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Faith and the Dialogue of Civilization

Faith and the Dialogue of Civilization

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

What is Civilization?

Verily! Throughout time,
Humankind shall indeed be at loss,
Except such as those
As have certainty of faith,
And engage in righteous action,
And work together
To uphold justice (balance and truth),
And work together,
With patient perseverance.
The Qur’an (103, 1-3)

Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. This is the Universal Law of Civilization.

In the fascinating panorama of the struggle of man on earth, faith has played a pivotal role. Each of the major religions of man imbues its followers with a particular vision of the transcendent and the relationship of the human to the transcendent. That particular vision governs to a large extent the relationship of each faith with the world at large. As the globe shrinks under the incessant impact of technology, men and women of different faiths need to come together to understand one another and shape a common human destiny.

A civilization is a human system in faith space. Faith is a divine gift to humankind. It brings man in contact with heavenly energy that flows down from divine Grace. Was that energy to disappear for a moment all existence shall cease to be.

The reservoir of faith is infinite. It is inexhaustible as compared with the reservoir of human energy which is limited and exhaustible. A civilization based on faith endures. One that is not anchored in faith may last several generations but does not endure.

Faith is the dynamic principle of civilization. It is what makes ordinary people work together to achieve uncommon results. Each civilization has its own faith, and its own motive force. Men and women who are part of a civilization have faith in a shared vision and a common destiny.

A civilization is a living organism. Within this organism, life and death, renewal and decay are coexistent. When the forces of renewal are dominant, a civilization prospers. When the forces of decay take over, a civilization collapses.

Like a wave, a civilization is subject to opposing forces. Wave formation requires the gravity of the moon and a favorable combination of wind, temperature and pressure. Similarly, a civilization rises when certain universal attributes favor its formation. A wave dissolves into turbulence when the favorable conditions disappear. Similar is the case with civilization. When the favorable attributes disappear, a civilization goes into decay and is ultimately destroyed.

Like waves, civilizations collapse with a thunder. But the forces that cause them to collapse are not instantaneous. They build up over time until the civilization becomes unstable. The process is like that of an earthquake. The forces that cause an earthquake build up over years, perhaps centuries. And when they exceed the limits, the pent up energy is released with the suddenness of an earthquake flattening everything that stands in its way.

A dynasty is not a civilization. A civilization may contain within it several dynasties. Each dynasty is like a fresh wave overtaking the one before it. Observe a wave as it overtakes the one before it. The wave in the front disappears and gives way to the one behind it. In the same way, a dynasty gives way to another one. A particle in the ocean moves up and down as a wave traverses it. Similarly, a body politic endures a dynasty as it makes its appearance and disappears. As long as the ocean provides the energy, new waves are formed and the show goes on. Similarly, as long as faith propels a civilization, it renews itself even as it endures the vicissitudes of history.

Civilization is a monarch that rides on a chariot with four wheels: justice, perseverance, mutual support and righteous action. If any of these wheels becomes unhinged, the chariot topples over. Faith is the propulsive power for this chariot. When the reservoir of faith is exhausted, the chariot grinds to a halt.

A Classification of Civilizations:

Faith provides a basis for the classification of civilizations. Broadly speaking, there are three systems of civilizations:

  1. Civilizations based on faith.
  2. Civilizations not based on faith.
  3. Hybrid civilizations where the forces of faith and disbelief have not sorted themselves out.

The diagram below illustrates this classification. The civilization systems that are based on faith are fundamentally different from the non-believing systems. A faith based system draws its energy from belief in a transcendent code that defines the relationship of the individual with other individuals, with the society and with the cosmos. By contrast, a non-believing civilization puts the human mind in the driver’s seat. There are no absolutes in such a system. Human action is predicated upon the exigencies of circumstances. The rational faculty rather than a transcendent code makes the decisions.

A civilization based on faith has both a heart and a mind. A non-believing civilization has a sharp mind but does not have a heart.

The living civilizations based on belief include the Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Neo-Confucius-Chinese and Judaic. The modern global civilization is a non-believing civilization which appears in many avatars including the materialist, the dialectic, the humanist and the agnostic.

The question may be asked whether America is a civilization based on faith or a non-believing civilization. It is neither. It is unique. There has never been anything like it in human history. Some claim that the American civilization is Christian. Some others claim it is Judeo-Christian.

These statements are only partially correct. Founded by refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Northern Europe, it soon became the melting pot for the civilizations of the world. Certainly, the European stream dominates but it is also a fusion of multiple nations, races, cultures, religions and civilizations.

The basis for American civilization is a civil contract with the constitution of the United States, whose preamble states that all men are created equal. This is a universal idea. As Christian as it is Islamic and Hindu and Buddhist and humanist. Men and women from all over the world have come to these shores in search of a new world, lured by the promise of liberty, freedom from oppression and a better life. They participate in the American enterprise, contribute to it, prosper, and melt into it. America is not just Christian, it is also Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim, humanist and secular. It is a human experiment, unlike any other experiment of the past. It is faith based and yet defies encapsulation in religion. It is secular, yet it remains deeply religious. We have therefore classified it as a separate civilization in its own right.

Why do civilizations fall apart?

There are a host of theories about the rise and fall of civilizations with which the reader is no doubt familiar.

Ibn Khaldun, the great philosopher of the Maghreb, and the father of historiography, studied the Berber dynasties in North Africa and postulated his theory of the rise and fall of civilizations based on asabiyeh, namely tribal cohesion. Ibn Khaldun found that the desert nomads possessed the qualities of courage, valor, integrity, hard work and mutual support in abundance. He contrasted these qualities with those found in the city dwellers where the ease of city life led to lethargy, mutual rivalry, chicanery, deception, acquisitiveness and a lack of ethics.

Ibn Khaldun observed that as city dwellers succumb to the pleasures of a settled life they are overrun by the desert dwellers. With time the newcomers themselves settle down and develop the flaccid habits of city dwellers only to be overrun by a fresh wave of conquerors from the desert.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory has universal application. Civilizations decay from within. Upright action fosters mutual support and sustains a civilization. Vices destroy a civilization, and as they decay they are overrun by other civilizations that are more cohesive and virile. And the process repeats.

However, Ibn Khaldun’s path-breaking theory left several issues unanswered. Must city life necessarily lead to corruption? Were not some of the great civilizations of the past city based? For instance, the Islamic civilization originated in Mecca and Madina. Both were large well settled cities in the Arabian Peninsula. This city based civilization overcame the resistance of the surrounding desert tribes and forged them into a brotherhood that became the genesis of a universal civilization.

