FROM PERENNIAL WISDOM TO DIALOGUE AMONG CIVILIZATIONS
A Muslim Perspective
We have made you into peoples and tribes,
So that you can get to know each other …
(The Qur’an 49 :13, 7th century)
I am fully convinced that the West still needs the East to-day, as much as the East needs the West. As soon as the Eastern peoples have unlearned their scholastic and argumentative methods, as we did in the sixteenth century, as soon as they are truly inspired with the experimental spirit, there is no telling what they may be able to do for us, or, heaven forbid! against us.
(George Sarton, 1937)
As diagnosed by Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, any discussion about dialogue among civilizations has to start from knowledge about the essence of civilization. And Prof. Nasr would take us to the observation of Ananda Coomaraswamy who, in his article entitled “What is Civilization?”, has observed that civilization is not only related to city as meant by the etymology of the Latin word civitas. It actually involves the application of a world view, a particular vision of reality to a human collectivity. That is … of ways of looking at the world which determines how we evaluate things, how we see things, how we understand human life, the goal of existence, the spiritual quality which dominates over us.”
And if one looks at the various civilizations of the world, including those mentioned in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, one will discover that every civilization were founded upon a “presiding idea” that constitutes a total world view, a religion in its broadest sense. If you look at Islamic civilization, Hindu civilization, Buddhist civilization, South East Asian, Confucian, Taoist civilization, the civilization of the Maori in New Zealand, the North American Indians, the Amazon Indians, the Yourba, wherever you go in the world, the heart of the civilization has always been religion.
Even modern Western civilization is the residue of a religious civilization. Despite its secular nature, its origin was not secular philosophy; philosophy, it has initially been created by Christianity. Only later that it deviated from the norm of a civilization that has been founded before.
In contrast to the opinions of many secularists, religion is not going away, even in the center of the secular world, including the US and most of Europe. One of the great theoreticians of of secularisation, in a controversial book of which he is the editor, i.e. The Deseculariszation of the World, Peter Berger argues that what has been going on in the world in the past few decades is not the secularization of society but the desecularization. This book has a number of essays by leading scholars from all over the world, with the opening essay by Peter Berger himself. All agree that the world religions, with the exception of Western Europe, are on the rise. Including in South America, North America, the Islamic world, Hindu India, Buddhist Asia, even in Communist China in which Confucianism is stronger today than at Chairman Mao’s time.
The need for spirituality in the West has actually been felt since the 60’s. Alvin Toffler, as early as three decades ago, would list no less than 4000 cultic organizations in the US only in his very famous book, The Future Shock. Time Magazine in one of its surveys several years ago had concluded that in the US there were more Americans that cultivated the habit of praying than those who went to the movies, did sport, and engaged in sexual activities. According to Steven Waldman, an ex. Editor of US News and World Report, the word “God” has been one of the most popular key words in most of the search engines on the internet. Based on that, Waldman, together with Robert Nylan, Chief Executive of New England Monthly, established in 2000 beliefnet.com, an internet site that provides news, discussion groups, and features about world religions and spiritualities. Bob Jacobson, the chairman of Bluefire Consulting, a provider of Internet Consultation at Redwood City California, confirmed the conclusion drawn by Waldman-Nylan above. In one of the news released by thestandard.com in June 25, 1999, Jacobson stated that pornographic sites have misled the press to the extent that it did not give proper attention to the popularity of the religious sites. According to a CNN Report, the year 2000 was the year of spiritual travelers. Thousands of people responded to the mystical and mythic calls, leaving their homes to visit holy sites. The city of Assisi, the home of St. Francis, and the Church of Basilica has been among the most favorite destinations. The Mayor of Assisi has estimated that there were 13 million visitors between December 1999 and January 2001 that means that there were 13.000 to 15.000 visitors daily in that period of time. Other favorite destinations include Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and Ayer’s Rock or Uluru in Australia.
Even in England, a poll that had been conducted by the BBC and published in April 1998 showed that the majority of the populations in that Western part of the world still feel the need for religion. When asked if religion has lost its meaning, 53% responded negatively.
This phenomenon of religious enthusiasm has probably been the realization of the prophecy made by William James – one of the most prominent American psychologists and philosophers of the 20th century. In his very famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published as early as 1904, he stated that as a social being, human will not feel that he or she has lived a fulfilling life except when he or she befriends ‘the Great Socius’ (The Great Friend). Certainly ‘the Great Socius’ that James meant is God. He went on to say that as long as one has not been in the companionship of God he or she will always feel emptiness, a carving, in his soul.
