Civilization, Islam and Dialogical Space: Constraints and Contradictions

Civilization, Islam and Dialogical Space: Constraints and Contradictions

A Paper by Durre S. Ahmed, Professor, Chairperson & Senior Research Fellow, Center for the Study of Gender and Culture, Lahore University, presented for Eighth Rhodes Forum Session, October 2010

One major issue facing us today has to do with Islam and Muslims.

Irrespective of how this is framed, as a war on terror, security, geopolitics, economics of oil, women and the veil in Europe, good Muslims/bad Muslims etc, the fact is that Islam and Muslims have been in the spotlight, mostly in negative terms, for almost a decade. Tensions are mounting not just between Muslims and the West but also within different Muslim societies such as Pakistan. These rising tensions are embedded in numerous complex factors, spanning the economic and political to the sociological and historical. While acknowledging the validity of these and other analytic perspectives, the question remains that the dominant discourse(s) rarely highlight the perspective of culture.

Given the passions and intensity of this subject in the present historic moment, it is vital to retain clarity and objectivity. As with visual clarity, one needs to step back a little by creating some distance between the viewer and the viewed. In conceptual terms it means gaining some historical perspective regarding Islam and culture.

Islam and Multiple Civilizations

In the same way that we have come to differentiate between Christianity and Christendom, Islam needs to be seen in the context of multiple civilizations that emerged over a period of fifteen hundred years in diverse geographic locations spanning many continents.

By ‘civilization’ one refers to a constellation of factors manifesting a high level of aesthetics and refinement in art, architecture, cuisine, literature, poetry, philosophy, music etc, in short, substantial and established evolution of culture in myriad subtle and obvious forms. Within such a civilizational paradigm, over the centuries, Islam has given birth to at least five great civilizations across different continents: in Turkey (Ottoman), North Africa (Moorish), Spain, India (Mughal) and Iran. Architecturally, for example, an Ottoman mosque in Turkey is visually very different from one in India. Yet, at the same time, both are distinctively mosques, that is unmistakably ‘Islamic’. While I have listed only five civilizations, many Muslims would point out even more, for example South East Asia and places such as Indonesia, not to mention the longstanding presence of Islam in China and Central Asia. Here again one can see differences in culture, not just in clothing and lifestyle but also, for example, in calligraphic arts, architecture, poetry etc. While starkly different from each other they retain distinctly ‘Islamic’ dimensions.

It needs to be kept in mind that within 100 years of its inception, Islam had settled in dispersed regions and widely divergent cultures. If this inherent adaptivity to other cultures was not part of its, raison d’etre, it could not have given rise to the civilizations I have mentioned. Given this vast mosaic of civilizations it is more appropriate to refer to the fact, as pointed out by Edward Said, that there are actually innumerable Islams.

The longstanding existence of what can be called numerous indigenous Islams has prevented this religion from becoming a monolith. Apart from its internal theological diversity, for example, innumerable sects within the Shia and Sunni, multiple interactions with numerous cultures have ensured its vibrancy and relevance to the spiritual existence of millions. For example, as part of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistani culture and its Islam, is primarily Indo Persian, subsuming as it does, the rich mythos of two ancient civilizations, India and Iran. This intermeshing of culture and religion is fully visible in the exquisite beauty of Mughal architecture and the classical music and performing arts even today in India.

In short, the civilizational evidence strongly signals the complexity of Islam as a religion and its strong roots in a diversity of cultures. The-unity-in-diversity of the Islamic world is self evident till today but is nevertheless mostly ignored in debates on the topic by both Muslims and non Muslims.

Creating the Monolith

Within this background of cultural complexity, what happens to dialogue between Islam and other religions, cultures and civilizations? Equally important, given the inherent and obvious Islamic cultural diversity and given the crises within and among Muslims, where and what is the nature of the space for a much needed dialogue within Islam?

Presently, the prospects of such a dialogue at both levels are bleak. This is because in both instances, the tendency is to see Islam as a monolith, as simply a static theology and jurisprudence, existing in a vacuum disconnected from the dynamics of culture.

Internal Dynamics

There is an increasing tendency present among Muslims to believe that there exists a pristine monolithic Islam which is pure and ‘uncontaminated’ by culture and history and which must be reclaimed from the perceived anti religious momentum of modernity and globalization. Invariably, this mythical and regressive, if not delusional Islam, is modelled on that of present day Saudi Arabia and which is actually a version of Islam which came into existence just about two hundred years ago. If today it is being seen as paradigmatic of the religion, it is not because of any inherent spiritual appeal it may have for a billion Muslims. Rather, its dominance has to do with something as mundane as wealth and political power. In the last four to five decades, Saudi-Wahabi-Salafism has been promoted across the Muslim world backed by the enormous wealth of oil.

