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Chapter One: The Two Reponses to the Cosmic Void

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Chapter One: The Two Reponses to the Cosmic Void


When man is left to himself, he is attacked by a feeling of a cosmic void. It is the way he fills this void that determines the form of his culture and civilization; the internal and external characteristics of his calling in history. He can fill this cosmic void in two ways: either by looking down at his feet to the ground, or to raise his eyes towards the heavens. The first way will populate his solitude with objects, since his domineering look drives to acquisition, whereas the second one will populate it with ideas as his interrogative look is in pursuit of truth.

Similarly, two types of culture come into existence: a power driven culture with technical and materialistic roots, and a civilizing culture with moral and metaphysical foundations. The religious phenomenon comes about as man raises his eyes towards the heavens. It is here that the prophet appears, a man with a mission and message who has ideas to communicate, such as Jeremiah[1], Jesus and Muhammad.

While Europe has produced many great men, she has lagged behind in the religious field regarding the standard of messengers. It is as if that the European man is full of his sense of humanness without a place for the divine. In contrast, the Semites are dedicated to metaphysics in such a manner as to leave no space for worldly preoccupations.

Halfway between the Semites and Northern Aryan people, the Greeks populate their universe with forms. They fill their solitude with the sense of the beautiful, which they call the good. Tolstoy[2] points to this in his reflections on art; Europe has realized in its culture a synthesis of objects and forms, of techniques and aesthetics, while the Islamic East has synthesized in its culture by its two notions of truth and virtue.

This pattern goes beyond a single historical phase to all stages of history. This can be described in terms of a pendulum swing, in its rise to universal civilization and its fall to the bottom. In the transitional periods between civilizations there is a period of mutual fertilization. These transitional periods coincide with the periods of confusion. An instance being in the historical Babylon and twentieth century Babylon.[3]

Civilization moves in its phases and fluctuations and shows its symptoms and indications. In one case, ideas can be central and objects are utilized for its purpose. In another case, ideas can be centered on objects. Such symptoms and undertones can be identified in the most free and spontaneous forms of direct communication. This form of communication can reach the roots of the culture and express itself without beating about the bush or rhetoric.

Folk literature is thus of particular importance. Even sophisticated literature may still preserve the popular features in the very essence of its theme; in literary genres, nothing is more revealing than the tale itself. To examples can illustrate this: the story of Robinson Crusoe and that of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan. Both these stories illustrate solitary individuals in the two types of culture mentioned earlier. Daniel Defoe develops the story of Robinson Crusoe from a blank slate in terms of material objects. On the other hand, Ibn Tufayl in Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan[4] develops his story from the blank slate of ideas.

The genius of the two tales lies exclusively in the way each author has filled the time of his respective solitary character. Here is the daily schedule of Robinson Crusoe on the island in which he took refuge upon his survival after the shipwreck:

Nov. 4. This morning I began to order my times of work, of going out with my gun, time of diversion, viz., every morning I walked out with my gun for two or three hours, if it did not rain; then employed myself to work till about eleven o'clock; then eat what I had to live on; and from twelve to two I lay down to sleep, the weather being excessive hot; and then in the evening to work again. The working parts of this day and of the next were wholly employed in making my table; for I was yet but a complete natural mechanic soon after, as I believe it would do anyone else.

This is an excerpt of Robinson Crusoe's time on his desert island. First, time for him flows in the form of concrete acts—eating, sleeping, and working. The key characteristic feature is computing each and every instant for a purely individualistic and utilitarian economy. Thus, Robinson Crusoe overcomes his solitude with work; his world of ideas is centered on an "object", the table he sought to make for himself.

As for Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, the adventure of solitude has a completely different turn. It only starts with the death of the gazelle, the adoptive mother of the solitary boy:

...[A]nd when she (the gazelle) grew old and feeble, he used to lead her where there was the best pasture, and pluck the sweetest fruits for her, and give her them to eat. Notwithstanding this, she grew lean and continued a while in a languishing condition, till at last she died, and then all her motions and actions ceased. When the boy perceived her in this condition, he was ready to die for grief He called her with the same voice, which she used to answer to, and made what noise he could, but there was no motion, no alteration. Then he began to peep into her ears and eyes, but could perceive no visible defect in either; in like manner he examined all the parts of her body, and found nothing amiss, but everything as it should be. He had a vehement desire to find that part where the defect was, that he may remove it, and she return to her former state. But he was altogether at a loss how to compass his design, nor could he possibly bring it about.

Thus, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan fails to "identify the defect". However, Ibn Tufayl makes us follow the spiritual ascent of his character. This ascent leads Hayy gradually to discover first the Soul, then the immortality of the Soul and finally the notion of the one Creator. From then onwards, the adventure is pursued in the form of a meditation which leads Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, after many failures, to perceive the Divine order, to an inward vision of God and a conception of His attributes.

Here, time flows throughout the different phases of this spiritual ascent up to a moment very much similar to that of Nietzsche's Zarathustra[5] as he was descending from the mountain carrying out his message. As for Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, he would set out, with Asal, a friend of fortune, to carry the fruits of his meditations and reflections to the fellow citizens and subjects of the sage Salaman. The world here is such that things in it are centered on an idea. Hayy ibn Yaqdhan overcomes his anguish not by making a table, but by constructing and discovering ideas. It is a universe in which time is not computed for the benefit of an "object".

