Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm A Philosopher, Critic and Political Activist

Sadik Al-Azm
Sadik Al-Azm | Privat

He is Damascene, yet cosmopolitan with no nostalgia to his mother’s baking, no tears shed over the good old days, and no longing to the scent of Jasmine flowers strongly reminiscent of Damascus. He says he would take personal freedom with all the goose bumps over the warmth of his mother’s womb.

He is Damascene, yet cosmopolitan with no nostalgia to his mother’s baking, no tears shed over the good old days, and no longing to the scent of Jasmine flowers strongly reminiscent of Damascus. He says he would take personal freedom with all the goose bumps over the warmth of his mother’s womb.

Sadiq Al-Azm’s productive life can be split into three stages, the sixties and seventies thin Beirut, the eighties and nineties in Damascus, and the early years of the 21st century scattered between Damascus and the rest of the world. Similarly, the personality of this Damascene intellectual was manifested along three characters: the academic scholar, the social activist, and a third closer-to-the-heart figure: Sadiq, the eighty-year-old man.

On the academic front, Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm lectured in numerous universities, including the American University of Beirut, the Damascus University and the University of Jordan for a brief period in the late sixties, as well as in several Western universities. His renowned books reflect the thoughts of a think-tank engaged in the public affair rather than in any academic life. His book, In Defense of Materialism and History (1990), is the most indicative of his author’s philosophical views, albeit being an intellectual and political book that was published at a time when Communism was collapsing. In this book, the author shows his established foundations of materialistic and historical neo-critical theories and reveals the progressive, democratic partiality of his thoughts, just when the time was ripe for such thoughts to see the light.

Al-Azm’s concern with public affair took shape in the early days of the June defeat in 1967, reflecting a leftist, pro-Palestine and Pan-Arab ideology in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It then took a rather secular turn in the 1980’s and 1990’s to finally settle on liberal democracy with the outset of the 21st century.

Sadiq’s interest in politics was more pronounced during the first and third stages of his life; being for Pan-Arabism in the former during the rise and regression of the Pan-Arab movement and for Syrian nationalism in the latter where he actively engaged in the forums of “Damascus Spring” and the work of the “Civil Society Committees” at a time when Syrian intellectuals signed petitions calling for democratic reforms. As for the second stage of his life, i.e. the last two decades of the 21st century, Sadiq’s involvement was rather intellectual. At that time, the Arab world was submerged in tyranny on the one hand, and Marxism, the backbone of Sadiq’s intellectual identity, was losing ground due to the collapse of Communism. The intellectual work was the then chosen haven for think tankers.

Nevertheless, Sadiq’s most famous/infamous book that was and still is widely appealing to readers is The Critique of the Religious Thought (1969). It was this particular book that induced a lawsuit against the author in Beirut, when he was professor emeritus at the American University of Beirut, for offending Islam.

In general, it is safe to say that Sadiq Jalal al-Azm is famous as the intellectual gravely concerned in public affairs for a golden jubilee of his life, more or less.

During all that time, he was a man of a lucid style and clear expression which set him apart from his peers and contemporaries. He was also known for constantly raising controversial issues, especially in his books Self-Criticism after the Defeat (1968), The Critique of the Religious Thought, The Mentality of Proscription, and Beyond the Mentality of Proscription (1990’s). Today, he takes part in the Syrian Dialogue, with many of his interventions judged as controversial and faced with ridicule and allegations.

Sadiq claims in some of his works that every act of thought is debatable, which many would disagree with, but it is imperative to say that he has always proven a debater of clear stance and thought.

Sadiq was born into an aristocratic Damascene family, which likely helped instill secularism into his mind. Secularism was in fact common among some aristocratic Muslim families in Damascus and Aleppo at least since the 1930’s (and earlier in Istanbul). Indeed, Sadiq combined this elitist secularism with his leftist, social and political thoughts, but the outcome of this configuration has never stopped him from being the cosmopolitan citizen aside his “spontaneous, justified and natural belonging” to a country, city and culture as he says. Compared to other Syrian intellectuals who spent a long time in western countries, Sadiq best maintained an outward, global thinking and an active engagement in his country’s affairs and associated dialogue, particularly in the third stage of his career and life.

It is possible that such social, intellectual and psychological mix has created a barrier between Sadiq and his surroundings as it was never easy to identify with him. Furthermore, he himself says he prefers colleagues, opponents, counterparts, critics and friends over partisans, adherers, followers, imitators and idolizers of personality. Therefore, it is hard to claim that there is a “Sadiqi Movement” or a “Sadiqi School of thought”.

This choice might be better and more candid than attempting to create a movement and rally support, which has become synonym to fanaticism and totalitarianism. Only time will tell.

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm has received the Goethe Medal at a time when the Syrian revolution had turned overwhelmingly apocalyptic. This definitely adds to the value of the medal beyond a worthy individual recognition in order to become a broad act of recognition to Syria. This interdependence between what is personal and what is public indicates a timeless attribute of Sadiq and his work: a non-conformist intellectual strongly biased to the values of freedom, justice, reason and globalism.