Therefore, if dialogue is meant to succeed, it has to involve understanding between religions. However, the understanding has to transcend a mere formality and has to reach deeper into the spiritual aspect of all religions instead. A genuine dialogue among civilizations has to take into account the deeper dimensions and resonances of human experience.
Referring to Martin Buber, a dialogue is not merely an exchange of words, or e-mails, but “a response to one’s whole being to the otherness of the other”. And that “a time of genuine religious conversations is beginning from one open-hearted person to another open-hearted person”. A dialogue among civilizations therefore has to reach into the common denominators among religions which actually are not at all difficult to find..
As have been discussed by many mystically-inclined personalities such as Rene Guenon, Ananda Comaraswamy, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Fritjchof Schuon, the ancient or perennial wisdom has been believed to be the source or seed of all of human sciences and thoughts, not excluding religions. That, although it has been cultivated and developed in various cultures, the whole products of human civilizations, whether it is philosophy, religion, mysticism, science etc, have been believed to gush forth from that same source. And that source, for the believers, is no other than the Wisdom and Knowledge of the Creator of the Universe, God of all human beings. This divine wisdom is believed to be revealed to human beings through His prophets and messengers.
One of the theories that supports this view has put the history of human science and thought as originated from a personality, mythical to a certain extent, by the name of Hermes Trimegistus, or the Thrice Great Hermes. Although the first mention of this personality is believed to date back long before that, the first record of him can be found in the letter of Manetho to Ptolemy II even before 250 BC. Hermes is believed to be Toth in the old Egyptian religion, Ukhnukh in the religion of the Jews, Houshang in the tradition of Persia, and Prophet Idris (Enoch) in the tradition of Islam, while in the Greek mythology he is considered to be the son of Zeus and Maia and, in the ancient believe of the Roman, he was identified with Mercury. However, in all those beliefs, Hermes is accepted as the Father of human thought and science. Fragments of his teachings can be found nowadays in the Corpus Hermeticum, Ascelapius, and in various texts that have been found in many traditions: Greek, Persian, Christian, Islamic, etc. In the Greek tradition the translation of Hermes’ teachings has been transmitted among others through Pythagoras, Plato, different figures in the tradition of Neoplatonism, especially Plotinus, and later passed over to the Christian European thought through, among others, St Augustine, and ended up in the Middle Eastern Islamic and Christian philosophers, mystics and theosophers. (There is also a renewed interest in the West on the study of Hermetic tradition, most important among them is the work of F Yates, Giordano Bruno and Hermetic Tradition, Chicago, 1964)
Among Muslim philosophers, Suhrawardi—a post-Averroes philosopher—had created a pseudo-historical tree in which Hermes has been placed as the source of science and philosophy in Islam. Suhrawardi has also placed Plotinus – the most important among the Neo-Platonists with regard to the history of Islamic thought — as the source of, among others, his epistemology to the extent that one of his most important works in this field had been claimed by him to be inspired by his dialogue with the Greek thinker in a dream.
A modern thinker, Alfred North Whitehead, would go as far as putting the philosophy of Plato, in its different forms and developments, as the source of human thoughts by stating that the entire thoughts of the successive thinkers and philosophers in the history of mankind have been no more than a footnote to Plato’s
Plato has also been regarded by most of the Muslim philosophers as the father of all thoughts. Just to take an example, Mulla Shadra, who is considered by some as embodying the peak of the development of Islamic philosophy, has gone as far as quoting, in one of his works on the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an, two traditions (or sayings) of Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of the Muslims, that confirm the righteousness of Plato and the authenticity of his thought from the Islamic point of view. One of the traditions goes like this: “If Plato had live in my age (i.e. the age of Prophet Muhammad), he would surely have become one of my (Muhammad’s) followers.”
Beyond Greek thoughts some Muslim philosophers and thinkers have embraced the believe that various religions — outside of the so called heavenly religions that have been explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an as the religions of the Book, including Judaism and Christianity – as also the religions founded by the true prophets, the messengers of the God (of the Muslims).
First of all, Islam accords Judaism and Christianity a special status. Their founders, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are the prophets of God. What they have conveyed, the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels, are revelations from God. To believe in these prophets and in the revelations they have brought is integral to the very faith of Islam. To not believe in them, even to just discriminate among them, is amounted to apostasy. “Our Lord and your Lord is indeed God, the One and the only God.” This is a believe that has been embraced and taught by many Muslim figures, not excluding Ayatullah Khomeini who has been known in the West as a Muslim fanatic.
