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Ibn Rushd-Prize for Freedom of Thought is presented to Mohammed Arkoun
Orient and Occident – the Forgotten Kinship
This Year’s Ibn Rushd-Prize for Freedom of Thought is presented to Mohammed
Arkoun, Algerian-born philosopher searching for a way to a peaceful co-existence of
cultures and religions and who has rendered outstanding services to societies in the
Arab world by searching for a genuinely Arab approach to reason and enlightenment.
Only weeks after Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for her courageous
struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran, Mr Arkoun will be presented the Ibn Rushd-Prize for
his vision of reforming the Islamic world by a thorough re-interpretation of the history of
Religion in the Islamic world. An independent jury, consisting of five prominent Arab
intellectuals, elected the emeritus professor of the Sorbonne University at Paris Mohammed
Arkoun to receive this year’s award.
The IBN RUSHD Prize for Freedom of Thought will be presented for the fifth time on
December 6th , 2003. In the Spirit of its namegiver, the philosopher and mediater between the
cultures Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198, aka Averroes), the non-governmental organization IBN
RUSHD Fund Fund for Freedom of Thought dedicates itself to supporting the right to
freedom of speech and democracy in the Arab world. This year’s prize called for an
independent philosopher who has rendered outstanding services to societies in the Arab
world by seeking for a genuinely Arab approach to reason and enlightenment.
Mohammed Arkoun, one of the most prominent modern philosophers in the Arab world and an advisor
to academic and political personalities and institutions, is explicitly opposed to the thesis of the ‘clash of
civilisations’ that has been made to look so inevitable. His approach is to show similarities between the
Islam and the West rather than magnifying the differences and demonising the ‘Other’, as is
unfortunately the prevailing attitude at present. For Arkoun, both of the two imaginary poles “Islam” and
the “West” construct the other culture as the enemy.
Arkoun stands for a dialogue between the cultures, his comparative approach to religions and cultures
make him a modern-time Ibn Rushd :
In his works, he scrutinises the cultures’ common past and their present mutual disapproval and
condemnation that result mostly from what he calls “institutionalised ignorance” that spread at an
unprecedented scale especially during the last 50 years.
He reproaches the West for the image it has created of Islamic cultures that they deem as remaining in
medieval times. The emeritus professor for Islamic history and culture points out that Bagdad was the
most modern city of the world in times when witches burnt in Europe. There, the holy inquisition raged,
while Islamic societies had a concept of humanism. Libraries and universities were founded; Arab
scientists were the ones who preserved the mental heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity by
translating Greek philosophers and scientists. This heritage is completely absent from Western minds
and even neglected in Western sciences.
Mohammed Arkoun’s main focus, however, is on Islamic cultures. He criticises them for being unable or
unwilling to create an accomodation between Islamic ideas and scientific and intellectual modernity. He
calls for radically rethinking the concept of ‘Islam’, to put an end to so many arbitrary ideological and
even phantasmagoric manipulations by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Arkoun holds a more discriminating position about the current assertion that Islam never knew the
separation between state and religion. He regrets that this intellectual project inaugurated and so
strongly advocated by Ibn Rushd was completely abandoned after his death in 1198 by the successive
generations in all Islamic contexts until the second half of the 20th century.
He favours the French concept of laicité as the most appropriate system to solve the problems related
to authority and power, spiritual and secular spheres of human needs and activities. Laicité protects
religious freedom as the modern expression of the freedom of each individual’s consciousness. For
Arkoun, laicité therefore cannot be represented as an ideology aiming at the negation of religion as a
spiritual and ethical way of education for human beings; it does mean, however, limiting the theologians’
direct influence on society.
Arkoun’s provocative thesis is that Islamic society has never had and desperately needs its own
renaissance to revolutionise the “closed official corpus” that Islam has become especially in the last 40
Mr Arkoun will accept the award personally on December 6 , 2003 at 11:00 a.m. in the Goethe Institut,
Neue Schönhauser Str. 20 in Berlin-Mitte. There will be a press conference after the ceremony of
presenting the award; the reception concluding the presentation will leave room for personal discussion.
Mohammed Arkoun is the editor of the journal Arabica: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies founded at
the Sorbonne in 1953 and published by Brill.
He produced an extensive body of scientific works, such as L’humanisme Arabe au 4e-10e Siècle
(1970, 1982), La Pensée Arabe (6e edition 2003), Lectures du Coran (1982), Critique de la Raison
islamique (1984), L’islam. Approche Critique (1989), The Unthought in contemporary Islamic Thought
(2002); De Manhattan à Bagdad: Au-delà du Bien et du Mal (2003).

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