Abdulkhaliq Hussein

It is a great sadness to report that on January 14th 2014, following a long illness, one of the pivotal Arab liberal thinkers, our great friend Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi, passed away in the United States. Indeed he was the foremost representative of Arab liberal thinkers and, at the age of 72, was still at the peak of his powers of intellect and enlightenment. Our late friend was a shining star at intellectual conferences and symposia convened across all five continents for the purpose of promoting modernity and liberal thought, and countering ignorance and backwardness in the Arab world.

Al-Nabulsi devoted his life to political, religious and social reform in the Arab world

He was deeply moved by a concern for all Arabs without exception, he felt the wounds deep in his heart and they weighed heavily upon him. He used to carry at all times a small bag of medicines wherever he travelled and since, as the saying goes “no prophet is welcome in his own land,” al-Nabulsi found himself forced to quit his native country Jordan out of fear for his life. He subsequently installed himself in Colorado, America with his noble family, honoured and respected in the land of the ‘infidel.’ There, once having escaped the pack of wolves persecuting him, he reactivated his enlightenment mission by publishing – despite his health problems – more than 60 books, some thousands of articles and studies in Arab newspapers and websites, in addition to attending many conferences and symposia, and appearing in dozens of television broadcasts.

Al-Nabulsi devoted his life to political, religious and social reform in the Arab world, to Islamic affairs, and also to research as a liberal in Arab thought. He may be classed as one of the ‘new liberals’ in the Arab world. While some saw fit to describe his thinking as ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’, he was none of these things. He was, instead, a paragon of moderation and actively opposed many writers who violently criticised Islam or offended against the opinions of believers, seeking to convince them that such a policy would only result in believers becoming more entrenched and fanatical – which would only serve the interests of the Islamist extremists. He remained optimistic about the future of the Arabs, and even about the situation in Saudi Arabia. During many of our telephone conversations he would reassure me that the Saudi regime was making strides towards modernisation, albeit gradual ones that avoided provoking violent paroxysms and strong reactions from backward-looking forces such as, par excellence, the Wahhabi shaykhs.

He is one of the four prominent thinkers who presented a petition to the United Nations calling for the prosecution of any religious cleric issuing a fatwa demanding the killing of Arab intellectuals on the basis of supporting ideas that differed from their own.

He was deeply moved by a concern for all Arabs without exception

What distinguishes al-Nabulsi’s thought most is its optimistic view on the prospects for secularism in the Arab world. He saw its triumph as an inevitability, writing on his Wikipedia page: “We imagine that over the 21st-century the mutual contest between the two wings, between those who call for a religious state and those who call for a secular state, will go on. But we are sure that the secular current is the one that will prevail in the end. And this for the following reasons:

  • The abolition in most Arab countries of the Sharīʻa courts and the institution of civil courts operating with positive law. In some states the Sharīʻa courts have remained, but their powers have been clipped so that they are confined to issues that bear relation to religious faith such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and bequests;
  • The annulment of Sharīʻa hadd punishments, such as stoning, flagellation, chastisement and decapitation in most Arab countries and their replacement with objective, civil penalties;
  • The end of the Ottoman era which was symbolic of the religious state;
  • The end of Western colonialism which provided the excuse for hostility to the secular state;
  • The fall of the Soviet Union and its disappearance from the global political map to leave America – along with the secular West – sole leader of the world over which it wields its political, scientific and economic influence;
  • America's opposition to the religious state –  its combating and expulsion of Islamist groups in the Middle East and Far East has strengthened the secular current in the Arab world and will lend more and more strength over the course of the 21st-century to those who support it, and will encourage the modern Arab state to further applications of secularism.

As a prodigious researcher, al-Nabulsi specialised in Arab history pre-dating and post-dating the coming of Islam, and in this context he deplored the fate of pre-Islamic historical sources that have been consigned to deliberate neglect. Al-Nabulsi saw how these were subject to abuse and oppression on the grounds that Islam was engaging in a process of obscuring this history and casting a veil over it. In this respect he noted that:

Al-Nabulsi was a reformer in every sense of the word

One of the difficulties that the researcher faces in this field is the problem of the well-nigh total blackout of pre-Islamic history carried out on the grounds that ‘Islam annuls all that precedes it’– that is, that Islam cancels out everything that went before it, so that all we have left is some pre-Islamic poetry and the sporadic tales of some storytellers. This is what happens when there is a conflict of ideologies in history: whenever a new ideology arrives on the scene it cancels out that which was there before it, writing it off as so much ignorance, backwardness and decay, and claiming centre stage for itself alone. Everything which precedes it is therefore ‘ignorance and folly, silliness and stupidity’, hailing from extinct ages and vanished times.

A few months ago we lost a standard-bearer among liberals, Lafif Lakhdar, and before him Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Mohamed Arkoun. Today we have lost another lofty marker, Shaker al-Nabulsi, and there is no doubt that his passing is a great, irreplaceable loss to the Arabs – above all to us liberal reformers. But their thoughts nonetheless remain to light the way for the next and future generations.

There is no doubt that his passing is a great, irreplaceable loss to the Arabs

Al-Nabulsi was a reformer in every sense of the word: he was not content merely to publish thoughts in defence of enlightenment and of democracy, of freedom and the freedom of expression as a matter of theory, but actively campaigned in defence of ethnic and religious minorities suffering oppression in the Middle East and North Africa region. In order to translate this into action, he attended many conferences organised by our Copt brothers (of the United Copts organisation) under the direction of the late campaigner Eng. Adli Abadir Yusuf. I was privileged to attend two of their conferences, the first in Washington in 2005 where I first had the honour of meeting our dear friend al-Nabulsi – despite the fact that we were both familiar with each other's views from reading our respective articles. From then our friendship became firmly established.

As luck would have it I then met our friend in March 2007 when I was privileged to attend a conference in Zurich on minorities in the Middle East, again convened by the United Copts organisation under Adli Abadir Yusuf, and during which I delivered a paper entitled The Ordeal of Minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. The conference went on to launch the organisation The Defence of the Rights of Minorities and of Women in the Middle East and North Africa under the direction of the late Dr. al-Nabulsi, who also attended a conference on Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan where he met the leader and president of the Iraqi Kurds Jalal Talebani.

We subsequently met for a third time at the Rome Conference on Reform organised by the Almuslih foundation under the directorship of the academic Stephen Ulph in December 2012.

There is no doubt that the passing of Dr al-Nabulsi is a great loss to the liberal reformist movement, to us is readers, admirers and colleagues, and to me personally as a close friend. I shall miss him greatly for all our frequent lengthy discussions and exchanges of views over the telephone, for the pleasure of his interesting and informative anecdotes and for the joy of hearing his deep laughter. On this sad occasion we offer our deepest condolences to his noble family and all those dear to him. We hope they may bear his loss and find comfort in the memory of our dear friend.