Rodinson, Maxime


The French historian and sociologist Professor Maxime Rodinson, who has died aged 89, was a renowned specialist on Islam and the Arab world. His Marxism meant that he studied Islam in terms of economic and social history, distancing himself from the tradition of those who studied the subject in terms of belief and its comparison with Christianity.

The first public demonstration of this approach was his biography Mohammed (1961), which has been revised and reprinted many times. Rodinson always spoke more about Muslims than about Islam, and this book is a key to his whole work. He did not ignore Islamic texts and, in later publications, claimed it was only by the misuse of certain texts that some Muslims sought to justify terrorism.

Rodinson was an active presence in public debates and controversies, sometimes inadvertently. Indeed, in 1999 Mohammed was withdrawn from the curriculum of the American University in Cairo after it was attacked by a newspaper columnist, and banned by the Egyptian minister for higher education amid charges that it “denigrated the Islamic faith”.

In 1967, on the eve of the six-day war, Rodinson became well known in France when he expressed a certain reticence about Israel, despite himself being Jewish. He had always been suspicious of Zionism and considered those who expressed enthusiasm for Israel were indulging in a belated form of colonialism.

But Israel existed and could not be abolished. Therefore, a Palestinian state had to be created and supported. So, in 1968, with Jacques Berque, the specialist on Algerian history, Rodinson set up a study group to work for a Palestine state. That year, too, his Israel Et Le Refus Arabe,was published. In 1973, his Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? appeared in English.

Born in Marseille, Rodinson was the son of Russian-Polish immigrants, who became members of the Communist party. His father worked in the clothing trade, and Maxime became an errand boy at the age of 13. From then on, it was the struggle for self-education. Books were borrowed, obliging teachers, who did not demand payment, were sought and, since Rodinson recognised the existence of many worlds, he cultivated an interest in the Middle East and its languages.

In 1932, aged 17, he gained entry to the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, profiting from a system that allowed those without academic qualifications to take the competitive entrance examination. From then, he had a highly successful academic career. He went to the National Council of Research in 1937, becoming a full-time student of Islam, and also joined the Communist party.

In 1940, he was fortunate to be appointed to the French Institute in Damascus, both because he could extend his knowledge of Islam and, more particularly, escape the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Both his parents subsequently died in Auschwitz.

Returning to Paris in 1948, Rodinson was put in charge of the Muslim section of the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1955, he became director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, becoming professor of classical Ethiopian four years later.

He resigned from the Communist party in 1958 amid accusations that he was doing this to further his career. But he always insisted that being a party member was like following a religion, and, as an agnostic, he did not want to do this. But he remained a Marxist, and the party indicated privately that they were prepared to readmit him should he ever ask, though he never did.

Among his other works were Islam Et Capitalisme, (1966, English edition, 1974); Marxisme Et Monde Musulman (1972); Les Arabes, (1979); La Fascination De l’Islam, (1980); L’Islam: Politique Et Croyance (1993); and Europe And The Mystique Of Islam (published in English, 1989).

One must not forget that Rodinson was also from Marseille; as such, he had a great sense of humour and a taste for sometimes daring chansons. He was married with a daughter and two sons.

· Maxine Rodinson, historian and sociologist, born January 26 1915; died May 23 2004

(From: Guardian site)

Rodinson, Maxime

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