ISLAM AS SEEN FROM
THE CHRISTIAN WEST
(Al-Azhar University, Cairo)
The question of how Islam is seen from the West is especially difficult because both Islam and the West are vast and complex. Islam constitutes an integrated way of life which includes all aspects from personal piety, through family life to society. The West in contrast is relatively disaggregated including a broad range of attitudes to life ranging from a materialistic consumerism to a deeply religious sense of person and community.
With such a large number of aspects and possible viewpoints any attempt to select a few from either side and relate these to a few from the other would be arbitrary, limited, and thereby inadequate — if not even deceptive and downright dangerous.
However, a recent work by David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents suggests that the West should be understood not in terms of the Greeks, but in terms of the high middle ages when Greek philosophy and political theory was reintegrated into the Christian West; this began with the Christianization of the Roman empire in the fourth century AD. This would then be characterized by Christian morality, Germanic heroic freedom and classical Greek virtue. (He further contrasts this "old West" to the "new West" of democracy, capitalism and science.) In this light the relation of Islam to the West comes into greater focus as the relation of the two integrating religious cultures: Islam and Christianity.
PERSON AND RELIGION
Hence, a more helpful and interesting approach may be to look to some basic integrating themes such as person, society and culture which have been emerging throughout the world and to see how these are perceived in the two cultures. In the last 50 years the general flow of human aspirations and events has brought to the fore the sense of person, personal dignity and interpersonal social relatedness.
The salience of these can be seen by reflecting back upon the situation of the world in the 1930s. It was a time of great totalitarian blocks and great empires in which what mattered was the decisions not of the persons or even peoples, but of the ruling power. Step by step during the last half century there has followed the dismantling of Fascism in the 1940s, of colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, of racism in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally in the late 1980s the dramatic collapse of Marxism as well as the emergence of women and minorities to a new equality. All this has taken place within living memory.
In retrospect one can see through all this one constant, namely, the emergence of a new sensibility to the person and in these terms a new sense of society as composed of persons acting freely. It is this positive insight which generated revulsion against suppression, mobilized the great armies and movements of independence, and finally brought the implosion of the last empire.
This positive development of the phenomenon of the emergence of the person can be seen interiorly in the mind through philosophy and in the heart through religion. Philosophically, it can be traced in this century to the roots of phenomenology in the young Husserl. He was directed by Masaryk to Bretano,1 from whose Catholic heritage he drew the sense of intentionality as the deep interior movement of the spirit. Following this lead, Husserl creatively developed a method for what modern rationalism had rejected when it was proposed earlier by Pascal and Kierkegaard, namely, the recognition and reflective elaboration of the interior life of the person with its subjectivity and spirit. This was subsequently developed by Heidegger as a route to Being itself2 understood as the foundational reality. This transcended all particular beings, but emerged into time in and through the interior spiritual life of the conscious human being or dasein.
The other facet of this interior life of the person is religion. This is lived not only with the mind but more amply with the heart as well, from which emerges the response of love and commitment of which social life is the fruit. It is then to religion as enlivening and fulfilling the new sense of the interior life of the person that we must look for insight into the reality of Islam, which quintessentially is the desire to be faithful in response to God. This is a people who truly attempt to let God be God in their lives. In this they have much to teach all who would be religious and faithful to God.
SOCIETY AND CULTURAL TRADITIONS
We have seen above the way in which a heightened sense of person was developed through the phenomenologies of Husserl who shed light on human interiority and his student Heidegger who traced this to Being, including its transcendence. This work was carried forward by Heidegger’s successor H.G. Gadamer who extended the sense of interiority to the community as it lives in space and through time. This is the expression of our consciousness as it emerges or comes to life in interaction with others. This interaction begins with one’s mother whose heartbeat first summons us to consciousness in the womb, it is integrated by our family and neighborhood with whom we grow, and it is extended by our language community from which we assimilate a whole approach to the world around us.
This pattern of human sensibility is not only synchronic, however. Rather it is learned and developed cumulatively through time. This is not merely a matter of sense experience, feedback mechanisms and pragmatic learning of the means to protect our bodily life. It is as well a process of discovering what is worth realizing in life. Hence, it is a process of deep discovery of human values including those of religion and of the God who is thereby honored and obeyed.
Over time this generates the content of a culture as our interior faith expresses itself in the way we live with others. It shapes our interpersonal relations including the way we dress and present ourselves to others, the respect we have for them, the way we organize our family life, business and community relations. Conversely, that we grow up in a community which is thus marked provides a way in which we can live with others in peace — and thus live fully and with human dignity.
