Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri: The Modern Averroes

Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri is no doubt one of the most prominent Arab philosophers of our time. His great project, The Critique of Arab Reason, which won him praise as well as criticism, is the most renowned modern work of philosophy in the Arabic-language.

Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri is no doubt one of the most prominent Arab philosophers of our time. His great project, The Critique of Arab Reason, which won him praise as well as criticism, is the most renowned modern work of philosophy in the Arabic-language.

Al-Jabri established himself as a leading thinker, devoting his life to analysis, questioning and identifying solutions to the problems of the Arab world. Al-Jabri has tackled the so-called Arab Renaissance at its very foundation,  making the concept of a specifically Arab style of reasoning the starting point for his research and analysis.

Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri was born in 1935 in Figuig, a village in eastern Morocco. As a child, he received a traditional education from his grandfather, who taught him Quranic verses and some prayers. Later on, Al-Jabri joined his community’s kuttab, or traditional Islamic school, where he learned to read and write. At the kuttab, Al-Jabri also memorized and learned to recite a significant portion of the Quran. Following his schooling at the kuttab, his uncle enrolled him in a French school, where he would spend two years studying.

Studying at a French school was seen with suspicion at that time. Many Moroccans considered it as demonstrating a lack of patriotism. Thus, when the Al Nahdah Muhammadiyya School, which was established by Moroccan nationalists and which offered instruction in Arabic, opened, Al-Jabri joined it and finished his education there.

In 1953, Al-Jabri accepted a position as a primary school teaching assistant at the Muhammadiyya School in Casablanca. This experience qualified him for the Professional Proficiency Certificate in 1956. One year later, in 1957, he obtained his baccalaureate and began working with Al Alam, an Arabic-language newspaper. However, Al-Jabri did not stay on staff long, but rather moved to Damascus, where he obtained a certificate in general education.

In October 1958, Al-Jabri enrolled in the Department of Philosophy at Rabat’s public university, obtaining a BA in 1961 and a certificate of philosophical studies in  1962. Henceforth, Al-Jabri resumed his job in education, working variously as a high school teacher, a school inspector, a director of pedagogy for philosophy teachers. He returned to university, earning a doctoral degree in 1970, and ended his career as a professor of philosophy and Islamic thought.

Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri was involved in political activities, unions and partisan journalism. He served as a member of the National Union of Popular Forces (NUPF) and was active in the group’s central committee from 1962 until his resignation in 1981, when he decided to devote his full efforts to his intellectual project. He was arrested twice; first in the course of the clashes between NUPF and the government in 1963, then again following the uprising of March 23, 1965. However, Al-Jabri was quickly released on both occasions due to lack of circumstantial evidence.  

Mohammed Abed A-Jabri died in 2010.

Al-Jabri’s interest in Turath, or the intellectual Arab-Islamic heritage, goes back to his younger years when he first heard of Ibn Khaldun on the radio. Inspired by what he had learned about the great Maghrebi sociologist, he borrowed a copy of Ibn Khaldoun’s main work, Muqaddimah, from a friend. Later on, as a student in  Damascus, Al-Jabri would deliver a presentation on Ibn Khaldun, which was applauded by both his classmates and his sociology teacher.

Al-Jabri returned to the topic of Ibn Khaldoun as a graduate student after his supervisor,  Mohammed Aziz Lahbabi, suggested he writes about the scholar for one of his term papers. Al-Jabri, however, was not satisfied with his paper and struggled to identify an angle that would allow him to more productively engage with Ibn Khaldoun’s legacy.

Later on, Al-Jabri decided to rework his paper and to expand it into a book-length project. When he finished the book in 1968, Dr. Najib Baladi, his professor at the time, advised him to submit it as his doctoral dissertation.

Al-Jabri’s dissertation consisted of a study that dealt directly with Ibn Khaldoun’s original text, thus doing away with any outside mediation. He believed that other scholars’ previous attempts to interpret the work of Ibn Khaldun had only served to muddy his own comprehension. “This is why I decided to write about Ibn Khaldun as if no one had ever written about him before,” Al-Jabri explained.

Al-Jabri would extend this unique method to his studies of a number of other Arab-Islamic figures, including Averroes and Avicenna. In 1980, he published these studies in a volume titled We And the Turath.

Al-Jabri spent most of his life studying the Arab-Islamic heritage. He crowned his intellectual legacy with his major project The Critique of Arab Reason.

Al-Jabri’s work has sought to answer questions concerning development, progress, democracy and the ability to overcome stagnation and tyranny. To this end, he diverged from most of his contemporaries who understood the Arab renaissance in terms of economics and politics, proposing solutions accordingly. Al-Jabri, on the other hand, envisioned the renaissance from a totally different angle, that of epistemology. For Al-Jabri, the epicenter of the issue lies in asking how one can create a renaissance while one’s mind stagnates. The answer, according to him, was to rethink old visions and sharpen one’s tools of analysis and critique.