At Al-Hewar Center

Philosopher and Professor Dr. Majid Fakhry Discusses

“The Dialogue of Civilizations and 
The Prospects for Peace: Islam and the West”  

On January 8, Al-Hewar Center hosted a discussion with Dr. Majid Fakhry, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at American University of Beirut, about “The Dialogue of Civilizations and the Prospects for Peace: Islam and the West.”  The event was moderated by Dr. Irfan Shaheed Professor of Arab and Islamic Literature at Georgetown University.  Dr. Fakhry’s presentation was followed by a stimulating dialogue with the audience.

Dr. Fakhry explored the validity of the theory of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, the best-known analysis of which is Samuel Huntington’s book of the same name.  Huntington’s basic premise, observed Dr. Fakhry, is that the fundamental source of conflict among humankind will occur along cultural, rather than ideological or economic lines. 

It is to be noted at the outset, said Fakhry, that, philosophically speaking, the advocates of the clash of civilizations theory sometimes promote it with an air of inevitability, making it sound like a law of the universe. Harking back to the past and focusing their attention on the present, those determinists or fatalists then engage in a dangerous game of prognosis, which bodes ill for the future of humanity, he said.

However, if we examine the concept of clash on a global scale, we will find that civilizations or cultures throughout history have tended to be cumulative, interactive, and outward-oriented, rather than bellicose, in character. History shows that the Greeks learned from the Babylonians, the Phoenicians and the Egyptians; the Arabs learned from the Greeks, the Persians, and the Indians; and the Western Europeans learned from the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Asiatics. In fact, the concept of clash on the global level appears in general to have been a function of economic, political or military rivalries or hostilities between neighboring nations --  and even then, warring nations tended to learn from each other, he said.

That clashes of civilization or cultures, empires, nations or city-states have occurred at  various times throughout recorded history is not in question, said Fakhry. But it is equally unquestionable, by contrast, that periods of conflict or confrontation were often followed by periods of interaction, cultural assimilation, or dialogue. This has been, in fact, the chief warrant of the continuity of world culture, if not its very survival, he stated.

It is imperative that the historian of culture or the philosopher of history should look at the other side of the cultural picture and highlight the salient features of the perennial exchange or dialogue of civilizations, especially during periods of great or fertile cultural interaction, he said. In addition, it is essential that the study of cultural interaction or dialogue be wide-ranging enough to cover a sufficiently broad historical span, rather than be confined to the current world situation or the five or six centuries preceding it.

Dr. Fakhry then turned to the recent phenomenon of public figures, political analysts, and Christian fundamentalists accusing Islam of fomenting violence and declaring an open war on infidels. For instance, Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has recently argued that “the Koran speaks of violence against Christians and Jews” and added that Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion”, and Jerry Falwell, of the Christian Coalition, called the Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist.” (CNN, October 6, 2002), while Pat Robertson called him a “robber and a brigand.”

In dealing with the question of whether Islam preaches or condones violence, it is essential, said Fakhry, to proceed with the utmost care and open-mindedness, rather than be swayed by bias and shortsightedness. Historically speaking, the relations between Islam and Christianity, whether during the Period of Conquest in the seventh century or the late Medieval period have tended to vacillate between open warfare and active cultural contact. Thus, following the conquest of Byzantium, which put an end to Byzantine rule of the Near East, the Muslim world, especially during the Abbasid period (750-1258), entered a period of cultural assimilation of Greek and Hellenistic culture without parallel in medieval history. It was during that period that the great Greek achievements in science, medicine and philosophy were rendered into Arabic by a host of brilliant Syriac and Arab translators, and expounded or commented on by the great philosophers-physicians of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, such as al-Razi (d. ca. 925), Avicenna (d. 1037) and Averroes (d. 1198).

By the middle of the twelfth century, the process was reversed and the great philosophical, scientific and medical monuments of Islamic culture were now rendered into Latin, with the decisive consequence that the ancient Greek legacy was recovered by Western Europe after centuries of almost total oblivion. This recovery led in due course to the great philosophical and theological upsurge known as Latin Scholasticism and subsequently to the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century.

The relations of Muslims and Christians from the seventh century on are not sufficiently appreciated, said Dr. Fakhry, especially by ill-informed or biased publicists. These relations were characterized by far greater tolerance than Western Europe had known during the Middle Ages, he emphasized. Contrasting the attitude of Christians in Medieval times to Muslims and Jews, Bernard Lewis has argued in his book, Islam and the West, that whereas Christianity accorded some measure of tolerance to the Jews in the Middle Ages, such tolerance was not extended to Muslims. “For the Muslims on the other hand,” he writes, “Christianity, like Judaism, was a predecessor religion and deserving the same degree of tolerance.” “But in general, Muslim theologians,” he adds, “were willing to concede the tolerance to the earlier religions enjoined by Qur’anic law” despite their objections to the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. [B. Lewis, Islam and the West, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1993, p. 6.]

Significantly, Dr. Fakhry noted, even the Arab occupation of territories under Byzantine rule was welcomed at first by the native Christian inhabitants of those territories as a form of liberation from foreign, Byzantine rule, complicated by the Christological squabbles of the Melchites (Greek Orthodox), Jacobites and Nestorians. The native population actually resented the imposition of the Melchite dogma such as the “dual” nature of Christ and the status of the Virgin Mary as the “Mother of God.” The Nestorians and Jacobites preferred their own Christology, which was declared by the Nicene Council in 325 as heretical.

As an instance of this resentment or general disaffection, we might mention the role that Christian community leaders played in the capture of Damascus, the capital of Syria, by the Arab General Khaled Ibn al-Walid in 636, after a 6-month siege. Historians tell us that that capture was made possible by the collusion of the Christian community of that ancient city, led by Mansur Ibn-Sarjun, grandfather of the great theologian of the Eastern Church, St. John of Damascus (d. 748). This Mansur is reported to have opened the eastern gate of Damascus to the invading Arab armies. Both Mansur and his son, Sarjun, we are further told, served the Umayyad caliphs as financial advisors. St. John himself was, in his youth, a boon companion of the Caliph Yazid, prior to his ordination as a monk and may have served the Umayyads in an administrative capacity, like his father and grandfather.

As far as the Qur’an is concerned, the Christians are referred to as the closest friends of the Muslims in this verse: “You shall find the closest in friendship to the believers who say, ‘We are Christians.’ For among them are priests and monks, and they are not arrogant.” (Qur’an 5:82).

It was exactly the Crusades (1099‑1291), said Fakhry, which brought the Muslim and Christian worlds into direct confrontation for the first time, with such adverse consequences. The historical context in which this confrontation took place was, in a sense, purely political and military in nature, he said. The advance of the Seljuk Turks northward was perceived by the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, as a threat to his imperial domain. Thus, he appealed, in 1094, to Pope Urban II to urge the European princes to come to the rescue of their “Christian brethren” in the East. Urban, heeding the appeal of Alexius, called upon the Christian princes, at the Council of Clermont, to “march to the rescue of their brethren in the East,” and to “wrest the Holy Land from the wicked race.” [S. Runciman, History of the Crusades, Cambridge, 1951, Vol. 1, p. 1071.]

In this context, it becomes more apparent that the motives of the Crusaders, whether princes, knights, or laymen, who had undertaken this bloody and perilous expedition, were not entirely spiritual or holy. It is reported, by both Latin and Arab historians, that when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, they put to the sword no fewer than 50,000 Muslims, Jews, and native Christians. Moreover, the Crusaders who were, on the whole, moved by worldly ambition, greed, or adventurism, were met by a weakened and disunited Muslim world, suffering at the hands of the rivaling Fatimid and Abbasid caliphates.

By the sixteenth century, the Muslim world was dominated by the Ottomans, who were in almost constant warfare with their Christian or European neighbors, including the Russians, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and the Greeks. This warfare continued up to the end of the First World War, which saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dismemberment of its former dependencies in the Near East.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century, and more specifically, following Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, the Muslim world was beginning to fall under the domination of Western powers, starting with France. Nevertheless, it remains significant from a cultural perspective, said Dr. Fakhry, that the first contacts with Europe were not exclusively military or political. Instead, they heralded a period of active cultural interaction that reached its zenith in the so-called Arab Renaissance (al-Nahdah) that flourished concurrently with Islamic modernism in India. During the nineteenth century, Muslims were thus exposed to the great strides modern Europe had made in the fields of philosophy, science, and technology.  This exposure to Western culture, said Fakhry, had the unexpected result of splitting the Muslim world into two opposing groups, namely, the ‘liberal’ or pro-Western, and the ‘radical’ or anti-Western. The struggle between those two opposing groups continues today, he said, and is a feature of the current cultural situation in the Arab‑Muslim world today.

