Tunisian thinker Hichem Djait, bold historian of Islam, dies

Djait wrote ground-breaking biographies of the Prophet Mohammed and did not hesitate to express controversial views about Arabs and Muslims.
Wednesday 02/06/2021
A file picture of Tunisian schoalr Hichem Djait. (TAW)
A file picture of Tunisian schoalr Hichem Djait. (TAW)

TUNIS - Tunisian thinker and historian Hichem Djait died Tuesday at the age of 86, after a struggle with illness.

Djait was eulogised by President Kais Saied in an official statement. His passing has indeed revealed the deep respect shared by Tunisians towards him.

Djait was born into a family of intellectuals, judges, and high-ranking officials of the Tunis higher bourgeoisie. He was  the grandson of the Grand Minister Youssef Djait and the nephew of the scholar and sheikh Mohamed Abdelaziz Djait.

Despite coming from a conservative family milieu well versed in Arab-Islamic culture, Hichem went for his secondary education to the Sadiki school in Tunis, a modernist institution where he learned French and which helped him later build bridges with Western culture.

When still a young man with a growing interest in the French Revolution and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Djait started to move away from the influences of his conservative background.

The discovery of the schools of philosophy was a turning point in the life of the young man of eighteen.

About that stage, he said, “My discovery of philosophy was decisive and it was a conquest and spiritual awakening, and I do not mean that only in a metaphysical sense, but also at the level of psychology, ethics and logic. It was then that preconceived certainties began to melt away and I discovered biology and the theory of evolution, and all of this amazed me and astonished me at the same time”.

When he travelled later to France to pursue his university education at the prestigious Higher Teachers’ Institute, where he obtained an advanced degree in history in 1962, Djait was less interested in politics than in the schools of thought.

He subsequently obtained a doctorate in Islamic history from the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1981. He was to become later a professor emeritus at the University of Tunis. He taught as a visiting professor at several Arab, European and American universities, including McGill in Montreal, the University of California at Berkeley and the Institut de France in Paris.

He assumed the presidency of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts (Beit al-Hikma) between 2012 and 2015 and was a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Djait was greatly influenced in 1968, after the resounding defeat of the Arabs in the Six-Day War, by Michel Aflaq’s book “For the Baath,” which he found to be “bold, nationalist and modernist at the same time.”

He also admired the work of the Moroccan thinker Abdullah Laroui “The Arab Ideology,” as well as the volume of the Pakistani poet and thinker Muhammad Iqbal “The Renewal of Religious Thought in Islam.”

All these works enriched his thought and inspired him to write his book “Europe and Islam,” in which he sought to analyse  the essence of Islam and Western civilisation and to offer a deep insight into the philosophy of culture.

Djait said, “With the exception of Ali Harb, the Arabs did not pay much attention to my book ‘Europe and Islam’. As for Westerners, they liked the book. So it was translated into English and Spanish.”

“Researchers considered it in fact to be an important book on the level of the exploration of the cultural and civilisational relationship between the Christian West and the Islamic East.”

Djait’s fame was derived not from his academic work but mostly from his controversial books and opinions.

After he published a voluminous history of Iraq’s Kufa, he focused his mind on the biography of the Prophet, in which he presented an impressive philosophical and scientific interpretation of Islam.

Among his most famous works were “The Fitna (sedition): The Dialectic of Religion and Politics in Early Islam”, “The Controversy of Identity and History”, “On the Biography of the Prophet, Part 1: Revelation, the Qur’an and Prophecy”, “In the Biography of the Prophet, Part 2: The History of the Muhammadan Call”, “In the Biography of the Prophet, Part 3: Muhammad’s Journey in Medina and the Victory of Islam”.

In an interview with Al-Arab newspaper, Djait asserted that the crisis of Arab Muslims was deepened by their obsession with religion, stressing that religion plays a disproportionate role in these societies.

Djait said that “Islamic history is open to the efforts of historians and there is a wide scope for further work today.”

He shed light on how Arab thinkers dealt with history, pointing out that most of them adopted a philosophical perspective and did not study history in its true sense.

He repeatedly called for a distinction between historical thought, historiography and the philosophy of history, saying, “Historical thought is open to interest in specific social and cultural issues, from the point of view of consistency between individual awareness and objective truth, without necessarily adhering strictly to historical methodology  and this is fundamentally at variance with the science of history which presumes scientific and methodological rigour in presenting and interpreting events”.

Djait continued “As for the philosophy of history, it is the study of the theoretical foundations of the applications and social changes that have occurred throughout history, and it deals with the meaning of history, its laws and trends”.

Djait never stopped expressing bold and controversial views. In assessing Arab realities he was of the opinion that, “Now, because of the economic and social lapses, democracy in the strict Western sense is not compatible with the current psychology of Muslims.”

He added, “I say again that the problem is not that of the institutions or their representatives. The problem lies in the fact that Muslims have a great obsession with religion and with its preservation. Religion plays a disproportionate  role in the lives of Muslims.”

Djait stressed that “the problem is one of civilisation. Western civilisation, for example, was influenced by religion, but revisions came within the context of the intellectual renaissance that emerged from the Enlightenment era. Three centuries ago, Westerners made up their minds in this regard, but Muslims and Arabs did not.”