What is the Spiritual Significance of Civilization?

MY WORK IN THE DEPARTMENT OF ORIENTAL manuscripts and Printed Books at the British Museum often brought me into contact with Islamic institutions in London, the more so since I was my- self the Museum Arabist in charge of the Arabic manus- cripts and books. As a result I came to know fairly well the director of The Islamic Cultural Centre, who one day sent me a message telling me that he had just received instruc- tions from Egypt to choose an English Muslim to represent England at an International Islamic Congress which was being planned by the Azhar University in Cairo. He added: “Can you not obtain permission from The British Museum to attend this congress, all expenses paid?” My first impulse was to say no because of my dislike for congresses, that is, dislike of the obligation to sit and listen to talk after talk, many of which are likely to be without interest. Moreover and above all, as will I think be deductible from the previous chapters of this book, I am not the sort of person that is qualified to “represent England”, because I am deliberately “out of touch” with people. I knew that reporters would come and ask me how many Muslims live in England and how many of these are recent converts, and I neither know nor want to know what is the answer. Socially speaking, I want to be left alone to lead a quiet life, and I have always made a point of living, if possible, in an “out of the way” place so that my privacy will be less in danger of being invaded.

On the other hand, as the result of having been for over twelve years a lecturer on English Literature (mainly Shakespeare) at the University of Cairo, I had been accustomed to visit the tombs of the great Saints who are buried in the older parts of the city, and I am always happy to revisit them. Cairo also has in it perhaps more mosques of exquisite beauty, both large and small, than any other city in the world. I knew also that the National Library of Egypt has an unsurpassed collection of marvellously illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an, a collection which is as far as I can tell only equalled by one or two collections in Istanbul and in Iran. Moreover the director of my department in the British Museum encouraged me to go, and obtained permission for me to accept the invitation, which I finally did.

The congress was divided into two groups, that is, the representatives of Islamic countries in the Near and Middle East, and the representatives of Islamic communities in other countries which had no specifically Islamic status. There were two sessions each day, and about six speakers were listed, with time for questions and answers after each talk. We all met together for meals except for breakfast which we had in the various hotels that we were lodged in. The congress itself was held in a spacious building on the edge of the East bank of the Nile. Wherever we went, our eyes were met by notices inscribed with the words, in massive Arabic letters, Marhaban bi ‘tatawwur, that is, Welcome to Development. Evidently the organizers of the congress were bent on showing that they were “up to date.”

One of the first talks was given by an elderly man from the Sudan, and it was based on a well known saying of the Prophet which, so the speaker claimed, had never been properly understood: “Islam began as a stranger and it will end as a stranger.” The opening words are clearly a reference to the problems experienced by the Prophet in seeking to impose on the then polytheistic inhabitants of Arabia the alien idea of monotheism. But the speaker maintained that the second part of the saying had been misunderstood until this very day, and that he had come to give us its true meaning, which was that Islam would end by spreading over all those parts of the world which had hitherto remained alien to the Quranic message. In other words, that Islam would end as an alien by being adopted by aliens; and there were some implications that most of those present in the lecture hall were not doing enough to help this to come true.

When it was time for question and answer, I ventured to question the legitimacy of interpreting one saying of the Prophet without taking into consideration other sayings of his which were related to a similar theme, in this case the spiritual future of the world. I pointed out that the Prophet had not believed in what the modern world calls “progress”, and I quoted several well known sayings of his, for example “No time will come upon you but will be followed by a worse” and “The best of my people are my generation, then they that come after them, then they that come after those.” When I had finished I heard expressions of agreement with me from all sides, and then one or two came up to me and thanked me warmly for having said what I had said.

Later in the week an afternoon had been set aside for those who might wish to be taken outside Cairo to see certain examples of modern “developments” in some of the neighbouring districts. It did not sound at all interesting, and more than half the members of the congress declined to go. No lectures had been listed for that afternoon, and one of the officials came up to me, greatly to my surprise, and said that he had been told to ask me if I would give a talk. I said I would think it over, and let him know the next morning. I had not prepared anything, but I felt that the words “Welcome to Development” demanded some comment, and that was how I came to give the following talk which is here translated from the Arabic in which it was spoken.

We have heard many times during this conference the words “development” (tatawwur) and “progress” (taqaddum) and “renewal” (tajdtd) and “renaissance” (nahdah), and perhaps it will not be a waste of time to pause and consider what they mean. “Development” means moving away from the principles, and although it is necessary to move a certain distance from the principles in order to make applications of them, it is of vital importance to remain near enough for contact with them to be fully effective. Development must therefore never go beyond a certain point. Our ancestors were acutely conscious that this danger point had been reached in Islam hundreds of years ago; and for us, who are so much further removed in time than they were from the ideal community of the Prophet and his companions, the danger is all the greater. How then shall we presume not to be on our guard? How shall we presume not to live in fear of increasing our distance from the principles to the point where development becomes degeneration? And indeed it may well be asked as regards most of what is proudly spoken of today as development: Is it not in fact degeneration?

As for “progress,” every individual should hope to progress, and that is the meaning of our prayer Guide us upon the way of transcendence. The word “development” could also be used of individuals in the same positive sense. But communities do not progress; if they did, what community was better qualified to progress than the first Islamic community in all the impetus of its youth? Yet the Prophet said, “The best of my people are my generation, then they that come after them, then they that come after those.” And we must conclude from the Qur’an that with the passage of the centuries a general hardening of hearts is inevitable, for it says of one community, a long length of time passed over them so that their hearts were hardened (LVU, 16); and this same truth is to be understood also from what the Qur’an says of the elect, that they are many in the earlier generations and few in the later generations (lvi, 13-4). The hope of communities must lie, not in “progress” or “development,” but in “renewal,” that is, restoration. The word “renewal” has been used so far throughout this conference mainly as a rather vague synonym of “development,” but in its traditional, apostolic sense, renewal is the opposite of development, for it means a restoration of something of the primordial vigour of Islam. Renewal is thus, for Muslims, a movement of return, that is, a movement in a backward rather than a forward direction.

