Towards the end of the movie “Lion of the Desert” (1980) there is an enlightening dialogue between the captured Umar Mukhtar, the leader of the national resistance in Libya against the Italian occupation, and Rodolfo Graziani, one of the most prominent Italian generals renowned for his military campaigns in Africa.
General Graziani told Umar Mukhtar that the Italians were back where they belonged. Libya was part of the ancient Roman Empire and should now be part of the emerging Italian Empire. The Italian imperialism under Fascism was meant to restore, partially at least, the lost glory of Rome. As part of the project, Libya was to be taken back.
Graziani justified his claims by showing Umar Mukhtar an excavated coin from the time of Julius Caesar, which had been minted in Libya. He stressed: “Italy has as much right here as anybody else. We have hundreds of years of right here. We are back here; that’s all. Nobody can deny us”.
Unimpressed, Umar Mukhtar responded calmly to the General’s assertions - while at the same time reiterating that no nation has the right to occupy another, which was the crux of the matter: “You’ll also find Greek, Turkish, Phoenician, etc., coins all over Libya, buried in our sand… (Caesar’s coin) has an interesting past, but don’t try to buy too much with it today. Your money, like your glory, is not permanent. But I respect your past, and you must respect ours. We too have a history, science, mathematics, medicine…In your dark ages, we led the world in learning.”
Umar Mukhtar’s reply was as much astounding as it was illuminating, which was shown on the face and in the instantaneous reaction of the General.
Umar Mukhtar wished to drive home the meaning of a true civilization and of a truly civilized nation from the perspective of the Islamic revealed message. It would be an understatement to say that the contrast between the appearances, demeanours and outlooks of Umar Mukhtar and General Graziani was stark. What was on display, in point of fact, was what Basil Mathews in 1928 and Samuel Huntington in 1992 interpreted as “the clash of civilizations”.
The relationship between the truth and civilization
A true civilization is one that does not and cannot die, notwithstanding its recurring ups and downs. It is not associated with aggression, cruelty, exploitation and any other form of inhuman behaviour. Nor is it to be imposed by force, intimidation and threats, leaving trails of devastation in its wake.
Moreover, a true civilization cannot have innocent blood on its hands. It cannot be exclusive, exploitative and discriminatory, belonging to a high-class club only. Rather, it is to be integrative and bountiful. The relationship between civilization and people should be instinctive, organic and reciprocal, in lieu of being ruptured, erratic and involuntary. Theirs cannot be a marriage of convenience.
A true civilization, furthermore, is never to stop giving, inviting to, promoting and facilitating universal goodness. It is to be desired and sought-after by all, if nothing else then for the sake of upholding the intrinsic humanness of people and their basic rights, on account of that civilization’s own humanism and positivity penchants.
Civilization is to be closely related to the truth, the latter being the cause and point of reference of the former. The longevity of the truth is to ensure the longevity of a civilization, and its merit the merit of the latter. The two should create a formidable framework within which all human initiatives and activities will be cast. The empowerment of the civilizational enterprises of a people will be commensurate with the potency of the framework.
This means that what is often served in the name of civilization is nothing but sophisticated forms of barbarism, backwardness and savagery. For instance, the Italians arrived in Libya with civilizational affirmations that were skin-deep at best. Never shying away from bragging about the glitter of their ostensible civilizational standards, the Italians in fact were no match for the depth and sophistication of the existential substance of the Libyans. Hence, the war in the country was an unmistaken clash between the indigenous civilization and culture and an invading barbarism.
Being the sole focus of people’s exertions and struggles, exaggerated material progress is aimed at honing and advancing the vices of greed, selfishness and pleasure-seeking. Materialism in the end becomes a trap. It becomes the quicksand of a civilization’s passion and confidence. It becomes the exterminator of all authentic civilization.
