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Chapter Four: Civilization and Ideas

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Chapter Four: Civilization and Ideas

Civilization is the outcome of a fundamental idea that is communicated to a pre-civilized society, the thrust that drives it onto the stage of history. Such a society would start constructing its system of ideas in accordance with that fundamental idea or archetype. It thus takes root in such original cultural plasma that will determine all its distinctive characteristics with regard to other cultures and civilizations.

The Christian idea gave rise in history to Europe. The latter has constructed its system of ideas accordingly. With the Renaissance Europe rediscovered the Greek world in which it recognized Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who were, respectively, the instigator, the historian and the maker (legislator) of ideas. However, the Greek world that Europe discovered in the wake of the Islamic civilization had already borne a Christian stamp, since the time of Thomas Aquinas[1].

The role of ideas in any civilization is not figurative or decorative like a chimney's decoration as it turns out to be in post-civilization. During the time of a society's integration into history, the role of ideas is functional. This is because civilization is but the ability to carry out a particular mission and fulfill a definite function. In effect, civilization can be defined as being the sum-total of the moral and material conditions enabling a given society to provide each of its members with all social guarantees necessary for his development.

The individual achieves self-fulfillment; thanks to a will and a power. This will and power is not and cannot be his, but they stem from the society to which he belongs. When left to their own power and will, both the solitary individual and the one who has lost contact with his group are no more than a poor wisp of straw despite all the literary embellishments with which a novelist would surround their miserable existence. That is because reality is one thing and its literary image another. Since Daniel Defoe published his Robinson Crusoe, the generations who read it have forgotten the unfortunate adventure of the poor English sailor who, four years after his shipwreck, was found on a desert island in the ocean from which he was taken back to England dressed in the skins of wild goats. Although it was this sad adventure that inspired Daniel Defoe, it has, however, fallen into oblivion.

This is the true reality of individuals when they are left to their own will and power: they are either completely cut from their original environment as in the English sailor's case, or they no longer find in that environment the will or the power to provide assistance. Just like an animal surviving its extinguished species following a geological cataclysm, their tragedy is similar to that of the last mammoth of the Pleistocene Epoch wandering in the frozen and inclement steppes where it could find no food.

In fact, the will and power of society give the civilizing process its objective character; they are the sum-total of the moral and material conditions necessary for the individual's development. These conditions take the form of legislations and policies that practically represent the direct projection of the society's world of ideas on the social and moral planes. The society's will and power vary according to the phases of its civilization as represented in the following diagram:

Diagram representing Islamic Civilization

The diagram represents the psycho-temporal values of civilization. It gives us an idea about how these values vary throughout the phases of a civilization. The civilization’s will, objectifying its moral conditions, is born at the point zero. This will is at its maximum level in the first spiritual phase in which the nascent society faces its problems by suppressing its needs on the one hand, and by making use of all its simple means in order to meet the largest possible sector of those needs, on the other.

It is a stage characterized by the most beautiful forms of asceticism for which the Prophet of Islam set the highest example in his personal and family life. It is also characterized by the most generous acts of the companions who mobilized their wealth for the service of Islam and the Muslim community, as did Abu Bakr and 'Uthman.

As for the power objectifying the material conditions of civilization and enabling society to fulfill its sustenance function, it is still in its formative stage and in the process of developing, in this first phase. Muslim society had to use arms to defend its power when the latter was threatened after the death of the Prophet by the heretic movement in the apostasy wars, which aimed at the abolition of zakat, the right of the poor. However, Muslim society was able to face that heresy only because it had kept its "will" intact, that is, the inner tension created in it by the Quranic inspiration and Prophetic teaching. It is this tension that characterizes and distinguishes a society at the beginning of its civilization, thus distinguishing it from a society at its pre- or post-civilization age or even at the civilized stage in the A-B phase, when the worlds of both objects and ideas start counterbalancing each other and when, later, the "object" gradually gets the upper hand over the idea especially in the BC phase.

This tension which has in modern history marked the take-off of the Soviet Union with Stakhanovism[2] and has recently marked that of Popular China especially after its Cultural Revolution has always stamped the most dynamic phase of the formation and integration process of a nascent society. It is a driving idea (idea-force), which can be disseminated neither by means of a doctrine nor by any dialectical teaching method whatsoever.

The most favorable circumstances for the advent of this kind of tension have been interpreted by a historian like Toynbee[3] as being those conditions in which a human group is compelled to respond to a challenge by means of an organized and concerted action. But, this interpretation does not provide an explanation for the genesis and formation of the present historical societies whose number may be counted on the fingers of one hand. For we do not understand why the Buddhist society did not, in the beginning of the Christian era, respond to the challenge posed by the renaissance of Vedic thought[4], though the latter had condemned it to exile in China. Neither can we understand why the Buddhist society has failed in the twentieth century to resist, in its new land, the Marxist challenge imported by Mao Tse-tung who has forever erased Buddhism from the ideological map of the world.

As far as the experience of contemporary Muslim society is concerned, it is worth noting the following. This society could not derive from the cultural universe of its western-educated elites or from the so-called revolutionary pragmatic ideologies the civilizing elan that would endow that universe and those ideologies with the spark that had fired the masses and allowed them to block Moshe Dayan's way in the Six-Day War. It has also failed to benefit from the rigor of thought inherited from Descartes' time.

Whereas, fourteen centuries ago, the idea-force of Islam could pass its lightening blaze from the Arabian Peninsula to far distant areas, thus uniting the Muslim peoples in that magnificent concerted action, that is, the Islamic civilization which lasted until the fall of Baghdad and Granada. Even when Muslim society, turning back, reached the point 'C' in the third phase of its civilization, i.e. the post-Almohad era, the idea-force of Islam could still enable it to resist the colonial aggression and, ultimately, to regain its independence.

The great miracles in history have always been related to certain idea-forces. It was the Communist ideology that allowed the Soviet society to stop Hitler's march on Stalingrad during the Second World War. If such an external interpretation is not sufficient to explain the origin and source of such driving forces in all cases, it should, however, be noted that it is these driving forces themselves that have made those societies spring out from nothingness to be projected onto the historical scene in which they last inasmuch as they remain supported by those forces.

[1] Thomas Aquinas was an Italian philosopher and theologian. He studied philosophy and theology in various European centers of teaming, especially Naples (Italy), where he came into contact with philosophical Islamic works. His intellectual endeavor was centered on harmonizing reason and belief by reconciling the fundamentals of Christianity with the philosophical theories stemming from the Aristotelian system.
[2] Stakhanovism: A movement launched in 1935 in the Soviet Union; it is named after Alekskey Stakhanov, a model coal miner, whose innovative methods greatly increased productivity. This movement rewarded "innovators" with higher pay and other privileges.

[3] John Arnold Toynbee was a British historian renowned for his twelve volume A Study of History ( 1934-1961).
[4] Related to Hinduism and Hindu ancient texts.

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