Syria’s Sawwah: Reason in Times of Madness

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Sawwah, whose family hailed from Hama but settled in Homs at the beginning of the last century, grew up in an enlightened atmosphere which allowed him to choose his own path. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Tuesday, March 13, 2012

At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, historian and public figure Firas Sawwah felt driven to express his thoughts about the movement on the street. Drawing on the intellectual capital he accumulated over the last three decades, he used his Facebook page to call for reason and for people to avoid slipping into the quagmire of sectarian war. He also warned against slogans which encourage the breakup and division of Syrian society, such as the names given to various Friday protests.

He was shocked by the scale and ferocity of the response, which accused him of treason because of his approach. He promptly closed down his Facebook page. His farewell message to readers said: “In the age of murderers and the mass insanity of an entire nation, wisdom must withdraw to its hideaway. The voice of truth becomes like the neighing of a stray donkey in the desert: unheard by anyone. The sane must therefore keep their own counsel and choose silence.”

The Syrian intellectual, who used to draw unprecedented crowds to his talks, and whose research and books have aimed at “liberation of the mind,” suddenly found himself facing a mass frenzy to “expropriate the mind,” as he puts it.

In his comments on Facebook, he spoke of the revolution having been “infiltrated” by a variety of elements, notably Islamic fundamentalism, the culture of revenge ingrained in the Arab psyche, the “ghostly forces” (that, among other things, give protest Fridays their names), and armchair oppositionists. He did not spare the authorities and their role in cracking down on peaceful demonstrations and fuelling the conflict.

Sawwah explains how he sees the Arab revolutions: “Moving towards democracy is a laborious exercise. There has to be gradual development, otherwise not a single revolution will work.”

So he went back to his old ground, to complete his “excavations of sacred texts.” He approached this task by seeking to destroy the “authority of the text” and to liberate it from its historical sacredness: “I read these texts as literature, going beyond their holy tyranny. I deconstruct and reconstruct them, giving them a different status.”

Authority of reason

Sawwah has not known certainty in a journey characterized by suspicion of ready-made ideologies. His first book, The Mind’s First Adventure (1978), caused an unprecedented storm among readers. At a time when leftist ideology was in vogue, Sawwah chose a different field of knowledge: the study of the myths, rites, and rituals of ancient religions in Syria and Iraq. This was all part of a larger effort to search for the unity of the spiritual experience. The book became a leader in the field and remains one. Several editions were printed and it is still in print today.

The author of Myth and Meaning (1997) denies that he studies myths. He studies what is behind them to search for modernity and roots, and to destroy the authority of the text in favor of “the authority of reason” through his own explanation and interpretation.

Thus, he studies the history of religions from a phenomenological point of view: he describes the phenomenon without judging it, in contrast to critiques of religious thought. This is because, as he maintains, myths are holy stories, their heroes are the gods, and thus they are the primary source of religious texts.

Sawwah, whose family hailed from Hama but settled in Homs at the beginning of the last century, grew up in an enlightened atmosphere which allowed him to choose his own path. He studied economics at Damascus University, then joined the philosophy department, but did not complete his studies because he found nothing new in the curriculum. In his youth, he was close to the Muslim Brotherhood, then he delved deep into Marxism, before developing an affinity to the Syrian Nationalists. “But I never joined any of these political parties,” he notes, adding, “I felt close to ideas, but not to ideologies. Belonging to a group leads to oneself dissolving.”

His interest in ancient human heritage does not mean that he holds it sacred. He simply uses one text to lead him to another. “We should not be prisoners of the past,” he insists. These ideas distance him from others who work on heritage, people like Muhammad Abed al-Jabri who worked in a “closed cultural circle,” and al-Tayyeb Tizini, whose work he considers to be “contrived motion in still water.”

As for Adonis, he believes that he never developed his early achievements and remained entrenched in his narrow doctrine. But Sawwah makes an exception for the work of George Tarabishi, and his innovative interpretation in his book From the Islam of the Quran to Modern Islam.

Sawwah’s long stays in America and Europe in the early 1970s first prompted him to shun parochialism in favor of the international cultural approach to research, argument and thought, and eventually develop his own theory of the essence of religion. He sees his book The Religion of Man (1994) as summing up the essence of his research.

In addition to his work on Arab and Greek myths, Firas Al-Sawwah turned eastwards to uncover one of the most important books of Chinese wisdom, The Book of Tao or the “bible of Chinese wisdom.” He notes that oriental culture has been virtually absent from Arab libraries. He says that a saying by the fourth century B.C. Chinese sage Laotse put him on the path to pure spiritualism: “Without traveling far, you can know the whole world. Without looking out of the window, you can see the path to the sky.” Perhaps the author of The Other Face of Christ has discovered the secret thread between old spiritual teachings and the wheel of knowledge, linking knowledge to behavior. “One minute of mental prayer is better than 50 prayers,” he says confidently.

What Sawwah targets in his research is the dominance of metaphysical thought over the Arab mind. He relies on the scientific method to reduce the authority of such thought by questioning the ancient fragmented texts “with a strict methodology which might lead the Arab world to a new way of thinking.” This is what currently occupies him. After publishing The Bible According to the Quran last year, he is working on books with titles such as The Mysteries of the Bible, Quranic Stories in Outside Sources, and Epistemological Excavations in Biblical Texts.

Before I leave him, he bids me farewell with a complaint about his books being pirated in some Arab capitals. He adds laughing: “What is someone like me, who lives off the proceeds of his books, to do?”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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