Chapter Sixteen: Dead and Deadly Ideas
An occasion that took him to pass through Paris inspired the great genius of contemporary Arab poetry to pay a lyrical homage to the city of lights! While leaving to posterity such a masterpiece, it did not come to the late Ahmad Shawqi's mind that he was at the same time supplying an argument that would posthumously be exploited against him by some worthless amateurs of fundamentalism. For these people, apparently concerned with the integrity of our cultural universe, we should block up all the latter's windows in order to protect ourselves against contamination! In their opinion, we should also control, indeed suspend, if need be, our intellectual breathing and finally put 'gas masks' on our minds in order to ward off all possible contamination. When McCarthy was thinking about regulating intellectual debate in his country, international opinion simply looked at him as an old witch! But when such an attitude originates from a very honest and respectable person devoted to educating our children with all disinterestedness, we should neither underestimate his personal opinion nor unconditionally consider it as mere demagoguery.
I was listening to an old student of al-Zaytuna. I knew his opinion about Ahmad Shawqi was not his own brainchild. It was rather the opinion formed in a cultural universe whose ideas, deprived of their roots and subsequently transformed into dead ideas coexist side by side with other ideas which have become deadly because they have left their roots in another cultural universe from which they were badly borrowed. What was then the mistake of the great poet, Shawqi, in the eyes of that distinguished colonized and colonizable man?
As the old student of al-Zaytuna University explained, Shawqi’s mistake was his lyric reflected the pernicious effect of Western culture that had driven almost ninety percent of the Muslim elite to be, consciously or unconsciously, at the service of colonialism. The danger of such an assertion is even more serious considering that it is endorsed by appearances. What matters here is, however, the pathological reality that underlines the above assertion, that is, the dead ideas originating from our sociological heredity standing side by side with the deadly ideas borrowed from the West. Here, one can see at another level, that of ideas, the two aspects of the colonial tragedy, namely colonizability and colonialism, translated in cultural terms.
Anyway, the dead ideas bequeathed to us by post-Almohad society would, however, appear certainly more mortal had one to discriminate between the two categories. In order to be convinced of this fact, one should have a glance at the historical balance sheet of the ideas which have killed post-Almohad society and which still constitute the 'liabilities' of the renaissance of Muslim society, which does not yet seem to have got rid of them.
No doubt, these ideas did not see the light of day neither in Paris or London, nor in the lecture rooms of the Sorbonne or Oxford universities. They were rather bred in Fez, Algiers, Tunis and Cairo. They were therefore born at the foot of the minarets of alQarawiyym, al-Zaytuna and al-Azhar during the post-Almohad centuries. Similarly, as long as they are not eliminated by a systematic effort, they will constitute the hereditary viruses, which would undermine the Islamic body from within by misleading its defense mechanism. We should here transpose the scientific thought and method of Pasteur into the educational domain in order to grasp this pathological aspect of the cultural life of the present Muslim world. Otherwise, the dead ideas will continue to exert their influence on the social and political levels as they did in the time of the brave Musaddiq whose government was toppled by means of such destructive work. In fact, Kashani was a dead idea, that is, the internal virus destroying the experience that arose for a while on the horizon of the Iranian people. It is significant that Musaddiq was not at the end defeated by colonialism as we usually call it and as represented by the most powerful Oil Trust. Rather, he was defeated by colonizability gesticulating in the person of Kashani on behalf of God.
But no sooner had we started tackling the problem of the dead ideas, which have lost their roots in the original cultural plasma of the Muslim world, than we came against the deadly ideas, which have left their roots in their original cultural universe when they came to our environment. It is sometimes the same individuals who exemplify the two aspect of the problem: the 'hereditary' virus in a way 'absorbs' the alien microbe. In other words, a dead idea attracts, indeed invites, a deadly one in Muslim society. It was thus difficult to convince the honorable critic of Shawql of the ontological cause linking the two pathological aspects of the problem, that is to say, the post-Almohad mind 'secreting' dead ideas, on the one hand and absorbing deadly ideas, on the other.
