Western civilization is all-mind with no heart. Islamic civilization, which at one time had both a mind and a heart, has lost its mind and is rapidly losing its heart.
As technology shrinks the world and compresses civilizations into shared space, each civilization is forced to confront the contradictions within itself. Unable to do so, the protagonists of each project these contradictions upon the others, blaming their neighbors for their own flaws, and creating chaos that the world cannot afford.
Western civilization is sometimes projected as Judeo-Christian. This is historically incorrect. Religion in the West, more so in Europe than in America, is a façade on a secular core.
Christianity appeared in a crumbling Roman world as a monastic order, challenging the excessive materialism of the day. It shunned involvement with the decrepit politics of the times and focused instead on spiritual upliftment. As the Western Roman empire was overrun by the Visigoths, the mantle of temporal power shifted to the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire based in Constantinople. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine made an attempt to integrate church and state. His attempts were unsuccessful and Christianity remained largely a religious super-layer on the temporal power of medieval monarchs.
In the eleventh century, at the onset of the Crusades, parts of Muslim Spain fell to the Christians. With it, the vast libraries of Toledo became available to the Latin West. The Christian monarchs set up schools of translation and Greek rational thought, which had been cultivated and polished by Arab scholars, became accessible to Europe.
The Latins felt compelled to reconcile their religious dogma with rational thought but they fell short in this effort. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of the medieval Christian scholars, concluded: what belongs to Caesar belongs to Caesar and what belongs to the Church belongs to the Church.
The advent of humanism in the fifteenth century marked a third major intellectual revolution in Europe. It was partly a rebellion against the excessive arbitrariness of the Popes and partly an awakening nourished by the migration of Greek scholars further west after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans (1453).
Humanism placed man squarely in the driver’s seat in his ongoing struggle to create history. It cast aside any inhibitions imposed by Church dogma and asserted man’s autonomy in charting out his own destiny. Reason, not dogma, was to be radar for guiding European destiny.
Humanism was a factor in the Protestant revolution. Unshackled from religious inhibitions, Europe spread its mercantile net around the world, focusing more on profit than proselytizing. In the eighteenth century it launched the industrial revolution. Europe used the accrued technological and economic advantages to master the oceans and colonize much of the world. The technological explosion continues to this day, hammering with its shock waves the entire globe, transforming in its wake cultures, languages and nations alike.
The Europe of today is a creation of humanism, of scientific positivism. It is a child of Descartes, Newton, Nietzsche and Sartre. It is not a product of Christianity or Judaism. The sacred is confined to the four walls of the church while the world outside is abandoned to the profane. Nature, sociology, history, politics and ethics are all subject to the unbridled dance of the ego on the world stage. The European civilization is all-mind and no heart. How can the European mind grasp the deep hurt felt by the Muslim psyche by racist cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad?
The Muslim civilization is itself at odds with its own soul. Islam burst upon the world in the seventh century offering mankind an integrated worldview wherein all creation was sacred. This all-embracing worldview included in its fold politics, sociology, history and nature. Nothing was left outside of it. As the Prophet said: All of (the vast) earth is a mosque.
The first challenge to this integrated worldview came from Greek rationalism. In the eighth and the ninth centuries, the Mu'tazilites tackled many of the issues of Islamic beliefs in the light of rational analysis. They fell flat on their face because of their limited understanding of the mystery of time, on the issues of before and after, and their proposition that the Qur’an was “created in time”. Reaction set in, the Mu'tazilites were banished from the Islamic intellectual landscape and history threw up in its wake the strict Hanbali interpretation of the Shariah.
The second historical challenge was the destruction wrought by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The curtain fell on the classical Islamic civilization when Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258 and the Mongol Rasa displaced the Shariah as the law of the land. In its darkest hour, the resilience of Islam asserted itself. It renewed itself through tasawwuf. The Sufi shaikhs converted the Mongols and the succeeding centuries saw the magnificence of the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Great Moguls.
For more than three hundred years, circa 1260 to 1600, it was the heart that ruled Islamic civilization. This age gave birth to monarchs like Sulaiman the Magnificent, Shah Abbas and the Great Mogul Akbar. It produced the sublime poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, monuments to love like the Taj Mahal and architectural masterpieces like the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.
Circa 1600, largely as a result of political and religious movements in the Indian subcontinent, the Sufic age went into decline and was replaced by an increasing emphasis on jurisprudence. The emperor Aurangzeb of India, Shaikh Abdel Wahab of Arabia and Osman Don Fudio of Nigeria personified this tilt towards jurisprudence.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Europe pressed its technological advantage, asserting its political dominance and cornering global economic activity, intellectual activity in Muslim lands went into a decline. Science and culture decayed, spirituality declined, old institutions frayed, and the Muslims increasingly withdrew behind a wall of legal rigidity and fatalistic mumbo-jumbo. In the twentieth century, spiritual Islam came under an incessant frontal assault from Western positivism and internal sabotage from Wahhabi absolutism. The resultant Islam was a caricature of its own self, rituals without spirit, and a passive spectator in the onward march of history.
Modern Muslims are a product of this decline. Lacking the political resources to withstand the pressures of an overbearing West, or the intellectual stamina to confront their own past, they react to the needling of the West with the ferocity of an injured tiger. There is a rage in the Islamic world, fostered by wounds inflicted from without and from within, which manifests itself in occasional outbursts of extremism.
Europe, which abandoned its religious heritage long ago, continues to snipe at Muslims for not following its path. In response, Muslims ask: Does an egocentric Europe, which gave birth to destructive nationalism, fascism, Nazism, the holocaust, and produced two World Wars, have anything spiritual to offer mankind?
Make no mistake about it. The cartoons were caricatures. They were racist, offensive and sacrilegious. They were unnecessary in a day and age when the confluence of civilizations calls for mutual respect and understanding, not insult and insinuations. But that is the Muslim perspective.
In the European perspective, born and bred in a secular, anti-religious historical paradigm, no activity is sacrilegious. It is the economic value of an act that determines its utility. The European mind respects money and power, which modern Muslims do not have. The same publishers, who hide behind a mantra of free speech, dare not publish similar cartoons about other religious traditions which possess far greater economic and political clout.
Let the cartoon episode act as a catalyst for Europe and the Islamic world alike to look inward at the spiritual dislocations that are a legacy of their own historical experiences. A United Nations protocol for respect across religious and cultural lines would help. However, it is only when civilizations learn to confront their own past will they be able to confront their future and engage in a meaningful dialogue based on a shared spiritual vision for all mankind and become co-architects of a shared spiritual destiny.