Raised in Damascus, and having spent most of his life in Germany, Bassam Tibi is a leading expert in radical Islam, sharia law, and Muslim intellectual history more broadly. He is also a passionate critic of Islamism, and an advocate for enlightened Islam rooted in the ideas of the great Muslim philosophers of yore. Although brought up—by his own admission—to be an anti-Semite, Tibi credits Jewish thinkers such as Ernst Bloch not only with his discarding of this prejudice, but with his current ideas about his own religion. Ed Husain writes:
Ernst Bloch anchored Tibi’s thinking in Islamic rationalism. Bloch wrote about Ibn Sina [a/k/a Avicenna]—born in the Samanid Empire in around 980, the golden age of Muslim civilization—who had plenty to say about human equality and the intertwining of Arabic and western thought.
“Bloch says the [European] Enlightenment started in medieval Islam,” Tibi tells me. Tibi makes an important distinction between “mufti Islam,” the world of the fatwa-givers (a type of Islam that’s on the rise in Britain too), and the world of Enlightenment Islam, highlighted by Bloch. The mufti world of Islam is “leading Muslims backwards,” Tibi says. He seeks to explain, revive, and promote the Islam of early Enlightenment—the “Islam of Light.”
I ask him when he first noticed that something was going wrong in the Muslim world. “It started with the Six-Day War,” he says. Israel’s victory was a massive humiliation for the secular Arab regimes in the eyes of their citizens, especially when Israel gained the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. At the time, Tibi hoped that the response to this would be a new Arab Enlightenment. Instead, religious extremists rose to positions of power.
Using the language of medieval Muslim rationalists from al-Farabi to Ibn Rushd, famous in the Latin West as Averroes, Tibi defines Islam of the Enlightenment as advocating the primacy of reason. He also takes a definition of Enlightenment from Kant: that reason is the court in front of which everything must establish itself. But Ibn Rushd made this point in the 12th century, he says.