First Published: 2017-05-09

Tunisian Islamic scholar Mohamed Talbi, a fierce opponent of fundamentalism
Mohamed Talbi was 'pillar of intellectual activity' in Tunisia who wrote 30 books, published hundreds of articles in Arabic and French.
Middle East Online

Free thinker. File photo shows Tunisian writer and intellectual Mohamed Talbi speaking during a news conference in Tunis.

TUNIS - Mohamed Talbi, known for his staunch op­position to political Islam and religious obscurantism and as a prolific writer whose ideas often be­came the centre of controversy, has died in Tunis at the age of 95.

The Tunisian Ministry of Culture called Talbi, who died May 1, “one of the pillars of intellectual activity in Tunisia” and said that he “belonged to the founding generation of the modern Tunisian university.”

“For six decades, the late Mo­hamed Talbi wrote no less than 30 books, a testament to his academic career and intellectual prolificacy,” the ministry said.

Throughout his career, Talbi ar­gued that more emphasis should be put on the intended meaning of the Quranic text rather than laws and strictures that he argued were spe­cific to certain historical periods.

During a 2015 conference, Talbi explained that a reader of the Quran “must pay attention to the intended meanings of the Holy Book and the aims of sharia rather than the lit­eral rulings therein.” This allows the reader to make judgments about the meaning of the text, he said, thereby “[exercising] his right to understand and interpret.”

Having established the right to en­gage in free enquiry in Islam, Talbi assailed the theories and ideas of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of holy violence in the Islamic movement of the 20th century. Talbi argued that Qutb had done great damage to Islam by meshing the Quran with a mode of thought that produced terrorism. By “separating faith and religion,” Talbi said, Qutb created an intellectual crisis, leading his fol­lowers into transgression.

Talbi said Qutb “had completely stripped Islam of its spiritual and social dimensions and turned it into a politico-religious instrument, de­tached from people’s convictions and imposed on them,” for the purpose of laying the foundations of what Talbi termed “a religious state… a state of darkness.”

Talbi said that any modernist pro­ject in the Muslim world must begin by revising and reviewing religious thought. Muslim thinkers “must frankly face their heritage and past. There were errors made in our his­tory and we have to expose them before moving on,” Talbi said.

Deeply religious, Talbi waged a fierce battle against extremism and what he considered antiquated Is­lamic ideas for more than half a century. He exercised an innova­tive approach, having the courage to question postulates and offer daring ideas.

In an interview with French news­paper Le Monde in 2006, Talbi said sharia was a “human production” and “has nothing to do” necessarily with Islam. He argued that “religion, any religion cannot be imposed or forced on people.” “I will never tire of repeating that Islam gives us free­dom,” he added.

In a more recent interview with weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, Talbi pointed out that “the Quran was the only [holy text] that in­cludes the very clear and very secu­lar expression: There is no compul­sion in religion.”

Talbi was a fierce opponent of Salafist thought, referring to it as “anti-Islamic.” He opposed and warned against “the threat of Is­lamophobia nourished by some Christian tendencies.” In the Jeune Afrique interview, he said: “These people think that Prophet Moham­mad brought only bad and inhuman things.”

Talbi was born in 1921 in Tunis and studied at the well-known Sadi­ki College in Tunis. He received his bachelor’s of arts in Arabic and stud­ied at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he completed a doctor­ate in history.

Talbi is known as one of the found­ers of the modern Tunisian universi­ty and served as the first dean of the Faculty of Letters in 1955. During the 1980s, he was appointed head of the National Cultural Committee and was director of Beit al-Hikma at Carthage in 2011.

Talbi, who described himself as a “Quranic Muslim”, in 2012 founded the International Association of Quranic Muslims.

Talbi wrote 30 books and pub­lished hundreds of articles in Arabic and French. He received numerous awards, including many cultural and honorary honours from Tuni­sia, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden.

Among his best-known works in Arabic are: “Iyal Allah” (1992), “Um­mat al-Wasat” (1996), “Murafa’a min ajli Islamin Mu’asir” (1998), “Al-Islam: Hurriyatun wa Hiwar” (1999), “Kawniyat al-Quran” (2002), “Li Yatma’inna Qalbi” (2010), and “Al-hurriyatu dini” (2011).

 

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