Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
.
>>   Unpublished Articles
TAGS: Interfaith dialogue; Islam; Modernity
LOCATIONS: Iran (documents)
> add tags
Abstract:
On the broader intellectual context for the emergence of the Baha'i Faith in 19th century Iran and its subsequent engagement with Western modernity.
Notes:
Paper presented at the Law and Politics ABS-UK conference in Cambridge University, 2013.

Religion, Modernity and the "Clash of Civilisations":
Context and Prospects

by Ismael Velasco

2013
The global search for identity

As the 19th century approached its term, Nietzsche's madman was pondering the death of God, and coming face to face with the awesome puzzle of its aftermath:

'Who', he wrote, 'gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Wither is it moving now? Wither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?' [1]

His lone, demented voice had in fact visioned the shape of things to come:

'For some time now we have realized it:' Italo Calvino would advert many decades later, 'the storeroom of humanity's accumulated materials ñ mechanisms, machines, merchandises, markets, institutions, documents, poems, emblems, photograms, opera picta, arts and trades, encyclopedias, cosmologies, grammars, places and figures of speech, ties of kinship, tribe and enterprise, myths and rituals, operational models ñ no way remains to keep them in order. ...All the parameters, the categories, the antitheses, that had served to imagine, classify and project the world, are up for discussion. And not only those closest to historic attributions of values: the rational and the mythic, to work and to exist, masculine and feminine, and even the poles of more elementary topologies, like affirmation and negation, the tall and the short, the living and the thing.'[2]

It should not surprise that such conditions should have a profoundly destabilising effect not only on our societies but on our very notions of self, engendering what Appadurai describes as a 'new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities'.[3] Even as Nietszche was writing in the West his apocalyptic proclamations of God's murder, in the East Bahá'u'lláh was declaring in richly symbolic language:

'The heaven of every religion hath been rent, and the earth of human understanding been cleft asunder... The mountains have passed away, and the heavens have been folded together... We see men drunken in this Day, the Day in which men and angels have been gathered together.'[4]

Such processes and collapses, the passing away of such firmly established mountains, such rendings or implosions of seemingly reified schemas, disclose on the one hand possibilities for more inclusive and harmonious interpretations of the grand narratives that ordered for centuries our sense of ourselves and of others, enabling unprecedented degrees of cross-cultural insight and participation in shared meaning. On the other hand, the selfsame speed and nature of these changes furnishes fresh incentives for cultural conflict, for entrenchment in ever hardening identities to serve as barricades to hold the tide of cultural relativism, 'where meanings, in a chaotic pattern rather than neatly ordered, are of necessity relativised to one another'.[5]

This is perhaps nowhere more so than in the religious sphere, as the Universal House of Justice most recently highlighted:

'the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.

'The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.'[6]

'As it turns out,' reflects Donald Kalb, 'globality can foster both, an ecumenical humanism or the fundamentalist rejection of just that', and what we are left with is a fundamental uncertainty in our identities. Identity has become a fragmented, fissiparous space, and we are confronted with the spectacle of a planet seeking for itself, its gender, its ethnicity, its religion or want of it, seeking everywhere, questioning everything, clinging to landmarks of once coherent, or more coherent selves, like another madman, this time not Nietzche's but Nizami's, the Majnun of Persian lore:

'one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, "What doest thou?" He said, "I seek for Layli." They cried, "Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!" He said, "I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her."[7]

'Indeed,' Kalb remarks, 'the cultural economy that marks the global age revives all sorts of identity-movements, in particular those associated with religion and ethnicity'. [8] Sometimes the processes of this search for identity are powerfully ennobling, as in the victory against apartheid or the global interfaith movement, whilst at other times, as in the case of ethnic cleansing or religious intolerance, the pursuit of identity degrades the human spirit. In particular, while identity-movements based on ethnicity have been gathering momentum throughout the 20th century, the 21st century appears set to become a period where identity-movements based on religion take centre stage.

