Where Do We Stand On Western
Mr. Qassim Al-Wazir
The Al-Hewar Center, Washington DC
3 April 2002
Mr. Sobhi Ghandour (Director of Al-Hewar Center)
introduced the speaker:
Today’s topic is significant because it presents Western Civilization as viewed by a Muslim thinker. In this respect, I would like to say that Mr. Al-Wazir is, in fact, an oxymoron, on both personal and family levels; indeed, he is a reversal of what usually happens in the traditional cases of family heritage in the Arab world where rule is passed from father to son in ruling families, with the sole aim of keeping all the wealth and power within the family. But what distinguises the Al-Wazir family is not confined to Mr. Qassim Al-Wazir; for, we have with us today Mr. Zaid Al-Wazir, too. Mr. Ibrahim Al-Wazir would surely have joined us had he not been traveling. These are the sons of Ali Al-Wazir, who led the revolution in Yemen in 1948. This was in a way the beginning of a great many perceptions and concepts that had never been under consideration in relation to Yemen before, even in the Arab world. It was a great revolution against the traditions of Yemen; i.e., the rule of the Imamates. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of the men of the Al-Wazir family. They may or may not have inherited material wealth; but they have most certainly inherited suffering and detention throughout the 1950s. They have no doubt inherited an intellectual wealth. Mr. Qassim Al-Wazir’s first school was in jail, where he had learned much about a great number of intellectual and cultural subjects. This was a practical application and a witness of the principle of transforming prisons into schools.
Ibrahim, and, I believe Zaid as well, are well known to most of the audience
present today whether within in an intellectual, cultural or even personal
framework. What I find significant is that what brings the Al-Wazirs together is
not just a sense of belonging to the same family or heritage, but their spirit
of revolution, which they learned from their father, who inspired in them
a love for and great interest in cultural thought. I have known Mr. Qassim as I
have known his brothers, not only on a
personal level, but also on the cultural and literary levels . We have
known Mr. Qassim as a writer (his articles and poems have been widely
published, especially in Yemen). Let us hope that Mr. Qassim will do what
Mr. Zaid has done: publish all his poems in a book, which could be the topic for
a discussion to be held soon in this Center.
Mr. Qassim Al-Wazir
In the Name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate
you the truth, I have tried my utmost to avoid speaking here
tonight; for, everyone is subjected these days to too much psychological
tension when trying to follow what is going on while radiating all the pain and
bitterness felt by every human being still feeling for humanity and identifying
with it. As usual, however, brother Subhi left me with no choice, insisting that
abstract intellectual matters do have very strong relevance to daily events. My
position, on the other hand, is that the attitude towards Western Civilization
has closer links to and stronger affinities with academic research than with
current events, especially when one realizes that what is happening cannot be
interpreted or explained in terms of civilization, but has political and
economical interpretations only within the framework of our comprehension of a
certain culture which had imposed colonialism in the past, and has been imposing
– even dictating – hegemony and domination at present.. We can, however,
from an intellectual perspective, separate those two issues from each other to
demonstrate that civilization, with all its components, is one thing, while
culture, as a component of civilization, is what constitutes that practical
behavior and conduct which, as a consequence, provides the background for
came to the conclusion that I had no choice, I decided to confine my discussion
to outlines, and to divide the topic into three main areas:
Let us first
define two terms and two issues, in order to avoid any misunderstanding:
b. The West.
And the two issues are:
The relationship between
civilizations insofar as a civilization is as such, regardless of its
relationship to a certain geographical area or a certain period of time.
