Choice of Texts

Michel Aflak

In Memory of the Arab Prophet

Michel Aflaq

Lecture Delivered on the 5th of April 1943 at the University of Damascus

 Translated by  Ziad el Jishi (*)




The Arab Personality Between Past and Present


When we gather on these festive occasions, I ponder a question: what is the worthiness of talk? We have not witnessed in our history a time when talk has been more abundant than it is today. Despite this abundance of excessive rhetoric, we are witness to a time when we are the least productive and the least dynamic. Is it possible then that all this talk  has paralyzed and de-activated us, whereas it was supposed to propel us to do more work and to further strengthen ourselves?


There is then a substantive difference between talk that reflects a person’s substance, shows their position with regards to life and is the expression of a person full of life, and the talk of a person who is devoid of life, who is just talking for the sake of talking.


Arabs have historically been very attracted to words. Because the words they used had always been filled with facts pulsating with life, the words they listened to were meant to be heard by the heart and not just the ears. They were supposed to evoke a response of the whole person, not only the tongue. Therefore, it has always been that for Arabs, words had a certain sense of holiness: to them they were similar to promises, linking life and actions, whether this life is that of the individual or of the group.


Once upon a time, words were like paper currency denoting a certain equivalent value, like gold. Today the words being used have been rendered into shreds of empty paper denoting nothing of value to back them up. As a consequence, we bear witness to empty and bankrupt souls flooding us with a sea of empty rhetoric, in which there is no value, and no one questions the value of these words being thrown at them. So it should come as no surprise then that we have lost confidence, that issues have become confused around us, that cheating and manipulating, and, as a consequence, bankruptcy and scandal have ensued.


Today we stand witness to a conflict between our glorious past and shameful present. The Arab personality was in our past unified in one body: there was no divide between its soul and its intellect, no divide between its rhetoric and its practice, its private and its public codes of conduct. It was a fulfilled and rich life, where its intellect, spirit, and practice were working together, in harmony with its strong instincts.      


In contrast, in our present time, we witness only a fragmented personality, a partial, impoverished life. If intellect takes over, it becomes devoid of spirit, and if emotions enter it, its intellect exits. It is either dogmatic intellectually or pragmatically rash. As a result, it is ever lacking of its most essential (vital) forces. It is time we removed this contradiction and returned to the Arab personality in its unity, and make whole Arab life once again. Our prayer should merge with our intellect, with our enlightened mind, and with our strong fists and muscles, so that all these factors together lead to that voluntary human action that is coherent, solid, strong, and right-minded.


Up to this point, our lineage to our ancestors has been only a formal lineage, and our linkage to our historical past, a parasitic inorganic attachment. Today we must revive the characteristics and acts that legitimize our lineage to our past and make that a real living entity. We must remove all obstacles of stagnation and degradation, so that our pure blood lineage will run anew in our veins. We must purify our land and sky, so that the spirits of our ancestors will descend upon us anew and be harmonious over us.


We have been living too long in a polluted environment that suffocates us because it is filled with lies. It shows a divorce between our intellect and action, our tongues and hearts. Every word we utter is the sound of rattling in an empty bowl, a discord between our soul and ear.  Because our words are devoid of meaning, every word we read causes shivers inside of us, in our sight and soul, because the words seem like ghosts and shadows reminding us of things we are no longer in touch with. It provokes in us a feeling of sadness, like the nostalgia we feel when coming upon ghost towns which people had abandoned a long time ago.


We must work to return to words their power and meaning, their sanctified standing, worthy of reverence. We must make of every word we use a position we take in our lives.


Words should bear witness to acts we have accomplished, not deeds we failed to fulfill.


We must say only what we are able to accomplish, so that we shall be able to act on everything that we say.


Islam as Experience and Preparedness


Dear attendees, the movement of Islam that is exemplified by the life of the honorable Prophet is not a passing historical event for Arabs. Neither is it a movement that time and places can explain, nor the reasons and results it prompted. Its great worth and depth and expansive nature relates intimately to the pure content and characteristics of Arab life itself. It explains the innate richness of Arab potential and its natural course. It is correct for us then to explain its continuous striving for the revival of its soul and character, not just its superficial revival in shape or rhetoric.


Islam constituted for the Arabs a dynamic earth-shaking movement that stirred the internal potential of the Arabs, imbued it with life, and enabled it to drive out the obstacles of imitation and the shackles of reform. It reconnected its attachment to the true deep understandings of the universe around it. Inspired by wonder and enthusiasm, it embarked on new words and glorious works, and in its excitement was unable to keep it to itself any longer, so expanding to other nations in intellect and deed, and in so doing, fulfilling it.


