Islam and Western Civilization

Dr. Mohammad Fadhel Jamali

[Editor’s Note: I present this powerful speech delivered by the late Dr. Mohammad Fadhel Jamali, on the commemoration of the birthday of the Prophet, on June 24, 1934, over seventy years ago. Dr. Jamali [April 20, 1903 – May 24, 1997] was an Iraqi intellectual and statesman: eight times Foreign Minister and two times Prime Minister. After the Hashemite Monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the Revolutionary Military Tribunal sentenced him to death, but this verdict was later commuted to ten years imprisonment. He was released in 1961, after three years. In 1962, he was appointed Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. Dr. Jamali’s analyses of Islam are relevant today as they were 72 years ago, not only to Iraqis but to the world community of Muslims. Source: Letters on Islam by author]

At no period in the history of Islam has the study of the life of the Arab prophet been more essential for the life of the nation than it is today. If we look around we will find clashes in our opinions and principles, and relaxation in our morality to an extent unparalleled in previous history.

The reasons are clear and natural. A look at the conditions of Islam and the Muslims today would tell us that there is a vast gap and a deep chasm between Islam on the one hand and Muslims on the other. Since the Muslims occupied themselves with other things and neglected the truth and the spirit of their religion; since they abandoned the substance of religion and paid attention to externals and satisfied themselves with traditions and superstitions; since they began to call stagnation and narrow-mindedness religion; in other words, since they began to act the roles of pagan life, that life which Islam combated with all its force, Islam has found itself in one valley, and the Muslims in another.

None of you can realize how much harm the Muslims have done to the reputation of their religion except those who come in touch with foreigners and listen to their harsh judgment on Islam. Their unfair judgment, although emanating from various motives and prejudices, are helped by the stagnant life and behavior of the Muslims, behavior which is quite far from the essence of the straight religion of Islam. Yes, darkness has prevailed over the Muslims since they lost the heat of the faith; since they stopped the search for truth, and the use of thought in religious matters, and free scientific research; since they ceased to profit from the teachings of the Holy Qur’an which urged the profitable study of nature, psychology, and history.

The intellectual stagnation of the Muslims went hand in hand with political deterioration and the fragmentation of Muslim lands, which led to the rise of kings and rulers who had no object but to dominate, and to satisfy their [material] appetites. They cared not for the continued growth and progress of the Muslims.

Ladies and gentlemen, one glance at our present Islamic society is enough to show us that the heat of faith has waned; that most men of religion have a stereotyped outlook on modern life; that the masses are ignorant and know practically nothing about their religion; that most youth have turned away from religion, first, because of their ignorance, or, second, because they are carried away by western currents. We also find public morality loose, selfishness prevailing, and the bond of unity broken.

While this is our condition, the West overtakes us with its cars, airplanes, tanks, guns, cinema, radio, telegraph, telephone, organizations, and preparations for war. I wish the West had bequeathed us its inventive power, its sciences, and its organizations only. Then we would fear no danger. But the West challenged our spiritual and moral existence and began to undermine it as worms undermine the roots of a giant tree, for it brought us cheap social customs, excessive sexual license, and a loosening of morals which warn of danger.

Yes, the danger besetting the Muslims and especially their youth is very grave indeed, for they stand between stagnation which they inherited from previous dark centuries, and the sweeping flood of western civilizations. We have no savior, brethren, in this critical situation except Muhammad, prayer and peace be on him, and we have no positive philosophy except the philosophy of the Qur’an. This is what we should understand, and this is what I call for on this holy night.

My first and last advice to my youthful Muslim brethren is to turn to the Qur'an and to read it more and more, and to study it as much as possible, for the more they read it, the more light and guidance they will receive. A non-Muslim reads the Qur’an and enjoys its wisdom and literary style. As for the Muslim, besides enjoying the wisdom and the style, he finds a guide in the darkness of the seas of this life.

Yes, if a Muslim youth studies the life of the prophet, prayer and peace be on him, and comes to know his character, and if he makes an analysis of western civilizations, an analysis devoid of passions and whims, he will be able to profit from whatever is useful in western civilizations and to protect himself from their evils.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we analyze the various western civilizations, we will find that the elements of power in them consist of:

(1)   Meticulous scientific research and the application of science to life.

(2)   Nationalism, variously defined by various western nations and what follows it in terms of struggle for existence.

(3)   Organization and social reform.

I don’t think that a Muslim, who studies the Qur'an, even in a superficial way, will have any difficulty in realizing that these elements are incorporated in Islam in the best manner and the clearest way.

As for meticulous, scientific research, we find the Holy Qur’an full of exhortations to achieve it, and in addition there are the well-known sayings of the Prophet in his respect. The exhortations to study nature and to contemplate Allah’s creation are the foundations of natural sciences, and the Holy Qur’an calls for the study of nature in numerous verses. As for the study of the history of nations, and the drawing of lessons from the lives of the ancient nations, that is the excellent method of the Qur'an in giving convincing lessons. It is also the basis for the accurate development of the social and historical sciences. There is no better proof of the importance which Islam gives to sciences in the glorious days of the early Islamic states. A quick glance at history will acquaint us with Muslim chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, and natural scientists.

