The Islamic World and Modern Challenges
I wonder whether to commence my words with a statement of woes and misfortunes that are, or with the joys and delights that are to be. Is it not a fundamental objective of the Islamic Conference to arrive at common remedies for the woes of Muslim countries, and the attainment of a stature and position befitting them? Is it not to achieve this lofty ideal that the present should be prevailed over and misfortunes remedied? No pain and affliction can be cured unless it is properly diagnosed in the first place, then the best solution is sought after with discretion and reflection, and finally, acted upon with resolve and firmness.
Our predicament is that the Islamic Ummah, once a flag-bearer of knowledge, thought, and civilization, has in recent centuries relapsed into weakness and backwardness and worse still, has even failed, due to the consequent painful state of passivity vis-avis the ostentatious dominant civilization of the time, to properly utilize the fruits of this civilization. Our centuries-old passivity is the outcome of the decline of a once shining human civilization, whose achievements and remnants are still praiseworthy and to which the dominant world civilization is truly indebted. Today, the recreation of the replica of the old civilization is neither possible, for its time is long gone, nor desirable, even if it were possible. Considering civilization as the product of man's responses to his questions about existence, the world, and himself and also as representing the sum total of his efforts in the way of meeting his needs, then what is constant in man is his quest for knowing as well as his need and longing. However, the form and content of the questions and needs change according to time and place. Civilizations continue to live as long as they possess the capacity to respond to the ever-renewing questions and the ever-changing needs of man, otherwise they are doomed to demise. As such, civilization, as a human affair, is subject to birth, development, and demise.
The questions and needs of man in our time are in many ways different from those of our predecessors. Our passivity in recent centuries in the face of Western civilization-which is itself a natural response to the quest of Western man-is due to the fact that for various reasons we have ceased to ask. The absence of question leads to the absence of thought, which in turn leads to inevitable passivity and subjugation vis--vis others.
What is important, though, is to discern that such passivity, indolence, and backwardness is not our preordained destiny. The people who once created one of the most glorious civilizations in history still enjoy the potential to create another, provided, of course, that they lend themselves to reason and reflection, and this cannot be accomplished without the realization of the following:
1-Return, with reflection, to the historical self which on the one hand is rooted in eternal Divine inspiration and on the other, carries a unique historical and cultural potentiality nurtured by the past.
2-Proper and deep understanding of the present time. In this respect, it is imperative to discern that between Islamic civilization or to be exact, civilization of Muslims-and our life today-there stands what is called 'Western civilization', a civilization whose accomplishments are not few, and whose negative consequences, particularly for nonWesterners' are plentiful. Our era is an era of the preponderance of Western culture and civilization, an understanding of which is imperative. However, for such an understanding to be effective and useful, it is essential to go beyond its surface and the superficialities and to reach its theoretical basis and the fundamentals of its values.
Recognition of our past is equally imperative, not in order to return and stay in the past, which is pure regression, but rather for the rediscovery of the essence of our identity and its refinement in the mentalities and habits hardened by time and place, as well as for rational criticism of the past in order to find proper support for today's honor and dignity and a platform to go beyond the present towards a future more splendid than the past. Undoubtedly, we will only succeed in moving forward along this path if we possess the requisite fairness and capacity to utilize the positive scientific, technological, and social accomplishments of Western civilization, a stage we must inevitably go through to reach the future. Painful and bitter though we find the passivity and backwardness of Muslim countries, nevertheless the mere happy reminder that we can transform our destiny through awareness, resolve, and solidarity is a matter of elation and delight.
We can certainly move the present as well as future generations towards a new Islamic civilization through setting our eyes on horizons farther away, being together with understanding and helping each other as brothers. For this to become a reality, all of us must put our minds to the realization of an 'Islamic civil society' in our respective countries. The civil society which we want to promote and perfect in our society and which we recommend to other Islamic societies is fundamentally different from the 'civil society' that is rooted in Greek philosophical thinking and Roman political tradition and which, having gone through the Middle Ages, has acquired its peculiar orientation and identity in the modern world. The two, however, are not necessarily in conflict and contradiction in all their manifestations and consequences. This is exactly why we should never be oblivious to the judicious acquisition of the positive accomplishments of Western civil society.
While Western civil society, historically as well as , theoretically, is derived from the Greek city-state and the later Roman political system, the civil society we have in mind has its origin, from a historical and theoretical point of view, in Madinat ul-Nabi. Changing Yathreb to Madinatun-Nabi was not just a change of name, nor did the change from Ayyam ul-jahiliah (Days of Ignorance) to Ayyam-Ullah' (Days of Allah) represent just an alteration of designation. Madinah is not soil and territory just as Yaum-Ullah does not stand for time.
With Madinat ul-Nabi and Ayyam-Ullah there emerged in the early days of Islam a moral geography and history that ushered in the beginning of a new outlook, character, and culture. This culture, with its unique and distinct view of existence and man and their origin, has for centuries lived in the depths of the soul and collective memory of Muslims. Now, more than ever before, Muslims need to take abode in their own common home. Despite the fact that ethnic, geographical, and social differences among Muslims have over time given different semblances and flavors to the Muslim individual, Madinat ul-Nabi remains as our eternal moral abode and Yaum-Ullah continues to flow as current time through all moments of our lives, or else they ought to. Madinah emerged through hegira (exodus) from the land of polytheism and oppression, as Yaum-Ullah began as the result of a break with the time of Jahiliah (darkness) and entry into the sacred realm of Divine 'Time and Presence'.
