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Gianni Rodari

COSì LONTANI, COSI’ VICINI: L’ISLAM E L’OCCIDENTE

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…tentative notes on its role in the Trump Era and Beyond. Pubblichiamo l’analisi sullo scontro-incontro tra le due civiltà dello scrittoe Brandino Machiavelli

The two sides appear to be poles apart at the moment. But there are many areas of common ground. And the material power of the west has a lot to learn from the more spiritual principles of an old and successful culture such as Islam.

After a long slumber of five centuries Islam has resurfaced with a vengeance on the world stage. After the Spanish Reconquista, and the heyday and then slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, during which Islam was Europe’s bogeyman for the masses (while also often being courted by European Powers to form alliances against their enemy European Powers of the moment), Europeans, westerners, and the rest of the world have suddenly woken up to the fact that during those 500 years Islam has acquired the spiritual and often political power of countries throughout the world, excluding the Americas, with almost 1.5 Billion souls. Decolonisation and the invasive and limitless spread of global western politics, aspirations and lifestyles have given many Muslims the awareness of what they often consider their low economic and social status compared with the promises of Western example.

The West, convinced of the inherent superiority of its culture, its power, and its God-given role to homogenize the planet following its precepts, has so far largely ignored, underestimated and contemptuously minimized the importance of this awakening. In particular the United States has deemed it a pointless waste of time in learning about the history, cultures and the mentality of these parts of the world, assuming that the high consumption of Coca Cola and Hollywood blockbusters was sufficient to accept Western superiority.

But the West has also in the meantime suffered an increasing crisis of confidence. The awareness of overpowering control of multinationals, the unforgiving slavery to money, the continuous lowering of all ethics and principles to the lowest and often the most vulgar common denominator have developed a slow but unmistakable lack of faith and a spiritual void.

Today the two societies, Muslim and Western, are suddenly merging. Wars, famines and the obvious material riches in the West have given the start of a mass migration which has had no equal since the 1940’s war. There shall be no stopping the hundreds of millions of people who are escaping the gaping and glaring disparity between the two worlds. And Islam, a faith intimately tied to the principles of everyday living, and often the main cultural background of these people, will have to be addressed if it is not to develop into a hurtful and dangerous source of tension and possible violence.
The two sides appear to be poles apart at the moment. But there are many areas of common ground. And the material power of the west has a lot to learn from the more spiritual principles of an old and successful culture such as Islam.

To try to focus on what Islam means it is necessary to relate to islam as a religion, since its tenets are intimately tied to its way of life. The following notes are a few observation on my understanding of Islam, and of its potential in connecting with and inspiring Western culture.
To start, it might be useful to repeat once again the well-known characteristic of the Quran’s to be able to be understood at many levels. As Dr. Ali Shariati says:
“It is clear that in order to know Islam, we cannot choose one approach exclusive to all other ones, because Islam is not a one-dimensional religion. Islam is not a religion which is based solely on the gnostic feelings of human beings or limited to the relationship between God and man. This is just one dimension of the Islamic faith. In order to know this particular dimension, we should turn to a philosophical method because the relationship between man and God is part of this field of thought.”

“Another dimension of this faith relates to one’s way of life upon this earth. In order to come to know the truths of this dimension, we must make use of today’s sociological and historical methods. Thus, if we look at Islam from just one point of view, we have only seen one dimension of a many-sided crystal. If we looked at the issue correctly, we would realize that it is not sufficient to have a general knowledge of Islam. The Qur’an itself is an example of multiple dimensions from which various sciences have been drawn throughout history.”

“One issue which many scholars and artists have discussed is whether or not the Qur’an is literal or literary. The other dimension of Islam is its philosophical teachings and that which causes one to have faith in the Qur’an. Today’s philosophers should consider this dimension.”
“The most important dimension of the Qur’an, which is the least known, is its human aspect consisting of its social, historic and psychological dimension. One of the reasons for this remaining an unknown dimension is because sociology, psychology and human sciences in general are newer sciences and this differs from other historical studies and books, which are among the oldest ones ever written.”
(from ASDA- An Approach to the Understanding of Islam – by Dr. Ali Shariati )

Also, and perhaps more importantly, sociologists, psychologists and scholars of human sciences have never yet focused on serious investigation of the Muslim world
“It is the duty of today’s intellectuals to know Islam as a school which revives humanity, that is, both the individual and society. The mission of Islam is to direct the future of humanity.”
(from ASDA- An Approach to the Understanding of Islam – by Dr. Ali Shariati )

Recently, having met some Muslims and made some friends, I have become aware of the deep-rooted kindness, generosity, balance, and ethics which are at the basis of the Islamic culture in a day-to-day, normal life. I was so impressed that I started attending weekly hadiths (lessons) explaining the Qur’an in private homes located over an hour’s drive away, which enlightened me on Islam’s universality, practicality and peaceful approach to living. Going to hadiths still inevitably leaves me with a gentle feeling of contentment of having been a part of a heightening of the soul together with the others at the meeting; and it consistently puts a lasting smile on my face. No doubt Islam is the closest conception of God that I have encountered in my way of attempting an explanation of the mystery of creation.

