Dr. Omar Nakib
Maitre de Conference (A)
Many sources can be used to present the biography of Malik Bennabi. However, his autobiography “Mudhakkirātu Shāhidin lil Qarn” (Memoirs of the Century’s Witness) as a main source of information about his life may not be enough, but it may provide more adequate ideas about the growth of his intellectual personality, as well as his life by virtue of its being a very long trip of obstacles and risks, regarding the different kinds of challenges he faced in most periods of his life and until his death in 1973 a.c. Rather, his life was actually a veritable example of a Muslim intellectual with whom the colonialism used all the available means of the intellectual struggle against him in an attempt to turn him away from his aspirations to contribute in the liberation of his country, rather, the whole Muslim “Ummah” from the western dominance. Nevertheless, these challenges have produced many unexpected effects and contributed so positively in the formulation of his intellectual views and ideas, namely those related to the problem of colonialism, no matter what would be its nature. These views and ideas have shaped all his works published under the well-known title:
“Problems of Civilisation”.
From this perspective, presenting Malik Bennabi’s life emerges as an important initiative to unveil the latent educational, cultural, and intellectual factors taht contributed in the shaping of his thoughts (al Milad.Z.1992: 37). Hence, besides providing a detailed information about his life, these memoirs may enable us to grasp the essential components of Malik Bennabi’s thought, as well as his concern which has gone along with him during his life (MShQ. from the introduction of the translator: 10).
Actually, Malik Bennabi’s autobiography as the main source of information is not only a simple book of autobiography, but also a memoirs of a witness “who addressed the reader from behind the veil” (MShQ: 7) as a kind of an analysis of one century of World events, which marked the course of human history in one of its decisive periods. Such an analysis could enable him to came out with a wealth of insights and enduring ideas about the problems of the contemporary Muslim world.
He is Malik bin Omar bin Lakhdar bin Mustapha bin Nabi. He was called at home as-Siddik (the truthful) instead of Malik. Born in 1905 in Tibissa, a town in the southeast of Algeria, in the first day of November. He was the sole boy of a modest Algerian family under the colonial rule. His father was one of those few Algerian citizens who got the “chance” to acquire a very limited schooling from French colonial school in his hometown. Such a situation enabled him to get a modest job in the limits to met the daily needs of his family.
From a historical point of view, Malik Bennabi describes, in his memoirs, the period of his birth as a point of linking, or more exactly a point of contact and a period of transition between two historical stages, he says: “
My birth occurred in a period of time when it was possible to contact the past by those who were still alive as the witnesses of the last century, and to overlook the future by its first pioneers” (MShQ: 15).
Being the sole boy in his family with three sisters, he was the privilege of the whole family members. He spent his childhood, like almost Algerian children of his time, as an “indigenous”1 by moving between Tibissa and Qussantina. His early childhood was spent in Tibissa where he “opened his eyes” in a very conservative socio-educational environment that instilled in his personality the fundamental Islamic values.
His grandmother known as Hajja Baya was one of the very influential family members, even though he says that he has not a clear and enough information about her. He says, however, still retains for her good memoirs. He mentioned her influence on the whole family, as he notes:
“I have known one of my grandmothers, Hajja Baya, a very longevous woman. I did not know her sufficiently, but she left for my family many of her memoirs and witnesses, especially about the French invasion of Algeria, which were transmitted to me by my parents. Indeed, my grandmother Hajja Zulaikha reported how Hajja Baya and her parents left Qussantina once invaded by the French colonial army. So, we may estimate at what extent like this story can influence “the spirits and consciousness of the grandchildren, and me as one of them. She was verily my first school, where my primary ideas about life were formed.” (MShQ: 15-16).
Meanwhile, his other grandmother Hajja Zulaikha had another influence on him, so as he became more attached to her at an extent to be considered “the beloved narrator” to her grandchildren including Malik Bennabi himself who considered the spontaneous gatherings to listen to her fables and stories teaching circles (Bariun.F.1988: 90).
“Indeed, from her, I learned that al-Ihsan (charity) is the highest level of the Islamic values, and by the influence of one of her stories, me as a six years old boy, I performed a deed which might be the best one I have ever did in my life, and twenty five years after that event, when I became so mature, I started to understand how grateful I feel to that longevous woman, my grandmother Hajja Zulaikha” (MShQ: 19-20).
The Qur’anic school (al-Kuttāb) is another dimension of the socio-educational environment where Malik Bennabi grew up during his childhood. He was enrolled to learn and memorise al Qurān like his peers.
Malik Bennabi witnessed the consequences of the French invasion of Algeria. So, he grew up under very difficult circumstances, observing sadly the Algerian tragedy caused by that invasion which reached a point where many Algerian families left Algeria to immigrate in the neighbouring countries, he says:
“I was a seven years old boy when my family’s socio-economical conditions became to worsen. My grandfather sold all his properties and left Algeria to stay in Tarabuls al Gharb in Libya around 1908 a.c. as a sign of rejection of any kind of cohabitation with the invaders (MShQ: 16).
That period was so hard for him and his family to deal with because his father remained without any job as a source of living while he, Malik Bennabi, was staying in Qussantina, in his uncle’s house. However, once his uncle died, the conditions became harder. As a result, his uncle’s wife, B’hija, found herself compelled to send him back to his hometown Tibissa (MShQ: 19). In this context, he noted in his memoirs that the period spent in Qussantina in his uncle’s house left clear traces on his personality and shaped his behaviour.
