EPILOGUE: THE ETHICAL AND SPIRITUAL NATURE OF HUMAN LIFE, EAST AND WEST
The Quran asserts that God is the Lord of both the East and the West and also that the Blessed Olive Tree, which symbolizes the spiritual axis of the world, is of neither the East nor the West. It is more necessary today than at any other time in history to realize the universal nature of the truth, which belongs to both the East and the West and yet is confined to neither. And yet there are those in the West who see Islam as the “totally other” and then vilify and identify it with all that they disdain, while there are also those in the Islamic world who look upon the West as the innate enemy of Islam. Those who realize that God is the Lord of both the East and the West must raise their voices against such ignorant and sometimes malefic attitudes.
There is not, however, a simple symmetry between East and West today. Before modern times the “Abode of Islam” was the only “other” the West knew, and the selfconsciousness of Western civilization during its period of maturation and its crystallization was to a large extent defined by that “other.” For Islam, however, there were several other civilizations, such as those in India and China, with which it had contact and which it saw as the “other.”
This factor itself contributed, through Islam’s image of itself as the central world civilization, to the neglect for several centuries by Muslims of the rise of European power during the Renaissance and the major intellectual and religious transformations that were taking place at that time in the West, including the rise of modern science followed by the new technology.
Some have tried to fault Islamic civilization for not following the same trajectory of development that took place in Europe and have asked, “What went wrong?” in reference to the Islamic world. If we look at world history, however, the question should not be “What went wrong in the Islamic world?” but “What went wrong in Europe?” The very question “What went wrong?” implies a norm or a right against which something is judged to be wrong. Now, the global norm was once traditional civilizations based on religious and spiritual principles and rooted in a theocentric or anthropocosmic worldview, as we see in Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, Islamic, Byzantine, and medieval European civilizations. It was postmedieval Europe that deviated from this norm by substituting an anthropocentric worldview for a theocentric one, making human beings the measure of all things or, to use a religious language, replacing the “Kingdom of God” with the “kingdom of man.” This “freedom” of reason from revelation and intellectual intuition, combined with emphasis upon humanism, rationalism, empiricism, and naturalism, led to many new developments, including a new science based on power rather than wisdom, and made it possible for Europe to expand over the globe and become dominant over other civilizations. It led to the Industrial Revolution, modern technology, and modern medicine. Now, modern medicine has eradicated many diseases but has also caused the population explosion, while modern technology has created many comforts along with the catastrophic destruction of the natural environment.
The death of tens of millions of Europeans in the twentieth century, thanks to modern means of warfare, combined with the loss of the meaning of life, the secularization of the world, the dehumanization of humanity, the breakup of the social fabric, the unprecedented destruction of nature and many other consequences of modern civilization, led a number of leading Western thinkers and poets during the last century to profoundly criticize the course taken by modern Western civilization. If not everyone has read René Guénon’s masterful Crisis of the Modern World, most people in America are familiar with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and some remember Theodor Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, along with many other works written by European and American authors during the past decades either depicting the spiritually tragic condition of human life in modern society or criticizing the tendencies driving modern Western civilization to its destruction.
Are all these criticisms to be forgotten and modern civilization made the norm that is right and in comparison to which everything else is considered wrong? No thinking person who is aware of what we are doing to our natural environment and what forces are tearing away the fabric of our society and, more important, our souls can claim that the path followed by the West should be the norm by which one should judge other civilizations, Islamic or otherwise. Moreover, if Islamic or Chinese civilizations had followed the same course as the postmedieval West and we had had the Industrial Revolution not only in England, but also in China, India, Persia, Turkey, and Egypt, the environmental impact would have been so great that we might not even be around today to pose the question of what went wrong.
In reality, each civilization, whether in East or West, has decayed and deviated in its own way and must pose the question to itself about what went wrong, rather than exclaiming with hubris and self-righteousness about what went wrong somewhere else because the people in that “somewhere else” have not followed its way of thinking and acting. We must desist from identifying ourselves with pure goodness and the other with pure evil. Even Christ said only God is good in the absolute sense. Each civilization must become ever more aware of its own shortcomings and evil elements as well as its virtues and what is good in it. Muslims must ask themselves what went wrong within their own societies, but the West must also pose the same question about itself. And this task of self-examination is even more urgent for the West, for at this particular juncture of human history it possesses much greater power than other civilizations and has greater global influence.
