Culture Outlook

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

June 7, 2020


Freedom is thus not just an illusion in people’s minds. It is a fundamental law that awareness of choice increases when more knowledge is acquired about nature, cosmos, and society. The more people learn about the laws of objective reality the better they are equipped to make informed decisions. In order to decide, for example, whether to carry out a complicated surgical operation on the heart or not, one has to have thorough knowledge of the way a heart functions, the physiology of organs, the circulation of the blood, and so forth; the more we expand our knowledge in this area and the more we learn about the organ’s functions and its structure, the more freedom we possess in deciding whether to proceed with the heart operation or not (= a choice between affirmation and rejection). Herein lies the importance of research institutes in the natural sciences and their pivotal role in studying the constitution and function of the human body, coupled with their duty to teach people their research results, thus enabling individuals to make the right decisions.

What does a culture or civilization look like that does not acknowledge the concept of freedom (as we have defined it) and how can we explain the absence of freedom in Arab-Muslim societies? We begin to answer this question by stating that freedom has two dimensions:

it is personal/individual and collective/social. Personal freedom is manifested in the conscious decision of an individual, for example, to either eat (affirmation) or not to eat (rejection). The limits of such individual freedom are, however, restricted by nature and society. Human beings are by nature also social beings, and society is the collective assembly of individuals, defined by rationality. The individuals of a society are connected with one another by a collective sense of moral responsibility and sociopolitical duty that distinguishes human societies from the world of animals (because although animals assemble in herds and flocks they could never build complex organization’s such as nations or states). Whereas the behavior of animals is predominantly ruled by instinct, in human societies these instincts are curbed by ethical rules and civil contracts, for example, by the so-called mahram code that prohibits a man to marry his mother, sister, daughter, and paternal and maternal aunts, curbing the biological, indistinctive drive of his sexuality. Other moral and social duties, such as respect for parents, justice to orphans, a balanced distribution of inheritance, and such, which do not exist in the world of animals, are established norms in human societies in order to foster civility and morality. These civilizational achievements have been acquired over a long period of time during human evolution.

In this process, human societies have gradually moved away from the world of animals because now civility and morality regulate the social behavior of society’s citizens and not animalistic urges of instinct and desire.

An awareness of personal freedom is necessary in order to develop an acceptance of the notion of democracy which is the political expression for the existence of individual freedom. Democracy signals the existence of freedom of thought and expression that individuals enjoy in any given society. It also indicates a higher amount of social and moral responsibility among its members, and a healthier atmosphere of care, compassion, and sympathy. If a country wants to achieve such a healthy state of mutual solidarity it has to give democracy an important place in its political life and facilitate it with an authority that is intellectually and morally supported by all members of society. Such an authority does not exist in the Arab-Muslim world.

Democracy is not truly embedded in the political consciousness of Arab Muslims. But we should not forget that we live in a region full of traditional customs and traditions that existed long before Muhammad’s mission had arrived, that is, long enough to have had a stronger impact on the people’s mind (until today) than the message of the Book. Before Muhammad called for a new social consciousness, ancient Arab society promoted an excessive form of individualism, much more so than any other culture that existed at that time. Arab Bedouin culture nourished a very individualistic concept of freedom. This individualism has ruled in our political consciousness ever since, in spite of Muhammad’s mission to abolish it. It has caused the absence of democracy in our culture because individualist ideologies suppressed the collective-social consciousness which any form of democratic culture would require. This is manifest in the victory of egotism, a consciousness of ‘I’, among the Arabs, in terms of political decision-making, and in the absence of a consciousness of ‘us’. This, in turn, has generated a culture of political despotism which has become deep-rooted in the Arab-Muslim world.

Arab culture consists of societies that are ‘built on sand’, in the sense that they are built upon millions of individual grains of sand totally isolated and unsupportive of one another. This is in stark contrast to European societies which are based on a widely shared sense of social and moral responsibility, solidarity, and national unity. Democracy has become strongly rooted in their societies which, as a result, show a remarkable degree of wealth, education, and economic strength.

Muhammad’s mission confronted the existing Bedouin society with the challenge of a new type of centralized state unique in the history of Arabia. This state was based on tauhid, representing the first pillar of Islam, complemented by the belief in Muhammad as Allah’s Messenger, representing the first pillar of Eman. During Muhammad’s lifetime, the distinction was fiercely protected, on the one hand, between Islam, which began with Noah and which was perfected by Muhammad, and on the other hand, Eman, embodied in Muhammad’s messengerhood and its instructions for prayer, zakat, fasting, pilgrimage, shura consultation, and Jihad in God’s way.

Soon after the Prophet’s death this distinction gradually disappeared, which had disastrous effects on the political culture in the Arab-Muslim world. Through the ill-fated fusion of Islam and Eman, the central (universal) concepts of Islam remained semantically imprisoned within the culture of seventh-century Arabia as they were kept inside the compound of Eman. The interpretation of the term ‘mosque’ (masjid ), for example, is today entirely dominated by the semantic constraints of Eman, as it is defined as the place where people perform ritual prayers five times a day, celebrate festivals, and listen to sermons from state-employed preachers who recite an oath of allegiance to the ruler of the country. In short, everything that is associated with the Emanic term al-jami’, the communal place of worship for the followers of Muhammad, the Muslim-Believers, and which is under the control of the state authorities.

And yet, according to the Book, a mosque is an Islamic term and refers in general to a place where God is remembered and where one calls upon all Muslim-Assenters to follow Him, that is, a place of universal Islam (referring to no building in particular but to places where people assent to God’). Today, we see signs of a very welcome return to the mosque’s original function as the Book defines it. It had never fully disappeared but it was buried under centuries of exclusive usage for Eman when mosques were turned into big prayer halls.