The Arabs, through this intense moral experience, learned how to rebel and break through their entrenched reality in order to go from the stage of the self to the stage of a superior unity, to struggle intensely with themselves in order to explore their full potential and to strengthen their moral character. So in essence, all the accomplishments of expanding Islam to new places and developing their civilization go back to the early seeds sown in the first 20 years of the Islamic surge. So before they could conquer new lands and reach as far as they did, they had to begin with and conquer themselves, and to know who they were searching for in their souls. Before they ruled over other people, they had to rule over themselves, and learn how to control their temptations and to take charge of their will.


As a consequence, the sciences, arts, and architecture they created were only material manifestations of a powerful all-encompassing dream they lived with, giving this dream all their convictions and all their senses in an act of full commitment. Those accomplishments were only a faint echo of the voice they heard from the sky above, and a blurred shadow of that magical vision they saw when the angels were fighting alongside them and the heaven was giving its shiny luster to their swords.


This experience was not a historical event that was cited only for the right to boast. It was an experience of the complete ever-present readiness of the Arab nation (if Islam is understood correctly) to propel the Arabs ahead whenever materialism takes over spirituality, whenever superficiality takes over substance. When this takes place, the Arab character splits anew in its own self to re-establish its superior unity and reach harmony. It is thus an experience to strengthen its moral character whenever it is weakened, and to give depth to its character whenever superficiality reigns supreme. In this way, the epic of Islam repeats its missionary beginnings by stages of oppression, expulsion and war, victory and failure, culminating in the final victory of its faith and truth.


The Life of the Prophet is a Summary of the Life of the Arab People


The life of the Prophet, a reflection of the Arab character in its purest form, cannot be arrived at by intellect, but rather by living experience. This experience cannot be a beginning, but a consequence or a result. Once life had shrunk away from them hundreds of years ago, Arabs read the life of the Prophet and spoke of it, but they did not understand it. This is because understanding was necessitated by a climax in their souls, a certain degree of deep honest feeling that they have not reached yet, an existentialist position which places man face to face with his destiny, and which they are far from reaching at this point.


The spirits of our heroes abandoned us a long time ago, and are remote to us because heroism is no longer a common part of the Arab character. Perhaps this general aggrandizing of the esteemed Prophet is an expression of our impotence and shortcomings more than an expression of His greatness.  We have become so estranged from heroism that we now perceive heroism and courage as something to look at from a distance with fear and anxiety, as if it is a concept from another planet removed from our world, whereas the true glorification of heroism only comes by practice, revering and acknowledging it through hardship and experience. No one really recognizes a hero unless he has accomplished even partially an act of heroism in his own lifetime.


Up to this point, the external perception of the life of the Prophet has been as a beautiful picture for us to admire and treat with holy reverence. However, we should begin to perceive it from within ourselves, so we may begin to live it. Any Arab of the present time can live the life of the Prophet, even in small proportions as the pebble is to the mountain and the drop is to the sea.


Naturally, no man is capable of achieving what Muhammad achieved, however great he becomes. However, any man, however limited his capabilities, may emulate and act according to his capacity the example of life left as the legacy of Muhammad, as long as this person belongs to the mother nation that gave birth to Muhammad, or is a member of a nation that Muhammad used his power to give birth to.


In the past, one person’s life summarized the life of a nation. Today the life of the whole nation in its new revival should become a detailed exposition of the life of its great man. Muhammad was all the Arabs. Let all the Arabs be Muhammad today.  


Islam Renews Arabism and Perfects It


A man among the Arabs delivered a heavenly message to call people to obligate themselves to Muhammad. All those around him were Arabs and only a few answered his call. The majority stood against him. So he left with the believers, and the non-believers fought him until he won the victory for what is true and virtuous, and all then followed him and believed in him.


Islam does not remove itself from its natural stage, which is the land of the Arabs, and it cannot be removed from the workers and heroes that fulfilled it - all of the Arab people. The nonbelievers of the Qureish tribe were as important to accomplishing Islam as the believers were. Those who fought the Prophet were just as important to the victory of Islam as those who backed Islam and empowered it. However, this effort took more than 20 years to accomplish. Allah was capable of delivering his Quran to Muhammad in one day, but despite this, it still took 20 years to accomplish this mission. Allah was also capable of directing all people to his religion in one day, but that too took 20 years. He was also capable of bringing about Islam’s appearance centuries before he did, and in any of the many nations he created. However, he chose to make the appearance of Islam at a certain time, and he chose for its deliverance the Arab people and their Arab heroic prophet, the Prophet Muhammad. There is wisdom behind all of this.


