Home Thinkers Series Exploring the ideas of Malek Bennabi – A Modern Islamic Social Thinker

Exploring the ideas of Malek Bennabi – A Modern Islamic Social Thinker

Bennabi points out that while the Muslims have been a superior community in the world once upon a time, however, they have begun to live the years of retrocession which is a result of Muslims themselves, not Islam. He sought the reasons for the problems and the solutions for them in his theory of civilisation.


Malek Bennabi was born in Constantine, Algeria in 1905 and died at his home in Algeria in 1973. He was one of the most influential scholars, thinkers, writers, and social philosophers of post-World War II in Algeria. Bennabi who especially came into prominence in the field of history, philosophy, and sociology studied the faculty of Engineering in Paris and Algeria. Bennabi whose writings were published in newspapers, journals, and as a book had especially been influential in Algeria during the 1940s and among the French-educated fundamentalists who took part in the University of Algeria in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bennabi’s main focus of interest revolved around the reasons for the decadence of the Muslim community and their solutions. In his work, he emphasized the individual aspects and the social functions of religion. His work was deeply influenced by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) he has contributed in the area of history, sociology, and theory of civilisation. In his work, Bennabi points out that while the Muslims have been a superior community in the world once upon a time, however, they have begun to live the years of retrocession which is a result of Muslims themselves, not Islam. He sought the reasons for the problems and the solutions for them in his theory of civilisation. 

The following were some of the questions that Bennabi attempted to, why did the Muslim world begin to decline? What is the theory of civilisation? And what could be the solutions for accomplishing the modern problems of the Muslim world?

Bennabi on Colonisibility and Colonialism  

As mentioned Bennabi’s major contribution is the concept of civilisation. As he dabbled around the civilisational idea, he dealt with the idea as two notions. One of them is colonisibility (to be able to be colonized), and the other is colonialism itself. He dealt with these two concepts in the context of the reasons for the decadence of Muslim society. 

The first category, Colonisibility, consists of internal factors which arouse from the Muslim world them. As for the second category that is colonialism, consisted of external factors which was a result of internal factor, and imposed upon the Muslim world. 

The Internal factors consisted of ethics, society, education, economy, and politics. Whereas the External factors consisted of deviation, humiliation, and destruction. Bennabi noted as the Muslim world attempted to settle in the conditions of the new life and tried to adapt the Western values and social life to their communities without any criteria, or criticism. Both the values and the unusual lifestyle led to moral and social bankruptcy as it was not suitable for their own society. This Moral depression brought about an intellectual paralysis, which eventually led to the community’s failure in thinking and acting and a shift could be noted where importance to the image rather than essence and values were given. 

Bennabi pointed out the situation of education, economy, and the inferiority complex in Algeria within three sentences a) We cannot do anything, because we are ignorant b) we cannot realize that, because we are poor c) we cannot undertake this work, because of colonialism. He strongly felt that education must be socially effective and defined illiteracy as not being useful to the community. He further problematized saying if an educated man is useless, then it is much more dangerous than illiteracy. Furthermore, he problematized the myth of poverty as a dangerous factor along with ignorance. He pointed out that the money should encourage – aid culture. The duty is not to collect money and become rich on the contrary, to use it dynamically and fund it for the benefit of individuals and for the community.

An additional internal problem that Bennabi stated was the politics in the Muslim world. The political mythology he felt struggled in the loop by merely condemning colonialism instead of awakening the Muslim perception that it is necessary to act rather than just speak and also it is important to be better rather than just appear better. Also, the community did not seem to put any effort to convert efficiently its condition from colonosibility to an active synthesis of thought and action.

 With respect to the external factors of colonialism, Bennabi attempts to explain the philosophy of colonialism as the colonizers whenever they enter a country, they corrupt it and turn the honourable people into the most abject or hopeless ones. The Muslim world seems to have been waiting for the West in an inactive form as if they were dead, the West had come to make them forget their past, present, and future. Bennabi explains that colonialism is a methodical activity that aims at installing a system that will destroy all moral, cultural, social, and political values in a country. Therefore, for Bennabi, the main reason for the decadence of the Muslim world had become colonisibility which is primarily from Muslims themselves, and also it had helped the colonial policy of the West. 