Thenceforth civilization mutates into an instrument of sin. Under the circumstances, a man remains a wolf to another man, and might determine and is the only criterion of what is right. A civilization’s raison d’etre metamorphoses into a state-of-the-art mechanism for conquering, dominating and controlling the “other” merely because the “other” is different, vulnerable and “tempting”. A civilization then turns into an inhibiting force. It becomes perilous.
By amplifying the means to debilitate and destroy, a civilization thus contributes to its own debility and eventual downfall. It expedites its own death. Arnold Toynbee was right when he concluded that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
Returning to the dialogue between Umar Mukhtar and General Graziani, if the Roman civilization was exemplary, it would not be buried in the necropolis of history. It would not lie hidden in the sand and forgotten as far as the Muslim people of Libya – and other Muslims - were concerned.
The boons of that civilization were both limited and impermanent, and were generally removed from the theatre of history and its civilization-making processes as soon as their inadequacies were exposed either by the vicissitudes of time and history or by other civilizational aspirants. From the point of view of pursuing the ideal civilizational scenario, the Roman civilization - just like its Mesopotamian, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, etc., counterparts - represented a failed experiment, albeit without trying to undermine the beneficial contributions of such civilizations even the least bit.
The Romans were the victims of their own failings. They were the victims of their own civilizational fate. Creating a civilization is a thing, but sustaining and immortalizing it is something else. More often than not, the former is a deceptive feat, while the latter, on account of its almost otherworldly difficulties, is turned into a fantasy. It is spoken about in terms of the stuff of legend.
As if Umar Mukhtar asked about the Romans where they had been, and about their civilizational legacies where they had gone. He wondered why someone had to search for and excavate them from the rubble of history’s infinite burial grounds. Ancient-cum-expired civilizations were signs of man’s vulnerability and failures, rather than his strengths and successes. They connoted lessons in how things are actually not to be done in respect to conceiving and accomplishing the ontological mission of man.
The quality of a civilization cannot be ended and concealed by the inconsequentiality of “sand”. Libya preceded and survived the Romans. They came and left, but Libya and its people remained. Sheer power and oppression can conquer, but cannot own. They can capture lands temporarily, but cannot conquer hearts everlastingly. The writing was on the wall for the invading Italian fascists.
Sand-dunes and “civilization-dunes”
There was a degree of symbolism in Umar Mukhtar’s reference to the sand and desert of Sahara, which is the largest hot desert in the world. Libyan Desert is the north-eastern section of Sahara.
Since deserts are home to the natural phenomenon of sand-dunes, whose sand grains do not stay in one place for long due to the effects of the elements of nature, forming constantly shifting environments, civilizations likewise keep shifting from one milieu to another wherever the conditions for its thriving prove most conducive. The only permanent feature of civilizations is their impermanence. As in connection with sand-dunes, one can never say in connection with “civilization-dunes”, too, what is going to happen next. One can never predict a civilization’s next development or pattern.
About this particular law concerning the rise and fall of civilizations the Qur’an highlights in the context of the ancient Egyptian civilization: “How many of the gardens and fountains have they left, and cornfields and noble places (buildings), and goodly things (wealth and comfort) wherein they rejoiced! Thus (was their end), and We gave them as a heritage to another people (We made other people inherit those things). And neither heaven nor earth shed a tear over them, nor were they given a respite (again)” (al-Dukhan, 25-29).
This might have been a reason why the region of ‘Ad, the mischievous people of Prophet Hud, was called al-Ahqaf (Sand-dunes). They rejected their Prophet and, as a consequence, were punished by a thunderous storm containing a violent and barren wind “which Allah imposed upon them for seven nights and eight days in succession” (al-Haqqah, 7).
The ‘Ad people and their seeming civilizational feats were obliterated from the face of the earth. Much like the sand-dunes of their region, they too were “disrupted”, “changed” and “relocated” by natural elements. The Qur’an describes that after the punishment had been visited upon ‘Ad, its people lay fallen as if they were hollow trunks of palm trees. They were altered from one condition, as well as configuration, to another. The Qur’an then proclaims: “Then do you see of them any remains?” (al-Haqqah, 8).
The case of Islamic civilization
Nevertheless, the case of Islamic civilization is completely different. It was the embodiment of the heavenly truth that had been revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It was fully in service to that truth. The truth was the goal, Islamic civilization the means. The truth was the essence and life-force, Islamic civilization the carrier and locus.
The people of the truth find themselves within the jurisdiction of the civilization of the truth. They effortlessly identify themselves with and for each other. The people of Libya – and of the rest of the Muslim world – embraced the truth voluntarily, whereupon embracing Islamic civilization was a spontaneous act. Doing so, in reality, was a side-effect.
It could yet be said that after welcoming and accepting Islam and Islamic civilization, Muslims anywhere in the world are welcomed and are accepted by Islam and Islamic civilization. They are enfolded thereby, feeling safe in the latter’s bosom. The relationship is mutual.
Therefore, when Muslims snub other civilizational traditions – some traditions more and others less – they do not do this because of those traditions per se, but because they do not exemplify the truth, or are not compatible with it. In other words, Muslims do not reject a civilizational legacy, but a manifestation of falsehood. They do not search for deficiencies therein for deficiencies’ sake, but do look for potentially damaging obstructions as might stand between them and the truth, and so, get in the way of following the truth and worshipping the Lord of the truth.
Islamic civilization does not and cannot expire, inasmuch as its source is timeless and its spirit eternal. With regard to its material performances, as well as manifestations, Islamic civilization can experience a hiatus. Admittedly, hiatuses can be long, however, there is always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Islamic civilization can be rejuvenated at any right time. Muslims know that. Thus, Muslims do not get obsessed with the tasks of reforming the foundations and real meaning of Islamic civilization, but with the means and strategies for breathing life into the resultant and secondary expressive aspects of Islamic civilization.
Struggles for Islamic civilization are not about its survival, but about its rehabilitation. And to do that, Muslims do not need others, or outsiders. They need themselves. When fighting invasions and colonization, Muslims fight their own inner flaws. Colonizers were there only because of Muslims’ readiness to be colonized, and owing to their weaknesses, Muslims had invited colonizers and had allowed them to execute their unholy schemes.
Put differently, potential Islamic civilizational revivals do not affect the roots and the trunk, but branches and leaves. Reviving Islamic civilization concerns neither Islam nor civilization as such, but Muslims and their overall behavioural and thought models. And that is what separates Islamic civilization from other civilizational trajectories.
The problem is inside, rather than outside. The problem furthermore is not about darkness, but about the lack of light. Light is always bound to dispose of darkness, the truth of falsehood, and civilization of barbarism. The Qur’anic tenet is: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron” (al-Ra’d, 11).
Islamic civilization is not about dead matter, but about people; not about fantasies, but about real day-to-day concerns. Islamic civilization relates to success in this world and in the Hereafter, and is about a discrete mixture of the interests of the body and soul. Matter plays second fiddle to spirit.
If Almighty Allah vowed that He will preserve His Islamic truth (contained in His revealed Qur’an), that also means, indirectly, that He will preserve the concept and phenomenon of Islamic civilization against the danger of becoming extinguished. Despite the endless efforts of the adversaries of the divine light of Islam, and the occasional incapacities of many Muslims, Allah promises that, against all odds, He will perfect His light “even though the unbelievers may detest it” (al-Saff, 8).
Doomed is a civilizational story that glorifies matter - building iconic monuments, vain landmarks and shrines, exhibiting brute power, accumulating material wealth at all costs, for example - instead of concentrating on developing people, refining their character, and accumulating the spiritual and moral individual, together with collective, wealth.
Islamic civilization flourished whenever it stayed the prescribed righteous course, and it declined each time it started displaying signs of slanting towards a pattern of the patterns of the failed civilizational experiments with which history – like the desert sand of Libya - is littered.
History is an open book which should be read, understood and dealt with properly, in order to diagnose the present and plan for a truly successful future. Wise men learn from the mistakes and failures of others, whereas fools do from their own.