During the last Verna World Congress of sociology, Professor Sicard was correct in pointing out that the continuous industrial time never leaves the isolated person to himself, in contrast to the discontinuous time in Third World countries, although his interpretation of this fact is not accurate. The reason is that whoever experiences involvement in a process of industrial production knows very well that the machine which produces and the "thing" produced actually never allow one single minute for the self, nor any vanity or any psychic and mental availability. Thus, Robinson Crusoe's day was filled up with a "table".

Moreover, Professor Sicard was also correct when he pointed out, on the contrary, the discontinuity of time in the developing countries. However, his interpretation of this phenomenon is once again inaccurate. This discontinuity has appeared to him in the form of innumerable voids joining together, if one may say, the moments of life.

Professor Sicard's analysis, we would like to readily admit, is objective and sound, and we ourselves have already signaled the phenomenon of under-valuation of time (detemporalisation) in the present Muslim world. It reveals exactly the cultural roots we have mentioned above. In fact, for Professor Sicard, time is computable only in the world of things. Life itself seems to acquire its meaning only when its "instants" flow, for example, through the table of a certain Robinson Crusoe.

Note: What Bennabi is saying is that Professor Sicard was viewing the issue from his own cultural paradigm and was unable to transcend it.

Evidently, this is an under-valuation of time (in Muslim countries) whose disastrous results the present Western society can well evaluate. Muslim countries have to estimate their present-day culture to understand the negative effects of under-valuation of time. This must be done without moving to the opposite extreme, that is, overvaluation of time (temporalisation) whose negative aspects one can easily see in the industrialized countries!

While signaling these two excesses, we are, however, aware that we are dealing with two cultures at the moment of their perigee (low point). This fact escaped Professor Sicard's attention in the Verna conference on sociology, precisely because Western thought is ignorant of the two swings - systole and diastole - of history.

Europe has been a breeding ground of quantitative thinking both before and after Lecretius[6] as well as before and after Planck[7]. This gave rise to both the positivism of Auguste Comte[8] and the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. Similarly, Western thought appears to in its essence, revolve around what is ponderous and quantitative. When it deviates towards the extreme, it inevitably ends up in materialism in two forms: the bourgeois form of the consumer society and the dialectical form of the Soviet communist society.

Islamic thought at its low point sinks into mysticism, vagueness and fuzziness, into imprecision, and into mimesis and craze vis-a-vis the Western "thing" (or materialism)! However, this is not its original orbit. From the beginning, when the Qur'an gave it the initial impulse, Islamic thought has essentially revolved around an idea oscillating between the love of good and aversion for evil. This is precisely the vocation of the Muslim mind as determined by the Qur'an in which we read:

You are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God

Al-Imran 3:110


Muslims are thus called upon to carry out that mission under all circumstances, from the most to the least significant. NO doubt, the division of the inheritance of a deceased person is an ordinary social circumstance; yet look at how the Qur'an deals with it:

And when [other] near of kin and orphans and needy people are present at the distribution [of inheritance, give them something thereof for their sustenance ...

Al-Nisa'4:8.

This is an arrangement, one may argue, that can be found in any 'progressive' civil code. This is true. But the Qur'an requires more than just this. It does not want society to simply distribute "goods" in the manner slot machines would throw out metal tokens. This, the consumer society can also do. Muslim society has to do more than merely distribute the "goods" which constitute an inheritance. It has also to distribute "good". Thus, the above-cited verse, which we have intentionally truncated in order to show what it has in common with any man-made civil legislation, ends with another recommendation and arrangement:

... [A]nd speak unto them in a kindly way.

al-Nisa'4: 8.

Now, the verse is complete: distribute, indeed, "goods", but add to them a thought, a word or a gesture that will express your feeling as well as your sense and conception of good. This purely moral complementary recommendation is indeed inconceivable in any other civil legislation. It endows the social relationship emanating from the Islamic ideal with a particular character. What is called "the contradictions amongst the masses" would thus have no meaning within the context of Muslim society.


[1] I   Jeremiah: A prophet who was active in Judah between 627-587 BC and who died apparently after fleeing to Egypt from Jerusalem.
[2] Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy What is Art? And Essays on Art, explained that the ideal of Western art is as if to serve beauty. The ideal for the upper classes reflected in this art is that of a superman. Tolstoy states that he considers the ideal of what is beautiful rather than what is right is a perversion of art in society (and consequently a perversion of society).
[3] Editor’s note: Iraq today may be another transition point?
[4] Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan is a classic novel in the Muslim world written by Abu Bakr Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Malik ibn Tufayl.
[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher discusses the idea of the ‘superman’ in his major work Thus Spake Zarathustra. His work appealed to the Nazis and he is considered a major influence on existentialism and post-modernism.
[6] Titus Lecretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher who tried to promote the philosophical theories of Democritus and Epicurus on the origin of the universe, with the aim of removing religious belief, which he denounced as the source of man's wickedness and misery.
[7] Max Karl Ernst Planck, German theoretical physicist credited with the quantum theory, which revolutionized physics.
[8] Auguste Comte regarded in the West as the founding father of sociology.

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