Bennabi on civilisation and Religion 

It is interesting that Bennabi notes that every civilisation, starts from a religious drive that pushed the society to begin the civilizing process. In fact, in Bennabi’s opinion, religion is naturally inscribed in the origin of all human transformations. He believes all contemporary civilisations (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, etc) formulated the original dynamic synthesis of man, soil, and time in the cradle of a religious idea. Civilisation does not begin without the emergence of a religious idea in its broadest sense. Therefore, according to Benabbi in any civilisation we have to search for the religious foundations that made it rise. It is not too much to claim that we could find in Buddhism the seeds of Buddhist civilisation and in Brahma the seeds of Brahman civilisation. Civilisation cannot appear in a given society except in the form of revelation (in its broadest sense) which is revealed in order to formulate legislation and a method for people. However, the religious idea does not play a social role in the formation and development of social reality, only if it is sticking to its metaphysical value. That is if it is only reflecting our view beyond earthly matters.

By Religion Bennabi means all religions, quasi-religions, and ideologies. He felt religion which evokes any kind of relationship between a Human being and a power of divine or social nature. Any idea that formulates such a commitment and relation among the members of society, and that directs people in a direction. In other words, it could be said Bennabi has taken a broader meaning of religion as a long-term social project. For constructing a society where the first generation takes the first step, and other generations will continue the project. 

However, he does say that there is a difference between religions in their originality and method. Bennabi sees religion as part of the cosmic order. He says “in the light of the Qur’an, religion appears as a cosmic phenomenon, regulating human’s thought and civilisation as gravity regulates matter and conditions its evolution. It appears also as part of the universal order, as both the original law of the soul and the law of the physical bodies.” 

For Bennabi it is the source of the perspectives which a civilisation adopts. Religion is not a mere spiritual and mental activity of the human psyche. Rather, it is both a fundamental disposition of the human species and a part of the cosmic order deeply rooted in the structure of the universe. This would mean that religion cannot be reduced to a mere moral category acquired by the human species over history, or relative to the primitive stages of human socio-cultural development.

Bennabi’s important elements of civilisation  

Bennabi while understanding civilisation perceives the following as the important elements of it, Man + Soil + Time. He points out that humans are positioned in the central position in the theory of civilisation and humans exhibit a social identity and a natural identity (physical features). Social identity is created by intellectual and psychological features also involving environmental and historical factors, and therefore it can change according to place and time.

For Bennabi these elements are which lead to the historical movements that is the realm of ideas, persons, and objects. So when and If a society goes for the worse, this would mean that it has not been built upon the three elements mentioned. Even if a person works on two elements that is person and objects and does not work on the realm of ideas then he loses the ability of understanding and action. For the Muslims, it is their un-thoughtfulness and inactivity during their entire period that lead to the decadence of the Muslim World as all their social forms had become static.

 When Bennabi mentions soil he is expressing its social value of it rather than its natural features. Similarly, while describing time as well he sees it as a social point that is a social value that generates active thoughts within it. He mentions that the Muslim world has actively been unsuccessful in using time and generating active thoughts, meanings, and things. When a person rules over the soil, time and life then stand in the center. It is important for a community to walk in history and progress in the fields of thought, science, technology, and art, eventually introducing values that would ensure a community its identity.

Expanding upon the thoughts of Bennabi, he asserts that the social role of religion is essentially that of a catalyst, favouring the transformation of values that pass from a natural to a psycho-temporal state, corresponding to a certain stage of civilisation. First, it turns the biological man into a sociological entity. Second, it turns time-simple chronological duration evaluated in “hours that pass” – into sociological time, evaluated in hours of labour. Third, it turns soil-yielding unilaterally and unconditionally the nourishment for man according to a simple process of consumption – into a technically equipped and conditioned ground for catering to the multiple needs of social life according to the conditions of a process of production. 