Nor were observers, - even (or perhaps particularly) the most influential - expecting such a denouement to the seemingly indisputable death of God. 'This', political scientists recognise, 'is a new phenomenon... Instead of the Weberian iron cage and the progressive disenchantment of the world that was supposed to be congruent with modernization within the nation-state framework, we now face the spread of religion, ethnicity, and identity politics [where] ... an as yet unknown and inflammatory cultural politics is produced, a politics of difference that cannot be contained within the 'cordon sanitaire' of the inevitably homogenizing modern nation-state.'[9]

It may indeed be true, in a mythic way, that in the course of the 19th century, 'we killed God' as Nietzche so percipiently observed;[10] as the process of expunging the sacred from the narrative of modernity, begun long before, was all but completed by the time 'the age of extremes' opened in the twentieth century.[11]

But in religious consciousness this was not the first time God had been killed, and those times too the deed proved to be very far from final. In the Christian mythos for example such a cosmic act had already been perpetrated once in Jesus" crucifixion. This did not for Christians prove to be the end of God, but rather a temporary obscuration, which at the term of a mere 'three days' led Jesus" followers to declare His resurrection, and the society that had discounted Him to reappraise the situation ñ as it perplexingly discovered the resurgence of an apparently moribund Christianity on a scale and vitality hitherto undreamt and inconceivable. It likewise would seem that the much later murder of God whose perpetration Nietzsche recorded with a mixture of exhilaration and dismay, turns out to have been but a preliminary - and 'after three days' God appears as strong as ever in Touraine's fractious and disturbing 'return of the religious'[12] into the consciousness, if not yet the language of modernity.

This return has not, indeed, been uncomplicated or harmonious. On the contrary, 'inflammatory cultural politics' increasingly characterise our discourses on religious identity, tragically illustrated in the iconic moment of September 11, 2001. In this connection, I would like to explore here one of the most visible, if not the most visible and far reaching expression of such contemporary 'inflammatory cultural politics', and place it in the context of the intellectual history of the West. I refer to the so-called 'clash of civilizations', purveyed by academics, the media, politicians, preachers and mujahidin the world over as a contest between Islam and the West, looking set to replace the Cold War as the overarching myth of global cultural politics.[13]

'Western modernity' as a hegemonic construct

Before weaving an essay that amounts to an interpretive grand narrative, I would like to introduce a rather large disclaimer. I will use repeatedly such contested and plural terms as Western, Islamic, Modernity, Premodern and the like, that should engender suspicion in any competent historian. I do so in full sympathy with Clifford Geertz' appeal, expounded by Don Kalb, to develop 'a deep aversion against the use of essentializing common-places such as Confucian ethics, Muslim mentality, the West, the Christian tradition, etc. Such concepts abstract from internal differences and dynamics and create the misplaced appearance of a polished reality ... Such units and principles should rather be seen as conglomerates of deeply different orientations and loyalties.' [14] My use of such concepts should be taken in this spirit, as "a step back in order to push forward", a rhetorical compromise in a narrative designed to challenge the illusion of homogeneity that these formulas, and in particular 'modernity', tend to evoke.

Although only now entering the global limelight, the cultural politics of today's so-called clash between Islam and the West have their roots in a contest for cultural hegemony which, at first confined to Islamic territory subject to Western colonialist ambitions, has in the aftermath of the Cold War expanded into the West's own frontiers through population flows, legal reform and terrorist action, and is fast emerging as one of the defining fault-lines of world order in the 21st century. Unlike the Cold War that defined the second half of the last century, this contest, hatched in the 19th century and come to roost at the opening of our own, is not primarily a competition for resources and their subsequent redistribution, although such concerns loom prominent, but a matter of identity, of managing the tensions inherent in competing value systems.

The very fact that, unlike the Cold War, there is a radical and in the medium term unbridgeable asymmetry of wealth, weaponry and technology between the protagonists should alert us to the fact that the Cold War model of competitive advantage, whereby the first Power to gain material supremacy would triumph, is unlikely to yield a resolution, even should resources be doubled or tripled. Likewise, the emergence of suicide as an aggressive weapon has made nonsense of the long-established strategy of detente by a system of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Arguably, not even the reduction in the social inequalities deriving from the above-mentioned asymmetries would be enough to diffuse these tensions - and could conceivably exacerbate them, as illustrated by Western fears over the emergence of a Shi"i Islamic state in 'reconstructed' Iraq, even by democratic means.

I would like in this paper to centre my attention on the Western construction of this encounter. The most recent chapters in the meeting of Islam with the West have often been portrayed as the former's encounter with modernity, about which a great deal has been written. What is seldom analysed with any subtlety, as if it was a self-evident category, is the Western construction of 'premodernity' and its encounter with it. Indeed, the very notion of the 'modern' is discontinuous, and today implies and even necessitates a 'pre-modern' period, even as in an earlier day it called for a 'medieval' one, about which more later. The point to stress here is that in the Western self-conception modernity is a teleological concept: specifically Western modernity is regarded as signalling 'the end' of premodernity, both as its grand finale and its inherent goal. The place of the medieval in the 19th century conception of modernity fully applies to the place ascribed to the 'premodern' in 21st century notions of the 'modern'. To illustrate, 'premodern' and 'medieval' could be used interchangeably in the following quote:

'It should not escape our attention that in this structuration the medieval [read premodern] simultaneously marks an outside (it is the not modern), a center (it is the cleavage of two moments), an origin (it is what the modern emerges from) and an end (a future imagined either as object of desire ...or object of fear'[15]

As Western colonial powers engaged with the non-Western world, particularly in the 19th century, this teleology was embedded into cross-cultural constructions in an arithmetic that went something like this:

    If: The West is Modern and other cultures are not Modern
    Then: Modernity means Western and Non-Western equals premodern

The logical conclusion to draw from such a formula is that Western culture, like modernity, was something universal, and that non-Western culture, in order to modernise, needed to Westernise. Fukuyama, sticking out his tongue at Marx from the complacence of post-Cold War triumphalism, even went as far as designating the increasingly dubious 'triumph of the West', as 'the end of history', only awaiting the unwritten epilogue of the Westernization of the remaining cultural and political backwaters of the world.[16]

It could be fair to say that Western discourses on modernity have often been culturally hegemonic ones, and that many of the tensions surrounding the debate around modernity reflect, not so much Huntigdon's essentialising 'clash of civilizations',[17] as the clashes of competing, shifting, and dynamic hegemonical discourses, be they champions of the Taliban or of free market liberalism. The faultline, in these cases, surely lies not so much in the evolving and changing contents and interpretations of modernities - as in their hegemonical and competing claims. Religious fundamentalism, for instance, often described as a response against modernity, is in fact a child of modernity and highly modern in its dynamic. Thus Karen Armstrong writes:

'The term "fundamentalism" ...gives the impression that fundamentalists are inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are essentially modern and highly innovative. The American Protestants may have intended to go back to the "fundamentals," but they did so in a peculiarly modern way'.[18]

Likewise, Marty, in the foundational and cross-cultural Chicago Fundamentalism Project, reports the international finding that 'fundamentalists demonstrate a closer affinity to modernism than to traditionalism'[19], and concludes that fundamentalism is not so much pre-modern, anti-modern, or simply traditional, but rather 'selective of their tradition and what part of modernity they accept or choose to react against'[20]

The challenge of religious fundamentalism, therefore, lies not so much in its conception of modernity, which is one, in broad terms, that could resonate with the conceptions of very many, 'modern', religious persons, as Scharbodt notes:

'Everybody who does not follow a secular, internalised and individualistic notion of religion, but regards religion as a social force as well tends to be a fundamentalist according to the criteria developed by some scholars. Most studies on fundamentalism reveal the secular bias of social sciences implying that one can be only religious and modern when one follows a secular and individualised kind of religiosity. Any attempt to make religion relevant to public life is implicitly understood as a counter-movement to modernity and as an expression of a fundamentalist attitude.'[21]

If modernity can accommodate a wide range of religious orientations, as it demonstrably does, including such orientations as consider religion of relevance to public life, the problem lies not so much in such plurality of worldviews, but rather in stances where visions and discourses of modernity, fundamentalist, liberal, communist or alternative, seek actively to become hegemonic, engendering resistance and contest. The humanities as well as the social sciences represent one critical area where hegemonical paradigms of identity can at once reify and be contested. The processes involved are among the questions that this paper seeks to raise. For without the gradual emergence of new, non-hegemonical, paradigms of identity East and West, global North and global South, going beyond, without rejecting, the heritage of parallel civilizations and cultural systems with equal claim to the contested territory of modernity, and in the face of the now indisputable reality of one single ecosystem imposing common adaptive challenges on all humanity, it seems difficult to see a resolution or even containment of conflicts driven by the reciprocal and inevitable encroachments on identity attendant on global information and demographic flows.[22] Rather one anticipates an exacerbation of these very tendencies towards social and political fragmentation and towards demands for restitution of intangibles like threatened values, pride, and familiarity.