When Malik Bennabi talks about his parents, he always emphasizes his mother’s ‘presence’. Actually, he never hesitated to show his attachment to her because of her deep influence on him. He had a particular relation with her compared with that of his father. He used to spend most of his time with her. Perhaps, this particularity is due to the different kinds of sacrifices his mother did for the sake of his happiness. It would be more suitable in this context to give some examples of such a kind of sacrifice to show the extent to which he was attached, rather influenced by her. He said:
“And I’m still remembering one day, in order to send me to my town’s Quranic school, she found herself obliged to give my teacher her wooden bed instead of the month’s payment for tuition, because she couldn’t afford the fees” (MShQ: 19). Yet, she worked as a seamstress to “compensate” a jobless father. Another day, “when she was talking about her trip to Mecca, I was very touched by her style. So, I acted as if I was thirsty, I went out to the veranda where she used to put the water containers, and gave free my tears. Undoubtedly, my mother did know what was happening to me because such things did never slip away from her attention” (MShQ: 291).
After his return from Qussantina, he was enrolled in the French school in Tibissa like the Algerian kids of his time, but alongside the Qura’nic school.
“ There, I joined the school of Tibissa in my new milieu, in a very poor and needy family, where I began to be more acquainted with my maternal grandmother, hajja Zulaikha. I heard from her a lot of religious fables which were mainly focused on the right and wrong and the consequences of both, i.e. reward and punishment” (MShQ: 19).
While he was attending the Quranic school, he didn’t show any sign of attention and then of success because of his negative attitude towards his teacher’s method of dealing with pupils. So, he did not learn a lot and his achievements were not as high as expected by his family despite he has spent four years in the Kuttāb2, (MShQ: 24). Consequently, his parent decided to limit his attendance in the French school where he enjoyed the new environment especially when he saw the difference between the two schools models, namely the psycho-educational conditions of learning for a child, like him. During that period, he started to be more disciplined, either at home or outside. So, as he said in his memoirs, he was seriously studying all through the week. Rather, he became more attracted by the mosque to perform the daily prayers as well as the weekly Friday prayer and particularly in the holidays.
Besides his attendance in the French school, he also enjoyed attending the circles of al-Qussassine (the local professional storytellers), to hear stories about some historical heroes, like the famous prophet’s companion Ali ibn Abi Tālib. He also became fascinated with the gymnastic games of Awled ben Isa, a sufi group who became famous for their strange acts. He particularly enjoyed the performance of magicians who played skilfully with snakes. (MShQ: 28).
This period, when Malik Bennabi was in the primary school, coincided with the beginning of the World war one. He was only nine years old. Despite his age and his inability to fully understand the event, its dimensions and its causes, he continuously used to pay attention on the event and its consequences. So, he tried to be “up to date” with the daily news provided by the then media in his hometown. Unfortunately, his family and he suffered somewhat from the war’s consequences and the deteriorated economical conditions that reached a point where his family decided to send him once again to Qussantina to live with his great uncle’s wife B’hidja in order to be able to continue his education there in the French colonial school. There, in Qussantina, Malik Bennabi found the opportunity to know and communicate more with his grandfather, who had returned from Tarabuls al Gharb after the Italian invasion of Libya.
Malik Bennabi’s stay in Qussantina was not so successful in terms of school achievement as it was expected from him. The reason for such a condition was that his great uncle’s wife gave him free rein to the extent to be uncontrollable. He said in this context:
“During the period of my staying in Kussantina, I didn’t show any sign of progress in my school’s achievement, my great uncle’s wife B’hidja actually perverted me by her exaggerated care. And whenever my uncle Mohamed tried to punish me, my grandfather intervened. So, my uncle’s wife B’hidja found herself obliged to send me back to Tibissa (MShq: 35-36).
He ended his childhood in the primary school in Tibissa by obtaining the primary school’s certificate. Such a certificate, after a special exam, enabled him to continue his studies in the subsequent levels in Qussantina. However, despite that success Malik Bennabi was not too happy because, according to him, his elementary school record was affected by racial discrimination. He says,
“During then (the World war one), I was graduated in the primary school by the final exam. Although it was so easy for me to know about my grades over the year, as well as the grades of the four first pupils in my class, I was sure that I was the best one, but not continuously overall the year. That exam left a sad memoir in my consciousness because “Father” Adam intervened to influence the results of the students. So, I obtained grade “B” in the final exam while a French pupil obtained “B+” which is the first grade in our class. But despite all, I obtained a successful grade, which enabled me to continue my studies in Lycee Sidi ben Jily in Qussantina since such a success was so meaningful for an “ indigenous” under the French colonial rule.
For Malik Bennabi, the intervention of “Father” Adam showed a type of injustice that embodied the discrimination practised by the French rulers at different levels. As a matter of fact, he decided to challenge the western bias intellectually and became determinate to continue his education and prove his abilities.” (Bariun.F.1988: 93). Since then, the period of his youth started by moving back once again to Qussantina to become one of the students of lycée Sidi ben Jily.
Indigenous, is a surname attributed by the French colonial rulers to the native Algerian Muslim people.
2 The Kuttab is the traditional schools that focus on teaching al Qurān, Arabic language and primary principles of Islamic sciences for pupils.