A dangerous heritage, a clash of civilizations
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Monotheism is in the one eternal medium that constitutes truth. A medium in this context is defined as a pervasive environment that collectively shapes people’s thoughts and actions, a paradigm or milieu or set of values shared by a society. Eternity is the criteria for distinguishing absolute truth from falsehood; temporary mediums are false, bound to inevitably fail. This understanding of truth, explained first by Abraham (Ibrāhīm), is the cornerstone for understanding struggles in human history.
As Allah is the only truly eternal medium, we recognize it in our lives by the universal values derived from Allah’s attributes. All creation reflects the eternal medium to a degree, through which we observe consistency across patterns in all observable dimensions in life.
Nevertheless, falsehood does exist in the form of transient or temporary mediums. What is false naturally thrives when people become immersed in the moment and forget the bigger picture, or they might be deceived into not recognizing the temporary nature of false mediums. This is why falsehood is strengthened by fleeting sensational or emotional experiences.
This observation prompted some scholars to warn against any medium that has an intense sensational effect; television, for example. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman highlights the problematic nature of the instantaneous electronic-based mediums, particularly fragmented visuals such as television and videos.
False mediums are all temporary, yet they differ in nature and form. In the Quran, Allah has dedicated a full chapter on different forms of temporary mediums used to support false narratives. Those mediums include wealth, power, heritage, desire, sensations, and even language in its sensational poetic forms. Hence, the name of the chapter “The Poets” (Sūrat al-Shu’ara’).
Even so, given the diversity of false mediums, which one do we have to be most concerned about? And which one is going to adversely affect humanity in the long term? Allah informed us that the medium of heritage is at the top of the list. This revelation is in a chapter in the Quran named after the Prophet Hūd (ṣ), which exposes the lethal effects of this medium on humanity.
In this story, Hūd tells his people that Allah will enrich their wealth and their power if they accept monotheism, as Allah blesses those who worship Him alone in both this life and in the Hereafter. They rejected the offer:
يَا قَوْمِ اسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُوا إِلَيْهِ يُرْسِلِ السَّمَاءَ عَلَيْكُم مِّدْرَارًا وَيَزِدْكُمْ قُوَّةً إِلَىٰ قُوَّتِكُمْ وَلَا تَتَوَلَّوْا مُجْرِمِينَ قَالُوا يَا هُودُ مَا جِئْتَنَا بِبَيِّنَةٍ وَمَا نَحْنُ بِتَارِكِي آلِهَتِنَا عَن قَوْلِكَ وَمَا نَحْنُ لَكَ بِمُؤْمِنِينَ
Hūd said: O my people, ask forgiveness of your Lord and then repent to Him. He will send rain from the sky upon you in showers and will add strength to your strength. Do not turn away as criminals. They said: O Hūd, you have not brought evidence and will not abandon our gods on your word alone. We do not believe you.
Surat Hūd 11:52-53
Despite Allah promising them wealth and power, it was ultimately their attachment to their heritage that made them reject the message of monotheism:
قَالُوا أَجِئْتَنَا لِنَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ وَحْدَهُ وَنَذَرَ مَا كَانَ يَعْبُدُ آبَاؤُنَا
They said: Have you come that we might worship Allah alone and abandon what was worshipped by our forefathers?
Sūrat al-A’rāf 7:70
This story highlights the allure that heritage has over some people, even more so than wealth or power. The special danger of heritage is that it has a feature that no other temporary medium has: it is cumulative. As humanity progresses over time, heritage only increases as a function of history. It is the perceived historical inheritance from one’s ancestors.
It is amazing how we implicitly acknowledge that we are neither entitled nor responsible for events that occurred before we were born, yet we allow ourselves to be obsessed with our perceived entitlement. Since the destructive pride in heritage derives its power from history, it is very easy to resurrect in any generation.
By understanding how mediums influence an area, we understand one reason why certain lands contain more righteous people than others. Salman al-Farisi (rha) said:
إِنَّ الْأَرْضَ لَا تُقَدِّسُ أَحَدًا وَإِنَّمَا يُقَدِّسُ الْإِنْسَانَ عَمَلُهُ
Verily, land itself does not make anyone holy. Rather, a human being is only made holy by his righteous deeds.
In other words, a land is not necessarily holier or more righteous than others because of its geographic location. Rather, each place contains cultural mediums that may or may not be conducive to good behavior.
Geography of conflict
Humans have the potential to excel wherever they are, yet some lands are clearly favored over others. The Prophet (ṣ) once told his companion:
عَلَيْكَ بِالشَّامِ فَإِنَّهَا خِيَرَةُ اللَّهِ مِنْ أَرْضِهِ يَجْتَبِي إِلَيْهَا خِيَرَتَهُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ
You must go to the Levant (al-Shām), for it is Allah’s chose land to which he draws His chosen servants.
Sunan Abī Dāwūd 2483
Yet the people of any land, no matter how favored, are not immune from corruption. In fact, the corruption of the Levant will cause further corruption in the Muslim Ummah, as the Prophet (ṣ) said:
إِذَا فَسَدَ أَهْلُ الشَّامِ فَلَا خَيْرَ فِيكُمْ
If the people of the Levant are corrupted, then there will be no good in you.