It should be kept in mind that much of the Muslim world remains poor and uneducated. Using its financial leverage, the promotion of the Saudi brand of Islam has occured by actively subverting the innumerable indigenous Islams which have existed for centuries. The countless civilizational-cultural manifestations provide the best evidence for this religion’s inherently pluralistic and inclusive world view. It was precisely this pluralism and anti-monolith momentum which for almost 1500 years prevented the emergence of an official clergy or a ‘Church’, ‘Rome’ or ‘Canterbury’. But within the last four decades, Saudi money-theism has tried to create the semblance of a ‘clergy’ in the drive towards an inevitable (Saudi) ‘Church’. It is one of the most deadly assaults on Islam(s) across the Muslim world.

This destructive momentum has of course been accelerated by other factors such as globalization, geopolitics, dictatorial regimes which seek to ‘islamize’ Muslim societies by a policy of cultural vandalism whereby indigenous expressions are marginalized, silenced, obliterated. The ensuing void is then replaced by the anti cultural Wahabi-Salafi vision. In short, centuries old Islams are violently under attack, as in Pakistan. Collectively, this could lead to an eventual extinction of the Islamic spiritual/cultural rainbow, replaced by the monolithic bigotry of Wahabi/Salafi Islam.

Cut off from indigenous culture, a key strategy of the construction of a monolithic Islam also has to do with reducing religion to primarily ritual and scriptural texts and the promotion of ‘experts’ in theology and jurisprudence. Thus, an entire religion, a way of life is reduced to textual semantics in which there can be only one ‘right’ meaning and answer. As such, the dialogical space within a religion becomes restricted to a narrowly defined theological and juridical arena. The debates only center around Quran and Shariah and only the experts decide what they mean. Such a mono vision insists that there is no room for dialogue and divides people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who are ‘right’ and those who are ‘wrong’. A totalizing and authoritarian reliance exclusively on text, also automatically marginalizes the non-literate, the majority of who in the Muslim world, are women. Thus, a monolithic vision is constructed at the expense of gender, cultural and spiritual diversity.

Loss of Diversity

The loss of diversity is a disaster for any natural phenomenon and religion and culture are no exceptions. All religions are languages of the soul and like any language, have numerous dialects and accents. Today, there is increasing pressure that all Muslims must ‘speak’ just one dialect with just one accent, namely Wahabi-Salafi Islam.

Given the scale of Saudi monetary influence over many decades, governments in Muslim majority countries have similarly encouraged the Arabist theological and cultural view at the expense of a myriad indigenous Islams. In short, between globalization, and the Saudi Wahabi theo-cultural bulldozer, the cultural-spiritual diversity of Islam is being steadily obliterated and replaced by a monolithic ideal. This ideal is narrow, virulent, anti woman, and thrives on religion as a political weapon leading to radical violence. The cumulative result has been the rise of violence in the Muslim world. The cultural uprooting of indigenous Islam(s) and the (re)planting of a narrow and sterile vision has thus drastically shrunk the space for internal dialogue among Muslims.

External Dynamics

It is forgotten that the Saudi-Wahabi form of Islam is actually not free from culture and like all other Islams, it reflects its specific cultural roots of the Arabian desert and today’s Saudi Arabia. However, 85 percent of more than a billion Muslims are neither Arab nor live in deserts. Nevertheless, the main contours of the dialogue between Muslims and the non Muslim world remains dominated by a conflation of ‘Arab’ with ‘Muslim’. Since the west itself is comfortable with the idea of centralized authority and institutions which are its historical religious norms, it tends to accept, and by default, consolidate the monolithic ideals of Wahabi Islam. It is also intellectually easier to ‘deal’ with a handful of ‘official representatives’ of Islam, rather than a cacophony of innumerable voices all claiming to be Muslim.

The controversy in the US about what is actually a cultural center which includes a mosque and the subsequent controversy of burning the Quran to commemorate 9/11 is the logical counterpart of seeing Islam as a monolith, disconnected from its cultural diversity.


It is frequently said that politics is a dirty business. Using religion for political gain does not make politics more sublime but instead makes religion dirty. This is happening today with Islam and indeed, other religions also. As a whole, the space for civilizational dialogue between and among religions is rapidly shrinking. This is particularly so in the case of Islam.

The perception and construction of Islam as a monolith disembedded from its civilizational and cultural matrices has serious consequences. This is self-reflexively mirrored in the rapidly shrinking space for dialogue among Muslims in different parts of the Islamic world as well as a dialogue between Muslims and non Muslims. A major factor in the decrease of dialogical space has to do with perceiving Islam as monolith by Muslims themselves as well as by non-Muslims. Centuries of history show that Islam has never been a monolith and its greatest strength has been its cultural adaptivity and flourishing in diversity. The trend towards constructing and perceiving it as a monolith is relatively recent and has more to do with geopolitical financial power and alliances, and less with the religion itself. It is imperative therefore to highlight and engage with the civilizational diversity within Islam, alongwith other religions. In order to enlarge the space for productive dialogue at the national and international levels, what is required is a polylogue among civilizations and cultures.