“Those who have attained faith”, according to the Qur’an, “those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), the Sabeans and the Christians – all those who believe in God and in the Day of Judgment and have done good work – will receive their due reward from God. They have no cause to fear, nor shall they grieve.”
Apart from the very positive reference made by the Holy Book to the Christian priests and monks such as: “… thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say “We are Christian”; that because among them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud …”, there have been in the Islamic traditions — especially that circulates among the more mystically inclined Muslims — extensive quotations from Jesus..
Some Muslims are also of the opinion that the founder of Buddhism was Prophet Ezekiel. In the middle of the 20th century, a Pakistani Muslim scholar, Abul Kalam Azad in his book of interpretation of the Holy Qur’an entitled Tafsir Surah Al-Fathihah (Interpretation of the Opening Chapter), held the opinion that prophet Ezekiel (or pronounced in Arabic as Zulkifl, means ‘one from the Kifl’), who has been mentioned twice in the Quran as a very patient and pious person, might refer to Sakyamuni Buddha. Azad explained that the word ‘Kifl’ is actually the Arabized form of ‘Kapila’, which is the short for ‘Kapilavastu’.
In the Sogdian translations, the expression ‘dharma’ has been translated as ‘nom’, which originally means ‘law’. But now the expression has also meant ‘book’. So the Buddhists, just like the Dharmas, is also known as ‘People of the Book’, although in Buddhism itself there is no one single book that has the highest authority as the Qur’an in Islam. The use of the word ‘book’ to translate Dharma is adopted by the Uighurs and the Mongols in their translations. Some other Muslim scholars would also accept this theory, including the Persian Muslim historians of India of the 11th century, i.e. Al- Biruni.
A research would also prove that the religion of the Hindus had actually originated from the earliest followers of the prophet Noah (See among others the observation of Sultan Shahin, Islam and Hinduism). In this observation, the writer mentions Shah Waliyullah among the earlier Muslim thinkers as well as Sulaiman Nadwi and several other contemporary scholars of India as having this opinion. Also, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Ridha and Muhammad Ali, among the most prominent Muslim modernist thinkers of the twentieth century, regard Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism as the religions of the People of the Book. There are also Muslim thinkers who have the opinion that the Sabeans, who are mentioned in the Quran as a group among the People of the Book — beside Judaism and Christianity — is actually the Zoroastrian people who are now extant in Iran. It might not be a coincidence that the Zoroastrians have claimed to adopt the Corpus Hermeticum as among their Holy Texts.
Still some other Muslim thinkers would accept Taoism as a monotheistic religion. We might also be surprised by the attempt of some Muslim thinkers, Fritjof Schuon was the most important among them, who would go to a great detail to prove the shared universal elements between Islam ant the believe of the native Americans.
Indeed, the Muslims are reminded that the Qur’an has taught us, that God has sent to each people along the history of mankind a prophet, who is at the same time believed to have preached the same message originated from the same God. “There is no people”, the Qur’an asserts, “but a warner (prophet) has been sent to them”. “We have indeed sent prophets before you (Muhammad). About some of them, We have informed you. About others We have not.” An Islamic tradition has recorded that the number of the prophets of God is no less than 124.000!
George Sarton – a prominent American historian of science, the author of the four volumes A History of Science — has been very convincing in proving that this advanced scientific achievement of our civilization has been a combined work of the East and the West. Ex orientale lux, ex occidente lex. From the East came the light, from the West, law! This is what he had to say: “Let me say right away that my aim is to show the immense contributions which Eastern people made to our civilization, even if our idea of civilization is focused upon science”. Apart from the contribution of the Chinese and the Hindus, science has been developed for the first time, not in an unsystematic way, by people from Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was only later that the Greek inherited the knowledge from them. And it was the Muslims who captured the legacy of the Greek, developed it, and transmitted it to the West before there had been any direct contact between the Greek intellect and the Western mind. The scientific culture that had been developed by the Muslims, quoting Sarton again, “spread like a prairie fire from Baghdad eastward to India, Transoxiana and further still, and westward to the very edge of the world.” In this enterprise they received invaluable help from the Christians, Syrians and others, who spoke Greek, Syriac, and pretty soon Arabic. I need to mention, in passing, here that these oriental Christians had been treated – unlike what they had received from the past Byzantine government — well by their Muslim rulers.”
