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Farewell to Hassan Hanafi, the Intellectual Father of the Islamic Left and Occidentalism

Hassan Hanafi (1935-2021) was one of the big names of contemporary Arab philosophical and theological studies. He was one of the most prolific and erudite of the 1960s generation of Arab philosophers and thinkers who formed and defended reforms throughout their lifetimes. Hanafi left a huge body of work for scholars to study, to agree and disagree with. He was mourned by prominent Arab intellectuals and scholars, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb. On his funeral, on 22 October 2021, his coffin toured the campus of the University of Cairo that he loved, and where he spent most of his career since the 1950s. Hanafi received the Egyptian State Appreciation Award in 2007, the Nile Award in 2016, the Free Thinker Award from the President of Poland, and the al-Shirazi Award from the then President of Iran Mohammed Khatami (n.d.). Hanafi published on major classical intellectual disciplines that he considered fundamental for the revisitation and the renewal of the Arab-Islamic tradition. He also published on modern Western philosophy, and called for the development of the science of Occidentalism as a way to better understand, and to, ultimately, critique and reform centrist modernity, to allow space for other intellectual traditions to re-join global historiography. At the heart of these double reforms, he had social justice in mind. He was a theologian and philosopher.

In Italy, from which this piece is being written, Hanafi was well introduced by Massimo Campanini (1954-2020), a prominent scholar of Islamic philosophy and theology. Campanini narrates in his last written interview with me, published posthumously as a tribute on the day he passed away on 9 October 2020, that the work of Hanafi was very helpful in his intellectual choices in the early 1980s. They later became good friends. This intellectual gratitude led Campanini to introduce Hanafi to Reset Dialogues on Civilizations’ scholarly network, in which he became a founding member and a frequent speaker in its various seminars that bridge philosophical traditions, in Istanbul, Cairo, and Rome.

Hanafi’s health had been weak during the last decade, but he kept travelling with a wheelchair to give lectures until a few weeks before he passed away on 21 October 2021 at the age of 86. I had first heard Hanafi speak in Rome in December 2008 in a conference on “Rebuilding Dialogue with the Arab World,” at my alma mater, where I was a postgraduate student, and listened to him again in a major conference on Arab Renaissance in Amman in April 2018, organized by the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development Foundation (ARDD), in collaboration with the University of Jordan, Arab Thought Forum, and the American University of Beirut. Hanafi was greeted with immense respect by everyone. I was overwhelmed by the moment. I was the only “young” speaker in a conference that gathered some of the major surviving Arab thinkers and scholars of the 1960s generation. Hanafi always spoke in standard Arabic in intellectual contexts, instead of Egyptian Arabic dialect. His message in the conference was that the Arab youth should always rebel, without fear, when there is injustice. Among all the speakers, his tone was the most rebellious despite his old age and clear ill health.

In his intellectual autobiography Memories: 1935-2018 (Dhikrayat), published in 2019, Hanafi summarizes some of the major events that marked his life; his studies in La Sorbonne, Paris, for his double PhD on hermeneutics (1956-1966) which he published into Arabic in two volumes in 2006, the financial difficulties he met there, his passion for violin, which he inherited from his father, a violinist in the Egyptian army, the difficulties he met as a professor in Egypt among some of his peers since he was professional and not nepotist, his efforts in establishing a philosophical tradition in Cairo and Egypt, his Nasserism and his encounter with President Nasser in 1966, along with other young Egyptian students and researchers residing abroad, to give the president ideas for a new Egypt, up to the last period of his life about which he wrote desirously.

In the last paragraph of his memoirs, he wrote that he wished to meet his loved ones in the Hereafter, and to meet God with tranquility and ease of mind and memory. Among the intellectual figures he wished to meet in the other world were the philosophers he wrote about – Fichte, Bergson, al-Afghani, Iqbal, and his professors Othman Amin and Jean Guitton, and his favorite students Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Ali Mabrouk. Hanafi also spoke of various disagreements, sometimes serious, that reach the public media nationwide, with some of his peers at the university, or with some prominent Arab philosophers like Fouad Zakaria, who invited him to join him in the department of philosophy in Cairo University as professor after he finished his PhD in Paris, though he received similar invitations from the prominent Abderrahman Badawi who was the icon of philosophy in ‘Ain Shams University, and Ali Sami al-Nashar who was another icon at the University of Alexandria.

