|Relations between the Western Civilization and the World of Islam|
Relations between the Western Civilization and the World of Islam
I am pleased to deliver a speech on Islam and the West in this meeting. Before dealing with the relations or the confrontation of the world of Islam and the West on each other, let’s have a glance at the historical background of the East-West confrontation, which goes back to the era of Homer and Thucydides. In the Aeschylus’ tragedy, The Persians, there is an obvious confrontation between the West and East. It is noteworthy that Herodotus reports the Iranian-Greek war on the basis of the above play. Moreover, historians after Herodotus take poetic story as authentic historical interpretations. Nearly 2000 years later, as of the 17 century A.D., as stated, those anecdotes of Aeschylus and Herodotus are considered and quoted by a great number of historians and reiterated by certain scholars and writers.
You may all have heard that in the Battle of Marathon, liberty defeats despotism. Such a statement sounds like the ones we hear nowadays, and it is, in essence, the brief political understanding of the above Greek poet. Throughout the play, there is a confrontation between Greece and Persia or Asia and the West. As already stated, perhaps for the first time, the term ‘liberty’ is used in its political sense in the era of Aeschylus. Herodotus and Aeschylus have repeatedly shown their joy as Athens liberates itself from the dominance of Persia and King Xerxes. This liberty is not the opposite point of slavery, as we know that the Greeks did not oppose slavery; Aeschylus and Herodotus themselves neither thought nor were afraid of being enslaved by the Persians, since despite its outcome, the battle would not result in the slavery of the defeated. This liberty was a new concept that was to become the basic concern of politics and the ultimate ideal of life after 2000 years.
By the end of the epoch of the Greeks’ cities, and during the next 2000 years, the confrontation between liberty and despotism has left no trace in history. Then in the modern Europe, the confrontation is manifested in the literature and politics, where it is refreshed and has gotten a new sense and status.
Presently we take the confrontation of the West and the East for granted.
As long as we discuss the impact of the Western civilization on Islam and the whole world, such a confrontation has already been accepted. Yet if we are ignorant about the history of such confrontation and its dimensions, we may fail to comprehend the problem truly. The new relations between the West and the East and Islam are the continuation of the ones that once existed between Greece and Persia. The relation between Europe and the Far East may have been somehow influenced, interpreted and formed by the background of the relation of Iran and the West. The relations between Islam and the West, in turn, has been perceived and interpreted on the basis of the confrontation that the new West has learned from Aeschylus and Herodotus.
As you already know, Muslims began to show interest in the Greek sciences from the 8 century A.D. (2nd century A.H.) onward; they translated their medical, philosophical, astrological and mathematical works into their own language.
You may wonder why the Iranians were the first to pave that way and why the other nations did not have any interest in that matter. An Iranian like me may guess that the paradigm of the relations between Iran and Iranians with Greece and the Greeks may have played a role in this respect. Nevertheless, several centuries after the Iranians, the Spanish Muslims turned to philosophy and the Greek sciences as well. On the other hand, the Arabs and the new Arabic speaking nations showed no desire in that direction. In spite of prestigious background of Egypt in science and culture, and the fact that Alexandria was the focal point of the Greek sciences and philosophy, for a long time, the Egyptians did not pay due attention to the existing great treasure of science in Alexandria.
In the historical interaction of cultures, it is noteworthy that there are cases where scientific materials are accessible but are not utilized by people anymore. Paradoxically, in other occasions, one can find people who are seeking knowledge wherever possible.
As far as I know, when the question of the influence of Europe in the world of Islam is set forth, people usually do not ask the reason why Muslims had such an interest in the Greek science, which itself had been stagnant and isolated for centuries; and how they devised a new era of science and philosophy. Here, it is hard to talk about the influence of Greece. The Greek science and thinking was important, but if it were not because of the power of the awakened desire for learning in Muslims, such science and thinking would have no impact, as it was the case elsewhere before that time or after it.
The Muslims had such a concern and appetite for the Greek science and philosophy that they succeeded in translating, researching and contemplating on a significant part of works in the Islamic world. If we take the transfer of Greek sciences and philosophy as an influence, then we may as well say that the outset of the clear influence of Europe in the world of Islam roughly coincides at the early stages of the Middle Ages. At the time, Europe took the Greek science more or less seriously, whereas Muslims expanded and advanced the Greek and Indian sciences so much so that the Europeans could do nothing but to take advantage of it. The Muslimized Spain, the major scientific society next to Iran, became the focal point of translating Islamic sciences.
Surprisingly, those translators were among the same Christians who did not tolerate Muslims’ sovereignty in Spain, and in 1492 A.D., overthrew them with an unprecedented violence and killed or scattered both the Muslims and Jews.