In this way, the renewed sense of person has led to a renewed sense of community and hence of the culture of the community. This special sense of the community in Islam has extended stably through time, due especially to the Koran as the one religious source to which all its members turn in faith. But they consider also the saying and actions of the Prophet and of his first Companions, and the life of the community in Medina. They guard these as guides to the way in which the Koran and the will of God are lived.
We must always return to the sources, learn from the content and example of the past, and draw upon it in our lives. Fazlar Rahman noted that it has always been characteristic of renewals in Islamic life to return to its roots, not simply to respect the historic past, but to rediscover what is essential and salvific. This suggests the importance now of a return to the treasury of the Islamic heritage with its rich store of sacred wisdom. This has been drawn from the sources and shaped into a rich culture through the multiple circumstances of history and geography.
We must recognize, moreover, the fact and reality of change. In the past few had a higher education and there was no instant radio news and analysis. These means and the possibilities of travel have vastly extended our world. How then can the same religious inspiration of the Prophet and the community of Islam shape not only what was the life of older times, but that of the times in which we live?
Here we need to extend the cultural pattern of Islamic life as synchronic into the dimension of time. Its diachronic character must be newly appreciated so that it can live fully through time as the tempo of change increases.
The term ‘tradition’ can be revealing. It comes from the Latin term tradere, that is, to pass on. This suggests that to preserve what has been received means not merely repeating the past, but finding out how it can be lived in new circumstances. That is, enabling it to live in our times, and then passing it on as living and life-giving to the next generation.
This, of course, requires deep knowledge or insight, and a great love of the content of tradition. But it requires as well another power, that of imagination. This power stands between the body with its senses and the spirit. Being on the side of the senses it works with images or pictures, but in pointing toward the spirit it does not reject what has been seen or heard but reformulates and reorders that in new ways. In this it is like a spectroscope opening out the full range of contents and like a kaleidoscope in suggesting the many combinations in which these contents can be ordered and lived. This is the tool for creative new insight and application, making it possible to live the past creatively in our day and to pass it on to future generations.
Henri Corbin states this well adding that "freeing that past . . . is to give it a future again, to make it significant." In this work scholars must play an important, indeed, an essential, role, not only in deepening the understanding of the heritage, but in building bridges for transposing its meaning to the present and in finding here its appropriate and creative applications. By way of example, this could mean the investigation of such issues as the immanence of the divine in human history; the manner of responsible human initiative in the realization of Providence; the mode and construction of the networks needed to implement the social life of a people; and the manner in which each people can make its creative contribution to a broader world civilization which prospers in productive interchange, benevolence and peace.
To see how this is perceived and responded to by Christianity we turn to the words of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. The time was the early 1960s when the new sense of the person was emerging after World War II. At that point rather than simply fighting the new in order to repeat the past, this largest religious body in the world convoked its 3000 Bishops from all parts of the globe in a most solemn three-year session. Its significance can be gauged from the simple fact that Councils are held only at points of high crises which have emerged on the average of only once in two centuries. In this Council in order to work out the implications of the new interior sense of the life of the person for religion in modern times all phases of the life of the Church were reviewed. Over 700 pages of documents were drafted, deeply discussed, amended and adopted. It was a magnificent example of the structural strength of the Church to organize and respond positively, creatively and with authority to the developments of the time. Hence, its statement on Islam can be taken as a uniquely authentic religious appreciation of the faith of a people in our times.
It begins with the statement that the Church looks upon the Moslems with esteem or appreciation of their high value. It proceeds to give the reason for this esteem, namely, that:
- they adore God who is one;
- they adore God who is living;
- they adore God who is enduring;
- they adore God who is merciful;
- they adore God who is all powerful;
- they adore God who is the maker of heaven and earth;
- they adore God who is speaker to men when they submit to His degrees, even when inscrutable after the example of our father Abraham.
- they honor Christ and Mary, his virgin mother;
- they await the day of judgment which will bring the resurrection and reward of each according to his or her due; and finally, they worship God in prayer, almsgiving and fasting.3
The esteem of the Council was not only notional, but practical. Thus, it is followed by a reflection on the fact of past quarrels and hostilities, which it would not be realistic to ignore. But the Council then drew itself up to its full stature to declare that: "This most Sacred Synod urges all to forget this and to strive rather for mutual understanding."
On this basis it looked forward to cooperation in safeguarding and fostering those virtues which are shared by all religions and exemplified eminently in Islam, namely, social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.