The Prophet (ṣ) also warned about other regions, pointing to the east:
إِنَّ الْفِتْنَةَ هَاهُنَا هَا إِنَّ الْفِتْنَةَ هَاهُنَا مِنْ حَيْثُ يَطْلُعُ قَرْنُ الشَّيْطَانِ
Verily, the tribulation will come from there. From there will rise the horn of Satan.
Location does not necessarily dictate an individual’s behavior, but there is a collective quality that develops to a region in which people are excessively proud of their heritage. The Levant has an advantage, as it is the land of prophets and a cultural crossroads, but the common people are generally not too heavily invested in any historical empire. This allows them to understand different civilizations, to take what is good and leave what is bad. Other regions have heavy cultural investment in historical legacies, which narrows their vision and restricts their potential.
From this point of view, we can understand how monotheism relates to different societies. Islam, as an expression of the eternal medium, contains universal truths and values that never fail to assert themselves; it is greater than any single civilization or society, including those built by Muslims themselves. Islam is also impartial to all societies, as its universal values act upon any society equally and without bias, for better or worse, whether that society calls themselves Muslims or not.
We can infer this from the Quran, as Allah instructed Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) in his dealings with the Quraish, who were proud of their cultural inheritance although it was infused with idolatry. Allah ordered him to be tolerant and forgiving, to leave in place parts of the cultural known to be good (al-‘urf), and to avoid fruitless debating with the ignorant:
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ
Hold to forgiveness, enjoin what is known to be good, and turn away from the ignorant.
Sūrat al-A’rāf 7:199
Creating a healthy space in our minds between Islam, the divine religion, and Muslim societies is essential. As we know, Muslims and their societies often contradict Islam’s universal values. When Muslims equate Islam with Muslim civilization, it actually downgrades Islam by associating all the flaws of Muslims with the religion itself.
Decoupling Islam in its pure form from its local human expressions will make clear the conflicts that are produced by excessive loyalty to heritage: structures of arbitrary inequality like racism and caste, equating foul biases with the absolute truth, aversion to inconvenient social and political truths, shunning of the wisdom of nature and natural law.
Civilizations who exalt their cultural inheritance at the cost of truth and justice end up forcing righteous people to abandon it completely, as the Prophet (ṣ) warned:
يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَكُونَ خَيْرَ مَالِ الْمُسْلِمِ غَنَمٌ يَتْبَعُ بِهَا شَعَفَ الْجِبَالِ وَمَوَاقِعَ الْقَطْرِ يَفِرُّ بِدِينِهِ مِنْ الْفِتَنِ
Soon the best wealth of a Muslim will be a flock of sheep he takes to the top of a mountain or in valleys of rainfall, fleeing with his religion from tribulations.
A clash of civilizations?
The current global state of affairs is based upon interactions between different civilizations competing for dominance. It is a direct outgrowth of the false medium of heritage. This tribal competition has caused people to all but abandon any genuine concern for ethics in political and international relations.
The modern crystallization of this moral poverty is Samuel Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilizations. Indeed, he artificially divides the world according to their cultural and religious heritage and then posits an intractable, perpetual conflict between Islam and the West. His theory is still thriving to this day, being supported by both Western politicians and Muslim terrorists.
Some scholars valiantly opposed this academic racism and violent theorization. For example, Edward Said sounded the alarm that this theory was merely a thinly-veiled pretext for aggression against Arab and Muslim societies. Noam Chomsky accused Huntington of precipitating a new wave of atrocities to be committed in the post-colonial era.
From the point of view of faith, one of Huntington’s key errors was his erroneous classification of Islam as merely a civilization. Muslims certainly built civilizations to express Islam’s values, though they sometimes failed. Yet the values of Islam are eternally true in every time and place – authentic monotheisim, justice, mercy, love, kindness, wisdom, beauty. One does not need to be a Muslim to recognize their truth.
We are sounding the alarms of the heightened and deadly influence of the medium of heritage. This warning is necessary as the only way to disable the effect of a destructive medium is to become aware of it and reject it. This new-found influence of heritage had been foretold by Marshall McLuhan as he predicted the development of humanity in the electric age.
In McLuhan’s global village, humanity will revert back to tribalism in a process of implosion. This tribalism, in his terminology, will bring forward conflicts that are a reflection of internal contradictions. He asserted that the electric age is an extension of our nervous system and that makes our thoughts global; this global exposure reflects back onto us our own contradictions, which leads to implosion.
The medium of heritage is especially dangerous in our current of age technology exposing contradictions in Muslim societies. In Islamic terms, Muslims will be in danger of imploding once the internal contradiction between Muslim cultures and actual Islam reaches critical mass. In a global village, there is less and less room to escape these contradictions by focusing conflict outward, leading to turbulent and inevitable folding in.
In reality, Islam does not unconditionally support any culture or nation or sect or party. Referring to Islam as a civilization is a grave mistake, for it muddies its eternal message of peace by blaming it for everything Muslims have done wrong in history. In this sense, Islam is not a heritage as people imagine. Rather, Islam is the universal truth, a true as the laws of nature. Stripping away all the distractions, we can do away with scourge of cultural pride and replace it with the humility of surrender to Allah.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.