Secondly, once a civilization begins to decay, must it necessarily fall prey to outside forces? Ibn Khaldun’s theory leaves no room for internal renewal.

There are other theories for the rise and fall of civilizations. Those of Toynbee, Adams, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Kennedy and Diamond deserve serious study. Toynbee’s challenge and response is a further development of cause and effect. Brooks Adams saw economic centration as the driving force for the formation of civilizations. Hegel’s dialectic found a concrete expression in the material dialectic of Marx and Engel. Kennedy advances his thesis for the decay of empires based on over-stretch in relation to its resources. Diamond takes an ecological view to societal collapse postulating that the capacity of a society to endure is directly connected with its ability to maintain a balance between the availability and exploitation of natural resources available to it.

By contrast, our approach to the rise and fall of civilizations is based on a theory of renewal. A great civilization is based on faith. That faith provides a reservoir of energy for the civilization to renew itself from within as it faces the vicissitudes of time. Those civilizations endure that have this capacity for renewal. Those that do not, disappear.

Civilization is like an engine that runs on four cylinders: justice, mutual support, perseverance and righteous action. Faith is the fuel that powers all of these cylinders.

Faith is not only the cement, the glue that holds a civilization together but is also the reservoir that a great civilization dives into for its renewal. Faith fosters righteous action which alone propels a civilization forward. Take the faith away, a civilization degenerates like a brick that has not been fired. It collapses into dust. Such a civilization does not endure. It is overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of time.

In a shrinking world, it is difficult to attach geography to civilizations. For instance, almost 400 million of the 1.6 billion Muslims today live as minorities in countries which are predominantly non-Muslim. Similar is the case with Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. The modern agnostic civilization is global and has adherents in every corner of the globe. The diffusion of faith into a non-believing matrix presents its own opportunities and challenges, as we shall describe later.

Renewal: The Islamic Paradigm

We illustrate our observations on the rise and fall of civilizations with the historical experience of Islam. There are at least seven milestones in the fourteen hundred year history of Islam when the Islamic civilization faced an existential challenge which it met successfully. And the struggle continues.

1. The Death of the Prophet

The death of Prophet Muhammed was the first historical crisis faced by the Islamic community. The process by which the community met this crisis has determined its strengths and its weaknesses in the subsequent centuries. The shape of the historical edifice of Islam was cast in that hour.

The Prophet was the fountainhead of Muslim life. No other person in history occupied a position in relation to his people, as did Prophet Muhammed with respect to his. He was the focus for all social, spiritual, political, economic, military and judicial activities. He was the founder and architect of the nascent community. When he passed away, he left a vacuum that was impossible to fill. His legacy was tested immediately upon his death. At stake was the continuity of the historical process. The Prophet had welded together a community of believers transcending their allegiance to tribe, race or nationality. The glue that had cemented this process was the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Now the Prophet was gone and it seemed that the divisive forces that Islam had overcome would resurface and tear apart the newborn community.

The first reaction to the death of the Prophet was shock, disbelief and denial. So great was the love of the Companions for the Prophet that they could not part with their love. So central was he to the life of the community that they could not imagine a life without his presence. When Omar ibn al Khattab heard that the Prophet had passed away, he was so distraught that he drew his sword and declared: “Some hypocrites are pretending that the Prophet of God-may God’s peace and blessing be upon him—has died. By God I swear that he did not die; that he has gone to join his Lord, just as other Prophets went before. Moses was absent from his people for forty nights and returned to them after they had declared him dead. By God, the Prophet of God will return just as Moses returned. Any man who dares to perpetrate a false rumor such as Muhammed’s death shall have his arms and legs cut off by this hand.” People listened to Omar, too stupefied to believe that the man who had transformed Arabia from the backwaters of history to the forefront of the historical process was dead. The situation was grave indeed.

The resilience of Islam showed itself in the person of Abu Bakr. After confirming that the Prophet had indeed passed away, he entered the mosque where Omar was speaking to the people and recited the following passage from the Qur’an: “Muhammed is but a Prophet before whom many prophets have come and gone. Should he die or be killed, will you give up your faith? Know that whoever gives up his faith will cause no harm to God, but God will surely reward those who are grateful to Him” (Qur’an, 3:144). It was as if the people had heard this passage for the first time; it struck them like a bolt of lightning. Omar (r) related later that when he heard it, his legs shook as he realized that the Messenger of God had indeed departed from this world. The mortality of the Prophet was established, while the transcendence of God was reaffirmed. The civilization of Islam was to be God-centered, not man-centered. Islam was to have its anchor in God and His Word. The Prophet, as the man who had brought the Divine Word and fulfilled his historical mission, had departed, but the light that had shone through him was to show the way to succeeding generations. Islam retained its transcendent character. It was to survive the physical absence of the Prophet and was to hurl itself as a dynamic force into the historical process.

The civilization of Islam met this challenge by establishing the institution of the Caliphate and affirming the continuity of historical Islam. The price that was paid in the process was a dispute in the community about who should be the leader of the community. This was the origin of the Shia-Sunni split which continues to haunt the world of Islam even to this day.

2. The Codification of Jurisprudence

The spread of Islam across the inter-connecting landmass of Asia, Europe and Africa brought into the Islamic domain large masses of people who were previously Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist or Hindu. Conversion to the new faith was slow. The conquering Muslims left the people of the territories alone as long as they paid the protective tax and did not interfere with freedom of choice in religion. Mass conversions to Islam took place in the reign of Omar bin Abdul Aziz (34134-3419) who abolished unfair taxation, tolerated dissent and treated Muslim and non-Muslim alike with the dignity due to fellow man. Impressed with his initiatives, people in the former territories of the Sassanids and the Byzantines embraced Islam in droves.

The new Muslims brought with them not only their ancient heritage and culture, but methods of looking at the sublime questions of life in ways fundamentally different from that of the Arabs. Historical Islam had to face the rationalism of the Greeks, the stratification of the Zoroastrians, the Gnosticism of the Hindus, the abnegation of the Buddhists and the secular but highly refined ethical codes of the Taoist and Confucian Chinese. Add to it the internal convulsions in the Islamic world arising out of the conflicting claims of the Umayyads, the Hashemites, the Ahl-al Bait and the partisan and fractious approach of the many parties to legal issues, and one has a good idea of the challenge faced by the earliest Islamic jurists. Fiqh was the doctrinal response of the Islamic civilization to these challenges.

Some definitions of the terms Shariah, Fiqh and secular law are in order here. The terms Shariah and Fiqh are not the same. In interfaith dialogue the two terms are used interchangeably even by well meaning scholars. This leads to erroneous conclusions.

