Religious and Civilisational Dialogue
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr
(Islam21, Issue 29, June 2001)

Introduction: Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to the conference on religion and dialogue among civilisations. Our guest speaker is Professor Sayeed Hossein Nasr. He received his early education in Iran and completed his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. His is one of the best students of Ayatalloh Tabatai and is the author of over 300 articles and 30 books. He has taught at a number of universities in the Middle East, especially Tehran University and in the USA. He has also lectured widely on Islamic philosophy. Professor Nasr is currently a university professor of Islamic studies at the George Washington University. I hope that the message of this conference will be justice, freedom, equality, law and spirituality for all citizens of global human society. Finally I ask Professor Nasr to present his lecture.

Professor Nasr: Bismallah Al Rahman, Al Rahim. In the old days before civilisations were wired up they had a lot more contact with each other than they do today with all these wires. I don't know if these wires are going to help create dialogue among civilisations or not. It is a pleasure for me to be able to be here and to deliver a lecture on a subject which I think is dear to everyone today in both the Islamic world and the West, this year having been declared as the year of civilisational dialogue. Today I have been asked to speak about religion and civilisational dialogue and rather than skimming at the surface I want to delve in depth into what is really involved when you speak about this.

Firstly what do you mean by civilisation? Of course a lot has been written about it. One of the most brilliant essays ever written on the subject was written by the late Ananda Kumansrami in an article What is civilisation? Which is now the title of a book of his published in England about ten years ago. As he and many of the serious metaphysical students, you might say of various traditions have pointed out, civilisation is not only related to the etymology of the word civetas in Latin meaning city. 

It actually involves the application of a world view, a particular vision of reality to a human collectivity. Today this definition has become quite ambiguous in the minds of many people because of the eclipse of religion in the modern world and the spread to the rest of the globe since the 19th century.

That is why I want to turn back and first of all cast a glance upon the oldest civilisations in the world and see how they originated briefly and why they are civilisations. And why do we use the word plural, civilisations, rather than the singular.

One of the most tragic and unfortunate heritages of 18th and 19th century European thought for the whole globe was the reduction of civilisations to civilisation, that is the use of the singular of the word civilisation. This is really an intellectual disease which reached its peak in 18th century Europe, France with the age of enlightenment and 19th century Germany and England with the idea of progress and development. It is the idea that there is fact only one civilisation and all other civilisations were building blocks towards that one civilisation.

In order for us to realise how deeply ingrained this error is, it is enough to point to the fact that we often use the word civilised in every day English, even after becoming politically correct so-called in such a prerogative term that if you kill several million people with advanced nuclear bombs and other kinds of modern technology you are so civilised. But if you kill 15 people with a spear you are uncivilised. This use of the word 'civilised' that we keep saying ' civilised behaviour' which is really a joke if one doesn't think how tragic it is to use such a term. 

Now fortunately to talk of a dialogue of civilisations is already to realise the plurality of civilisations which is a very big step and to come out of that cloud of total ignorance and misunderstanding which marked this earlier period of not only European history but even the rest of the world. Look how we use the word 'being civilised' in Arabic and Persian, in this sense has entered into Islamic languages. For example in my own mother tongue, Persian, you say so and so is mutamadin or not mutamadin which means civilised or not civilised.

This does not mean a darn thing but it is the impact of the European Age of Enlightenment thinking. And you apparently have the same usage in Japanese and Chinese which I do not know and also in other Asian languages. So we have now, fortunately, come out of this error of singularising what is really multiple. Now we must understand what it is that historically constitutes a civilisation and why have they been multiple. 

If you look at the various civilisations of the world, even those counted by Huntington in his book Clash of Civilisations, which caused so much discussion about civilisations today, you will discover that there is no exception. In every case a civilisation was founded by religion. Or if you do not like to use the word religion, there is this wonderful term used by the late Marco Palis from the city - what he called the presiding idea. Over every civilisation there has hovered a presiding idea, that is a total world view which is religion in the vast sense of the term. There are absolutely no exceptions.

So what about modern civilisations? I shall get to that in a moment. That is the residue of a religious civilisation. Its origin was not secularist philosophy. Christianity came to Europe, Christian European civilisation was created. If now, after 2000 years, only three percent of Englishmen go to church on Easter Sunday, that does not mean a new civilisation has been created. It is the deviation from the norm of a civilisation that has been founded before and you then look at Islamic civilisation, Hindu civilisation, Buddhist civilisation, South East Asia, Confucian, Taoist civilisation, the civilisation of the Maori in New Zealand, the North American Indians, the Amazon Indians, the Yourba, wherever you go in the world, the heart of the civilisation has always been religion. In any theoretical discussion held today about dialogue of civilisations, it is extremely important not to forget this historical reality. 

