Algerian Islamic reformist Malek Chebel dies at 63

November 20, 2016
Malek Chebel (AFP)

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.