Concerns on Philosophy in the Arab World: State of the Art

by | Jul 22, 2020 | Feature Articles

It is most unfortunate that the place of philosophy in our educational curricula is so humbled, made incapable of forming the minds and personalities of our students; and this is due to the foul treatment directed at philosophy conceptually, as a subject, and with respect to methodology, such that a certain minister of education in a particular Arab country recently assassinated its own national intellect by removing philosophy from its high school curriculum under the pretext that philosophy is a subject of mere dictation, with no positive impact on a student’s ability to think. Furthermore, philosophy itself has disappeared, or more specifically, “awareness” has disappeared in the educational programs in other Arab countries too on account of flimsy excuses similar to the one above. Policymakers in education appear to have forgotten the historical truism, established undeniably through the observation of the rise and fall of civilizations, of the relationship between philosophical activity and civilizational blossoming, because simply put, thought is the essence of civilization. The history of Islamic civilization bears witness to this as well. The famous edict of Ibn al-Salah prohibiting philosophy and the proliferation of the saying “whoever learns logic becomes a heretic”, were the harbingers of the decline of a civilization built by our forefathers, departing from the idea that philosophy is a crucial element in the traning and education of the religous mind. 

I had almost come to believe some form of organized, planned sabotage had taken hold of the Arab world as a result of the violent separation between education and thinking, such that in our educational curricula, the policy is thus: teaching comes first, and thinking comes second. This rather dangerous, intended separation between thought and education—in spite of the inextricable connection between the two according to the most important theories in teaching, such as those explicated by Jean Piaget—generations of capable students have been at the mercy of the standing educational regimes; just as this barrier, on the other hand, has been constructed without any consideration of forming critical minds capable of understanding the most basic human values and concepts such as justice, freedom, and dignity. The effects of this separation on the level of public discourse and practice, and in the spread of ignorant religious leaders and preachers occupying the pulpits and television stations, in addition to the spread of consumerism, and in the helplessness of our societies in the face of vicious globalization, and in cultural and epistemological defeat, are indication enough that real philosophical thought with which one would arm oneself with an awareness, enlightenment, and independent reasoning is utterly absent. Indeed, the worst casualty endured by the Arab mind in these ideological raids is the loss of a sense of critical, independent reflection, or philosophizing in the Kantian sense of the term.

To evaluate the current state of philosophy in the Arab world this study will investigate the following areas of inquiry in order to work towards an approach to philosophy that will situate the subject within its proper place in education, and thus not allow for future marginalization: (1) the importance of philosophical thought by stressing its relationship between civilizational and human development; (2) the field of philosophy as development of the mind; (3) teaching philosophy in the Arab world: the teacher, the student, the curriculum designer, the teaching environment; (4) teaching philosophy prior to the university level; (5) teaching philosophy in university at the magisterial and doctoral levels, and post-secondary research; (6) public outreach in philosophy: universities, courses, and conferences; (7) cultural and philosophical initiatives and their inability to move beyond themselves; (8) philosophy in Western academia: is it possible to adopt methods and techniques used in Western academia critically and beneficially?; (9) Islamic philosophy: is it possible to blow off the dust from this tradition, learn to properly read and understand it, and grant it its appropriate place in the tapestry of human thought?; (10) harvesting philosophical output from the second half of the twentieth century: edited books, encyclopedic volumes, monographs, translated texts, dominant philosophical trends, philosophical and cultural workshops, media, and university level theses; (11) contemporary philosophical questions; (12) recommendations for schools of the future…

Ali El-Konaissi

Zayed University

Dr. Ali El-Konaissi is Professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies, Zayed University, UAE, and former senior researcher at the Seminar of Applied Epistemology at the State University of Gent, Belgium, where he was also awarded his PhD in Philosophy.

* I apologize to the reader for the rushed nature of this study. The brief pages that follow cannot account for all the developments in Arabic philosophy, and thus gaps will appear here and there. I also apologize to many of the great academics in the field whose names are not mentioned. This is not due to their inadequacy but because I meant only to present enough examples to make my point, rather than attempt to exhaust all works and writers. To do otherwise is not possible given the limitations of this paper. Lastly, any critical remarks that may be found in this paper are not accidental but based on a large web of evidence.