In its second aspect, this twofold 'capillarity' phenomenon generates a problem, which we should be careful not to mishandle. For there is no question as to why there are deadly elements in Western culture. Rather, the question is: why do Muslim elites precisely set out to search for those very elements? This is the proper way of addressing the problem. In fact, it is the content of the post-Almohad conscience that determines, in a voluntary or involuntary way, the 'choice' of this elite rather than the content of Western culture. Certainly, there is a 'choice', for it is a matter of fact that not all the Western cultural universe is deadly, as it generates life in a civilization which is still dominating the destiny of mankind.
Accordingly, the deadly elements we find in that cultural environment are nothing but waste; dead elements of Western civilization. Therefore, if it is precisely post-Almohad Muslim conscience that sets out to collect, in Western cities, such scraps, no one else should be incriminated in its place. However, we should take into consideration the effects of such scraps as they are introduced into the cultural metabolism of the society that absorbs them. Evidently, the result will only be the rottenness that the superficial mind in our countries would confound with Western culture.
The confusion in this regard derives from our position on the question of culture in general and consequently from our position regarding European culture in particular. It is but clear that if the ideas we borrow were also deadly in their original environment, they would play in it the same role and their effects at the social level would also be the same, that is to say, a mere rottenness. Yet, we must also admit that there is something else in a civilization, the strong and healthy elements which after all constitute its power and strength.
This puzzle would become more understandable if we make some comparisons. At the individual level, we find a person such as Muhammad Iqbal, who makes a passion out of his culture and who deserves much respect. On the other hand, there are caravans of intellectuals who in their countries represent, more or less consciously, the 'fifth columns' of alien cultures, indeed of alien political strategies. This personal difference stems essentially from the fact that Iqbal succeeded, by a personal effort or thanks to an exceptional chance, 'to liquidate' the stock of dead ideas which he had found in his milieu upon his birth. It is significant in this respect to discern in his work a keen concern to reconstruct the ideas of his milieu whose fruits he has bequeathed to posterity under the title The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
However, what is more conclusive is the comparison between two distinct categories of students vis-a-vis Western culture. Muslim society started its modern renaissance in the same period as another society, that of Japan. Both societies set themselves up at the same time, towards 1860, as students of the Western school of civilization! Yet, Japan is at present the third economic power in the world. The deadly ideas of the West could not divert it from its path and it has remained faithful to its culture, traditions and past. In 1945, in the most pitiful as well as glorious episode of the Second World War, the Kamikaze demonstrated to the world that the Samurai spirit was still alive. On the contrary, Muslim society, after one century, is at present no more than an underdeveloped society despite the praiseworthy efforts that its history has devoted for the sake of renaissance.
It thus is abundantly clear that the problem facing us does not concern the nature of Western culture. It actually concerns the particular character of our relationship with it. In this respect, the Muslim who stood as a student at the school of Western culture was one of two types: the genuine student and the 'tourist' student. Neither of them goes to the real roots of a civilization. Rather, they go either to its refined products or to its garbage. That is to say, they go to where it loses its life, its warmth as well as its reality embodied by the plough-man, the craftsman, the artist and the scientist, that is, those multitudes of men and women who daily perform, in the cities and the countryside alike, the great work of civilization.
This essential aspect has escaped from us for generations because the dead ideas and the post-Almohad age have put some blinkers on our eyes in such a way that we have been unable to see and discern anything except what is futile, absurd or even deadly. Now, we can better understand the nature of the debate that arose between Shawqi and his opponents. Depending on whether the great poet's lyric was inspired by the deadly ideas or the position of his opponents was inspired by dead ideas, we can tell who was right and who was wrong.
Anyway, it happened that in the conversation that had spurred on this debate between the old student of the al-Zaytuna and myself twenty years ago, it was a simple Algerian worker in Paris who spelled out, with a modesty dignifying such an ordinary person, the words that settled peremptorily the problem. "I believe", he said, ''that it is the same story as in grafting: the graft does not (if it has to) bear the fruits of the stock in which it is grafted, but rather the fruits of the original one". No better way than this would enlighten the problem of heredity in the world of ideas.
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