'Western modernity' and the Islamic intellectual tradition

Historically, the notion of modernity emerged in juxtaposition to the likewise crystallising notion of 'medieval'. The rhetoric of modernity implied an actuality that was different from and an improvement upon the past. The use of the word 'modern' to signify a distinct and contemporary period was the culmination of a long trend. Petrarch had divided history into 'antiqua' and 'nova' without, however, giving to the latter term a sense of recency. Lynn Thorndyke traces the use of the word modern (denoting recent or contemporary times) to the heart of the middle ages: in 1050 Berengar of Tours was accused of "introducing ancient heresies in modern times"; in 1108 Hugh de Fleury wrote his Historia Moderna and in that same century John of Salisbury wrote that "the sayings of the ancients pleased their times; now only new ones please our times."[23] However, although the sense of the new and the recent is there, it is not used as a distinct chronological period juxtaposed to that of the Middle Ages. Cellarius, Ferguson maintains, writing in the second half of the seventeenth century, was in fact the first to advance a periodical model consisting of ancient, medieval, and modern times, crystallising the above mentioned tendencies. This new periodization gave expression on the one hand to the humanist conception of a period of intellectual decline dividing the efflorescence of classical Rome from the rebirth or renaissance brought about by the efforts of humanist scholars and artists in the 15th and 16th centuries; and on the other the Protestant concept of an early age of Christian purity followed by an era of corruption and error brought to an end with the recent Reformation. In addition, Cellarius' emphasis on the new scientific progress of the time as a distinctive element of his age instils into his concept of the modern, beyond the nostalgic theme of a return to the past associated with the Reformation and the Renaissance, a budding sense of progress.

What begins, then, to develop from the second half of the sixteenth century and would fully crystallise only in the 19th century,[24] is an understanding of the word 'medieval' which is essentially derogatory, denoting obscurantism, ignorance and corruption; existing in sharp distinction with a fundamentally positive usage of the word 'modern' which is closely linked with the concepts of rebirth and reform (conveying at once contemporaneity and a return to the past), as well as an emerging sense of human progress marked by scientific, political and cultural advance. The general trend from Bruni onwards, in an emerging, 'modernising' if not yet modern society, is, thus, an antitraditionalism that continued to gather momentum with each passing century and became increasingly embedded in Western constructions of modernity. It is important to remark that this turn was, in part, a reflection of the spirit of the classics which through the labours of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian translators, became a model for the protagonists of the Renaissance. As Nasr highlights in his Gifford Lectures: 'The process of desacralization of knowledge in the Occident begins already with the ancient Greeks among whom is the first instance of the rise of an antitraditional society'[25]

The dilemmas facing us begin to look different once we cease to see this Western trajectory towards modernity as the essential dynamic of progress, or Western civilization as the terminus quo of social and intellectual evolution. It is well known that in the Middle Ages the two cultural systems, Western Catholic and Eastern Muslim[26] were largely cognate, broadly sharing common scriptural roots, classical influences, scholastic methods, and philosophical problems. From the Renaissance on the use made of this heritage began to diverge. In the West, the budding concept of 'modernity' began to be defined as discontinuity, whereas in Islam evolution continued in broad cultural terms to pursue continuity with past tradition.

The development of an antitraditionalist, discontinuous culture does not really begin in the Middle East, in its fullness, until the 19th century (re)encounter with a West in the full swing of modernisation. Until then, even the most radical and original thinkers tended, as in the medieval West, to articulate their novel and even revolutionary paradigms in a rhetoric of continuity with or return to a more pristine tradition, rather than as innovation. Extreme innovation in religious, and by extension philosophical matters, known as bidah, was considered heretical. But this does not mean that Islamic intellectual culture stood still after the Middle Ages, its historical purpose accomplished in bringing its philosophical vitality and access to classical sources before Western medieval thinkers as one of the triggers of the Renaissance and one of the intellectual stimuli to Western modernity. Where modernity is equated with Westernisation, pre-modernity is seen as pre-Westernisation, and therefore all non-Western societies from the Middle Ages until the 20th century are seen as comparatively stagnant, backward or stalled, awaiting the salvific intervention of Western civilization in their lives. But such equations of modernity with Western civilization, or indeed with any particular civilization are fallacious, as cogently argued by David Gress in "The Drama of Western Identity":[27]

'science, democracy and capitalism ...may have arisen in the West (to be precise, in England and Holland) but are not in themselves bearers of a substantive culture. The very point of modernity is that it is universally applicable, hence does not belong to a particular culture... That modernity had a particular origin in a particular culture is something that has to be explained in terms of that culture, but the virtue of modernity is that, once invented, it is universal and does not require that other civilizations adopt the European form of culture that happened to serve modernity's cradle. ...First, modernity dissolves all existing civilizations and creates, in Baecheler's words, a matrix for future civilizations that do not yet exist. A fully modern world may have as many, or more, civilizations as did the premodern world because a civilization is not just a matter of democracy, science, and capitalism, but of ritual, manners, literature, pedagogy, family structure, and a particular way of coming to terms with what Christians call the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Modernity will not remove the basic human condition, to which each culture provides its own distinct answers. To repeat, modernity transforms all existing civilizations, including that of the West. It is not Westernization, but a universal change in the fundamental conditions of any and all civilizations... Technology and strategy may be powerful, pervasive, and universal, but by the same token they convey no fixed civilizational pattern, Western or otherwise. Likewise democracy and capitalism, as elements of modernity, do not equate to Westernization, because there is nothing necessarily Western about them, even though the West invented them."[28]

What follows from this is that so-called 'pre-modern' cultures are not Western-cultures-in-waiting, but rather cultures evolving within their own matrix along their own distinctive lines, refining their own answers to what Gress calls 'the basic human condition', the Christian's 'four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.' And so, from similar points of departure, expounded by Peter Brown in The World of Late Antiquity, the two cultural systems, Western and Islamic, began from the Middle Ages a process of parallel, and for three or four centuries, divergent evolution. This is best seen in the use that each civilization made of two crucial intercultural and philosophical bridges: Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The bifurcation of intellectual paths is well summed up by Nasr:

'Avicennian philosophy which was to serve in the Islamic world as the basis for the restatement of the sacramental function of knowledge and intellection by Suhrawardi and many later sages reached the West in only a truncated version and under a much more rationalistic garb. But even what did reach the West and led to what has been called Latin Avicenism never enjoyed the same popularity or influence as the more rationalistic Latin Averroism. Furthermore, even in the case of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who was much more rationalistic than Ibn Sina ...there is no doubt that again the Latin Averroes is more of a secularized and rationalistic philosopher than the original Ibn Rushd when read in Arabic. The study of the destiny of these two masters of Islamic philosophy in the Islamic and Christian worlds reveals to what extent the West was moving toward a more rationalistic interpretation of this philosophic school while the Islamic world was moving in the other direction to reaffirm the primacy of intellection over ratiocination. The appearance of Suhawardi and the school of illumination (al-ishraq) testifies to a new assertion of the sacred quality of knowledge and the ultimately 'illuminative' character of all knowledge in the Islamic intellectual universe.'[29]

So we have that, while philosophical thought in the West, behind the banner of modernity, pursued a path of discontinuity and antitraditionalism that involved the progressive de-sacralisation, de-mythologisation, and, in Weber's words, disenchantment of the world, the tenor of Islamic intellectual history until the 19th century, notable exceptions notwithstanding, is characterised by a rhetoric of continuity, sacralization, and preservation of the mythos of life before what Dress calls 'the basic human condition'. It would be at once arrogant and ethnocentric to dismiss the intellectual production of the eight and a half centuries that followed the death of Ibn Rushd before the encounter of Islam with modernity, mediated by Western colonialism, as an etcetera in intellectual history, or to regard its pre or non modern character as signifying syllogistically its effeteness or irrelevance. For the dilemmas of sacralisation, of meaning and purpose, of conviction and spirituality, the hermeneutics of the spirit, have not, it is certain, been 'outgrown' by the Western experience of modernity. If anything, they have intensified.

