In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China began to host a small community of Arab scholars and journalists, recruited mostly through “revolutionary” channels like the FLN, the PLO, and the Iraqi and Sudanese Communist Parties. These experts were brought to China with the explicit purpose of editing and translating texts, as well as providing Arabic-language instruction at Chinese media, propaganda and educational institutions. This select group included a number of writers and intellectuals, such as Kadhim al-Samawi, Hanna Mina, Sheikh Jalal al-Hanafi and Hadi al-‘Alawi, the last of whom left the deepest mark on twentieth-century Arab intellectual life. Nicknamed the “Hallaj of his age,” after Ibn al-Hallaj, the tenth-century Sufi poet who was executed for alleged heresy by the Abbasid state, this underappreciated intellectual was named by the French sociologist and anthropologist Jacques Berque as “one of the most dangerous thinkers of the twentieth century,” largely due to his critical and radical reinterpretations of Arabic turath (heritage). Al-‘Alawi also contributed in no small way to reshaping Arab perceptions of Chinese civilization, primarily through his book al-Mustatraf al-Sini (The Chinese Book of Novelties), an encyclopedic work introducing China’s culture, philosophies, religions and language to an uninitiated Arab readership.
Hadi al-‘Alawi, brother of the equally distinguished scholar Hasan al-‘Alawi, was born to a poor but well-educated and religious Shi‘i family in Karradat Maryam, a suburb of Baghdad, in 1932. His upbringing, in the shadow of his grandfather’s library, endowed him with a rich knowledge of the Qur’an, Arabic literature and the classics. In the meantime, his family’s poverty left him painfully conscious of the class disparities in Iraqi society and inculcated in him, as he put it, “a hatred of the rich and the government of the rich.” This sentiment pushed him from an early age to reexamine “Islamic-Arabic” sources with the interests of the poor and downtrodden in mind, and heavily influenced his political orientation for the rest of his life. Indeed, his political commitments, including a principled opposition to authority, were on full display at his 1954 graduation from the Economics Department of Baghdad University, when he refused to shake the hand of King Faysal II. Not surprisingly, al-‘Alawi joined the Iraqi Communist Party, then banned, and supported ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim’s anti-monarchical revolution in 1958. The Baathist coup in 1963, and the gap al-‘Alawi saw between the Communist leadership’s bombastic rhetoric and its lack of action on the ground following the coup, disillusioned him and led to his departure from the party. He remained fervently loyal, however, to his leftist beliefs, despite suffering persecution in the 1960s and 1970s. His lifestyle was remarkably modest and, in accordance with his principles, he opted to live among the poor wherever he went.
It was in the 1960s that al-‘Alawi began his career as a prolific writer, exploring turath through a new prism that highlighted its “subversive” elements, particularly with regard to class conflict, the role of the intellectual and his relation to the state, the relationship between language and the subconscious, anti-clericalism, history and myth, feminism, the modernization of the Arabic language and, later, the necessity of spiritualizing or indigenizing the application of communism. A sampling of his subsequent works — nearly 20 in total — such as Chapters from Islam’s Political History, Unnerved Figures in Islam, Political Assassination in Islam, From the Lexicon of Heritage and The Seen and the Unseen in Politics and Literature serves to capture the breadth and profundity of his intellectual interests and his thorough familiarity with classical Islamic and Arabic culture and history.
