The Islamic Umma and Civilizational Challenges
Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri
Director General of ISESCO
The Meaning of Challenge
- One of the requirements of clear understanding and keen perception of issues and problems raised for discussion, study and examination is accurate definition of concepts and notions in accordance with the approach of linguistic analysis which examines the context of utterances and reveals their connotations and denotations.
- The two concepts with which we are dealing here – challenge and civilization – have been widely used in the last decades, and in numerous diverse contexts. In keeping with the scientific approach, we will attempt to give an accurate definition of these two terms, so that we can have a clear idea of the nature of the subject.
- First, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the term challenge (tahadi), with all its linguistic, cultural, and political connotations and in the context in which it is widely used in this day and age, belongs to the styles of modern writing. I have looked up the Arabic root of the word tahadi (challenge) in Lisanu al-Arab, and found that the words hadahu, tahaddahu and taharrahu mean the same thing [to oppose, dare]. Mujahid had this meaning in mind when he said: kuntu atahadda al-qurra’a fa-aqra’ (I used to defy the readers and read), meaning “I would do this intentionally.
- I would do this as a challenge.” Another derivative is hudya as in huwa hudya an-nas (He defies and opposes them.” In al-Jawhari, tahadaytu fulanan Idha baraytuhu (I challenged him = I competed with him [successfully]). In Ibn Sayidih, tahada ar-rajula = He challenged the man = he defied the man); tahaddahu barahu wa naza’ahu al-ghalabah(1) = He challenged him [to a game or to a duel]). In Mucjam maqayis al-lughah, I found: fulanun ya-tahadda fulanan idha kana yubarihi wa yunazicuhu al-ghalabah(2) (He challenged him [to a game or to a duel]). Assihah gives this example: tahadaytu fulanan idha baraytuhu fi al-ficli wa nazactuhu fihi(3) (I challenged him = I competed with him for something). In Asasu Al-Balaghah, I came across this example: tahada fulanun aqranahu idha barahum al-ghalabah (He challenged his peers to do something [i.e., a game or a duel]); tahada ar-rasulu salla al-lahu calayhi wa sallam al-carab bi-al-Qur’an(4) (The Prophet, peace be on him, challenged the Arabs with the Qur’an.)
- I checked Al-Mucjam Al-Wasit of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo and found under the root the same meanings: tahadda al-shay’a hadahu = He challenged / opposed/ confronted something); fulanun talaba mubaratahu fi al-amri(5) (He invited or called someone to compete with him for something.) In AL-Hadi Ila Lughati Al-Arab, a modern Arabic dictionary compiled by Lahcen Karami, I found: tahadda al-shay’a tacammadahu (He resisted /challenged /defied/ opposed something); tahada ar-rajula = sahabahu as-shicra aw as-siraca ay barahu li-yandhura ayuhuma ashcar aw asrac(6) (He competed with the man in poetry or wrestling contest to see which one of the two is the best poet or wrestler.)
- If we examine all these meanings, we can conclude that the verb tahadda, ya-tahadda, tahaddiyan means in letter and spirit to compete (with someone) for something; to vie (with each other) for the lead; contest; confront. It is with this meaning that the verbal noun tahaddi is used today in modern Arabic writings. This linguistically charged concept conquered intellectual and cultural life only in the second part of this century; it was not widely used during the period of the Arab and Islamic renaissance in the literary, scientific and political writings of distinguished personalities of that period. The meaning of tahaddi in Hafid Ibrahim’s verse is very narrow, as he says in the beginning of one his poems on Egypt:
- Waqafa alkhalqu yanzuruna jami’an
kayfa abni qawa’ida almajdi wahdi
wa bunatu al-ahrami fi salifi ad-dahri
kafawni al-kalama ‘inda at-tahaddi
- (roughly translated as: The entire mankind stood, in bewilderment, looking at me building the foundations of might and glory all by myself. The builders of the Pyramids in bygone times said it all by their magnificent achievements and have, therefore, spared me the words when I am challenged.)
