Prof’s philosophy garners accolades from afar

Diana Scholl

Prof. Souleymane Bachir Diagne said he believes that “time is the stuff being is made of.”

This statement is the basis for the philosophy that has made him a world-renowned thinker.

His philosophies are based on the belief that progress is necessary.

“His philosophies are driven by a real love of humanity,” said Sarah Dreier, a former Daily staffer and Weinberg senior whom Diagne advised on her senior thesis. “He uses philosophies as a guiding perspective on human rights in a really powerful way.”

Diagne began his career in Senegal studying the algebra of logic. He now is an expert on African and Islamic philosophy at Northwestern.

In January the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur named him one of the 25 greatest foreign thinkers for the way he has bridged different languages, Western and Islamic thought, and Islamic and African thought.

Diagne has made a niche for himself by applying Islamic and African philosophies to the modern world.

“We shouldn’t be giving in to tradition just because it’s tradition,” Diagne said.

Diagne said he believes philosophy is an important tool for changing the world.

“The philosophical world is abstract, but you want it to have practical implications and reflections on ethical issues,” he said.

Diagne is a joint professor in the philosophy, religion and African Studies departments and has been at NU since 1999.

He was raised in the western African country of Senegal, and studied at the Sorbonne in France. He returned to Senegal to teach philosophy for 20 years at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

“I consider myself Senegalese and Parisian,” Diagne said.

Diagne wasn’t trained to study the philosophy of Islam. In Senegal he taught the algebra of logic, but in the 1980s his department incorporated Islamic thought into the program.

“Living in the Muslim country of Senegal it was important to remind people of the philosophy of Islam,” Diagne said.

Diagne’s philosophy of Islam was cemented when he wrote a book on the modernist philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who championed a more free-thinking approach to Islamic philosophy.

“I deeply agree that Islam needed to reconnect itself to modernity,” said Diagne, who is also a scholar at the United Nations Educational Science and Cultural Organization. “Islam has a history of being free-thinking, but right now people don’t represent this. The development of philosophical thinking need not be so fanatic, but one should step outside your own beliefs and examine them. These are the roots of tolerance and democracy.”

Although his book was written before Sept. 11, 2001, it has attracted a lot of attention because it presents an alternative approach to Islamic thought.

Diagne is now taking a quarter off to write his first book in English. Some of the courses he has taught at NU are History of Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion and classes about African and Islamic philosophy. Dreier said she appreciates both his scholarship and teaching.

“Aside from fact that he’s just this really intelligent philosopher and has a wide range of knowledge of different areas, he’s one of the most generous and humble and helpful professors I’ve worked with at Northwestern,” she said.

Reach Diana Scholl at [email protected]