Islamic Culture

and the Extent of its Interaction with Other Cultures

in the Past and Present.


By Dr. Abbes Jirari


A Presentation At The Conference Held By The Academy Of The Kingdom Of Morocco On The Theme: "The Islamic Culture and The Western Culture: Give and Take" Wednesday and Thursday 26-27 Jumada1-1412.A.H. Corresponding To 4-5 December 1991. Meekness.



Building on the valuable and comprehensive presentation by our distinguished colleague Mr. Mohammed al-Arabi al-Khattabi in preparation for the works of the conference held by the Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco on the theme" The Islamic Culture and The Western Culture: Give and Take," I am pleased to present this modest paper in which I discuss illustrative and complementary aspects of some issues mentioned in his presentation. These include the concept of Islamic culture, its present reality, and its prospective horizons.


In its broadest sense, culture goes beyond the aforementioned cognitive significance into other larger fields. These include everything that elevates the intellect, educates the mind, refines character, and redresses conduct. In short, all that is current between people, individually or collectively, and with which they are imbued - whether consciously and voluntarily or not. Culture also includes the transferred inventions of an ever-changing life, and all the various aspects of heritage as represented in architectural monuments, popular creativity, well-established values, customs and lore. Finally, culture includes all those feelings and sentiments which mold the self and distinguish identity.


It is widely acknowledged that humanity has witnessed different types of cultures throughout its long march. Some of these cultures came in consecutive periods; others were chronologically concurrent with each other; some were mere in harmony with each other, others were not.


Islamic culture falls within this comprehensive range of interconnected cultures as a distinct type in it by virtue of its quality, form, components, specificities, and ability for interaction. Islamic culture occupies a wide space in the range of human culture which is represented by various historically well-known cultures, in comparison to man’s age and life.


Islamic culture, therefore, falls into a cycle or a set of cultures in which it cannot be separated from its human dimension. Although this cycle or set has witnessed periods, stations or generations and roles in which various kinds of human cultures crystalised.


These cultural forms, despite their great number, variety, disparity, and succession, have features some of which seem well-established and sound, persuasive of their usefulness, which enjoins their perenniality and inheritance. This is best illustrated by the scientific discoveries and pragmatic achievements which are inextricably linked to the development of life at any time and everywhere. Other features, such as creed principles, mental constituents, moral excellence and the ensuing intellectual, emotional, and behavioral trends, are characterized by singularity and relativity. These trends are clearly seen in customs and practices, artistic and literary works, as well as in other forms of expression.


Although these features are typical of a particular category or a specific period, they may seep through to other people if these features are in agreement with them or if these features are allowed to get in spontaneously in convenient circumstances. But if someone tries to impose these features abusively onto these people, the matter changes into an invasion that may or may not be felt and understood by the receptor. The latter may even resist this invasion if s\he has understood its danger, or   may welcome it if one is not aware of the danger, and thinks it is advantageous and positive.


From this view, I believe that Islamic culture, which emerged in a desert or semi-arid environment, prompted thought and reflection, because of the vastness and purity of its nature. This poeticalness is highlighted by the creativity of the Arabs in such fields as oration and poetry, and the concomittant moral standards embodied in their famous sense of honor.


The emergence of Islam in such an environment marked the beginning of a great rennaissance, as many abounding sources converged to enrich Islamic culture. Three sources are worth mentioning:


The rich contributions of the various peoples-Arabs, Persians, Romans, Berbers and other non- Arab peoples-during the Islamic era. Each people had a cultural reservoir which differs in size and importance from the other.


The then prevailing eastern and western heritage in human thought, namely the Greek, Indian, Syrian, and Egyptian heritage.


All the things Islam brought along with it. If I did not mention this point earlier it is not because it was the least influential and enriching element, on the contrary; it is mentioned last because of its significance and of its role.


Islam has launched this culture and allowed it to fertilize and fructify, beginning with the Holy Koran which was the key element in all its achievements, as a linguistic text that urged the importance of the aspect of its rhetorical inimitability, as a book of legislation that requires explanation, and as an all-encompassing book of the news of prophets and messengers, and accounts of our ancestors. The Holy Koran also contains scientific knowledge and religious exhortations, in addition to illustrations of the hadith whose major cultural influence is second only to that of the Holy Koran.


If Islamic culture managed to grow in the breeding ground of these aforementioned data, it could not have grown, developed and interacted - to give and take - without its own predisposition. Islamic culture stores its latent energy behind five reasons:


First: The nature of the different aspects of Islamic culture in its various aspects, especially its cognitive aspect. This aspect is based on metaphysical knowledge and perceptible matter. The reconciliation of the two aspects was reflected in the methods which Moslems used in various kinds of scientific research -whether theoretical, practical, experimental, or metaphysical, and in which they excelled.


Second: This culture's reliance not only on constant principles and values or pillars outside the human soul, but also on values that govern this soul in terms of both instinct and behavior. This is manifested in all the fields in which Moslems had actively taken part, be they political, military, economic, intellectual, or social. This is also evidenced in the systems on which they had built their life in peace and war, as well as in the laws they had recourse to in their way of living with others.


Third: The comprehensiveness that characterized this culture is too large to be defined. Suffice it to refer here to the coordinated dualities it had in all its branches, such as the materialistic and the spiritual, the religious and the earthly, the individual and the collective, the public and the private, the pragmatic and the gratifying.


Fourth: The ability for openness, and for overcoming everything that impedes Islamic culture. This ability consists in focusing on Islam, and not on the race of those who embraced it, and on accepting non-Moslem in the arena of debate and dialogue, away from the notions of time and place, and from all the potential tribal conflicts and chauvinism, and the regional disputes they may engender. This is a radical solution to the issue of heritage and modernity in all its aspects;


Fifth: Stability resulting from coexistence and cohabitation with a tendency towards tolerance and peace. This tendency had an impact on the development of thought and economy and on the propagation of private and public freedoms.


Stimulated by these potentials, Islamic culture has been able to interact while preserving its equilibrium in terms of its features, language and specificities which only developed and increased whenever Islamic culture had the opportunity to intermingle and be impregnated. By the same token, none of the parties which interacted with it had lost their distinct features; they intermingled in the all-encompassing cultural melting pot in which they sought coexistence and harmony.


Hardly had Islamic culture started to lose its equilibrium when signs of seclusion, reservation, and narrow-mindedness began to show. This would obviously lead to its downfall. Downfall, in its simplest forms, means losing control even of the self. It can be seen in a weak freedom and in the coming into a mechanised domain of implementation that soon leads to dependence, imitation, and the inability to innovate and create.


We hardly need to unveil the reasons behind this decline. They are the opposite of the aforementioned development factors; nor do we need to write the history of this period of Islamic culture, because it is outstandingly marked in the march of Moslems from the time their situation began to deteriorate until they started to work hard towards revival and renaissance. What we really need to do is to bring to the fore a phenomenon that is full of advantages and which we think is the impetus for these endeavors. That is, if Islamic culture has been exposed to what some may think is a state of demise or extinction; the spirit of this culture is undoubtedly still vibrant with life. This is due not only to its clear major influence on Western culture, but also to its attempts to interact with it, in the hope that some invigorating forces can be gathered to bring about some kind of revival that might extricate Islamic culture from its predicament.


Nowadays, Islamic culture suffers from underdevelopment which affects all its structures. This is embodied in such phenomenon as the prevalence of illiteracy and the inadequacy of scientific research. This culture is also suffering from internal fragmentation, the signs of which are clearly seen in the preparation of the negative intellectual, emotional, expressive, and behavioral duality, and in the stark contrast between social classes and generations. The fragmentation is also noticeable in the disparity between doctrinal affiliations worsened by the fragmentations of the land of Islam by colonialism which left behind, after its official withdrawal, bombs that may explode at any time or at the time that suits the colonial powers. Furthermore, Islamic culture suffers from its own people’s denial of its values and effectiveness in the field of education, creativity, edification and renewal of ideas. Islamic culture is, in the eyes of many, a luxury or a commodity that may be quashed or dispensed with, or may, at best, be subdued so as to make it a mere echo devoid of any real spirit or positive response.