The relationship with the
west: is it a relationship with the west or a relationship with its
differences between anthropology and sociology in the definition of
civilization; we shall, on this occasion, by-pass the anthropological definition
because it is not related to the concept of civilization intended for this
debate, which is closely related to sociology.
our topic for tonight’s debate is not civilization per se, but the attitude
towards it, we shall also avoid getting entangled in the details of differences
over this concept among sociologists themselves. We shall, instead, select a
comprehensive definition coined by the great and unique sociologist Malek Ben
Nabi, who defines civilization as “the total number of material and
moral/ethical conditions that allow a certain society to provide every member of
that society throughout every phase of its evolution – from early childhood to
old age – with all the necessary help that an individual needs during any of
those stages of evolution/development; for, the school, the factory, the
hospital, the communications network and security in every form and in every
part of the country, as well as respect for that individual, all constitute
different forms and methods of assistance which a civilized society wants and is
capable of providing to the individual who is a member of that society”.(1)
from all this that the essence of civilization is a factor embedded in the very
subjectivity of any society whose will carries with it its original/innate
components/elements according to a continuous historical process of evolution
that includes all the historical circumstances in whose soil there had taken the
first form of life the seeds of all ideas and all forms of creation and
formation, and all the products of civilization. (2)
purely materialistic point of view, civilization itself “makes its own
products…” and not the other way round.
That is the verdict on civilization: But what about the West?
“East” and “West” have been used in many different ways and contexts,
and for a diversity of purposes – as diverse and as different as the times and
the needs of the users. To avoid delving deep into history in a search for the
origins of the terms, let us begin with modern times, during which the
differentiation between ‘East’ and ‘West’ was greatest during the
colonialist era, which witnessed, too, the racist interpretations of both
civilization and sovereignty. Accordingly, ‘East’ has been used to mean the
colonized underdeveloped and backward regions of
the world, whereas “West” has been ever since used to point to the
colonizing developed and advanced powers.
between the rise and sudden fall of the Soviet Union, the term ‘West’ was
exclusively used to indicate Capitalist Europe and the United States, while the
term ‘East’ described Communist Europe and
the Soviet Union, including all the Asian peoples and nations the Soviet Union
encompassed. This was simply a political categorization, which had nothing to do
with either geography or civilization; for, Marxism itself emerged
from the womb of European civilization and thought.
observe the rise of the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’, which are gradually
replacing the older ‘East and west’ dichotomy to describe an advanced world
- the North - on the one hand and a backward one on the other - the South.
‘West’ then, are we talking about?
United States, Europe is ‘East’and Japan is
‘West’– but Japan is ‘East’ for Europe. The Muslim World is ‘East’
here and ‘West’ there. And because the earth is
round, geographical East and West are a relative matter, depending upon where
the sun rises and sets – as used in the Quran’s story of “dhil. Qarnain”
(of the two horns). It is of great significance to bear in mind God’s
description of Himself as “the God of (all) Easts and Wests.”
(But nay! I call to witness [Our being] the Sustainer of all the points
of sunrise and sunset). (4)
therefore, more than one East and more than one West.
The same point in place could be considered East and at the same time
could be considered West.
does “Western Civilization” mean?
not find the right answers if we confine our research to one isolated
geographical area whatever we may call it, or one single ethnicity whatever
claims that race may make. The answer comes true only when we look for it either
in the “vital domain” or “field of study” as labeled by Arnold Toynbee,
or in Ibn Nabi’s theory of “joint activity” on a civilization level, where
such a joint activity generates civilizations within the framework of the
concept of the historical cycle (which according to Ben Nabi, has “thought”
similar to what Missies advocates in his definition of “West” which he
describes as follows:
“West is a concept that means something
which we can refer to… for, the West is an area for human thought far more
than any other part of the world: What distinguishes the West is the Christian
In view of
these three levels of the above mentioned three thinkers (i.e. “A Civilization
Extent” of Malik Ben Nabi – “A Field of Study” of Toynbee – “An Area
of Thought”, Massies) we find that the “West” is just a concept, or, to be
more specific, an area of thought whose cultural extent is decided by its level
of thought, which determines its field of research: The main characteristic
which distinguishes this West is its Christian character. But it includes all
the historical circumstances together with their ethical/moral, material and
psychological conditions in accordance with a historical evolution intended to
produce and manage a civilization cycle: This cycle is what we call “western
the West, to quote the prominent philosopher Roger Garoudy, is “not a
geographical definition, but it is that collection of values, forces, cultures
and material components that distinguish the west as an advanced civilization at
the present time”. (6)
this, we can say that if those conditions and circumstances, which form a
civilization, are realized in a certain society, and if they reach their climax,
we will see then the birth of that civilization. Yet we must understand that
such a birth does not emerge from nowhere: It is indeed a dynasty rolling from
the womb of a previous civilization that had, on reaching old age, bequeathed
its heritage, even its genes as some would say, to a new civilization through a
historical process of evolution which requires a number of conditions and
circumstances in a certain society that becomes, accordingly, and precisely the
incubator of the newly born civilization which identifies itself with that
society and belongs to it.
