One Civilization, Many Cultures

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No single individual in human history ever planned out a road map, or assembled a recipe of ideal ingredients for building a holistic civilization — just as no one has ever planned to write the book, poem, or musical composition that will later become a classic.

At any given time in history there is only one civilization going on; one civilization, spearheaded by ideals, fuelled by advances in many endeavors of human life, and led by individuals. Some become famous; most do not.

The ideals of civilization include respecting the freedoms and human rights of the individual; encouraging and rewarding innovations and creativity; and living by the light of reason, rationality, scientific awareness, equity, and justice.

When the recognized leaders of a civilization stop living by the ideals which singled them out for leadership in the first place, those leaders die. Yet civilization will always find new leaders to carry on. They may be unknown, living far away, part of a different ethnic community, or even adherents of a different religious faith. But they will nevertheless emerge as leaders.

Muslim civilization took over from other ancient civilizations when their leaders abandoned, or forgot how to live by, their founding ideals. Similarly, when the leaders and citizens of Muslim civilization stopped living authentically in Islam, this civilization found new leaders, often in the West.

Today, we are living in a Western-led civilization; thus, if Muslims aspire to lead, then they must learn and understand the state of the art that drives such a civilization — that is, both its strengths and weaknesses. They must offer a viable example, an alternative way, showing how living in Islam can enhance today’s civilization. But they must also earn that leadership; in so doing, the whole world will naturally turn to them to lead.

We hear people saying that Muslims need only wait for the current Western-dominated world to collapse under the weight of its own weakness. But such an approach is impractical, unhealthy, and above all, wrong. Whether they acknowledge it or not, Muslims are contributing to today’s civilization; they have responsibilities to it and can only contribute to its decay by choosing to stand by and do little, or nothing. Worse still, they can exert a negative impact on it through (for example) promoting policies of extremism, fanaticism, or tribalism.

Alternatively, if Muslims truly and consciously choose to live wholly in the ideals of Islam, they could gain the collective moral power to save today’s civilization — our civilization — as well. This is not about the old, but persistent “clash of civilizations”  theory; quite the opposite.

The “clash of civilizations” idea is a trap, plain and simple, because it tries to explain political conflicts based purely on the confrontation between competing values and cultures, between arbitrarily defined “right” and “wrong.” Even more sinister is the fact that this destructive theory has been dished out far and wide to account for the roots of any political strife between today’s rich and powerful Western bloc, and the so-called “third,” or “developing” world.

According to this premise, there is no need to study the roots of any conflict in depth, or to try and solve it along culturally informed lines, because purveyors of the “clash of civilizations” view see only a black and white scenario; two competing world views, two competing non-negotiable value systems. The West is seen as being good, right, and culturally advanced. Everyone who differs with it, militarily or politically, is seen as evil, wrong, and less-evolved.

Clearly, the “clash of civilizations” is a racist theory and Muslims should categorically reject it. Muslims also should not buy into the parallel theory that more than one civilization can be happening on earth at any given time; the idea of coexisting civilizations is purely in the realm of science-fiction, an obvious trap for anyone who fails to think deeply about who we all are as human beings.

While our own ancestors in Qurtuba, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus made enduring and substantial contributions to today’s modern civilization, remember that the ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, India, and China also did so.

We Muslims are shareholders in today’s civilization. Too many of us may be passive shareholders, but we are nevertheless part of the big picture. The problem is that we are not developing our cultural investment in the world. Too few Muslims are leading today’s civilization. We desperately need more and better leadership, leadership born of a renewed global Muslim Ummah that truly lives Islam. And it is not an optional choice. Living Islam is who and what we are. Without it, one may be breathing and biologically alive, yet spiritually dead.

How can we demonstrate that living Islam is both good for us and others? The key is to live by example, showing the world that when Muslims truly live Islam, it benefits everyone. Fortunately, Muslims have been blessed with excellent tools to help and guide the individual to live Islam fully. We have the science and discipline of Sufism, for example.

We have the three levels of living Islam; to know, to love, and to serve. The first step is about coming to know God — through divine creations, one’s own being, the purpose of our life on earth, our life after physical death, and our final destination in oneness with God. The second step is coming to love God — again through the wonder of divine creations, one’s own being, in the sacred gift of life, and in meeting God through our daily activities and awareness. Finally, the third step is to learn to serve God — in preserving and  respecting all of creation, in caring for others and oneself, in giving God our daily praise and prayer.

The order in which we learn these steps is very important, for one cannot love someone who is unknown, nor can anyone genuinely serve someone they do not love. Ideally, however, the steps of knowing, loving and serving should be pursued in parallel, so that even as imperfect human beings, we can always be in the blessed state of knowing a little, loving a little, and serving a little.

This is the way we Muslims can actively be part of today’s civilization, our civilization.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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