From this it can be said with the highest and broadest authority that the beliefs of Islam are shared, that Moslems are admired and appreciated for professing their beliefs and for the intensity and whole-heartedness with which they dedicate themselves thereto; and that Christians individually and corporately in living their beliefs need and wish to learn from the deep faith of Moslems.
There is a shared religious base to all cultures. This envisages all creation as participations in the unique unlimited and absolute source and goal. It entails a radical compatibility, through not homogeneity, of cultures and their religious bases.
This is important to remember, precisely because there is no lack of misunderstanding and fear. It has been said well that whatever man can do he can do badly. This is true as well of religion as a virtue and work of man. The exercising of this virtue inevitably is affected by all the human pressures from within and without, not least of which can be an ardent, if less wise or balanced, desire to serve God in one’s own manner. This had led some groups, acting in good faith, to ways that seem to impose unduly upon others either in proposing their faith or even suppressing the freedom of others to expression or exercise their belief.
Vatican II devoted a whole document to this issue of religious liberty4 as an acquisition of our times which it called upon all to recognize, protect and promote. It is important then, if a small minority of unenlightened if ardent Christians or Moslems lack adequate respect for the beliefs of others, that this not be allowed to hide the tolerance long revered by Moslems or the freedom proclaimed by Christians. Extreme minorities, precisely as extreme, do not reflect the deep truth of these two religious cultures. It is important that small minorities not cloud the issue, and that other religions not take them as expressing the authentic meaning and thrust of that culture or people.
Moreover, it can be said with the highest and broadest authority that this applies to practice as well as to principle; that the beliefs of Islam are shared by Christians; that Moslems are admired and appreciated for professing their beliefs and for the intensify and completeness with which they dedicate themselves thereto; and that Christians individually and corporately in living their beliefs need and wish to learn from the deep faith of Islam.
In view of this, how can the West and Islam in fact realize the desire expressed by Vatican II and take up common cause on behalf of all mankind in safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom?
Today, we have a new reality. In earlier centuries the meeting of our cultures was carried out on the frontiers where relations were often external and violent. There was the long combat with Byzantium, the Crusades, the wars of the Balkans. Commerce brings materials, notably oil, from afar and makes it an indispensable part of everyday life. The new technology of communications brings distant realities into our homes; the development of education makes them part of our growth and learning; the emerging sense of interiority encourages us to interiorize these exchanges in our hearts and minds. We meet inescapably in every facet of our lives. Consequently, we can cooperate and we must learn to do so. But in so doing we must not destroy what is distinctive of each and thereby impoverish all. This implies then that if we are to be present to each other we must not only learn from each other but how to integrate this new insight into our lives. In this the hope is to contribute mutually.
Islam with its rich sense of faithfulness to God based on its sense of his unity and primacy can contribute to the religious life of the West what is most essential, the sense of God.
In return, the Church in the West has struggled for many centuries with the threats that Islam most fears, namely, reductivism, rationalism and materialism. It has learned by its failures as well as its successes how to live as religious in a culture that is distracted by possessions and inundated by images. These are projected with techniques drawn from sophisticated psychological research and at the service of commercial and ideological interests often contrary to religion. It could be expected that Christianity which has grown with these challenges in the West might have insights which could be helpful in protecting and promoting religious life in Islam in these times of change.
In his book, Seize the Moment,5 Richard Nixon suggests a principle for such mutual exchange, namely, that it is not our business to determine what the other will be or do, but only to help them become what they will to be. This reflects well the new sense of the person and the new respect for the interiority of the spirit and hence for human freedom. It echoes the classical sense of the love of benevolence in which the good is willed for the other without seeking what this will do for us. We have all experienced this in our families where we came first to know of God’s creative benevolence in our lives.
This is the suggestion of Vatican II, namely, that we have much to share and the ability to cooperate in safeguarding and fostering social justice and moral virtues. In this manner it will be possible for religion to make a creative contribution to a broader world civilization which prospers in productive interchange, benevolence and peace.
1. Czech Philosophy in the XXth Century, Novy, J. Gabriel and J. Hroch, eds. (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1994), pp. 10-20, 110-116.
2. Being and Time, trans. J. Macquaraie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962). See also Vensus A. George Authentic Human Destiny: The Paths of Shankara and Heidegger (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1998).
3. Nostra aetate, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. A. Abbot and J. Gallagher (New York: America Press, 1966), pp. 663, n. 3.
4. Dignities Humanae, ibid., pp. 675-686.
5. Richard Nixon, Seize the Moment (New York: Simon & Schuster, c1992).