Visiting prof is ‘Voltaire of Arab world’

Visiting professor Sadiq al-Azm is renowned for critiquing the role of Islam in his own society.
Visiting professor Sadiq al-Azm is renowned for critiquing the role of Islam in his own society.

Internationally renowned scholar and Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Religion Sadiq al-Azm, labeled by many as the “Voltaire of the Arab world,” is no stranger to social conflict. Born in Syria in 1934, while it was still under French Mandate, al-Azm can recall with unpleasant vividness being forced to attend French school throughout his youth. At the age of merely 15, al-Azm had already witnessed a brief rule under the Vichy Government, the recognition of his homeland as a newly independent republic and a war with Israel via the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

“When I was going to high school in Saidon, Lebanon, I remember being able to look past the fences of our yard and seeing a Palestinian refugee camp,” al-Azm said. “I remember seeing the tents and even the barbed wire that surrounded them. As a young kid, of course that had a large impact on me.”

Despite changing circumstances throughout his youth, al-Azm was fortunate to come from a traditionally wealthy family within the Syrian elite. His well-known and respected lineage can in fact be traced all the way back to the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, with a number of of his ancestors having served as pashas, the rough equivalent of British lords.

“My family was certainly very wealthy, perhaps the largest land-owning family in Syria, but after the phase of Arab socialism brought land reform, which I supported, much of my family’s land was confiscated and distributed to the peasantry,” al-Azm said. “But the name does have a certain pedigree which helped grant me access to education and opportunity.”

While his privileged family background might have allowed him somewhat of an easier entrance into the world of academia, al-Azm never took such benefits for granted. “Growing up I was always trying to be self-reliant and dependent on my own abilities and work,” he said.

After receiving his Ph.D in modern European philosophy from Yale University in 1961, al-Azm returned to the Middle East and began teaching at the American University of Beirut. Shortly afterwards, his hard work and dedication paid off when two of his pieces, Self Criticism After the Defeat and Critique of Religious Thought, catapulted him to the forefront of the Arabic intellectual world. In both pieces, al-Azm presciently foresaw the entrance of political Islam into the public spheres of Egypt, Jordan and Syria after their collective defeat in the Six-Day War.

“The drastic nature of the Israeli victory created a kind of vacuum within our society,” al-Azm said. “There was a sense that something more was needed, and Islam was able to effectively capitalize and fill that vacuum.”

In 1969 al-Azm was delivered a rude awakening to the difficulties of critiquing the role of Islam within his own society when he was arrested and put in jail by the Lebanese authorities in response to his publication of Critique of Religious Thought.

“In short, it was a very unpleasant experience,” al-Azm said. “On the other hand though, it was comforting that I was always treated according to the law and that the prosecution was eventually unsuccessful.”

However, the experience would not easily be forgotten. In 1988, when the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses caused intense and often violent controversy throughout the Muslim world, al-Azm did not hesitate to risk his own personal safety to defend Rushdie and the nature of his work, publishing “The Importance of Being Earnest about Salman Rushdie.”

“I was in his shoes, and I felt a kind of obligation,” al-Azm said, not mentioning the fact that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his supporters. “When I was in that position, I was not abandoned or left alone to defend myself. Also, I wanted to help legitimize the act of writing a critical book about religion and Islam, particularly because it was not history but rather creative fiction.”

Outside of his work on the Islamic world and its relationship to the West, al-Azm has also contributed greatly to the discourse on Orientalism – essentially defined as the West’s attempt to understand Muslim and other societies of the Orient or the East according to monolithic and immutable terms, rather than as living, adapting societies. In this area of study, al-Azm came into opposition with his intellectual peer Edward Said, with whom he’d become “very close friends throughout the ’70s,” al-Azm said.

While the two had worked closely together within the AAUG (Association of Arab American University Graduates), with al-Azm staying at the Said home whenever he visited New York, al-Azm’s response and critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism would prove divisive within their relationship.

“I felt that his work was essentializing the West in the same manner that he criticized the imperial powers and their scholars of essentializing the East,” al-Azm said. “While it could have been a debate on friendly terms, Said’s flaw was that he was never good at taking others’ criticism – we never spoke again.”

Despite retiring from his professorship at the University of Damascus in 1999, al-Azm has remained busy, becoming somewhat of a traveling scholar within the international intellectual community. “It’s certainly very exciting being an itinerant scholar and teacher – one year I’m at Princeton, then Williams; Hamburg, then Amsterdam,” al-Azm said of his life over the past decade.

When asked about his impression of Williams, al-Azm offered a tale about his experience prior to coming to the College that Ephs might contest: “When I was telling people in Europe or back home that I was going to be teaching at Williams, they’d often ask me where it was, and I’d answer that it was Amherst’s brother school, at which point most people would recognize it.”

He did, however, seriously note that Williams takes much better care of their faculty and guest faculty than at larger institutions. “At Williams, I find myself very much in my element like at other schools, but here I have more advantages – more support systems, more help, and just generally more friendly people all around me,” al-Azm said. “Perhaps, this place might even be better than Amherst!”