Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Islamic World as an Alien "Other" (Part 1)

The assumption of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is that intelligent aliens are sure to be as interested in us as we will be in them. I wonder what thought went into this optimism. When Europeans first entered the Arab East they were interested in what they found, but the Arabs were not [interested in the Europeans]. “. . . these contacts, fruitful for the West” Bernard Lewis writes on page 165 of The Arabs in History, “had little effect on the [Arabs]”

“The geographical and historical literature of the mediaeval Arabs reflects their complete lack of interest in western Europe, which they regarded as an outer darkness of barbarism from which the sunlit world of Islam had little to fear and less to learn.”

The tenth century geographer, Mas’udi [who may have been Turkish, but his view would probably have been common], wrote, “The people of the north are those for whom the sun is distant from the Zenith . . . cold and damp prevail in those regions, and snow and ice follow one another in endless succession. The warm humour is lacking among them; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull and their tongues heavy . . . their religious beliefs lack solidity . . . those of them who are farthest to the north are the most subject to stupidity, grossness and brutishness.”

But the Arabs through successive defeats by the Mongols and Turks, lost their position of eminence long before Europeans arrived in the Arab East in power. “As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleon, when he invaded Egypt tried unsuccessfully to appoint Arabic-speaking Egyptians to positions of authority and was forced to resort to Turks who alone could command obedience.” [page 159]

The Arabs and Arabic language are intertwined in Arabic thinking and it is thanks to Christian missionaries that the Arabic language regained a position of prominence. “The most active of the missionaries in the Arab world were the French Jesuits and the American Protestant Mission, who maintained schools and colleges in Syria. They established Arabic printing-presses and printed many books, restoring to the Arabs their half-forgotten classics and translating for them some of the sources of Western knowledge. They trained a new generation of Arabs, at once more conscious of their Arab heritage and more affected by European influences.”

Lewis writes [page 172] that the class educated by the Missionaries was not large, “But this new class spoke and wrote in Arabic. Mission-educated Syrian Christians established newspapers and periodicals in Egypt as well as Syria, and reached a wider public as more and more of the population were affected by economic and social change.”

Interestingly, the Arab language, still cannot readily be accommodated to certain elements of Western thought. Von Grunebaum, on page 182 of Modern Islam, the Search for Cultural Identity writes, “The difficulties in translating, say, historical or sociological literature into Arabic have not yet been completely eliminated [as of the mid 1950s] – for this the lexicographical gaps in idiom less than the propensity of the stylistic conventions of Western languages to elude Arabic syntax bear the blame.” And is this not consistent with the Arabs lack of interest in the West. History and sociology grew of the Western propensity of soul-searching, for looking inward. Why should the Arabs care about Westerners soul-searching? They had their own ways of getting through life and they didn’t include Western style historical or sociological self-examination.

As indication of the Arab approach, Von Grunebaum quotes from a speech made on December 15, 1957 by the Egyptian President Gamal Abd an-Nasir addressing the participants in the Third Congress of Arab Writers: “We need unanimity of thought in order to strengthen our solidarity and to shore up Arab national sentiment. Just as indispensable for us in this territory, in this arena of the cold war in which all weapons are employed, is intellectual liberation; literature and ideas are key weapons in this war. As leaders of thought you have a momentous duty to perform which consists of illuminating the facts and crating an arabic literature which is liberated and autonomous, released from foreign domination and influence.”

The inconsistency in Nasser’s charge was apparently as unnoticed by him as it was by those who heard him. How could this not be true when we still see evidence of the same sort of thinking coming from the Arab press. They seek the solidarity, the unanimity of the umma and this would be consistent with Muhammad’s teaching in the Koran, but this is inimical to “intellectual liberation”. One cannot be like all the rest of the umma and intellectually liberated at the same time.

(continued in part 2)

Lawrence Helm

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