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).