Malek Bennabi (10905-1973), the Algerian thinker and Muslim intellectual, is, unfortunately, lesser-known outside the Arab world. Since Bennabi wrote either in Arabic or French, his incredible work regarding critical analysis and conceptualization of cultural and civilizational issues remained relatively inaccessible. This was, most probably, for two apparent reasons. First, the intellectual level of the language and content, given its technicality and construction, was undeniably higher than the ordinary reader’s. More precisely, it lacked the popular emotional and political appeal; a dominant decolonizing articulation found in the writings of, for example, Maududi and Syed Qutb. Second, these few translated works were insufficient to describe the comprehensiveness of Bennabi’s scheme of thought. Nevertheless, having realized the significance of Bennabi’s approach and method to the renaissance question, Arab intellectuals became more interested in translating and communicating Bennabi’s ideas globally. In this context, Benlahcene’s exploration and explanation of the socio-intellectual foundations of Malek Bennabi’s approach to civilization is a worthy effort.
The first part comprises three chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the concepts and approaches to civilization. Applying binary vocabulary, i.e., literal and terminological, the author defines the concept of civilization in binary traditions, i.e., Western scientific tradition and Muslim scientific tradition. The comparison provides a clear sense of overlap and divergence between the two traditions regarding the meaning and development of the concept of civilization.
Chapter 2 starts with the following opening remarks, “[I]n the 1930s, Bennabi realized that the crisis of the Muslim world could not be diagnosed by means of a superficial analysis” (p. 32). This is hereby suggesting that the crises demand a new analytical and pathological study of the elements of civilization. In this chapter, the author discusses Bennabi’s conceptualization of the elements of civilization. Benlahcene painstakingly presents Bennabi’s approach in sequential order of the definition of civilization, civilizational equation, the concept of three realms, and the concept of the social relations network. In the author’s assumption, Bennabi has criticized the notion proposing colonization, lack of resources and lack of scientific progress as the major causes of the decline of the Muslim world. Instead, Bennabi theorizes the idea of colonizability- “vulnerability to be colonized”- as the fundamental cause of decadence (p. 33). While critically examining how and why decadence emerges and functions, the author provides an organized and coherent explanation of the different dimensions of Bennabi’s core diagnosis that, “[T]he problem of every people, in its essence, is that of its civilization (p. 33).”
Chapter 3 presents Bennabi’s interpretation of the movement of civilization. The author begins by unpacking Bennabi’s view of the cyclical movement of civilization; its pattern, psycho-temporal conditions, identity and character, and the notion of the cycle (pp. 66-67). Then, the three phases of the “cyclical phenomenon,” i.e., spiritual phase, rational phase and instinctive phase are explored with special reference to Islamic civilization. Bennabi’s view of the interaction- the starting point of the civilizing process or historical action- between an idea (religion in Bennabi’s theory) and the natural man (man of fitrah) and the sociological and psychological changes, as a result this interaction, have been analysed (p. 69).
The second part comprises chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 is devoted to examining the internal-social factors that influenced Bennabi’s civilizational theorization. The author applies the internal-social dimension of Mu to analyze the impact of internal factors such as family, religion, education, intellectual interaction, and social activism on Bennabi’s approach to the functionality of civilization. Chapter 5 examines the external-social factors that influenced Bennabi’s diagnosis of civilizational problems. The author applies the external-social dimension - macro-level analysis- of Mu to analyze the impact of two external factors, i.e., the colonization process and decolonization process on Bennabi’s approach to civilization.
The author provides a picture of Algeria before colonization in order to make it understandable, by comparing, how “totalitarian colonialism” ruptured and damaged the Algerian society; its culture, polity, religion, and identity. The author also underlines the operating tools of French colonialism; Christianization, imposition of the French language, demographic change and impoverishment policy (p. 147). According to the author, analysis of the interface between Algerians and colonizing factors led Bennabi to develop the concept of “colonizability”; an internal propensity to accept external effect (p. 154). Colonizability, the author posits, is Bennabi’s core diagnosis of the problems of Muslim civilization.
The third part comprises chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 6 examines the internal-intellectual factors, applying Mu, which influenced Bennabi’s approach to civilization. Chapter 7 analyzes the impact of “externally borrowed” intellectual concepts, terms and methods on Bennabi’s formulations. According to the author, in Bennabi’s case, the external-intellectual dimension involves the impact of the Qur’an and Sunnah, Muslim reformist thought, psychology, philosophy, and natural science. The Quran and Sunnah, the author posits, have shaped the ontological and epistemological aspect of Bennabi’s intellectual attitude toward understanding the meaning of civilizational change (pp. 209-215). The author explains how the Qur’anic verse, “Verily, never will Allah change the conditions of a people until they change their inner selves” inspired Bennabi’s idea of “change in human conditions” (p. 211). According to Benlahcene, psychology, particularly the ideas of Freud, Jung and Piaget, helped Bennabi to understand the two important ideas related to his civilizational equation; the “psychological role of religion” and the “transformation of human personality” (pp. 223-231).
To conclude, despite a few repetitions (seemingly unavoidable) and typos, I can recommend this book to students and scholars who are interested in: Muslim reformist thought, Muslim renaissance movements, Muslim personalities, Islam and decolonial discourse, and Muslim cultural and civilizational thought. The book provides, through an exploration of Bennabi’s ideas, convincing answers to many critical questions related to the decadence of Muslim civilization, the rise of Muslim liberation movements, Muslims and scientific progress of the West, and the renaissance of Muslim civilization. More profoundly, the book suggests, applying Bennabi’s framing, alternatives to modernism, political activism and Sufi quietism; approaches to the renaissance phenomenon developed and applied within the Muslim world.