The young muslim

Which Role for the Muslim Intellectual?/Prof. Ahmed Guessoum

AHMEDOftentimes do we hear lengthy discussions by Algerian intellectuals and laymen alike about the state of decadence that the country has reached. We read in the newspapers detailed, often brilliant and precise, analyses of this state. Each one finds culprits on whom he/she hangs all the blame. First in this list one would find the government, this or that minister, the educational or judiciary system, the media, corruption, and so on and so forth, as part of a long list of explanations of the sources of the backwardness we live in. Yet, nothing changes! Things seem even to be going from bad to worse.


It is not the aim of this article to get into a discussion of the state of affairs in Algeria, be they cultural, economic, social, or political. Our concern is more with a state of paralysis that we seem to have entered. Everyone blames everyone else, especially those higher up in the administration; every Algerian has 36 million Algerians to blame, yet very few seem to be genuinely and actively asking themselves: “what can be done to change this and what is my role in it?” If the political leaders seem unable to bring about the positive change the whole country longs for, how is the contribution of the “Intellectuals” to be?


The issue of the role of the “intellectual” in his/her society is obviously not new. The question has been asked and discussed by brilliant thinkers. Among these, one finds Noam Chomsky[1], the world-class linguist and thinker, who defined the intellectual’s responsibility saying that “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions… to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.” This is the politically-engaged type of intellectual that Chomsky himself embodied. On the other end, Bertrand Russell, in an almost pessimistic or even sarcastic style, denied the influence of the intellectuals on their societies. He wrote[2]: “Intellectuals … are thought to have caused changes when they merely have been foreseeing them a little sooner than the rest. Intellectuals who form their opinions upon evidence have little influence today. Since the war, people of intelligence have had little or no influence on the course of events”.  As a matter of fact, Russell does give some credit to those he called “technology technicians” rather than social scientists. He wrote: “The intellectual still has influence where passionate issues are not involved, as in the field of technology technicians do more to change the face of the world than social scientists.” But maybe, in his statement about social scientists, Russell was not as harsh as one might think…


This failure of the intellectuals to have a real impact on their societies is not only true for the Muslim world in particular, it is equally applicable to “technology technicians” and “social scientists”; we will include both under the term “intellectuals”. In fact, it is time to stop and define more precisely what we mean by the term “intellectual”.


If one takes various dictionaries and looks up the word “intellectual”, several more or less equivalent definitions will be found. It is a person “engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect”[3], “a person possessing a highly developed intellect”[4], “a person who enjoys mental activity and has highly developed tastes in art, literature, etc.”[5], and so on. These are exactly the types of definitions that we find unsatisfactory!


To us, the failure of intellectuals to have an impact on their societies, and we specifically mean the Arabo-Islamic world in general, and Algeria more specifically, is that they have espoused the aforementioned mould of definitions of what they are supposed to be. We see the intellectual more as an active participant in the social change they are after! In our humble opinion, our Muslim societies are more in need of people like Malek Bennabi, Ali Shariati, Mahatma Gandhi, or even Martin Luther King Jr.


Malek Bennabi and Dr. Ali Shariati made substantial intellectual contributions and analyses on fundamental issues relating to civilisation, culture, renaissance, the role of the intellectuals, the place of religion in building cultural and political awakening, etc. They have also, and this is what is fundamental in our opinion, contributed to building a cultural, social and political awareness in their respective countries through their lectures to selected students in the case of Malek Bennabi, and students and the larger public alike in the case of Ali Shariati. This deep involvement in building awareness is one aspect of the role of the intellectual as we see it.


Another role model for the intellectual is given by two non-Muslims who have had tremendous impact on their respective societies. The first one is Mahatma Gandhi who started in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 developing his movement of non-violent change. He later refined it, when he moved to India, where the movement took a completely different dimension of non-violent resistance to the British rule and eventually led to the decolonisation of India (which, with other leaders, also gave birth to Pakistan). Gandhi, a Lawyer by training, would write various articles in various dailies and present legal petitions to defend various groups of the people he was defending. But the way he managed to mobilise the masses was that he shared their very miseries and sufferings. He ate what they ate (or less) and he taught them to cultivate it; and he exchanged his suits and ties for simple traditional garments which covered his frail body, and which he wove himself. He travelled in India from north to south and from east to west in very difficult conditions to the very rural areas, witnessing and understanding the peoples’ conditions and difficulties, delivering his message, and contributing to the development of the people’s awareness that they were born to be free!


Similar in the spirit, but within a different context, was the action of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He based it on Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and helped completely change the fate of Afro-Americans and, consequently, the USA and the whole world. It helped make all Americans, black and white, equal citizens of the same country. In his very popular speech, “I have a Dream”, which he delivered in Washington D.C. to about 200,000 supporters and sympathisers, he called for a new America, one that would be free of racial discrimination, and where a person would be valued for what he stands for and what he can contribute with, not for the colour of his skin. Despite the fact that various dark sides of his life have been reported about him, Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement has had a major contribution to the American Civil Right’s movement.


These are but a few examples of what an intellectual’s active contribution to his society can be. The mere statement or even analysis of what goes wrong is not what an intellectual is supposed to do. In the case of Algeria, we believe that it is high time that the Algerian “intellectual” came closer to the people’s reality, shared their day-to-day difficulties, and helped them with his intellectual guidance find a new spirit of life and contribute towards the betterment and positive change of the society. Once he has the will and determination, the “intellectual’s” contribution can quickly be sensed through his involvement in all types of activities. The first could be in his immediate context. He must help bring about positive change right where he works and in the district he lives. He should also help get activities going on in the mosque, with the youth and with his peers, within associations, etc.


The intellectual must be ready to give of his time, effort, money, and own self to contribute to his society. Ali Shariati, in his article “Mission of a Free Thinker – Man and Islam[6]” wrote: “Unlike free-thinkers who expect more and sacrifice less, we must sacrifice more and expect less.” He also added that the effort should be planned on the long-term: “I would rather see two to three generations work before they get any results.”


Last but not least, so-called “intellectuals” have often been corrupted by getting politically involved and/or rushing behind the love of money – just as they got close to its spheres!!  – until they forgot the very basic principles they stood for. To avoid such falls into the abyss, an intellectual must have an unshakable faith and principles. He must be dead-conscious that his objective must be absolutely and exclusively related to the welfare of the society; a self-denial in action! He does not seek to be a leader; his mission is societal change. In his aforementioned article, Ali Shariati was even more extreme on this issue: “A free-thinker’s function is not to lead the society. This is one of the most serious mistakes that free-thinkers around the world commit”.


Given the role of the intellectual as we have tried to present it above, we conclude by insisting that an intellectual should be aware that his (divine) gift, his intellect, is a heavy responsibility for which he will be accountable in front of his people, History, and … Allaah!


[1] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, The New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967.

[2] Bertrand Russell, “The Role of the Intellectual in the Modern World”, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLIV, N° 4, January 1939.

[3] Merriam Webster Dictionary.

[4] The Oxford Dictionaries