Shariah is the unchanging Law of the Divine. It embraces not just the world of man, but the cosmos and the world of the spirit. For instance, it is Shariah that the sun rises from the East and the galaxies rotate as they do. It is also the Shariah that an orange tree bears oranges whereas an apple tree yields apples.

Fiqh, on the other hand, is the historical dimension of the Shariah and represents the continuous and unceasing Muslim struggle to live up to divine commandments in time and space. It is the rigorous and detailed application of the Shariah to issues that confront humankind as it participates in the unfolding drama of history. As such it embraces the approach, the process, the methodology as well as the practical application of the Shariah. It defines the interface of an individual with himself, his family, his society, his community, as well as the civilizational interface between Islam and other faiths and ideologies. Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence. It is an evolving, dynamic process. There are multiple schools of Fiqh.

The amalgamation of different nationalities, tribes and people who had previously followed other faiths required the codification of Fiqh. Islamic scholarship rose to the challenge in the eighth century and successfully evolved the schools of jurisprudence. The codification of Fiqh solidified the foundation of Islamic civilization and was the cement for its stability through the turmoil of centuries.

The price that was paid for this process was the emergence of different schools of Fiqh. Stated below are the major schools of Fiqh that are historically valid because they have survived the test of time for more than thirteen centuries:

Sunnah Schools of Fiqh:

  • Hanafi
  • Maliki
  • Shafii
  • Hanbali

Shia Schools of Fiqh

  • Ithna Ashari
  • Ismaili

Other schools of Fiqh

  • Zaidi
  • Ibadi

All of these schools claim their origin from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. They differ in their emphasis on historical sources. Some were influenced by political events in the succeeding centuries. In addition, there exist various jamaats (groups) that emphasize one or the other aspects of Fiqh, leading to further fragmentation.

3. The Ideational Challenge of Greek Rationalism

The challenge of Greek rational philosophy was of fundamental import not only to the world of Islam but to the Christian world, indeed to the development of human thought down to our own times.

The Islamic civilization met up with the Greek system of thought in the eighth century. It was love at first sight. The Caliph al-Mansur adopted the rational approach as the official dogma of the Abbasid court (3445CE). A House of Wisdom was set up in Baghdad and Muslims scholars translated the works of the Greek philosophers, the Indian mathematicians, the Persian scribes and the Chinese engineers. The Mutazalites—as the rationalists were called in the Abbasid courts—integrated the various schools of thought and produced a uniquely Islamic brand of philosophy.

However, the Mutazalites fell flat on their faces when they overextended their methodology to matters of faith. Not mindful of the limitations that the conceptualization of time and space places on philosophy itself, they postulated that the “Divine Word was created in time and space” as opposed to “God who is uncreated”. This dragged them into the doctrinal disputes of the times. The counter-Mutazalite revolution of the ninth century led by Imam Ibn Hanbal dethroned the Mutazalites. They were discredited and fell from court favor (846 CE). The Islamic civilization shifted its focus from philosophy to empiricism and Sufism. The scientific method based on empirical observation (as opposed to philosophical speculations) was established and the classical period of Islamic science (800-1200 CE) was born. But the rationalists always remained suspect in Muslim eyes and received a final knockout blow in Tahaffuz al Falasafah (Repudiation of the Philosophers) by Al Ghazzali (d 1111 CE). Thus the first bout of a believing civilization with a non-believing civilization was in favor of the believing civilization, albeit, the price that was paid by the believing civilization was increased rigidity in doctrinal matters, aka, the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, which a thousand years later was adopted by the Wahhabi Movement.

4. The Military Destructions of the Mongols

The eruption of the Mongols in the thirteenth century was an event of global import. Starting with the year 1219 CE, the forces of Genghiz Khan overran much of the Eurasian continent. These included the territories which are at the present time in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Northern Israel and Palestine. The devastation was total. Ninety percent of the population of these territories perished. Libraries were burned. Dams were demolished. Cities and towns were razed. Decimated were the cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, Ashkhabad, Balkh, Ghazna, Kabul, Isfahan, Tabriz and Baghdad. China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Korea and the Caucuses were subdued. And for a while it looked like the world of Islam would be extirpated.

Even in its darkest hour, the resilience of Islam asserted itself. Several Sufi shaykhs met with Genghiz Khan in 1222 in the city of Samarkand and briefed him about the tenets of Islam.

There began a three-way tug-of-war between the Christians, the Muslims and the Buddhists for the soul of the Mongols. Delegations from Constantinople arrived in the Mongol capital of Karakorum carrying gifts and offers of alliance against the Muslims. In its darkest hour, it was the Sufi shaykhs who carried the day. Far from the destruction of the cities, the Sufis kept the light of faith burning, imparting to the marauding Mongols the spiritual tenets of Islam.

The contest between Christianity, Buddhism and Islam for control of Central Asia was decided in 1302 when Ghazan, The Great of Persia accepted Islam. The Tartars were converted and the Mongols were subdued. The new converts became the standard bearers of Islam. Asia remained Muslim while Christianity receded to Europe.

The aftermath of the Mongol-Islam dialectic was the rise of Sufism and the Aklaqhi School, best summarized in Akhlaq e Nasiri of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 12344). The century witnessed the appearance a galaxy of Sufi saints including Khwaja Nizamuddin Chishti of India (d 1235 CE), Mevlana Rumi of Turkey (d 12343 CE), Ibn al Arabi of Spain (d 1240 CE) and Shadhuli of Egypt (d 1252 CE). It was this spiritual stream, focused more on the soul and the spirit that dominated the world of Islam for the next five hundred years.

5. The Spiritual Decay of the 134th century

By the end of the 134th century, there was a general decay in the ethics and spirituality in the principal centers of the Islamic world, namely, India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. The rot pervaded the entire body politic, from top to bottom. Greed had replaced valor. Chicanery had taken the place of integrity. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to this sad state of affairs is to be found in a letter written in 13404 by the last Great Mogul, Aurangzeb to his third son Azam. In words that are as full of pathos as they convey the heartrending loneliness of a pious emperor, the Great Mogul laments:

“My son, my soul, life of my life . . . Hameeduddin is a cheat . . . Siadat Khan and Muhammed Amin Khan in the advanced guard are contemptible . . . Kulich Khan is worthless . . . Sarbarah Khan, the Kotwal, is a thief and a pickpocket . . . Arshi Khan gets drunk and smells of liquor . . . Akbar is a vagabond in the desert of infamy . . . Kam Baksh is perverse. I myself am forlorn and destitute and misery is my lot.”

