The Spirit of West

Cont’d from previous issue

Whatever was best in the culture of old Greece and the later Hellenistic period the Arabs had revived in their learning and improved upon in the centuries that followed the establishment of the early Islamic Empire. I do not say that the absorption of Hellenistic thought was an undisputed benefit for the Arabs, and the Muslims at large, —because it was not. But for all the difficulties which this revived Hellenistic culture may have caused to the development of Muslims in a truly Islamic sense, it acted, through the Arabs, as an immense stimulus for Europe. The Middle Ages had laid waste Europe's productive forces. Sciences were stagnant, superstition reigned supreme, the social life was primitive and crude to an extent hardly conceivable to-day. At that point the cultural influence of the Islamic World—at first through the adventure of the Crusades in the East and the brilliant universities of Muslim Spain in the West, and later through the growing com­mercial relations established by the republics of Genoa and Venice—began to hammer at the bolted doors of the European Civilisation. Before the dazzled eyes of the European scholars and thinkers another civilisation appeared—refined, progressive, full of passionate life and in possession of cultural treasures which were long ago lost and forgotten in Europe. But what the Arabs did was far more than a mere revival of old Greece. They created an entirely new scientific world of their own, they found and developed new avenues of research and philosophy. All this they communicated through different channels to the Western World. It is not too much to say that the modern scientific age in which at present we are living was not inaugurated in the cities of Christian Europe, but in the Islamic centres of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova.

The effect of these influences on Europe was tremendous. With the approach of the Islamic Civilisation a new intellectual light dawned on the skies of the West and infused it with fresh life and thirst for progress. It was no more than a just appreciation of its value that European history termed the period of regeneration which resulted of the invigorating contact with the Islamic culture, the Renaissance—that is, " re-birth. " It was a re-birth of Europe, in fact, and nothing less.

The rejuvenating currents emanating from the Islamic World enabled the best minds of Europe to fight with new strength against the disastrous supremacy of the Christian Church. In the begin­ning this contest had the outward appearance of reform movements which sprang up, almost simultaneously, in different European countries, with the object of adapting the Christian way of thinking to the new exigencies of life. They were sound and reasonable in their way, and, if they had met with real spiritual success, they might have produced a certain reconciliation between science and religious thought in Europe. But, as it happened, the wrong caused by the Church of the Middle Ages was already too far-reaching to be repaired by mere reformation which, moreover, quickly degene­rated into political struggles between interested groups. And as the decades and the centuries advanced, the spiritual hold of the Christian religious thought grew weaker and weaker, and in the 18th century the predominance of the Church was definitely swept overboard by the French Revolution and its cultural consequences in other countries.

At that time again it appeared as if a new spiritual civilisation, freed from the tyrannical gloom of the scholastical theology of the Middle Ages, had a chance of growth in Europe, In fact, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century we encounter some of the best and spiritually most powerful European personalities in the domain of philosophy, literature and music. But this new spiritual, religious conception of life was and remained restricted to a few individuals. The great European masses, after having been for such a long time imprisoned in religious dogmas which had no connection with the natural endeav­ours of man, could not, and would not, once those chains were broken, find their way back to a religious orientation so soon.

Perhaps the most important factor which pre­vented Europe's religious regeneration was the current conception of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Philosophically minded Christians, of course, never took this idea of sonship in its literal sense ; they understood by it a manifestation of God's Mercy in human form. But, unfortunately, not every one has a philosophical mind. For the overwhelming majority of Christians the expression " son " assumed a very direct meaning, although there was always a mystical flavour attached to it. For them, Christ's sonship of God quite naturally led to an anthro-pomorphisation of God Himself, who assumed the shape of a benignant old man with white flowing beard: and this shape, perpetuated by innumerable paintings of high artistic value, remained impressed upon the European's subconscious mind. During the time when the dogma of the Church reigned supreme in Europe, there was not much inclination to question this strange conception. But, with the intellectual shackles of the Middle Ages once broken, the thinking among the Europeans could dot reconcile themselves to a humanised God-Father; on the other hand, this anthropomor-phisation had become a standing factor in the popular conception of God. After a period of enlightenment, Europe instinctively shrunk back from the conception of God as presented in the teachings of the Church: and as this was the only conception to which it had been accustomed, it rejected the very idea of God, and with it, religion.

In addition to this, the beginning of the indust­rial era with its glamour of a stupendous material progress directed men towards new interests, and thus contributed to the subsequent religious vacuum of Europe. In this vacuum the development of the Western Civilisation took a tragic turn—tragic from the view point of one who regards religion as the strongest reality in human life. Freed from its former serfdom towards Christianity, the European mind in the 19th and 20th centuries overstepped the limit and settled itself, by degrees, into a decided antagonism against any form of spiritual claim upon man. Out of the subconscious fear of being once overwhelmed by forces claiming spiritual authority, Europe has become the champion of everything anti-religious in principle and action. It has returned to its Roman inheritance.

One cannot be blamed for the contention that it was not a potential superiority of the Christian religion over other creeds which enabled the West to attain its brilliant material achievements, because those achievements are due to the opposition of Europe's intellectual forces against the very principles of the Christian Church. The materialist conception of life is Europe's revenge on Christian spirituality which went astray from the natural truths of life.

