The Impact of Western Hegemony on Muslim thought Pt 2

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Rabi' al-Awwal 02, 1420 1999-06-16


by Yusuf Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1420)

(Continued from previous issue)

In the first part of his paper presented at the Crescent International/ICIT Kalim Siddiqui Memorial Seminar in London on April 11, 1999, PROFESSOR YUSUF PROGLER traced the west’s legacy of deicide, ecocide and genocide during its ‘millennium of murder’. In the second and final part of the paper, he indicates ways in which Muslims can escape this legacy...

The whole idea of the millennium is intertwined with something deeper that is going on in Western civilization right now: the West is unsure of itself. It is unsure of its institutions, educational policies, business practices, social norms, and political understandings of the world. For example, Dr. Kalim had been saying for a long time that nationalism is anathema to Islam. Political scientists scoffed at the idea for decades, but now some of the highest thinkers in Western policy pundit circles insist that nationalism is a thing of the past; that it is irrelevant in an ‘age of globalization.’ Their reasons for saying this, of course, are quite different, and Muslims ought not to fall into the trap of seeing a common destiny with the West. European and American strategists are now unsure of one of the defining factors of post-World War II foreign policy, which was based on nationalism and the nation-state. Western policy pundits and their ruling establishment are unsure if that’s the way they want to run the world any more. These are the discussions behind closed doors in the Bilderberg group and the Davos forum.

Another example of this rethinking within the West is in the area of education. In America, there are major debates on the meaning and purpose of education. People are unsure of who should be educated, what education should do, and how it should go about doing what it does. Some propose tracked vocational models, like the German and Japanese systems, while others seek to retrench the Anglo-American model of liberal education with renewed emphasis on ‘the classics’.

This recognition that the West is unsure of itself should raise a number of questions. Given the Western legacy of the millennium of murder and given its broad uncertainty about the present and future, why do Muslims still express an interest in following Western ways at all? Why do Muslims even consider renewing their allegiances to Western political, economic, and educational systems, when those systems have become outdated and are likely to be abandoned or changed in the West itself? On the contrary, now is the time to make room for varieties of viable alternative visions, before the West institutionalizes another form of savage barbarism.

It’s not enough to free the colonized people of the world through ‘national liberation’ movements. Nationalist movements, and even certain transnational ones, usually depend on Western norms of thought and action. A true revolution requires that people learn to think and act outside the Western norms. There have been many revolutions in the modern era, from fascist to socialist, which utilize revolutionary ideologies that grow in and of the same soil as that from which they seek liberation. These ideologies only result in partial revolutions. In the end, it is not enough to liberate bodies from the colonial yokes; the more important task is to liberate people’s thinking.

To accomplish this, Muslims can use a two-pronged strategy, based on the methodology of the kalimah of Islam, la ilaha illa Allah - ‘there is no god except Allah.’ Within this simple phrase there is a simultaneous denial of something, and an assertion of something else. Extrapolating from that, it’s not enough for Muslims to say that the West is bad without an understanding and development of what may be an alternative. This requires a delicate balance. Imbalance will lead to teaching religion without any understanding of how the modern world is affecting the practice and understanding of religion, leading to hegemonic co-optation into schemes that are not well understood. If too much time is spent on ‘keeping up’ with the West, emulating its sciences and guarding piecemeal against its latest cultural corruptions, people will become stunted in their theological and cultural understanding of Islamic civilization. That is why it is necessary to have a two-pronged strategy. There are several aspects of this project.

One aspect involves ontology: reflection on the nature of being. What does it mean to be a human being? During the millennium of murder, the Western world has for the most part defined ontology for itself. Anyone who currently pays allegiance to the Western economic, political, and educational systems implicitly adopts the Western assumptions on the nature of being embodied therein. Most Western economic systems, rules of citizenship, and practices of education have institutionalized one version of what it means to be a human being. Proceeding from their own traditions, Muslims ought to re-evaluate their situation because the Western understanding of ontology is quite different than the teachings of Islam.

Islam has its own explanation, which is evident from deep study of the Qur’an and Sunnah. In a sense, Islamic ontology is really about sets of relationships, between human beings and Allah, between human beings among themselves, and between human beings and the rest of creation, the universe or the natural environment. Any meaningful liberation from the Western millennium of murder will need to focus on what Islam says about those relationships and how they provide a baseline ontological system. For example, the Seerah literature is rich with instances in which the Prophet, upon whom be peace, articulates the basis of an Islamic ontology and knowledge of the Divine, refuting the Judeo-Christian conception of the Creator.

On one occasion, a Jew approached the Prophet and asked him to ‘describe your Lord.’ The Prophet replied, "Surely the Creator cannot be described except by that which He has described Himself. And how should one describe that Creator whom the senses cannot perceive, imaginations cannot attain, thoughts cannot delimit and sight cannot encompass? Greater is He than what the depicters describe! He is distant in His nearness and near in His distance. He fashions ‘howness’ so it is not said of Him, ‘How?’ He determines the where so it is not said of Him, ‘Where?’ He sunders ‘howness’ and ‘whereness,’ so He is ‘One - the Everlasting Refuge’ (Qur’an 112:1-2), as He has described Himself. The depicters do not attain to His description." The Prophet added, quoting from the Qur’an, "He has not begotten, and has not been begotted, and equal to Him is not any one" (112:3-4).