The situation today, however, is not this historical reality completely because now we have one very powerful civilisation which claims for itself globality still and which claims not be religiously based, although of course there are much stronger religious elements in this civilisation than people would like to accept. But the Western civilisation is essentially controlled by a totally secularised, so-called intellectual elite which is much secularised than the population as a whole and which determines, or at least reflects, the values which the ordinary population holds.

What about this civilisation? This is what really poses the major problem for dialogue. In order to have dialogue you have to have a common ground. I am a professional philosopher. Plato who is the father of dialogical thought in the Western and also in the tradition which Islam inherited from the ancient antiquity says so. In order to have a dialogue you have to have a common measure, a common ground. And so the great question today is to distinguish between dialogue amongst civilisations which despite the flight of time nevertheless still are rooted in that presiding idea, in religion, understood in its vaster sense and modern Western civilisation and its offshoots in other worlds part of the globe. And I want to address myself to the other issue.

But before doing that we must first ask ourselves a question in all honesty. Why dialogue? Why do you want to have dialogue. If you start with the thesis that there is not only one civilisation in the world, that there is a multiplicity of civilisations and there a multiplicity of ways of looking at the world that presiding idea which determines how we evaluate things, how we see things, how we understand human life, the goal of existence, the spiritual quality which dominates over us. If there is a multiplicity of those and we have several civilisations and then one which tries to deny the transcendent origin of these things, why do we want to have dialogue. I think this year, which was announced internationally as the year of civilisational dialogue would be meaningless if we were not honest in answering this question. For a long, long time civilisations before modern times were in dialogue, without being in dialogue formally. Their spiritual, philosophical, artistic traditions, in a sense carried out dialogue with each other. Islam and Hinduism in India, Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Spain, Buddhism coming to Confucian China, Confucianism going to Shintoist Japan. There are many examples historically. 

During the last few centuries, the dominant civilisation politically and militarily in the world is western civilisation has not been interested in carrying out dialogue with other civilisations, by and large. I am not talking about one individual here and one individual there. The attitude of the British going to India or the French going to Algeria was not to carry out civilisational dialogue, to put it mildly. This must be understood.

From the other side the dominated usually fell into two groups: those who tried to protect themselves from being totally wiped off the surface of the earth as a distinct identity and therefore whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists, they tried to keep away from this new impinging power. Our own ulama in the Islamic world who, until today, for two centuries whether they were Egyptians, Persians, Iraqis, Syrians or Moroccans, they tried to keep aloof from Western thought. They did not want to know what it was all about. 

Keep it out there and we will keep our own traditional learning. It was the same in other civilisations. This one attitude and this was not dialogue. The first serious intellectual dialogue between Islam and the West on a philosophical and metaphysical level, I believe took place in the 1950s and 60s in Tehran, only half a century ago. Not in the 19th century.

The second group in these civilisations were those who chose to join the bandwagon of the West. They were not interested in dialoguing with the West, they wanted to be the West, a second-hand West. This took over as a wave over all non-Western cultures, not only Islamic, not only Hindu, not only Buddhist, all over, except some were better at mimicking the West than others. Some people were better imitators. But it was always a second-hand imitation. The imitation is different from dialogue. This is a very important point. In dialogue you give and take but your identity is preserved. Imitation means the absorption of an identity into that of another identity.

And therefore this whole question of dialogue is really not an old one. If we are going to have dialogue it means a very profound change of attitude on both sides. It means the dominant civilisation of the West accepting the existence of other civilisations and believing that they have something of value with which to dialogue. On the part of the dominated civilisations, both from the outside and from within themselves, of having enough sense of confidence to believe that they exist.

I was brought up in a generation in Iran in which everyone thought that my the year 2000 all Iranians would be like French men and Swedes and there are those who would turn in their graves to find out how religion has been resuscitated throughout the world and how rejection of Western ideas was bound to come one day or another.

Anyway it means on the part of the other side that is carrying out dialogue a sense of confidence of its own existence, of its own identity and at the same time it involves the third factor, which is an openness to share. Today we observe in much of the non-Western world a very strong movement of total exclusion of the other. It goes all the way from the Talaban in Afghanistan to Takaray in Bombay in Gujurat. I am mentioning a Muslim and a Hindu right next door and you have other examples all over. They are an extreme form of total rejection. And of course you have it in the West all the time, except it is not called that. Those people in the West who reject all other values are not called fundamentalists. They are open-minded secularists. But they are just as powerful fundamentalists in their own way. 