The Concept of Civilization
- In lisanu al-arab, hadarah means “to settle down, live in an ‘urban’ place or region.” In taju Al- cArus, hidara (with kasr) means “to settle down, live in an ‘urban’ place or region.” For al-Asmaci, it is hadarah (with fath).
- Al-Qattami says:
fa-man takuni al-hadaratu acjabathu
fa-ayu rijali badiyatin tarana
- (roughly translated as: “if urban life is to your liking, we are no less nomads than you.) Ibn Khaldun adopted this meaning in a chapter of his Muqaddima (Introduction) entitled “Urbanism Is the Goal of Civilization and The End of its Life” in which he says: “Urbanism is the goal of nomadism; urbanism, with everything that it represents (nomadic life, civilized life, reign and common people) has a perceptible life.” In another place in this chapter, he says: “As I know it, civilization is diversity of high living and excelling at it; it is an ardent passion for the ways and means that enhance all types of luxurious living, such as the art of cooking, dress, bedclothes and furniture, utensils and all kinds of household items.” Elsewhere he says: “Civilization varies according to urban conglomerations; the more important the urban conglomeration, the more complete the civilization(7).”
- Linguistically, “civilization” means “to dwell in an urban place.” Technically, it means “human innovation in the various fields of human activity that is conducive to man’s progress on this earth. Civilization is the product of man’s intellect and effort in a specific place and at a particular time. Human civilization is a “bundle” of civilizations that have intermixed, become integral, and mutually enriched one another throughout the ages. Nations and peoples contributed to human civilization, for every nation has its own civilization that rises high or declines, and that flourishes or collapses according to the nation’s degree of commitment to the conditions of the civilizational act which always seeks greatness, sublimity and maturity.
- For the Moslem thinker Malik Ibn Nabi, civilization is a composite act, the components of which are: man + soil + time (Man as a social being; soil as being subjected to specific technical requirements, and time as an integrated element in economic, industrial and social operations. These three elements, Malik Ibn Nabi maintains, make up civilization(8).
- Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, has expressed a valuable opinion on civilization as he says, “Civilization teaches, culture enlightens. The former needs learning whereas the latter needs meditation(9).”
- In his most recent book, The Sunna as a Source of Knowledge and Civilization, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi raises the question of whether civilization in Islam has a particular meaning that distinguishes it from ancient and modern civilizations known to people in the East and in the West; or whether the essence of civilizations is one and the same, irrespective of their different countries, the region in which they existed, and the races, denominations and philosophies of the people who made them. He concludes that civilization has a general meaning that is understood from the signification of the word itself. For Dr. Al-Qaradawi, civilization is a series of highly developed, materialistic, scientific, artistic, literary and social aspects of a particular society or of similar societies. He identifies three levels of the Islamic conception of civilization. They are: civilizational knowledge, civilizational behavior, and civilizational building(10).
- Dr. Al-Qaradawi’s definition of civilization is a valid one. Every society has its own civilization that is the essence of its characteristics and the epitome of its components and ingredients. Civilization is identity. This conception is in disagreement with what is known in Western studies as “oneness of civilization,” meaning Western civilization. The historian Arnold Toynbee has criticized this conception, too, as he says: “The theory of oneness of civilization is an error in which many contemporary Western historians have fallen because of the pressure of their social environment. It was suggested to them by the illusive outward aspect of Western civilization(11).”
- With this broad and profound meaning, civilization is a permanent challenge to the vicissitudes of time, to the problems of life, to the factors of ruin and decay, and to those of deficiency and weakness. Every civilization must always resort to challenge if it is to survive. If it ceases to challenge, it will recede, wane and collapse, as was the case with many a civilization.
The Nature of the Contemporary Civilizational Challenge
Since the turn of this century, it has been customary for our thinkers, intellectuals, politicians and theoreticians to stigmatize the whole of Western civilization in their writings, literatures and analyses and to brand it as a weak, languid and corrupt civilization. This is not true. This civilization, which today spreads its wings on humanity, is a powerful, superior and innovative civilization. It exalts human intellect, respects human creativity, and inclines towards accuracy, organization, discipline and respect of time. It makes use of the human’s latent potentials, as well as those inherent in the universe and nature to make the earth a prosperous place for mankind, and to build the bases of human life in which mankind can live happily, irrespective of the racist character which blots the policies of some governments, states and institutions in the West.
