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In Memoriam: Sadiq Jalal al-ʿAzm, 1934–2016

Published in: Bustan: The Middle East Book Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2017), pp. 104-109

Bustan’s commitment to scholarly review in the fields of Middle East and Islamic studies makes it important to stop and reflect on the passing of important scholars and intellectuals who have shaped these ever-broadening fields over the past few decades. The following short essay about Sadiq al-ʿAzm was written by Professor Itamar Rabinovich—one of Bustan’s founders and editors, and a historian of modern Syrian history.

It honors a Middle Eastern intellectual whose ideas have been woven into the fabric of a large body of scholarship over the past four decades. Many contemporary scholars continue to use specific terms and quotes that Sadiq al-ʿAzm formulated over the years, including during the brutal war that has devastated Syria since 2011. In a recent edited collection, for example, Raymond Hinnebusch used al-ʿAzm’s concept of a “military-mercantile complex” to describe the rise of a nexus of army and business interests in Syria. Then in the same volume, another contributor, Reinoud Leenders, writes, “Syria’s pre-eminent intellectual and philosopher Sadiq al-Azm explained [in reference to 2011 uprising] it was the in the very act of mobilization against the regime that Syrians discovered that they could overcome their ‘inferiority complex . . . in the face of this military regime’s overall power.’”[1]1

Several other contemporary works continue to build on the legacy of al-ʿAzm for his contributions to understanding the Middle East from within and because of the impact of his writings on various important discourses that continue to attract new works of scholarship. The editors of Bustan: Middle East Book Review believe that the short essay in memory of Sadiq Jalal al-ʿAzm that follows reflects our ambition, as a journal based in the Middle East, to reflect critically on contemporary scholarship about the Middle East produced in the region.

It was one of those ironies of history. The news of Sadiq al-ʿAzm’s death as an exile in Berlin reached us at the same time as the stream of news and horrific descriptions of Bashar al-Asad’s troops conquering Eastern Aleppo with help of his Russian and Iranian patrons, and the Shiʿi militias assembled by them. Al-ʿAzm, the leading Syrian intellectual, a man who had to a great extent represented older Syria, died on the eve of the Asad regime’s military achievement, which appears to be a significant step toward preserving, and possibly restoring, the regime’s rule over Syria as an ʿAlawi-Shiʿi hegemony under Russian and Iranian patronage.

Al-ʿAzm was a scion of Damascus’ most prominent notable family. In the eighteenth century, the al-ʿAzms founded and maintained a dynasty that governed Damascus under the loose sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. It was part of two larger phenomena—the rise of local autonomies under Ottoman rule, and the emergence of a class of notables who served as mediators between the Ottoman central government and the Arab population in the Empire’s Arab provinces. During the twentieth century, the al-ʿAzm family played a role in Syrian politics under the French Mandate and after indepen-dence in the 1950s. Most prominent among them was Khaled al-ʿAzm, who served as interim president and as prime minister in several governments.

Sadiq al-ʿAzm was a philosopher, professor of philosophy, and, most importantly, public intellectual. He received his PhD in philosophy at Yale University, became a professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus, and as the political climate in Damascus grew harsher, moved to Beirut. Al-ʿAzm was at that time a Marxist, and a harsh critic of Syrian and Arab public and political life. In the late 1960s, two books made him famous, as well as one of the Arab World’s most prominent public intellectuals.

Self-Criticism after the Defeat was published in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. It was the most important critical essay published in the Arab World in the shadow of the Six-Day War and it resonated in the Arab World as well as in Israel. When Yehoshafat Harkabi published a Hebrew-language collection titled The Arabs’ Lesson from Their Defeat, his translations from al-ʿAzm’s book constituted the most important portion of al-ʿAzm’s volume. Al-ʿAzm took Arab society and the pseudo-revolutionary regimes that had emerged in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq in the 1950s and early 1960s to task. These regimes were expected to transform Arab society and politics after ridding them of the corruption and inefficacy of the anciens regimes. Shortly thereafter, he pub-lished his Critique of Religious Thought. It was a powerful assault written from a Marxist perspective and directed mostly at Islam. The book was too bold even for liberal Beirut. The Lebanese political system rested on an uneasy balance between Christians and Muslims, and al-ʿAzm’s criticism of Islam, though written by a Muslim, was too much of a challenge for the Lebanese status quo and al-ʿAzm was briefly put in jail. Over the following decades, Al-ʿAzm spent his life in exile at universities and think tanks in Europe and the United States or in efforts to find a modus vivendi with the Baʿth regime that would enable him to live and teach in Damascus, a city that he always saw as home. During these decades, his Marxism and radicalism were blunted but he remained critical, productive, and brave. In a 2013 interview, Al-ʿAzm addressed the issue of his relationship with the regime and said, among other things, that

This reality constituted a type of inferiority complex (in me and in others) due to my impotence in the face of this military regime’s overall power, as well as due to the impossibility of pronouncing a possible “no” against it (individually or collectively). I dealt with this inferiority complex by adapting slowly to this stressful tyrannical reality, and through the careful introspection of the rules and principles of interacting with it, with all that’s required of hypocrisy and pretending to believe and accept, secrecy, word manipulation and circumvention of the regime’s brute force. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to either continue with my normal life and do my routine work and daily errands, or preserve my mental and physical health.