All these were influential figures of philosophy in the Arab world and the vibrant Egypt at the time. Hanafi lamented that the Egyptian universities had lost their roles and figures of higher caliber of those times, for various reasons, including the search for easy fame, material interests, and nepotism. Among the intellectual concerns he lamented in these memoirs was the way some publishers abused his rights, looking only for profit. He wished he had published all of his works only with one established publisher, as his friend and peer, the Moroccan al-Jabri, had done with the prestigious Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut (CAUS). He also revealed that he had published numerous works at his own expense. Hanafi also published some volumes in English in Cairo, like Islam in the Modern World in two volumes in 1995.

Hanafi had studied philosophy in Cairo University before moving to Paris, to return to teach philosophy at the same university since 1967, with some intervals. He held visiting professorships in Fez, Tokyo, Philadelphia, among others. He narrates that he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood in his high school period, before he moved to the endorse Nasserist Arab Socialism, though he experienced some state surveillance for that. He says his profile was marked as “Islamist-Communist” (Ikhwani-shuyu‘i) by the Ministry of the Interior. Hanafi became known as the intellectual father of the so-called “Islamic Left” since he published a book with the same title in 1981. In an interview with the Iraqi theologian Abdeljabbar Rifa‘i, published within a multivolume project on New Kalam Theology (‘Ilm al-Kalam al-Jadid, 2016), he says that his idea of the Islamic Left had influenced Arab and Muslim thinkers and activities in the Arab and Islamic world, and his work has been written about in universities worldwide. In some other texts, he says that the third way of the Islamic Left is close to the welfare systems of Scandinavian countries. In some other occasions, he refers to the Japanese model and its modernization without breaking completely from tradition.

Hanafi felt the responsibility of reforming philosophy and theology in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Though he already started this enterprise in his PhD dissertation on hermeneutics and Islamic fundamentals of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), the 1967 Six Days War further fuelled this need and responsibility. He saw links between the loss of Arab lands and the loss of control of the Text and Context. His translation of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise falls within this interest, as the long introduction that accompanies the translation shows.

Hanafi’s major project was to build a new science of theology in the Islamic tradition based on turning the concept of God into an anthropological idea. Theology has to turn into anthropology to be able to address humanity and its needs. Hanafi was influenced by his professor Othmane Amine who introduced him to phenomenology, thus his own use of Husserl’s concept of epoché or ‘bracketing’, i.e. bracketing God’s essence and the idea of revelation in interpreting the Text. God can always keep His place or value as telos (raison d’être), since it is the final aim of all human activity. It is only praxis that matters here and now. For him, the idea of Oneness (Tawhid) in Islam is liberatory, and supremely egalitarian, and this makes it a revolutionary religion; it rejects social injustice nurtured by hierarchic social classes and opportunistic economies and finance. Tawhid is Just and Justice. To realize it one has to work for it. For Hanafi, hermeneutics is for use, and not for mere intellectual abstraction. Hermeneutics is seeing social change taking place; if the rich use the Text to lead and oppress, the poor too should use the Text to change the context, to change the social order. He speaks of “conservative Hermeneutics” the rich use against “progressive Hermeneutics” that the poor have to use. The Marxist influence is visible here. He writes:

There is no Hermeneutics per se, absolute and universal. Hermeneutics is Hermeneutics for use. It is part of the socio-political struggle”. Since both Tradition and Revolution are legal, Hermeneutics becomes the legitimizing device for each one. It justifies the legality of both Tradition and Revolution. Since the upper and middle classes identify themselves with tradition while the lower class identifies itself with revolution, the interpreters of each class produce their own Hermeneutics, a passage from Revolution to Tradition by the interpreters of the upper and middle classes, and a passage from Tradition to Revolution by the interpreters of the lower class. The quarrel of interpretation indeed is a social conflict between classes [Emphasis added]  (Hanafi, Islam in the Modern World, vol. 2, Cairo, 1995, 182-188)

