April 29, 2009
In an interview published April 23, 2009 in the Saudi Daily 'Okaz, reformist thinker Ibrahim Al-Buleihi expressed his admiration for Western civilization. The interview was posted on the same day on the Elaph website. < Al-Buleihi calls on the Arabs to acknowledge the greatness of Western civilization, and to admit the deficiencies of their own culture. He states that such self-criticism is a precondition to any change for the better. Ibrahim Al-Buleihi is a member of the Saudi Shura Council. <
Following are excerpts from the interview:
"If It Were Not for the Accomplishments of the West, Our Lives Would Have Been Barren"
'Okaz: "I begin with the crucial issue which distinguishes your thought and which your opponents always raise against you - namely, your being completely dazzled by the West, while you completely belittle Arabic thought. Truly, this is the most outstanding feature of your writings. There is also extreme self-flagellation which many see [in your writings]. What is the cause of this?"
Buleihi: "My attitude towards Western civilization is an attitude based on obvious facts and great accomplishments; here is a reality full of wonderful and amazing things. [Recognizing] this doesn't mean that I am blindly fascinated. This is the very opposite of the attitude of those who deny and ignore the bright lights of Western civilization. Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations.… If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation.
Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it. The accomplishments of Western civilization cover all areas of life: methods of organization, politics, ethics, economics, and human rights. It is our obligation to acknowledge its amazing excellence. Indeed, this is a civilization that deserves admiration. … The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this [abundance of Western ideas and visions] while taking refuge in denial and arrogance."
'Okaz: "Sir, you can admire this civilization as much as you want, but not at the expense of others, especially our own civilization."
Buleihi: "My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them; they should stop denying the truth and closing their eyes to the multitude of wonderful achievements. They should be fair towards those nations that achieved prosperity for themselves but did not monopolize it for themselves and instead allowed the whole world to share the results of this progress, so that other nations of the whole world now enjoy these achievements. Furthermore, Western civilization has given to the world knowledge and skills which made it possible for them, the non-Western nations, to compete with it in production and share markets with it. Criticizing one's own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one's backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves."
"Western Civilization is the Only Civilization that Liberated Man From His Illusions and Shackles; It Recognized His Individuality and Provided Him With Capabilities and Opportunities to Cultivate Himself and Realize His Aspirations"
'Okaz: "This may be so, and I'm with you in this demand but, sir, would you summarize for us the reason for your admiration of Western culture, so that we can have a basis for discussion?"
Buleihi: "There is no one reason, there are a thousand reasons, which all induce me to admire the West and emphasize its absolute excellence in all matters of life. Western civilization is the only civilization that liberated man from his illusions and shackles; it recognized his individuality and provided him with capabilities and opportunities to cultivate himself and realize his aspirations. [Western civilization] humanized political authority and established mechanisms to guarantee relative equality and relative justice and to prevent injustice and to alleviate aggression. This does not mean that this is a flawless civilization; indeed, it is full of deficiencies. Yet it is the greatest which man has achieved throughout history. [Before the advent of Western civilization,] humanity was in the shackles of tyranny, impotence, poverty, injustice, disease, and wretchedness.
"It is an extraordinary civilization, and it is not an extension of any ancient civilization, with the exception of Greek civilization, which is the source of contemporary civilization. I have completed a book on this great extraordinary civilizational leap, titled The Qualitative Changes in Human Civilization. Western civilization is its own product and it is not indebted to any previous civilization except for the Greek one … It has revived the Greek achievements in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, politics, society, human dignity, and veneration of reason, while recognizing its shortcomings and illusions and stressing its continuous need for criticism, review and correction."
'Okaz: "In your words here, you completely wipe out all the endeavors and creativity of previous civilizations such as the Islamic one, by stating that the West not indebted to it."
Buleihi: "Indeed, it is not, nor is it indebted to any other previous civilization. Western civilization has its foundation in Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC; then it stopped in the Middle Ages, but resumed its progress in modern times, when its benefits have come to include all nations. It is really extraordinary in every meaning of the word - excellence, uniqueness, and novelty… It has components and qualities which distinguish it from all previous and subsequent civilizations. It is the product of philosophical thinking invented by the Greeks. The Europeans have based themselves on this kind of thinking, especially on its critical aspect, which developed the capability of producing objective knowledge that is always open to review, correction and progress…"
'Okaz: "Some Western thinkers wrote that Western civilization is an extension of previous civilizations. How can you, a Muslim Arab, deny this?"
Buleihi: "When we review the names of Muslim philosophers and scholars whose contribution to the West is pointed out by Western writers, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al-Farbi, Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, and their likes, we find that all of them were disciples of the Greek culture and they were individuals who were outside the [Islamic] mainstream. They were and continue to be unrecognized in our culture. We even burned their books, harassed them, [and] warned against them, and we continue to look at them with suspicion and aversion. How can we then take pride in people from whom we kept our distance and whose thought we rejected?...
"As for the question of cultural development, there are two approaches. According to one approach, civilization is the product of a cumulative process. However, this approach is contradicted by the facts of history. According to the other approach, a quantitative change does not become a qualitative one, except through an extraordinary leap. This is the correct compelling approach, which I adopt. Quantity cannot possibly turn into quality spontaneously. …
"The only civilization which possesses the ingredients of perpetual progress is Western civilization, with its Greek foundation and its amazing contemporary formation. … Western civilization believes that it is impossible to possess absolute truth and that human perfection is impossible, so man must strive to achieve it while recognizing that it is impossible to reach. Thus it is the only civilization which is constantly growing and constantly reviewing and correcting itself and achieving continuous discoveries. …"
"Humanity Lived Thousands of Years Ruminating on the Same Ideas and Living in the Same Conditions, Using the Same Tools... It Could Have Continued Forever In This Way If It Were Not For the Emergence of Philosophical Thinking in Greece"
'Okaz: "Let me ask you about your complete fascination with Western civilization."
Buleihi: "The light of this civilization is very bright and only a blind person can be oblivious to its brightness. Anyone who is capable of sight and insight is inevitably fascinated by it… We should give credit where credit is due. Has any previous civilization dreamt of the astounding revelations and exact silences and complex technologies [achieved by Western civilization]? Have previous generations imagined the possibility of opening the human chest or head and conducting intricate surgeries on the heart and brain? Could they imagine the deep understanding of the living cell and the way it is formed…. Did they imagine airplanes, cars, telephones, and innumerable accomplishments of this civilization? Would you want us to go back to writing on parchment and papyrus and using wooden sticks for pens, and riding donkeys? …
'Okaz: "Sorry, no one has asked you to return to the era of donkeys, but it is necessary to pass historical judgment in a fair and balanced way. You are saying that you want 'to give credit where credit is due,' but, in fact, you deny any credit to whatever existed before Western civilization, and while everybody recognizes that human achievements are cumulative in nature, you negate that axiomatic rule when you speak about Western accomplishments."
Buleihi: "Humanity lived thousands of years ruminating on the same ideas and living in the same conditions, using the same tools and instruments. It could have continued forever in this way if it were not for the emergence of philosophical thinking in Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Civilizational progress at its current level cannot be achieved by accumulation; rather, it is the outcome of great revolutions in the fields of thought, science, politics, society, and labor. …
"What pushes man out of his routine is the struggle of ideas, the freedom of choice, and equal opportunity. The best proof of this is that many peoples today live in the depth of backwardness, despite the availability of science, technology, and ideas. They witness the examples of prosperity, and despite this, these backwards peoples are unable to abandon their trenches and free themselves from their shackles. In other words, they are unable to emulate those who are prosperous and they are completely unable to invent and initiate."
'Okaz: "There is a crucial question in our debate: do you understand by civilization only its material aspect?"
Buleihi: "The most important achievement of Western civilization is the humanization of political authority, dividing it into separate powers, and establishing and keeping a balance between the separate powers. Western civilization has given priority to the individual and subordinated its institutions, laws, and procedures to this principle, whereas in the old civilizations the individual was a cog in a machine."
"Ever Since the End of the Period of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, Man's Individuality Was Eradicated in Arab History, And His Value Has Been Linked to His Political, Religious, Regional, or Tribal Affiliation"
'Okaz: "A cog in a machine? Do you believe that this is true also of Islamic civilization?"
Buleihi: "We sharply distinguish between Islam in itself and what people do in its name. The great principles of Islam and its sublime doctrines that emphasize and uphold human value and dignity have not had a chance throughout history to establish themselves. Ever since the end of the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs, man's individuality was eradicated in Arab history and his value has been linked to his political, religious, regional, or tribal affiliation… The only civilization which acknowledges and respects man as an individual is Western civilization… Behavior in any field is not the outcome of teachings, as such, but rather of practice and actual experience...."
'Okaz: "Has this been the case throughout all of Arab history, in your opinion?"
Buleihi: "Yes, all of Arab history can be characterized in this gloomy way, except for the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs and discrete periods such as the reign of Omar ibn 'Abd Al-'Aziz. One should not confuse the sublime principles and doctrines of Islam with its history, which is full of mistakes, transgression, and tragedies. When the Abbasids overcame the Umayyads, they covered the bodies of the dead with rugs and held a feast over the bodies in a display of vengeance. When [Caliph] Al-Ma'mun defeated his brother Al-Amin, he flayed him like a lamb. This scene recurs throughout our history. Political power is the pivotal value in Arab culture. In our age, there have been recurrent military coups in the Arab world, in a struggle for power, but not in an attempt to bring about a change for the better. Each successive regime is worse than its predecessor."
'Okaz: "Mr. Buleihi, haven't you read in the history of your people about hundreds of scholars who had significance and impact and whose lives are studied to this day, even though they possessed no power, tribe, or religious affiliation, and who are valued for their scholarship?"
Buleihi: "This is a general statement which is not backed by fact. Arab history, with the exception of the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs, was dominated by politics. When the Fatimids took over Egypt and North Africa, these areas became Shiite, and when Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi [i.e. Saladin] put an end to the Fatimids, he drove out everything that had any relation to Shiism. The same happened when the Safavids converted Iran to Shiism, which then led the Ottomans to act the same way [in imposing Sunnism]. Thus Arab history, or Islamic history, in the wider sense, is the outcome of political ups and downs…."
"Those Exceptional [Arab] Individuals Were Not the Product of Arab Culture, But Rather Greek Culture... We Don't Deserve to Take Pride In Them, Since We Rejected Them and Fought Their Ideas"
'Okaz: "Let me pause here for a moment. You are reducing Islamic history just to political history. Even Islamic political history for all its tragedies, is not as bad as you described it. You also overlook the scientific and cultural aspects of Islamic history, which created a great civilization even while Europe suffered under the rule of feudalism, the Church, ignorance, and backwardness."
Buleihi: "We have inherited certain clichés about our history and the history of other nations without reading our history critically and without reading the history of others fairly and objectively. The luminous Greek civilization emerged in the sixth century BC and reached the peak of its flourishing in the fifth century BC. In other words, Greek civilization emerged many generations before the Islamic one, and Greek philosophy was the source from which Muslim philosophers derived their philosophy. Those individuals in whom we sometimes take pride, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haytham, Al-Razi, Al-Qindi, Al-Khawarizmi, and Al-Farabi were all pupils of Greek thought. As for our civilization, it is a religious one, concerned with religious law, totally absorbed in the details of what Muslims should do and shouldn't do in his relations with Allah and in his relations with others. This is a huge task worthy of admiration, because religion is the pivot of life. We must however recognize that our achievements are all confined to this great area. Let us not claim then that the West has borrowed from us its secular lights. Our culture has been and continues to be absorbed with questions of the forbidden and the permitted and belief and disbelief, because it is a religious civilization…
'Okaz: "They [the Muslims] learned from the Greek civilization and this is not a fault, this is the way young civilizations are, they learn from previous civilizations and build upon them. Is it expected that they should have abolished the achievements of the Greeks and started from zero?"
Buleihi: "I am not against learning [from others]. What I wanted to clarify is that these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don't deserve to take pride in them, since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization."