Arkoun and the Story of the Subject: Violating Common Sense

Arkoun and the Story of the Subject: Violating Common Sense

By: Ali Ahmed Ad_Dairy

ترجمة خالدة حامد

"There are in the world many idols than facts."


"The subject is the sum of its conditions, i.e., the total of its relations, links and correlations with the objects."

Ali Harb

"I’m seeing routes that will take me to routes that will take me to routes; and a sea as wide as horizon in what I see."

Qasim Haddad

arkon  and ali aldairy

I’m not talking about my subject – as regards its meeting with Arkoun – as being a collection of innate constituents, natural capabilities, moral qualities or mental incentives. Rather, I’m talking about my subject as being a cultural construct, i.e., as an effort, a work, that endeavors to build a not given construction. In this sense, talking about my subject becomes a talk about an experience laden with events, facts, shocks, confrontations, struggles, transformations and cultural contexts that can be read and criticized by relating and interpreting.


When the subject tells its story; the story of its formation and being under the influence of some event, this event did not take long before it incarnates in it and start talking by its own voice after being absorbed by the subject within its universe and conscious. I feel now that the event of meeting Arkoun is the one that tells my subject, structures its past events, rereads its crossing among boundaries and borders and connects its breaks and ruptures. Arkoun presents in me not as one voice but a group of voices belonging to different times, many contexts, various human sciences and successive cultures. They are the voices of Aristotle, Maskawaih, Al-Jahiz, Abu Hayyan At-Tawheedi, Derrida, Bourdeau, Broadwel, Jack Perk, Foucault, Barths, Jauss and others.

The subject here tells the events of its formation which had arranged in its consciousness eight years ago when it met Arkoun. But it tells them by the consciousness of the current moment threatened by being blown up later, and by the retelling. Whenever the subject retells its tale, it reinterprets its biography by breaking, stretching, omitting or adding to its events.

I ‘ ve written this article celebrating the visit of thinker Mohammed Arkoun to Bahrain in March 2002 by a generous invitation from the Center of Sheik Ibrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalefa . 

Aristotle had defined the tale as being an act; "the act is what is being done by people in having relations among each other. They weave and grow them till being intermingled and interlaced according to their own logic"([i][i]). According to this definition, the tale of the subject becomes its act and its act is the relations that it weaves in accordance with the logic of its consciousness. When this logic transforms, the relations transform too so that a new tale is formed to tell a new subject.

What does this tale tell?


In the summer of 1993, I had just taken my BA in Arabic language from Bahrain University . My postponed plan since finishing my high school in 1989 demanded that I join religious studies being pushed to them by a deep ethical sense of the importance of keeping my word to my friends whom I had promised to be the model of a contemporary religious man having a high academic qualification. I was preoccupied by the idea of joining the newly established (Islamic University) in London . I had a deep feeling of the importance of looking for something different but the religious entity that I had inside my subject did not have the power to show me the possible choices. The most it could do was to instigate my motivation to set out to any religious castle trusted with its loyalty and religiosity. I wanted to be specialized in religious sciences modernly. The quality of ‘ modern ‘ did not have any semantic repertoire in my imagination exceeding the ideological meanings which tackles the causes and needs of the age, the struggle meanings against non religious fronts that provoke from their contemporary bases their cynical problematic against the politico-religious attitudes. My understanding for the meaning of modernizing the religious sciences did not go beyond the meanings of political Islam as I understand it now. At that time, the adjectives of ‘ new, modern and contemporary ‘ were in my mind just like a mirage through which you can discern nothing. 


Within that bewilderment, with all its shades of meanings such as distraction, hesitation, anxiety, indetermination and vagueness, I met Arkoun via his book "From Ijtihad to the Critique of Islamic Reason". It was a coincidence- which I still feel proud of- when I ‘ ve found the book hidden among the shelves of some local library. I didn ‘ t know Arkoun. At the beginning the title of the book – which had always deprived Arkoun and Hashim Salih from sleeping – aroused my religious sensitivity. I thought it presenting a new vision for Ijtihad by criticizing the traditional exercises of the jurisprudents who still not living their age and don ‘ t pay attention to its incipient problems.

My waiting horizon did not expect more than that; it did not have the ability to expect that criticism can extend to include the practices of contemporary jurisprudents preoccupied with public affairs.

My horizon was built upon glorifying and venerating the Mujtahids who enjoy the ability to totally acknowledge religious sciences that no one except them can have so competently. No criticism or suspension can amount to their scholarly practices. Rather, we are not qualified at all to know these practices nor their nature. They were just like a sacred secret that one has to completely subject to. That horizon did not know that there was a criticism that can surpass the practical and social practices and the understanding of Islam. Those were the practices of religious men, the leading religious cadres, the educated religious and the public.

As much nonsense and naivety in that horizon, as there are great changes as a result of meeting Arkoun. That book had made a deep cultural shock in my subject. I became more able to see. I ‘ m still feeling amazed of my overwhelming love to Arkoun. When I restore now the moments of reading, I exactly remember my body positions, the place in which I was reading and my subject talks when turning its pages. Before finishing it I had called one of my friends, who witnessed my bewilderment with all its psychological turns, to tell him that I had known what I wanted. It was hard to explain to him what had crystallized in me. It was enough for me to show my relief and unfathomable spiritual delight as if I had just discovered something new.

– 4 –

That was my first reception from which I was able to determine the nature of the study I was looking for. I had to wait for the second reading for the critical clashes in my subject were looking for solutions of peace and reconciliation. It had taken me two hard years. I was holding Arkoun in my deep inside. I tried to accommodate him with my state but he rejected. He refused to be ideologized in me. My devices could not absorb him in spite of all my conciliating attempts. I had to look for a new subject that could build its relations with the world and its things, objects, values and events in a way different from the relations of my subject which were built upon the institutions of symbolic veneration.

I wonder now why do I feel alienated from Arkoun? An alienation that pushes me to feel strange from him, dislike or disgust his symbolic demolishing for the stairs of my sacred; why that astonishment was the only thing controlling my relation with him? Can the subject enter another world without feeling the pain of alienation? Is astonishment enough to describe what happened? Didn ‘ t it mix with something else? How can criticism, with all its symbolic violence, be turned to a criticizing love?

– 5 –

To explain the love that evolved from a mountain of violence of criticism, I need to reread the end of the border of my experience and read the beginning of the border that I ‘ ve entered. The metaphor of Heidegger ‘ s ‘ border ‘ may help to open the two borders on each other instead of creating a dual clash between them. In Heidegger ‘ s sense the ‘ border ‘ is not an end as much as not being a beginning for something new. In this sense, the border is not a conclusion nor completion, termination or fulfillment. It is a longing to a close beginning, a reach to it, a connection with it and a deep desire to it. The border in this sense is a passage through which the subject passes from a medium into another without revolutionary turns calling for the actions of elimination, canceling and emphasizing all the actions of abolition and canceling and to put an end to all the appearances of these violent actions with their material dimensions. By this transmission the subject can embrace the world with its contradictions, ruptures and resistance to enrich its human experience in exchanging and investing its symbolic savings. 3178

With this spirit I can restore my early mental religious readings for Mutahhari, Fdhul Allah, Ah-Shirazi, As_sader and Sherieti (despite his different paradigm) to have a border relation them – (the ‘ border ‘ relation here is relevant to the above mentioned sense of border) – that opens me, with their advanced religious rationality, to other wider cultural rationalities. With this spirit I can restore my moral and spiritual religious readings for Said Dastegheeb and Al-Fihri to also have a border relation with them that opens me, with their moral and spiritual religious values, to other much wider moral values.


That border had reached its end which was at the same time a beginning for another border. It had built in my subject a hard certainty, a sharp acceptance and an orthodox faith that never doubts the rightness of my religious group and never suspects its hereafter victory. 

The discourse of that border had crystallized my common sense which was merging me with my group within what Arkoun calls the central rational fence through its mental and reasoning formation our sensitivity, conception, perception, thinking and practical practice are programmed.

What condensed that sense was my very early reading (at high school stage) of the Tijani ‘ s Book "Then I Was Shown the Righteous Way" (thumma Ahtadeit) in which he tells his doctrine journey of transforming from the Sunni doctrine to the Shiite one.

  I ‘ ve found in his discourse an amazing persuasive model for the practice of this central rationality and how it makes common sense. Under the influence of  that sense and  the direction of  its  hidden system, the sensitivity of myself was  formed in  away that I have realized as a model for rationality of argumentative logic having the  irrefutable truth.

_ 7 _

With Arkoun I started rereading that rational formation to discover its fancies, reverent symbols and the transcendental. That discovery may represent one secret of my emotional and cognitive love to Arkoun. I ‘ ve found that Arkoun who was digging in the Islamic mind with his heart and hands in the heart of the zone in which I am with all my fancies, reverent and illusions. It was the first time that I approach the mind with rationality, having the power to read its buried sensitivity under the illusion of universal logic. Arkoun was neither a cold scientifistic nor a stubborn positivtic.  Rather, his letters were hot in my religious emotional veins for being able to read my religion ‘ s imaginative rationality. I ‘ ve perceived the concept of the imaginative with the triumph of conquers because I ‘ ve found in it a scientific tool to expose our concept of ‘ reason ‘ to new areas that can open a wider understanding for the nature of rational practices by any culture, religion and group.

