Mohammed al-Sanduk

Most contemporary historians and philosophers of history believe that civilisation is characterised in general by the emergence of a number of social, intellectual and cultural features, of which the most salient are:

1. A complex pattern of (hierarchical) social structure that leads to the governance of a community by an élite. This feature demonstrates the correlation of civilisation with power and social structure.[1]

2. The presence or emergence of a pattern of symbols that constitute a means of mutual communication of knowledge between members of the community (symbols of writing).  This demonstrates the link between record-taking and civilisation, and hence the transmission of ideas and growth.[2]

3. The emergence of a sense of separation from nature and hence an attempt to gain mastery over it.[3] The detachment of the self from nature, and the attempt to gain control over the forces of nature for the benefit of society enables civilisation to withstand the various challenges it faces.

Arnold Toynbee: his assumptions did not address the intellectual roots of societies

These features appear clearly in the ancient civilisations we know of. But ancient communities experienced significant cultural isolation as a result of geographical distance and the primitiveness of the various methods of transportation (technology). This historical situation forced civilisations to close themselves off and develop an individualised differentiation for each cultural set. The civilisations of Mesopotamia, the Nile, Phoenicia, China, Greece and many other civilisations demonstrated features that were distinct and unique to each culture. Cultural particularity is one of the distinctive features of insularity as a result of the geography factor.

This is undoubtedly a natural phenomenon. Here we find that the spread of cultural productivity and technological potential created by the civilisations remained restricted to the society due to the minimal possibilities for geographical distribution. As a result, those participating in the elaboration of the isolated culture were the ones granted the possibility of geographical expansion, and this means that the elaborators of isolated cultures were in the main individuals of a local focus. When a civilisation, for some reason, collapsed its distinctive features that set it apart also vanished. Despite this geographical barrier, military occupations played a significant part in transmitting knowledge and overcoming the geographical barrier.

But there is another form of cultural isolation caused not by the geography factor but rather by an insistence on maintaining narrow-mindedness and a specific way of thinking. This way of thinking founded upon self-isolation made its appearance in Arab Islamic culture. The features characterising the growth of the Arab Islamic culture were formed during the first three to four centuries following the emergence of Islam, only to recede subsequently. We can distinguish the above-mentioned features during the period of cultural expansion, but the third feature which relies basically upon attempts at intellectual and scientific development in order to respond to challenges, has begun to regress.[4] This feature of cultural regression remained patent up to the time of the First World War.

The dream of the fall of the West continues to tease the imagination of  totalitarians

So these communities were characterised by conservatism as a result of intellectual and cultural narrow-mindedness and cultural isolation, and became distinctive by this religious aspect alone. Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) estimated that Arab-Islamic civilisation would collapse at the turn of the 21st century AD,[5] and this approximates to what we have previously found in our statistical study [3]. Religion occupied an importance place in Toynbee’s thought and as we will find later, Toynbee expected Islamic civilisation to re-emerge. Even so, Toynbee was subjected to harsh criticism for his frequent use of myth and metaphor.[6] One of his most prominent critics Pieter Geyl said of his research approach that it was ‘metaphysical speculations dressed up as history.’[7]

Some Westerners in the twentieth century, such as Sigrid Hunke (1913-1999)[8], had already granted the Arab Islamic civilisation a kind of superiority over Western civilization. For in reality ancient civilizations, for all their geographical isolation, interacted with each other through the transmission of human knowledge at a gradual pace compared to what is the case now, so that over time it built up like so many layers of snow. The accumulation of human knowledge over time was carried out by players that did not belong to one civilisation, but rather exchanged snowballs with one other. The roots of Arab-Islamic civilisation are varied, and its preeminence is due to preceding civilisations (Syria, Pharaonic Egypt, Greece and Persian), and the same goes for Western civilisation. This argument was proposed at a time when there was no evidence of an Arab-Islamic civilisational superiority, which led to much criticism of Hunke’s thesis.

Dreaming of the fall of the West

In adopting the assumption of challenge and response, Arnold Toynbee felt that Arab civilisation would rise again.[9] But these proposals are merely the product of specific assumptions that did not address the overall development and intellectual roots of these societies. Reviving a culture is no easier than reviving the dead – neither operation is scientifically possible. Modern civilisation relies basically upon the quality of the human element and the material infrastructure of a society. There were attempts at a renaissance after the First World War but these were all marked by localism in many Arab Islamic societies. All of these attempts suffered at the time, and still do, from these societies’ numerous psychological problems and difficulties.

A cultural renaissance requires the simultaneous correlation between social advancement and institution-building. A correlation between social and institutional development is a highly complex task and requires a considerable period of stability and social harmony. The ability to respond to cultural challenges posited by Toynbee requires that there be social patterns suited to their time. Thus the social component and society’s culture that drives it play a great role in the building of a contemporary civilisation. Financial resources from oil may be able to initiate major urban development at a record pace, but the problem of building a contemporary social culture upon ruins that are far removed from contemporary culture is not a trivial matter. Previous experiences of these societies confirm without any doubt that the rising anew of the Arab or Islamic civilisation is nought but an ideological dream far removed from scientific fact and that it is a dream impossible to attain.

It may be that the pre-First World War cultural isolation and the civilisational regression that took place over the period of self-isolation is at base the reason that these societies cannot possess the means to confront a positive civilisation in any other way than negatively. This is what has led to a kind of clash of civilisations, to use Huntington’s term.[10] And here western civilisation took on the guise, to Islamist thinkers of the twentieth century, of a cultural adversary.