Some claim that Muslims drew their civilization from the Greeks. The truth is that they drew it from the Qur’an and sought the help of the Greeks. Many Muslim philosophers tried to harmonize Greek theories with the text of the Qur’an, but their attempts were in vain. The growth of natural sciences showed the error in many Greek theories and the veracity of the Qur’an concerning them. Many scientists rose, thanks to Islam, and laid the foundations for many modern scientific ideas. The stagnation of the Muslims after the passing away of their States, and the domination of unworthy rulers over them, is what gave a stop to the growth and flourishing of the sciences. Not only that, but it created from amongst the men of religion some who opposed any new scientific theory. The religious men of Islam in the last century began to express fears of the modern scientists and the natural sciences, thinking that they were contrary to religion. The truth is that the Qur’an supports any scientific theory whenever its validity is proven.

As for the second phenomenon of western civilizations, namely, nationalism, that also exists in Islam. Nationalism is a bond, or a number of bonds, between a group of people which makes them a political entity. Probably the most popular bonds in many nations are blood tie and language tie. Nationalism, like the family entity, is a natural step in the history of human evolution. Nationalism was not born in the nineteenth century as some students of modern history claim, for nationalism in various forms existed from ancient times.

Islam did not come to destroy nationalism; it recognized nationalism, but avoided its evils. The verse in the Holy Qur’an: “O mankind! Surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes so that you many know each other; surely most honorable of you with Allah is (he who is) most righteous; surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.” (The Chambers, 49:13) is a clear recognition of nationalism, and it sets a high ideal for the relationship between nations and states. Moreover, Islam made the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks, and all Muslims brethren by saying: “the believers are but brethren …” (The Chambers, 49:10). Islam did not change the nationality of the Arab or the Persian or the Turk, etc., for there is no contradiction between the existence of various nations, while, at the same time, brotherhood exists among all; for Islam is a League of Nations and does not deny the existence of its constituent nations.

In short, we wish to emphasize here that nationalism, which is the most important phenomenon in western civilizations today, exists in Islam, but in a higher form which removes it far from dangers and horrors. Muslim nations today have only to struggle hard to build their national structure on the foundations of Islamic principles.

The third phenomenon of western civilizations is their constant readiness for social reform and the legislation of laws and regulations dealing with problems of family life, labor, agricultural work, life in cities and villages, land distribution, various types of taxations, economic and financial organizations, and all features which characterize modern civilized life.

As for the Muslims, they have generally been very slow to carry our social reforms. Men of religion in Islam, instead of undertaking the call to such reforms, and profiting from religious teachings to implement them, waste their time in verbal polemics. Furthermore, a matter which causes deep regret is the closing of the door of ijtihad (authentic induction) by the majority of the Muslims. As for the minority who recognize ijtihad, they are not profiting by it.

Since the days of the disintegration of the Abbasid Caliphate there have been only a few great imams. One questions why imams like Abu Hanifa should not rise again, and why religious scholars should not write books that fit our modern conditions on land affairs like the book al-Karaj by Abi Yusuf. We find imams like Ibn Taymiyya and Sheikh Muhammad Abduh who opened the door of ijtihad anew, and we find Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin al’-Amily using the ijtihad in calling for reform and liberation from many superstitions and worn-out traditions. But such men are rare and too few. In young Turkey today a religious group has appeared, led by Said Hakim Pasha, who calls for opening the door of ijtihad and profiting from the noble teachings of Islam in the new life of Turkey.

I wish to say that the door of social reform in Islam is a wide one. Why don’t the honorable learned men of Islam pass through it today? Why do our learned men, Allah support them, try to follow the mobs in their views and traditions and have no courage to call for reform? I believe that ijtihad in Islam will make it a permanently living religion by adapting its teachings to each age and generation in accordance with the requirements of that age and generation.

From what I have said it is clear that the elements of power in modern, western civilizations exist in Islam and are not alien to it. That is why I say that we should begin studying and analyzing western civilizations, looking at them with the glasses of our history and conditions, rather than being swayed by their currents. We should choose freely and not be influenced and pushed into taking western civilizations. Our choice should be guided by science, by a study and analysis of western civilizations, and by a full knowledge of our precious Islamic treasures.

This requires:

(1) that we should have a group of religious scholars who leave sectarianism aside and open wide the door of ijtihad and begin to profit from the ijihad in a way consonant with the growth of modern science and contemporary social development. I emphasize that Islam is a great force for progress and reform.

(2) that our youth should turn to a regular study of the Qur’an in order to understand its spirit and morals. They should also study in detail the life of the holy Prophet and learn from his character and the beautiful spirit with which his life is so rich, may prayer and peace be on him. I am sure that in the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad they will find the best guide for this life, and the best help in facing western currents. I am sure that asking anything less than this of our youth would not please the Owner of the Mission on such a holy night.

“Peace be on him who listened and retained and learned and cared. And the mercy and blessings of Allah be on you all.”

[Published in the May/June 2006 Issue of the Voice of Islam, Islamic Society of the Washington Area, Silver Spring, Maryland]

Posted July 30, 2006