Tunisia bid a final farewell on June 1 to the prominent historian and scholar of Islam Hichem Djait, whose input was seminal to research on critical periods of Islamic history. From sociological, philosophical and anthropological perspectives, Djait’s publications offer insight into key issues facing the interpretation of Islamic history and the interaction of Islam with modernity.
Born in 1935 in Tunis to an erudite family in Islamic jurisprudence, Djait received a conservative education in his immediate milieu before attending the Sadiki high school in Tunis, which opened the gates for him to French and Western culture in general. He received an advanced degree in history in France in 1962. Afterwards, he obtained a Ph.D. in Islamic history from the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1981.
In a comment on his learning journey from Tunis to Paris, he said: “My discovery of philosophy was decisive. It was a conquest and a spiritual awakening, and I do not mean that only in a metaphysical sense, but also at the level of psychology, ethics and logic. It was then that preconceived certainties began to melt away and I discovered biology and the theory of evolution, and all of this amazed
“My discovery of philosophy was decisive. It was a conquest and a spiritual awakening. … It was then that preconceived certainties began to melt away.”Hichem Djait
me and astonished me at the same time.” (See a related article, “Do Human Evolution and Islam Conflict in the Classroom?”)
Djait, who died at age 86, spent nearly half a century investigating Islamic history and Arab culture. He was an emeritus professor at the University of Tunis and a visiting professor in several renowned higher education institutions, including McGill University, in Montreal, and the University of California at Berkeley. He was also a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, chairman of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts, and a member of the International Scientific Committee that produced Unesco’s eight-voume General History of Africa.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
His stay in the West inspired him to write Europe and Islam, a book that sheds light on the interplay between Islam and Western civilization. His magnum opus remains The Great Fitna (La Grande Discorde), a groundbreaking work in the study of a major period of Islamic history in line with a rigorous academic approach. The Great Fitna answers questions relating to the outbreak of infighting between Muslims right after the death of the Prophet. Other of Djait’s masterpieces include Islamic Culture in Crisis, The Arab-Islamic Personality and the Arab Destiny, and The Founding of the Islamic West.
His focus shifted more towards writing the biography of the Prophet Muhammad using scientific lenses in what has been described as a bold approach to Islamic history that breaks away from the sacralization that permeates the work of many Arab scholars on the subject. His goal was to rewrite prophetic tradition in a scientific way that combines comparative history with anthropological insight.
Djait’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad has been described as a bold approach to Islamic history that breaks away from the sacralization that permeates the work of many Arab scholars on the subject.
In this respect, he made it clear that a distinction should be made between historical thought, historiography and the philosophy of history. This book was written in three parts and puts the genesis of Islam in its historical context. (See a related article, “A New Perspective on the Last Days of the Prophet.”)
The place of Islam in the contemporary world was a major concern for Djait in his later life. In an interview with the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi in March 2018, he rejected the discourse of political Islam and urged a proper reading of Islam’s history.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Djait insisted that democracy is an uphill battle that should be won. “Tunisia should safeguard its democratic asset whatever the social and economic costs, which can only be resolved with time. Democracy should go hand in hand with economic growth,” he told Al-Quds.
In an official statement, Tunisian President Kais Saied expressed deep respect for Djait and deplored the passing away of a “great thinker” who left a lasting imprint on Tunisia’s cultural scene.
Djait received a constellation of distinctions and prizes, including being named Arab Cultural Personality of the Year by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Beirut in 2016, and being honored in 2018 by a group of Arab researchers who dedicated to him a book that sheds light on his rich academic and intellectual journey.