are not closed circles, nor is each civilization an independent and individual
island separate from other, past or future, civilizations. Civilization
is a continuous interaction and an inter-dependent process of continuity….
both influencing and being influenced, as well as being an uninterrupted process
of moving on from what has gone past to what is to come, and in many ways and
western civilization is not a novelty amongst civilizations: It is in fact a
link in that long historical dynasty which man created - “civilization” in a
singular and unique sense - is but a link in the general process of
civilization, subject to the law that governs and controls the rise and fall of
“If we have a penetrating look at what the west has today and examine the
ideas, principles, systems, regimes, arts and material achievements the west
disseminates all over the world in its name, we will no doubt find that all of
these contributions are deeply rooted in other civilizations”. (7)
then, is the nature of the relations between civilizations? What is it that
distinguishes one civilization from another?
tells us of the glorious and long journey of civilization in its uninterrupted
onward march through different horizons, nations, countries and eras. It is a
very thrilling and extremely absorbing journey that carries us all the way to
Durant’s voluminous book about the Story of Civilization, from one era to
another and from one society to another: There we see not only continuity but
even the essence and the one spirit of the diversity of varied civilizations.
However, in his fantastic and in-depth “History of the World”, Toynbee adds
to the above the discovery of the laws and factors which define the rise and
fall of a civilization then the transformation and, finally, the moving towards
the successor civilization. Before all that, Ibn Khaldoon - the 13th
century philosopher - offered, in an unprecedented manner, the first credible
interpretation of history and of the inception and rise of civilization, which
he called “Umran” (Construction), and its fall, thus revealing for the first
time the idea of “civilization cycle” which was later adopted and endorsed
by Toynbee and which reached the climax of its clarity at the hands of Malik Ben
Nabi. Yet we may discover the essence of all this in the words of God Almighty.
“…for, it is by turns that We apportion unto men such days [of fortune and
misfortune] and this: to the end that God might mark out those who have attained
to faith, and choose from among you such as [with their lives] bear witness to
the truth—since God does not love evildoers—and that God might render pure
of all dross those who have attained to faith, and bring to naught those who
deny the truth). (8)
essence of civilization is one and the same in as far as it thrives in
the interaction of man with nature in the light of an idea, a doctrine
that invokes and stirs man’s capabilities… Let us keep in mind that the
products of civilization are developed and sophisticated, and its means and
tools are varied – as varied in fact as the necessities and requirements of a
civilized society and the progress of that society’s knowledge. The philosophy
of a civilized society and its habits are as different as their environments,
times, places and whatever is in turmoil amongst them.
between civilizations do not come about or result from value- generating
incentives, from knowledge providing means and tools, or from production that
satisfies their needs. Differences in fact come about as a result of and from
the nature of the values and the essence of the philosophy that governs science,
defines the objectives and targets, and gives culture its own characteristics.
It gives that culture what is usually called “its own peculiarities” in
respect of beliefs, habits and behavior etc. For, every civilization has its own
culture which bestows on that civilization its own environment or the milieu in
which that civilization grows and flourishes and which more or less subjects
civilization on the one hand to the habits of that environment or milieu. On the
other, there is no doubt that every civilization has its own philosophy, which
defines and determines the direction and attitudes
of that civilization.