Concurrent with this decay was an increase in extremism. Originating initially in political struggles between Safavid Persia and Mogul India for the control of Afghanistan, and between the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persia for the control of Azerbaijan, it soon deteriorated into Shia-Sunni rivalry. In the courts of Delhi, the emphasis shifted from the liberal spirituality of Sufism to the rigid legalism of the ulema. Mogul rule which had hitherto reached out to its Hindu subjects became narrow in its perspective, excluding the Hindus from the echelons of power. Jizya was imposed on the Hindus. Correspondingly, in Shia Iran, the emphasis shifted to legalism and an anti-Sunni bias.

It was this decaying Muslim body politic, spiritually spent and ethically exhausted, that came up against the expansive European joint stock companies in the 18th century. The Muslims, smug in their self-righteousness, did not understand the nature of the European challenge. As opposed to the Europeans who were keen observers of the crosscurrents in the Islamic world and exploited them to their advantage, the Muslims had little intelligence about their adversaries. The sciences and technologies of Europe were rejected as un-Islamic and Western. For instance, the printing press which was introduced into Europe in the fifteenth century was not introduced into the Ottoman Empire until 13428. In Mogul India it was introduced even later. The ulema were against the printing press lest it defile the Sacred Word if it came in contact with printing blocks made of wood or iron. This smugness cost the Muslims dearly. A resurgent Europe, riding high on new ideas and new technologies, flush with Mayan gold and Aztec silver and the huge profits of the Atlantic slave trade, exploited the weaknesses of the Muslim Empires. India was the first non-Western civilization to fall to the West. In the Battle of Plassey of 134534, a handful of British officers successfully bribed the generals of the Nawab of Bengal and demolished a large opposing host. Using the resources of India, England, and later other European powers embarked on a colonial conquest which ultimately subdued almost all of Asia and Africa.

6. Resistance and Reform

Reform, as a collective effort to return to the purity of faith, is a recurrent theme in Islamic history. Since the decisive moment when the Prophet passed away, Muslims have struggled to shape their destiny in the mold of the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet. This perpetual struggle has produced some of the most influential personages in the history of the Muslim peoples.

After the Battle of Plassey (134534), the tide of global affairs turned decidedly in favor of Europe. Although it would take more than a hundred years to supplant and colonize much of Asia and Africa, the relative weakness of the Muslim world was obvious to perceptive minds. Some scholars felt that this weakness was the result of deviation from the Shariah. First there was Shah Waliullah of Delhi (d. 13463) who followed in the long lineage of scholars in the subcontinent and had a decisive impact on the political military events in South Asia. Then came Shaykh Abdul Wahhab of Najd, Arabia (circa 13480). His reformist thrust was terse, shorn of the embellishments that had accrued to religion in the Ottoman Empire. The third influential personage was Shaykh Uthman Dan Fuduye of Nigeria. Shaykh Dan Fuduye belonged to the Qadariya movement and his approach, in contrast to that of Shaykh Abdul Wahhab, was decidedly Sufic and activist. The last in this line was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh, India who saw the benefits of cooperation with the West and founded the Aligarh Muslim University along the lines of schools in England.

Although they lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, these three reformers faced different challenges. Shah Waliullah lived at a time when rampant corruption had destroyed the Mogul Empire. He attempted to restore the glory of Muslim civilization in India. Shaykh Abdul Wahhab desired to bring back the simplicity of religion that existed in early Islam. Both Shah Waliullah and Shaykh Abdul Wahhab were dealing with local situations wherein Islamic civilization was past its zenith, and decay had set in. In contrast Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye faced a society wherein Islam was spreading among the masses and the purity of faith was compromised by the retention of old animist practices of the people. The first two, Shah Waliullah and Shaykh Wahhab, waged a rear-guard action to arrest the decline of old societies. The last one, Shehu Uthman was in the forefront of a revolution to create a new one.

In historical hindsight, the efforts of Shah Waliullah were not successful and India became a British colony. Shaykh Abdul Wahab waged war against fellow Muslims in Arabia and his rigid code became the foundation of the Wahhabi school of thought which often takes extremist positions in religious, social and political matters. Uthman Dan Fuduye did succeed in transforming the Muslim societies of the Niger River basin located in Northern Nigeria, Niger and beyond. His reforms continue to influence the Islamic movements in West Africa to this day. The institution founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan went on to become a premier school of learning in the Indian subcontinent and has produced thinkers, scholars, engineers, scientists and statesmen who have served the nations of India and Pakistan.

34. The Post-Colonial Modern Age

It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that Muslim thinkers confronted the challenge of the West. Many of these thinkers had studied in Europe or had lived there for long periods of time and were familiar with western thought. The challenge before them was to formulate an Islamic response to European humanist ideas. It was daunting task, and it remains so today, as humanism is man-centered and places human reason in the driver’s seat in the march of civilization. Islam, in contrast, is God-centered and placed divine writ as the governing paradigm in human affairs.

In this dialectic of the West with Islam, Muslim thinkers occupy the entire spectrum, from those who were openly opposed to all things western, to those who saw in the West solutions to their own doctrinal, social and political problems. The response has ranged all the way from adopting socialism, nationalism, communism, capitalism, humanism to a total rejection of all of the above and the advancement of a rigid Islamic code.

The works of Jamaluddin al Afghani, Muhammed Abduh, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, Zia Baran and Ali Shariati and Syed Qutb deserve to be studied. All of these thinkers worked in the context of continuing and overbearing political, social and military interference from a non-faith based western civilization upon the world of Islam. Jamaluddin al Afghani was a political activist who tried to preserve the remaining vestiges of the Ottoman Empire by bringing about a Shia-Sunni reconciliation. His disciple, Muhammed Abduh continued his work and tried to implement modernizing reforms in Egypt. Mohammed Iqbal, in Reconstruction of Religious Thought, made an incisive analysis of the works of modern European philosophers, found them wanting and advanced his own idea that Ijtehad as applied to Shariah was the moving principle of Islam. His ideas led to the establishment of Pakistan. Zia Baran was a poet of repute. His reformist thrust for the emancipation of women and the modernizing of Islamic societies found partial expression in Kemalist Turkey. Ali Shariati was one of the most incisive thinkers of the twentieth century and his ideas paved the way for the Iranian Revolution of 19349. Syed Qutb was at the other extreme, rejecting western thought in its entirety and advancing Islamic teachings as the sole panacea for the condition of modern man.

The dialectic of Islam and the West continues to this day. While western thought seeks to liberalize traditional Islamic thinking, Islamic thought seeks to round off the sharp, jagged edges of an egocentric European thought. One must hope that the interaction will be beneficial to both.

