Malik Bennabi (1905-1973), the noted Algerian thinker, was born in Constantine, Algeria in the midst of the French occupation of his country. Despite his education in French institutions both at home and in France itself, he was considered a second-class citizen, an indigene. During his formative years, he lived in the antithetical worlds of East-West, Africa-Europe, and Islam-Christianity. Nevertheless, Bennabi remained immune to the inferiority complex afflicting most of his Western-educated Muslim contemporaries. Although he may have suffered from what some scholars call “cultural schizophrenia,” Bennabi strongly identified with Islam, its culture, and its history. His childhood education in Arabic and the Qur‘an was an important reserve which he developed and drew upon at later age?
The diversity of the social, economic, and political conditions of his people, “the colonized: and that of the French, “the colonizers,” motivated and sharpened his intellectual ability. In the late forties, when he wrote Les Conditions de la Renaissance (translated into Arabic under the title of Shurut An Nahdah), Bennabi reached the conclusion that “the problem of any people is that of its civilization.”
Unlike other Arab and Muslim intellectuals and writers, Bennabi did not use expressions such as taraqqi (advancement), taqqadum (development), or nahdah (renaissance). Rather, he consciously and carefully selected the term hadarah (civilization) to indicate his broad historical concept of the social phenomenon of human life. All of his books, therefore, including his autobiography, Mudhakkirat Shahid al Qarn z (Memories of Century’s Witness), and Al Zahirah al Qur’aniyah (The Qur’anic Phenomenon), bear the subtitle Mushkilat al Hadarah (The Problems of Civilization).
Bennabi’s training as an engineer made him aware of the necessity of defining his concepts, generally done through the methods of analysis and synthesis. It was this approach that caused him to declare: “Civilization is the sum of those moral and material means which enable a society to provide each of its members with all of the social services needed for them to progress.”Thus, he views civilization as not merely a matter of economic progress, but rather as the product of dynamic, concrete elements, the first of which is the moral element.
Unlike Ibn Khaldun, Bennabi did not adopt the concept of tribal cohesion (asabiyah) as the means of material and nonmaterial progress. To Bennabi, religion was a prerequisite to the rise of any civilization, for he viewed it as the “compound” which gives man the time, the soil, and the spark to start a cycle of civilization. He considered the principles of current Western civilization to be based on Christian ethics and morals. Despite the fact that Christianity developed long before Islam, he pointed out that the civilization of Islam flourished long before that of Christianity. Civilization, Bennabi concluded, is born twice: “first when the religious idea is born, and second when the idea becomes recorded in souls and is entered into the events of history.”‘ Islamic civilization, on the other hand, had “both births” at once, Bennabi suggested.