The glaring truth that no one can deny is that the Arabs were chosen because they possess qualities and characteristics enabling them to accomplish this mission.  The century chosen was when the Arabs had matured enough and perfected themselves to the degree that enabled them to take on this mission and deliver it to all humanity. The time lapse for the Arabs to accomplish this task was so that the Arabs should arrive at this result by their own efforts, going through the hardships and pains of testing themselves and the world around them, and in the process, going through the cycle of despair and hope, failure and success, so that faith should emanate from the depths of their soul, so that true faith should be connected with practical experience, and so to the essence of life.


Therefore, Islam was an Arab movement. Its meaning was Arab renewal and its perfection. So the language that Islam descended with was Arabic. The outlook and understanding was that of an Arab mind. The qualities it encouraged were apparent or hidden Arab values, and the faults it addressed were faults the Arabs were to vanquish. The Muslim at that time was nothing more than the Arab person. But he was the new Arab, a modernized and evolved, more perfected Arab. Just as we today call certain members of our nation “patriots” or “nationalists,” despite the fact that all the sum of our nation are nationalists. We do specify these terms to denote certain individuals who believe in the cause of their nation because they have accumulated certain characteristics and conditions, realizing their deep attachment to their nation and shouldering the responsibility of this belonging.


The Muslim was the Arab who believed in this new religion because he attained the qualities required to understand it, which in itself constitutes the leap of Arabism to unification, power, and civilized accomplishment.


Humanism of Islam


Does all this mean that Islam was founded to be exclusive to Arabs? If we arrive at this conclusion then we are far from the truth and we contradict reality. Every great nation which is deeply attached to the eternal verities is intrinsically in pursuit of the immutable values. Islam is the clearest expression of the Arab nation’s quest for eternal and universal values. Islam is Arab in its reality, and universal in its ideals and goals. The Arabs are unique in that their nationalist awakening was intertwined with a religious message. Or, in more concise terms, this message was a manifestation of their national awakening.


They did not spread their influence for material expansion, nor did they conquer places for sheer economic need, for chauvinistic reasons, or a greedy desire to conquer, take control, and enslave. They did so to comply with a religious duty imbued with the values of truth, guidance, mercy, justice, and dedication. For it, they shed their blood and embraced their mission with great sincerity, and a fervent readiness to seek Allah.


Therefore, as long as the bond between Islam and Arabism is strong, we shall always bear witness to Arabism as the body that hosts the spirit of Islam. We should not then fear that the Arabs may become extreme in their nationalism. We will never become like the colonialists with their oppression and injustice. It is natural, therefore, that the Arabs cannot fulfill such a duty without the emergence of a rising, revived, and strong nation. Islam must demonstrate in the Arab nation its righteous character, humanitarianism, and creative genius. The first obligation of Islam’s humanist commitment is that the Arabs should be strong and masters of their own homeland.


Islam as a living organism is unique in its character and clear dimensions. Islam can only be one thing and not the other, it can only have one meaning and it is antagonistic to any other meaning that opposes it.


Islam in its universality is eternal, but that does not mean that it is not specific in meaning. It encompasses many meanings in many different directions. But it is true that in every dangerous stage of the historical progression (of our nation) that was decisive, it manifested one of its innate eternal meanings that had been with it since the beginning.


However, this permanence does not mean stagnation and immobilization, without the ability to change and develop life as it passes over it. Despite its constant changing and the variety of appearances it assumed time and again, its roots remain the same and fixed as one, discarding any superficial forms.


The ability of Islam to give birth and grow and be creative remains undiminished in one specific time and place. In that framework, it is absolute in meaning and action within the constructs of this specific time and place.


Those who desire to make of Islam a one-size-fits-all container that can hold everything, and a factory to create all kinds of prescriptions and medicines that cure all, are in this process destroying its spirit and personality. They are robbing Islam of its vitality, independence, and appointed purpose: In the same manner, they are empowering the enemies of Islam, the oppressors and unjust rulers, to take from within Islam weapons to stab Islam itself and in the process, to stab the Arab nation.


Consequently, the purport of the message of Islam in this dangerous historical period, and in this decisive moment of evolution, necessitates that all efforts be focused on empowering Arabs and enabling their revival, and to focus these efforts in the realm of Arab nationalism.


Arabs and the West


A century and a half ago, with Bonaparte’s expedition into Egypt, the West re-established its contact with the Arabs. Bonaparte cunningly placed verses of the Koran alongside his code of human rights. It was during this time that the Arabs (or those who passed for Arabs) began pushing their modern revival in this false direction. Using their historical texts and the Koran, they tried to show that the tenets and ideology of their civilization did not differ from those of Western civilization, and that they had preceded Westerners in declaring and practicing such rights. This could only mean one thing: that they felt inferior to the Westerners and recognized their adversary’s supremacy, confirming, therefore, the correctness of their adversaries. What is clear is that Western civilization’s invasion of the Arab mind occurred at a time when this mind had dried up and had become an empty vessel, which facilitated the foreign culture’s filling it with its own set of beliefs and convictions.


It was not long afterwards that the Arabs found that what they were arguing about with the Europeans did not differ much, and that both were saying the same thing. The only difference between themselves and the Europeans was in doing less than the Europeans were doing, and the Arabs had fallen behind. It was only a matter of time before the Arabs came to the logical conclusion that this direction of thinking would lead them to believe that European civilization must supplant their own.


The skill of European colonialism was not in convincing the Arabs of the eternal sets of values and convictions that the Arabs and everyone else had known and agreed to all along, but in taking advantage of the fact that the Arabs, when they fell into intellectual and creative stagnation, were made to adopt the European model, which interpreted these sets of values in its own European way. So, for example, we do not disagree with the Europeans on the concept of freedom, but we disagree with them on how they interpret the concept of freedom.


It is Europe today that fears for itself from Islam much as it feared it in the past. But it acknowledges now that the power of Islam (which in the past was an expression of the power of the Arabs) has now been re-born again in a new form of Arab nationalism.  Therefore, Europe now points all its weapons against this new force called Arab nationalism, and befriends and supports the old form of Islam.


Internationalist Islam that is confined to the rituals of worship and a superficial religious compliance is being westernized. As a consequence, there shall come a day when it is only the nationalists that defend Islam and give it a new meaning, if they want ,of course, the Arab nation to have a reason to exist.


The Honor of Arabism


There have been two very dangerous and incorrect European ideas that have invaded the Arab mind with regards to nationalism and humanism.


The first is the European concept of separation of nationalism and religion. This concept is perfectly understandable when it comes to European conditions because religion had entered Europe external to it, that is, foreign to its inherent organic nature and to its natural history. It is an idea based on the after-life and a set of morals that did not come into Europe through Europe’s own language, nor did it explain Europe’s own environment, and did not intertwine with European history, whereas in the case of Islam and the Arabs, it is not just an idea concerned with the after-life, and is not purely moral teachings for them. It is the best expression of their universal convictions and outlook on life. It is the best expression of the unity of their personality, where the word comes in and unites with the emotional and intellectual sides, where meditation comes in unity with action and the soul with destiny, and above all, it is a beautiful portrayal of their language and social behavior. It is a colossal piece of their national history, so that, in effect, we have to praise whichever of our Arab heroes from the past without neglecting or being repelled by the fact that they were Muslims.


Our nationalism is an organism that has its parts woven together and any attempt to remove any of its parts is to threaten it with death. The relationship of Islam to Arabism is not like any other relationship between nationalisms and religions. The Arab Christians will be aware of this when their nationalism reaches its complete awakening and they regain their true essence. Islam is their national culture and they need to saturate themselves with it, so they can understand it and love it, so that they protect Islam as they would protect the most valuable of the components of their Arab identity.


If the current reality is far removed from what we desire, then it is incumbent on the new generation of Arab Christians to fulfill this wish in a daring and objective way, resisting, in the process, their feelings of egoism and personal enrichment, because there is nothing equal to Arabism in value and the honor of belonging to it.  


Absolute Humanism


The second danger (to come from Europe) is the idea of absolute humanism. In its innate meaning, it considers nations to be stagnant and uniform, with no roots that one can transform by transferring the experiences of uprisings and reforms relevant to the needs and preparations of a people completely different from their own.


Is it conceivable then that those revolutionary social and economic theorists, who wish to place wax fruits on a dried-up branch of a tree, believe that in such a fashion they will be able to inject the spirit back into the dry tree and bring it to life again?


It is not sufficient that these theories and reforms be correct in their abstract constructs.  They must also branch in an organic way from a spirit that is more universal, which has roots and an origin. Some believe that injecting these reforms onto the Arabs is sufficient to launch their revival. We see in this step degradation because it is based on an incorrect outlook, placing the branch ahead of the root and the result ahead of the cause. In reality, these reforms are branches that need a source much like flowers emanate from their trees. This origin point we speak of is a psychological one based on the inner conviction of the nation in its message, and the belief of its sons in this message.


In Islam, the belief in one God was the original point, and from it derived all the reforms that were applied to the Arab nation and transformed it. The early Muslims in Mecca did not know that their initial consent to acknowledge one God and to believe in a judgment day was going to lead them to fulfill all the doctrines advanced by Islam later. But despite this, they were fulfilling the doctrines of Islam in an instinctual, voluntary, and logical way. That is because their steadfast agreement was inherently conditional on their original consent to recognize one God and that everything this God dictates is true and just.


Whatever has been said about the political and economic reasons for which the tribe of Qureish fought Islam, the most important factor remains the religious factor, signifying the intellectual and ideological element. Those who have taken the wrong path of trying to modify the religious factor materially are in fact going against historical reality and human nature on one hand, and stabbing the Arabs in one of their most valuable distinguishing characteristics: their idealism. Sure evidence of this was that when the Qureish had to sign a cease-fire treaty with the Prophet because of material interests in the Hudaybeyah treaty, they remained adamant about denying the Prophet his prophecy and his new religion.


We have been insistent on placing such importance on encouraging deep nationalist feelings because we consider this the point of departure. It is the only sure guarantee of accomplishing the social reforms that will be alive, effective, and daring. It is in harmony with the soul of the people and their needs, and the people in turn will accomplish them because they believe in them.


The New Arab Generation


Dear attendees, we are today celebrating the memory of the hero of the Arabs and Islam, an Islam that has been born through pains - Arab pains - and these pains have come back to the land of the Arabs much more fiercely and deeply today than anything the old Arabs of the Jahiliyah had known. So this should inspire in us a cleansing corrective revolution such as the one carried (before) by the banner of Islam. There is no one to accomplish this but the new Arab generation, who alone can understand its need and is capable of carrying it through. That is because the pains of the present have prepared this generation to take on the responsibility of this revolution, driven by the love for their land and its history, and enabling them to discover its spirit and direction.


We members of the new Arab generation carry a non-political message that is based on faith and ideology, not theories and rhetoric. We are not afraid of that sectarian group that carries foreigners’ weapons, that is driven by a chauvinistic hatred of Arabism, because Allah, nature, and history stand on our side. They do not understand us because they are foreign to us. They are foreign to the concepts of truth, substance, and heroism and are a small, insignificant, and superficial forgery.


Those who will understand us are only those with life experiences who understand the life of Muhammad from the inside of its moral experience and in its historical destiny. Only the earnest, who reject lies, hypocrisy, back-stabbing, and gossip in every step they take, will overcome these obstacles and keep advancing, increasing their vigor as they move ahead.


Only those who suffer will understand us, those who have been infused with the bitterness of their pain and the blood of their wounds, and envision a positive scenario of the future of Arab life, a picture which we wish to be happy and content, rising strongly, filled with luster and purity.


Only the believers will understand us, those true believers in Allah. We may not be seen making a show of praying with those praying or fasting with those fasting, but we believe in Allah because we are in dire need of His guidance. Our burden is heavy, and our path is difficult, and our goals are distant. We arrived at this faith and did not start with it. We gained it through hardship and pain, and we did not inherit it nor receive it as an inheritance in traditional ways. For those reasons, this conviction, this faith is very precious to us because we have ownership of it and it is the fruit of our hard labor.


I cannot imagine a young Arab man who comes to understand the harm that has penetrated the heart of his nation and realizes the dangers that threaten its future, especially those coming from outside it, and at the same time, fails to realize that the Arab nation should continue its life to fulfill the message it has not completed as of yet, and to realize its potential which it has not completely fulfilled yet, and that the Arabs have not spoken yet all that they should speak, and have not done yet all that it is in their power to do.


I can not imagine that such a young man will relinquish the belief in God, which is the belief in truth and the necessary victory of what is true, and will fail to dedicate himself to work in the path of ensuring the victory of that which is truth.


* Translated by Mr. Ziad Shaker el Jishi , and revised by Mr. Husayn al Kurdi, Mrs. Xavičre Jardez and Ms. M. Yoshinari. Many thanks to them all.


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