Marxism and Islam in Africa

Karl Marx can be useful to people fighting for social justice and who at the same time are deeply religious.

Divinity Mosque in Dakar. By BigMikeSndTech. Via Flickr CC.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Senegalese philosopher who is currently Professor in the Department’s of Philosophy, French and Romance Languages at Columbia University in New York. The interview forms part of a larger project to “both archive and to think the present in relation to the lineages and genealogies of critical thought in and about Africa.” The immediate context is debates about the decolonization of knowledge in the South African academy where Pillay is based at the University of the Western Cape and where Fernandes was on a postdoctoral fellowship at the same university. The idea is to make connections to earlier, similar debates in the colonized world. Diagne was an ideal candidate to kick off the series, according to Pillay and Fernandes. Diagne has taught in his native country (at the famed Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar) and the United States and did his higher education in France. Diagne’s field of research includes history of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.  His book Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (2011 Paris: Editions du CNRS) was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011.  In that same year he received the Edouard Glissant Prize. In the full interview, Diagne talks about his family history, his studies in France, debates amongst African philosophers over Marx and Marxism, Leopold Senghor and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), where Diagne had a front row seat to academic disputes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the excerpt below, Diagne revisits debates among African, including Muslim, philosophers over Karl Marx’s ideas about religion. The excerpt starts with Pillay asking Daigne about how he came to start the first Islamic philosophy course at Cheikh Anta Diop University. The full interview appears in the latest issue of Social Dynamics, which you can access here (for some, unfortunately, the full article will be behind a paywall)—Sean Jacobs.


Suren Pillay (SP)You were saying in the conversation the other day that the decision to offer the course that you designed on Islamic philosophy came out of a response to a particular situation?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne (SBD): I was hired in 1982 by University Cheikh Anta Diop; this was three years after the Iranian revolution, after which we started seeing women on campus wearing the hijab, or religious scarf and even one wearing the black, Iranian type chador. So Islam came onto the campus as some form of political statement about being Muslim. We thought it was our responsibility, as a department of philosophy in a predominantly Muslim country, to teach also the tradition of philosophy in Islam; to teach the history of philosophy in Islam; to teach this tradition of rationalism, skepticism, free thinking that was characteristic of Islamic philosophers. So that is how the decision was made, as a response.

SP: The existing canon would be more in the French tradition of philosophical thought?

SBD: Yes. You know, the history of philosophy has been Greek philosophy, medieval philosophy, mainly Christian, Latin Christian philosophy; not even the Greek parts, the Orthodox part, let alone the Islamic aspect of medieval philosophy or the Jewish tradition of medieval philosophy. Now, in France you have many historians of philosophy who are increasingly saying you cannot truly understand medieval philosophy if you do not re-constitute what the intellectual conversation was; the fact that these philosophers were in conversation with Muslim philosophers, Jewish philosophers and also if you do not take into account the other side of Christianity, which is Orthodox Christianity. Take the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example. Before he became St. Thomas, Aquinas was accused of heresy, and in the particular of being an Averroelist. Averroes was a Muslim philosopher whom Aquinas read and he read Aristotle through the commentaries of Averroes; so one should not be reading Thomas Aquinas without reading Averroes. This is a particular case in which you see how truncated our understanding of medieval philosophy is. But that reconstitution of the history of philosophy as a[n] exclusively European affair was really a fabrication of 19th century philosophy. Hegel, for example, considered that the history of philosophy and the history of the absolute spirit was an exclusively European affair starting with the Greek miracle; and it is convenient to call it a miracle because a miracle has no prior origin. It’s a miracle and then it went through Europe and it ended there, so it is really the destination of a particular continent and particular European humanity. We thought that we needed to go against that reconstitution of the history of philosophy, and as a philosophy department in a Muslim country make it more relevant. So in the same way that we had a teacher in African philosophy we decided to have a teacher in the history of Islam.

I was a product of the French system at its highest level. I followed the path that I had followed and, re-invented myself also as a specialist of Islamic philosophy and a philosopher of Islam. Given the circumstances, one has to take care of the religion, in Islam; the geopolitics today of Islam is such that if you are a Muslim intellectual, you have to say something about Islam. I had that aspect of my training, I still do. I’ve continued to write in the field of logic and the field of history of philosophy and so on, but I have more and more written in the field of Islamic philosophy and African philosophy, because those were the debates on the ground; those were the African debates; the African philosophy side. Islamic philosophy is still not really present, but that is something I think is important. I would like to see CODESRIA take religion more seriously, as a topic of study, because circumstances are such that religion has become important in Africa and elsewhere.

SP: And at the same time you’ve spoken about having a relationship or coming out of a certain kind of left tradition in Senegal, so I’m curious about what that relationship was to that political tradition?

SBD:  As a student I constituted myself as Maoist, although I never actually belonged to a political party. I was just a member of a union while I was in France and that union had that kind of political correlation and this is why Althusser was also very important for me. Althusser was a member of the French Communist party, although he was a dissident member obviously, but he influenced many generations of normalér.  I mean the École Normale Supérieure was known at one point as a location for extreme left thought; so my intellectual trajectory met that political trajectory as well. I was really part of that thinking, that Maoist approach.

SP: Was that a movement of any sort of scale in Senegal? I know East Africa had a Maoist movement of some scale, at least among university intellectuals.

SBD: There was quite a significant tradition of Maoists in Senegal. The events of 1968 were very important in Senegal, so my generation came after that. We were not veterans of 1968, we were too young to participate; but we sort of lived the consequences of 1968. So my heroes were the students who led the strikes, the movement, and it was easier for me because one of those heroes was my cousin, Alioune Sall Paloma. He actually lives in South Africa, where he is the head of the African Futures Institute, which was highly supported by Thabo Mbeki.

Paloma was a good friend of another Senegalese who was a normalér of École Normale, Omar Blondin Diop, and they were also good friends of the French leader of that 1968 movement. Their trajectory is interesting because both of them were well known in the Senegalese left in general were arrested in the early 1970s and put in jail. Omar Blondin Diop died in prison. So that was one of the tragedies of the extreme left and something that Senghor was very much blamed for; he was even accused, at one point, of having planned that, but that’s crazy. Senghor is known for having really wept when he heard that Omar had died. By the way, he was kicked out of France after 1968 by the French authorities, he was not French. Senghor used his friendship with Georges Pompidou to have the ban lifted so that Omar Blondin Diop could go back. He admired the fact that Omar Blondin Diop was a normalér at Saint-Cloud and so on, and a philosopher and so on, but that tragedy happened afterwards. Omar Blondin, by the way, is the young Senegalese student who appears in Jean Luc Godard’s movie, La Chinoise.

SP: That’s interesting.

SBD: Yeah, he is in that movie, he is the one who comes and explains a book on Marxism.

SP: Which is where I was going; the debate on Marxism that happens in that context, in that context of relevance as you put it. Whether teaching Islamic philosophy or African philosophy I’m curious how that debate unfolds in that moment for yourself and others.

SBD: Well, it is true that the Marxist left was not very keen on even African philosophy. The critique of ethno-philosophy was coming from the left and their idea was that this was not true philosophy, looking at African conceptions, religious conception, and so on; because the idea of philosophy was really about philosophy being class struggle in theory. Paulin Hountondji, who is a main philosopher against ethno-philosophy, says as much: “ok, what Tempels did and followers of Tempels wrote was not truly philosophy.” He was very Althusserian saying that. So, my interest in Senghor’s thought was already a break from that that position coming from orthodox Marxism about what philosophy is and what philosophy should be. The weapons of criticism would be what philosophy is about, and not this exploration of African philosophy let alone Islamic philosophy because that was idealism, was religion, spirituality and not philosophy at all. You can find that kind of very strong position in Cameroonian philosopher Marcien Towa, who is the ultimate orthodox Marxist; who thinks that anything having to do with religion cannot be philosophy. You had this very narrow understanding of philosophy as following Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. Philosophers have until now interpreted the world, the point is to transform it. So everything in philosophy that leads to that transformation is real, “true philosophy.” So, we all had that conception at one point and I, having started working in the field in which I was working, had departed from that. And when it comes to religion, even when I considered myself a Maoist, a Marxist, I have never actually been materialist in the sense of being atheist. Islam has always been somehow my interiority, coming from the background that I did. I’ve never departed from religion at all.

SP:  I know you place some importance now on the distinction between the young Marx and later Marx, and how that enables thinking the two together without a rigid line?

SBD: Exactly! Exactly!

SP: Was that present there, did you have that conception at that time?

SBD: At that time I did not have that conception, I was not trying to reconcile actually my spiritual traditions, the spiritual traditions I really felt that I had, and my political commitment; but I could understand how this were the case for someone like Senghor, for example, and it has become the case for me as well. Senghor thought that the early Marx was really a Marx that spoke to a Catholic like him, being a Socialist; and alienation having this precise meaning, about estrangement – where human feeling is estranged from his own humanity, from his fellow humans and from his own work. “Work” is sucking his blood instead of being the fullest expression of his humanity. That way of thinking in Marx was something that spoke to a spiritual man such as Senghor and it explains, why in the French tradition – and, I believe, in the European tradition in general of Christians, for leftist Christians – that Marx also was important. It is interesting to see how many priests on the left in France had written on Marxist humanism, following the rediscovery of those early writings of Marx that spoke to them more than Capital would speak to them. Senghor belonged to that tradition. He wrote a very important essay entitled “Marxism and Humanism” in 1948 after World War Two. In it he looks at that Marx and feels “ok, this is the true Marx, the Marx who is more positivist, more scientific so to say, has been betrayed, this true Marx,” and he believed that whatever Marx had said about religion actually could be considered a religious reaction or a spiritual reaction to what religion had become. So, he considered that this was a criticism that should be made against a kind of petrified religion that had forgotten the social message of religion. So that Marx could be used by people who felt that they were fighting for social justice, and at the same time were deeply religious. Something akin to Liberation Theology; Senghor might not have really used the expression, but he was very much in that movement of Liberation Theology.

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