One of the effects of the transfer to and translation of Islamic sciences in Europe was that science moved out of the church, and the teachers and students, who were all the staff of the church, left the monasteries and began teaching in different organizations, which were later turned into universities. This impact occurred in a situation where some sort of Islam phobia existed in Europe. This had begun since the time when Spanish Muslims were defeated in their attack to the North (732 A.D.) and were stopped there. Such Islam phobia lasted for over 1000 years and manifested itself in different ways. Presently, one can find its explicit reflection in the politics and strategy of the West. Among its argumentative and theoretical forms, Islam phobia can be seen in Huntington's clash of civilizations. Such a phobia is not a psychological matter, rather the outcome of a theoretical and historical confrontation whose background goes back to 2500 years ago. In the world of Islam, however, Christianity phobia or Europe phobia has never had any place. Muslims did not show any interest even about the events in Europe or the West. Properly speaking, in the Eastern part of the world of Islam, no interest was shown to sciences, literature and philosophy of the Islamic West. In the books and scientific, philosophical and historical works of the East of Islam, even the Crusades did not take place nor can we find any trace of the philosophy and science of the West (Andalus). It was as if the West was viewed as a land belonging to others. Our Philosopher, Sohrevardi, has a work titled "The Story of the Western Exile" which takes place in Morocco (The West of the world of Islam, in the Girvan City).
Regardless of these points, the relation between the West of Islam with its East was in one direction. The Westerners knew everything about the events that took place in the East, whereas the Easterners did not even know Averroes. Ironically, that Philosopher had an influence in the philosophy of the West rather than the Islamic Philosophy. This influence was more obvious than the influence of his oriental counterparts in the philosophy of the Middle Ages.
Islam and the West generally had one directional relation throughout the Middle Ages. In literature, philosophy and science of the Islamic era up to the new era, there is no trace of the familiarity of Muslims with the philosophy and culture of Europe. Yet, the Middle Agers were familiar with the important scientific and philosophical works of Muslims and absorbed them. In the new era, it is apparently the other way around.
Islamic countries turn to Europe since they need the European weapons and industry. The Europe's modern view of the whole world, including the parts related to Islam, changes and it regards the whole non-Western world as the object to its own deeds and views, and as a package of raw materials and historical matters. Now Europe is not only well aware of the East and the world of Islam but also it reports and interprets its history, as it is argued that the East is incapable of expressing itself. In such circumstances, the world of Islam, just like other non-occidental worlds, confronts certain problems.
Actually this is the historical case of being in non-Western world. In such a situation, the world of Islam has no choice but to define its existence with relation to the West.
At the time, the nations and countries had their own distinct problems but with the advent of modernity, those problems remained unsolved, and other problems were created for each and every country. The world of Islam did not have any problems pertaining to poverty, diseases until it sensed the existence of the new world. This does not imply that Islam did have access to science and technology, and that there were no cases of poverty or diseases in that world. Poverty, disease, ignorance, etc, have always existed everywhere to some extent, but these turned into problems when man himself began to confront and eradicate them, as he found himself capable of solving such problems. That happened in the 18th century in Europe. We know that Marx referred to poverty as social problem. Muslims began to familiarize themselves with historical issues as they interacted with the West. At least they realized that being deprived of new weapons, sciences and industry of Europe was a weakness for them, and that they could do nothing without those facilities. If there was no base, in the world of Islam for phobia from or having enmity with the West at that time, now Muslims had to examine the dominance of the West. That was a raw experience for a long time as Muslims did not really know how to react to the phenomenon of the dominance of Europe. To them, dominance merely had something to do with military or political affairs, and they were willing to confront it by means of politics and arms.
Europe, in turn, believed that it had the right to dominance, and not until recently has it bothered itself about the West-East encounter. To the West, the whole regions and nations outside the Western world were unfamiliar with science and culture. Ernest Renan has stated that Muslims are incapable of entering the world of science. One could have asked him, if it were so, how could Muslims provide Europeans with their achievements in philosophy, astrology and medicine? Orientalism offers an answer to this question: “The Muslims who translated the Greek sciences and learned them, did not add anything to them, rather like a true trustee, they preserved them and then returned them to their original owners, namely Europeans.” Obviously, this is not a good answer, and Europe itself was not satisfied with this baseless justification which is devoid of historical evidence.
Now, other contemporary occidental Islamologists do not focus on the enmity of Islam with science. Instead, they refer to despotism, corruption of governments and lack of freedom as the root causes of the backwardness of the world of Islam. Such a justification seems to be true from political standpoint, though it is a sort of deliberate fallacy, and is not in essence much different from the response already mentioned.
Is the question whether the world of Islam has not developed at the expected rate, and whether liberty and development have not been realized? Then the absence of liberty and lack of development plan are the repetition and assertion of the claim, not an answer to the question posed. Such rhetoric is the reiteration of Ernest Renan statement, but with softened and more polite words. In such a mentality, Muslims are far from socio-economical development, and it is not clear how they can achieve that goal. Apparently, here the relation between the world of Islam with the West has not been set forth properly. Once, the world of Islam used to learn science and philosophy from Europe. Recently, however, the West's influence has been mainly martial and political. This time, Muslims have found themselves in need of the weaponry and industrial products of the West, without asking themselves and knowing what they could learn from that world. They were the consumers of the Western products over two hundred years without reflecting about the manner in which the West succeeded in creating and advancing new science and technology, and asking why is that others are unable to do so.
In the world of Islam, science and freedom are praised a lot; in this world, there are great scientists as well, but a system for science and research has not been set up as needed. Obviously, when science does not have its right status, the expected benefits are not obtainable. Yet, in recent years research has been developing in general, and in biomechanics and biotechnology in particular, our country has had important advancements. The underdeveloped world considers external barriers in the course of the interpretation of this trial, and for instance, the colonial wrath is a barrier to development in their view, while the principle of development is asserted and is thought of as the basic principle dominating history, and this is a case in point in accepting the principle of modernity and Western values.
In such circumstances, claimants should show what tradition is a barrier to development and how it is so. Another important point is that the Renaissance in Europe was a comprehensive intellectual, scientific and artistic change, not a change caused by certain people in a part of the European community, which would result in changes whose outcome would be the creation of science and culture. Reform may have laid the ground for the Renaissance of science, culture and art, but it has not been the cause of that effect. You know that arts, politics, education and new physics were created concurrently with the Reform in the Renaissance; in other words, they were not their effect. Webber’s essay on the “Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism” merely proves the compatibility and relativity of these two phenomena. It cannot be deduced from Webber’s statement that capitalism is the outcome and subordinate to the Reform. It is illogical and baseless to think of the weakness of the world of Islam as the outcome of religious belief and dependence on the old traditions that should be changed, because in that case, it is proven that development calls for incredulity.
Evidently, every belief may not be used as the basis of science, research and development. On the other hand, with no belief and love, one cannot create science or any other foundation. The influence of the West has had negative and positive dimensions, but the positive effects are more perceptible. Yet if we examine them carefully, the negative effects may be more than the positive ones. Certainly, nobody could have stopped such influence. Principally, if someone claims that what is now known as the world of Islam, is formed so due to its relation with the West, such a statement may not be regarded baseless or pointless. But if we go as far as to say that the ideal of the world of Islam is Westernalization, we would go to extremes. Yet, it cannot be denied that the acquaintance of Muslims with the powerful Western world has affected their own impressions of themselves. In that encounter, should they have discovered the essence and origin of the power of the West, they would have had a different relation with it, but would look at the West in terms of its technology, military and political power. This view would not be wrong but in some case it would act as a barrier to them and would not let them ask about the conditions under which they could have technology, weaponry and political power.
Science, technology, military and political power are all parts and aspects of an interrelated whole. This is evident but what is hard to comprehend and perhaps to achieve is the manner and condition under which such a united whole is created. Would it possible to have technology and political power merely by means of learning sciences and technology; or would it be possible for the state or government to develop science and technology in any way and everywhere it chooses? As already mentioned, this point has been noticed.
There are some who believe that the traditions should be moderated in order to pave the way for scientific, economic and political development. Still there are others who state that there is no opposition between political and scientific advancement and religious traditions, and that Islam has always placed emphasis on love of science and dignity of man, and in view of certain Muslim scholars, recognition of human rights. There are cases where these two groups may have encounter with each other or different political stances, but in principle, they are not much different with each other; that is, they both believe that Islam is in harmony with development policies. There are still others who argue that such views are oriental interpretations or upside down orientalism. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the issues of the world of Islam are set forth with relation to the dominant cultural and technological powers of the West. The history of this matter in our country and other Islamic countries goes back to 200 years ago. However, the important political event of the recent decades is that a major part of the West’s political and ideological attitudes, particularly that of the U. S. A., has depended on the world of Islam and its political and cultural events. This is not reversing the previous condition rather it is its intensification.
The policy of the clash of civilizations, depicted in the works of Bernard Lewis and Huntington, is a case in point to this claim, which is not a good signal to the world’s future policy.
Most people believe that such views are a report and description of the present cultural and political situation of the world; while the existing situation was created concurrently with the advent and manifestation of such views, and these two are interrelated, and strengthen and weaken together. I hope that the manner of such strengthening and weakening would not be horrible and would lead to peace, liberty and justice.
If I am not mistaken and the history of East-west confrontation does go back to Iran-Greek wars, the Iranians revived Greek science and philosophy one thousand years later, after the Hellenic epoch. Despite the believers of the clash among civilizations, the recent confrontations may be an introduction and a precondition to the affinity between Islam and new European civilization, and the present dangerous trend may end in peace. I am not so optimistic to have such far-reaching expectations and rejoice however the duty of philosophy is to consider and identify possibilities. The possibility of understanding and affinity between the Islam and the West is not less likely than the possibility of the clash among civilizations, particularly because the clash among civilizations is an ambiguous term as wisdom and sagacity prefers dialog to war.