Despite this suffering, Islamic culture is proceeding towards enlargement, diversity, and multiplicity of both authentic and alien sources. This is, no doubt, a good omen. Or else it will remain a quantitative, shallow, or formal culture without any horizons that stem from the self and from a sound vision of the future or prospective perspective or objectives.


Despite its credible or fraudulent aspects and regardless of what it tries to reveal or hide, and of its dreams or illusions with which it is overwhelmed, Islamic culture is considered as one of the signs of an unstable reality lived by Moslems, and an expression of this reality, even though it is not exactly similar to this reality and does not unveil its contradictions and secrets, which might give it some credibility.


How can Islamic culture achieve this credibility while it is not doing what it should do, despite its many constituents and ingredients. The efforts of the members of Islamic culture, in spite of their great numbers in various fields and branches, are   wasted   and their energies in disarray, except for some who make individual sustained efforts in their fields. Others who, despite their suffering overseas from difficult economic circumstances, and from social, cultural, and religious problems, are compelled to immigrate to countries where they received encouragement for their efforts, incentives, and benefits denied to them in their own countries.


Given these disadvantages, Islamic culture grows outside the framework in which it can, or rather should, develop. Its people, therefore, live outside their time or perhaps on the margin of history.


It is obvious that these people should end up in this abnormal state. For after they woke, or started to wake, from their slumber, they found themselves, to their amazement, looking around them and over their shoulders, and they saw their present state of affairs which they compared to their glorious past. They saw that others had snatched the torch from them and flown away with it. They wanted to catch up with the West, but they were at their wits’ end. Is rejecting the heritage which they have been trailing - and which they feel is outdated, after it has played its role in the past, and which is now dead, or if it is not dead, it has been absorbed and integrated into something else - the   best way to catch up with the West? Or is the best way to avail themselves of this heritage which is their stock and the epitome of existence, personality, and self-assertion?


Amidst this anxiety, members of Islamic culture are helpless, and their situation is out of control. They endeavor to take part in the arena of interaction by devouring everything that comes their way, be it old from their own culture, or new from the cultures of others. But they are hackled by so many obstacles which stand in the way to the right path. Some of these obstacles are latent in the members of Islamic culture themselves, yet other obstacles are attributed to the other. In both cases, the members of Islamic culture feel languorious or submissive, if I may say so, to a potentially prevalent idea: the days of their genuine culture are gone forever, and these are the days of another alien culture.


The distance in time that now separates members of Islamic culture from the era when this culture was in its apogee is one of the   main reasons behind this feeling of languor and submission and the ensuing impotence for innovation, creativity, and invention of the methods of interaction with the contemporary culture or cultures in order to catch up with their peoples. As a result, members of Islamic culture abandoned themselves to despair, and their potentials became handicapped, which forced them to seek salvation in the first thing they were offered or the easiest thing they could lay their hands on. For some, this was a formal way of adhering and clinging to the Islamic heritage. For others, it was an outward clinging to Western thought. However, they did not look seriously into the one or the other to extract from them propulsive forces or stimuli for a new revival. As a consequence, all reform attempts by various classes have failed since the beginning of the Renaissance period. These attempts, which were always surpassed by today’s accelerated and consecutive periods of advancement, sometimes held out fresh hope, but many a time they cast more desperation.


Who knows? These attempts may well have been wrong from the start. They deviated from the preparedness that springs from the pure self for a positive interaction with the other as is commensurate with what was realized in the past. Although struggle against colonialism in all Islamic countries was based on genuine concepts which combined the religious and the national, many of its aspects were far apart from these concepts. This resistance was exacerbated even further by the formal Western character which prevailed over the cultural trends pursued by most of these countries after their liberation from direct colonialism. These country’s strong bewilderment at the West has also led to the confusion between what may be adapted from the West - including everything that is admittedly useful - such as sciences and other civilization achievements, on the one hand, and the specificities and constituents of identity and personality, on the other.