One of the particularities which I started noticing once I began to frequent Muslims as friends was that they all, with the obvious exception of scholars, appeared to be very knowledgeable on the religious history of Islam but altogether ignorant, and uninterested in, any other kind of cultural or intellectual pursuit. Although this can be dismissed as a narrow and limiting approach to life due to an education and tradition which stresses the utmost importance of the Quran and the following Hadiths as the only valuable source of learning throughout life, it has in practice with time allowed most Muslims to conduct their lives within a limited scope of rules which are however the reflection of practically all the most important principles of civilized living. Historical examples abound, beyond the daily experiences one can gain on the high street or in an office or private home. The contrast between the Crusades wars as described by Europeans and Muslim historians: on the one hand the former, exited and angry descriptions of the enemy, a sense of mission which was palpably construed, an extremist and arrogant opinion of Muslims. On the other, a balanced and calm description of the trials that Allah has visited upon the Arabs, and of the strong and weak points of each side. There is very little sense of hate or disparagement of Christians.

It is evident that the attitude to life of shunning peoples of other religions, a resistance to enter into dialogue with the Western culture and its manifestations is a product of a very severe indoctrination of Muslims into their religion. And that if this seal were to be broken much confusion, uncertainty and disturbance would follow. But this isolationist attitude TODAY allows well over a billion Muslims to live a life which can be rewarding, tranquil and in many ways enviable. This is ultimately due to the fundamental principle that while we Westerners conduct our lives from an individualistic standpoint, Muslims, firmly united by their faith, are much more prone to consider as their life to be governed by the divine principles of God, and are therefore more united by these rules. The “Umma”, Musilm society, is a world-wide feeling of togetherness.
Westerners, whose principles are basically the same, taken from the Bible, have been able to develop a freer individualistic way of taking decisions, which allows them to deviate from them with greater ease.

Muslims in general totally lack the need to show their superiority and their knowledge. In my experience I have never been contradicted in something I was saying (something I am unfortunately prone to) but always invited to explain further, or gently changed the subject. Their social habits do not allow them to dismiss other opinions lightly. Their humility is also shown in their respect of others and in their willingness to listen.
The Quran teaches simple, practical principles for all of life’s events. Faith allows people to stand firm on their principles. Faith in the Quran as the main source of practical teachings brings about a practical lifestyle based on universal, basic principles of living life in a community.
Islam is based on universal principles of civilized living in a community, which are fixed and unalterable and which fundamentally govern the whole of the universe. These include principles of protection and defence against physical and mental threats to these principles. Islam is basically an embodiment of these principles similar to that of all systems, cultures, religion, which hold societies together throughout the world. But Islam’s path in history, for reasons which are explainable but too long to go into here, has developed it into a set of rules which admittedly have many negative attributes caused by their inability to adapt to the changing of times, but which 1.5 billion peaceful people have adopted throughout the world.

Islam teaches the rules of co-existence in a community, but the rules are everywhere the same. Every religion adapts its prayers to the reality on the ground. Islam probably is the most advanced theory, since it has come into existence later than most others, and with the prophet Mohammad has drawn on an exceptionally far-reaching interpreter and guide for the introduction in his society of his visions and inspiration.

As mentioned above, these principles, which are the same preached by other religions and in particular Christianity, have been largely superseded in Christianity by the rush to Progress, Liberty, Freedom and Prosperity. The true Muslims which embody the teachings of Muhammad have an in-built sense that these principles are worthless if they are not based on Faith. In fact, Progress, Liberty, Freedom and Prosperity are not truly achievable and are not only useless but always damaging if they are not based on Faith.

This is being abundantly demonstrated today by the crisis of another of those principles, Democracy.
But the notion of Faith, which is essential to civilised living, need not be a blind Faith in a set of principles watched over and ordained by a Being, ultimately an omniscient and Omni powerful individual which has very evident human characteristics. All principles revealed in the Quran are universal principles. The specific examples which evidently relate to the historical period when they were revealed refer to conditions which were true at the time. The faith of all mankind, if it were possible, should be that of believing in Existence and in Ourselves as part of it, as part of an indivisible and indistinguishable Whole; and of recognizing the wonder and the beauty of this fact. Our approach to the text of the Quran should not be one of picking out the local, temporary statements addressed to the people of Arabia in the 7th Century AD but one of admiration at the universally true and positive teachings, or rather the confirmation, as the Quran itself states, of the Universal rules which we must live by. To lead a happy life, to realize one self, and to exist in society and in our World as a whole. And it’s all there, for those who will look.