to define that direction and attitude for the current civilization we must first
understand its philosophy; for, attitudes towards it emanate in the main from
lack of knowledge and acquaintance with it. That is why those among us who
criticize the current civilization do not base their criticism on actual
understanding, but on an attitude of inferiority, hence their escaping from it
by negating it, then rejecting it altogether; or they turn their minds aside and
seek protection in the havens of “tradition” - an attitude which does also not emanate from understanding
but from some other sort of complex.
attitude projects itself from a “complex of fear” of this civilization,
which only leads to rejecting it. The second attitude emanates from an
“inferiority complex” towards it, leading to being impressed by it then
imitating it. One of the demerits of imitation is that it diminishes the
original pattern, and rejection is bound to isolate rejectionists away from the
course of history. Neither feelings of inferiority nor ignorance can be a
suitable basis to understand a civilization, any civilization – let alone
delving through its own world.
attitude can only be achieved through knowledge. But knowledge does not mean
observing the phenomena, (appearances), nor is it confined to them: Knowledge
means knowing the foundations and the original root that produced the phenomena
and created the excellent results and the end products.
scientific framework, study of phenomena is indeed the method of getting to know
the laws, which control universals. On the social level, however, phenomena are
either the product of origins of knowledge and social philosophy or a deviation
from them. We have neither the time nor the framework required to tackle this
subject in detail here.
matters most now is learning the lessons and reaching the conclusions inferred
from all we have discussed so far. We view civilization as a continuous and
uninterrupted process with a natural cycle just like any other natural
phenomenon, which goes down behind one horizon only to come up from behind
creates civilization, which, in turn, adapts and modifies the life of man and
human society. It is the philosophy of every civilization that gives such a
civilization its sense of direction and message in history.
The culture of a
civilization is what gives it its milieu in which it grows and its stamp that
makes it distinct from other civilizations.
reiterating this just to come to the conclusion that civilization is a joint
human heritage with relations between its different cycles established on the
basis of complementation whereby every new civilization inherits elements of its
continued survival from the preceding civilization to which the new civilization
adds some of its own creative achievements. It then passes the survival elements
down to yet another new civilization, and so on.
towards western civilization, therefore, emanates from this attitude, I mean
“positive participation in the general achievements of any civilization; I
mean, too, the mutual exchange of benefits and services; and, finally, the
assessment valuation and corrective advice that treats the ills of western
civilization and puts right its deviations and derailments, thus restoring its
lost aspects, in order to help saving it if at all possible. That, anyhow, is a
precondition for preparing for the coming cycle which is being anticipated
hopefully by a world split – as Toynbee predicted – into, on the one hand, a
starving international proletariat which is run down, persecuted and deprived;
and which is represented by the overwhelming majority in the third world or what
is now called “The South”… and, on the other hand, an aristocracy which is
too arrogant and too proud of its power and hegemony , domination and excessive
consumption and depletion of the resources on our earth. This aristocracy is
what is now called “The North
serious danger to this civilization arises from its own philosophy, by the
evolutionary march of thought developed by the west and peculiar to it.
bourgeois industrial revolution has generated a need for raw materials and
consumer markets, hence the emergence and rise of the phenomenon of colonialism,
which Carl Marx labeled “the highest stage of capitalism”.. This infamous
phenomenon was accompanied – if only to justify it – by the infamous racist
assumption of superiority, whereby the European race became (biologically)
superior, which gave that European race the right to colonize and enslave those
whom Europeans looked down on as belonging to a lesser race, so much so that, in
Ronan’s words, “Colonialism/imperialism became a political necessity in the
first place”. The invasion of a lower race’s homeland by a higher race
“should not be condemned” as Ronan puts it; “for, renewal and regeneration
of degraded races by higher races is none but the ultimate objective of the
human gift”. (9)
result of this and similar views and attitudes, Christian moral and ethical
values were the first to go. These are the same values that had given western
civilization its own motives, incentives, reasons and justifications; and which
had given it – in Massis’ words – its very distinct characteristics.
why there has never been, nor should there be, an anti-west attitude or
position, or any position against what is called “western civilization”, but
there has always been a stance against colonialism, imperialism, its immoral
philosophy, and against all its unethical justifications and pretexts.
