Thought Archive

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why should we change?

Why some civilizations are prone to change more than others? Why Islamic world seemed to European eyes an impervious to change from outside, and stagnated. I can cite example of Japanese, Chinese and Islamic cdivilizations in their reactions to outside change to illustrate an example. Japan and China were quite insular and unable to recognize the superiortiy of the West for which theysuffered a lot. Japan opened quickly in 19 century but China, which persisted in isolation the longest was forced to accept humiliating treaties, was in parts colonized, plundered and beaten to the ground. China, only now is coming back from a bout of its final period of Maoist isolation, and we are seeing the results and are waiting for the new ideas it will impose on the world. Just like Chinese empire, the Islamic world, being exposed to the rise of Europe the longest, and being its natural rival did not consider it important to borrow ideas and techology from the West, because of inability to recognize its progress. Long dead Greek were fine, but no good could come from barbaric "unbelievers", was and in some quarters is still the thought. The insularity and defensiveness only increased as the West pushed on, and economic failure was followed by political capitulations. 19 century, seeing total collapse of the Islamic world as the alternative to expanding Westm posed many questions to the puzzled intellectuals. Several answers were given. On one hand so called Islamic Modernizers appeared as a reaction to state failure. like Ottoman Tanzimat movement or reforms of Mehmet Ali in Egypt (which, however resulted in British colonization), or as a desire improve the education of Muslims colonized by Europeans powers such as Jadidism or similar movements in British India. The reforms emphasized enlightenment in religious education and improvement of religious thought towards excelling in progess, and portrayed lack of education as the stumbling block on this progress.

Later 20 century events, showed Islamic reformism to be a total and utter failure and Laicism, mainly in the guise of nationalism (Pan-Turkish or Pan-Arabic) or communism was adopted as a possible answer to ever increasing and obvious disparity. This movement also largely, except, and only partially in Turkey, failed. In some cases secularism (Iran) has been completely reversed, as it was not able to adress key social and educational demands and also was a failure economically due to the corrupt and venal politics adopted by all secular regimes. A different answer to the total moral failure of Islamic world comes from the puritan, isolationist side which seeks to re-establish an Islamic golden age harking back to the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and for obvious reasons is a breeding ground for jihadis. They also, rightly, lament lack of unity in Islamic world, and see adoption of a supranational Khalifate as the ideological answer to the problems of today. They claim, that only in such a state the sciences, culture and spirituality will flourish.

China on the other, hand was isolated from the World largely through the will of many an Emperor, who was in fact ruler of Heaven. One can claim that in China, an Emperor was the Religion. Heaven pre-ordained a special role that China, The Middle Kingdom between Heaven and Earth, would play and Emperor would be the main actor to play this role . All other countries were considered barbaric and degenerate, their lives not worthy of respect. It is amazing that many educated Chinese who I know well, are quite outspoken about superiority of China over the West in all aspects. Yet now Chinese are willing to adopt Western success, work on it and develop their own success - bigger and better. Some Muslims, profoundly misunderstanding Asian culture, consider Chinese as subservient in their willingness to adopt to the modern ways: however for Chinese, material progress is important part of improving one's lot, overcoming rejection of a foreign culture, which they still - despite outward appearances - despise. I call this attitude "absense of outward arrogance".

So what one can learn from Chinese success. It is probably that a static civilizations can and may adopt to outside influence after hundreds of years of rejection. However I am afraid, in decentralized culture of Islam, where states are ineffectual and individuals are disempowered, education is ruined and politics venal, the improvement will only come for some, and others there is nothing but prayer to left.


NoolaBeulah said...

An excellent summary; I totally agree.

What do you think were the reasons for the stagnation in the Islamic world? Was it, as in China, a complacency that others had nothing to teach? I have heard people talking about the abandonment of ijtihad as the decisive factor. Is that it?

Malaysia seems to be moving ahead, but they have the great advantage of a large number of Chinese to drive the economy. What do you think of places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where they are using the petroleum money to become playgrounds for the world?

I don't suppose that model is any great help for the other countries, the ones you say that there's nothing left but prayer for them.

Hazar Nesimi said...

I think there is too much importance attached to closing of ijtihad. In Shia World, for example it is not considered closed, and in fact Iranian republic paradoxically is the result of Ijtihad of Khomeini, for the concept of Sharia Republic as you can imagine is competely modern. Islam, by its nature is democratic, i.e no clergy exists, despite what you may think (Shia in Iran/Iraq again is an exception), and even if reform is adopted there should be an effort to spread the reform and not always peeaceful...This is the reason 19 century Islamic reform movement failed. Where strong centralized states finally appeared in 16 century (Ottoman, Persian and Mughal), they should have adopted to change and competed but failed overcome by insularity and where overcome by the West. I, myself see the "fault" with that period and not with ijtihad of 11 century.

Hazar Nesimi said...

You see where I am driving the point. If the unified Islamic state existed (e.g Khalifate, Imamate) where temporal and spiritual authority was rested in the ruler or ruling circle, it would have been easier to reform from above. With things as they stand, to each their own. Malaysian example, while laudable, cannot be adopted by others, because of unique conditions there. Nor is Turkey can be a beacon to anybody for the same reason (despite what US might think). Each country has its own development path. The countries I think that can and should be at the forefront of the world are Iran and Egypt, and the reason they are not has nothing to do with "backwardness" of religion but because there secular rulers consistently undermined the society with their megalomaniac policies. If anything Iran today is an improvement upon Iran of the Shah, a society with much greater social mobility and education. Fault for what happened is enirely with the Shah and Nasserists, but I think things will improve. Same goes for formerly socialist North Africa. Pakistan is lost cause, unfortunately. It will probably disentagrate. So is Iraq ..

Riri said...

Yes! We must all change! Even Monkeys changed into Humans according to the Darwinians for God's sake!