Michael Totten

Tunisia’s Rationalist Approach to Islam

Tunisia is ahead of its fellow Arab nations for a number of reasons. Its broad and well-educated middle class, its more or less free market economy, its thoroughly Mediterranean identity, and its Western orientation set it apart from most of the others.

Another critical difference is its approach to religion which is more like that found in Kurdistan and the Balkans than in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. If you want to get into the nuts and bolts of it, read Lafif Lakhdar’s essay Moving from Salafi to Rationalist Education in the Middle East Review of International Affairs. See also Teaching Islam in Saudi Arabia by Barry Rubin and State and Islamism in the Maghreb by Aziz Enhaili and Oumelkheir Adda at the GLORIA Center. (Thanks to Barry Rubin for pointing to all of these.)

Here’s the gist of it, though, from Lakhdar, if all you need is the bottom line:

[A]n educational project aimed at preparing new generations properly must produce citizens equipped for the contemporary age, who think independently of their forefathers and who are good at using logical reasoning instead of leaning on the authority of the text. They should accept, without any complication or feeling of guilt, the rational and human institutions, sciences and values of their age, even those which contradict with their ancestors’ heritage and tradition.

Such a school is as yet non-existent in any part of the Arab World except Tunisia which has managed, especially since 1990, to restructure religious education in a way that breaks away from the salafi school. The salafi school relies on the authority of the literal religious text in its superficial form, steering clear of any interpretation which takes into account an historical reading of the text. It is only through such an historical reading that Islamic religious discourse may be renovated and Islam may be adapted to modernity, especially since it has become clear that adapting modernity to Islam–the so-called Islamization of modernity–was a trick to evade modernity itself. Open religious rationalism–subjecting the religious text to rational investigation and research–ought to become the core of the aspired religious education in the Arab-Islamic region, since it is absurd to believe the text and deny reality.

The salafi school instills in the younger generation a religious fanaticism which entails a phobia toward dissimilarity and a rejection of the other, even to the extent of killing.

In contrast, the rational religious school equips religious education with modern sciences. One of these is the comparative study of religions, including those that are extinct (such as the Babylonian and the Egyptian), which helps to understand the historical development of the three monotheist religions. The sociology of religion teaches the young generations the social functions of religion, and how it was exploited by social and political actors. Psychology teaches these generations that God is similar to the father, which is the origin of the idea of God as offering paternal protection as well as comfort and solace during hardships. Religion also responds to a basic deep-rooted need in the human psyche: the need for a second life; Sigmund Freud said that the subconscious is dominated by an aspiration for eternity. Linguistics teaches young generations that the religious text is a convergence of texts which interacted throughout history and that each text is prone to interpretation due to its metaphoric character. Students can then think about the sacred text on their own, and interpret it according to people’s interests and needs, as well as the requirements of the times.

Philosophy promotes critical thinking–an ingredient sorely missing in our heritage. Students can thus practice creative questioning instead of relying on ready-made answers either imported from outside or deduced from the heritage of their forefathers. Worth mentioning in this context is that the philosophy curriculum now taught in Tunisia during the last two years of secondary education is similar to what is given in French schools. It is also taught at Zaitouna University, a religious faculty, as are all other scientific studies including technical specializations.

Human rights studies guarantee the modernization and rationalization of Islamic consciousness through advocating values of modernity and rationalism. This is necessary to deal with the fact that Islamic consciousness has distanced itself from modernity, on the pretext that it is the domain of Jews and Christians and thus should be disproved even if it is good for Muslims.


The religious education prevalent in the Arab world, except for Tunisia, fights the modern reading necessary for Islam today. Consequently, I herewith present models of Islamic education based upon jihad, which antagonizes the other in its broader meaning: the self, women, non-Muslims, life and reason. In contradistinction, I will present a sample of the curriculum taught at the Tunisian Zaitouna University, which I consider a solid base for teaching the religious rationalism we so badly need.

You can dig into the rest of it here.