The Painful Decline of the Arab Civilization

Ruins with details of 10th century arch in ruined Moorish medieval city Medina Azahara, Spain. Patterns inside UNESCO world heritage site. Cordoba area in Andalucia region (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

The Arab World is lying, almost, inanimate on the floor as a result of its gross deficiency in palpable democracy, true social justice, adequate education and social services, realistic women empowerment, adult education and literacy, accountability and freedom of belief. Over this agonizing being stand two regional vulture-like powers pondering their chances of inheriting the Arab wasteland. Number one is Iran dreaming romantically of past glory and exhibiting assuredly future claim to the leadership of the Muslim world if they become nuclear and number two is Israel seeking to restore historical Greater Israel from Euphrates to the Nile and why not even further and the reconstruction of the Temple on the ruins of Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

The deadly competition of these two regional powers is undoubtedly to the advantage of Israel that is already nuclear but, also, and most importantly democratic. Not to mention, of course, that it is a staunch ally of the United States, the only global power of the moment.

This regional competition might be, also, the premise of more global power play between the Western world block and the Eastern world block in the making comprising Russia, China and Iran. Iran has run the gauntlet of American and the West and has duly earned the status of a regional power at the expense of another Muslim competitor: Turkey that is emasculated by the West.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari in Tehran, 16 December 2015

On projecting influence in the Mideast and beyond, Nato Review Magazine argues: [i]

“To sum up, Iran has been engaged in multiple fronts across the Middle East to project influence and defend interests. This is a more confident country than it was a few years ago. Despite the low oil prices and the international sanctions, Iran has been transformed into a regional power exerting influence in several countries.

The guiding principle of Tehran’s Middle East policy is Shia empowerment. Therefore, the Iranian regime has patronized Shia parties and militias in a fashion that resembles Moscow’s strategy toward Third World communist movements during the Cold War. In this way, Tehran has used different proxy armies to push back Saudi influence and increase its influence in the region.

Iranian diplomacy has showed little interest for developments in North Africa and Central Asia, where there are only small Shia communities. But the Iranian leadership has monitored closely the situation in northern Nigeria where local Shias have confronted the national army and Boko Haram militants. And it has supported pro-Iranian Shia clerics and groups in Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan.”

Today, Iran and Israel are at loggerheads and might go to war anytime. Iran, in the last decade has successfully surrounded Israel and the Sunni Arab world with client countries: Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

The Arab World is the prominent looser in this power game, it certainly had the possibility of becoming a super power but it squandered it miserably. Indeed over the last 70 years, the Gulf Arabs had amassed trillions of dollars from oil revenues and had this unexpected wealth being used reasonably by its owners it would have made of Sudan, the breadbasket, not to forget of course, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. Would have created industries all over the region to employ the whole graduates of the universities and other educational institutions not to forget of course the rest of the population. With this financial bonanza that no other race had access to in the history of mankind , if used reasonably would have developed the whole Arab world, once for all, instead it is lagging behind  in every sector. [ii]

At this point, the question to be asked, what is wrong with the Arab world?

Is the Arab mind, the problem?

Since the end of the Arab Golden age of 10th to 14th centuries and the closing of the gate of Ijtihad by such fundamentalist religious theorists as Ibn Taymiyya (22 January 1263 - 26 September 1328) who advocated the return to the early interpretations of Qur’an and Sunnah, the Aab mind has shrunk to the size of a pea because such religious leaders encouraged mimicking naql rather than reasoning ‘aql. The first victim of this onslaught was philosophy that encouraged reflection, discussion and debate. As such the war was declared to Sufism and especially to its branch of philosophers the Mu’tazilites, who for centuries have encouraged free thinking through what was known then as ‘ilm al-Kalm (philosophy).

Averroes [iii] (April 14, 1126 – December 10, 1198), the great Muslim thinker of al-Andalus, a great adept and defender of the Aristotelian philosophy. This Berber philosopher, known in the West as the Commentator for his emendations of Aristotle’s work and considered to be the father of European secularism was totally rejected by the fundamentalist Ash’ari school of thought led by al-Ghazali (1058–1111). The Almohads (1121–1269), purist Berber dynasty of Morocco, that ruled Spain, under the pressure of Islamic fundamentalists tried Averroes for his rationalist views as a heretic in 1195 and exiled him to the Jewish village of Lucena outside Cordoba in Muslim Spain. His books were burned and writings banned, however he was rehabilitated two years before his death but doubts continued, nevertheless, about his orthodoxy and even his faith because many were convinced that he had turned Christian and was hiding his new faith  for fear of retribution.