of colonialism and imperialism does not only mean the liquidation of its
military presence and its institutions and establishments, but, more important,
the elimination of its culture, philosophy, logic and reasoning too, not only in
the countries struck by it, but in its own home and heartland; for the
liquidation and elimination of colonialism and imperialism means among other
these two things has its own conditions and methods that would jointly lead to
the birth and growth of a new world.
matter of fact, from the beginning of the Renaissance in which Jamal Al-Din
Al-Afghani and his disciples expressed their approval of civilization and
rejection of colonialism, they never rejected the west, they only rejected
“domination by the west”. They never rejected sound and balanced relations
based on human brotherhood - they only rejected the philosophy of any relation
established on a racist basis, on exploitation and on expedients which
obliterate moral values only to replace them with interests.
then, is the crux and essence of the position expressed by Jamal Al-Din,
Mohammed Abdoh, and their enlightened school of thought.
there be an attitude today hostile to the west, or to its civilization, but one
that is hostile to hegemony which has now replaced colonialism, bearing and
expressing the same motives and the same objectives, but by new means.
philosophy of this civilization, as apparent throughout the evolution of purely
European thought, is a materialistic philosophy based on the elimination of the
role of religion from all aspects of life, and - an especially significant point
- viewing ethics as an area formed by evolution and susceptible to development,
thus completely rejecting any “fixed basis” of moral values. As a
consequence, the ultimate objective of any society in the world and the ultimate
objective of an individual in any society has become “interest” or
“enjoyment” or “comfort” according to the thinker and Quranic scholar,
the late Mohammed Asad. The essence has, therefore, become a stance against
religion. Hence it follows that Marxism was no more than an expression of the
crisis of civilization; for, the origins and basis of both capitalism and
Marxism are that same materialism; whereas capitalism, in Malik Ben Nabi’s
words, is an expression of bourgeois materialism, communism expresses the
materialism of the proletariat. While capitalism allowed religion to become a
personal matter guaranteed within the context of the private freedoms that are
consistent with the essence of the capitalist system itself , and to an extent
allowed to interfere or influence any of the different activities, laws and
rules and regulations of public life, Marxism on the other hand has distinctly
negated religion from both the private and the social sphere, and, in fact,
declared war against it, thus turning it into a taboo even within the framework
of the private and personal beliefs and convictions of the individual, as well
as for society as a whole. Yet in a sense the position of both capitalism and
Marxism remains the same, i.e. the pure materialistic basis that, as indicated
before, has led to the conviction that the ultimate objective of existence is to
maximize enjoyment or comfort. Hence the outcome that self-interest has become
the sole basis on which laws are built and policies made, and within which
framework the activities of the individual and the cycle of society take place.
Ethical values are thereby eroded so that whatever is immoral or unethical
becomes moral or ethical in a society, which is, gradually yet consistently,
losing its balance.
As for the
objective itself, it becomes “power for its own sake” as explained by
Muhammad Asad: That is why we now face what the philosopher Roger Garoudy called
“the quantitative trend” (10) in the civilization that is being led today by
a “one-dimensioned human being” as he puts it: This trend, Garoudy adds, is
a threat not only to western civilization but to the destiny of the whole world:
I am sorry to say that this philosophy has now encompassed science, too, which
is now geared to serve those same ends: self-interest, enjoyment, comfort and
quantitative accumulation on the one hand, and, on the other, power for the sake
of power – hegemony and tyranny and all that comes with them: destructive
negative values. Science has, as a result, led to the piling up of mountains of
means of destruction in an unreasonable, indeed incomprehensible manner
revealing the futility and uselessness of these means. Garoudy points out that
the United States of America possesses enough of these weapons of mass
destruction to destroy the world tens of time over… and that Russia possesses
– or possessed – enough of those means to destroy the world even more times
over, despite the fact that the world can be destroyed just once. This
accumulation of means of destruction has also led to unnecessary pollution of
the environment, and to the totally unnecessary exhaustion of world natural
resources, and also caused the elements of life, in land, in the sea and in the
air, to be corrupted in a manner reminiscent of the Quranic Verse: [Since they
have become oblivious of God,] corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as
an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought…” (11) This stands as a
stunning and miraculous witness to the true facts and causes of this situation.
