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Tradition, Modernity and Development - Part 1

Thinking about the meaning of the above three concepts and discerning the relationship among them is one of the most pressing preoccupations of thinkers in our age, especially in non-Western countries. A superficial. glance at the above terms may lead us to conclude prematurely that modernity is a Western phenomenon, built through the dismantling and breaking of tradition. Then there is development, viewed as the upshot of modernity, which has become a paramount strategic goal of those outside the We stem sphere of thought and values. From such assumptions we can reach the simplistic conclusion that to reach development, it is necessary to embark on modernization, and modernization can only come about through dismantling tradition.

But these arbitrary assumptions can only satisfy the feebleminded or those who feel no responsibility for human destiny. The problem is much too complex to be solved with simplistic solutions. Tradition cannot be transformed through mere prescriptions, nor does modernization come about easily, for, until people themselves change, no fateful transformation will happen in their lives, and the transformation of people is a highly complex affair for which individuals often lack the tools.

Terms such as tradition, modernization, and development are replete with ambiguity, and thus far there is no consensus on how to define them. Indeed, consensus may never emerge. In order to minimize misunderstanding, all those engaged in this debate must specify clearly what they mean by these terms before they leap to offer their theories and prescriptions.

What do I understand modernization and tradition to mean?

When we talk about modernity, we are certainly talking about innovative and evolving phenomena and institutions. But are all new phenomena modern? Or does modernity mark a specific era in history? Human society, even its most primitive kinds in antiquity, has always been in flux. The essential difference between the Old World and the modern era is not in the static nature of the old versus the dynamism of the modern, but in the slow pace of change in the Old World and the breathtaking pace of change in modernity. Putting the intricate debate about the relationship between civilization and culture aside for the moment, it is fair to assume that each culture is attuned and adapted to a specific civilization. Modern civilization came about through the dismantling of the previous civilization and through overturning the culture corresponding to the old civilization. Then modern civilization ushered in a culture to fit and meet its demands.

Tradition, by definition, deals with the past, but we cannot think of all old things as denoting tradition. We talk about divine traditions or natural traditions which are considered constant and immutable by their proponents. The laws governing existence are divine or natural traditions. It is possible that humans commit errors in the discovery of these laws, and later come to recognize their errors, but what changes here is the understanding of the laws, not the laws themselves. We may accept the principle of change and instability in the essence of the world, just as Sadral Mote'allehin among the great Muslim philosophers-believes in 'dynamic essences', or just as Marxists see the world as being propelled by internal contradictions, and thus immersed in a constant state of transformation. Thus, the principle of change is permanent for everything.

In my view, tradition is a human affair pertaining to the mental and emotional predispositions of a people; in other words, tradition comprises the habituated thoughts, beliefs, and deeds of a people, that have been institutionalized in society on the basis of past practices.

In this definition, tradition is similar to culture, and in many instances tradition is itself a symbol of culture, but we cannot think 6f all culture as being traditional. Tradition is the existing culture in a society that has once possessed a compatible civilization. But now, even though the old civilization has withered, aspects of the corresponding culture have remained deeply entrenched. By civilization I do not refer only to advanced and complex civilizations, but to a specific way of life broadly defined. Thus hunter-gatherers, too, had a civilization; indeed, for as long as human society has existed, there has been civilization.

The existence of a past culture in the present while the base civilization has withered is possible because culture has roots in the depths of human beings and may be more long-lasting than the underlying civilization. Many cultural legacies may outlast civilizations by centuries.- In other words, tradition is the reflection of past culture in today's life if the civilization has changed.

When. a new civilization is created and the culture appropriate for it is entrenched, people who still carry around vestiges of the previous culture experience a contradiction when encountering a new civilization. On the one hand, the realities of life are affected by modern civilization, but much that contradicts modern civilization is still in place, too. People and nations like us are deeply affected by this contradiction. Most of the cultural uncertainties in our society, which has vast differences with the West, are attributable to this contradiction, which until solved at the root, will continue to spawn crisis.

Western society's embracing modern civilization came about through breaking with tradition. The beginning of modern civilization should be seen as the point when the thoughts and values of the Catholic Church and the social and economic traditions of feudalism were questioned and then rejected. The victor in this challenge was modern civilization and the leaders of this value system. The fundamentals of this system were exported to America from Europe and from these two places to distant comers of the world and became dominant, even affecting life in our country.

At the same time, our past culture continues to live within us; this culture has serious differences and disagreements with Western culture. In other words, our tradition is more suitable for another civilization. That civilization no longer exists and the present civilization's border has expanded and affected us fundamentally.

As we all know, this civilization established itself by dismantling the civilization of the Middle Ages in the West. But we had a different civilization from the West in the Middle Ages. Thus, even though modern civilization was at odds with the Western civilization of the Middle Ages, does this mean that the same schism exists between modernity and our previous civilization? This may have something to do with the difference between Islamic and Christian civilizations and cultures.

The most important similarity of our thought today to what was dominant in the West in the Middle Ages is the central place accorded to God in the lives of humans. By contrast, in modern civilization secular humans are viewed as being the center. Even the chief architects of modern thinking-such as Descartes who emerged at the dawn of the modern era-who have defended God and the supernatural in principle, have a markedly different view than Christians and Muslims of the Middle Ages. The centrality of the role of humans constitutes the chief difference among them.

Of course, there has always been divine, mystical, and religious thinking in the West. But there is no doubt that as God and religion were central to the Middle Ages, nature and humans are central to the modern world. In the Middle Ages, otherworldly issues carried more weight and prestige, and here Muslims and Christians were similar. But in today's world, focus on the afterlife has been replaced by secular concerns.

In the modern world, even though the boundless optimism of eighteenth-century Westerners has faded, science and its offspring technology are still the most important factors guiding human life. People-at least in social spheres-do not see any reason to rely on anything other than empirical science and human perceptions. In the past, the view of humans from the perspectives of being and science was different from today's. The value of knowledge was not measured by its utility in the practical affairs of this world, but by the nobility and exalted place of its subject matter. Thus, inquiry into metaphysics, and especially theology, were viewed as being the most important branches of knowledge.

In social life, it was claimed that religious law, or the apparent meaning discerned from religious texts, should rule supreme. Besides divine 'revelation', humanity did not need another source for knowledge and practice. It is worth mentioning that in the Muslim world, philosophy under the influence of Aristotelian and neo-Platonic views-which was essentially different from modern philosophy and rationality-was faced with statutory and canonical views of religion among the rulers and the population, and the effect of Sufism among much of the elite and some parts of society, and thus remained isolated and confined to the sidelines.

The beginning of the modern age can be seen as a time when the main measure of the significance of knowledge and science became their practical utility in this world, whereas before then, the dominant thinking had rested on the folly of the physical world. And even though Muslims of that time were ahead of their Christian contemporaries in recognizing the validity-and indeed the significance-of the natural and physical world, in both civilizations, focusing on the natural world was viewed as being a largely futile occupation.

The crux of my argument is that today's civilization dominates us non-Westerners as well, and that this civilization requires a culture that is attuned to it. Yet portions of our culture remain attuned to a bygone civilization. Modern civilization was built through the dismantling of the previous civilization and the accompanying culture.

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

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