Sources of Conflict across Civilization Boundaries

Following our classification of civilizations, we can also categorize conflicts across civilization boundaries:

  • Dialectic between believing and non-believing systems of civilizations
  • Dialectic between believing civilizations
  • Dialectic within a civilization

Conflicts arise when systems of ideas compete for the same geographical, political, economic and emotive space. However, it is a truism that it is not ideas that cause conflict. Ideas, in and of themselves, are eternal. They do not fight; people do.

Every potential conflict is a potential opportunity. Oftentimes, civilizations interact, learn from each other and grow. At other times, they collide and leave a legacy of bitterness that in turn becomes the material for parochial and self-serving myths, feeding further conflicts.

While conflicts have multiple origins, two of the most endemic sources are claims of exclusivity and a reach for dominance.

Dialectic across Civilization Systems

While the conflicts between faith based systems receive most of the advertising space, it is the global conflict between faith based systems and non-faith based systems that are central to the future of humankind. This conflict arises because the global material civilization not only considers itself the sole repository of truth, but unlike the faith based systems, has the technological and political means to impose its world view on other civilizations.

We seek the roots of the material civilization in the speculative stream of Greek philosophy. It was during the classical Greek period that rational thought reached its zenith. To the Greeks, the mind (nomos) was king. They produced a galaxy of great minds—Aristotle, Plato, Galen, and Euclid—to name but a few. Rarely has humanity achieved the rational heights that the Greeks did. But for all their achievements, the Greeks remained bogged down with questions of “before and after”, “subject and object”, “cause and effect”.

We have covered the dialectic between Islam and Greek rationalism in the previous section. Greek rational thought reached the Latin West in the eleventh century through Muslim Spain. When the Conquistadores captured Toledo in 1086 CE, they became custodians of the vast libraries in that ancient city. The Latin Church initiated a vigorous program of translating Arabic texts into Latin, much as the Muslims had translated the Greek, Indian, Zoroastrian and Chinese works into Arabic three hundred years earlier. The universities at Palermo, Oxford, Paris and Cambridge were direct beneficiaries of the infusion of the accumulated knowledge from Islamic libraries.

It was now the turn of the Latins to justify their belief systems in the light of rational thought. However, in this dialectic, the response of the Medieval Latin West to the onslaught of rational inquiry was fundamentally different from that of the Muslims. The outcome was of profound significance to the development of human thought. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Some truths can be known only from revelation and belong to theology—for example, the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation. Some truths are proper to philosophy—for example, the physical constituents of bodies.” (Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 2, p. 141, 19834, Philosophy and Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas).

Thus the separation of what was religious from what was considered profane received a philosophical foundation. The Church was to be sacred; science and sociology were to be secular. This bifurcated outlook has pervaded the development of Western thought since the twelfth century. European civilization went on to achieve new heights of rational inquiry in succeeding centuries. However, these heights were devoid of a firm anchor in faith.

The infusion of Greek thought into the Latin West received further stimulus when a large number of Greek scholars of the Eastern Orthodox tradition left Constantinople (now Istanbul) after it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 C.E. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rational thought attracted a great many thinkers so much so that this period is referred to as the Age of Reason. Hegel (134340—1831), considered by many to be one of the greatest rational philosophers of this age, proposed that history is the development from the subjectivity of the individual to the objectivity of the state. He was the father of dialectic philosophy and believed that the institutions of man develop only as a result of spiritual or material dialectics. The state was more important than the individual and thus the individual was to be submerged in the interests of the state. This view ran counter to individualism. But it has had two important offshoots. In the hands of the right wing German philosophers it formed the basis of German nationalism and Nazism. In the hands of the left wing philosophers, such as Karl Marx, it formed the basis of atheistic material dialectics, which is the philosophy of Communism. Both views have taken their enormous toll in human misery in the twentieth century.

The bifurcation of the sacred and the secular has now received global acceptance. The dazzling achievements of technology and the untold riches it has showered on humanity have convinced men and women in the far corners of the globe that indeed the modern material civilization (not based on faith) offers the best hope for human felicity. So far reaching is the global reach of the material civilization that it shows up in human affairs with various masks. We present here a brief overview of its many costumes. For a full discussion of the many prisons that modern man has created for himself, the reader is referred to my book, What Makes Us Human, A Spiritual Perspective, Xlibris, 2001.

Man as Thinker

“I think, therefore I am” is the succinct way this view can be summarized. It implies that man is what he is because of his rational faculties.

This view dates back to the classical period of the Greeks of which Aristotle (384—322 B.C.E.) was one of the great masters. It was refined and developed by Muslim scholars in the classical period of Islamic civilization. Ibn Rushd (known in Latin as Averoes, 1126—1198 C.E.), “The Commentator” as he is referred to by some writers, is considered the greatest disciple of Aristotle.

In the last two hundred years, as European hegemony over the globe took hold, Western thought was transmitted to the far corners of the world. In recent decades, with the diffusion of technology, this trend has accelerated so that what was once considered “Western thought” is now global secular thought.

Secular thinkers, whether they are from the East or the West, now accept a definition of man in terms of his rational faculties. It is often overlooked that rational thought offers no criterion for right and wrong. Bereft of Divine guidance the mind wanders in circles of speculation. Without Divine Light, there is no light!

Man as Consumer

The definition of man as a consumer benefits a small segment of the world population, namely, those who own the means of production. On the international scale, it benefits the industrialized countries at the expense of the poorer countries. Historically, this idea grew up in the shadows of colonialism. The British went into India on the heels of the East India Company whose charter was to obtain raw materials from India and to find a market for British goods on Indian soil. The Dutch went into Indonesia through the Dutch East Indies Company. The Russians went into Central Asia for outright conquest and colonization. The industrial revolution in Europe brought on the need for colonies where the surplus production could be siphoned off. Colonialism was afforded a solid foundation upon the consuming appetite of the colonized masses and was very profitable to a few in the colonizing countries who accumulated vast amounts of wealth. Today there are no political colonies but the relationship of producer and consumer persists.

To paraphrase the twentieth century Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati, faith based systems are a projection of the heavens on earth. Non-faith based systems are a projection of the earth upon the heavens. In a faith based system, a transcendental code precedes sociology. In a non-faith system sociology precedes the code. The definition of man as a consumer is an invention of a man made system. A search for profits comes first followed by a need to sustain or increase production in order to maintain profits. Marketing takes over to convince people that it is in their interest to become good consumers, to buy things even if they do not need them.

