The impact of western hegemony on Muslim thought (Re-print)

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Jumada' al-Akhirah 05, 1427 2006-07-01

Features

by Yusuf Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)

Here we reprint a paper delivered by DR YUSUF PROGLER at the Kalim Siddiqui Memorial Conference in London in April 1999, on the damage that western hegemony has done to Muslim thought, and how it can be addressed.

About ten years ago I saw Dr Kalim Siddiqui on a documentary on Canadian television, with a typical title like ‘Holy Terror’ or ‘The Sword of Allah’. A journalist asked him, “Do you think Islam can ever be tolerant of the West?” Dr Kalim replied, “We wear your clothes, we eat your food and go to your schools, we drive your cars and work in your shops, we watch your television...” and he rolled off a litany of things that Muslims do in Western societies, complying with virtually all its laws, regulations, customs and habits. And then he asked, “what more do you want?” Met by the journalist’s puzzled silence, Dr Kalim pointed out, “it is you who are intolerant.”

This story illustrates a non-hegemonic way of thinking. People who think like this operate outside the usual assumptions. The usual reaction would have been to apologize. Instead, Dr Kalim questioned the question, trying to address its underlying assumptions. In this spirit, I want to help you get underneath some things that are now going on in the world.

One hears a lot of talk about ‘the millennium’. There’s a daily countdown: one can buy watches that number the days. And there are numerous academic conferences involving Muslims in programs like “interfaith dialogues for the new millennium” or “new thoughts for the new millennium.” There is a plethora of events, papers, speeches, and special programs, about this millennium. And although many of them involve Muslims, they emanate from the dominant Western culture, through its media, politicians, corporations, and churches. Everyone’s got “2000” attached to something. In American education reform, for example, we find “Goals 2000”, “Education 2000”, “America 2000.” Pretty soon, they’ll have “Pepsi 2000.” Everything must have this magic number attached to it.

But there’s only one question: whose millennium? A quick look in the history books provides clues for an answer. Virtually no other civilization that keeps a calendar has any corresponding significant date. The Muslims’ year is 1420. On the Chinese calendar, it’s 4607 and for the Jews it will be 5760. For the Zoroastrians, 2000 corresponds to 1368, and for the Hindus to 5101. So we are all thinking in terms of the Western Christian calendar.

This millennial hoopla serves a definite purpose. It imposes the destiny of the West over our destiny, demanding that we join with it and celebrate, implying that this joining will bring prosperity and the good life. In other words, the millennium is a hegemonic ploy on the part of Western civilization. Everybody in the West believes in this millennium, and advertisers and politicians manipulate this. But should we cooperate? We have a couple of choices: we can just try to forget about it, but of course if you have a television or satellite or you go to school or you have a job or you read the newspapers, it’s going to be pretty hard to ignore. Alternatively, one can try to survive with some kind of cognitive dissonance by saying, “okay, I know it’s not my millennium but I’ll go along with it anyway.”

Neither option seems a logical or dignified way to live vis-a-vis this hegemonic operation, so I propose something else. We ought to use this event to take stock of the legacy of Western civilization in its millennium, on its own terms. Let’s see what it’s done over the past thousand years, and what is cause for celebration.

In religion, Western Christianity starts out with a flawed conception of God and the Divine. There’s a Jewish idea of God in the Bible that says that God’s hand reached out to create the world and then slipped back into its sleeve. As the Qur’an says, ‘they say that Allah’s hand is chained.’ This concept of Divine Majesty limits the power of Allah to the moment of creation. Their theology based itself on pinpointing this exact instant in which the Divine Majesty of God could be observed, after which it receded back into the sleeve.

There’s also a form of negative theology that emerged in the West during these thousand years, ascribing to God only that which the human mind cannot comprehend. In early times, God caused everything, supposedly because people understood nothing. In this negative theology, as human ignorance receded so does God. So we have this negative theology and this moment of creation: they’ve already begun to strip away the Majesty of the Divine from their daily lives and from their theology.

Along with this, over this same thousand years, the Church began to play with its texts, with its beliefs and its rituals, and made up a lot of dogma: simony and celibacy, for example. These things and other have very little to do with the practice of Jesus and less to do with Christianity as Muslims understand it. The Church developed a number of self-serving doctrines that replaced the message of Jesus, however corrupted that was, in their texts.

They developed doctrines that were tied up with male privilege, property-ownership, and all sorts of xenophobic and violent practices, which they then presented as ‘Christianity.’ Divinity comes through the Church; salvation comes through the Church alone. People who denied this contrivance were tortured, burned or driven out. The institution itself, of course, was based on innovation, which many people realised; so the Church had to use violence to impose innovation, which drove many people away.

Then there was the Reformation, which removed some of the Church’s power but kept a lot of its innovation and enforcement. Then leads to an ‘Enlightenment’ and on into the end of the nineteenth century when a philosopher like Nietzsche, could claim that ‘God is dead!’ In a sense, they killed God; it took about a thousand years or so, but, in their minds, astaghfirullah, they killed their deity. Deicide is one of the legacies of Western civilization.

In fact, we should call this the “millennium of murder.” Remember this the next time you think about the year 2000, and someone says “march along, folks!” The road they are marching was paved during the millennium of murder. A few examples will make the point. Look, for instance, at ecocide: killing the environment. The Church tried to eradicate paganism, but they had a flawed text and a flawed understanding of monotheism and tawheed. They also misunderstod the concept of shirk, and so they associated polytheism with the natural world. Anything in the natural world became suspect.