As to “renaissance,” it might in itself be used in the same sense as “renewal,” but this word “renaissance” has very inauspicious associations, because the movement that is called the European Renaissance was nothing other, if we examine it carefully, than a renewal of the paganism of ancient Greece and Rome; and that same “renaissance” marked the end of the traditional Christian civilization and the beginning of this modern materialistic civilization. Is the “renaissance” that we now hear of as taking place in the Arab states different from that one, or is it of the same kind?

There is not one of us, whether he be Arab or non-Arab, who does not rejoice in the independence of the Arab states and of Islamic countries in general, and it was to be hoped that this independence would bring about a return to the noble civilization of Islam. But what do we see? We see the doors flung wide open to everything that comes from Europe and America without the slightest discrimination. It is not irrelevant to recall here that for us – and the same must be implicitly if not explicitly true of all religions – every earthly possibility falls into one of five categories, being either obligatory (fard), strongly recommended (mandub), allowed (mubah), strongly discouraged (makruh), or forbidden (haram). It is against the second and fourth of these that a subversive movement will direct its efforts, at any rate to begin with, for since they are less absolute than the first and the fifth, it is easier to break through their defences. And it is to be noticed that the terms mandub (strongly recommended) and makruh (strongly discouraged) have changed their significance. Thus, in the eyes of the champions of this “renaissance” that we are now supposed to be enjoying, what is to be “strongly discouraged” is everything that is left of the Islamic civilization in the way of sunnah such as wearing the turban and not shaving off the beard, whereas what is “strongly recommended” is everything that comes from the West. It may well be that only a very few actually go so far as to say that this or that is to be discouraged because it belongs to the civilization of our pious ancestors or that a thing is to be recommended because it comes from the West. But to judge by the facts, one might imagine that such words were on every tongue, such thoughts in every head. And what is the result of this? The result is that the rising generation is more ignorant of the practices of the Messenger of God, and more cut off from those practices, than any generation that has come into existence since the dawn of Islam. How then shall we augur well of the present situation? And how shall we not shrink from the word “renaissance” as from an evil omen?

All this was foreseen by the Prophet. He said, “You will follow the ways of those who were before you span for span and cubit for cubit until if they went down into the hole of a poisonous reptile you would follow them down.” That descent is now taking place; and it is called development and progress.

More than one delegate has mentioned, during this conference, that Islam embraces the whole of life, and no one doubts this. But what is actually happening today in many if not most Islamic countries is that life is embracing Islam-embracing, no, for it is a stranglehold rather than an embrace! Life is crowding religion out, pushing it into a little corner, and stifling it more and more so that it can scarcely breathe.

And what is the remedy?

By way of answering this question, let us recollect certain outer aspects of our civilization – I mean, the Islamic civilization – aspects whose function was, and can be again, to act as a protective shell for the kernel, that is, for the religion itself. The fabric of our civilization is woven out of the example set by our Prophet; and particularly significant in this connection is the fact that his house was a prolongation of his mosque. Thus for twelve hundred years – and more in many Islamic countries – the houses of his people were prolongations of the mosques. The Muslim would take off his shoes when he entered his house just as he would take them off when he entered the mosque; he would sit in his house in the same manner as he sat in the mosque; he would put such ornaments on the walls of his house as he saw on the walls of the mosque; nor would he put in his house any ornaments that would not be suitable for the mosque. Thus he was continually surrounded by reminders of the spiritual dignity and spiritual responsibilities of man, and he dressed himself according to the same principles. His clothes were in keeping with the dignity of man’s function as representative of God on earth, and at the same time they made it easy for him to perform the ablution, and they were in perfect conformity with the movements of the prayer. Moreover they were an ornament to the prayer, unlike modern European clothes which rob the movements of the prayer of all their beauty and impede them, just as they act as a barrier between the body and the ablution.

All that I have mentioned is outward, but the outward acts upon the inward, and a man’s clothes and his home are the nearest of all things to his soul, and their influence on it is perpetual and therefore incalculably powerful. There can be no doubt that these outward things were one of the secrets of the depth of piety among Muslims, for twelve hundred years; and this brings us back to the saving that Islam embraces the whole of life. Thanks to the outer aspects of the Islamic civilization, the whole of life was in fact penetrated by religion, and I see no other remedy for our present religious crisis but a return to that noble civilization whose function it is to create a worthy setting for the spirit of the religion, a setting that makes relatively easy the fulfillment of our ritual obligations. Nor can the community dispense with the help of anything that makes this spiritual life easier, for man was created weak. But this return can be accomplished only by the w idespread setting of examples. Arabs, you are in the abode of Islam, where after your independence you are free to do what you will, and we look toward you from outside that abode and place our hopes in you. Do not disappoint us.

All the talks I had attended so far had been politely applauded in varying degrees of enthusiasm. But when I came to the end of mine there was a dead silence, and I saw that some of the authence were weeping. Then the man who had been appointed as the leader of the non-Arab group of inv itees to which I belonged, an elderly man from Senegal with a venerable appearance, rose to his feet and came towards me. He took my hand between his two hands, and without saying a word he just beamed into my face for two or three minutes. Then a much younger man – he was from the sub-continent – came up to me and said: Kami lazim an yuqal al-haqq (It was necessary that the truth should be told). Then an Egyptian took me by the hand and said: Ja’a mina ‘l-qalbifadakhala ‘l-qulub (It came from the Heart, and it has entered the Hearts) […]

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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