In 1976, with the aid of his friend Sheikh Jalal al-Hanafi (who had lived in China for many years by then) as well as contacts in the Chinese embassy, al-‘Alawi (along with Kadhim al-Samawi) fled state persecution and moved to China, working for the Xinhua news agency and teaching Arabic. From the outset, he immersed himself in the study of Chinese culture and philosophy, mostly through the help of Israel Epstein, a naturalized Chinese journalist (editor-in-chief of China Today) and scholar who was also a member of the Communist Party of China. Al-‘Alawi was particularly attracted to Taoism, which he saw as an authentic “Eastern” tradition similar to Sufism in terms of its “communal” spirit and concern for the people as well as what he perceived to be its adamant opposition to the state and the monopolization of wealth. His interest in Taoist sages such as Laozi and Chuangzi is not at all surprising, as he identified in them an essential messianic quality that encompassed a deep concern for society at large, an ability to transcend the shackles of the state and an imposed monastic asceticism born of “real knowledge” and a sense of responsibility (which he believed any “true” intellectual should possess.) Inspired by Taoism’s emphasis on radical simplicity and non-action (wuwei), and following in the footsteps of the medieval freethinker Abu al-‘Ala al-Ma‘arri, whom he saw as a spiritual master, al-‘Alawi abjured the consumption of meat and stuck to a strictly vegetarian diet for the rest of his life. He also refused to have children. Overall, al-‘Alawi’s interest in Chinese culture stemmed from what he saw as a natural affinity between Islamic and Chinese civilizations, unified as they are by a common “humanistic” essence that contrasted with the spiritual emptiness and corruption of the West.
Al-‘Alawi was initially appreciative of China’s Maoist model of communism because of what he saw as its successful reconciliation of Chinese traditional culture (oral and textual) with scientific Marxism. This synthesis, he believed, allowed Maoism to overcome the country’s essential challenge of feeding its people and achieving industrialization, as embodied in the Great Leap Forward. He soon changed his opinion, however, when he realized that the Maoist model sought to obliterate China’s traditional Confucian inheritance, as was the case during the Cultural Revolution, which emptied Maoism of any “humanistic” dimension he may have once thought it possessed. In general, al-‘Alawi was critical of what he termed “translated communism” — epitomized by the “failed” Russian, Cuban and Chinese applications — and which he saw as a heartless, dogmatic, top-down approach overseen by distant leaders uninterested in the people or their cultural life. Rather, he promoted the concept of “communalism” as a more hopeful alternative. Identifying precedents in Chinese and Islamic history, al-‘Alawi claimed that it is only by the “indigenization” of communism (masha‘iyya), implying a sustained engagement with popular folklore and heritage, that the “ethical” basis of the communist tradition could be reclaimed and an egalitarian order, predicated on the spiritual essence (not in the religious sense) of a society, realized.
This notion explains al-‘Alawi’s affinity for the dual traditions of Sufism and Taoism, wherein he identified a masha‘i or communal tendency driven by a sense of dignity and defense of the downtrodden against authority. More important, he valued the attempts of these traditions to rein in man’s unbridled whims and ease his return to an essential nature (fitra), which is masha‘i in its most basic form. Of course, those people who attain this lofty rank are exceptions, comprising what he called “universal intellectuals” or “prophets” (of different categories) such as Muhammad, Ibn al-Hallaj, Laozi, Goethe and Marx. Whatever criticisms al-‘Alawi had of Chinese communism, he found far greater fault with Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policies, which he viewed as signaling the establishment of China’s “second bourgeois republic.” He was scathing about Arab intellectuals who, heavily influenced by Western sources, praise the “wrong” China — the China of Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, rather than the China of Mao or Lin Biao.
Al-‘Alawi spent much of his life in exile between Beijing, London, Beirut and Damascus, where he finally settled in the 1990s. Around that time, he sought to create a non-political masha‘iyya movement that would address the needs of the poor in Syria and Iraq while complementing and supporting the activities of the left in opposition to Saddam Hussein. Up to his death in September 1998, al-‘Alawi continued to argue that in order for Arabs to complete the two-century project of national liberation from colonialism and Western domination, as well as social liberation from poverty, ignorance and the cruelty of capitalism, the masha‘i Eastern tradition first had to be reclaimed. Only then would conditions permit the emergence of an intellectual class capable of fighting capitalism at home and imperialism abroad, and thus the attainment of true liberation.
Hadi al-‘Alawi was a towering figure of the twentieth century and an intellectual without parallel for his ethical fortitude, rigor and deep concern and commitment to the poor. He considered himself a son of Chinese civilization, a fact demonstrated by his ample engagement with Chinese philosophy and culture, and symbolized by the placard he hung atop the door to his house in Damascus: “Here lives Hadi al-‘Alawi, scion of the two civilizations” — the Islamic and the Chinese.