Religion is then seen as a catalyst of social values. In other words, according to Bennabi religion makes three changes –  i) it unites the network of social relations ii) it motivates common activity and enables common activity, and iii) it changes the psychological attitudes of individuals in society. It can be observed in Bennabi’s notion, religion enables society to undertake common activity, and changes the behaviour of the individual by directing his/her vital powers towards achieving a specific purpose. This psychological change (of individuals and society) is a prerequisite to any social change necessary to bring about the historical and organic construct made up of as mentioned the three elements of society that is man, soil, and time. All civilisations, without exception in history, have flourished in the shadow of religious ideas. However, in Bennabi’s approach, religion cannot begin its civilising function as a catalyst unless it embarks upon a civilising process that assembles man, soil, and time in one project. 

Bennabi sums up the idea of a civilisation as a sum total of moral and material means that enable a society to provide each of its members with all the social services needed for him to progress. Therefore, including all values which are necessary for a community such as intellectual, spiritual and cultural, political, economic, and technical. Rather it could be said that the idea of civilisation connects with the culture that every community has in its own hand and it relates to the world of ideas which provides the advancement of society. Civilisation comes out along with cultural transformations and social rules and becomes a power that directs the community. An important element in civilisation is religion which gives form to the moral system in a society and when there is any degeneration within the moral system it gives rise to the decrement of values and appears lots of problems everywhere.

Bennabi on the Stages of civilisation 

An important categorization of Bennabi is the Stages of civilisation. He has classified the stages into three categories namely a) Spiritual b) Rational c) Instinctive stage. The Onset of the Spiritual stage for Bennabi is from the Prophet Muhammad pbuh. In this stage, the Muslims adopted religion into their lives. During this stage society’s mind, attitude and life become religious and spiritual. It was religion that played the role of a catalyst and transformed the values. It is the spirit of religion that gives humanity the opportunity to rise and progress, to form civilisation and when the spirit of religion is lost then civilisation begins its downfall. The Second stage is the Rational stage where according to Bennabi society has reached the peak of its productivity in every field. However, there is a slight loss of influence of religion seen during this stage. The final stage is the Instinctive stage here Bennabi notes that society has lost its faith and gone astray in history. The cycle of civilisation has ended with this stage and begun moral and political collapse in the Muslim world.

The spiritual stage begins with the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, and it ended with the battle of Siffin, giving way to the rational stage. This stage continued until the time of Ibn Khaldun and the collapse of the Muwahhid Dynasty. From this point the Muslim world started its decline, beginning with the instinctive stage. Noting that religion is a major factor in civilisation, it could be drawn that religious reform is essential for all social transformation. For Bennabi it is possible by bringing the spirit of Islam and the demands of the modern age to the table. Culture is an essential tool to bridge the past and the future and it helps in transferring the physical and spiritual values to the next generation as a causative agent for building a civilisation. It is possible to achieve it by viewing civilisation as a dynamic idea with a moral and ethical system, with aesthetic sense, practical logic, and technique. 

In Bennabi’s view, the Muslim world needs to open itself to a more conscious manner toward the west by invoking a criterion and being more critical of it, experiencing it rather than just reading about it, by becoming a productive society rather than a consuming society. An interesting quote by Bennabi where he describes what the purpose of politics is “To make politics is to prepare the psychological and material conditions of history, to prepare the man for creating history”. It could be said that for such a philosophy to be embodied it needs people to recognize both their duties and rights and know and teach methods and techniques rather than words and slogans. 

In conclusion, as one looks at Bennabi’s thoughts and ideas, one can’t help but notice that Bennabi meant to evoke Muslims morally, socially, psychologically, and politically. Benabbi as a scholar has recognized society and culture as important factors in Human development, to produce new ideas and for creating a dynamic society. An important point that was highlighted in the work of Bennabi is that political, economic, cultural, social, and ideological independence can set up a bridge between the past and future and protect the basic fundamentals of Islam as presented in the Quran and the Sunna.