Arab Political Thought

Past and Present

January 2020 9781849048163 367pp


This book demonstrates the vitality of Arab political thought and its major controversies. It shows that the key players involved, far from being constrained by a theological-political straitjacket, have often demonstrated strong critical thinking when tackling religion and philosophy, anthropology and politics.

Setting these thinkers and their works within two centuries of upheaval in the Arab world, Georges Corm demonstrates how Arab critical thought has been marginalised by powerful external forces: the military, the academy and the media. In its place has risen a hegemonic Islamist thought, used cannily by certain Arab regimes and their Western protectors. Closely tracing the successive transformations of modernist Arab nationalism, Arab Political Thought offers a blueprint for understanding the libertarian Arab Spring, as well as the counter-revolutions and external interventions that have followed.

This invaluable guide comprehensively distils the complexity of Arab intellectualism, which is both critical and profane, and a far cry from the outdated politico-religious image it has acquired.

Table of contents





Does Arab thought exist?

A barely visible cultural richness and complexity

A new ‘fascination with Islam’

A journey into contemporary Arab thought




The diversity and dynamism of Arab culture

The distinction between Islamic civilisation and Arab culture

The poetic and musical mode in Arab culture

Rhetoric and prose

Arab philosophy

The nineteenth-century renaissance of Arabic and Arab thought




The complex question of religious and national identity

The need for distinction between Arab and Islamic thought

Encumbered by a fascination with the past

Attempts to create an irreducible Islamic otherness

The need to contextualise the development of thought

The sources of authoritarianism in the Arab world that have been ignored


Chapter 3


Choosing an ‘tic trap of authenticity vs. modernity

Is Islam really indivisible?

The conditions of cultural and intellectual production in the

Arab world since the end of the twentieth century

From Albert Hourani’s 1962 pioneering overview of Arab thought to more recent overviews Misinterpreting the role of Arab Christian thinkers




The shifting political contexts of Arab societies

The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the three

afflictions of the Arab world

The factor of petroleum in the major upheavals of the Arab world

The impact of the Iranian ‘religious’ revolution

The development of a rentier economy

The consequences of the fragmentation of Arab societies in the face of the European challenge



The sources of political and intellectual conflict

The creation of the State of Israel and its impact on Arab thought

The complex issue of the lack of unity among Arabs

The six contemporary historical factors of Arab conflict 90 An enigma of history: the Arab abandonment of power in the 9th century



The factors that led to a renaissance of thought

Identities and historical decline? 101 The problem of identity and its complexities

The first generations of intellectuals and their relationship to Europe

Arab thought in the face of colonial expansion: the failure of Ottoman patriotism

The first steps of modern Arab nationalism 108 Awareness of historical decline and underdevelopment



The flourishing of the Arab renaissance, 1850–1950: The desire for modernity

The pivotal role of the Azharis in an Islam of Enlightenment

Taha Husayn, an exceptional individual

The emergence of a rich Arab feminist movement

Other major figures of the Arab renaissance

Questioning the European development model

Arab and Russian Thought: The Same Contradictions 129 Does Arab Shi‘i reformist thought exist?



The theories and political parties of Arab nationalism (1940–1980)

Revisiting Arab military weakness and its impact

The blossoming of secular and anti-imperialist Arab nationalism (1919–1967)

The post-Second World War generation of Arab nationalist thinkers

Factors that led to the radicalisation of nationalist thought

The main nationalist thinkers

The main political currents adhering to Arab nationalism

The Arab nationalist doctrine of the Baath Party

The Nasserist mode of Arab Nationalism

The Arab Nationalist Movement



Other forms of nationalism in the Arab world

The Syrian People’s Party: A distinct nationalist movement

The nationalisms of the Maghreb

Other forms of identity-based nationalisms in the Arab world

The Arabic language: a reservoir of collective culture

Two privileged spaces of Arab nationalist thought

The Centre for Arab Unity Studies

The Institute for Palestine Studies, a place for preservation of memory



Arab thought  the face of successive political and military failures since 1961

The growing complexity of the Arab political landscape 176 Reflexive thought on the failure experienced by the Arab world 177 Yasinal-Hafizand radical revolutionary thought of as secular nature

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm and Adonis: their fight against religious obscurantism