Humankind is now moving towards a global culture and civilisation

The concept of Western civilisation may be synonymous with the concept of Western culture. The historical roots of Western civilisation go back to the Western Roman Empire, passing through the Middle Ages, followed by the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I have no doubt that the values ​​and ideas of scientific and artistic creativity are a distinct product shaped by a civilisation which the sum of all western societies have contributed to founding. Major historical transformations led to this unique pattern of civilisation. The pattern of cultural and intellectual development has brought about this civilisation’s major successes and huge culture, a fact which has helped establish its dominion over many peoples. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some intellectuals before them have fallen.

Of the most prominent thinkers who forecast the inevitability of the fall of Western civilisation was Oswald Spengler (1880-1936).[11] He constructed his prediction on a supposition that civilisations pass through the same stages of biological growth and thus cannot escape the end stage of death. This thesis was proposed at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the other hand, Marxist thought looked to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century for the inevitability of the fall of the western (capitalist) mode of production and the prediction here was based on a philosophical assumption.[12] Despite different interpretations of the reasons for the fall, the theme of Spengler’s expected fall of Western civilisation accorded to some extent with the expectations of Marxist economic thinking, which saw the inevitability of the change of the western pattern toward a communist regime along with the development of the means of production and so on. The Marxist proposal was supremely logical but a study of actual life does not depend merely on intellectual logic. The communist experiment therefore collapsed, while the historical stage of capitalism did not.

Oswald Spengler: a supposition that civilisations pass through the same stages of biological growth

Nevertheless, the dream of the fall of the West continues to tease the imagination of many ideologised totalitarians. Contemporary Islamic thought, in its various currents, specialises in this in its proposals that fall far short of the brilliance of Marxist logic. It awaits the fall of the West in the face of a comprehensive global Islamic renaissance which is to restore the dominion of heaven over the earth, but without any logical or scientific explanation to account for the expected collapse. People are still attempting to restore Spengler’s analysis to prove that it is still valid and that the fall is coming.

On the other hand others try to cling to Toynbee’s hypothesis that also spoke of the fall of western civilisation. But this fall is not, as Spengler believed, inevitable. What increases the importance of Toynbee’s proposals, for the ideologised Islamists or Arab Nationalists alike, is his expectation of a resurgent Arab-Islamic civilisation which he had predicted would collapse at the beginning of the twenty-first century. That is, that the resurgence would follow on after about nine centuries. The pre-condition for this resurgence, according to Toynbee, is the ability to confront challenges. Are these societies, which rely upon imports for their most simple needs and which are entirely devoid of the infrastructure essential for modern societies or modern social thinking, really capable of coping with all the various contemporary challenges?

We are now in an era of technology and globalisation.[13] We therefore believe that old intellectual analyses are no longer appropriate, and as a consequence we see that western culture and other cultures too are transforming. Modern technology has broken down the borders of the great cultural and geographic divide, and it is this that marks out the era of globalisation. For a century now the geographical isolation of cultures has begun to crumble and these cultures have come face to face with each other, exactly as Huntington observed. Western civilisation has been penetrating into every society the world over for almost three centuries now, but the accelerated pace of technological development has made the possibility for other societies to adopt it all the easier. Consequently we find that western civilisation is now on its way to becoming a worldwide civilisation as a result of these technological developments. This new civilisation is a transforming civilisation, one which began in the West as a great, humane cultural product but which has subsequently spread to become a global one. The characteristics of modern civilisations such as China and Japan are no more than local modifications of western civilisation. We could say that western civilisation, as a result of its ability to absorb and adapt, has itself become global.

The volatile situation experienced by most of the communities that were culturally isolated before the First World War (such as the Arab and Islamic societies) is but the result of the shattering of the isolation barrier and the tremendous cultural inrush which is difficult to control. This is what has led to social conflict and the dislocation of values ​​. The fact that western civilisation is on its way to becoming the civilisation of the globe does not mean that it is a perfect model. Perfection is a hypothetical state and the ideal only exists in ideological perceptions, or in scientific approximations aimed at simplification.

Western civilisation is, nevertheless, the one that is most efficient in meeting challenges to its survival. There is no such thing as a state of absolute stability since everything is liable to change to confront challenge. This is the logic of survival. Through its various interactions (political, economic, intellectual and so on) humankind is now moving towards a global culture and civilisation, along with some local particularities which will probably disappear after a time. This new civilisation will most likely be a modified western civilisation.


[1] William A. Haviland, Harald E.L. Prins, Bunny McBride, Dana Walrath, Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Cengage Learning; 14 edition, 2013, p.250.

[2] Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature, Simon and Schuster, 2001.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sanduk M, Growth of science under the influence in Arabic-Islamic and Western Civilisations, 700-1900 (Statistical Models), Pittsburgh University, Philosophy of science archive, 2012. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/9012/ .

[5] Toynbee A, Study of History, The Breakdowns of Civilization, 1939, Vol. V, p.37.

[6] Bod R, A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present, 2013, Lynn Richards (Translator), Oxford University Press, p.262.

[7] Geyl P, Arnold Toynbee and Pitirim Sorkin, The pattern of past: can we determine it? Greenwood, 1949.

[8] