A tribute to Sadek Jalal al ‘Azm

Engaging with Sadek never ceased to be a delight, a charmer who caught you with his sharpness and wit. How often have I wished to freeze that year I spent in Holland. In memoriam.

Mona Abaza
23 December 2016

An exceptional man has just left us this week after prolonged suffering. He left us in a moment when Aleppo is witnessing the most vicious human disaster, while the “civilized” modern world remains silently gazing, obsessed only with erecting walls and consolidating borders.  

He left us in the midst of a decomposing, disoriented, and absurd Arab World, about which he has been soothsaying for several decades. A myriad of his predictions, or possibly his nightmares, which he prophesied with a startling clarity, have turned into a bleak daily reality. Sadek Jalal al-‘Azm has left us without being able to realize his dream of a more humane and dignified life in our part of the world. Perhaps, too, Sadek could not take it any more; the inferno of this impossible war in his home country, Syria, has reached a climax. Perhaps, too, his last station in Berlin, as an intellectual in exile, was a blessing in disguise.

I am certain that countless obituaries will be written about Sadek Jalal al-‘Azm’s life and his invaluable humanist worldview, which touched not only the Arab world but the larger cosmopolitan milieux in which he moved with elegance. Sadek was a visionary whose unique way of writing, his courageous political and progressive stands, the cause célèbre he became after the publication of his famed book “Critique of Religious Thought,” [1] in which he criticized the instrumentalisation of religion for political and material ends; his acknowledging of first and foremost an internal defeat, a defeat of a mindset as significant as any military one, will all be evoked time and again, remembered and valued in the years to come.

And rightly so. Sadek was among the first Arab intellectuals to point out the fact that we are suffering today from two major dopplegängers: religious terrorism/ fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the promoters of the ideology of the “war on terror,” on the other. These are two opposite poles that function as mirror images that need to feed on each other. [2] His thoughtful observations on Islamic fundamentalism culminated into three thick volumes recently published as: “ Secularism, Fundamentalism, And the Struggle For the Meaning of Islam[3]  Like his unique courage in defending Salman Roushdie, [4] when no one dared to do so in our part of the world, Sadek’s stand on the issue of terrorism will never be forgotten or forgiven by his enemies. Sadek´s disagreement with Edward Said, when the question of Orientalism had earned Said worldwide sympathy and fame, took similar courage; Sadek did not hesitate to become the devil’s advocate vis-à-vis his friend. Sadek once told me that, by critiquing Said’s Orientalism, he was seeking genuine dialogue. Above all he was eager to foster self-critique in the face of the internal contradictions inherent in the Arab world. Most of all, he was concerned with the problem of essentializing ‘the West’ and how such a posture, when adopted by the Muslims themselves, resulted in even tighter entrapment in a colonial discourse. He definitely had a point regarding the long-term effect of  “Orientalism in reverse. ” Sadek´s critique of Said first appeared in the academic journal of Khamsin. [5] But I don’t want to write an obituary about Sadek’s intellectual influence, which is so obvious and which earned him many prizes and honors. Instead, I wish to write a few lines about the man and the friend we have lost.

The man and the friend

I cannot recall exactly when I met Sadek for the first time, but it must have been in the mid-nineties at a conference in Berlin. I will never forget the first time I saw him after he gave a public lecture in a large audience. He was a charismatic magnet whose large entourage of admirers, present in the audience, all fell under his spell. How could they not have resisted his charismatic appearance? This general appeal did not deter him from giving equal attention to each interlocutor who approached him, by carefully listening and engaging with them.

 I met Sadek again during the year I spent at the Wissenschaftkolleg in Berlin in 1996/97, as he often visited the city to give talks. I also met him in Beirut when he still had a flat not far away from AUB. Engaging with Sadek never ceased to be a delight. He was a charmer who caught you with his sharpness and wit. He truly convinced the jam-packed audiences of his point of view by explaining highly complex philosophical concepts in such a clear way. He respected his public. He was a brilliant and dialectical orator whom you would not have wanted to have as an enemy.

I was most fortunate to be invited for a year to the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) in Wassenaar, Holland as scholar in residence in 2006–2007, the same year that Sadek and Eman, his wife, were invited too. Sadek was invited as a distinguished emeritus professor, a guest of the rector, who very quickly became the epicentre for the group of scholars in residence. Eman and Sadek resided in the special small villa of the headquarters of the NIAS Centre in Wassenaar.

Eman’s exquisite cuisine and generosity took the form of countless banquets and dinners for their circle of friends, which enlarged by the day. There was something magical about the space of the Institute in Wassenaar: located some four or five kilometres from the seaside, with woods surrounded by sand near the sea –  spectacular landscapes with changing colors all year round. The magnificent park of the NIAS, the large number of free bikes, and the frequent strolls to the sea were certainly inspiring elements for the residents. But most of all, the then rector of the NIAS, the medievalist Wim Blockmans, turned our residence into a paradise.

The NIAS was an idyllic combination of pleasurable work and intense exchanges of dreams, imaginaries, and ideas. Any book that one wanted could be obtained. We exchanged readings, music, and gifts in the pleasant socializing of communal cooking, eating, and partying. Eman and Sadek transformed the lives of many residents through their generosity and their hospitality.

Above all, Sadek’s modesty was striking.  The al-‘Azms maintained an open house in their little maisonette.  What made the institute so special was that each resident could opt for either privacy and retreat, or for socializing within this tiny and, in a way, artificially created intellectual community. It was hard not to be tempted to visit Eman and Sadek on a daily basis, for their warmth was what kept many of us going to their house during the long, dark, rainy days. And Sadek was always there for discussion, always ready to engage, with simple words to explain quite complex realities. He mesmerized us all with his erudite philosophical training and his ease in transmitting ideas. Sadek was an avid reader. He had an amazing curiosity and openness to the world, which kept him physically and mentally young. Sadek in Wassenaar will remain in my memory as a good-looking, youthful gentleman, even though he was in his early seventies, quite content with his life even though he was already in exile, forbidden to return to Syria. Sadek read every paper, article, and book that I gave him or that we spoke about in conversations. He engaged with the works of so many colleagues. He had a remarkable talent for listening carefully to everyone.

Wim Blockmans and his late wife, Anne, somehow adopted me and the al-‘Azms.  They volunteered to take us to the most romantic and wonderful places of the region. How often Anne and Wim invited us to the best restaurants and the wonderful beaches of Holland! I recall the five of us attending numerous public events and lectures. These were merry and joyful moments, with bursts of laughter and great humor. There was a lightness of being; we all knew that it was an ephemeral situation, yet we became friends for life. The intellectual encounters with the other fellows offered an incredible intellectual richness.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, another noble and generous scholar who was my intellectual mentor when I spent the years of 2001–2002 in Leiden, often came   to visit Eman and Sadek in Wassenaar. Nasr was another intellectual magnet, whose office in Leiden was constantly crowded with his murids, his beloved friends, not to mention the endless passing journalists and countless visitors. Nasr’s humor and allure were unbeatable. This sometimes complicated our lives, as we were glued to his office, hardly wanting to depart or leave him in peace. When once you experienced a gathering in Nasr’s office, you quickly became an addict. We adored spending long hours in his office. We simply adored him. We loved the laughing, gossiping, and confessions, and discussing very serious matters with him. Don’t think we did not work, because we did. Nasr was a generous scholar with his time and knowledge.

When Nasr and Sadek met in Wassenaar, it was a treasured moment for me.  How often have I wished to freeze that year I spent in Holland. When these two good old friends got together, a magical spark was in the air.  I clearly recall the warmth and joy that emerged from the avalanches of jokes, the brilliant analyses of the political situation, and the deep thoughts and impressions exchanged about manuscripts and the most recent books worth reading. All this was accompanied by the succulent cuisine of Eman and the great company of the guests. What moved me most at that time was the warmth and affection you could feel between these two men. [6]It was a kind of elective affinity between two fine and sensitive free spirits. Both men were obsessed with ideas and ideals. They shared a common fate. They were eternal wanderers in permanent exile.

When Eman and Sadek moved to Amsterdam during that year, they invited me to stay overnight at their tiny flat. I then realized how rigorous Sadek was with his time. He was a night owl who loved late-night conversations, and an avid reader of newspapers. He followed political events more closely than anyone else I know. I was so fortunate to stay with Eman and Sadek as they taught me to find the balance in the intricate combination of conviviality, the love of life, and intellectual rigor. Above all, they cared about genuine friendship. As they moved to Berlin, the al-‘Azm maintained a lively intellectual salon. Their small flat near the Stuttgarter Platz was always open for their large circle of friends.

Nasr departed earlier, leaving behind him an Egypt with a severe intellectual and political void. I have not come to term yet with Nasr’s death. I feel that if I were to return to Leiden without visiting his office, I would be plunged into a terrible sense of loss. I miss Nasr’s warmth and generosity. And now Sadek is no longer here, either—another “grand seigneur” whose courage and clairvoyance have marked me for life, as they have for all the generations that experienced the depression of the 1967 defeat.  Sadek was one of the last fearless fighters for truth and justice. I already miss him dreadfully. May he rest in peace.

[1] Which first appeared in Arabic as Nakd al-Fikr al Diini in 1969.  Dar al-Taliah Beirut,

[2] See "Islamic Fundamentalism Reconsidered: A Critical Outline of Problems, Ideas and Approaches." South Asia Bulletin, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East Part 1:13:93-121 1993, 1994

[3] Gerlach Press, Berlin, 2013

[4] "The Importance of Being Earnest About Salman Rushdie." Die Welt Des Islams 31:1, 1-49. 1991, Reprinted in D.M. Fletcher, Ed. Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994.

[5] First appeared in Khamsin ,"Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse." 1981, No.8: 5-26.

[6] See Sadik Jalal al Azm Obituary of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd “Farewell to Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd, Master of critical thought” posted 15 August 2010, (http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000021294)

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