Islam as Culture and Civilization – Not relativism

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In this essay Professor Isma’il Al Faruqi discusses “Islam as Culture and Civilization” from different aspects:

  1. Not relativism
  2. Islamic culture and ‘urubah (Arabness or Arab culture)
  3. The view of ultimate reality 
  4. The view of truth
  5. The view of man
  6. The view of nature
  7. The view of society and history
  8. The view of beauty 

Following is the first part of this essay:

Culture is the consciousness of values in the totality of their realm, implying at its lowest level an intuitive awareness of their respective identities and of the order of rank properly belonging to each of them, as well as a personal commitment to their pursuit and actualization. At its highest level, this consciousness of value implies, in addition to the foregoing, a discursive knowledge of values, of their mutual relations and order of rank, of the history of the growth processes by which consciousness has achieved the said level of awareness, as well as a self-conscious collective commitment to the pursuit and actualization of the totality of values. Consciousness of any one value does not constitute culture, the latter being a perspective of the realm of values impossible to obtain without their totality being in view. What is often called monistic axiology, whether it is the survival ethic of primitive man or those implicit in a number of “isms” by which human life or culture have been defined in modern times, is not awareness of a single value, but a reordering of the whole realm of values under the dominion of the one value recognized by that axiology as the prime, or first, determinant and definiens of all other values. That is why it is possible to speak of the culture of hedonism which defines and ranks all values in terms of their contributions to pleasure, or of the culture of asceticism which defines and ranks all values in terms of their contribution to the denial of the processes of life. Each is a different perspective of the total realm of values. The same is true of the culture of communism, of national socialism and democracy, as it is of group-designated cultures such as the German, Italian, French, Indian, Chinese or Japanese culture. Though unlike any one of these, Islamic culture is nonetheless a perspective on the realm of values. To analyze it as such, to lay bare the internal structure of values as Islam perceives them, is the object of this chapter.

The foregoing definition of culture does not necessarily commit us to a relativist view. In fact, the Islamic position is the very opposite of relativism. Cultural relativism holds every culture to be an autonomous whole, a hierarchical structure of values sui generis, which though subject to description, stands beyond critique, as it were, by definition. It denies the possibility of criticism on the grounds that the criteria are therefore themselves always culturally determined, and hence falling within the culture to be evaluated; that it is impossible for humans to rise above their own cultures and build any supracultural methodology, or system of criteria and norms in terms of which historical cultures may be criticized. A culture, relativism asserts, can hence be neither justified nor criticized, its very factuality constituting its own justification. The comparative study of religions, or of civilizations, is equally alleged to fall in most cases into the same predicament. Through and through it is, and should be, descriptive. It can only Eeport, analyze, compare and contrast its findings in the various cultures, religions or civilizations. But it cannot criticize, judge, or evaluate its data because the criteria by which such work is possible are themselves the data in question.

Cultures, religions and civilizations are said to enjoy that same autonomy which makes each its own judge. Surely, each has laid claim to universalism, to address itself to man as such, to speak of religion as such. Nonetheless, relativism asserts that all their claims were vain; because while purporting to be universal, they were in reality mere inflated provincialisms. In their investigations of men, anthropology, psychology, history, sociology and even philosophy – all these disciplines have in modem times toned down their ambition of describing man or reality or truth as such quite drastically. They reduced their claims to analyzing given configurations of humans, of their thought and behaviour, their given systems of ideas or life. None has nowadays the boldness or strength to speak about men, reality or truth sub specie eternitatis.

Bushmen from equatorial Africa, Europeans and Chinese, Indians and Berbers, as well as the ethnic mixtures of the Near East, the world’s crossroads of civilizations, all participated in Islamic culture just as they should, building their unity and hence their definition on the culture of Islam and, under its guidance ..

This is not the place to consider critically why the Western spirit has come to this reduction of its area of competence, or how it lost its nerve and retreated from its Christian Scholastic or rationalist Enlightenment goals. Suffice it here to emphasize two points. First, like religions and civilizations, cultures do not conceive of themselves as of one among many, not as systems whose truth and viability are only probable. “Probable truth” has no adherents committing their whole lives and energies to its pursuit, certainly no soldiers willing to lay down their lives for it. If all there is to the claims of the various cultures and religions was a mere probability, they would have never commanded the enormous energies – mental, physical, emotional – of the millions over the long centuries required for their generation, crystallization and flowering. Indeed, if their factuality indicates anything, it is that their base is firmly established on the rock of faith, on an unquestionable conviction whose object is the world in toto, humankind, reality as such. Second, culture, at least in its higher stages, must have developed its perspective of the valuational realm only after considering numerous options. By definition a perspective suggests the possibility of other methods of ordering, for no value may be assigned the order of rank proper to it without the possibility of relating it to its neighbouring values. But to assign an order of rank is to judge that a certain value has indeed priority over another which has different or contradictory content.

Co-existence of contrary claims, of contrary obligations, of opposite norms and imperatives, which is what the relativist thesis demands, is not only not productive of culture, but it appeals only to the mediocre. No worthy mind can rest when faced with contrary claims to truth or goodness or beauty. Such claims necessarily set the mind in motion to seek a higher principle in terms of which the contradiction may be solved and the differences composed. The human mind will not give up the search without satisfaction. True, such principles may not always be conscious, explicitly stated in the given literature; but their existence is absolutely indubitable. At the very least, they must be assumed; and it is the task of the analyst and comparativist to uncover and articulate them, to place them under the light of reason and understanding.

This leads us to affirm that there is no culture which does not make a meta-cultural claim to truth, to goodness and beauty. The problem is how far meta-cultural assumptions of a given culture are truly universal, how far they correspond with reality, and whether or not they are necessary; how far the culture in question is conducive to the usufruct of nature, the doing of the good works, the felicity of all humans, the cultivation of beauty. Islamic culture certainly makes this claim, namely, that it purports to speak for all humans and for all times. Its claim is that its contents are essential to humanity as such, that its values are absolutely valid for all men because they are true, and its perspective of the valuational realm the only one which fully corresponds with the order of rank inherent in each value. This absoluteness of Islamic culture did not make it intolerant of the ethnic subcultures of its adherents, of their languages and literatures, of their folk customs and styles. But it has distinguished the culture of Islam from ‘adah, literally, the local custom, the provincial content, which Islam tolerated even to the point of regarding it juristically acceptable, but which it has always kept in the place proper to it. Such a position is one of subservience to the culture of Islam, which was assigned the status of determining the essence and core of Islamic civilization in tow.

Only Islam acknowledged provincial culture as content of the ethos of Islam proper, and managed to maintain a universal adherence and loyalty to it amid the widest ethnic variety of the globe. Bushmen from equatorial Africa, Europeans and Chinese, Indians and Berbers, as well as the ethnic mixtures of the Near East, the world’s crossroads of civilizations, all participated in Islamic culture just as they should, building their unity and hence their definition on the culture of Islam and, under its guidance, continued to keep, develop and promote their hundred ethnic sub-cultures.

The standpoint of Islamic culture, therefore, is not that of cultural relativism.