- As we recognize this superiority and strength, and as we concede these potentialities and capabilities, we cannot overlook the manifestations of a corrupt intellect and behavior which plague this civilization. In our view, the source of these negative aspects is the preponderance of matter and personal interest over the spiritual and the standard of values.
We must admit, however, that the West’s power stems from the strength of its civilization which is the power of science. This civilization has espoused an intelligent approach to the management of resources, to the skillful running of daily business in all aspects of life, and to the ways and means of making earth a prosperous place for mankind.
- In our opinion, this is the greatest challenge facing us today and to whose level we must rise. Such a level we cannot reach unless we abide by God’s laws; by the way, these are the same laws as those adopted by Western civilization to rise to the top and to secure dominance on earth in this historical period.
The Conditions for Confronting the Civilizational Challenge
- To apply the same scientific logic, we would say that this civilizational challenge must be met with an equal and identical challenge. Are we in a position that would enable us to meet the civilizational challenge confronting us today with a similar challenge?
- This question and many others related to it take us back seventy years ago when the pioneers of Arab-Islamic renaissance reiterated a similar, but baffling and distressing, question: Why did Moslems lag behind while others took the lead? The right way of putting the question, which was the slogan of a bygone era, would have been: Why did Moslems take the lead while others lagged behind?
- As we discuss the conditions for confronting the challenge, we will not allow ourselves to be submerged by these questions which unfortunately have not been answered satisfactorily. Suffice it to say in this connection that the conditions for such a confrontation are those of the renaissance in the full sense of the word and with all its comprehensive connotations. These we will sum up in three conditions which we believe are vital, effective and of utmost urgency. They are:
- a) Modernizing teaching methods, and developing educational systemsb) Consolidating scientific research in all fields of knowledgec) Modernizing Life Styles (13). The situation that ought to prevail in the Arab-Islamic countries is one in which all matters are set right and all criteria are rectified, and in which the scientific approach is adopted as a therapy to the ailing social organs and a remedy to economic problems and social conditions. We cannot face the challenges surrounding us today and which will besiege us tomorrow because we are too hesitant to take the right decision at the right time and because we are so split up intellectually and culturally and too enfeebled to overcome obstacles, frustration and difficulties.
- It is not our intention to draw a grim picture that blots out the view of our present and future. Whatever our situation is today, no one can deny the fact that we do have the components of self-assertion, of imposing our existence and presence, and of civilizational struggle.
- We are a living Umma with a heritage – so as not to say a living inheritance. Our heritage lives in us. It is our religion, culture, civilization, and our historic glory. No one can say that historic glory will avail nothing today, because our history is an everlasting stock that provides us with hope, mental and psychological strength, and self-confidence.
- One of the good omens of the Islamic renaissance in this age is the birth of an international Islamic organ: the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Established in 1982, ISESCO has been entrusted with a formidable civilizational task that has a great deal to do with all these axes; among its many great accomplishments, we will mention three major civilizational strategies. They are:
- 1) Strategy for the Development of Education in Islamic countries
2) Cultural Strategy for the Islamic World
3) Strategy for the Development of Science and Technology in (14)
- Whatever the West’s motives behind taking a cautious and prudent attitude towards the Arab-Islamic world, and whatever the angles of vision of Western intellectuals and strategists of the Arab-Islamic issues in general, the one thing that is certain is that the greatest challenge facing us as an Arab-Islamic Ummah is that the West considers us its challenge against which it girds itself to deal with the Ummah and to confront it in ways that would protect its own interests. We are, therefore, called upon to take a serious look at our life with a view to modernizing it and redressing our situation. This is if we want to be up to the level required by the building of a solid future, and to face up to the civilizational challenge with all its aspects and at all levels.