After listening to this, the Jew next asked about the nature of the human being in relation to the Creator, insisting that the oneness of God was similar to the oneness of the human being. To this the Prophet, upon whom be peace, replied, "Allah is One, but single in meaning, while the human being is one but dual in meaning: corporeal substance and accidents, body and spirit. Similarity pertains only to the meanings."

The next aspect is epistemology, the nature of knowledge. What is knowledge? What is worth knowing? And how does one decide what is worth knowing and what is not? And this leads into meaning and what is known as hermeneutics, the art of interpretation. How does one go about understanding something? The Western world has almost completely taken control over these fundamental requirements for an alternative view of civilization. This has occurred largely in the last two centuries, primarily by means of the educational system within which they have gradually redefined other people’s ontology and epistemology. Fundamental understandings of how human beings relate to the Divine, each other, the world, and knowledge have been almost completely redefined for Muslims by Western educational systems.

Part of the solution involves studying the Islamic tradition for the numerous relevant teachings. For instance, there are several very telling hadith which discuss the nature of knowledge and what an educated person ought to be like. These hadith, which have been neglected toward the end of the millennium of murder, clarify some of the more better-sayings, such as "Seek knowledge even in China." The Prophet, upon whom be peace, and the great Imams all had lucid teachings on the nature of knowledge and what one is supposed to be like after having sought that knowledge. Thus there are numerous hadith that talk about classifying different kinds of knowledge, so that one can order one’s efforts to seek knowledge, given the mortality of human beings.

To cite one instance, there is a famous hadith that has formed the basis of an Islamic epistemology, and which has guided scholars of all schools right up until the modern period. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, walked into a mosque where there was a group of people surrounding a man. The Prophet inquired, "Who is that?" He was told, "That is a very learned man." The Prophet asked, "What is a learned man?" They told him, "He is the most learned man regarding Arab genealogies, past heroic episodes, the days of Jahiliyyah, and Arabic poetry." The Prophet said, "That is knowledge whose ignorance does not harm one nor is its possession of any benefit to one." The Prophet, upon whom be peace, then declared, "Verily, knowledge is of these three: the firm sign, the just duty, and the established practice. All else in superfluous." In this one concise statement, the epistemology of the Arabs was sundered, replaced by an Islamic set of criteria by which to evaluate all future relationships to various forms of knowledge.

The third area in which we need to liberate ourselves is methodology: how one goes about doing certain things. Broadly speaking, the kalimah is a good example: la ilaha illa Allah. That provides a basic methodology, to deny and assert at the same time, as noted above. There are, of course, more specific examples of an Islamically grounded methodology in the Seerah literature. Dr. Kalim consistently urged Muslims to based their methodologies on Islamic criteria.

As just one example of many, take the famous narration known as ‘The Prophet’s Counsel to Ali,’ which is significant considering the revered position of Imam Ali in all Islamic schools of thought, and given his role as one of the Rightly Guided political successors of the Prophet and the spiritual fountainhead through which most Sufi tariqaat flow. In a discourse that is useful for its insistence on matters of methodology, the Prophet counselled Ali: "I exhort you concerning certain characteristics that you must preserve in yourself as a trust from me. As to the first of them, it is truthfulness: never should a falsehood come out of your mouth. The second is piety, and never venture upon treachery. The third is to fear Allah as if you see Him. The fourth is to weep a lot out of the fear of Allah, the Exalted. The fifth is to offer your property and your blood for the sake of your religion. The sixth is to follow my Sunnah, especially in respect to salat, fasting, and charity. Regarding the charity, it consists of the utmost that you can give, so much so that you say to yourself, "I have been immoderate," whereas you will not have been immoderate." The Prophet then continued, repeating thrice, "Commit yourself to the night prayer," and thrice more, "and stick to the noon prayer!" He then stated, "Accustom yourself to reciting the Qur’an at all times, and make it a practice to raise your hands during prayer and to turn them. Take care to brush your teeth every time that you perform wudu. Finally, commit yourself to ethical virtues, practice them, and refrain from moral vices, and if you do not, do not blame anyone except yourself." From the profound to the mundane, such narrations provide a solid set of criteria from which Muslims can develop their methodologies.

Muslims need to take the time to work through the Qur’an and the Sunnah to locate and rediscover the profound guidance that is embodied in these fundamental teachings. Ontology, epistemology, methodology - we must seize control of these three areas, because they underlie our studies and struggles in the political, economic, and social realms. What is the nature of being? Define it by Islam. The nature of knowledge? What does Islam say? This is what all education does, one way or another. And then methodology: how does one go about doing things? The end results of two hundred years of direct colonization, and the millennium of murder on top of that, has been that the West is defining these areas for us.

So if we want to understand the impact of Western hegemony on Muslim thought, it is in these three areas. Where do certain beliefs, practices, methods, forms of science and technology come from? What do they say about the meaning and purpose of being human? What do they say about what is knowledge and what is superfluous? About methodology and how to do things? I put to you that if we could address these issues with an Islamically grounded set of criteria, we would not march off blindly after the West into its millennium; we could proceed with our own vision of the world.

[Professor Yusuf Progler teaches Social Studies at the City University of New York.]

Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999

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