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Philosophy, Charles Malik and the Middle East

BY Romy Haber



Philosophy, Charles Malik and the Middle East

The Arabic word falsafa is derived from the Greek philosophia and was the standard term used by intellectuals in the Middle East to describe what is popularly termed philosophy—a way to attain theoretical understanding of the nature of human dynamics with each other, the natural and immaterial world around them. For classical Middle Eastern philosophy, it was also connected to and perceived as the path to happiness. Al Farabi, who was considered in the medieval Islamic world as the greatest philosophical authority after Aristotle, wrote that:

“An art, which has an aim to achieve the beauty, is called a philosophy or in the absolute sense it is named wisdom. We can achieve happiness only then when we
have beauty, and we have beauty thanks to philosophy. The truth is that only because of philosophy we can achieve happiness.”

It is only natural that the Middle East, due to its many socio-cultural cross-currents, offers a mosaic of philosophical contributions. Middle Eastern philosophy encompasses traditions from ancient Egypt, the Assyro-Babylonian school, Hebrew traditions, Persian sages, Jewish, Christian and Islamic philosophy, and many more. Indeed, Middle Eastern thinkers have produced some of the most important insights into: metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, philosophy of language, science, history, politics, art, etc. While the spotlight is often on Islam’s golden age (and before), people generally fail to see the contributions of contemporary Middle Eastern philosophy. For instance, few recognise that the philosopher behind and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — now, erroneously, seen as primarily a Western document — is, in fact, from Lebanon.

Charles Malik, a member of the Lebanese Rûm Orthodox community; an academic, philosopher, theologian and diplomat served as a key member of the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—arguably the 20th century’s single most important international document. Malik was the youngest delegate in the Human Rights Commission and wanted the document to protect individuals and their freedom against authoritarianism and statism. He played a leading role in emphasising the concept of human dignity and individual freedoms.

Romy Haber, on behalf of EGIC, spoke to Dr Tony Nasrallah (Researcher at NDU’s ‘Institute of Lebanese Thought,’) a leading researcher on Charles Malik, who shared his insights on Charles Malik’s, philosophy and the Middle East at large.

Haber—What did Malik contribute to contemporary philosophy and to Middle Eastern philosophy more specifically?

Nasrallah—This is a very difficult question to tackle for two reasons: first, because Malik’s contributions are in various areas, so it is not so easy to synthesize them, and secondly, because his direct contributions to philosophy—in the most traditional format—are rare.

As for the first point, to study Malik’s contributions fully, one has to look into his writings, his teaching, his influence on his students, his writings in diplomatic settings (for example: his article on “Diplomacy” published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, his Preamble for the Universal Declaration for Human Rights), and the hundreds of speeches that he has delivered.

As for the second point, a former student of Malik named Peter Shabaya formulated the matter neatly when said of Malik: “When he would speak philosophically he’d always be speaking about the human condition that he was addressing and this of course made it not that easy to see him if you think of him just as an academic philosopher.”

In order not to shy away from the question, I think the answer would be: a combination of Christian Existentialism with phenomenology, Greek reasoning, and the continuity and accumulation of Human civilization. Malik’s school is a combination of what I call three As: Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. His immediate influence came from Heidegger and Whitehead, his two teachers about whom his dissertation evolved.

Haber—Are There Arab/Middle Eastern philosophers who influenced Malik? And who are some of the contemporary Middle Eastern philosophers influenced by Malik?

Nasrallah—The key to answer this question is Averroes, or Ibn Rushd. Averroes is the Muslim version of Aquinas and predates him. Both Averroes and Aquinas read Aristotle with Monotheistic eyes and conveyed the great Greek master to Islam and Christianity respectively. Although the influence of Averroes on Malik was minimal (far less, for instance, than the influence of Aquinas), yet this was probably the greatest Arab influence on Malik. Malik influenced Majid Fakhri—who, sadly, passed away a few months ago—and it is no coincidence that Fakhri wrote extensively about Averroes. Malik also influenced Albert Hourani, who was a historian, as well Ghassan Tueini (journalist and diplomat), Rene Habchi (philosopher), Kamal el Hage (philosopher) and many others. It may be worth noting that Malik’s great-uncle, Farah Antoun, who was one of the authors of the Arabic Renaissance of the 19th-20th century, was influenced by Averroes as well, and Antoun in turn shared some common denominators with Malik.