Hanafi’s immersion in the present with modern concepts required that he move tradition to change its worldview to fit the modern challenges and the new understanding of history and human consciousness. This he has tried to do in various volumes in the major Islamic sciences, all under the Tradition and Renewal (al-turath wal-tajdid) project, which is also the title of one of his inaugural texts on the topic: creed (‘ilm al-‘aqeeda), fundamentals of jurisprudence (‘ilm usul al-fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), sufism (al-tasawwuf), Quranic exegesis and hadith (al-tafsir wal-hadith). For instance, his From Creed to Revolution (mina al-‘aqeeda ila al-thawra), in five volumes, and From Mimicry to Innovation (mina al-naql ila al-ibda‘) in nine volumesare illustrative examples of how he wished to make this material Life the space of Praxis. Later in life he published a thematic approach to the Quran where much of his concern for social change based on the Text was again underlined. Hanafi tried his best not to speak of any epistemological rupture with the past, though his hermeneutical apparatus of bracketing the idea of God and revelation, and the questions of falsity and truth of interpretations, make such an endeavour appealing to some reformist scholars, but it raises the eyebrow of others who see the Quranic Text fundamental and impossible to “bracket” in theology – though it may be so by (Muslim) philosophers.

Hanafi is also known by his idea of Occidentalism, theorized in his book Introduction to the Science of Occidentalism (muqaddima fi ‘ilm al-istighrab, 1991, c. 900 pages). By Occidentalism he calls for a scientific study of the Occident, since it is the only way to first understand it and then overcome its epistemic as well as socio-cultural, political and economic hegemony. In the book, he states, “I am just calling for the creation of a Self instead of imitating the Other, and for turning the Other into an object of science instead of considering him the source of science.” He says that Occidentalism aims at evening the balance of World historiography, which is written by the dominant and colonial West, as if the latter did not learn anything from the rest of the world. He argues that the science of Occidentalism, to counter Orientalism, has two sources: Third Word intellectuals, and Western intellectuals that speak of the intellectual crises and faults of the West, like Nietzsche, Spengler, Husserl, Bergson, among others. In an earlier work entitledOn the Contemporary Western Thought (Fi al-fikr al-gharbi al-muʻaṣir, 4th ed. 1990), he says that non-Western scholars can bring a new insight into modern Western thought, which Westerners themselves cannot sense nor conceive. The intellectual dialogue Hanafi calls for refers also to the cultural exchange Muslim Spain (al-Andalus) contributed in Medieval times (Islam in the Modern World, 2 vols, 1995).

For serious intellectual dialogue in the Arab world, Hanafi’s exchange with his peer and friend, the Moroccan Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (1935-2010), for ten weeks between March and November 1989 in the magazine The Seventh Day (al-yawm al-sabi‘) is still remembered and cherished by many scholars and writers. This exchange on methods of reading the tradition, change, and the future was published in 1990 as Dialogue between the Mashreq and the Maghreb (Hiwar al-mashriq wal-maghrib). Their exchange will be remembered among historians of ideas as one of the most friendly as well as serious among this generation of influential scholars. Hanafi has left a vast body of work, which should be revisited continually, and further studied and examined. Hanafi, like al-Jabri, Badawi, al-Nashar, to name just a few, were erudite in the Arab-Islamic philosophical and theological traditions and tried to revive it from inside, with openings to the outside. Like many of their generations, the time to give them credit has not come yet. Critical and comparative studies on them, and their peers, are still needed. Hanafi’s double cry for Occidentalism as a science, and for social justice as a human need to fight for will reverberate for a long time to come.


Mohammed Hashas teaches at Luiss University of Rome, and is currently also a Research Fellow affiliate to Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. His publications include The Idea of European Islam (2019), Islamic Ethics and the Trusteeship Paradigm (2020), and Pluralism in Islamic Contexts (2021). He is presently working on a comprehensive collective volume on Contemporary Moroccan Thought, due in 2023.


Source: Reset Dialogues on Civilisations, 12 January 2022, 

Scholar of Islam, Islamic thought, Islam in Europe, European Islamic thought, Moroccan thought, and religion and politics in the Arab World.

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