Rafed English

The Crisis of Civilizations

When it is first born and subsequently at the point of its demise, each civilization places its adherents in a state of crisis. At first, when a new covenant arises in the history of a people and the ground is ripe for the emergence of a new civilization, the social fabric is strained. The new civilization heralds new and often revolutionary customs and mores. But the previous civilization will not easily relinquish its entrenched and institutionalized dominance. Historically shaped social habits are hard to break. Much of society remains glued to the mental and emotional predilections of the previous era. The need to throw out the deeply ingrained attachments and replace them with a new world view induces a painful identity crisis.

At the same time, the new civilization has not been tried out in real life. Its inner contradictions are hidden from view, for it has not passed the litmus test of experience. To endure and lay roots, the new civilization must adapt and fine-tune itself as it encounters the evolving realities of social life. Until this process of adaptation and transformation reaches its fruition, social identity crisis is the norm.

The other instance of crisis, at the point of the demise of a civilization, appears when the dominant world view cannot satisfy the psychological, material, and social needs of its constituents. People begin to experience a troubling void and sterility. Again, the historically conditioned predilections that are rendered anachronistic will not be easily abandoned. This state of limbo can merely offer the veneer of civilization bereft of substance and soul. An existential void sets in that brings on a full-blown identity crisis. 1

This discussion is meant to set up the fundamental question, what historical condition does our own society live in and what is going to become of it?

1. This argument does not imply that each of the two types of crisis necessarily follows the other. Because of the connection of the 'death crisis' of the first civilization to the 'birth crisis' of the second, they must not be viewed as being identical because:

First, my focus is on the crisis that one civilization creates, one at the peak of civilization and the other at its nadir, not the crisis of the end of one and the birth of the second. Second, even if the crisis of the end of one civilization and the crisis of the birth of another civilization coincide, this does not mean that we should see them as the being one and the same, for these two crises are qualitatively different in nature, similar to the way life and death are different. Third, it is not as though as soon as a civilization dies there is immediately another one to replace it. Instead, a civilization comes, stays for centuries and then leaves. Different societies provide different breeding grounds for civilizations. To know this for certain requires greater and more careful scrutiny which this author has not had the chance to undertake. Nonetheless, we should not doubt the qualitative difference between these two kinds of crisis.

Adapted from the book: "Islam, Dialogue and Civil Society" by: "Sayyid Mohammad Khatami"

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