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Bennabi, Malik

By:
Phillip C. Naylor
Source:
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Bennabi, Malik

Malik Bennabi (1905–1973) was one of the most significant intellectuals in modern Islamic history. He also influenced the contemporary development of Islamism. Born in 1905 in Constantine, Algeria, he spent his childhood in that city and in Tébessa. He lived in France during the 1930s and 1940s before returning to Algeria. He also resided in Egypt from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s. He acquired French and Arabic educations. Bennabi produced a series of works that distinguished him as a scholar and as an independent thinker.

His two-volume autobiography describes his life until the late 1930s. In it the reader discovers an acquisitive as well as inquisitive mind. Bennabi wrote the first volume, entitled Mémoires d’un témoin du siècle: Enfant, in Egypt. It describes his childhood in Algeria. He completed the second volume in Algeria after the War of Liberation (1954–1962). Composed in Arabic (Mudhkarāt shāhid al-qarn: Al-Ṭālib [Memories (Memoirs) of a Witness of the Century: The Student]), it recounts his life in Paris as a student in the 1930s, an invaluable period in his intellectual development. Trained as an engineer, Bennabi also engaged religion, the humanities, and social sciences.

A wide array of thinkers influenced Bennabi, notably Ibn Khaldūn, ʿAbd al-Ḥāmid Ben Bādīs, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arnold Toynbee. Despite Bennabi's criticisms of Orientalists Louis Massignon and H. A. R. Gibb, he recognized their importance. It is difficult to label the erudite Bennabi, given his intellectual and independent character. Nevertheless, underlying his engagement, he sought to revitalize Islam as a dynamic social and moral force. He identified with the ideals of Islamic modernism's iṣlah (reform) and nahḍh (renaissance; revival) as amplified by the Association des Ulama Musulmans Algériens (AUMA). Although concerned about colonial and postcolonial Algeria, the development and decline of Muslim civilization especially interested Bennabi.

His first work, Le Phénomène coranique: Essai d’une théorie sur le Coran, illustrated Bennabi's apprehension regarding Orientalist influence on young Muslim scholars. Bennabi offers an exceptional exegesis of the Qurʿān and Islam reconciling reason with revelation. The book posited an ecumenical ambition to raise Muslim consciousness and to educate non-Muslims. In 1948, he published Lebbeik: Pèlerinage de pauvres, a novel affirming Islamic redemption. In Discours sur les conditions de la Renaissance algérienne (1949), Bennabi plumbs the potential of Algerian society and Muslim civilization to attain spiritual and secular renewal by overcoming centuries of decadence or “colonizability.” Reiterated in other works, Bennabi perceives the history of Muslim civilization as cyclical proceeding through spiritual, rational, and instinctual “psycho-temporal” stages founded on the changing synergy of man (insān), soil (turāb), and time (zamān). In Vocation de l’Islam (1954), he elaborates that the decline of Muslim civilization (the instinctual stage) coincided with the moral and intellectual indolence of “post-Almohadean man,” who emerged in the fourteenth century.

While living in Egypt during the War of Liberation, he supported but also criticized the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He also asserted the importance of the emerging Third World in L’Afro-Asiatisme: conclusions sur le Conférence de Bandoeng (1956) and Fikrat kumūnwilath islāmī (Idea of an Islamic Commonwealth) (1958).

Bennabi assumed the post of Director of Higher Studies at the University of Algiers in 1964 and cofounded al-Qiyām (the values), an Islamist discussion group, which the government disbanded in 1966. His postwar articles are collected in the posthumous Pour changer l’Algérie (1989). Another important work of the period was Perspectives algériennes: De la civilisation, de la culture, de l’idéologie (1964), a collection of Bennabi's public addresses calling for the articulation of an authentic national identity and program. Although he died in 1973, Bennabi's thought endured and influenced the formation of the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front) in 1989.

Malik Bennabi possessed the ability to bridge and understand binaries—East-West, North Africa–Europe, Muslim-Christian—without suffering an intellectual or psychological complex. Bennabi's interests were also enlightened and ecumenical. One of the most original thinkers since Ibn Khaldūn, Bennabi sincerely believed in the mutual reconciliation of civilizations despite different spiritual beliefs and historical traditions.

See also ALGERIA.

Bibliography

  • Bariun, Fawzia. “Malik Bennabi and the Intellectual Problems of the Muslim Ummah.”American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences9.3 (Fall 1992): 325–337. Drawn from her dissertation, “Malik Bennabiʾs Life and Theory of Civilization” (University of Michigan, 1988), a concise study of Bennabiʾs principal ideas regarding the development and decline of Muslim civilization. Find it in your Library
  • Christelow, Alan. “An Islamist Humanist in the 20th Century: Malik Bennabi.”Maghreb Review17.1–2 (1991): 69–83. An excellent overview of Bennabi's life and work. Find it in your Library
  • Naylor, Phillip C.“The Formative Influence of French Colonialism on the Life and Thought of Malek Bennabi (Mālik bn Nabı).”French Colonial History7 (2006): 129–142. Studies the effect of French colonialism on Bennabi's life and thought, including a comparison with Frantz Fanon, and contends that Bennabi's historical consciousness averted his “colonizability.” Find it in your Library
  • Walsh, Sebastian J.“Killing Post-Almohad Man: Malek Bennabi, Algerian Islamism and the Search for a Liberal Governance.”Journal of North African Studies12.2 (June 2007): 203–222. Reviews Bennabi's ideas and examines their considerable influence on the development of Algerian Islamism and the FIS. Find it in your Library
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