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Al-Azm, Sadik (1934–)

Al-Azm, Sadik

A noted Syrian intellectual, Sadik Al-Azm is one of the great scholarly minds of the past four decades in the Arab world.


Sadik Jalal Al-Azm was born in 1934 in Damascus, Syria, to a distinguished Sunni Muslim Damascene family. He completed his Ph.D. at Yale University in 1963 and thereafter began teaching at The American University of Beirut. He taught for many years at the University of Damascus, and also was a visiting professor at a number of institutions, including the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin from 1990 to 1991, and the University of Hamburg in 1998. From 1992 to 1993 he was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Now retired, he is professor emeritus in modern European philosophy at the University of Damascus. Al-Azm is a member of the Committee for the Prizes of the Prince Claus Fund.


Al-Azm has been one of the premier leftist Arab intellectuals of the past several decades. The 1967 War, which led to the catastrophic defeat of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt by Israel—along with the occupation of parts of all three of those countries by Israeli forces—had a profound impact on Al-Azm and his entire generation. As the Arab world grappled for explanations, Al-Azm produced two seminal works that offered penetrating explanations that probed deep into Arab society. His books Self Criticism After the Defeat (1968) and Critique of Religious Thought (1969) became instant classics. They spawned other intellectual ventures into Arab self-criticism as well, and represent milestones in modern Arab intellectual history. Looking back decades later, Al-Azm described his thought process at the time as follows:

"What really attracted my attention then was the presence of a transformational and radicalizing tendency within this [Arab] liberation movement [in the 1960s] which aimed at the implementation of necessary changes in the economic, productive, and political structures of the Arab World. But along with this tendency went a highly conservative counter-trend which wanted to preserve the old social structures and their values, as well as the superstructures of thought, values, morality, and religion. In other words, it appeared to me then as though the Arab liberation movement was striving toward the implementation of significant and revolutionary transformations in the lower structures of society with its left hand, while at the same time striving just as hard to slow down the transformation of the superstructures with its right hand. I was convinced then that this contradiction within the Arab liberation movement resulted in a great deal of obstruction, without any realization on my part at the time that this may have been class-related, or more specifically, directly related to the nature of the petty bourgeoisie. It appeared to me that the most appropriate intellectual task for a person like myself would be to engage in some constructive activity. This meant destroying those superstructures which had lost their capacity for life because of the changes occurring in the base, while at the same time participating in the building of relatively new structures more suited to the transformations gripping Arab life at that moment" (Talhami 1997).

Beyond those two works, two ongoing features of his research have been his studies of Orientalism and Islamic fundamentalism. He has written much about Orientalism—essentially defined as the West's attempt to understand Muslim and other societies of the Orient or the East according to monolithic, immutable terms (often culturally and religiously based) and typologies, rather than as living, changing societies. His work goes on to analyze how such beliefs affect Western-Islamic relations. His 1981 essay "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse" was a classic in this regard.

As for Al-Azm's studies of Islamic fundamentalism, just two months after the 1967 defeat he published an article titled "Modern Science and the Dangerous Relapse," which correctly anticipated the return of Islamic political discourse in the Arab world. The defeat spelled the end of many Arabs' belief in secular trends such as pan-Arab nationalism and socialism, and caused some to turn to religion as an explanatory and mobilizing agent instead. Al-Azm not only studied this phenomenon, but also criticized Arab regimes' exploitation of mounting religious fervor as a way of deflecting attention away from their role in the defeat. He discussed this in his article "The Miracle of the Virgin's Apparition and the Liquidation of the Traces of Aggression," which focused on how the Egyptian government helped spread the rumor of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at a church in Egypt. Al-Azm has continued to write about fundamentalism in the post-11 September 2001 world. He argues that modern Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic politics are reactive, not constructive, in that they essentially reflect a religious response to ongoing Arab defeat and humiliation.


Al-Azm has been hailed as one of the foremost Arab intellectuals of recent decades. Self Criticism After the Defeat marked a turning point in Arab discourse about society and politics. He has received a number of prestigious prizes and awards testifying to his scholarly contributions. In 2004, he won the prestigious Erasmus Prize along with fellow Arab intellectual fatima mernissi and Iranian intellectual abdolkarim soroush. In 2004, he also received the Dr. Leopold-Lucas-Preis of the Evangelical-Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen, and in 2005, became a Dr. Honoris Causa at Hamburg University.

Several conferences have also been convened in Al-Azm's honor. In 2005, a conference titled "Orientalism and Conspiracy: Workshop in Honour of Sadik al-Azm" was held at the Asia-Africa-Institute at the University of Hamburg. In January 2006, the "Orientalism and Fundamentalism in Jewish and Islamic Critique: A Conference Honoring Sadik al-Azm" was held in his honor at Dartmouth College. Arab regimes, however, sometimes have taken a dimmer view of him and his work. The Lebanese government, for example, imprisoned Al-Azm after he published Critique of Religious Thought in 1969.


Although still writing, Sadik Al-Azm already has left a legacy of piercing intellectual examination of the social, religious, cultural, and political bases of modern Arab thought and politics.


Name: Sadik Al-Azm (Sadiq Al-Azm)

Birth: 1934, Damascus, Syria

Family: Married

Nationality: Syrian

Education: Yale University, 1963, Ph.D.


  • 1967: Publishes "Modern Science and the Dangerous Relapse"
  • 1968: Publishes Self Criticism After the Defeat
  • 1969: Publishes Critique of Religious Thought
  • 1981: Publishes "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse"
  • 1992: Named fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington
  • 2004: Receives Erasmus Prize


Azm, Sadik J. al. "Is Islam Secularizable?" In Civil Society, Democracy and the Muslim World, edited by Elisabeth Ozdalga and Sune Persson. Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 1997.

――――――. "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse." Khamsin no. 8 (1981): 5-26.

――――――. "Time Out of Joint: Western Dominance, Islamist Terror, and the Arab Imagination." Boston Review. (October/November 2004). Available from

――――――. "The View from Damascus." New York Review of Books 47, no. 10 (15 June 2000).

Talhami, Ghada. "An Interview with Sadik Al-Azm—University of Damascus Professor." Arab Studies Quarterly (Summer 1997).

                                        Michael R. Fischbach

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