Few French-speaking philosophers are able to wander through the thought of Islam as in a garden. A discreet and erudite man, Christian Jambet is one of these scholars. Former director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études where he held the “Philosophy in Islam” chair, the 74-year-old researcher was elected, Thursday, February 8 at the French Academy, to the historian’s chair Marc Fumaroli.
For several decades, this teacher has been crossing borders, translating and studying the great philosophers of Islam, notably the Iranian Mullâ Sadrâ (1571-1635). Favorable to a properly philosophical – and not simply historical – reading of these Muslim authors, he approaches their works as true classics, with which contemporary thought can dialogue.
Born in Algiers in 1949, Christian Jambet has maintained a close relationship with the Eastern world since his childhood, but it was after a youthful detour that he truly immersed himself in it. After leaving Algeria at the time of the war, he first became involved in far-left activism and “dropped out” of university to join the Proletarian Left, which he co-founded with his friend Benny Lévy. .
A youth on the far left
This is the moment when Maoist youth takes proximity with the popular masses as their compass and refuses all academic teaching. For six years, Christian Jambet lived militant years, traveling to China, experiencing contact with workers, peasants, the excluded, “ another world within our own world », he testified, adding: “I would not have been a teacher if I had not trained in this field.”
When the Maoist movement faced with violence dissolved itself in 1973, Christian Jambet was saved by former teachers who made him return to studies. His meeting with the orientalist Henry Corbin in 1971 was decisive. He learned Arabic then Persian, passed the philosophy aggregation in 1974, went to Iran in 1977. The same year, he joined the “New Philosophy” movement, hostile to totalitarianism and Marxism-Leninism.
Philosophy, an “exercise in strangeness”
Guided by his master Henry Corbin, inspired by the work of Louis Massignon, Christian Jambet will never leave the study of Sufi and Shiite authors. He comments on them, highlighting their proximity to the philosophers of Greek Antiquity, but also their own creativity and reflective power. In this contact with otherness, the teacher identifies the very essence of the philosophical exercise. “Philosophy is an exercise in strangeness”likes to say the one who was a teacher for a long time in high school then in preparatory classes and appreciated by his students for his art of explaining texts.
In contact with these Muslim thinkers, Christian Jambet revisits crucial questions in philosophy, such as the thought of Being and God, the relationships between reason and revelation, freedom, sovereignty and authority… He explores how, on earth of Islam, the exercise of philosophy is subject to a set of requirements coming from elsewhere – theology, mysticism, belief systems – and how, in return, philosophical intelligence modifies the data of faith.
Distanced from the caricature of an “obscurantist” Islam as well as the reassuring search for an “Enlightenment Islam”, the work of Christian Jambet seeks to highlight the singularities and plurality of Islamic thinkers. If Islam does not separate reason and revelation as modern Western thought does, it nonetheless has a vision of human freedom which has its own colors and richness, he emphasizes. Through this work, Christian Jambet broadens the view of the West, often incapable of seeing religion as a place of intelligence and emancipation, and helps Muslims to protect themselves from sterile, superficial and murderous regressions of their faith.
Author of numerous works, Christian Jambet has synthesized part of his work in the volume What is Islamic philosophy? (Gallimard, 2011) and, more recently, The philosopher and his guide (Gallimard, 2021). Founder of the “Spiritual Islam” collection at Éditions Verdier, he also contributed to making known numerous literary texts born from a world where the poem competes with the concept and where mysticism emerges beneath the tightest reasoning.