Statue of Averroes in Cordoba, Spain.

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri [iv] (27 December 1935 – 3 May 2010) was a vibrant critic and philosopher of the Arab mind for which he set up a whole academic project entitled: Critique of the Arabic Mind.

Arab mind seems to be strangely possessed by the concept of honor at the expense of other more important issues in life and criticism is always seen as an attack on honor of the individual, society or creed. In this regard, Norvell B. De Atkine argues: [ii]

“In writing about a culture, one must tread a sensibility minefield, and none is more treacherous than that of the Middle East. In pursuit of intellectual honesty and a true-to-life depiction of a people, some less-than-appealing traits will surface. All cultures and peoples have their warts. One trait I have observed in Arab society - which has become more pronounced over the years - is an extreme sensitivity to any critical depiction of Arab culture, no matter how gently the adverse factors are presented. In his postscript to the 1983 edition of The Arab Mind, Patai mentions a spate of self-critical assessments of Arab society by Arab intellectuals in the wake of the "new Arab" said to have emerged after the 1973 war; but this tendency to self-criticize proved to be illusory. While we in the United States constantly criticize our society and leadership, similar introspection is rarely seen in the Arab world today. When criticism is voiced, it is usually in terms of a condemnation of Arab acceptance of some aspect of Western culture. Criticism also often emanates from outside the Arab region and, despite the so-called globalization of communication, only the elite have access to it. This is particularly true when political systems or ideology are discussed.”

Tribal Arab World

The Arab world has only changed in appearance since pre-Islamic times. The various countries that make this vast geographical region are not nation-states in the least, they are mega tribes with the symbols of a country: government, flag, national hymn, currency, etc. Nevertheless the mentality is purely tribal: "me and my brother against my cousin" and "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". The Arab world has even tribalized Islam, creating within it reactionary school of thought that reject modernity, democracy and gender equality. As such, corruption, nepotism, patriarchy and women enslavement are thriving.

In 2011 there was a brief moment of hope for a change with the Arab Spring, but soon the flowers of this spring welted and now there is more fragmentation, more tribalism and more chaos. Just look around and see how many failed states there are in this region: Libya, Syria and now Yemen. The tribal war is raging in Yemen with Saleh, this man who stole 60 billion dollars from his poor country, playing a leading role with the Houthis in the destruction of Yemen.

The fragmentation will not stop in Yemen, it will undoubtedly reach other countries if there are no important reforms. The state of affairs is grim but this is reality not fiction and petro-dollars will not stop the rentier states from collapsing.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu





[iv] He was a prolific writer on the subject of the Arab mind:

Books in French :

  • Critique de la Raison Arabe- 3 volumes, Beyrouth, 1982.
  • Nous et Notre Passé (Al-Marqaz al-taqafi al-arabi). Lecture contemporaine de notre patrimoine philosophique, 1980.
  • La Pensée de Ibn Khaldoun: la Assabiya et l'État. Grandes lignes d'une théorie Khaldounienne de l'histoire musulmane. Paris: Édima, 1971.
  • Pour une Vision Progressiste de nos Difficultés Intellectuelles et Éducatives. Paris: Édima, 1977.

Books in English :

  • Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought B. Tauris, 2008 (ISBN 1845117492).
  • The Formation of Arab Reason: Text, Tradition and the Construction of Modernity in the Arab World. B. Tauris, 2010 (ISBN 1848850611).
  • Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique. Center for Middle Eastern Studies. January 1999. p. 152.ISBN 0-292-70480-1

Books in Arabic :

  • Mas'ala al-Huwiyya: al-ʿUrūba wa-al-Islām...wa-al-Gharb(مسألةالهوية : العروبةوالإسلام ... والغرب [The issue of identity: Arabism and Islam..and the West]). Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1995.
  • Ibn Rushd: Sīra wa-Fikr (ابنرشد: سيرةوفكر [Ibn Rushd: life and thought]). Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1998.

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