We can conclude, said Fakhry, that the relations between Islam and the West have pursued, from the earliest times, a characteristic pattern of confrontation, followed by interaction or ‘clash’, followed by ‘dialogue.’ Thus, the conquest of the Byzantines and their eventual expulsion from the Near East in the seventh century was followed, in the eighth and ninth centuries, by a period of intense cultural interaction and exchange, leading to the assimilation of the Greek legacy in science, medicine and philosophy, to which Byzantium and Alexandria had fallen heir. This legacy was fully developed and expanded by the great philosophers, physicians and scientists of Islam over a period of five centuries in Baghdad, Cordova and elsewhere. During that period, the Muslims were the only custodians of Greek culture, which the West­ern Europeans had almost completely forgotten from the time of Boethius (d. 525), the Roman Consul, who was the first to translate the Aristotelian logical corpus into Latin. Apart from Boethius’ translations of Aristotle and Chalcidus’ translations of parts of Plato’s Timaeus, the Middle Ages had absolutely no knowledge of that vast Greek legacy.

It was in Muslim Spain that Arab-Muslim culture reached its apogee and was transmitted to Western Europe across the Pyrenees. Starting in the twelfth century, the process of translating Arabic scientific and philosophical works at Toledo, Cordova and Sicily into Latin culminated, in the thirteenth century, in the translation of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle, at the hands of brilliant scholars hailing from all parts of Western Europe, such as Michael the Scot (d. 1236) and Herman the German (d. 1272).

The impact of these translations was immense, said Fakhry.  It led to (1) the rediscovery by Western Europeans of Aristotle and the Greek philosophical and scientific legacy, (2) the rise and development of Latin Scholasticism, one of the glories of late Medieval thought, as Etienne Gilson stated, and (3) the spread of the rationalism and humanism that became the hallmark of the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century.

Even the Crusades were instrumental in bringing the Muslims and Europeans into close cultural contact, and despite intermittent warfare, these contacts exposed the Europeans to the much more advanced civilization of the Near East, from which they were eventually driven in the thirteenth century.  In fact, the Crusaders learned a great deal from their Muslim counterparts in the Near East in the military, social and agricultural fields, and particularly in medicine. This is reflected, among other things, in the large number of Arabic loan words that found their way into European languages, including sugar, orange, alcohol, saffron, arsenal, algebra, caliber, cipher, and zero.

From this brief sketch, said Dr. Fakhry, it should appear that, far from being in a state of constant “confrontation” or “clash,” Islam and the West have often been engaged in a process of active cultural exchange or “dialogue.”  If we ask now “what are the prospects for the future?”, the answer must be that a lot depends on economic and political developments in both the East and the West, as well as the fate of globalization and the prospects of democratization and modernization in the Islamic world and the East as a whole.

If the economic gap between the West and the rest of the world can be bridged, the prospects of mutual exchange and dialogue, cultural, economic, political and other, will certainly improve, said Dr. Fakhry. These developments, however, are clearly not unrelated to globalization, which is now resisted by the Third World, because it appears to enhance the West’s economic and political grip on the rest of the world.

From the opposite side, of course, movement in the direction of the West on the part of the Muslim World and other regions of the world will be accelerated as the specter of authoritarianism and rigid attachment to the past begin to recede and the rule of law and respect for human rights, including freedom of thought and expression, will increase. At that point, the concept of human brotherhood, or at least peaceful coexistence, will gain ascendancy and the prospects of dialogue will be greatly enhanced, said Fakhry.

Respect for the other and the religious, cultural and national differences should govern the relations between all the nations of the world and this respect should go hand-in-hand with dialogue, he concluded.


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