The original and enlightening work of Abdallah Laroui

National thought through the prism of Marxist critical reflection

Samir Amin’s Marxist internationalist humanism 188 Mahdi Amil’s critical deconstruction

The important works of Tayyeb Tizini and Elias Morcos



Islamic nationalisms as anti-nationalist Arab thought 195 A return to the context in which ‘anti-national’ Islamist thought emerged

A pocket guide to the thought of modern Islamic movements: Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood

‘Islam is the solution’: the triumph of a slogan in the 1980s

Intensification of the struggle for power in Arab societies

The role of foreign influence on the elites

The harmful effects of confining thought within the dilemma between Islam and Arab identity



The major controversies generated by Islamic nationalism 215 Islamic heritage: the controversy over an open or closed universe

Al-Jabri’s three modes of operation of Arab thought

Tarabichi’s deconstruction of al-Jabri’s work

The Comparative Status of Philosophy in Islam and Christianity

The impact of European Islamic studies and Ernest Renan’s thought on al-Jabri

The artificial opposition between the gnostic Islam of the

Orient and the rational Islam of the Occident

The dispute between partisans and adversaries of secularism: A religious McCarthyism?

The tribulations of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

The assassination of Mahmoud Taha and Farag Foda

The debate between al-Azmeh and al-Messiri

Secularism as the source of all the woes of the modern world

in the work of al-Messiri

Secularisation of the Arab world ‘from another angle’ in the work of al-Azmeh



Intellectual attempts at ideological conciliation

The new ‘liberal’ Arab thought 238 The silent continuation of the critique of formal ‘Islamic reason’

Many other overshadowed contemporary critical thinkers 246 Reflections on serious tensions within Arab thought

Mohammed Jaber al-Ansari’s critique of the spirit of conciliation

Muhammad Dahir: on the need to return to the modernist, secular experiment of Muhammad ‘Ali and Nasser

Wasatiyya: An attempt to counter radical and fanatical Islamic thought

Thought that claims to be rooted in Arab Christianity



An overview of contemporary Arab thought in the human and social sciences 265 Philosophical and anthropological thought

Abdel Rahman Badawi, a prolific ‘go-between’

The innovative thought of Nassif Nassar

A broad diversity of contemporary thinkers

Arab thought in sociology and history

The shortcomings of Arab thought in economics and technology but Arab economists who have made substantial contributions

Youssef Sayegh’s premonitory analysis of the failure of Arab development

Numerous other useful economic contributions

Antoine Zahlan’s analysis and the causes of Arab technological powerlessness






‘This excellent study is comprehensive, covering a variety of writers from diverse parts of the Arab region whose ideas range from pan-Arabism to more localized identities …This is an important book for students of the modern Arab world and indeed for anyone concerned more broadly with nationalism and modernization.’ CHOICE

‘Corm has produced a magisterial compendium of the Arab intelligentsia and their contributions to Arab thought right up to the Arab Spring.’ Asian Affairs

‘Draws a comprehensive and detailed framework of Arab political thought… [Arab Political Thought] will help students of International Relations escape the ‘Orientalist’ trap that creates a stereotype regarding the shared wisdom of the Middle East.’ Insight Turkey

‘Eloquent and… profoundly original.’ — The Muslim World Book Review

‘Not since Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age has there been such a comprehensive and accessible monograph as Georges Corm’s erudite account. Focussing on twentieth-century Arabic and French literature, this is a welcome update written by a leading Arab intellectual and economist.’ Jens Hanssen, Associate Professor of Arab Civilisation, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

‘An invaluable account of the intellectual currents within the Arab world and beyond, bringing this rich and seminal scholarship closer to us here in the West. Indispensable for those interested in the politics of the region and its underlying fabric of ideas.’ Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London, and author of On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution and A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations.

‘An overview of the richness and complexity of Arab thought, deconstructing the dominant narratives that reduce the Arab peoples to vacuous, religious and ahistorical binaries. A must-read.’ Fawaz A. Gerges, a Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics


Georges Corm is Professor at the Institute of Political Sciences at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon. He was formerly a public-sector economist and  an international economic consultant. Between 1998 and 2000 he was Lebanese Minister of Finance. He has published extensively on the contemporary history of the Middle East and relations between the Arab world and the West.

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