– 8 –

I started reading my collective imagination that had formed along those centuries. I deconstructed their grand joints. They appeared to me as a great metaphor granted by history and veneration to the extent that they looked as facts and unshakable stables.

When your metaphor is shaken, the same happens to your common sense so you lose the safety of your collective facts and their symbolic familiarity that they grant you to dispel get rid of your symbolic estrangement. You can ‘ t look for another safety because all groups construct their security systems metaphorically so that they cannot give you a real security. They can teach you one thing: to discover your collective subject through them. This is what urged the French anthropologist Claude Levy Straus to define anthropology as "a journey to your culture through another culture." ([ii][ii])

Arkoun ‘ s concept of religious anthropology had opened to me another horizon to know not only my collective subject but also my human one. Religious anthropology, as studied by Arkoun, demolishes the illusionary walls separating religions and doctrines in order to study their symbolic systems in producing meanings, venerating things and seeing the world and man. This anthropology pays attention to the comparative study of all spiritual experiences in all human societies. Little details lose their importance here as well as the names that lose their necessity. Behind all that, one can find similar practices expressing the nature of man and his/her way to construct his/her symbolic representations for the world.

For instance, veneration as studied by anthropology is a human phenomenon through which man deifies things, ideas, theories, characters, events, places and times.

– 9 –

With this anthropological spirit we can read the narrative of every religious or non religious group as being a cultural and historical structure made by man who endows it a symbolic or venerating status. This is done in a way that it transcends criticism to grant itself, through what Max Weber calls ‘ veneration managers ‘ , an invulnerability that scares people from cognitively approaching it.

I didn ‘ t feel that Arkoun uncovers my collective subject through criticizing my religious or racial group as much as uncovering my human subject by criticizing all groups that take their values and knowledge from the ultimate meaning. This, on the other hand, may explain my love to him and my obsession with his critical play with my ultimate and transcendental.

The anthropological entry opens the critical and cognitive practices to the history of human groups as is done in their immediate daily life without restoring to abstract judgments, value classifications and racial preferences. It is the imaginaire taken from man ‘ s daily life and its concepts, theses and hypotheses without any mental givens.

– 10 –

Arkoun’s multi-instrument and wide open to memory and imagination cognitive experience made me see in my religions experience, with its practices, relations and additions, a topic for reading. Besides, Arkoun’s enterprise, that he called ‘ Islamogies ‘ evolves from "the everyday life of individuals and with every society live problems to deduce its relevant religions teaching, cultural creations, political and economic purposes and ideological conceptions." ([iii][iii])

Man cannot read his/her subject before being something else. The subject cannot become other only when it replaces its religions and the sum of its additions with another net. Only then, it can read its experience that it had departed. If man cannot depart or be detached from the things, ideas and concepts in which he is absorbed, their shadows keep chasing him/her in copies.


I ‘ ll claim that I’ve departed my first subject to have the right to read it. I’ll assure this claim by restoring my reading of the concept of social frameworks of knowledge. This term, used by the sociologist George Gorvich, means that all types of knowledge are not allowed within any social framework. For example, the frameworks allowing free debates, during the rise of Islamic classic age among Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers are no longer the same ones that prohibit, today, free discussions of the issue of the Islamic reason, as done by Arkoun for instance.

I’ve recognized this term for the first time in Arkoun’s employment for it in his reading for the cognitive frameworks controlling the Islamic societies. This term had a special impact on me. I used to repeat it with my friends just as a student who is keen to memorize new things in order not to fleet him. Now I can explain my deep concern with this concept with better consciousness. This term had opened to me a space to think of my subject away from the power of doctrine group by which I was able to have a distance between my subject and my group. I became able to see their cognitive frameworks that made them a coherent community. When you have the ability to see yourself outside your group, you can see your collective subject in critical perspective. Only then you can declare your new birth, the birth of an individual inside you!

Some concepts take their strength and effect from the metaphorical material significances dwelling them. This is what one can realize from the conceptual metaphor of the framework. The framework, in its direct material linguistic sense, has the meanings of prevention and separation. It prevents your involvement and separates you from others ([iv][iv]). Social frameworks work as barriers and border that separate one society from another. Unless you can cruise them over, you cannot evaluate the volume of symbolic violence they practice on your individual subject, nor the burden of commitments by which they tie you, nor the blindness by which they inflect your inside.