Al-ʿAzm was part of an elitist group of Arab intellectuals who chose, or were forced to, live and publish in the West, beyond the reach of the military officers and politicians who ruled the Arab World. It included, for example, the poet Adonis, Edward Said, and Fouad Ajami. Typically for the politics of exiled intellectuals, this group was divided by ideological controversies and personal rivalries. Each member of the group saw himself as the senior Arab intellectual. Al-ʿAzm fought in public with Adonis and was recently critical of the latter’s position with regard to the current Syrian revolt. His rivalry with Said was particularly bitter. In 1978, Said published Orientalism, his sharp criticism of the fashion in which European orientalism saw and interpreted the orient. It was, Said argued, a patronizing and condescending view of the other, serving and legitimizing Western colonialism, whose impact went so far as to shape the manner by which people of the orient came to see them-selves. The book enjoyed immediate and massive success and influence that transformed Middle Eastern studies in the academy as well as the discourse on the Middle East in both the academy and the media.

But Said’s Orientalism also met with significant criticism, part of which was written by Sadiq al-ʿAzm. In 1980, Al-ʿAzm published “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” taking Said to task for among other things creat-ing a linear view of orientalism from the traditional European view of the East to the academic cultural orientalism of modern times. Also, as a Marxist, Al-ʿAzm criticized Said for putting the emphasis on the power of ideas rather than on the material forces at work in history. Said accused orientalism and orientalists as being in the service of the colonial powers, but for Said, according to Al-ʿAzm, ideas preceded the quest for material interest. Al-ʿAzm did not exonerate orientalists of serving their governments, but for him the governments’ quest for territories, political control, and economic interest preceded the intellectual justification. “Orientalism in Reverse” as such was not a critique of Said but of the tendency of Arab intellectuals to see Islam as a liberating force in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Said was not receptive to criticism, and his relationship with al-ʿAzm deteriorated into a bitter and open rivalry. In 1980, al-ʿAzm submitted “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” to the Arab Studies Quarterly, edited at the time by Said and Fouad Moughrabi. It was rejected and published a year later in the journal Khamsin. The episode led to an angry exchange of letters between al-ʿAzm and Said. In his letter to al-ʿAzm, Said told him that his essay was too long and had to be cut significantly in order to be pub-lished by the Arab Studies Quarterly. He then added that contrary to his deci-sion not to respond to criticism of Orientalism, he would respond to al-ʿAzm’s critique. While referring to him as “a friend, who as you know admires and loves you,” he had to tell him candidly that in his recent writing he “detected an unfortunate narrowness and dogmatism which has weakened your work: This is the case of your reading of my book . . . The worst thing about your writing is how really badly you read . . . When you quote you misquote and when you construe you misconstrue.” Needless to say, al-ʿAzm responded to Said’s response with equal force. “As you know,” he wrote, “I have been to many bitter debates, and controversies before, and I have succeeded in maintaining a reasonably detached attitude throughout. Therefore, I bypass your abusive accusation and take in stride the point by point comparison you draw between the qualities and virtues of yourself and those of my humble person, all leading, predictably enough, to the inevitable conclusion of your superiority.”

Said clearly displayed a considerable degree of obtuseness when he allowed himself, from the safety and comfort of the Columbia University campus in New York City, to needle al-ʿAzm, who felt that as a Syrian intellectual and patriot, it was his duty to try to return to Damascus and to promote high level teaching of philosophy under the Baʿth regime. Al-ʿAzm himself spoke openly about his complex relationship with Asad’s regime in an interview he granted in 2016 to A Syrious Look, published by Syrian exiles. He described the period in the mid-1990s when he found a modus vivendi of sorts with the Asad regime that enabled him to serve as the head of the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Damascus. With the help of the Dean of Faculty of Humanities, who knew how to deal with the authorities, he managed to sur-vive in his position for five years as well as to hold a successful and presti-gious “culture week.” His coexistence, like that of other intellectuals, with the regime was predicated on not crossing certain red lines. Hafez al-Asad took pride in well-publicized meetings that he occasionally held with Syrian intellectuals, and his coterie made sure to remind the intellectuals that it was proper to thank the enlightened ruler from time to time. But this fragile coexistence ended in 1999. Al-ʿAzm was allowed to leave Syria, but he was told that he would not be allowed to come back. He chose exile.

Over the years, al-ʿAzm softened his attitude toward Israel. He was orig-inally a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and worked for the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut. But in later years, he maintained relations with Israeli academics and supported the Syrian–Israeli peace pro-cess in the second half of the 1990s. In June 2000, he published an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books titled “The View from Damascus.” He described how Damascene society had come to terms with the idea of peace with Israel. Ironically, the essay was published shortly after the collapse of the Syrian–Israeli peace process and Hafez al-Asad’s death.

When the Syrian revolt broke out in the spring of 2011, al-ʿAzm became one of its early and prominent supporters, but his support was not free of reservations. He was worried by the significant role played by Islamists and Jihadi elements, but he kept hoping that the revolt would become a revolution that would lead to the emergence of a more democratic Syria. As time went by, and the magnitude of the calamity affecting Syria became more appar-ent, he became more pessimistic. When asked in the course of the interview whether an entity called Syria would exist in the future, he responded with what seems in retrospect to be a last will and testament:

Al-ʿAzm: “On the map, yes."

Interviewer: “And on your personal map?”

Al-ʿAzm: “I am loyal to Syria. Once, I was not allowed to leave the country. I had to go repeatedly to secret police stations to get permission to travel. The officer used to give me permission to leave the country one time only. That meant it was a one-way ticket, or in other words, they were telling me go and not come back. If you come back, you are coming back to us. I told the officer that the al-ʿAzm family is in Damascus, and I want to return. I don’t know if I will be able to go back to Syria. I don’t think I will live to see it. My health . . . But I will defiantly return. I do not want to be an intellectual in exile, with all my respect to intellectuals in exiles. I could have been an intellectual in exile a long time ago. I kept on returning to Syria. Intellectuals in exile took their decisions and made compromises, and I took my decision and made other compromises, too.”

[1] Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin, eds., The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

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