Haber—Malik focused on individual liberty when drafting the human rights declaration. Collectivism and authoritarianism are extremely prevalent in the Middle East. Can you elaborate on what he meant by individual liberty and how can it influence society/politics in the Middle East?

Nasrallah—In one fascinating article of his, Malik speaks of the group-man. The article’s title is ‘The Metaphysics of Freedom.’ Malik wrote that:

“This is an age of group freedom. The individual human is relatively in eclipse. Groups want to be free, want to be themselves, but not individual persons. The individual person is assimilated to his group. His group is more real, more ultimate than he. The group could be a nation or a class or a party or a race or a culture, and when the five merge into one, as in the case of China, there is a most formidable group determinism. Thus one is American or German or Asian or communist or coloured or white. The nationalist, the socialist, the racist thinks as his respective group expects him to: he surrenders his personal freedom to the freedom of his group. When you talk to him you do not feel you aretalking to a free man; the whole notion of ‘a free man’ is anathema to him. He is not ‘a free man,’ he is ‘a group man.’ You distinctly feel he is in the clutch of something, he is being held back by something. When he talks to you in the presence of members of his party you notice a subtle competition between them as to who could be more extreme; but  even when you talk to him alone, you observe that they are present, too. He is never alone, not even in their absence. He always has at the back of his mind, and sometimes at the  side of his mind, what his nation or his class or his party or his race or his culture expects from him. He is determined by it.”

While Malik acknowledged the importance of free societies, free collectives, etc., he always feared that the demand for the collective is being made at the expense of the more precious individual. This, perhaps, is the single most consistent item in Malik’s thought, that penetrates his political thought, his diplomatic practice, his teaching career, and his philosophical outlook. In a word, this was Malik’s mission.

Haber—What role do you think philosophy can play in the Middle East?

Nasrallah—I think that ideas always play a role in societies, be they societies in the East or the West, in the Middle East or in any region. The problem is not what role they play, but rather which ideas are at the forefront and thus which are the philosophies that are—consciously or subconsciously—influencing a society. The element most urged in the Middle East is good philosophy. One might be able to blame Malik for some things, but no one can blame him for not promoting good classical philosophy in the Middle East. In fact, he did his utmost to systematically incorporate curricula in the Middle East about the accumulated classical philosophy that has shaped Europe and the West. On one occasion he wrote that

“The greatest single intellectual thing that can happen in the Arab world is a responsible movement for publishing in Arabic one or two hundred volumes of the world’s finest classics, both from the Moslem-Arab and from the Western traditions.”

This was, of course, way before the internet.

Haber—What are some misconceptions do you think people generally have on contemporary philosophy in the Middle East? How does Malik challenge these stereotypes and misconceptions?

Nasrallah—Philosophy is often perceived as something dead, or as an abstract system, or as ideas up in the air. Malik’s approach is that philosophy is a lively search for the truth, and the truth is living. In Malik’s own words in ‘The Meaning of Philosophy’:

“In philosophy you endeavour to see the total picture of the world. Your aim is the whole truth, and not an abstract portion of it. In the construction of this total world-view you do not take only zoology, or only history, or only mathematics, into account; you take all the interests of man into account. Thus while each of the sciences is narrow, partial and abstract, philosophy, that is to say true philosophy, is broad, whole and eminently concrete. True philosophy is so concrete that it hurts.”

Haber—What do you think of including Malik in philosophy courses in the Middle East?

Nasrallah—I think this would be the best favour the world could offer to the Middle East.