Algerian Islamic reformist Malek Chebel dies at 63
Malek Chebel was one of the most original contemporary scholars of Islamic studies. He sought to revive Islamic humanism for Westerners and Muslims at a time when Islamist violence and bigotry grabbed the news and dominated political debate.
Chebel died on November 12th in Paris of cancer. He was 63. He was buried in his hometown of Skikda in north-eastern Algeria.
With his death, moderate Muslims and tolerant Westerners lost a strong voice. He encouraged Muslims to grasp the highly sophisticated way of life and enlightened systems of thought and reasoning that flourished from the eighth to 12th centuries of classical Islam. That was before repression and narrow-mindedness buried those bright pages of Islamic history.
Chebel’s works consisted of 40 books and essays. They continued the tradition of the Maghreb’s humanist Islam that flourished in Zitouna’s Islamic university in Tunisia, Quaraouiyine in Fez and Algeria’s Constantine, where Abdelhamid Ben Badis found the Muslim Oulemas (scholars) movement.
From an early age, Chebel was attracted to the ideas and social ideals of the Enlightenment in France and other Western societies. He talked about those themes with friends during walks near the beach in his hometown Skikda on the Mediterranean.
He earned a doctorate in psychopathology in Algeria before moving to Paris to study political science and anthropology. His multidisciplinary studies helped him broaden the ideas developed by his compatriot Mohammed Arkoun, whose main project was to unearth the bright side of Islamic thought buried by fanaticism and backwardness.
Among Chebel’s works were Islam of Enlightenment, Abraham’s Sons, Islam Explained, Islam and Reason and Dictionary of Islamic Symbols. His themes addressed women’s rights, music, art, Islamic food and tastes.
Chebel, who translated the Quran into French, was close to the Paris mosque, a landmark hub of intellectual resistance to the spreading extremist Salafist brand of Islam in France.
Talking about Islam of Enlightenment, Chebel said: “I tried to explain that Islam is humanist more than we imagine. That Islam is not here to sow terror and fear.”
“Islam has introduced algorithms and chemistry to the world. That Islam has developed music and kitchen art and was built upon reasoning and knowledge and respect of exchange and tolerance,” he said.
It came naturally for Chebel to ask why conservative Islam was dominant resulting in a prolonged stagnation and decline despite efforts to reform and challenges by philosophers during various cycles of Islamic history.
“Terror has an advantage over those who believe in dialogue and rationality. The phenomenon is not new. It is possible that conservative Islam has more impact over the minds and consciousness than that Islam of enlightenment. I personally regret that,” he told an Algerian interviewer.
“There is always a trend, certainly a minority, of people who strive for the modernisation of Islamic practices but when Islam is in crisis the voice of these people is not heard. This is the case today,” he said.
Arkoun, who, like Chebel, spanned cultural borders and opened the way for tolerant readings of Islam, was 82 when he died in Paris in 2010. He was buried in Casablanca, away from his village in Algeria’s northern Kabylie region because of Islamist threats to his tomb.
Chebel and Arkoun died like Moroccan Mohamed el Jaberi and Egyptian Abu Zeid, leaving their region far away from the awakening of a reformist Islam that opens the path of economic and social progress without stirring the reaction of fanatical and violent Islamists.