The culture of dialogue

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Friday 29 Oct 2021

Hassan Hanafi's legacy will continue to enrich Muslim, Arab, Egyptian and human thought for a long time to come.

The passing of Hassan Hanafi a few days ago signalled the end of the life of one of the most important and influential philosophers in Egypt, the Arab region, the Muslim World, and I would even say of humanity at large, in contemporary times. However, his intellectual legacy will remain with us for many years and decades to come.

All over the world, many books, let alone articles and papers on various aspects Hanafi’s vast, deep and rich contribution were published during his lifetime, and many more are still expected. In this light I will confine this article to only one topic, namely his role in nurturing the culture of dialogue in diverse contexts, as well as his constructive endeavour to suggest parameters and shared assumptions on the basis of which dialogue might take place. I have in mind three examples of this, spanning more than half a century.

Starting in the early 1970s, in many writings including his book Religious Dialogue and Revolution, Hanafi called for a inter-faith dialogue aimed at rediscovering the progressive and humanistic dimensions in all religions, and thereby seeking to arrive at the common denominator among them – based on his comprehensive understanding of both Islam and Christianity, including hiswork for his PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1960s. 

His argument is that, from such a perspective, believers in all religions would discover common ground. Justice and freedom constitute the main objectives of all religions. This exercise necessitates dialogue based on mutual respect and equality.

Such a stand was very progressive at that early stage, preceded only by the initiatives and efforts of the then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, on two parallel tracks, namely to bridge differences and create better understanding among Muslim sects, and simultaneously to seek common grounds with Christianity, based on an enlightened, open-minded and modern approach to religions in general and Islam in particular.

Towards the end of the 1970s and the beginnings of 1980s, Hanafi further developed his perception of the culture of dialogue and worked to promote it, this time among various philosophical and intellectual trends within the Arab and Muslim worlds. This vision was clearly embodied in several of his books at that stage, including The Islamic Left: A Project for Renaissance and Heritage and Modernization. Beside calling, in the framework of  Islamic civilisation, for a synthesis between various schools of thought, each with its own points of strength and weakness, he argued for dialogue among conflicting ideological perspectives in the Arab and Muslim worlds at the time. He specified four intellectual positions, acknowledging that within each there were sub-ideologies with their own differences: Arab nationalist, Islamist, leftist, and liberal.

He called for dialogue aimed at finding what is common among them and focusing on points of strength. For him, Islamists had a claim to authenticity and speaking a language comprehensible to ordinary citizens, while Arab nationalists enjoyed the experience of post-WWII popular support; leftists were, directly or indirectly, behind the major socio-economic transformations in the Arab and Muslim worlds for their quest for equity and justice, and finally liberals were the champions of the post-WWI liberal era, with all its achievements in the way of tolerance, pluralism and diversity, the golden age for human rights and individual liberties.

Hanafi’s idea was that, in order for it to be fruitful, positive and constructive, the dialogue among those positions should start without any prior conditions, restrictions or exclusions. This call, at the time, corresponded to attempts in the 1970s to introduce some forms of political and cultural pluralism and expand the margins of individual freedoms in several Arab countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, while other countries were already flourishing, whether in freedom of expression (Kuwait) or tolerating difference (Lebanon).

The third case in which Hanafi demonstrated his commitment to elaborating a culture of dialogue was the aftermath of the emergence of Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilisations” and conflict of cultures. In response to that thesis, Hanafi published a number of books, studies and articles, including the famous two volume Dialogue among Civilisations and Cultures.

He was at the forefront of the call to deny the logic of “threat” and “danger” put forward by the proponents of the confrontationist and conflictual thesis. He also tried to undermine the arguments for superiority of one culture over others, arguing for one human civilisation throughout history, where at each stage of  its development, a different culture had greater contributions, whether at the material or moral level, than others. 

His efforts in this respect, in addition to roles of other Arab, Muslim and even progressive Western thinkers at the time, contributed substantially to a relative retreat and recess in the expansion of the thesis of conflict and confrontation, whether in the West or elsewhere, including in some cases the Arab and Muslim world, which came as an antithesis to Huntington’s argument. Hanafi proposed a synthesis, calling for dialogue based on reason, balance, mutual understanding and respect for what is common and what is specific. The other component of such proposal was the rejection of all campaigns mobilising hatred of the other and of difference.

Such a legacy will continue to enrich Muslim, Arab, Egyptian and human thought for a long time to come.

* The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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