They reject all other world views. They are in favour of freedom provided you accept their point of view. They are in favour of human rights provided you accept what they say human beings are. If you believe that human beings are an image of god and made for the transcendent than of course you are not accepted. We have this pseudo-openness.

But if you really at it you have two attitudes in both civilisations: the Western and the non-Western which have certain people who reject the other completely. But there are others who in fact want to give and take to learn and to teach and to have dialogue and this is a very important chapter in our history if it is taken seriously. Otherwise it becomes a political gimmick. There are many people in the non-Western world who are afraid of having dialogue with the West because they believe this is just like globalisation where in the name of freedom you can just steal things more easily from other nations. They believe dialogue will mean giving a light to the thief so he can steal more easily. When a thief comes into your house with a light in his hand he can chose the better objects to steal. Some people in the Islamic, in the Hindu, Indian world, in the Buddhist world, all over the world have this attitude. 

There is no doubt that attitude exists, it has to be confronted and the next few years will tell whether this was a little fire in the pan or whether it was something serious. Does Western civilisation really want to have dialogue with other civilisations and vice versa.

This vice versa is not completely correct in the sense of one side of the equation replacing the other because there is not an equality of power structure. I know that in this very city of London several very eminent Muslim speakers and writers have said we have now entered the age of civilisational dialogue, look at the Englishmen listening to a Kawali and shaking their heads. They did not do this in the Victorian period. They did not do this in the Victorian period. It is true they did not do this in the Victorian period but they chose whether they want to listen Kawali or not. Whereas in Tehran it is not so easy to chose whether you want to listen to Michael Jackson or not. The physical pressures on the psychological are not equal. There is no equality. That is part and parcel of how we are going to deal with the confrontation of civilisations.

There is a remarkable dynamic that goes on. On the outside it seems that post-modern civilisation is becoming ever more dominant. On the inside this civilisation is crumbling very fast. Values from the other civilisations that it is dominating are coming right into its bosom. This place where you are standing right now was once a place where Peter O'Toole, one of the famous British actors, used to play and he is still alive. Now it is an Islamic centre. No one could imagine that in the 1930. 

So you have this very strange phenomenon whereby Michael Jackson gets into Tehran, Lahore and Karachi and you have the other movement on the other side, within this total dynamic that we must understand what civilisational dialogue means.

I believe that there are three forms of dialogue which can be involved if people take themselves seriously. One is dialogue between what remains of traditional civilisations, something which I have been involved in all my life. What remains because there is no completely intact traditional civilisation in the world today. But there is still a big difference, despite what everybody says about globalisation and so forth, between a student in Cairo and a student in New York. There is still a very big difference. With the presence of the transcendent the awareness of the spiritual element in certain parts of the world and its eclipse in other parts of the world.

So there is one kind of dialogue which can take place which can be extremely significant if taken seriously. For example the dialogue that could take place between the Islamic part of India, which is part of Islamic civilisation and Hindu civilisation. Thirty thousand people have died in Kashmir, thousands in the rest of India. If there could be really be a dialogue which could lead to understanding between these two civilisations could have tremendous political consequences. 

That kind of dialogue is not too difficult because once you go behind emotions, psychological factors, human beings greed for money and power and ethnic elements and so forth you have certain very stark, very powerful values which can act as bridges, as two sides of the bridges or which can build understanding. 

This is something which was understood by people a thousand years ago, Muslims who first went to India. It is already stated that although there is a lot of strangeness going on in India there is a belief in the unity of God among certain Hindus. And that was repeated in a much more elaborate form by Dora Shakob and others who I will not go into. 

Dialogue between what remains of traditional civilisations has been facilitated during the 20th century by the appearance of course of the great traditional writers who have brought out what is universal among traditional civilisations which can act as means of discourse, as Komar Somi once said. He said that various traditional teachings are the same truths spoken in different languages, in a sense. They are not identical but they are very, very close. It is only in the inexpressible divine unity where the supreme identity is to be found.

Then there is a second much more difficult dialogue which is really imposed upon us. That is dialogue between non-Western civilisations and Western civilisation. Why is this so difficult? First of all because of the power structure. Behind one stands B52 bombers, nuclear bombs and submarines and all the other things other civilisations do not have. And when they try to have such things they have to forfeit their own character, which many Muslims do not understand. We talk about the Islamic atomic bomb. If the Christians have it and the Jews have it we must have an Islamic atomic bomb. How many times has one read this in Pakistani newspapers? But at what price? 

