faith in the ruler. He considers morality as an important characteristic in the ruler but not the only characteristic but must include competence and compatibility. He commends the model of Medinah at the time of Umar as a model which our political systems should strive towards. He considers politics to be a science, an applied sociology.


Bennabi notes that the Muslim world today is at a risk of being overwhelmed by the West, at the very moment that the West is in decline. He notes that if it seeks to follow in the footsteps of Europe, it will always lag behind the West as it has to go through the same steps that the West has already long passed. He notes that we cannot make history by following beaten tracks; it is only possible to do so by opening new paths. Bennabi explains that making history will only be possible for us if we return to our genuine principles and derive from them efficient solutions for today. This requires us first to get out of our Jahiliyah and back to the world of ideas. Thus, the question of ideas remains one of the paramount questions in the Muslim world.

Why is it that we have lost the world of ideas and are wallowing in the world of people and objects?

[1] Bennabi calls this the detemporalization of time, where the Islamic world undervalues “time” and focuses instead on a “time” based on spiritual events. This writer would note that practicing Muslims are most driven by “time” measured by the yardstick of the five daily prayers, the sacred months, the major religious holidays and so forth.

[2] Bennabi actually describes it using the phrase “the love of good and the aversion for evil”.

[3] This author sadly notes that many Muslims today, although nominally readers of the Quran, continue to exhibit the characteristics of the latter.

[4] Deadly ideas: ideas foreign to the host civilization that are harmful for the host because of their alien origins, just as in the case of an introduction of a creature into an ecology from outside can cause havoc in the host ecology.

[5] Al ‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam (660 Hijri / 1240 AD) lived in Syria and Egypt and was a scholar and jurist. He is known for his position against taqlid and is principled political stand. His work Qawaid al-Ahkam fi Masalih al-Anam (Principles of the Shariah Commands Concerning Man’s Good) is an important work regarding maqasid.

[6] This latter issue is a much visited issue by Tariq Ramadan who emphasizes the maqasid over the application of the shariah from a juristic perspective. See his speech titled “Islamic Renaissance: The Need for Renewal & Reform” delivered in Kuala Lumpur in 2010.
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