Abdurrahman Taha’s New Concept of the Human: An Essay on Contemporary Arab-Islamic Philosophy

Abdurrahman Taha, one of the most important thinkers in the Arab-Muslim world, is a prolific writer, as well versed in modern discourse as he is in the premodern Islamic tradition. His knowledge of Ṣūfism and Sharīʿa is as deep as his command of Islamic theology, logic, grammar, and the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian systems, all of which have influenced his moral philosophy and critique of modernity.
Paola Garcia
Paola García is a writer, dancer, and translator based in New York City. Originally from Northern Mexico, and a New York City denizen for fifteen years, Paola has lived and traveled in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade. She deeply loves the Arabic language, poetry, music, dances, cultures and, principally, peoples. Paola is a passionate student of Sufism and Islamic philosophy. She is a UNESCO-certified Sufi dance teacher and performs regularly in venues such as Alwan for the Arts, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, MANA Contemporary, and the Outlet Dance Project. A graduate of Columbia Law School and former lawyer, she received an M.A. in Islamic Studies from Columbia University in the Fall of 2018. She enjoys horseback riding, yoga, and spending time in nature, especially in the Riviera Maya and the Sahara Desert.
Dr-Abdurrahman-Taha

Abdurrahman Taha (b. 1944) is a contemporary Moroccan philosopher and one of the most prominent and original thinkers in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Besides his erudition in the Islamic tradition and its languages, Taha is fluent in Greek, German, French, and English philosophies. Trained in logic at La Sorbonne, Wael Hallaq* introduced Taha to Western audiences in his book, “The Impossible State,” stating that Taha’s work is the most powerful attestation to the fact that the ethical is the central domain of Islam.

Book published by Columbia University Press in the Fall of 2019

Taha began his project in the post-1967 intellectual tradition in the Arab-Islamic world partly as a reaction against other Muslim intellectuals. Much like Muhammad Iqbal earlier, Taha disagrees with and attacks the majority of Islamic philosophers for uncritically following and imitating Western thought. This imitation, he argued, has harmed Muslims and resulted in a deep sense of loss and an impoverishment of Islamic philosophy, among other problems. Contrary to the preceding “reformers,” who have focused on the notion of a “Islamic crisis,” Taha inverts this view. For Taha, the problems faced by Muslims today are not caused by Islam, but rather by extrinsic factors and forces, the main one being the Muslim world’s susceptibility to Western dominant forms of knowledge, which are deeply rooted in Euro-America’s “diseased modernity.”

Emulating Western thought has come at a heavy price for Muslims, causing not merely an alienation from their own tradition, but also the subsequent production of a distorted Muslim concept of the self. This distortion gains intensity when the emulation involves the illusion that they are sovereign over the rest of creation. This effectively is self-deification that gives them the illusion that they are the ultimate purpose of existence. Under this skewed modern vision, man becomes arrogant and feels he is the master of all that exists. Nature and the rest of creation are perceived primarily, if not exclusively, in utilitarian ways and are stripped of their intrinsic spiritual value, seen as existing solely for the use and benefit of human beings.

Such a view is contrary to the Islamic worldview, where everything in existence has a purpose and is imbued with spiritual value because it was all created by the same Creator in His infinite wisdom. Under this view, due to their privileged position in creation, human beings bear the burden of self-responsibility and are accountable for how they treat and utilize all that was given to them, including nature in all of its forms, be they human, animal, or inanimate. This view renders the human a “guardian” instead of a “ruler” over the rest of creatures: while able to enjoy nature to meet their needs and necessities, they are responsible for protecting it to the best of their capacity. Nature and creation do not belong to them. In fact, nothing does, not even their own bodies. They are all gifts and loans from God and are meant to be appreciated and treated in a responsible way in accordance with God’s Way as expressed in the Quran. It is the human being’s duty to utilize all gifts as best as they can, with the awareness that God will take them back and ask them to account for how they used them.

Taha considers that modernity’s bankruptcy stems from the severance between human beings and the higher power that gave them their existential purpose. This higher power, which gives and takes life, existed long before human beings, and will exist long after humans are gone. A human being with this worldview is at peace with herself and lives in the world with humility.

Taha’s ideas of how to solve the crisis of modernity, and its resulting rampant destruction of the world and distortion of the self/soul, draws from the millennium of lived historical evidence from the Islamic world. His new concept of the human, developed by Hallaq through an engagement with Taha, requires a type of rationality and subjectivity that transcend our modern instrumentalism and materialism and which necessitates certain characteristics. These characteristics function as an antidote to the malaise of modernity. They are crucial because they each perform an essential function and, in their totality, produce a different human being, one who is ethical at her core.

The characteristics come about from a deliberate implementation of a specific set of techniques designed to form the self. These techniques, which consist of a series of practical acts, are meant to train and perfect the self/soul; they are indispensable to produce the desired characteristics. Once the techniques are repeated and performed habitually, the human being who performs them will in effect be a new human being, for we are what we repeatedly do. In other words, the only way out of our “Enlightened” disastrous modernity is to form subjects whose inclination is intrinsically ethical and fully human.

Taha’s project, and particularly his new concept of the human, is largely centered on the Islamic concept of ḥayā’, about which he wrote three volumes. Ḥayā’ cannot be translated into a single word, but is rather an outlook or a series of interrelated characteristics that inform and perform people’s behavior in the world. Having ḥayā’ requires being morally and spiritually alive. Ḥayā’ is modesty, humility, gratitude, and sincere shyness from bad conduct based on love of God and a fear of losing God’s love (not a fear of his wrath). This love of God and fear of losing His love completely permeate the human being’s consciousness and affect and regulate how she relates to and behaves towards everything that exists.

The concept of ḥayā’ is deeply rooted in knowledge and is a complete way of life, a manner of existing in the world that is the opposite of the modern subject’s existential arrogance. A human being who embodies ḥayā’ has humility towards all that was created, as well as gratitude, modesty, and respect for it. These characteristics are interconnected. There can be no gratitude without humility, and no humility without modesty.

Taha’s concept of the new human is that of a person who instinctually recognizes she is not the ultimate sovereign. This “new human” is one for whom the love of mastery and control (which are prerequisites of materialism and greed) is entirely alien to her nature, a human who could not even conceive of having sovereignty over the rest of creation, one who believes in eternal higher principles that were established by the Creator of the entire universe (including human beings) and that, just like physical laws such as gravity, cannot be altered or eschewed without devastating consequences (such as the present destruction of our planet).

* Wael Hallaq’s “Reforming Modernity: Ethics and the New Human in the Philosophy of Abdurrahman Taha” is the first comprehensive study of Taha’s philosophy and works to appear in English. It will be published by Columbia University Press in the Fall of 2019.