29 August - 4 Sept. 2002
Issue No. 601
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

A philosopher in extensio

Hassan Hanafi offers versions of Abdel-Rahman Badawi, 40 days after the philosopher's death

Abdel-Rahman Badawi (1917-2002) occupies numerous positions within the philosophical arena, largely due to the variety of views held by others about his work. He is the first Arab existentialist, emerging in the Egypt of the 1940s contemporaneously with, or at least immediately after, the rise of existentialism in France and Germany. This version of Badawi largely depends on his first thesis, Existential Time, in which he made much use of Heidegger and Bergson. Badawi also described himself as an existentialist in the Philosophers' Encyclopaedia, giving his philosophical system the same title as that thesis. Badawi the existentialist is also the result of his famous article, "Can there be existential morals?" in which he concludes that existential morality, being dependent on suspicion and thereby incapable of lending itself to objectifiable standards, cannot exist. Badawi is also an individualist and an idealist in the tradition of German idealism, to which he devoted a significant portion of his work, translating Heine, Eichendorf, Geothe, Bern, Brecht and Schweitzer, writing on Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhaur, Spengler.

So much for the Western world: Badawi is also a nationally-oriented thinker, as keen on the national projects of independence and cultural renaissance as he is on modern philosophy. His early articles in the newspaper Misr Al-Fatah and his membership of the National Party both testify to his being the purveyor of a national project in defence of liberty and independence -- qualities that can be gleaned from, among other things, the introductions he wrote to his translations of and works on German idealism, especially those dealing with Nietzsche and Spengler. This is perhaps what drove him out of Egypt when, sensing a disparity between the July Revolution and the initial project of national independence (of which the 1919 Revolution and the Misr Al-Fatah Party became the purveyors), he became an exile. If not for his final illness and his compatriots' eagerness for him to be treated in his homeland, indeed, Badawi may well have died abroad.

Yet another aspect of Badawi's thinking, which became prominent during later years, is his defence of Islam. Writing, in French, A Defence of the Qur'an Against Its Critics and A Defence of the Life of Prophet Mohamed Against Those Who Distort It, Badawi made a powerful case irrespective of the reasons behind him adopting the dialectical conventions of classical rhetoric.

Foreign and local aspects of his work notwithstanding, Badawi's personal life sometimes overpowers his scholarly achievements: this was the case particularly after the publication of his autobiography. In this book he comes across as a staunch misanthrope who hates even his own teachers, including Taha Hussein. The only person who is spared is Mustafa Abdel-Raziq: all are lesser men, whether in terms of knowledge or patriotism. In this book Badawi presents himself as a miser who doesn't own a car or buy new clothes, which is why he never married, devoting all his energy to knowledge. A profoundly selfless man, this is the image with which he was associated in the press. Yet the truth is that, more significantly, the drive to isolate himself was merely a condition of being a philosopher in extensio: his interests covered a vast intellectual territory; and even if he didn't always reach the bottom of the subject at hand his understanding spanned its every dimension. Single-handedly he produced two encyclopaedias: Encyclopaedia of Orientalists and Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (the latter in two parts), in which, though he openly makes use of predominently foreign references, Badawi acknowledges no sources. He is, in his own view, the singular philosopher, the Hegel of his generation, without predecessors to speak of (except for Abdel-Raziq and, before he disowns him, Hussein.) Even in resuming Paul Kraus's project, Plato for the Arabs, he transcends his staring point.

A sensible assessment of Badawi should concentrate on his work which ranges from classic and Western heritage to poetry and autobiography. He founded his own series of books, "Islamic Studies," in which he undertook editing as well as writing, rewriting and translation. He edited and published old Arabic translations (both genuine and apocryphal) of Plato, Aristotle and Plutonis, as well as texts by Avicenna, Averroes, Al-Ghazali, Al-Bastami, Al-Tawhidi, Maskouiah, Al-Mubbashir Bin Faek, Ibn Sab'een and Abu Soliman Al-Mantiqi. He translated Orientalist works on Greek heritage in Islamic civilisation, the perfect person, Shi'ite theology, Ibn Arabi and the spirit of Arab civilisation. He wrote on the history of atheism in Islam, humanism and existentialism in Arab thought -- the latter being the most creative book on that topic, linking Western and Arab intellectual heritage. He also explored links between Hazim Al- Qartajani and Aristotle, probing the influences of the Sufi prostitute-turned- saint Rabaa Al-Adawiya and the Arab role in the genesis of the Western intellect. All in all, of the texts revolving around Arab and Muslim heritage, Badawi produced 33 editions, six translations, six versions of other authors' books and four original compositions -- not to mention five books in French, resulting in a grand total of 54 works -- half of Badawi's entire output. In these works Badawi favours philosophy and Sufism over the traditional religious disciplines, the humanities and linguistics.