Far be it for a solution to be found without enormous difficulties. Even the prophet Muhammad was unable to create through his undoubtedly pure, immortal inspiration from Allah (or, for those who would prefer another definition, his unique understanding of the Universal Laws, which is the same thing, since God, Allah, is by definition fully within us as it is in all things and therefore it can happen that God can speak through a special person) a system immune from future strife, wars, divisions and injustice.

Western society has developed an amazing array of technology, which includes many advances and discoveries in the philosophical and the explanations to how our mind and our feelings work. But we have not made any progress on the spiritual side of humans, and for this reason it is incomplete, lop-sided. Islam’s clear, comprehensive understanding of our weaknesses and of our strengths can offer a sophisticated, just, complete answer too these problems.
“In Islam, religion is a complete way of life, not just a spiritual yearning. When a person believes that God has created the world and has sent guidance to human beings, he would want to follow His guidance. Islam provides an entire spiritual and social guideline that regulates believers in every aspect of their lives such as whom they marry, how they conduct business relations, what they say when praying, how they relate to their neighbours, and so on.”
(http://www.iric.org/tabid/109/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/151/Islamic-Lifestyle-Ethics-in-Man.aspx )

The fundamental difference with Western ethics is that for most people (and including any of the middle America / Bible belt fundamentalist sects, which preach similar principles but attune them to their particular agenda in order to benefit anyway from the American Way of Life) all the social guidance comes from the lonely individual, or the State, or the Old Family Values to which they cling in the absence of anything better, and who try to achieve their aims having lost the basic guidance of the spiritual, ethical element; a dimension that has always eluded the forceful, energetic, aggressive and passionate individualist people of the West, and is much more suited to peoples whose culture is more restrained and reflective (Arabia, the source of Islam, is, unsurprisingly, somewhere between the two: a harsh culture initially steeped in lonely travelling and poetry, but in close proximity with the sophisticated Greek and Roman cultural influences ) .

The difference between the Quran and other “revealed” books or the teachings of most “holy” people such as Christ or St. Francis or Buddha is that it is focused on the everyday life of normal people living normal lives. It does not expect everyone to become a Buddha. It does not expect people to become saints or to give up their belongings to enter Paradise. It does not threaten: it counsels (if you do wrong you shall be punished – but if you live a healthy, honest and normal life you shall be rewarded, and meantime you are free to enjoy the good things that life can offer you). The submission to God five times a day is not a submission of fear, but a submission to recognizing that we are subject to the laws of Allah; to the laws of Nature; the supreme laws of the Universe. And if Nature – represented by Muhammad by the 100 names of God – is called Allah in this context it is only because the people he was addressing needed something tangible to concentrate their minds and which they were familiar with and could comprehend and imagine: the whole of the Quran is in fact geared to representing the Word of God in terms recognizable to his audience.

Western civilization has gradually reduced to lip service or dismissed the rules of God, the rules of the Universe which we defy at our peril, exchanging them by our own rules born of our own successful material as well as intellectual knowledge. This has been said by many writers, scholars and thinkers in general. But no one has yet outlined any sort of new direction that can get us out of an intellectual impasse following the dead ends that we have reached or are soon arriving to, both as a consequence of our material progress and our intellectual understanding of how the world functions.

In reality the answers are as simple to state as they are difficult to achieve. What must be found is a way of balancing our human achievements with the universal principles and prophetical warnings which have been repeatedly “revealed” over the centuries. It must be said that extraordinary filming documents such as the unremitting, universal and deadly fight for survival shown in BBC’s Planet Earth II do not suggest much hope for our species
There are now considerable voices which have begun to bring science into the discussion of what the human race is doing to our world, our Gaia planet. A look in perspective from a great distance has shown and sparked much discussion on the relative paucity of our environment and the considerable irrelevance of ourselves as a species. But no connection has yet been discovered between our new and conclusive results and the millenarian warnings of inspired “prophets” which have “known” in the true sense what was hidden at the time in ignorance, and humanity’s blind and greedy capacity to develop control of its environment.