Moreover, today one can no longer speak strictly of the West and the Islamic world as two civilizations facing each other across a line like two armies ready to do battle in medieval times. In days of old Islam occupied the southern shores of the Mediterranean and the West the northern shores, and later the Ottomans occupied eastern Europe and Western civilization ruled from Vienna west. Today the relation between the Islamic world and the West is more like the yin-yang symbol of the Far East. Let us recall that there is an element of yin in yang and of yang in yin and together they
comprise a circle, which is the symbol of totality. Likewise, there are many Westerners living in the Islamic world along with many Westernized Muslims and there are also sizable Islamic communities in both Europe and America. Whereas the contribution of Westerners in the Islamic world to the West is essentially economic and to some extent political, the contribution of Muslims living in the West to the Islamic world itself is primarily intellectual and only secondarily economic. In fact, at no time in Islamic history have so many influential intellectual leaders of Islam lived outside the “Abode of Islam” in another civilization, which, interestingly enough, provides the favorable climate for free intellectual discourse not found under present-day conditions in many Islamic countries themselves.
The destinies of the West and the Islamic world are intertwined in such a way that one cannot reduce the situation simply to “us” and “them” in total mutual exclusion.
It is in the destiny of not only Islam and the West but all other civilizations to be forced to confront at this particular moment of history the powerful forces of globalization.
If secularism sought earlier to demolish and destroy the older worldviews based on the Sacred, the process of globalization as usually understood seeks in an ever more accelerated manner to articulate a single worldview and “value system.” But this “value system” is what one might call “trans-human,” because it is based on the ephemera of the marketplace and its corporate denizens and not on enduring truths and spiritual values. The political and economic objects of globalization are therefore as inimical to the perennial values of religion as the forces of secularism were in earlier days and still are today. In this unprecedented historical situation, fraught with the greatest danger for the whole spiritual legacy of humanity, it is essential that the particular aspects of each tradition be preserved and sharpened, that the universal aspects be recalled, and that both be used to inform other traditions. It is only on the basis of a positive and mutually enriching dialogue between religious traditions that respects their particularities as well as recognizes the universal truths lying in their heart or center that the answers must be sought for the most acute problems facing humanity today.
In this critical moment of human history both Muslims and Westerners, and in fact all human beings, must seek to live an ethical life based on mutual respect and greater knowledge of each other. Turning more particularly to Islam and the West, it must be emphasized that whether we are Muslims, Jews, Christians, or even secularists, whether we live in the Islamic world or the West, we are in need of meaning in our lives, of ethical norms to guide our actions, of a vision that would allow us to live at peace with each other and with the rest of God’s creation. It is in the achievement of this task that both the formal aspect and the inner message of Islam as well as those of other religions can come to our aid as can nothing else in this world. Of special importance is the inner message, for this message is none other than the universal truth that was placed by God in the hearts of all human beings and that stands at the center of all heavenly revelations.
The heart of Islam is also the Islam of the heart, which is that spiritual virtue, or ihsan, that enables us “to see God everywhere” and to be His “eyes, ears, and hands” in this world. The heart of religion is the religion of the heart, wherein all external forms are transcended, the heart that according to the Prophet is “the Throne of the Infinitely Good and Compassionate.” It is within this religion of the heart that is to be found that eternal wisdom, or sophia, which shines like a jewel at the center of every Divine message.
This wisdom alone can provide for us, in this period of darkness and confusion, the light of harmony based on principial knowledge and the warmth of compassion and love of the other. As the last major historical religion in this cycle of human existence, Islam has been able to preserve to this day, and despite all the external turmoil and even subversion of our times, that message of the eternal sophia in its heart. To understand Islam fully is to understand this universal message from the heart and the manner in which the external elements of the tradition are related to this hidden center.
Muslims themselves must draw ever more from these inner springs of wisdom and all men and women of good will in the West must seek to understand Islam in light of these central truths, which are also to be found in Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. We must all seek to rediscover the heart of religion, which is also the religion of the heart, to drink deeply of the spring of wisdom gushing forth from the heart, to live in peace and harmony on the basis of the universal truths contained in the perennial wisdom shared by all traditions, and to love all of God’s creation as the consequence of being ourselves touched by the love and compassion of the One who resides in our hearts.
Nothing less than the wisdom and love of the religion of the heart can save us in a world torn apart by so much evil and selfishness, a world that has the chimerical dream of living in peace in the forgetfulness of God. The heart of Islam is none other than the witnessing to the oneness of the Divine Reality, the universality of the truth, the necessity of submission to His Will, the fulfilling of human responsibilities, and respect for the rights of all beings. The heart of Islam beckons us to awaken from the dream of forgetfulness, to remember who we are and why we are here, to know and respect the religions of others. It is for Muslims to heed the call from the heart of Islam and live an ethical and spiritual life accordingly, but it is also for those in the West who seek meaning in their lives to turn to their own center and to realize that in coming to know better the heart of Islam they may gain more than greater insight into another religion and civilization; they may gain greater insight into their own heart and soul. The heart of any religion is none other than that single, universal Truth that resides at the heart of all authentic religions and that is itself the foundation of the religion of the heart.
In love no difference there is between monastery and Sufi tavern of ruins, Wheresoever it be, there is the glow of the light of the Beloved’s Face.
Wa’Llahu a‘lam-And God knows best.