We can indeed find along the history of the contacts many cases in which the followers of one religion would study under an expert who was a follower of the other religions In the history of the Muslims, al-Farabi — one of the most important Muslim philosophers — had studied logics under Yuhanna ibn Haylan, a Nestorian Christian. In its turn, Al-Farabi took as his students two Jacobite brothers, Yahya and Ibrahim ibn Adi. Even before that, the Muslims had also studied medicine from a Nestorian Christian academy of Gondishapur in Iran. Later, Christian and Muslim scholars would study science and philosophy side by side in Spain. We have also been told by historians about how Rabbi Moses Maimonides (b. 1138) would learn from Averroes (1126-1198). While St. Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225) later learned from the two philosophers – especially in the time of his study in the University established by Frederick II at Naples, a university established chiefly with the objective of introducing Muslim philosophy and science to the West through translations of Arabic works into Latin and Hebrew. This fact has been recognized by Pope John Paul II when he specifically mentioned that one of the influences on Thomas Aquinas was “the dialogue that Thomas carried on with the writings of the Arab and Jewish thinkers of his time”. Adelard of Bath, one among hundreds of medieval European scholars who studied and learned from Muslim scholars would proudly acknowledgedacknowledge his debt to the Arabs by saying: … I was taught by my Arab masters to be led only by reason, where as you were taught to follow the halter of the captured image of ancient authority”. But the first Christian who took up Arab science in the tenth century was no less than Pope Sylvester II. He introduced the Arab astronomy and Mathematics, and Arabic numerals to his fellow Romans. In the twelfth century it was Raymond I, the Archbishop of Toledo – a city where Muslims and Christians lived side by side — sponsored the establishment of a translation bureau to render Arabic masterpieces into Latin, albeit through Roman.
The examples are so abundant that Sarton would conclude : “during the twelfth century the three civilizations which exerted the deepest influence upon human thought and which had the largest share in the molding of the future, the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim, were remarkably well balanced .. Perhaps the main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit … (the most revolutionary of all methods). This was primarily due to Muslims down to the end of the twelfth century, then to Christians. Thus in this essential respect, East and West cooperated like brothers.”
The encounter of the mystics among the Muslims and the Christians had happened even before that, i.e. in the earliest years of Islam. Tor Andrae, among others, has beautifully captured these encounters in his book, In the Garden of the Myrtles. The Arabic conquest, according to Andrae, showed great gentleness to the Christian population in the subjugated countries. The Christian churches could hardly complain. In 650 AD the head of the Nestorian Church was able to write: “These Arabs do not only avoid fighting Christianity, they even endorse our religion, they honor our priests and holy men and donate gifts to monasteries and churches.” This surprising piece of information, that priests and monks had been particularly favored by the conquerors, is certainly not a mere invention. In Egypt, the monks were initially, in fact entirely, exempted from paying taxes, including the personal tax which every Christian and Jew had to pay to enjoy religious freedom. Burjulani, at the beginning of the ninth century, has had this to say :say:
Behold the exhortations of the monks, as well as their works
A word of truth, even if it comecomes from the mouth of non-Muslims,.
Is a salutary warning. Let us obey it.
Still in the circle of mysticism, we find the German Goethe wrote his Compendium of Poems on the East during his mature years under a very strong influence of the Persian Muslim mystic-poet Hafiz, Fitzgerald translated Omar Khayyam’s Ruba’iyyat into English and it was received with great interest, Reynold A. Nicholson published in several volumes English translations of Rumi’s Mathnawi and also from his Diwan. And since then the works of the Muslim mystics has been introduced to the West in a much faster pace.
There are certainly many, many more examples of the close, peaceful, and very productive encounters between the Muslims and the Christians along the history of the two religions that the inclusion of which would be far too much for this short talk.
It is unfortunate that, as observed by a number of historians such as William H. McNeill and J.M. Roberts, the central flow of history for the past two hundred years has been a one-way street, i.e. from the West to the rest of the world. So that it is almost impossible for many Western intellectuals to conceive the notion of two-way street of ideas and values. “Because,” as mentioned by Kishore Mahbubani, “many (Westerners – HB) believe that they have created the world in their own image.” And this belief has also entered non-Western minds. V.S. Naipaul demonstrated this with his claim that Western civilization represents the only universal civilization.
Certainly, this has not happened overnight. Rather, it has been built since the beginning of the era of Renaissance. Impulses of Renaissance had compelled the Western civilization to the new era of revolutionary changes. First and foremost is what later on called by modern historians as The Industrial Revolution. The term Industrial Revolution refers to the changes that occurred during 1700’s and early 1800’s as results of rapid development of industrialization. At the same epoch, social and political revolution wreaked French. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had dramatic effects on the thinking of the rest of Europe.
