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Arkoun, Mohammed (1928–)


Mohammed Arkoun was born in Kabylia, Algeria, and spent much of his career at the Sorbonne in Paris. His early work in philosophy was in the history of Islamic philosophy, and in particular the thought of the Persian philosopher Miskawayh. Like so many modern Arab philosophers, Arkoun is part both of the Islamic world and of the secular European world, and how to reconcile those two worlds has been a continuing issue for those philosophers. It has been a continuing issue of interest to them how to reconcile these two worlds. Arkoun, on the one hand, has in general been supportive of laïcité, the determined secularism of France that he argues preserves the freedom of all to follow their religions. On the other hand, he has roundly criticized the ways in which the Islamic and the non-Islamic worlds have cast each other in the role of the Other. He outlines in his work how a tradition creates a world of discourse, but at the same time also cuts people off from other forms of discourse. Thus traditions, and in particular religious traditions, can be seen to have both positive and negative features. Arkoun suggests that it is not acceptable for a tradition to rule out some ways of thinking, because in order to understand the whole range of alternatives that are available, people first need to contemplate a wide range of options.

But does this not contravene the idea that a tradition establishes rules about what can and cannot be thought? Here Arkoun broadens his analysis to suggest that traditions are not pure, and so do not have fixed boundaries. Traditions need to be applied to the world of experience; in turn, experiences will affect traditions on a piecemeal basis, and followers of a tradition will have to inevitably consider their responses to those experiences and the affect they had on the tradition. This brings out the problem with traditions that see the different approaches as representing the Other, because the distinctions between the tradition and the Other are often slight and difficult to determine. It follows that a program of secularism is not in opposition to religion, but should be seen as providing space for religions, and their opposites, to flourish and think through their foundations. He also argues that Islam's renaissance in the nineteenth century is incomplete, that Muslims should radically examine the roots of their faith and establish it in line with contemporary forms of reality. If there is a theme in Arkoun's work it is the significance of history. History shows that doctrines such as Islam are never finished and complete, but continue to develop. History also shows that the antagonisms and conflicts between different ways of looking at the world are variable. An investigation of history allows people to ground their understanding of significant ideas within a particular context and thus acquire a critical understanding of them. There is a tension in this thesiswhich owes much to the thought of Foucaultand the transcendent role that any religion seeks to establish for itself. Much of Arkoun's work tries to reconcile the clash between these two intellectual positions.

See also Enlightenment, Islamic; Foucault, Michel; Islamic Philosophy; Thinking; Traditionalism.


Arkoun, Muhammad. Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Arkoun, Muhammad. The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London: Saqi, 2002.

Oliver Leaman (2005)

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