Allal Al-Fassi was a Moroccan intellectual and anti-colonial independence leader. He contributed to clarifying many important concepts. Zainab Cheema reviews Fassi’s Al-Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique).
‘Allal al-Fassi, the 20th century Maghribi intellectual and anti-colonial independence leader, was a prolific writer. Among the most significant of his works is al-Naqd al-Dhati, which can be roughly translated as Self-Critique. It was published in 1931. A rhetorical and intellectual masterpiece, this book contains his views on din, sociological thought, women’s rights, colonial divide-and-rule policies, educational systems, and the all-important mission of reviving the Muslim Ummah from decay and impotence.
The style in which al-Fassi writes is reflective of his personality and political activism — the Arabic is refined and literary but at the same time pulsating with urgency and energy. Al-Fassi established Morocco’s Independence Party, and he led social mobilization of the people that ended the French Protectorate and gained political freedom for Morocco in 1956. The writing of Self Critique is a call for radical self-examination in every Muslim, a strident call denying the trend toward isolationism, individualism, and sectarianism, rather inviting him/her to find in the textual wellspring of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the engines of radical personal and social transformation.
The urgency toward self- and social-change permeates the language of the work — for instance, when al-Fassi writes of the Quran’s call for man to ponder, think and use reason, he uses the verb hadha — “to incite or to urge,” abandoning the calmer words of reflection that an arm-chair philosopher would have chosen.
In this translation of part of a chapter titled “al-Fikr al-Dini” or “The Intellectual Thought of Din,” al-Fassi lays out his vision for personal and social revival in a systematic outline. He begins by presenting din as a category of intellectual life, arguing that it has been reduced to an ossified set of traditions that has regulated behavior since the establishment of the great schools of fiqh.
North Africa has followed the Maliki school, and al-Fassi begins by pointing out that din has become reduced to its institutionalized interpretations. Re-evaluating the meaning of din also opens up the question of how to culture individuals within it. Al-Fassi was also an opponent of colonial (and by extension, post-colonial) educational systems, and proposed an independent system of education that would restore intellectual fervor within the Muslim student instead of divorcing him from din as does secular education.
He goes on to reject conflict between secularism and atheism, which claims to free man from the intellectual shackles of religion but which distanced it from the heights of political and social success granted to it by its closeness to the divine paradigm.
Al-Fassi then looks at the meaning of revolution, referring to the religious movements in Christianity against the clergy that had so grossly abused its privileges in the Middle Ages. He criticizes how intellectual revolution in Europe came to associate din with intellectual death — in a brilliant argumentative move, he then claims the category of revolutionary fervor for Islam, broadcasting his approval of those aspects of social ferment that pit human societies against priestly classes that usurp access to the divine and deprive them of the intellectual connection with Allah (swt). He pictures the Ummah that has restored its access to intellectual life as one that fights for the mental and spiritual freedoms of man against all groups and classes that wish to usurp those freedoms for themselves. Al-Fassi then closes his argument by dismissing the chasm between din and knowledge (‘ilm) that has been adopted by Muslims under the influence of secular educational systems. He forcefully presents din and knowledge as complementary, closing his argument with a hadith from the Prophet (pbuh).
Translation of part of al-Fikr al-Dini
The following is from a chapter in ‘Allal al-Fassi’s classic book in Arabic, al-Naqd al-Dhati (Self-Critique).
“The case of din is the issue of issues in the world today. Unfortunately, the common man tends to regard din as something centered within the parameters of Maliki thought for every affair needing a solution, or it doesn’t exist at all for him. Additionally, among the most nonsensical opinions is the view that takes din as something existing side by side with life — on the contrary, [din] is something that naturally embodies [life], diffusing through it in its entirety. And therefore, it is not possible for the Ummah except to choose one of two approaches in its pattern of life: either atheism or lack of confidence in Islamic education [ta‘lim al-din] or the social implementation of divine consciousness [tadayyan]. While history does not offer a general example of either of these two approaches, when we delve into history and the social life of the people, we cannot but recognize the reality [of our condition today], which is: atheism and distrust in devotional cultivation did not diffuse into the Ummah except after its retreat into decline following the heights of glory and respect, and it did not protect its affairs in compliance to the divine paradigm except that it protected its life, its pride and its position…
“If we look at the different revolutions that took place in different parts of the world, and that destroyed centers of worship, assassinated men of din, ruled over petty turfs, and generated the idea of blasphemous liberation [from God] we don’t find any principle or motive other than the revolution against the clergy that shapes the Christian historical experience. This revolution against the priestly class, against its activities and behaviors in the Middle Ages, is not necessarily incompatible with the pure din [that is, Islam], particularly when our principles agree with it. In other words, Islam in its special quality applauds every revolution against systems that claim dominion over men in the name of din, or which assigns a class of men the exclusive privilege of interpretation over sacred texts and thus renders them into gods above the rest. Rather, the primary thing that Islam prohibits is the conformity of human souls to any tyrannical contingent among men and jinn; and it is vital for us [Muslims] to position ourselves as a revolutionary front against every priestly system that interferes and tries to intrude between the individual and Allah (swt). Our Islamic intellectual life should structurally cultivate in the people a sense of singularity before Allah (swt).
“Indeed, Islam raised aloft the value of reason, with the Qur’an urging and inviting man in numerous ayat to sight, observation and governance over the faculty of thinking and reason. The Messenger of Islam (pbuh) made it [the social deployment of reason] the greatest of his miracles, and the frame of his da‘wah. [Reason] is what makes us have confidence in the untrammeled, unlimited functions of thought, and we are prepared by it for our din’s intellectual life, which should catalyze and move us to close ranks side by side toward agreement and social harmony. If we have engaged with Western liberal arts and culture, it will reveal to us the great conflict established since the 18th-century between knowledge and din — this is important so that we do not become distracted from realities and refrain from entering into a struggle for the sake of a cause that is not our cause. For din in the perspective of Islam is not possible except in that it is an aid to knowledge, not its opposite as it is regarded to be in the Western context. Indeed, how can we possibly consider it as a negator of ‘aqidah or its antithesis when the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, ‘The merit [or priority] of a learned scholar over the [ordinary] subject of Allah is comparable to my merit [or priority] over the most devoted of you.’?