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Philosophers of  the Arabs

 Malek Bennabi
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Malek Ben nabi (1905 – 1973), a prominent Algerian thinker well known of his works about the conditions of renaissance of the modern Islamic society.

His Life

Malek Ben nabi was born in Constantine from a poor family in a conservative Algerian community. Studied in public school in Algeria and graduated on 1925. Left for Paris afterwards but did not succeed to work and came back home. He worked as a clerk in the justice court on 1927 in which he started to understand the status of his country.

For the aim of studying in France, he joined a school of wireless connections to become an assistant engineer. Engineering was not his primary choice, but at that time scholarships to France was reserved for technical studies not for intellectual fields. However, he indulged in his technical studies as well as his intellectual life in France and married a French girl. During this period he started publishing his views concerning the question of resurrection from an Islamic point of view.

He moved to Cairo after the announcement of the armed Algerian revolution on 1954 where he was met with reverence. In Cairo he continued his intellectual production until the independence of Algeria on 1962, when he returned back home. Upon his return he was appointed as a minister for high education until his resign on 1967 after which he devoted himself for continuing his intellectual project.


His Thought

Malek ben nabi has expressed his views in his memories titled 'memories of a witness on the century'. He outlined his intellectual journey in searching for knowledge and science and in the search for the reasons behind the European hegemony on the Islamic world in general and Algeria in particular, and the widely negative effects of occupation and its politics on Algeria. On his witness he also addressed the mistakes of the Algerian revolution and the lack of objective thought in favor for the 'illness of speech'.

In 1963, upon returning to Algeria, he witnessed modern science and technological civilisations unfold before his very eyes. This has spurred him to reflect on the question of culture in the early nineteenth century. His approach was simple; not parroting what had been discovered before his time, but rather, searching for what constitutes the essence of culture and the birth of civilization.

From one of his works, “The Conditions of Renaissance” (1948), he defined culture as the mode of being and becoming of a people. This includes aesthetic, ethical, pragmatic, and technical values. When these contents have been clearly defined, only then could various formulations of ideas be born. The birth of new ideas equals to a dynamic society that leads to the movement of vibrancy of a new civilization.

In another book, “The Question of Culture” (1954), he said, the organization of society, its life and movement, indeed, its deterioration and stagnation, all have a functional relation with the system of ideas found in that society. If that system were to change in one way or another, all other social characteristics would follow suit and adapt in the same direction. Ideas, as a whole, form an important part of the means of development in a given society. The various stages of development in such a society are indeed different forms of its intellectual developments. If one of those stages corresponds to what is called “renaissance”, it will mean that society at that stage is enjoying a wonderful system of ideas; a system that can provide a suitable solution to each of the vital problems in that particular society. He added that ideas influence the life of a given society in two different ways; either they are factors of growth of social life, or on the contrary, the role of factors of contagion, thus rendering social growth rather difficult or even impossible.

Malek Ben nabi said that in the nineteenth century, the relations among nations were based on power for the position of a nation was dependent on the number of its factories, cannons, fleets and gold reserves. However, the twentieth century introduced a new development in which ideas were held in high esteem as national and international values. This development has not been strongly felt in many underdeveloped countries, for their inferiority complex has created a warped infatuation with the criteria of power that is based on objects.

Muslims living in an underdeveloped country will no doubt feel that they are inferior to people living in a developed country. They will gradually realize that what separates people is not geographical distance, but distance of another nature. As a result of this inferiority, Muslims ascribe this distance to the field of objects. They see their situation as an abomination caused by lack of weapons, airplanes and banks. Thus, their inferiority complex will lose its social efficacy, leading only to pessimism on the psychological level. On the social level, it will lead to what we have elsewhere called takdis (heaping-up). To turn this feeling into an effective driving-force, Muslims should ascribe their backwardness to the level of ideas, not to that of “objects”, for the development of the new world depends increasingly on ideational and intellectual criteria.

Malek Ben nabi then criticized the Muslim society today for frequently falling into an apologetic state, where its members keep on harping on the civilization that once was built by their forefathers. Muslims tend to circle around the archaic archaeological process, digging up past treasures instead of bridging progress with new ones.

Obviously corrections need to be rectified. Although looking back to what had been achieved in the Golden Age of Islam is still relevant, what is more important is to be able to appreciate the political values and culture of models and systems implemented by past prophets, re-interpret and apply these to our contemporary society. Enriching the society is part of dynamism in Islam. Colonization of minds has driven Muslims towards a state of moral and psychological decay. Again in his book, “Islam in History and Society” (1954), moral paralysis results in intellectual paralysis.


(Partial list)

·   Les conditions de la renaissance (1948)

·   Vocation de l'islam

·   Le problème des idées dans le monde musulman

·   Le phénomène coranique

·   La lutte idéologique

·   L'Afro-asiatisme

·   Islam et Démocratie

·   S.O.S Algérie

·   Idée d'un commenwealth islamique

·   Naissance d'une société

·   Perspectives Algérienne

·   Mémoires d'un témoin du siècle, tome1 et tome2

·   Le rôle du musulman dans le dernier tiers du 20ème siècle

·   l'Orientalisme et la Democratie dans l'islam

·   Contemplations

·   Le Musulman dans le Monde de l'Economie