Indeed, if the tensions of identity that have, since 9/11, taken on a critical hue, are to be resolved, we must begin to grasp the significance and value of Islamic intellectual history after the Middle Ages, and likewise other intellectual histories with extended trajectories outside the grand narrative of Western modernity, and start to engage respectfully with their distinctive answers to 'the basic human condition'. To parody Islamic philosophy, for instance, as simply an outgrowth of medieval mindsets in the throes of an infant or abortive effort at Westernisation, where alone lies the key to its salvation and integration into modernity, is precisely to miss the significance of its formidable intellectual creation during the last eight centuries.

Policy and law as instruments of confronting evil

This brings us to the question of today's conference: the degree to which we can counter evil through law and policy. In the context of this paper, it may be uncontroversial to say, whatever one's political stance, that in the substantial loss and violation of innocent human lives inseparable from either Al Qaeda's 'Jihad on America'[30] or the US led 'War on Terror' with its special focus on 'Islamic radicalism', be it in the shape of terrorist incidents or 'collateral damage', of kidnappings or of prisoner abuse, a great deal of evil is being perpetrated under the banner of, or as a result from the politics of cultural conflict associated with the rhetoric of the 'clash of civilizations'. While international law and global guiding institutions have an undoubted role to play in curbing to a greater or lesser extent such unambiguous tragedies, it is suggested that they need to be buttressed by and buttress a much more far ranging change of values, a revision of the grand narratives that sustain and promote cultural conflict today, in the absence of which even the most rigorous and enlightened legislative framework, backed by criminal sanctions and effective powers of enforcement will prove inadequate to the challenge before us.

A clear example of this is the impact of the 1976 Race Relations Act in UK, one of the most robust, long-established, institutionally backed pieces of legislation in this field in the world, counting on the full resources of the British police and judiciary for its enforcement. Notwithstanding the milestone it undoubtedly represents in the history of race relations in that country, the signal it sends and the abuses it does redress, it is unarguable that as a means of combating the evil of racism it has proven, with all the legislators" best intentions and the most advanced expert advice behind its formulation, a dismally inadequate instrument in the fight against racism. Thus in the year 2000 a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that 9 out of 10 complaints of racial harassment to the police did not result in prosecution. In civil law the situation is not much different, and the scale of the disparity is indeed shocking: 40,000 incidents of racial abuse, harassment or discrimination resulted in 124 injunctions and 3 anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). If we add to this that the majority of such incidents go unreported, and those that are reported largely represent the culmination of a frequently protracted and painful history, we see that, for all its rigour, the Race Relations Act of 1976 is but a straw in the chill winds of racism, incapable of prosecuting, let alone preventing or diminishing its blight.

If this be so under such comparatively optimum legislative and policy conditions within a strong and democratic nation state, how much more impotent is law and policy likely to be in an area as politically and culturally fraught, as globally diffuse yet interconnected, as the cultural conflict associated with the 'war on terror'. Clearly, the mainsprings of conflict are deeper and wider than law and policy can touch, and demand a sympathetic and receptive re-evaluation of each other's cultural heritage, and an active, large-scale and systematic search for non-hegemonical modes of discourse.