Man as a Factor of Production

This is the flip side of a definition of man not as a consumer but as a factor of production. In this view, labor is conveniently lumped along with material and equipment as a “factor” of production. Capitalists and Marxists alike share this view, thus stripping working men and women of their cultural, social and ethical selves.

The view that man is to be defined in terms of his contribution to the production of material goods disregards his totality. Man is much more than his economic self. He is an individual, is a member of his family and society, has cultural and ethical dimensions and has a need for things that go beyond their utilitarian value. For instance, what is the utilitarian value of good deeds, of mutual help and of poetry, music and art? An art form that is enslaved to its functional or utilitarian value is no art at all. An expression that is devoid of freedom is no expression at all. If you define the value of man in terms of his worth in the marketplace you are bringing down to the material plane all of the beautiful, aesthetic, creative aspects of man.

The acceptance of the view that the worth of man is to be measured in terms of his productive capability has been a disaster for the position of women in modern society. Women are made to feel they have to go to work in order to be worth something. No value is put on the sustaining power of women within the family, upon their nourishing and caring for children. Have you ever come upon a GNP figure which takes into account the so-called “unproductive” labor of housewives and mothers? This is also true of people who have grown old and are discarded into “homes for the aged” because they have no utilitarian value for the society. If you accept the view that man is but a factor of production, you disregard his intrinsic worth as a human being, his dignity and his nobility. What is the utilitarian value of a good word or a warm handshake? What is the market value of a mother’s love or a father’s compassion? Do parents lose their value once they grow old and are they to be discarded like used cars? The combined income of a husband and wife is no indication of the quality of life in their household or of the quality of care they provide their children. Modern man has walked off on this one-way street, producing and consuming more and more goods, inundating his life with material things to the neglect of his true self and the destruction of the family and the social fabric.

Man is much more than a factor of production and a society is much more than its ability to produce.

Man As Viewed by Behaviorists

In this view it is postulated that man is a creature of needs. A pyramid of needs is constructed to show that certain needs take preponderance over others. At the base of this pyramid are the physical needs, those related to food, shelter and safety. When these needs are satisfied man is supposed to move to the next level, namely, those relating to his social needs. Next come the ego needs, having to do with a feeling of power and prestige. At the top of the hierarchy are the needs for self-fulfillment, those relating to the spirit and religion. This theory is taught in business schools as a framework for organizational control. Techniques are offered for the manipulation of human behavior based on this theory. And in support of the theory, various experiments have been conducted on rats and other animals and on people in controlled surroundings to prove that behavior can indeed be manipulated and controlled.

The thrust of the behavioral approach is to create a feeling of dependency in man. At the global level, this same approach has been used to create a feeling of dependency amongst the poorer peoples of the world. Mass propaganda has been a primary means for creating this feeling of dependency. This relationship is the same as the one between a monkey and his master. The master turns on the music box and the monkey dances to it. If the monkey behaves as his master wants him to, he is rewarded with a banana. If he does not, he is punished.

As an operative theory for the condition of man, this theory suffers from the same one-dimensionality as the other theories mentioned earlier. If this theory were valid, the affluent people of Europe and America would be preoccupied with matters of the spirit whereas the impoverished people of Egypt or India would be preoccupied with matters of the body, namely, survival. Observation does not bear this out. Indeed, the opposite is true. People of the East are still preoccupied with matters of the spirit whereas the residents of New York and Los Angeles spend ever increasing time worrying about their financial security and their material needs. Some societies have gone through cycles of prosperity and poverty in their long history and a feeling of other-worldliness has become ingrained in their character. The response of an individual to a situation is as much a function of such historical and cultural conditioning as his “needs”.

It is a characteristic of man that he does not respond to stimuli in a predetermined fashion. If man always responded to stimuli in a predetermined way, he would be a monkey or a rat. But men are not monkeys. They can and do say no to preconditions. They do stand up and fight against heavy odds. They can and do sacrifice themselves for intangible goals. They do turn down wealth for honor even when they are poor. They do stand up for justice even if in the process they lose all they have. In brief, humans behave like humans.

Man as Rebel

The Algerian-born French philosopher Camus (1913-1960) said: “I rebel, therefore I am”. This concept focuses only on the negative aspects of man. It is true that man rebels against the ordinance of God but this is not his a-priori condition. Man chooses, and he can choose to obey his Creator in spite of the pull from his rebellious self. It is this innate freedom and free will that is the attribute of man, not just his rebellious self. When man chooses justice over injustice, when he chooses right over wrong, he elevates himself to a position higher than the angels. When he chooses the path of injustice and inequity, he falls lower than the animals. To characterize the condition of man as a rebel is to overlook his other self, the self that propels him to the path of righteousness, the path that leads him to his noble destiny.

Man and His Many Nationalities

Let us examine some views that have their origin in national or ethnic pride. The definition of man in terms of his nationality falls into this category. To describe a man as being German, French, English, Egyptian, or Indian, as if this defines his attributes, character and outlook, is to put him in a pigeonhole. It is as if geographic or real estate boundaries determine the intrinsic worth of a man. This view of man is the bane of modern civilization. We saw two major World Wars in the twentieth century fought in the name of nationalism. National pride, a feeling of superiority and the assumption that the inhabitants of a certain geographical area have the right to dominate the inhabitants of another geographical area have been the reasons behind many other wars. Indeed, it can be said that most of the major wars in the 20th century have been fought along national lines. Consider the Japanese domination of the Korean peninsula at the turn of the 20th century and the Russian-Japanese war. Reflect on the trench warfare of the First World War and the mass slaughter it brought to the plains of Europe. Consider the emergence of the Nazis, the belief that the Germans were a super race destined to rule the world and the ensuing destruction of the Second World War. In each case you will find that it was the attempt by one national group to dominate another national group that was at the core of the conflict.

Isn’t it obvious that the worth of man cannot be defined in terms of his nationality? A human being is what he is because of some inherent, universal rights that have been bestowed upon him by the Creator. The fact that one is born a German does not automatically make him a scientist or a superman. Similarly, the fact that one is born in Madagascar does not preclude him from becoming a great artist or a poet. Birth is an accident of life over which one has no control. Becoming a scientist or an artist or a poet is a function of conscious acts, of what you do with your life. Whether you are an Eskimo, a Javanese, a Nigerian or a Siberian is no indication of who you are unless you apply yourself to the task of becoming somebody special, somebody great, somebody noble.

The Racial View of Man

More pugnacious than nationalism is the view that man is defined by his race. The origin of the racial view of man lies in antiquity. Around 2,500 B.C. the Aryans, a nomadic and aggressive people, occupied vast areas of Central Asia, Northern India and Europe. In India the local population was enslaved and the continued domination of the Aryan people over the native population was codified and sanctified by the development of the caste system. The Romans enslaved many of the peoples of the Mediterranean so much so that in the Roman Empire there were far more slaves than free men.