Badawi also founded "The Hundred Pearls," another series of books, most of which are translations of German Romantic literature. It incorporates translations of Spanish and French literature, as well as occasional translations produced with reference to particular events and circumstances. These books tackle civilisation, the arts and philosophy, incorporating an Essence of European Thought that covers logic, poetry and the methodology of research and translation. Badawi invented a form of literary collage that combines translation with presentation and adaptation: Historical Criticism, one such book, is neither an original composition nor a faithful translation of one. In his Essence Badawi discusses both the pillars of modern (German) philosophy -- Nietzsche, Shchopenhaur, Spengler -- and the various "seasons" of Greek thought, classifying them in the manner of Ahmed Amin's history of Islam (which uses the metaphor of times of day rather than that of seasons). Badawi thus discusses the less interesting Middle Ages before moving onto modern times. In this vein he wrote 27 titles and translated 22 -- a slightly smaller portion of his total output. These books reveal Badawi's fascination with the West, especially Germany, which he considered the very centre of the world.

Unlike the contemporaneous philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, the national renaissance Badawi envisaged revolved around the idealist (not the scientific) West and the Sufi (not the artistic) East. The West remained his principal source of knowledge even though he paid more attention, politically and practically, to the East. Yet he ignored Western rationalism and the Renaissance, omitting such indispensable figures as Descartes and Spinoza, as well as the achievements of Italian, Russian and Anglo-American philosophy, and in discussing the East paid no attention to India, China and the ancient civilisations of Africa and the Near East. Badawi's central line of argument, perhaps, is that in assimilating the achievements of Greek philosophy the Arabs concentrated on form, and in so doing undermined or denied the spirit. Collective generalities were favoured over individual truths, and it is this that makes it necessary for any present-day, comprehensive philosophical system to bring that vital dimension back into the ongoing process of exchange. In championing the process, and that particular cause within it, Badawi may well have sacrificed philosophy for the history of philosophy. Yet his contribution is all the more essential for that. In several senses he is Plato's counterpart, "the first teacher".

Within the narrower historical context of his career Badawi was a significant force in modern scholarship -- a dimension of his achievement that might explain the stress he tended to place on the history rather than the practice of philosophy. He was head of philosophy at Ain Shams University for two decades, the beginning of his career more or less coinciding with the birth of the July Revolution. And following the 1967 defeat he spent another two decades teaching in Kuwait. The so- called first generation of Arab philosophers -- the pioneers represented by Abdel-Raziq, whose methodical teaching methods spawned specialists in every philosophical discipline -- had left a gap, and it was Badawi's complete devotion to his vocation that filled it. Planting the seeds of reform and what came to be known as "enlightenment," Abdel-Raziq was the most faithful student of Mohamed Abdou, the progressive Sheikh of Al-Azhar who founded the philosophy department at Fouad I University. Badawi, too, bears the same relation to Abdel-Raziq. His unique scholarly project initially branched out to include editing, translation and adaptation as well as authorship; and he pursued all the branches simultaneously till the end of his life. Its fluctuations and detours notwithstanding, Badawi's intellectual undertaking remains whole. In seeking out the most interesting and the least current, he inverted Geothe's Oriental project, attempting a comprehensive Eastern Diwan of the West. His most predominent mode of operation was panoramic presentation -- a system that no doubt not only aided his students but carved out a sufficiently ambitious niche for the pursuit of knowledge in a world that had forsaken it.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Badawi's own creative endeavours comprise a tiny fraction of his achievement. With the exception of the two aforementioned early works and his Masters dissertation, The Problem of Death, written originally in French, Badawi's own texts tend to be literary rather than philosophical: journals, autobiographical and poetic fragments and the odd short story. The value of his achievement resides not in innovation but consistency and persistence. And his isolation, individuality and confidence left no room for compromise or even the affectations of courtesy. Of all the state awards offered to him, for example, he accepted only the Mubarak Award, though he did not come to Cairo to receive it but instead asked for the money to be transferred to his bank account. In the end Badawi's private life -- the source of so much speculation and discontent -- became identical with his public life, the life of the philosopher. It is remarkable that, for someone of his background, he preferred knowledge to homeland, self to subject, individual to group: remarkable but sad, for by the end of a life devoted to the existential imperative of existence in the world the world had been reduced to a salutary individual existence. Badawi left behind no family, no friends, no disciples, no school. And now that both national life and world philosophy have taken radically new turns, even his books may not be perceived as the most relevant. Thus the Sufi imperative of the world as existence finds poignant expression in his death: now that he no longer exists, there is not the slightest sign of the world he occupied.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Send a letter to the Editor Recommend this page

Issue 601 Front Page

Search for words and exact phrases (as quotes strings),
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries
Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation