By Naqib Hamid
February 14, 2012
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is a well-known Pakistani Muslim theologian, Quran scholar and exegete, and educationist
Ghamidi considers the contemporary advances in knowledge, even if originating in the west, as advances in human knowledge — belonging to and adding to the entirety of human experience
In an academic discourse that has been dominated by the likes of Huntington, Eisenstadt, Arnason and others, it was quite refreshing to come across the cultural and civilisational analysis of contemporary Islamic scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. This article presents a summary of Ghamidi’s views on this important theme in the sociology of religion and globalisation.
Ghamidi’s theoretical views on this vast topic are based on the understanding that there is a central distinction between the two ‘civilisations’, i.e. broadly speaking the Muslim and the western civilisation that has led to two different manifestations of socio-cultural values. The core difference is in the perspectives towards freedom, a concept that has become the central tenet of contemporary western civilisation. He traces the development of freedom to various phases of western history in which the west was able to gain independence from matters like feudalism and the Church, and refers to the development of science and works of philosophy including Rousseau and Voltaire in this regard. The result of this evolution towards liberty is the contemporary western civilisation, which attaches great importance to matters like freedom of speech and expression today. On the other hand, the Islamic civilisation sees as its central tenet the concept of ‘Ubudiyyah’, i.e. submission to God according to Ghamidi.
This concept has therefore led to a different manifestation of socio-cultural values among Muslims. Ghamidi points out that the three characteristic manifestations of the Islamic civilisation are Hifz al-Maratib (respect for relations especially parents), Hifz al-Furuj (guarding the private parts from illicit sexual acts) and Amr bil Maaroof wa Nahi anil Munkar (prescribing right and forbidding wrong). However, in identifying these features he also points out these are in a state of decline among contemporary Muslims. The two different perspectives have, in any case, shaped two different outlooks towards life and the world among the Muslim and western civilisations.
Ghamidi observes that the core relationship between civilisations in the world is that of economic and political interests, i.e. ‘realpolitik’, and therefore he dismisses the perception that the west and Islam are in any conflict on the basis of religion. He identifies certain broad areas in which, according to him, there are ‘points of difference’ between the orientations of the Muslim and the west; these ranging from small, moderate, to high levels of divergence. However, he is clear in pointing out that despite these differences there is no threat of a clash of civilisations in the Huntington sense of the term. According to him, empires in the past too have had far-reaching socio-cultural influence on other parts of the world. He quotes the Roman, Persian and Muslim civilisations of the past in this regard.
However, the major developments in the domains of science, technology and media in current times have led to a speeding up of the process and its magnitude. Interestingly, Ghamidi’s analysis does not include the ‘west’ only as a typified, particular civilisation but also as a wider, contemporary mode of thinking influenced by the west too, and it is this angle that gives his viewpoint greater strength, providing it a deeper ‘tradition-modernity’ frame.
Firstly, according to Ghamidi, a difference exists between the Muslim civilisation’s attitude and outlook towards women’s lives and the west, being quick to point out that these are differences due to the ‘Tehzeebi Rawayat’, i.e. civilisational traditions and not religion per se of the Muslims. As a whole, traditionally, the Muslims have viewed the domain of women as the home, family life and socialisation of children. This, in turn, has led to a difference in ways of thinking about laws related to women and their role in the public sphere. A second traditional area of difference is the attitude towards the arts. Ghamidi states that, generally, owing to a certain interpretation of religion, the overall attitude of the Muslim civilisation towards the arts can be described as conservative. Debates about the permissibility or not of visual arts and music continue to this day and this has led to a difference in perspective, broadly speaking, between ours and the contemporary western civilisation, especially when the world has entered an era where the visual image has occupied central importance.
The third divergence is in concepts of crime and sin held by the two civilisations. Some matters that are regarded as both sin and crime by the Muslim civilisation, for example fornication, are considered sins yet not a crime in the west. Various aspects of western philosophy have led to the general understanding that an action can only be considered a crime if it is against the life, property and honour of other individuals. Otherwise, in the case of consensual activity, it is a sin only, in the eyes of the west.
Another aspect that Ghamidi points out is about certain interpretations in Muslim circles regarding their relationship with non-Muslims. Some influential interpretations state that in the case of an Islamic state being formed, the non-Muslims will have to live as second-grade citizens (dhimmis) giving poll tax (Jizya). According to him, such interpretations are no longer acceptable in the modern world, especially when many Muslim countries themselves have signed the UN Charter. Similarly, he points out to scriptural interpretations that advocate the non-possibility of Muslims befriending Jews and Christians or the need for expansion of an Islamic state as potential areas of tension between the two civilisations. Furthermore is the question that if such an Islamic state is formed, whether it has the right to enforce religion on the people or not. Interestingly, he points out that the term ‘Islamic state’ is a newly coined term and such a concept was not historically existent in Muslim discourse.
Ghamidi considers the contemporary advances in knowledge, even if originating in the west, as advances in human knowledge — belonging to and adding to the entirety of human experience. He calls for a ‘reformation’ in religious knowledge and education among Muslims, emphasising on producing scholars well versed in religion and modernity who can spread the message of Islam globally in a positive way. He also urges the Muslims to leave their current psyche of negativity or ‘adventurism’, adopting a pragmatic, constructive attitude for their future progress. The richness of Ghamidi’s civilisational analysis lies in his ability of examining the world from a religious and sociological standpoint. In an era when we search for answers to intricate questions like the relationship between Islam and the modern west, scholars like Ghamidi can help us understand our changing world with greater clarity.
Naqib Hamid teaches Sociology at University College Lahore (UCL).