In most societies established, dogmatic religion, although strongly ingrained into people’s psyche, is decoupled from everyday life.
“[Here] the adult Jesus – the teacher, the God – is practically unknown. He is too remote from themselves and from the ordinary activities of their daily lives…”
From “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas – p.336
“[…] a man can believe in a considerable deal of nonsense, and yet go about his daily work in a natural and cheerful manner.”
From “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas – p.341
In Islam the daily actions of individuals are singled out for attention. This means that their correctness can be verified constantly and proven to be good. Because they follow the rules that God has determined. Or in other words, the rules which the Universe exists by.
People do not necessarily need a local saint or God to go through their daily lives, since the majority does not really believe that these figures can help them in practical earthly problems; what they do is unconsciously using these figures to build up their personal strength and determination to overcome their fears, limitations and insecurities; in one way it is following the saying that the more you say something the more you will believe it – the more you ask God for help the more you will believe that He will help -.
Islam gives practical, down to earth guidance. Which in the end points towards a correct way forwards, benefiting oneself, the others and the world in general. This, perhaps, is what should be the correct definition of the word “religion”.
The Quran is a book of many levels, and can be interpreted in many ways. One of these is that it was not initially created to be a religion, but rather a detailed life-style addressed to followers and perhaps in particular to the bands of nomads who were at the time slowly beginning to settle in towns. The Quran’s flexibility and universality have allowed it to become the spiritual guide for many different forms of worship. Today it can be read and understood as an “agnostic” interpretation which changes nothing of its universal message and its unchanging indications on how to live a good and just existence.
“[in Ibn Tufayal’s time]…. A powerful Berber reform movement, the Almohads […] al muwhiddun, those who profess the unity of God – a brand of purified and chastened monotheism, so pristine [..] that to profess it meant in any ways to discard the particularities of religious identities. It was a universal and universalising monotheism, a system which did not cherish belief informed by an unquestioning acceptance of dogma based on prior authority. So [in Ibn Tuyfal’s tale][the protagonist]…is not trammelled by the acceptance of any prior dogma at all and is thus able to connect with the light of reason which God has implanted in each and every human being and so attains a level of spiritual enlightenment none but the prophets have achieve.”
“Visions of Man and Nature” James E. Montgomery, Critical Muslim 19 – p.33

“[For the] .. Brethren of Purity sect, […] God’s beneficence emanates down through the spheres and angelic intellects. The regular rhythms of the Universe are thus made possible by His providence, but also exhibit His providence. Each link in this cosmic chain is charged with an obligation from God: that it must pass His bounty down to the level below. This regularity and providential harmony is evident also in the supralunar world, that is the world of nature. God gives to each and every creature all that it needs and in return each and every natural being […] acts in accordance with God’s allotted gifts.”
“Visions of Man and Nature” James E. Montgomery, Critical Muslim 19 –
A clear description of Nature’s balanced state and recognition of Nature’s finite capability.
Also, “Man is thus enjoined to grasp that […] to take refuge in God [..the ultimate Good] he must ..[recognize and perceive that choices (which man alone is allowed) are part of a system that is not articulated solipsistically – e.g. to benefit him alone].”
“Visions of Man and Nature” James E. Montgomery, Critical Muslim 19 – p.36

So in order to live in peace with Nature and oneself it is necessary to recognize the needs of nature as a whole; and this can go from respecting local animals (including humans) and trees to unbalancing the rest of the universe in some way.
Prioritization of the communal over the individual. It’s one of the keys to a peace-loving and fair society. Islam promotes this type of attitude strongly.
Learning. “Read!”, the Quran’s famous intimation to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel, is the clearest incentive to the need of learning for any true faith. And learning means, by definition, going outside the “known” and exploring different voices and beliefs for the answers they can give, in space and in time.
The Quran does not need changing: it simply needs re-phrasing. Or perhaps the creation of a “Quran Companion”, leaving the revered and undoubtedly unique and extraordinary original untouched. Proposition: that if you create a companion document to the Quran shorn of all the issues that the Quran addresses in the difficult and “religious” terms with examples and explanations that are relevant only to the life conditions of the seventh Century AD and substitute them with terms and examples strictly related to the problems, doubts, satisfactions and wishes experienced by people today in their earthly daily lives, you shall end up with a new book which will have lost most of its fascination, lore and poetic genius but which still teaches exactly the same principles of behaviour and ethics of Mohammad’s revelations. Discuss!

Such a book would undoubtedly require a collection of some of the best human beings alive. There are plenty of them. A project should be launched composed of Muslim academics, Muslim believers, Western sociologists and many other types of non-religious academics, historians, psychologists.
If something of this kind would happen it would be a very slow process and would require the right conditions and probably a long wait for the appearance of some superior individuals to succeed. In the history of this weird and wonderful world, however, history has often produced just the right person in the right place at the right time. We may be lucky. The alternative is probably dire for the future of our species, for the tenets and developments of this change will have to include not only Islam and the West, but the whole of humanity. It is my conviction that the most effective, balanced and human source for this transformation is the Quran.
BRM. Nov.. ‘16

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