Let me begin with civilisation. A British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, once said ‘civilisation was born out of the pursuit of luxury’. Because luxury was pursued you ended up with great works, music, the Palace of Versailles, the Taj Mahal etc. Then much closer to our times you had civilisation interpreted more in economic terms, and you had Adam Smith virtually who said that civilisation, or at least Western civilisation was born out of the pursuit of profit. And then also closer to our times Karl Marx saw civilisation and the march of history as borne out of the pursuit of surplus.
I will propose a slightly different idea in this lecture: that civilisation was born out of the pursuit of creative synthesis. The synthesis may be between ethics and knowledge, between religion and science, between one culture and another. The central dynamic is creative synthesis.
We also start therefore in this lecture from the premise that Islam was at its most creative when it was ready to synhthesise between ethics and knowledge, between religion and science and between Islam and other cultures.
Doctrinally Islam became a synthesis of three religions: Judaism, Christanity and the message of Mohammed (pbuh).There is a lot about the Torah and of the Old Testament in the Quran and the substantial recognition of the Jewish prophets. There is a lot from the New Testament in the Quran, from the virgin birth of Jesus, to his sacred miracles. And then there are the contributions of the Prophet Mohammed himself and his own times in Mecca and Medinah. Islam as a civilisation began as creative synthesis.
Between the 9th and 14th centuries Islamic civilisation also demonstrated a high capacity for scientific and technological synthesis. Just as Islam had been receptive to Judaism and Christanity in the sphere of religious doctrine it demonstrated receptivity to ancient Greece in the secular field. Enter people like Ibn Rushd in
26 - 98 CE. Many regard Ibn Rushd not just as a confirmed Muslim but Aristotelean as well as being an early Muslim convert to the conclusion that the world was round.
Ibn Sina 980 - 1037 CE wrote extensive commentaries on Greek philosophers. Many have interpreted Ibn Sina as being in some senses neo-Platonic in many of his dimensions. He is credited with the single most important medical work of medieval times, which is itself a synthesis: The Canon of Medicine which became a standard medical reference book at European universities until well into the 17th century. So Islam has learned from ancient Greece and educating medieval Europe.
Civilisation as a process of creative cultural synthesis was unfolded. Fioloblia and Filoscience have preserved more than 100 of Ibn Sina’s works across cultures. Filobiblia is a love of books and Filoscience is a love of knowledge. Islamic filobiblia and filoscience go back to the first verses of the Quran. When those first verses were articulated the Prophet Mohammed did not realise, I would imagine, that these were the first words of what was destined to become the Quran and destined to become the most widely read book in its original language in human history. The bible became the most widely read book in translation. But every day of the week, today, yesterday and the day before yesterday, the Quran is ready in its original Arabic by millions of worshippers across the world. When those simple first verses were proclaimed 14 centuries ago the stage was being set for a culture of reading - a civilisation of respect for knowledge.
What were the origins of this filoscience and filobiblia? Muslims believe that those first words from the Prophet Mohammed were indeed about knowledge and God’s first command to the prophet was the imperative iqra’a (read!). Those earliest Quranic verses linked the biological sciences with the sciences of the mind. Moreover by proclaiming that all knowledge is ultimately from God warned of the arrogance or pseudo omissions among humans. Science was morally accountable. So we were told by Quran "read in the name of thy Lord who created man out of a mere drop of congealed blood. Read and they Lord is most bountiful. He who has taught by the pen men which they knew not, yet man doth transgress in that he looketh upon himself verily to the Lord, the final arbiter."
So God taught by the pen and used the pen in doing so. And the pen today could be interpreted as the computer. God taught human beings what they did not know and these were absolutely the very first verses of the Quran. They were about knowledge and a warning against ignorance. They were therefore a respect for skill.
Today more than ever we know that power resides not among those who own what, in spite of Karl Marx, but among those who know. The first verses of the Quran were a prophecy of the triumph of knowledge and the potential tyranny of skill. The first verses of the Quran have echoed across the centuries since the first pronouncement of Islam, directed at acquisition of knowledge as the basis of ultimate creative synthesis.