The racial view of man received a big boost in the nineteenth century with the conquest and colonization of Asia and Africa by certain European powers. The colonial situation lasted for such a long time that the Europeans began to associate their skin color with a feeling of superiority. So pervasive was the association of power with the color of skin in the nineteenth century that even the colonized people began to succumb to the belief that white skin meant superiority of culture and race. It is only in recent years, with the end of the colonial age, that men and women of the former colonies have begun to liberate themselves from this feeling of inferiority.

Justice and Balance: The Governing Paradigm

As a concrete example of the dialectic between some of the believing civilizations and the disbelieving material civilization, we offer their different perspectives on the idea of Justice.

Justice is the balance that governs the actions of men and women. It is the touchstone upon which men and women test their individual and collective efforts and decide whether those efforts are worthy of pursuit. Justice by itself cannot be measured. But as an attribute of the soul it imparts qualities of equity, equilibrium and proportion to human actions. It exists in the abstract until it is actualized through human volition and free will.

Justice is not merely a concept or an enunciation of principles. It includes the process of implementation and the body of codes, laws, rules and regulations that are used to ensure that justice is done. It embraces every sphere of life. It is indivisible and universal. It determines one’s relation to the self, to fellow human beings and to the world at large. Individuals and societies alike have viewed the pursuit of justice as a noble and worthy endeavor.

Justice can be defined in the positive sense or in the negative sense. In the positive sense it is those attributes of human actions that further the moral well being of humankind. Conversely, it may also be defined as those attributes of human action which prevent oppression, exploitation and inequity.

In ancient times justice was in the hands of a strongman. His will, his whims and his fancies determined the fate for those around him. Those who supported him became his cohorts. Those who opposed him were summarily killed. As societies evolved into tribes and groupings the notion of the “wise and knowing” king came into being. The king became an embodiment of wisdom and justice. If the ruler was indeed fair his subjects were happy. But if he got intoxicated with power, as frequently happened, there was oppression in the land.

In the Old Testament tradition justice is used as a tool to teach individuals what is right and what is wrong. In this pedagogical sense justice becomes synonymous with righteousness and is used as a means to inculcate qualities of love, kindness and reverence.

The Greeks pursued the subject with all their rational abilities. In Plato’s Republic, nomos or the mind was king. In this kingdom, reason was the embodiment of justice. It was the privilege of the rational elite to determine what was just and what was unjust. Plato gave scant attention to procedural justice or the imperative of laws. The judicial structure that he proposed was inherently undemocratic and non-egalitarian. It prescribed a hierarchical society in which the thinking elite were at the top and the common man was at the mercy of these elite.

It was left to Aristotle to propose a proper balance between the philosophy of justice and its implementation through laws. Where Plato exalted justice and overlooked the importance of law, Aristotle construed justice through the working of law. He was also deeply aware of the risks in leaving the implementation of justice to a “wise and noble” king. “He who commands that law should rule”, he wrote, “may thus be regarded as commanding that God and reason alone should rule. He who commands that a man should rule adds the character of the beast”.

In parts of South Asia justice takes on a cosmic aura based on the existing social structure. Society is divided into castes and one’s position in life is determined by the caste that one is born into. The exploitation of the lower castes by the upper castes is sanctioned by the doctrine of karma which implies that your present station in life is the result of your actions in your previous incarnation. There is no appeal to this cosmic order preordained by the gods.

The Buddha rejected the doctrine of karma as a justification for the caste system and its inherent exploitation. In the Buddhist tradition a person struggles through successive reincarnations towards a higher ethical self. The noble deeds of one lifetime reflect in a higher ethical status in the next life. The elevation of man through successively higher ethical states continues until he attains nirvana.

In the writings of medieval European thinkers, one sees a dichotomy between justice as applied to matters of conscience and justice as applied to human transactions. One of the giants of the era, Thomas Aquinas, proposed a dual approach to the implementation of justice. Laws that challenged the authority of the church were to be opposed. Laws that violated individual rights were “not binding on the conscience” but nonetheless were to be obeyed in the interests of social peace. The Church was sovereign in matters of faith. The king was sovereign in matters of individual rights and social responsibilities. In this manner, Western thought accepted the same ambiguous duality in matters relating to the application of justice as it did in matters relating to science and philosophy.

As Western civilization expanded its influence around the globe and became a global civilization, people in other parts of the globe accepted similar assumptions about their condition. As a result the sciences as they are taught today are bereft of ethical values. Modern man relates to nature and to the world of man with no allegiance to a universal value system. Having left God behind in the confines of the church modern man embarks on a philosophical journey, assuming that everything that is outside of the church is profane. Thus nature is stripped of spiritual content. Science has no ethical value. Technology becomes the unbridled exploitation of the earth’s resources. Statecraft becomes an exercise in self-interest. Justice becomes merely an expression of social necessity, to be used when it is convenient and abandoned when that need no longer exists.

Since the twelfth century the development of social and natural sciences in the West has been essentially secular. Having lost the anchor of religion, Western thought grasped the rope offered by the Greeks and embarked on its intellectual journey. In the last two hundred years, as the West imposed its will on the globe, these same assumptions were adopted by other civilizations. Today there is nothing to distinguish sociology and science as they are taught in Singapore or Los Angeles. Modern man therefore looks upon the world as essentially godless and profane. The speculative genius of the Greeks backed by the empirical approach of the West has brought the world untold riches. But it has also left humankind impoverished in its soul, unsure of itself and its place in the cosmos. Man feels alone, alienated from the universe, wandering in the darkness of space, full of anxiety, without a friend and without an anchor.

Modern man has thus created a prison of his own making. First he isolated himself from nature, making the assumption that the sciences were secular, and stripped them of emotions, feelings, color and passion. Then he placed his future at the mercy of his own speculative genius. As a consequence he found himself alone in the cosmos wandering in concentric circles of ignorance about the nature of his true self. Centuries later, he found the ghosts of Hegel, Darwin and Karl Marx.

The fundamental question is this: Can man find the truth about himself without guidance from his Creator? Modern man has made the assumption that he can. He relegated revealed truths to personal faith and opened up all others spheres–physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, sociology, history–to his own inquiry and speculation. This led him to “The Age of Reason”, “The Humanist Movement”, “The Communist Movement”, and finally to a conclusion by a group of theologians in the 1960s that “God is dead”!

