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A Tribute to the late Modernist Moroccan Philosopher Mohammed Sabila

A Tribute to the late Modernist Moroccan Philosopher Mohammed Sabila

Mohammed Sabila

Mohammed Sabila, a major Moroccan and Arab scholar-philosopher, left us a couple of days ago (1942- 19 July 2021, Morocco) because of Covid-19 complications. While he is unknown in the non-Arabic speaking world, the tributes written about him during the last week by prominent scholars that were influenced by his work, or were his students and colleagues, are a testimony of the big role he played in introducing modern philosophy to the Moroccan university, Moroccan intellectual culture, and Arab culture at large. He was mourned in various Arab widely read newspapers, like Alaraby (London/Qatar), Aawsat (London/Saudi Arabia), Almayadeen (Beirut), Alittihad (Abu Dhabi), and many others.

Sabila grew up during the liberation movement activism of the 1940s and 1950s. He joined the Independence Party in his early foundation, but soon left it to focus on his studies and research, since, for him, what lasts is what is written, with balanced reason, while most politics is driven by the ego and self interests. In one of his interviews he says his name originates from “Fi Sabil Allah”/Sabila, one of its short spoken forms.

Sabila studied in a traditional madrasa, known in Morocco as “kuttab,” built by the nationalist movement, and fully in Arabic language, against the modern schools that the French introduced. His father enrolled him in the “kuttab” in Casablanca for this nationalist reason, though later on he spent some years in the modern schools as well, where he learnt French. He studied philosophy in Rabat, and La Sorbonne. In one of his last interviews in 2020, he speaks of the early years in which especially Mashreqi professors  played an important role in teaching philosophy in the department at Mohammed V University in Rabat. His admiration for the Egyptian Najib Baladi is emphasised. He also acknowledges the role of some French professors of philosophy in this formative period of the 1960s. Sabila taught philosophy in Fez and Rabat universities between 1972 and 2006, and was head of the Moroccan Association of Philosophy between 1994-2006, an association that has been in crisis and inactivity for a couple of years now, mostly because the stimuli of the earlier generation of scholars of higher caliber has dwindled away after their retirement and advancement in age.

Sabila published a lot on some major themes of modern philosophy from the 1980s, and he is known also with Dafatir Falsafiyya (Cahiers Philosophiques), which is a series of textbooks published for wider readership and in which he introduces particular philosophic themes (e.g. liberty, human rights, Marxism, ideology, modernity, modern psychology, etc.), provides excerpts from foundational texts in the field, and comments and adds to them. He did this with another living colleague and friend of his, the philosopher-scholar Abdessalam Benabdelali (b. 1945), another unknown scholar-philosopher outside the Arab world; they were good partners in this project, and they influenced generations of Moroccan scholars and intellectuals.

Sabila, and Abdelali and their alikes, represent the modernists in the Moroccan contemporary school of thought and philosophy in particular – pioneered by Abdellah Laroui (b. 1933) in contemporary Moroccan times since the 1960s, and differently so by Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (1935-2010), among others. They see modernity as a human achievement to which other traditions can contribute, including the Arab one, and they are against the idea of “multiple modernities” since, for them, and Sabila in particular here, it is a fake discourse to subvert the project of modernity; multiple modernities and postmodernity are impossible without modernity first. He did not stop at European modernity as a model, but he considered it a human shared achievement to build on. He considered modernity a “human horizon” towards which all should work. Obviously, one can agree or disagree, and this is not the point behind the tribute; suffice it to say here that he chose to study modernity and its influence on human affairs at large, and defended its realisation by means of balanced reason, as one of his book titles evidences: “Difa’un ‘an al-‘aql wa al-hadatha” (In Defence of Reason and Modernity, 2003). Between the mid-1970s and mid- 1990s, he translated into Arabic Louis Althusser’s ideas on philosophy, science and ideology, Michel Foucault’s on discourse, Paul-Laurent Assoun’s on psychoanalysis, and Martin Heideggar’s on technology, truth and being.

Sabila spoke well of his major colleagues-philosophers that were more known worldwide than him, i.e. al-Jabri and Laroui. He retained high esteem of their work, their radical intellectual projects and their influence on the Arab intelligentsia at large. Socially, he was described as a very nice person who helped a lot of his students in their careers, and encouraged others to pursue their higher education and research to become also important scholars and thinkers on Arab intellectual issues.

As to me, Sabila first appeared in our house thanks to the Manshurat al-zaman (al-Zaman/ Time Publications), which were a form of small and cheap booklets some 100-150 pages long, and treat a particular issue or concept. Major thinkers of Morocco used to simplify their ideas to the public and to students through these booklets. His booklet was entitled al-Maghrib fi muwajahat al-hadatha, 1999) (Morocco Encounters Modernity, 1999). I was in later high school or first university year when I came across his name.

I knew al-Jabri, Elmandjjra, and Aourid, among a few others who also published in this series, first thanks to my elder brother who first bought these booklets, before I went on doing that myself when he left to Paris for higher education, while I pursued them first in the country before I moved to Rome. The booklet was fascinating to me because it narrates how Moroccan intellectual elite, led by religious scholars, reacted to modern technical achievements in the late 18th and 19th centuries, like the use of the telephone, the train, the radio, etc., often with hesitation, caution, or refusal at times. That made me then realize that modernity is more difficult than what it appeared to be. I would understand more of this only later on. His publications record considered, Sabila will remain one of the pillars of the contemporary and modern “Rabat School of Philosophy” in particular, and Arab philosophy in general. He substantially contributed to diversifying thought and thinking in his context and intellectual domain.


Mohammed Hashas is currently a Research Fellow affiliate to Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin, and a non-Resident Research Fellow at the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) in Shenandoah University in Virginia, USA. He teaches at Luiss University of Rome. His publications include The Idea of European Islam (2019), and Pluralism in Islamic Contexts (2021). He is presently working on a comprehensive collective volume on Contemporary Moroccan Thought, due in 2023.


Source: Reset DOC Dialogues on Civilisations, Milan.

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

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