Unfortunately, the most striking impact of these two big revolutions is the exorbitant spread of Western colonization and occupation over the rest of the world. Here I will quote William H. McNeill from The Rise of the West: “At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the geographical boundaries of Western civilization could still be defined with reasonable precision (i.e. within Europe)…(But) within a few decades settlers of European origins or descents were able to occupy central and western North America, the pampas and adjacent regions of South America, and substantial parts of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.” And now, as another Western historian, J.M. Roberts, in his The Triumph of the West, said: “We may now be entering the era of its greatest triumph, not over state structures and economic relationships, but over the minds and hearts of all men.”
On the other side, there are non-Western civilizations which see themselves as not only not less great than their Western counterpart but also as victims of Western hegemony and exploitation. How do we solve this problem? Should we just accept powerlessly the judgment Rudyard Kipplings who said :said:
Oh, East is East, and West is West
And never the twain shall meet
and And then subscribe to the Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations? The answer is a categorical “no”. The reason is that there is no future for humanity in this peculiar way of seeing the world There must be another way of making sense of all this. And that is dialogue among civilizations.
The talk about this kind of interaction between civilizations seems to start with the proposal presented by “the moderate” President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sayyid Muhammad Khatami, to the annual session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on 29 October 1999. This is a proposal which has been unanimously welcomed in both international circles and specifically, in the Fifty-Third United Nations General Assembly, besides being hailed by intellectuals and the public alike. A year after that, on the first of January 2001 chosen to be the “World Day of Peace”, Pope John Paul II urged people everywhere to foster the dialogue between cultures for the sake of a “civilization of love”.
Khatami urged Moslem community to lead humanity toward a pluralistic environment built upon dialogues. Only by putting this paradigm in place that the world can be freed from the hegemony of one group over the other. Khatami suggested that dialogue among civilizations is the humane key in solving the modern world from unilateralist policies and actions. Not only that there are indeed great non-Western civilizations, but also that the civilizations are still kept intact in the midst of the powerful wave of Westernizations in the past several centuries. “There are,” Mahbubani pointed out, “deep reservoirs of spiritual and cultural strength which have not been affected by the Western veneer that has been spread over many other societies.”
This would mean our paying special attention to the collective aspect of man’s existence, emphasizing the vast and infinite range of human civilizations, and especially, stressing the point that no major culture or civilization has evolved in isolation.
This cooperation is not merely of an economic and political nature. In order to bring the hearts of human beings closer together, we must also think of ways to bridge the gap between people’s minds. One cannot be very hopeful of this prospective union of hearts by believing in conflicting philosophical, moral, and religious foundations. To bring hearts together, it is necessary for minds to be brought closer together, and this will not be achieved unless great thinkers of the world make a special effort to understand the main concepts in the thoughts of others and then to communicate these to their own people.
It is necessary to talk about the basic concepts related to the heart and to the mind. Everyone should express what they think of the meaning of life, the meaning of happiness, and the meaning of death. This may not yield any immediate results, but without it, any agreement reached merely on political and economic grounds will prove to be very fragile and short-lived.
Now, before I conclude, I would like to mention one other thing that will prove crucial to the success of any dialogue among civilizations. I.e., dialogue among civilizations will not develop without the taking into account the present state of the world. Conflicts often have deep psychological roots in the study of which psychologists, social psychologists, and psychoanalysts have long been engaged in. However, they break out due to political and economic factors as well. With the terrible gap between the rich and the poor in various communities and countries of the world, how can we naively call for peace and mutual understanding? How can we call for dialogue if this inequality persists and if no fundamental steps are taken to help the deprived peoples of the world? When on the eve of the third millennium, thirty percent of the world’s population will live in abject poverty, how can we talk of peace and security and forget justice? Even if the West decides to save its life and forget the fate of the people in the rest of the world, it is obliged to help others in order to protect its own interests. For a number of social, political and technical reasons, all the people living in today’s world find themselves aboard the same ship.
Allow me to make a final quote from the same American George Sarton:
“We’re justly proud of our American civilization, but its record is still very short. Three centuries! How little that is as compared with the totality of human experience (that, in the field of science itself has covered at least four millenniums). Hence we must be modest. After all, the main test is that of survival, and we have not yet been tried. .. New inspiration may still, and do still, come from the East, and we shall be wiser if we realize it. … The unity of mankind includes East and West. They are like two moods of the same man; scientific truth is the same East and West, and so are beauty and charity. East and West, who said that the twain shall never meet ….?”
Ex oriente lux, ex occidente lex!”