Conflicts between faiths based civilizations

These are the conflicts that attract headlines and form the bulk of historical descriptions. Certainly, there is a vigorous completion in the world marketplace between competing ideas of the transcendent. However, what is often portrayed as a conflict between faith systems has its origins in more mundane sources such as political power, expanding turf of empires, control of resources and a desire to dominate. We offer for discussion the following observations:

  • The fourteen hundred year old rivalry between Christianity and Islam has received voluminous coverage. However, the best known of these conflicts, the Crusades, had their origin not so much in the doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam but in the changing feudal structures in Europe.
  • The Mongol invasions of Central Asia and the Middle East in the thirteenth century did not pit the Rasa of the Mongols against the Shariah of the Muslims. It was the case of a nomadic people overrunning the more settled people of the great cities of Asia.
  • The Balkan wars of the nineteenth century are sometimes portrayed as a conflict between the Eastern Orthodox and the Muslim. They were more a reflection of an aggressive Czarist Russia flexing its muscles at the expense of the Muslim Turks, and to a certain extent the Catholic Hapsburgs.
  • The decimation of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations at the hands of the Catholic Spaniards was rooted in the rapacity of Europe for Mayan and Inca gold and Aztec silver, a rapacity that had already gathered momentum as a result of the European discovery of the African gold coast in the latter part of the fifteenth century.
  • The Japanese invasion of China prior to and during the Second World War had very little to do with Buddhist aggressiveness. It was a reflection of an expansive Japanese Empire hungry for more material and labor resources.
  • The Hindu-Muslim dialectic in the subcontinent in the twentieth century, which continues to this day, reflects a struggle for political dominance. The two faiths have coexisted for more than a thousand years.
  • The Russian suppression of the Caucasus has its origins in the Russian bid to control the production and distribution of oil in the Caspian Sea basin. It is not a conflict between Islam and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • The Arab-Israeli conflict reflects a clash between an aggressive Jewish nationalism and an assertive Arab nationalism. It is not a conflict between Judaism and Islam. One day this conflict will end and the two faiths will embrace.

The only conflicts which can be explained in civilizational terms are those involving the global material civilization and all the faith based civilizations. Whether the material civilization masquerades as capitalism or communism, it makes no bones about its desire to conquer, control and exploit the natural resources of the world for its own benefit. In the process, it tramples over the turf of all faith based civilizations. While it has succeeded in bypassing and marginalizing the Christian civilization, it has also succeeded in co-opting, to a large extent, the Hindu and Buddhist civilizations of Asia.

It can be argued that Islam, and Islam alone, stands unbowed before the onslaught of the materialist civilization, although it is badly bruised and injured in the altercation. Many of the conflicts in the world, those in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucuses and South Asia can be explained in the context of an aggressive, expanding, imperial global material civilization, and a faith based Islam that is engaged in a rear guard action, perhaps desperate struggle, to prevent the global civilization from dominating the entire globe and taking humankind to the precipice of man-made extinction. When and if this conflict ends, the faith based civilizations will owe a word of gratitude to the Islamic civilization for rounding off the razor sharp corners of the global materialist civilization.

Internal Conflicts within a Civilization- the Burden of History

Internal conflicts within a faith system are more endemic and widespread than conflicts between faith groups. Indeed, with the sole exception of the Crusades which are often viewed through the narrow spectrum of Christian-Muslim dialectic, very few of the conflicts over the last millennia can be characterized as inter-religious wars. On the other hand, conflicts within religious groups are unceasing and continuous. Most of these conflicts are a result of national, tribal rivalries, political power, military dominance or the result of migrations due to famine or natural disasters. As illustrations we offer a brief history of conflicts within the dominions of Islam over the last millennia:

  • In the eleventh century CE, the mass migration of Turks from Central Asia was the result of extended droughts in the steppes of Central Asia. The Turks, moving as tribes, successfully dislodged the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan, the Buyids in Iraq, and ultimately pushed out the Byzantines in Anatolia (modern Turkey).
  • The Timurid invasions of the fifteenth century CE destroyed the Muslim kingdoms of Bukhara, Samarqand, Ghazna, India, Persia, Egypt and almost succeeded in extinguishing the Ottoman Empire. Timurlane was a Muslim. In addition to the Muslim Empires, he also conquered Russia and laid the foundation for the later emergence of the Christian Orthodox Czarist Empire.
  • The Battle of Chaldiran (15134 CE) was a fateful one for Safavid Persia against the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids were Shia while the Ottomans were Sunni. Both were Muslim.
  • In 1588 CE, the kingdom of Morocco fought the sub-Saharan Muslim Empire of Songhai. The incentive was gold.
  • There were no less than five major dynasties in Delhi, all Muslim, between 1192 CE and 1526 CE. The motivation was always power and the riches of India.
  • Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 19341 even though they were both Muslim and had worked together in 19434 against Hindu majoritarianism.
  • And so on.

One may conclude therefore that there is perhaps a greater need for dialogue within a civilization than across civilizations.

Dialogue of civilizations

The observations made in the lecture about inter-civilization and intra-civilization conflicts should help us evolve strategies for an effective interfaith dialogue.

The principal dialectic of the times is that between the faith based civilizations and the disbelieving, material civilization. To facilitate this dialogue, both sides must understand the assumptions, underlying philosophy and science. Faith must accommodate philosophy and science. And science must bend and accept the limitations of its domain.

Man is both mind and soul. Without the soul, man is but dust. And without the mind, the soul walks in ignorance.

A dialogue across faiths must sort out the shared public space where cooperation is both necessary and possible. This includes the areas of ethics, economic, legal and political issues.

Oftentimes, interfaith dialogue gets bogged down in doctrinal issues. These are best left to people of wisdom and intellect. Only they can reconcile the doctrines.

At other times, a dialogue never takes off from the terrestrial pull of rituals. Rituals serve an important function in the lives of people. They provide a rhythm to life and a visible and concrete thread to a community with its past and its future. Rituals, holidays, feasts can be enjoyed across faith boundaries. Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukah, Diwali, Nauroze, Buddha Jayanti can be both a source of joy for all faiths and a means of reinforcing our communal bonds. They must be encouraged.

Lastly, in a pluralistic global village, civilizations overlap and individuals have multiple identities. The same person may at once be a Muslim, an American, and if he holds dual citizenship, an Indian. Interfaith dialogue requires the commitment to seek out and broaden the shared space, the tolerance to accept the validity of the doctrines and the faith of the other, and the openness to participate in and enjoy the rituals of the other.

A perfect world is not one where everyone is the same. A perfect world is one where every person is the keeper of the other, spiritually, materially and physically.

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