The role of the Bahá'ís

The above reflections highlight the far-reaching, highly significant and now urgent implications of the mandate given to the Bahá'ís of the West in particular to serve as bridges to a sympathetic and accurate understanding of Islam in Western lands:

'The mission of the American Bahá'ís,' wrote Shoghi Effendi, 'is no doubt to eventually establish the truth of Islam in the West.'[31]

'There is so [much] misunderstanding about Islam in the West in general that you have to dispel. Your task is rather difficult and requires a good deal of erudition. Your chief task is to acquaint the friends with the pure teaching of the Prophet [Muhammad] as recorded in the Qur'án, and then to point out how these teachings have, throughout succeeding ages, influenced[,] nay[,] guided the course of human development. In other words you have to show the position and significance of Islam in the history of civilization.'[32]

It was in fact 'Abdu'l-Bahá who initiated this far-sighted and now critical process, promoting fearlessly, uncompromisingly, yet unconfrontationally and warmly, a richer understanding of Islam in His addresses to churches and synagogues in the first decade of the 20th century.[33] He had already written in a similar vein a sympathetic if far from slavish account of Western civilization in a Muslim context in His Secret of Divine Civilization, to bridge the cultural gap that a little over a century later has become one of the dominant notes of 21st century cultural politics.

It is suggested that this emphatic mandate to the Western Bahá'í community, most particularly in North America, to make the heritage of Islam understood and valued in the West, has potential implications far beyond interfaith understanding or a greater appreciation by Bahá'ís of the historic roots of their Faith. Rather, if undertaken with seriousness, rigor, and with a hermeneutic of reconciliation, such labours, from grassroots community activity to serious scholarly work and the formal and informal policy contributions of individuals such as are gathered at this conference, the foundations may in fact be laid for policy and law to achieve the capacity to genuinely impact on the evils that stem from entrenched, hegemonical and conflict ridden narratives stretching back for centuries.

'Arise' is Bahá'u'lláh's summons, 'and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.'[34]

'What cannot be morally justified' in the words of the Universal House of Justice, 'is the manipulation of cultural legacies that were intended to enrich spiritual experience, as a means to arouse prejudice and alienation. The primary task of the soul will always be to investigate reality, to live in accordance with the truths of which it becomes persuaded and to accord full respect to the efforts of others to do the same.'[35]

    Notes: (some not yet complete)

    [1] Friedrich Nietzche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), Random House, New York, 1974, section 125

    [2] Italo Calvino, 'La Mirada del arqueulogo', in Punto y Aparte: Ensayos sobre Literatura y Sociedad, Gabriela Sánchez Ferlosio (translator), Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 1995.

    [3] Appadurai

    [4] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 45

    [5] Cf. Robertson,pp.125-126; Kalb, p.3

    [6] The Universal House of Justice, To the World's Religious Leaders, April 2002, p. 2

    [7] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 5

    [8]

    [9] Kalb, expounding Appadurai, p.8

    [10] Friedrich Nietzche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), Random House, New York, 1974, section 125

    [11] Cf. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes

    [12] Cf. Alain Touraine

    [13] INSERT Bush in Mongolia

    [14] D. Kalb, Globalization and the Question of Cultural Identity, IWM Working Paper No.2/1998, Vienna, 1998, p. 14

    [15] R. Stein, op. cit.

    [16] F. Fukuyama, The End of History

    [17] Huntingdon, Foreign Affairs

    [18] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, p.

    [19] Marty, "Interim Report", p. 827. [italics in the original]

    [20] Chicago

    [21] Scharbrod

    [22] Cf. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large; cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, and Kalb's critique of the same in his above cited article.

    [23] Lynn Thorndyke, "Renaissance or Prenaissance?", in Dannenfeldt (ed.), "The Renaissance: Basic Interpretations", p.157

    [24] Cf Stein, op cit.

    [25] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, p.34

    [26] Both of these labels are approximations: The Muslim 'East' began in Spain, the Christian West was in no small measure shaped by the African St. Augustine of Hyppo. This is without taking account of the great Jewish contribution to both cultural systems.

    [27] D. Gress, The Drama of Western Identity" Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, vol.41, no.4, Fall, 1997, pp.525-544

    [28] Ibid., pp.525-527

    [29] Nassr, op. cit., pp.38-39

    [30] For an overview of this ideological banner see Christopher M. Blanchard, 'Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology', CRS Report for Congress, June 2005.

    [31] Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2nd rev. and enlarged edition, 1988, #1664.

    [32] Ibid., #1665

    [33] See for instances of such vindications in American churches and synagogues 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp.117, 126-128, 20, 346-347, 366-368, 409-410,

    [34] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p.217

    [35] The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 4

Back to:   Unpublished Articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
.
. .