It is not within our scope to go deeper into the private relations between Christianity and the modern Western Civilisation. I have only tried to show three of the reasons, perhaps the main reasons, why that civilisation is so thoroughly anti-religious in its conceptions and methods: one is the inheri­tance of the Roman Civilisation with its utterly materialistic attitude as regards human life and its inherent value; another, the revolt of the human nature against the Christian world-contempt and the suppression of natural desires and legitimate endeavours of man; and, lastly, the anthropomorphic conception of God. This revolt was entirely successful—so successful that the various Christian sects and churches were gradually compelled to adjust some of their doctrines to the changed social and intellectual conditions of Europe. Instead of influencing and shaping the social life of its adhe­rents, as is the primary duty of religion, Christianity has resigned itself to the role of a tolerated convention and a garb for political enterprises. For the masses it has to-day only a formal meaning, as was the case with the gods of ancient Rome, which were neither allowed nor supposed to exert any real influence upon society. No doubt, there are still many individuals in the West who feel and think in a religious way and make the most desperate efforts to reconcile their beliefs with the spirit of their civilisation,—but they are exceptions only. The average European—he may be a Democrat or a Fascist, a Capitalist or a Bolshevik, a manual worker or an intellectual—knows only one positive " religion," and that is the worship of material progress, the belief that there is no other goal in life than to make that very life continually easier or, as the current expression goes, "independent of Nature." The temples of this "religion" are the gigantic factories, cinemas, chemical laboratories, dancing halls, hydroelectric works; and its priests are bankers, engineers, film-stars, captains of industry, record-airmen. The unavoidable result of this craving after power and pleasure is the creation of hostile groups armed to the teeth and determined to destroy each other whenever and wherever their respective interests come to a clash. And on the cultural side the result is the creation of a human type whose morality is confined to the question of practical utility alone, and whose highest criterion between good and evil is the material success.

In the profound transformation the social life of the West is at present undergoing, that new, mechanised society which has a tendency to abolish all privileges of one individual over another, and— in the logical development of this idea—also the privileges caused by family relationship; and the old relation between father and son is becoming obsolete.

Parallel to this goes the progressive dissolution of the so-called "old sexual morality." Sexual fidelity and discipline are quickly becoming a thing of the past in the modern West, because they were enforced by ethics alone: and ethical considerations have no tangible, immediate influence on the material well-being of society. So the place of the "old," ethical, morality endorsed by religion is gradually being taken by the "new" Western morality which proclaims the unrestricted individual freedom of the human body. Ethical discipline and control of sexual relations are rapidly losing their importance. The only possible restriction in future will be, at the best, derived from considera­tions of demography and eugenics.

It is not without interest to observe how both these changes—the one concerning the relations between children and parents, and the other concerning the relations between the sexes—have been brought to their logical climax in Soviet

Russia, which, on her cultural side, does not repre­sent a development essentially different from the rest of the Western World. On the contrary, it seems that the Communist experiment is nothing else but of the culmination and the beginning of the fulfilment those decidedly anti-religious and—ultimately —anti-spiritual tendencies of the modern Western Civilisation. It may even be that the present sharp antagonism between the Capitalistic West and Bolshevism is, at its root, only due to the different pace at which those essentially parallel movements are progressing towards their ultimate goal. Their inner similarity will, no doubt, become more and more pronounced in future; but even now it is visible in the fundamental tendency of both the Western Capitalism and Bolshevism, to surrender the spiritual individuality of man and his ethical morality to the purely material requirements of a collective machinery called " society, " in which the individual is but a cog in a wheel.

The only possible conclusion is, that a civilisation of this kind must be a deadly poison for any culture based on religious values. Our original question, whether it is possible to adapt the Islamic way of thinking and living to the exigencies of the Western Civilisation, and vice versa, must be answered in the negative. In Islam, the first and foremost goal is the inner, moral progress of man, and therefore the ethical considerations overrule the purely utilitarian. In the modern Western Civilisation the situation is just reversed. The consideration of material utility dominates all manifestations of human activity, and ethics are being relegated to an obscure background of life and condemned to a merely theoretical existence without the slightest power of influencing the human community. Their very existence, under such circumstances, is a hypocrisy; and thus the intellectually decent among the modern European thinkers are subjectively justified if, in their speculations on the social destinies of the Western Civilisation, they avoid any allusion to transcendental ethics. With the less decent—that is, with those who are less clearly defined in their moral attitude—the conception of transcendental ethics survives as an irrational factor of thought, much in the same way as the mathematician is obliged to operate with certain "irrational" numbers which represent in themselves nothing tangible, but are, none the less, required to bridge the gaps of imagination due to the structural limitations of the human mind.

Such an evasive attitude towards ethics is certainly incompatible with a religious orientation ; and, therefore, the very foundations of the modern Western Civilisation are incompatible with Islam. This should in no way preclude the possibility of Muslims receiving from the West certain impulses in the domain of exact and applied sciences; but their cultural relations should begin and end at that point. To go further and to imitate the Western Civilisation in its spirit, its mode of life and its social organisation is impossible without dealing a fatal blow to the very existence of Islam as a theocratic polity and a practical religion.