Wojouh: Dr. Samir Mahmoud
One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.
Dr. Samir Mahmoud is currently Lecturer at the Cambridge Muslim College. Previously he was Assistant Professor at the Lebanese American University and Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut. With an extensive academic background, he has taught multiple courses and authored multiple research publications and books on Spirituality, Islamic Studies, Architecture, Secularism, among other disciplines. Dr. Mahmoud currently resides in Sydney, Australia.
Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak reached out to Dr. Samir Mahmoud to discuss his myriad achievements and thoughts on Islamic affairs, secularism, and challenges facing Lebanon and its people.
Raafat Yamak: Dr. Samir, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with Tripolicy today. We are so excited to have you on!
Samir Mahmoud: Thank you for having me!
RY: I wanted to begin by asking a bit about your upbringing. Were you born in Tripoli?
SM: Nope, I was actually born and raised in Sydney, Australia. My parents were born in Lebanon, in the Akkar region. We moved to Lebanon right when the Lebanese civil war had ended and enrolled in the Tripoli Evangelical School in the Zihriyeh district. I finished high school there and then went on to do two years of schooling at the University of Balamand in Economics. I decided to then go back to Australia to continue my education there. So I basically lived my formative years in Lebanon, from age 11 to 21.
RY: Interesting. So when you moved back to Australia, how did that eventually shape your academic career?
SM: When I went back to Australia I earned a double BA with honors in politics and anthropology. After that, I pursued two masters in philosophical anthropology and then architectural history and theory and while completing a certificate in psychology. Subsequently, I decided to move to England, and got admitted to the University of Cambridge where I studied for a masters in comparative philosophy, including Islamic philosophy. While doing that, I spent 8 months travelling all over Italy writing about the dominant architectural themes present. Then, I pursued a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge. After that, I pursued three post-doctorate research fellowships. My first one was a joint fellowship at MIT-Harvard as part of the Aga Khan Program. The second was at the University of Oxford. The third one was called the Andrew Mellon Post Doctorate program at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When I finished the program at the AUB, I got hired to teach at its Department of Architecture for three years. Afterwards, I taught Architecture at the Lebanese American University (LAU) for another three years. After LAU, I took a short sabbatical to go back to Australia and be closer to my parents who were growing old in age. I went back to Lebanon towards the end of 2019, right when the Lebanese uprising was just starting. Life became unbearable in Lebanon, with the collapse of services and wages. We then took a family decision to move back to Australia. Currently, I'm teaching religion and philosophy online for a Cambridge college.
RY: MashAllah, your academic journey is incredible. You have a lot of patience to go through all those years of schooling! Could you describe your time in Tripoli a bit more, especially while you were growing up there?
SM: I was really involved with Muslim community work in Tripoli and interfaced with many of the city's scholars trying to learn as much as I can from them. From an early age, I was a huge book worm and this really helped with my journey to learning more about Islamic Studies in the traditional sense. So, when I moved back to Australia recently, I decided not to go back straight into academia but to try and benefit the Muslim community and the wider Lebanese community. I began teaching many courses open to the Muslim community in Australia. Furthermore, I started multiple initiatives, among them the discoveryourselfinitaly.com, which is a touring company. Basically, I take people on tours all over Italy to learn about art, architecture, philosophy, and spirituality as a means to bring awareness and self-knowledge. In Australia I established Living Turath which is meant to disseminate classical Islamic works in the modern world. All these initiatives were inspired by Tripoli's own history of scholarship, as the city of knowledge and scholars. I wished to continue that in my own way through my initiatives. That aspect of the city really affected me, especially when I used to walk in the Old City and see the countless madrassahs scattered throughout the alleys. And believe me, at the time, when I had gone back to Tripoli from Cambridge, I couldn't help but be impressed by the level of scholarship that continues to be present in the city. Unfortunately, however, their effect isn't like how it used to be. You will still find them in private gatherings and leading certain seminars but it is all relatively smaller gatherings. The problem with Lebanon is that if you are not politicized, then you most likely will not rise in the ranks and achieve the publicity needed to create macro-level change.
RY: These all sound like incredible initiatives! You mentioned in the beginning that you were involved with Muslim activism in Tripoli. What opened the door to this type of activism?
SM: Well, from a very young age, I was an avid reader. By the time I reached 21, I had read over one thousand books, and -
RY: Wow, mashAllah!
SM: Yes, and to be honest, this took away a lot of time from other activities that most kids my age would have done, like sports. I didn't really socialize much either. I was deeply affected by the history of colonialism and the issues that came because of it. In the early 20th century, many Arab thinkers were mesmerized with Western civilization and its ideas, among them capitalist, socialist, and other ideological trends that permeated Arab society. I started realizing that they were neglecting their own rich history in exchange for imported ideologies that struggled to really establish itself in the lands. This is what made me really delve deeper into our Islamic past. I attempted to do this in a non-reactionary way to avoid the same mistakes that many anti-colonial Arabs had fallen into. Reactionary trends generally breed extremism and destroy objectivity when it comes to tackling something as complex as colonization. As a result, the moderate path, one that rejects secular extremism and religious extremism, and rooted in an enlightened understanding of ethics, law, mysticism, and spirituality, in my opinion, was the only way forward.
RY: Are there specific parties or movements that claim to be rooted in Islam that come to your mind?
SM: I don't want to mention names but a lot of the religiously-inclined movements that sprouted, in reality, ended up in failure on the political and social scenes. They had turned into modern ideologies and not continued the spirit to Islamic enlightenment itself. As a result, I became disillusioned with a lot of these movements. I carried this disillusionment into my academic career where I always had this one perennial question in the back of my mind as I conducted my research; how can we rise as a civilization with authentic roots, with a set of values and philosophical understanding of reality that are authentically our own, while dialoguing and benefitting from the most of what the past 500 years of western civilization has to offer?
RY: One of the criticisms that many direct against academics is that they tend to offer solutions that are not practical on the ground. Basically, that academics and thinkers, especially Muslim ones, get consumed with theories that end up being thrown by the masses who are facing extraordinary amounts of pressure, internal and external. How would you respond to that?
SM: There are people who operate that way but those who do, they won't get anywhere. I agree with the criticism and I can see why some people would direct that to some academics. The problem is that with excessive theorization of things, when you're unable to understand how it could become a reality, you retreat into the realm of abstract ideas. However, just to be clear, we're seeing a new generation of Muslim scholars, academics, and thinkers who have reached a level of intellectual maturity that are having some effects on the ground. This new generation of highly robust and intelligent thinkers, who are as well grounded in western philosophy as they are in Islamic thought, who understand the modern world more than most people, and also understand the classical Islamic tradition. This has extremely promising output.
RY: Are these Muslim thinkers and scholars that you are referring to the ones based out of the West only, or also in the Muslim world?
SM: Both! They're all over the place. However, truth be told, in the West, there is a higher degree of academic freedom to engage in topics compared to the Arab world. The Arab portion of the Muslim world has a much higher level of censorship and this obviously curtails research and publications output. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, for example, there is more academic freedom when it comes to tackling some of the issues related to Islamic politics. In the Arab world, it is more difficult and this is one of the roots of the problem. In the West, a lot of the work that we are seeing on Islam are actually led by Western converts to Islam, including Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College, and Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad of the Cambridge Muslim College, where I currently teach! These institutions are leading the way in providing an alternative paradigm of knowledge in Western societies.
RY: I noticed that you mentioned Western philosophy multiple times throughout this exchange. Do you think someone who wants to pursue Islamic Studies needs to delve into western philosophy as a prerequisite?
SM: No, no. I only mentioned western philosophy because if you want to engage with the world today you must engage with the world's intellectual foundation which includes ethics, philosophy, biology, etc. I emphasize philosophy, in particular, because philosophy and its ideas usually underpin many of the other disciplines.
RY: That makes sense. I wanted to move on to a slightly different topic that is more Lebanon-centric. I noticed that in Lebanon, many of the top social media pages carry very secularistic, atheistic, and in some instances, Islamophobic undertones. There are plenty of examples that document attacks on religion, implicitly and explicitly. It's done in a very arrogant way, almost similar to a Sam Harris or Bill Maher kind of argumentation. Since you've studied with Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, who is quite eloquent when dealing with the rise of secularism, how would you best explain this very evident secularist trend among Lebanese, especially the youth?
SM: You really hit the nail on the head with the issue you just raised. This was one of my missions in Lebanon, that is to dispel certain stereotypes and present an alternative view to the dominant secular discourse particularly found in English and French speaking universities, like AUB and LAU. I was surprised by how secular and anti-religious AUB was. To be honest, the best way to approach this phenomenon is to empathetically and compassionately understand where they are coming from. Unfortunately, some of the reactionary movements to secularism have been counterproductive and in some cases, extreme. This has created a sense of disenfranchisement among some of the Lebanese youth when it comes to religion. As a result, some have reached the reductionist and simplistic conclusion that religion is the source of all problems. Muslims need to understand this from a compassionate standpoint, similar to how the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) dealt with his critics in his early years. The second point is that Lebanese Muslim academics and scholars need to really understand the richness of Islamic intellectual thought and the foundations of secular thought in order to really grasp western intellectual trends, and approach it with an Islamic mindset. There's a lot of work to be done on the ground, and although I prefer face-to-face dialogue, there's no doubt that the social media sphere is one that really requires special attention.
RY: Absolutely, and I believe that your role in this regard has potential. Do you have any particular dreams when it comes to Tripoli?
SM: I launched an initiative called Iwan Circle with a few friends from Tripoli, aimed at countering the secularist movement in Lebanon, but it did not receive much traction. Ultimately, I would love to be able to launch a think tank which could present that ‘middle path’ with an ability to attract all segments, not just Tripolitan society, but the Lebanese one as well. However, it has to be based in Tripoli because of its intellectual past. The goal is to motivate Lebanese youth, especially Muslim youth, to take charge of their future and be on the frontlines of economic and social issues. For me, there is no reason why Lebanese Muslim scholars should not lead the charge against the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. This is a serious lapse on our part. There is a void that needs to be filled, and this is a responsibility that needs to be taken on.
RY: Couldn't agree more with your assessment, Dr. Samir. I want to thank you for your time and your in-depth analysis. I sincerely hope your dream of launching a Tripoli-based think tank becomes a reality!
SM: Thank you, and keep up the great work!
About the Author:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Dallas, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others. He is the founder of The Tripolitan Podcast and co-founder of Tripolicy.