Meeting of Civilization:

From Clash to Communion

By Abu Muhammad Asad, Ph.D.

Noam Chomsky on The "Clash of Civilizations"

"O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things) " (The Qur'an, 49:13)

How beautiful is the single criterion of superiority defined by Allah SWT Himself for situations where nations and civilizations come in contact with each other! But in the real world of interaction of groups of people from different cultural backgrounds, everything except true God-consciousness and righteousness (which should not be confused with self-righteous attitudes) most often played a major role. Human history is replete with disasters brought about by attitudes of arrogance and superiority complex based on race, color, language, religious affiliation, materialistic development and a host of other elements. After so many Marathons and as many Thermopylaes over thousands of years, different groups of children of Adam still continue to cherish prejudice and suspicion, ignorance and arrogance, and an overall subjugating attitude towards each other. Ethnic cleansing and wholesale displacement of nations are still taking place. God-consciousness seldom characterizes the interaction between civilizations.

Civilizations have met, interacted and transacted with one another throughout history. The meeting of civilizations was not always a smooth phenomenon. Sometimes single individuals played the important role of carrying values between civilizations. Hsuan Tsang, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Al-Biruni were some of the famous people who brought different civilizations closer to one another. China, India, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe met one another in these personalities. Some other times blood-thirsty conquerors trampled cities after cities and then died leaving nothing of lasting value. Civilizations also met along the silk route. Civilizations suffered together from Plague and Black Death. Civilizations met at the Crusades. Civilizations met in Richard and Saladin. At times different groups of people representing different cultures and worldviews stood face to face determined to annihilate each other, sometimes ending up forging the staunchest friendship. Meeting of cultures and civilizations is indeed interesting and thought provoking. If one wonders why there is nothing called Mongol civilization in history, one can very easily realize that only marauding and killing by brute force cannot be the way a civilization should interact with another. Cengiz Khan's scourge on the millions throughout Central and West Asia never smacks of anything civilized. On the other hand, descendants of these same Mongols became the architects of a new era in the history of Indian civilization. Civilization consists of traits.much loftier than those of Cengiz Khan. and Adolf Hitler. The essence of a true civilization lies in its worldview and state of human development. Webster's definition is somewhat incomplete in this regard. - "an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry and government has been reached." Science, industry and government are readily comprehensible concepts, whereas culture denotes a much wider concept that includes dress, etiquette, food, festival etc., and above all, a worldview.

The importance of worldview as a salient feature of a civilization can be understood if we analyze the word reality as used in most of the European languages vis-à-vis its counterpart in Arabic, namely haqiqah. Etymologically reality comes from Latin res meaning thing or matter, whereas haqiqah comes from haqq meaning truth or right, which is also one of the attributive names of Allah. The single word reality so eloquently features the materialistic (Greco-Roman) foundation of the Western civilization and the theistic underpinning of the Islamic civilization.

"And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know." (The Qur'an, 30:22)

Civilization, as we know, is not a uniform entity like pure water or any other unadulterated material. This is not to say that impurity and adulteration are necessary features of a civilization. One of the necessary characteristics of any civilization worth the name is a certain degree of sophistication. Sophistication comes from meeting, exchange, adaptation and internalization of values between civilizations, and not the least from alienation or sabre-rattling.attitudes.

Value is an important parameter in the interaction of civilizations. Sharing and absorbing values between civilizations ensures an advancement for the entire humanity. But one dangerous aspect of interaction of civilizations is the spread of moral diseases in the guise of values. Diseases are, after all, more infectious than health. Unchecked contagion can jeopardize the very existence of a civilization. Therefore, it is imperative to define the values that make interaction between civilizations a truly enriching rather than sickening experience. A proper understanding of how a civilization germinates, flourishes, decays and in some cases dies is very important. Of course, this is a difficult proposition. The world has seen many civilizations that enjoyed a certain period of awe-inspiring glory and power, and then, became lack-lustre and almost irrelevant to the state of affairs of the world.

The process of interaction between peoples of different colors and races, speaking different languages and belonging to different civilizations is analogous in essence to some physical processes. There is a very subtle and gradual diffusion of values between the two groups in a way similar to the osmosis of fluids across a semi-permeable membrane. The meeting of civilizations sometimes generates heat (agitation and unrest), and at other times absorbs heat from outside similar to exothermic and endothermic reactions in physical chemistry. Civilizations carry their respective spectrum of colors (views and ways) that enrich one another while they meet. True civilizations are like rivers receiving tributaries upstream and making confluence with others downstream with a continuous yearning for meeting the ocean of unity of Mankind. This ultimate communion of civilizations and celebration of the unity of Mankind is only possible by recognizing the Unity of the Creator and Sustainer of the Worlds, and by contemplating His Signs all around us, and by achieving the balance in attitude that He describes as characteristic of the people who will be witness over the nations.

"Thus have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced that ye might be witnesses over the nations and the Apostle a witness over yourselves;…".(The Qur'an, 2:143)

But unfortunately, balance and justice in behavior and attitude are almost absent from the arena of interaction of civilizations. Apathy, arrogance, suspicion and ignorance oftentimes subdue empathy, trust and urge for knowing each other. Even if there are attempts of knowing each other that is mostly driven by an ulterior motive other than sincerity. A good example is that of the European ethnographers of the last few centuries who studied peoples of the remotest corners of the world with a view to facilitating the job of mercantile and political colonizers. The orientalists have yet to cast aside their bag of prejudice and subjectivity against the very people they study with so much passion. The citizens of the non-Western world also have an obligation to discern between the different components of the Western civilization and recognize the good ones. As the whole world is in the process of turning into a global village in this age of communication and information, it is worth wondering how close the hearts of different groups of people have come together. Though information highways have made the task of knowing one another easier than ever before, the unpalatable truth is that all those databases of knowledge about others are not yet assuring mutual respect and love. Yesterday's ignorance and nonchalance are often being replaced by propaganda-driven prejudice thanks to the information technology. In the feasts of enlightened minds from all over the world, sincere hearts have remained unwelcome outsiders. All dialogues between civilizations and cultures will be futile unless mind and heart join together in the effort of mutual understanding, unless intellect and compassion bolster each other in this effort. Only mind to the exclusion of the heart and vice versa can never be enough as a tool of mutual understanding. A correct understanding of the concepts of peace, justice and human right is essential in the dialogue of civilizations. Looking at all human beings as the children of Adam and as the vicegerent of the One True God, .can spare lots of frustration in the process of dialogue. Color, race, language and nationality, nay, professed religious affiliation should never be the yardstick of superiority, or excuse for prejudice. True peace will always elude Mankind if basic human right and justice are not sincerely practiced. Moral relativism has already exacted painful tolls on humanity at large. It is time to return heart and soul to the Eternal source of justice. Submission to the Almighty will surely assure achievement of lasting Peace. Dialogue of civilizations will then turn into a communion of Light and Peace.

February / March 2002