This bewilderment at the West and its progress has certainly led to dependence upon it and to its imitation, or to an aspiration to do so in every aspect, even in its view of man and life, values and religion. This view was assimilated and adapted as the foundation of various institutions, starting from educational, teaching and information programs all the way to guiding behavior and its individual and collective types. This has almost quenched the fiery feeling in the souls, paralyzed the potentials of creative thinking, and freezed the sense of fruitful interaction not only with regard to Islam but also to the West which prefers unidirectional interaction. In this interaction, the weak takes from the powerful, relying on that bewilderment at the West and aspiring to impose its influence, to strengthen it and to legitimize it as an alternative to any culture, even if it is a national one. Indeed, the West is jealous of this national culture so much so that it has waged war against it overtly and external at times, and covertly and internal at other times.


Amidst this imbalanced reality, great changes are taking the world by surprise today. As a result, a new page is turned, breaking with the past which Moslems and Arabs in particular have so long admired and which they hoped would bring about salvation. These changes also disclose the emergence of a new Western influence which yearns to impose its regime on the whole world - weak and powerful nations alike - convinced of the necessity of its system, of the effectiveness of its criteria and of the positivity of its dimensions. It is also convinced of its own and unique capacity for imposing itself.


It is undeniable that these changes, whose birth we had the opportunity to witness, whose early stages we followed, and whose repercussions we had noticed, have had negative effects on the Arabs, making their situation even worse. Consequently, Moslems find themselves in a state of anxiety, conflict, and loss. This state has probably evoked within many of them a feeling of failure and frustration; even though some see in its shock a new ray of hope that would stir up emotions and make up for the past.


In both cases and however desperate or hopeful these people may be, what may be stressed is the fact that Islamic culture is still vibrant with life. It cannot have a position of any kind, whether with the pioneers or with the followers, and may even cease to exist unless it has at its disposal a key element which it is lacking, or rather which we, Moslems, are lacking: belief in oneself, self-confidence, and an optimistic view of the future and life. It is this element which our ancestors had when they created this culture. It is also from this element that the West took off in an attempt to establish its superiority, assert its views and impose its own way of life on the world. This element also considers anyone with these qualities a responsible person who must fulfill a mission both for his own good and for the good of humanity. This can be achieved through benefiting from his own heritage and from that of others, as well as from the advanced scientific culture of the period, taking great care so as not to make the same mistakes as those made by the present civilization, and so as to treat the diseases spawned by this civilization’s purely materialistic tendencies. This surely represents a responsibility that humanity hopes someone would assume and preach in order to preserve man’s existence, his environment and mission from an impending destruction.


Some people may see in this analysis a sort of holding onto a bogus dream close, as it were, to an illusion or a mirage. These people may be partly right. For when they look at the conditions of Moslems, during this particular decadent period, they discern a gloomy picture of dispirited peoples as opposed to the radiant, elated face of the West which, through its superiority, progress, power and triumph, has forced others to accept it as the one and only leader. These people become disillusioned and hopeless not only because of our inability to vie with the West or even to catch up with it but also because of the fact that we have made it our model which we are unable to apply. We have tried to copy it, rejecting the right, and well-established values of our authenticity; we have lost this authenticity and we have failed, therefore, to be dependent upon it and to benefit from it. We could not preserve our Self, not even within the framework of protecting its most essential elements. Thus, we have reached a point from certain angles of which we seem to have opened ourselves to other cultures so much so that our personality has been lost. Yet, we appear to those who see us from other angles as though we have not done anything of the sort and that, on the contrary, we are steeped in isolation in what we assume to be our entity and identity.


What could be the reason behind the stark contrast in this picture? Is it the outward feeling that we cannot exist unless if we are wholly connected to the West? Is it because, deep down, we are seized by a feeling of the self which we just cannot cast aside for the simple reason that the West’s impression on our individual and collective decisions is associated with colonialism, racism, apostasy, excessive materialism and a desire for tyranny and despotism? Is it both? Or is it that neither one of the above could lead us to the best way to benefit from the West and from ourselves and to live in peace and harmony?