This was extended much farther into a general alienation from the natural world, from creation, to the point that in Christian theology there emerged a belief that the human being is a partner with God (astaghfirullah) in changing the world. Human beings, instead of being part of creation, became partners of God. Shirk became institutionalized. Things became even worse when this thinking carried on into the scientific and industrial revolutions, because human beings obtained the tools with which to increase the illusion that they are godlike.

This led to the development of exploitative and destructive relationships with nature because it was thought to be inherently evil and dirty, and at best something to be dominated and used. With this attitude a driving force, the West developed industries, economies and cultural practices that are completely destructive. They have forgotten survival is a partnership with the natural world. All this can be seen in the wasteful habits of use, and the culture of consumerism that emanates from America. The American legacy to the world at the end of this millennium is wanton consumerism writ large, wasteful of the environment - a form of ecocide institutionalized into the culture.

Then, in European history, we see fratricide: killing one’s brother. This starts with the Church eliminating heresy after institutionalizing its innovations, by enforcing them with violence and then destroying those Christians who denied the Church’s innovations. Christians who walked in the sunnah of Jesus, upon whom be peace, as best they could with the texts that they had, were murdered by the Holy Roman Church to enforce the Trinity. The best-known example is the Albigensian Crusade, but there are several other instances of such fratricide, first in a religious context but then as petty princes and secular rulers begin to jostle for Europe’s land.

All this leads to the West’s horrid legacy of feudal warfare: the hundred years’ war, the fifty years’ war, the thirty years’ war, the twenty years’ war. Watch the History Channel on your satellite dish: it’s all about war, because that’s what the West has done best. And a lot of that war was fratricidal war, within its own society, its own civilization, over religion, ideology and land. Then the millennium of murder marches on into genocide. Women constitute the first wholesale victims of genocide in Western civilization. In America they make fun of the witch-hunts, with a holiday called Halloween. But it’s not so much fun when one realises that they murdered millions of women in Europe in this millennium. This was really the first holocaust of Western civilization. Eventually, the genocidal mentality flows out of the West with the age of expansion, and begins to engulf millions of Africans dumped overboard from slave-ships or worked to death in the colonies: another form of genocide. They needed so many Africans to work in their plantations because European conquest and disease wiped out the Indians. Such genocide continued into the twentieth century with the legacy of minorities in Europe being wiped out, which is continuing to this day. Deicide, ecocide, fratricide, and genocide... the millennium they want us to celebrate is a millennium of murder.

We can go on by talking about homicide. Since the great achievement of the West is in warfare, the culture is infused with violence, even down to an individual level. People have their own wars on the street with each other, drug wars and gang wars. Then there’s infanticide, which the Qur’an forbade 1,400 years ago. There’s a sex-obsessed culture in the West that makes forms of infanticide seem like a rational choice. So I put it to you that this millennium is one of murder and mayhem, and that you should bear this in mind when next you hear someone proclaiming that we must join hands to march into the next one. With that kind of legacy I’d be pretty scared as to where they’re going to lead me.

Western civilization reached out to the world during the millennium of murder. Part of what they did was to exterminate - as they exterminated religious heresies in-house, so they began to seek out ways to exterminate heresies outside of its house. First, there were Christian heresies but soon Islam becomes a sort of Christian heresy in the West. Look at what Pope Urban II said in his famous speech at Clairmont in 1095: the faithful Christians must ‘exterminate the vile races’ of the Turks and the Muslims from the face of the earth. The effort failed, but the mindset continued. And Western civilization institutionalizes this extermination by developed unprecedented war-machineries. Remember -- the Chinese had gunpowder long before Europe, but they didn’t develop weapons of mass-destruction.

But the ethos of extermination had a catch. They couldn’t exterminate everybody because people resisted being exterminated, and because that would leave no slaves to rule over. When extermination was not an option, the second choice was to domesticate. One of the major theological debates in Christianity, sparked by Columbus’ misadventure in the Americas, was between Las Casas and Sepulveda. They debated whether the Indians are inhuman (and therefore should be exterminated) or human (and therefore should be domesticated).

At first, domestication got intertwined with slavery. The West believed that they were helping people by enslaving them. In the time of chattel slavery, missionaries began to redefine local cultures. Later on, colonial education carried on the work of dismantling and redirecting local forms of thinking and acting, which was another form of domestication. Of course, for those who resisted domestication, there was always the option of extermination. This two-prong effort served the West for centuries.

One of the goals behind the extermination and domestication movement in the West is to liquidate people’s assets, be they cultural, land or natural resources. The assets of exterminated people could simply be confiscated, whereas domestication usually resulted in people giving away their assets. A later version of Las Casas/Sepulveda debate involved Thomas Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, revolving around whether the Indians were rational and therefore able to sell their land, or irrational and therefore not entitled to own land.

A later version of this choice, extermination or domestication, faces colonized peoples around the world at the end of the millennium of murder. The damage is both bodily and intellectual, and both need to be healed. This is an immense project, and can only be sketched briefly in the context of this article. In short, however, the situation calls for the development of non-hegemonic ways of thinking and acting.

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 begotten, 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 its numerous relevant teachings. For instance, there are several very telling ahadith which discuss the nature of knowledge and what an educated person ought to be like. These ahadith, which have been neglected toward the end of the millennium of murder, clarify some of the known 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 ahadith 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 (ra) in all Islamic schools of thought, and given his role as one of the Rightly-Guided successors of the Prophet and the spiritual fountainhead through whom 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, practise 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.

(This paper was first published in Crescent International in July 1999.)

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