The Muslim world in the 21st century is likely to be one of the battle grounds of the forces of globalisation, for better or for worse. The phenomenon of globalisation has its winners and losers. In the initial phases Africa and much of the Muslim world have already been the losers. It has been increasingly shown that we are paying the price. There are universities in the United States which have more computers than computers available in the whole of Bangladesh or Senegal. This has been the great digital divide. The distinction between the haves and the have-nots has now coincided with the distinction between the digitilised and the deprived or the de-digitilised. So let us begin with the challenge of a definition. What is this globalisation? At one level it consists of processes that lead to global interdependence and the increasing rapidity of exchange across vast distances. As we begin the new millennium it has acquired three different distinct meanings:
1) Information meaning of globalisation:
Forces which are transforming the information pattern of the world and creating the beginnings of what has been called the information super highway. Expanding access to data and mobilising the computer and the internet into global service. Is the Muslim world marginalised under this definition of globalisation
2) The economic definition of globalisation:
Forces which are transforming the global market and creating new economic interdependencies across vast distances. Africa and the Muslim world are of course affected but not central. It is possible that parts of the Muslim world are not central to this economic sense of globalisation. Why? Because very often they produce petroleum which has entered the engines of the economic side of globalisation.
3) The third meaning of globalisation is comprehensive:
All forces which are turning the world into a global village, compressing distance, homoginising culture, accelerating mobility and reducing the relevance of political borders. Under this comprehensive definition, globalisation is the gradual villagisation of the world. These forces have been at work in the Muslim world and in the rest of the globe for a long time. The word may be new but this sense of globalisation is old.
For the comprehensive sense of globalisation four forces have been major engines of globalisation: religion, technology, economy and empire. These have not necessarily acted separately. On the contrary they have often reinforced each other. For example the globalisation of Christanity started with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in 313CE. The religious conversion of an emperor started the process under which Christanity became the dominant religion not only of Europe but also of many other societies which Europe later ruled.
The globalisation of Islam began not with converting a ready made empire but with building an empire almost from scratch. The Ummayads and the Abbbasids put together bits of other people’s empires - former Byzantium, Egypt and Persia and created a whole new civilisation. The forces of Christianty and Islam have sometimes clashed. The two religions in the expansionist movement have themselves contributed to globalisation in the comprehensive sense.
Voyages of exploration have been another stage in the process of exploration. Muslim seafarers travelled the east but missed their chance westwards. Europe moved both east and west. Vaso de Gama and Christopher Columbus opened up a whole new chapter in the history of globalisation. Economy and empire were the major motives. There followed the migration of people.
Islam on the Receivng Side:
I am prepared to learn from Aristotle. I am prepared to learn how other cultures are doing and then to look afresh at my Islamic culture and see how it does. My father was polygamous. I don’t say this in a censorious family. I did not live in an oppressive extended family. The part I remember is that my father wanted me with him all the time: both when he was with my biological mother and with his other wife. I was therefore with both women whenever he was with them. The other woman treated me as her own child. The point I am raising is not whether there is an objection to polygamy.
We can discuss this if you wish. The point I am making is that my father died a long time ago. The second woman, who is not my biological mother, is still alive today. And I love her. And so do my children. And I take them to her and they tell me she looks much younger than me and although I protest I have to agree with them. This is my second mother and from the day I started earning my first pound one of my obligations included my other mother. My father died in 1947. This loyalty continued to the present day. I think it is a combination in my case of two cultures: my Islam and my Africanism where you maintain loyalties beyond the life of the father. The extended family is real.
So constructing the next civilisation is not just the pursuit of luxury as Bertrand Russel has said. It is not just the pursuit of surplus that Karl Marx tried to convince us. Civilisation was not born out of the pursuit of profits as Adam Smith told us. There are other things that include creative synthesis even in family relations and there are rules of family from culture which need to be made available to the next set of standards in the future.
I would like to believe that in Islamic culture and in African culture there are family rules which are still being followed today and which mightbenefit the West as well. And if there is a civilisation to be reconstructed that is one element that these at the moment endangered civilisations, in the face of Western power, can contribute towards moderating some of the tyrannies of triumphalism. Thank you very much.
Prof. Mazrui delivered this speech at Westminister University in London on September 3, 2000.