Taking abode in the 'common Islamic home' does not mean regression, rejection of scientific achievements, withdrawal from the modern world or seeking conflict with others. On the contrary, it is only after such a return to the common identity that we can live in peace and tranquility with other peoples and nations. Living in peace and security can only be realized when one fully understands not only the culture and thinking but also the concerns as well as the ways and manners of others. Sophisticated understanding of the cultural and moral dimensions of other societies and nations entails establishment of a dialogue with them. A genuine meaningful discourse can take place only when the parties concerned find themselves in their own genuine true position, otherwise the dialogue between an alienated imitator and others is meaningless and certainly void of any good or benefit. Seeking abode in the common Islamic home, Madinatun Nabi-is tantamount to the assumption by Muslims of their true position; that is, securing their true Islamic identity.
In the civil society that we espouse, although it is centered around the axis of Islamic thinking and culture, personal or group dictatorship or even the tyranny of the majority and elimination of the minority has no place. In such a society, man, due to the very attribute of being human, is venerated and revered and his rights respected. Citizens of an Islamic civil society enjoy the right to determine their own destiny, supervise the governance and hold the government accountable. The government in such a society is the servant of the people and not their master, and in every eventuality, is accountable to the people whom God has entitled to determine their own destiny. Our civil society is not a society where only Muslims are entitled to rights and are considered citizens. Rather, all individuals are entitled to rights, within the framework of law and order. Defending such rights ranks among the important fundamental duties of the government.
Respect for human rights and compliance with their relevant norms and standards is not a posture adopted out of political expediency or conformity with others. Rather it is the natural consequence of our religious teachings and precepts. Amir Al-Mu'menin Imam Ali (AS) enjoined his representative to observe the principle of justice and equity as regards all people and not Muslims. only, for 'they are of two groups; a group of them is your brothers in faith and the other is like you in creation'.
Our civil society seeks neither to dominate others nor to submit to domination. It recognizes the right of other nations to selfdetermination and access to the necessary means for an honorable living. Determined not to yield to force and coercion and in its drive to stand on its own feet, our civil society, as instructed by the Holy Quran, considers itself entitled to acquire all requisite means for material and technical progress and authority. The rejection of domination and subservience no doubt means the rejection of force and duplicity in relations among nations, and their replacement with logic and the principle of mutual respect in international relations.
The civil society we champion is based on our collective identity whose attainment requires the continuous and ceaseless endeavors of intellectuals and thinkers. It is not a treasure that can be unearthed overnight, rather, it is a fountain of life and morality from whose constant effusion we will benefit. Therefore, enjoyment of this treasure is gradual and is dependent on scrupulous cognizance and re-examination of our heritage as well as our doctrinal and intellectual tradition on the one hand, and sophisticated scientific and philosophical understanding of the modern world on the other. Hence, it is the thinkers and men of . learning who are pivotal in this movement and play the central role: Our success along this path depends upon politics serving thought and virtue and not acting as a confined and restrictive framework for them.
What I have just stated is not an exercise in imagination but the panoramic outlook of a future situation, whose achievement is possible and for whose realization it is our urgent duty to strive. We are of the belief that movement along this clear path has commenced in Iran thanks to the victory of the Islamic Revolution. The honorable people of Iran are pursuing their way with self-confidence and through perseverance in the face of difficulties and struggling against internal restrictive and regressive habits and mindsets on- the one hand, and external pressure and conspiracies on the other. Along this path, they extend their hands, in fraternity and cooperation, to all Muslim nations and states and also to all nations and states who are committed to the principle of mutual respect.
Regaining Islamic honor and dignity, which God has discerned for us, and acquiring the requisite capabilities to claim our due share in the present world and in the creation of a new civilization, or at least, actively participating in the genesis of the civilization that will inevitably replace the existing one, we Muslims should rely on two important factors: one, wisdom and reason, and the other, cohesion and solidarity. In order to realize these two prodigious marvels can there be anything for us but recourse to the Holy Quran-the eternal heritage of the Glorious Prophet of Islam? Which Divine Book or Message more than the Quran has so much emphasized reasoning, meditation, reflection, contemplation, and deliberation on existence and on the world, and on learning from the fate of past peoples and communities? Furthermore, against all 'racial, ethnic, linguistic and even religious differences, the Holy Quran is the most trustworthy anchor of bond and unity among us Muslims, provided, of course, that we appreciate it and rely on it, with wisdom, and enlighten with its bright rays our life today as well as our future horizons, without rigidity and habituality on the one hand, and a sense of inferiority vis-d-vis others on the other hand.
At this juncture and on the occasion of this august assembly, I briefly present to the distinguished audience, with deep fraternal feeling, the priorities that Muslim countries need to address and find remedies for, on which I seek the assistance of the conference.
Adapted from the book: "Islam, Dialogue and Civil Society" by: "Sayyid Mohammad Khatami"
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