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Ismail Ragi Al-Faruqi >
Arabism and Islam

Ismail al-Al-Faruqi's Arab/Palestinian Muslim identity was at the center of the man and the scholar. For him, Arabism and Islam were intertwined; yet it is possible to identify two phases or stages in his life and thought. In the first, Arabism was the dominant theme of his discourse. In the second, Islam occupied center stage as he assumed the role more and more of an Islamic activist intellectual, functioning both as an academic and a Muslim leader nationally and internationally. The first phase of his thought is epitomized in his book On Arabism: Urubah and Religion.

Here, Arabism is the central reality of Islamic history, faith, and culture. It is “as old as the Arab stream of being itself since it is the spirit which animates the stream and gives the momentum.”1 Ismail Ragi al-Al-Faruqi, On Arabism: Urubah and Religion (Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1962), pp. 2–3. Indeed, it is the soul of the Arab stream of being, molded by the consciousness that God is and that he is one.

The borders of Arabism, for Faruqi, were indeed far-flung and inclusive, embracing the entire Islamic community (ummah) and non-Muslim Arabs alike. For Faruqi, Arabism was not simply an idea but a reality, an identity, and a set of values, integral to and inseparable from the identity of all Muslims and all non-Muslim Arabs. It was the very spirit of the ummah. Arabism incorporated not only the Arabic-speaking members of the Arab world but also the entire world community of Muslims, since Arab language, consciousness, and values are at the core of their common Islamic faith.

Faruqi read the Quran through Arab eyes. As Arabic is the language of the Quran, so the content of revelation is regarded as a message to the Arabs. Thus, he believed, Arabs are the referent for the Quranic declaration: “Ye are the best people brought forth unto mankind.” Regarding this reading as a judgment of faith, he could formulate the following syllogism based on the Quranic mandate to enjoin good and prohibit evil: “To enjoin good, forbid evil and believe in God is to be ethically the best; The Arabs enjoin the good, forbid evil and believe in God; therefore, the Arabs are ethically the best.”2 Ibid., p. 5. The Arabs are an elite who ought to be expected to do better than those who are non-Arabic-speaking.

The centrality of Arabism (urubah) to Islamic history and civilization in Faruqi's thought can be seen in the titles that he selected for the four projected volumes of his series on Arabism: Urubah and Religion, Urubah and Art, Urubah and Society, and Urubah and Man. He regarded Arabness or Arab consciousness as the vehicle for the divine message and its immanence in faith, society, and culture. In this sense, Arabness was central to the history of religion or, more specifically, to the three prophetic faiths. Faruqi could declare that Arabism was cointensive with the values of Islam as well as with the meaning of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus.3 Ibid., p. 207.

Al-Faruqi also maintained that Arabism is the heart of non-Muslim Arab identity, though it is often not recognized as such because of the influence of European colonialism: “[non-Muslim Arabs have] lived every value that Arabism recognized, including the Quranic values, but have regrettably maintained a pseudo-consciousness of a separate identity, under the indoctrination, encouragement and political instigation of foreigners in pursuit of imperialistic aims.”4 Ibid., p. 211. Faruqi's position here was rooted in his distinction between Arab Christians and Western Christians. The former have preserved the faith, original Christianity, in its pristine Semitic purity from what he regarded as the accretions and distortions of Jesus' message by the Pauline West. For this, he maintained, they were regarded as heretics and schismatics, persecuted by their coreligionists. Driven from their lands, Arab Christians, he declared, were often more at home and able to function under the aegis of Islam.

Whether in his Arabist or his later Islamic activist period, Ismail Faruqi was a person who believed in and therefore sought to interpret reality as an integrated, interrelated whole. Its foundation and center is belief in God; Islam provides the fullest expression of God's will for humankind and the value system to be followed. If Arabism is the spirit and best expression of Islamic values in a human community, then the pieces that do not seem to fit, such as non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs, are to be understood as unconscious or uncultivated expressions of Arabism.5 Ibid., p. 209.

While few questioned Arab influence on non-Arab Muslim faith and culture or Arab Muslim influence on non-Muslim Arabs, the implication that they both find their ultimate expression and fulfillment in Faruqi's interpretation of Arabism was regarded by many others as an attempt to establish the hegemony of Arab Islam or, more precisely, Arab Muslim culture. This attitude is reflected in Faruqi's observation that “[t]his difference between a Muslim and a Christian Arab does not constitute a difference in culture or religion or ethics, but in personality”.6 Ibid.

As we will show, Faruqi's later work and writing focused on a comprehensive vision of Islam and its relationship to all aspects of life and culture. However, he also continued in later life to maintain the special place of Arabism in Islam based on the integral relationship of Arabic to both the form and content of the Quran: “the Quran is inseparable from its Arabic form, and hence … Islam is ipso facto inseparable from urubah.”7 Ismail R. al-Al-Faruqi, Islam and Culture (Kuala Lumpur: ABIM, 1980), p. 7.

Faruqi was quick to distinguish urubah from any form of Arab nationalism or ethnocentrism. He regarded any emphasis on nationality or ethnicity as a modern phenomenon. Thus, Arab nationalism of any kind was to be rejected as a western import introduced by Arab Christians such as Constantin Zurayk and Michel Aflaq under the influence of modern European notions of nationalism. Such narrow ethnocentric nationalisms sharply contrast with Faruqi's understanding of an Arabism rooted in the universal revelation of the Quran, and therefore the common legacy to all Muslims. He believed that these Western-inspired nationalisms constitute a new tribalism (shuubiyyah) aimed at undermining the unity and universal brotherhood of the ummah.8 Ibid.

During the period just prior to and after the writing of On Arabism, Faruqi was often described as a Muslim modernist. His approach in teaching and interpretation bore this out. His course on modern Islam focused on the work and writings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and Muhammad Iqbal, rather than, for example, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, or Mawlana Mawdudi. Living and working in the West, Faruqi tended to present Islam in Western categories to engage his audience as well as make Islam more comprehensible and respected. In explaining Islam through his writing and lectures to an often ignorant, illinformed, or hostile western audience, Faruqi emphasized the place of the ideal (the principles, beliefs, and values of Islam) over the realities of contemporary Muslim life. In particular, he emphasized reason, science, progress, the work ethic, and private property. Like the fathers of Islamic modernism, he often presented Islam as the religion par excellence of reason, science, and progress. Ironically, though he decried Western cultural penetration and influence, both his choice of categories and his criteria in explaining and defending Islam were Western. Indeed, some have argued that he presented Islam within the worldview of the Enlightenment and the Protestant work ethic.

Notes:

1. Ismail Ragi al-Al-Faruqi, On Arabism: Urubah and Religion (Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1962), pp. 2–3.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. Ibid., p. 207.

4. Ibid., p. 211.

5. Ibid., p. 209.

6. Ibid.

7. Ismail R. al-Al-Faruqi, Islam and Culture (Kuala Lumpur: ABIM, 1980), p. 7.

8. Ibid.

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