Today I can feel the oppressiveness of violence of these frameworks, which formed me all my life after being the topic of my reading. Only now, after emancipating from them, I can deconstruct them and deconstruct all the objects through which I was seeing my tradition, subject, religion, doctrine, group, identity and thinking system.

– 12 –

Frameworks are not just a border on which we stop. They are much more than this. They are our authority to which we resort when we want to make a judgment or an opinion to discern something, interpret a metaphor, except some event, read a text or be represented as group.

Frameworks are embedded as forms of trickery and they take various shapes: givens, criteria, theories, concepts, power, experience, institution, discourse, text, narratives, doctrines, ideas, tenets, postulates, hidden systems, proverbs and sayings, sacred characters, prevalent values, …etc.

Frameworks, with their different shapes, represent our common sense that combines us to our cultural sensitivity by which we meet the world.

Frameworks, with their authorizing job that enables individuals to interpret the outside events and facts, represent our mental systems and symbolic representations by which we build our social constructions within the framework of a certain ideology. ([v][v])

When the subject replaces its group framework, it replaces its own subject, life, world, tale, narrative and great certainties on world, history, man and God

The subject cannot deviate from the power of collective frameworks without being subjected to archeological digging, i.e., historical exposing. This is because that these frameworks present themselves as a representation of nature, innate character, right, truth, reason, pure meaning, a typical mental state or necessary determinants. In that way, it imposes itself, practice its violence, perpetuate its existence and abandon the historical and mundane systems. With that trickery, frameworks empathy the subject so that it turns it to an eternal calmness that resists movement, change and transformation.        

Arkoun ‘ s enterprise endeavoring to crystallize a free and open secularism to a new faith that is based on freedom, tolerance, abandoning fanaticism and veneration with the resistance that it receives from traditional religious men who are controlled by static cultural frameworks represents a model for how frameworks control ourselves, behavior and vision.

I wish I could keep on telling how these frameworks had formed my life, with all its practical practices, personal relations, choices, taste, readings, places, activity, faith, ritual, sacral and representations but the sensitivity of social and cultural context can not accept what is outside the power of its sense.

Let me say that it is the fear to have the fate of the scabby camel.


In this sense we can understand culture as being a group of traditions, conventions and values governed by a social and collective framework that programmed man behavior and determines his/her way of thinking and judgments ‘ criteria and portraits his/her vision of life. We can understand its discourse that is produced within its frameworks being a symbolic institution governed by a hidden network of cultural concepts, rules and criteria to which the sayings or selves of the symbolic representatives of that discourse are subjected.

    As long as there is a culture formulating man ‘ s cognitive and social frameworks, governing his/her thinking and cognitive systems (epistemes) and determining his/her horizon, man ‘ s historical position in every context will be formed within two levels:

1. The level of what a speaker can talk about. It is related to the speaker ‘ s domination of the language he/she uses and to the peculiar abilities of every language a speaker has chosen among human languages. It is also related to what is available by thought , conceptions, doctrines and systems of a certain group to which a speaker belongs or addresses and to the historical period of the development in that group. In addition, it is related to what is permitted by the existing power in the society or a nation with which the speaker consolidates.

2- The level of the unthought because of a forbidding caused by narrowness of reason itself or being closed to a certain phase of knowledge. The unthought is also caused by what is prohibited by political power or the public opinion if it is unanimously considered its doctrine and values as sacred and made them a base for its being and originality.

Within the theoretical practice of any tenant, theory or subject, the structure of these levels subjects to historical conditions in which the cognitive is intervened with the political and the mundane with the religious in a way that man cannot surpass easily. Accordingly, to understand the way in which we ourselves are formed, we need a historical reading that seeks different sciences in order to detect the formulations of these two levels; the level of the thought and the level of the unthought as well as their discourse and vision.

– 14 –

Then, as long as the subject is within the frameworks themselves, its Ijtihad (individual judgment), no matter how clever is, become captive to a certain historical state. That ‘ s why we need to criticize the Islamic reason for it reveals and exposes all the practices and frameworks that tightly hold the subject and represent its vision and transformation.

Critique of Islamic reason, as demonstrated in Arkoun ‘ s enterprise, is not a critique of Islam or its spiritual experience, as is shown in the revelation. In stead, it is a critique for its historical embodiments in man ‘ s practices as well as a critique of social and collective frameworks that formulated it and the sciences that had understood it. We are really indebted to Arkoun today for the wide areas of thinking he has opened, and for the vast capabilities of knowledge he has laid for investment. I am myself indebted to him and to his every sound uttering my new myself and its modern tale. This is what I could tell of the tale of my subject while reformulating the world inside itself in accordance with its Arkounic shock.