fundamental defect – as identified by the eminent thinkers of this
civilization itself – is what should be criticized and put right, not the
civilization itself which has many and diverse positive elements.
philosophy of self-interest and materialism has led to policies that are a real
threat to the world; for, the interests of the powerful allow them – as a
result – to mercilessly abuse and brutally violate the rights of the weak. The
interests and comfort of the strong have allowed the powerful to rob, steal and
loot even the food, sustenance, earnings, and the very livelihood of the weak;
the values of justice, rightfulness and goodness have all been but cancelled,
wherever they do not correspond to the self-interest and comfort of the
powerful. Consequently the world is being transformed into a jungle.
Our stand should, therefore, be against this inhuman philosophy, coupled
with the re-instatement of moral “values” to their natural place in life and
civilization, all in agreement with a humanizing tendency that has started to
push its way steadily through, though with great difficulty.
our stand should be against colonialism and imperialism, whose shape and image
have disappeared but whose concepts still survive. Our stand should therefore be
against hegemony and domination, too, which have replaced colonialism, with very
sophisticated means and very backward concepts, with at their vanguard the
principle that right belongs to power and that narrow and selfish interests take
priority over human beings.
the positive aspects of western civilization are so compelling that our struggle
against its deficiencies must be equally forceful.
required is, first and foremost, a moral one, which would restore the lost
balance to a world swept away to its doomed end by mad winds.
qualify ourselves to reach this goal, which means that:
should look inwards into our own being, which must result in:
should turn outwards, so that we may negotiate with the “current
civilization” as a common human heritage to which our contributions have been
great indeed. We are not alien from that heritage nor are we unexpected guests
at its banquet. We should conduct affairs in a manner that would secure our
ability to play our part anew without any sense of inferiority, which might lead
us to fear on the one hand, or slavish imitation on the other.
part of this world; we have played an undeniable part in its formation, before
we succumbed to the factors that traditionally remove nations from the arena of
history and the main stream of civilization. We now expect to play a part of
which humanity is in desperate need, which civilization is looking forward to
and which our heritage entitles us to play. The huge scientific advance of
civilization has turned this globe on which we live into a single city where a
greed economy, freed from any discipline, is raising havoc and causing unbounded
moral decay, developing racial and social discrimination on a world scale. This
is what is preventing humanity from entering an era of human brotherhood, and
posing a threat to this civilization and the world at large.
that is required and expected is to restore moral values to their traditional
role of controlling the tyranny of power, and reining in the miserable and
shameful power of greed and an utter submission to absolute self- interest, all
indicating a horrifying decay of the web of human relationships.
at a crossroads:
Either a globalization prevails, based on the right of power, aiming at dominating the world on the same old backward basis of economic exploitation, racist superiority, and political domination, which constitutes a trend that will ultimately lead the world to chaos and destroy all the achievements of this western civilization itself, thus bringing about its downfall and the setting of its sun, only to rise from yet another horizon.
Or a globalization emerges which is equipped with all the tools, methods and means except the will of the powerful, and based on the principle that power belongs to right, and dignity belongs to man as such; a globalization based on equality of all peoples in their entitlement to respect, a dignified life and equal rights; and based on brotherhood of mankind and probity and justice in all the different relationships within any society, as well as amongst societies; and based on genuine respect for all cultures and acceptance of diversity within this marvelous unity of mankind.
what will make civilization a real, comprehensive and total human civilization.
This, too, is what will make it the civilization of both the East and the West
as well as of both the South and the North, because it will be the civilization
of all mankind. This is guaranteed to secure the continuity of civilization and
rid us of its fatal malaise.
indeed is the promise Islam extends to human civilization when it rises from its
the “required position” will be defined as a position that can be neither
rejected nor imitated; but only interacts and contributes… and criticizes,
thus qualifying itself for this urgently needed “required role”.
guide us all to the rightful path.
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