Friday, 23 December 2011

The basis of our civilization

By Muhammad Asad
11/18/ 06
From the very outset, Muslim civilization was built on foundations supplied by ideology alone. It has never had anything to do with the concepts of race or nation, and so it lacks the cement of racial or national homogeneity which was and is so decisive a factor in all other civilizations. Ours has always been an ideological civilization - with the Law of the Qur'an and its source and, more then that, as its only historical justification. To speak of the Muslim ummah as of something politically justified and culturally valuable (and therefore to be cherished and defended) and, in the same breath, to question the importance of Islamic Law as the form-giving element in our life is hypocritical or, alternatively, an outcome of ignorance. For what values remain in that much-vaunted ummah if we resile from its shar'i background? Certainly not a social philosophy worth the name: for that is based on the concept, derived from the shari'ah, of a divinely-willed order in human relation. And certainly not its ethics: for, a Muslim's notions of good and evil flow in their entirety from the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet. And not even a political ideal: for, the only political ideal which has distinguished the Muslims from the rest of mankind was the revolutionary concept of a brotherhood of men united not by ties of blood or race but by their consciousness of a common outlook on life and common aspirations: a concept realized nearly fourteen centuries ago in the establishment of the Islamic ummah - a community open to every man and woman, of whatever race or color, who accepted this common ideal, and closed to everyone, even one's nearest kinsman, who refused to accept it : in brief, a real "social contract".

Thus, if the shari'ah is removed from our day-to-day endeavors ; if we begin, in the manner of Western nations, to make a distinction between practical life and religion, our civilization, or whatever remains of it, is bound to forfeit not only its identity but also its historical justification - because everything that contributed to its growth in the course of many centuries was connected in one way or another with the creative force of religion.

As I have already pointed out, not all civilizations were thus simply and clearly motivated. In most of them, religion was but an accompaniment to other, equally or even more decisive cultural forces - for instance, in European civilization, where Christianity was always only one of several factors of development. This being so, one can well imagine that the West might one day throw Christianity (or, for that matter, every kind of institutional religion) overboard, and nevertheless retain the living identity and continuity of its culture. A pointer in this direction is supplied by Soviet Russia, where Christianity has been definitely rejected as a fount of social ethics: and, in spite of this rejection of Christianity, the communist experiment in Russia cannot be said to be less "Western" then the conservatism of, say, America, where institutional Christianity  still retains its honored - albeit merely theoretical - position.

But whereas in other civilizations, of which the modern West is only one example, it may be theoretically possible (although I personally doubt it) either to retain institutional religion or to discard it outright without destroying that civilization's strength and continuity, we Muslims have no such alternative. For us, religion has never been just one of the contributing factors of cultural development : it has always been the very root and source of that development. So far as we are concerned, an elimination of religious thought and, specifically, of Islamic Law from the realm of economics, politics and social life would imply more then a mere change in cultural direction. It would imply the loss of all cultural direction. Hence, in the measure that Islamic Law ceases to be a practical proposition in our day-to-day life, Islamic civilization must necessarily become a contradiction in terms, and Muslim society a society of cultural mongrels and spiritual half-castes.

As soon as we come to realize this, we begin to understand why it is that in our days the general run of Muslims do not follow Islam in spirit or even in form, and follow only a number of customs vaguely associated with Islam. With most of our contemporaries, "faith" has become a figure of speech, a mare empty word devoid of that spark of enthusiasm which in the early days of our history inspired the Muslims to imperishable deeds of cultural and social achievement. No doubt, Islam is still alive as an emotion. It is alive in the instinctive love of countless millions of people who vaguely feel that its principles are "right": but only very few of them grasp those principles intellectually and are able, or genuinely prepared, to translate them into terms of practical life. We must not, therefore, wonder that Muslim civilization has arrived at the end of a blind alley and now persists only by virtue of its dumb, unconscious vitality. It cannot forever persist in this state.

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