What does that mean for Islamic civilisation, for Islamic thought?  Nobody wants to think about this. The power structure is not equal. Secondly, and this is something which many Muslims thinkers do not understand fully, but they should, in an ordinary fashion each civilisation would create its own agenda, would have its own agenda and they would have a dialogue with other civilisations. Today the West determines all agendas. Have you ever thought of that? The West determines all agendas, for all other civilisations.

Why do so many Muslims today have to write about women in Islam? Female saints of Morocco. Why not male saints of Morocco? Who did this? It was the West which has created the agenda. 

What about human rights. The West was not interested in writing about human rights in 1750. Next is animal rights. Now we have to talk about animal rights. I could go down the list one by one. It is the West that determines the agenda and the sooner that non-Western thinkers understand that the more intellectual independence they will gain. 

There are certain agendas which are imposed not by Western thinkers but by the actions of the West. When you kill a million animals in England in order to make money that poses environmental problems which are global which every thinker has to think about. You cannot put your head in the sand. It implies an unbelievable imbalance created between modern technology and the natural world. These are the actions.

But most of the agendas are not so much actions as thoughts, theories, ideas which come about. Suddenly someone in France wakes up one morning and creates deconstructionism. Redoing the understanding of sacred scriptures as if they mean nothing. And then everyone else in the world has to struggle for years to try and answer them. 

This is the way the world goes on today. So the dialogue between other civilisations and modern civilisation is not only based on inequality of power, military, media, political and economic power. It is also based on this very strange situation which you have never had in world history in which one civilisation sets the agenda. Even if other civilisations want to give their own answers they have to give answers to the questions which are posed by the West. 

Just the other day there was a very big conference in Washington in which a number of very famous women assembled to show their sympathies for poor women in Africa and the Middle East and so forth. I said I wish there were a conference in Cairo right now about poor boys who are being shot in schools in America left and right. But there is no conference in Cairo about the shooting of children in American schools. If you know about it please let me know and I will change my view. But I have not heard about it in the newspapers.

This is this lack of equality which if we do not take into consideration seriously all religious dialogue is just wasting the earth's energy to fly around with their aeroplanes from one continent to the other. Non-western civilisations must be able to at least set their own agendas. They don't have the power to set the agenda for the West but at least they must be able to set their own agenda. This is not the case today. Whether you are communist China, imperial Japan, democratic India, the Islamic world -- whatever names you want to use, left, right, centre, the thinkers, those who decide to make decisions cannot decide what to think about. This is determined by another civilisation and therefore it is impossible to really carry out dialogue in this way. You are not carrying out dialogue. You are at the receiving end. Except in certain, small, more private domains. In the big, public domain this is the difficulty. 

And even if dialogue were to be carried out in the second case, that is the case of what remains of civilisations and the West, the main question remains on the basis of what common principles. 

And here my view is different almost completely from most theoreticians on the subject at this present moment. I do not believe that human nature is sufficient unto itself as a common principle for dialogue among civilisations. Human nature is too fluid, too changing. It is like the waves of the sea. And no humanism would be sufficient for a common basis of understanding amongst civilisations.

This is a big assertion to make in a so-called humanistic age, but I have not been one to be afraid of anything since I was a young man and I have swum against the tide for a long time. 

But I think the history of the 20th century showed that - that is the poverty of humanism, unless by humanism you mean spiritual humanism, but why use this term? People talk about Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Hindu humanism, that is not the correct usage of the term. If humanism goes back to what came out of the renaissance that is the declaration of the independence of the human being from the divine. Man's declaration of independence and the substitution of what the famous Swedish philosopher De Marco xxxx described as the substitution of the kingdom of man for the kingdom of God. If that is humanism is than that is not a sufficient common ground for a serious dialogue. It needs something more than that. And therefore that makes it very difficult. I am not saying it is going to be made easy.

 The best that one can do is to show where there are certain areas of agreement. But if there cannot be agreement on the principles of what the nature of reality is, the origin of the world, where did they come from, where are they going you cannot have agreement simply for the sake of peace. Peace does not come by appeasement as the British learned in 1939. It has to be based on some truth and if there is no common truth expediency is not sufficient. 

But nevertheless what one can do at best is to make dialogue a way of realising the other sides position, if we have the good intention. There are many people in the West who have good intention and in all honesty think that nothing could be better for Sri Lankans than to live as Americans. And the best you can do for them is to convert them to what the Western people are doing. They really have a kind of secular missionary zeal. Missionary zeal has been a speciality of the West from the Roman period and that's where the crusades were not carried out by the Muslims or Islam which was supposed to be the religion of the sword. 

There are many people in the West who with good intention have a kind of missionary zeal at making everyone like themselves. At least perhaps dialogue, even with the secularised modern world could bring the people of good intention around to realise that it is just possible that a simple peasant woman in Bengal may not be more unhappy than a secretary in New York. It is just possible. Leave her alone to decide what will make her happy. Do not decide for her what her happiness should be on the basis of some kind of ideal in your mind which would change ten years down the road. The modern West has proven one thing and that is that there is no constant about anything. I have coined a term which is something I rarely do. I have called it the absolutalisation of the transient. This is a characteristic of the modern West. It absolutises the transient. In the old days the transient was a 40 - 50 year period. Now it is a ten year period. Already the 60s in London could be the time of Queen Elizabeth the first. The same thing applies in America. In the West we absolutise transient trends of thought or whatever it is and we make a big idol out of it then we decide the whole world should follow it. I think that civilisational dialogue, at least with people of good intention, could have the effect of at least ameliorating the situation to some extent. 

Then there is the third kind of dialogue which must go which is very strange. That is intra-civilisational dialogue resulting form inter-civilisational dialogue. There is no civilisation now which is totally intact. Not only traditional civilisation but even modern, secular civilisation, otherwise we would not be here in this hall. That is you have now what in Arabic is called dadahul, that is an interpenetration of the modern secularised world into those civilisations and those civilisations into the modern world, into the West. And you have a tension in both worlds. Tension is more evident in the oriental, non-Western world because colonialism took several centuries. But those tensions are also becoming more and more evident for people in the West, between those who want to go back and live a traditional life and many of whom have embraced Islam, or Buddhism or some other religion and many of them through the influence of Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism have gone back to traditional Christianity and the rest of society.  In Europe which is the least religious of all continents of the world this is not as evident as in America where some these tensions come right into the open, to question the sacredness of life, is abortion acceptable or not. It is a matter of life death. In America we are willing to solve it over a cup of cappuccino which tastes very good, so we forget about the issue. It is out in the open and people on both sides die for it. 

So you need to understand a kind of tension within these civilisations. Strangely enough fifty years ago the tension was not in the West. In the Islamic world it was between a modernised Egyptian and a traditional Egyptian, a modernised Persian, a traditional Persian. In the Hindu world the tension was everywhere. Today it is also in the West. I believe that is going to increase without doubt and that civilisational dialogue which is inter between these great civilisations will also have an intra aspect which is within them.

Having said that I want to turn to the role of religion. As I said if you look upon with all honesty historically upon civilisations, every civilisation was created by religion and there are no exceptions. Therefore if dialogue is going to lead to understanding than the heart of it, civilisational dialogue, is understanding between religions. If the religions come to understand each other on not just a formal level but on the level of inner respect for the same truth, respect over and above the ordinary understanding of tolerance than we have already laid the foundation for true civilisational dialogue. 

What one called the transcendent unity of religions which has now become a common term, is I believe, absolutely essential. Those Muslims who believe it is against the Qur'an have not read the Qur'an. There is no sacred scripture that is as universalist in its perspective as the Qur'an. The Qur'an states that we have revealed a messenger to every people and we have this long tradition within Islam of it being the last religion of humanity.  This very idea of the universality of revelation. 

Some other religions have a lot more trouble. Among these the one that has the greatest trouble is Christianity because Christianity identifies God with the particular locus of the manifestation of God in Christ. It is Christocentric rather than theocentric for many people. And therefore it is very difficult to unify all other religions in Christ unless you then change then change the meaning of the word Christ to the universal logos and that is something else. It is the way to do it but it is not in the common, everyday theology of the Christian church, either Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. 

So it is a very major problem for some religions, easier for others such as Islam and to some extent Hinduism. I believe the major key is precisely to first of all have a common understanding among religions. I am not going to describe how that is to be done. It is not the subject I was going to talk about today. 

It is very important to understand, after 50, 60 years we have had all these ecumenical meetings and discourses that this cannot be based only on politeness or expediency. God will never forgive any people who have forsaken him for the sake of terrestrial peace. That is absurd. I put my belief in God half aside and you put half aside and the other half that remains we can live in peace with each other. How will we answer God on the day of judgement, for those who believe in God. This is absurd. It is not that kind of ecumenism of which I speak.

I do not speak also only of tolerance. I know this is key word today for the Western mind set to be tolerant. Of course to be tolerant, everybody unless they go against me, than I am intolerant of them. There was an article in the Manchester Guardian that this person is a fanatic, they do not agree with what I say. But this pseudo tolerance is one of the pseudo virtues of the modern world. Even if you accept it as a virtue it is not enough. I always give this example. When your tooth aches and your dentist is on vacation your wife tells you why don't you tolerate the pain until the dentist comes. You tolerate pain. You tolerate what you do not like.  Of course that is not going to lead to understanding among civilisations and religions. This understanding must ultimately be based upon truth, upon reality, on haq which means both truth and reality in Arabic. Without that there is no using about talking of coming to an understanding - an understanding of what. 

There is a political consequence of that, when it is only based only on politics it never gets anywhere. I carried out a 40 years dialogue with the Catholic church. Since I was 24 years old I went to Morocco. Then after 40 years Cardinal Ratsinger declares that all non-Catholics go to hell. He was defending what has remains of Catholicism. It has not become completely diluted. So obviously I was wasting 40 years of my life because if I am going to go to hell, he is going to go paradise what are we dialoguing about? Why waste each others time? I am speaking very frankly but this is Cardinal Ratsinger whom I know personally and who is one of the most respected cardinals of the Catholic church.

Those who want to understand and respect what I say do not believe in anything catholic anymore. They are not going to be very good Christians. I have been attacked in the city of Qom by someone because I said that I prefer that John Hick still believed in the incarnation than not to come to an agreement with me rather than agreeing with me and not believing in the incarnation.

 The reason I said that was that if John Hick to come to an accommodation with a Muslim thinker like myself, forgoes the incarnation, who is John Hick? If I agree with John Hick there is one man in the city of Birmingham with one million other people. What does he represent? What each religion has to represent is the collectivity, is the major theological, philosophical views, not my personal view. I take one step forward away from my ummah in order to placate somebody on the other side. Many Muslims have done that to get a job for six months at a certain university or a visa to come to the West, masha Allah we do that all the time. 

But that is not going to get anybody anywhere. The important thing is to cling to the truth but on the basis of that to try and come to an understanding. I believe unless this issue is solved, civilisational dialogue is never going to get anywhere. I am a bit worried that this is announced by UNESCO because UNESCO is missing one letter and that is 'r'. Religion. It was banned from UNESCO by the Soviet and the Chinese communist governments when UNESCO was founded and by definition it is a secularist organisation which has always tried to not speak about religion. 

So we speak about Khazali as a thinker from Khorasan. What does the word thinker mean? It doesn't mean a darn thing. He is one of the most important Islamic figures of Islamic history. I am a bit worried. I gave a lecture in UNESCO last year right on this issue before 2001. If civilisational dialogue does not take into consideration the centrality of religion than everything else is secondary. It is not very relevant. If Islam and Hinduism cannot come to understand each other than to compare the Taj Mahal with some Hindu building and so on and so forth is really secondary. We are not going to understand each other's civilisations. 

This is also true of the West. Fortunately in the West there still remains something of Judaism and Christianity. It has not totally died out. So this dialogue between Islam and the West, or the Hindu world and the West, I think must first of all address those people in the West who still believe in both the metaphysical reality and an ethical system which is in fact very similar to our own. Those who are still Jews or Christians or who in one way or the other cling to it. 

Of course there is so much aberration going on unfortunately among Christians that it is hard to say who is a Christian. There is a joke in the USA that one man told the other what do you believe in. He replies I don't believe in anything. Then you are an Anglican. This joke is going round and it is really a great tragedy. 

All religions are at the heart of civilisations. There are several elements all based in one way or another on religion but not identical with it which must be taken into consideration in serious civilisational dialogue. First of all is the world view. The presiding idea which the religion itself in its metaphysical, philosophical, theological understanding. That is prima. There can be accord among civilisations unless there is an accord on the world view. There will never be a complete accord. There may be an agreement not to kill each other. That is something else. It does not mean accord. Accord means harmony. Harmony means two notes which go with each other. They are combined in harmonious way with each other. So the first thing is what is called world view. The reason I am using this term rather than religion itself is because someone will come along and say Buddhism and Confucianism is not a religion. That is total nonsense. But if you use the term world view it encompasses all of these. That is the ultimate understanding of reality. What is our ultimate understanding of reality? It is that which determines how we act, how we think, how we look upon ourselves. That is what determines it. Our view vis a vis the ultimate determines  everything that we do, whether it is positive or negative, half way, full way that is the heart. And that is precisely why religion is so significant. 

Then the question of who is the human being? Who is man. Of course I use the term man here meaning the human being, insane. I never want to get into this feminist distortion of the English language which his of course absurd. So who is man? Who is the human being, men and women alike? Where do we go? What is the goal of human life? This has been related in every civilisation to religion. Every religion has tried to answer this question. Some religions like Confucianism have not spoken very much about where we come from. Cosmogony, anthropogenesis. But they have all spoken about what we are, how we should act, where we are going, what is the goal of human life. 

If religion does not do that it will not be a religion. So this is the first important element that issues forth from that world view. The nature of the human being and what is the goal of life and related to that the nature of the world around us, the world of nature, the cosmos. That is why even going back to Islam, to the Qur'an , , to the sayings of the Prophet, there is always reference to "humankind" and "nature" in Arabic.

 In the Qur'an some verses refer to man, some refer to the sun, moon, heavens, plants, animals, fruits and so on. There is this concordance between the two. How we see ourselves determines how we see the world. Look at the modern world. The world first secularised its thought and then created secular science which still further created secularised man in a kind of vicious circle which has brought us to where we are at the edge of the precipice.

Then there are social interactions and social structures. We are not only individuals who live as human beings in a society. Each of the great civilisations have created remarkable social structures, they are not  identical. The identity is only in the principal unity. Everywhere else there is a difference of expressions. It is remarkable that the Confucian family structure and the Islamic family structure are identical. What remarkable resemblances there are among all traditional civilisations - even on the social level. For example the hierarchy in the family, whether you are an American Indian, or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Japanese Shintoist there is a hierarchy in the family. 

The ancestor is always closer to God because he is closer to the origin of the human race. In Islam we do not have ancestor worship as in China. But the respect for the parents and grandparents is part of the Sunnah of Islam. The young Muslims of my generation have been deprived of that wonderful blessing. I have a Persian friend who said whenever I went before my father I had to stand like that in great respect. And whatever he said I would say yes. I always thought that when I was 50 years old that is what my son would do. Now I stand before my son and say yes, yes, whatever he says I do. This is of course an exception of the destruction of the hierarchy which always existed. There was always the importance of the family, different kinds of families, the close bonds. 

The importance of ethics. No civilisation has not emphasised ethics. Actions have an effect on the soul. Actions are not indifferent. People say in India these yogis believe everything is maya, they don't believe in ethics. That is total nonsense. They do not understand anything about Hinduism. There is no exception, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, wherever you go, Christianity. The idea that the structures of society must be bound by certain ethical norms which ultimately affect us as human beings born for immortality. They effect us in an ultimate way and therefore they are not simply expedient. They are there to preserve certain values, the possibilities of certain attitudes, they are following certain religious life which itself is absolutely essential for human beings to exist. 

Then you have what people pay very little attention to and that is art. That is the whole domain of the making of things. I use the word art in its traditional sense of its meaning in Latin or of the Arabic word sina'a, which means the making of things. God is the supreme artist. He has given us this power to make. This is a very important domain for dialogue and understanding among civilisations. The power of art can also convey oftentimes meanings which are not easy to do with words with theology or philosophy.

At the height of the time when the Westerners were against Iran if somebody heard a concert of Persian music or saw the Persian miniature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum they would be attracted to it. This is the remarkable facility that art has for conveying meanings. But remember that in traditional civilisation art was always an expression of the truths of religion. Today religious art might not be religious at all. Its subject is religious. That is why we distinguish between religious art and sacred art. Religious art is simply an art whose subject happens to be religious. Sacred art is an art whose very forms reflect divine realities, whose principles, whose symbols are meta individuals. That is why I have written that some of the psalms put to music in the twentieth century are much religious than drinking songs of the Middle Ages. There is no doubt about it. The taba of the 13th century is closer to Christian art than many churches in London and many other cities. So the two must not be confused. But the art of traditional civilisations was always related to the sacred, to the heart of those civilisations. Architecture, poetry, music, calligraphy, each civilisation produced certain kinds of arts, not all forms. But they are a very important key. And here we have the great paradox of the great difficulty of dialogue. 

In the modern West art has become very, very important. For many people it has taken the place of religion. If you desecrate the name of  Christ nobody will do anything to you. If you desecrate a Michael Angelo painting you have had it. You are simply uncivilised. This is simply the mystery of this great tragedy which occurred in Afghanistan last month. The Taleban created by Whabbism in the heartland of eastern Islam (I have never seen this form of Islam) with the help of the Pakistani army the Taleban destroyed the Buddhist statues in Banyan. This is against the whole of Islamic tradition. I wrote something at that moment and everybody in the State Department was calling me. I do not normally want to deal with politics but I wrote a little paper. I said when Omar entered Jerusalem he refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He put his prayer carpet outside the door and he prayed there so that nobody prayed inside. And no Christian image was to be destroyed by a caliph. 

So what were the Taleban going on? What they really wanted to do was to hurt the West because of the embargo that was killing so many Afghan children. And they knew if they cursed Christianity nobody would care. But the destruction of art would have everybody up in arms. When over 10,000 Afghan children died because of the embargo a few little articles appeared on page 55 of the New York Times. As soon as this tragedy took place it was on the front page of every newspaper in England and America. 

This is precisely what religious dialogue means. The meaning of art. For many people art which is usually meaningless, many forms of art are the road to hell, they are expressions of the lowest kind of the diabolical impulses of the soul. Nevertheless art is almost sacrosanct. It has taken the place of religion for many people. If one is going to have a dialogue not between traditional civilisations, but between traditional civilisations and the West this is one of the most important issues. 

Today America, for example, sees its victory in any non-Western civilisation  if they listen to rock and roll. This is a sign of the victory of the American culture. They are right in a sense because this is a kind of penetration of the psyche of the young. No art is without message, whether it is the icon, or the Persian miniature they have a message. The message is not the same in two civilisations. And in this dialogue it is very important for people to understand each other. This is where the intra element comes in. There are many people in the Islamic world who have no understanding about the impact of Western art. That is why so many ugly mosques are created in the Islamic world. Once the former minister of Aqaf in Indonesia asked me what is your advise to us about the future of Islam in Indonesia. I said first of all tear down your national mosque which was built by a Belgian priest who had become an atheist. It is without doubt one of the ugliest three or four buildings in the world which are used for worship. That is so because the Muslims do not understand the impact of art upon the soul. I am giving these concrete examples from the Taleban to the mosque in Jakarta to show how important this inter-religious dialogue is in this final category.

And finally I want to conclude by saying that in contrast to what many secularists, especially in Europe say, religion is not going away. I want to point out a book which has appeared recently in America which has caused a great deal of debate called The desecularisation of society. Not the secularisation of society but the desecularisation. It is the reverse process. It was written by America's most famous sociologist, Peter Berger .He is one of the great theoreticians of the theory of secularisation. This  book has a number of essays by leading scholars from all over the world, and the opening essay by Peter Berger himself. All of these present the thesis that throughout the world religion is on an incredible rise, except in Western Europe. Western Europe is the one exception to the whole case. South America, North America, the Islamic world, Hindu India, Buddhist Asia, even Communist China. Is Confucianism more strong today or at the time of the Mao Tse Tung. I think everyone knows Confucianism is on the rise even in Communist China. In Hindu India all of the secularism of Nehru are history, nobody talks about it. In the Islamic world the on figure that has remained in Kemal Ataturk, one of the great anti-Islamic figures of the 20th century, and I don't think that is going to last very long.

All of this wave of secularisation which took place in the early or middle of the twentieth century is reversed in one way or another. So what is going to come out of it. But the idea that people had and still many English and French historians have is that this is just an epiphenomenona based sociological and economic factors and religion will be totally forgotten. 

This is totally false at least for the foreseeable future. 

Those who dream that Iran and Egypt are going to enter into a post-Islamic phase as England is now post-Christian, are day dreaming. What is happening in Europe itself is a very complicated matter which I am not going to go into.

I am going to conclude that religion is not getting weaker in the world. It is in fact getting stronger, sometimes in an unfortunate, fanatical form. Whenever something is challenged, if somebody punches you in the stomach you immediately tighten your stomach muscles. That is a reaction to the punching. In Islam, in Hinduism, in Buddhism all over the world. But nevertheless when you look at in from a distance there is no doubt that even in the field of thought, in the field of art the secularisation which is going on is receding. And therefore if you are going to have civilisational dialogue without doubt religion must remain at the centre of it. Without an understanding of religion, both in its universal truths and as it pertains to us, Islam as a political religious community, no civilisational dialogue is ever going to succeed.

The globe has become in such a way that we are all going to be save or sink together. The idea of a few Christian evangelists that Christ will come and save a few thousand people and everyone else will be condemned to hell, the divine mercy of Allah would never allow that. You are going to have more a more a battle but not geographical between this country and that country but a battle between those who believe and those who do not believe. Those who base their views on God and those who do not and this is going to spread to the extent that the modern influence spreads into the east the other element spreads to the west and we are now witnessing a kind of battle ground which God knows, could be the last scene of our human history. It is the battle not to talk of the ordinary metaphors of light and darkness but the battle between the people of faith, people for whom the transcendent and the eminent aspects of reality are cornering their lives and those who are not.

Everything else is secondary and irrelevant. 

------------------------------

From Islam 21 Project,  The International Forum for Islamic Dialogue, London 


Home Page | Al-Hewar Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising
Copyright 2001 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more information, please
contact Al-Hewar via e-mail
at alhewar@alhewar.com