At any rate, we should, in all fairness, like to stress that the West with which we have been in contact could not, for its part, allow us to benefit from it, except in those areas in which our dependence on it does not cease to grow, leaving us with our hands stretched out to the West’s, begging for help, and entreating it to come to our rescue. As for the new West, it would be fair for both of us to say that it has not yet proven its sincerity and credibility despite the critical events which have accompanied its emergence. The new West can prove its sincerity and credibility in order to liberate itself from the complexes of the colonialist era, both of which will certainly be realized. The new world will also achieve interaction with other cultures, Islamic culture in particular. This, however, can only happen if the West, with its civilization, culture, material and military might, does not enter a phase in which it restrains itself and others, thus preventing any openness on its part that would allow it to give and take, and if it does not get too carried away with its own achievements and its belief in its own ability to thrust everybody in its mold and have them caught up in its well-made machine, turning   its progress into guardianship. This behavior which reflects the image of the West’s power will change into selfishness and arrogance if the new West does not ward off past mistakes. Selfishness and haughtiness are two complexes that may become an impediment to the realizations of the West’s aspirations, so as not to say   they might herald its downfall while still at the beginning of the road.


Whether old or new, the attempt of the Western culture to impose itself by severing any ties with other cultures, namely the Islamic culture from which it had borrowed or adapted throughout its history and during the Renaissance, closes the door on Western culture itself and on others, thus preventing openness which leads to dialogue and to give and take, that is to real interaction.


Positive and real interaction cannot be achieved unless it relies on mutual influence within the framework of respect. The aim behind this is to ensure cooperation within the framework of the central issue facing humanity.


I conclude by returning to Islamic culture and the extent of its interaction with Western culture - in its conventional form - to note a reality which may be confirmed by some, yet it may be denied or only relatively considered by others: Islamic culture, especially as it entered the period of decadence and strove for recognition and revival, was always faced with Western challenges. Furthermore, the West, by virtue of its superiority and predominance in military, economic and intellectual fields, refused to be in the society of others, or rather refused others to be in its society in the arena of interaction, especially if the other party’s culture is Islam.


Therefore, the modern history of this culture is a record of that confrontation. Yet I don’t mean by this to entirely corroborate the saying of the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, who was the voice of British colonialism at the turn of last century and of the present one, when he said:   “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” I mean to refer to the conflict which existed between Islamic and Western cultures due to certain historical circumstances. This conflict can be attenuated and its intensity may be decreased today, in spite of the fact that it has a psychological and an intellectual character. The latter cannot be erased or at least disregarded unless it has been integrated and rooted out, as was the case when Islamic culture was at its apogee. This can be achieved through integrating different cultures in one worldwide culture and through embracing noble human values. It must also rest on a conciliatory basis that would dissolve all the elements of differentiation and dispersion in the melting pot of unity and harmony.


No matter how dissenting the views and opinions in this regard, it is both pressing and useful to remind people that culture would not have achieved glory without unification, which Islam had called for. Through tolerance, its wide horizons, its strong ability for digesting, absorbing and taking everyone, including non-Moslems under its wing, this culture was able to overcome all factors of dissention, conflict, and struggle. These adherents acquired comprehensive and clear-cut views of themselves, others, and the universe around them. These views allow for coexistence and mutual interests in a perpetual give and take. This would remain a vain attempt unless it starts from multiplicity, diversity and the resultant specificities and properties whose interaction leads to union, agreement, and social equilibrium between all the peoples of the world. This is summed up in the broad connotation of «acquaintance » expressed in the holy Quran which is in the verse with which our colleague Al-Khattabi concluded his presentation. God said in Verse 13 from the Apartments:  « O mankind, we have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of god is the most god fearing of you. » The Koran (translated by Arther J. Arberry)    


Dr. Abbes Jirari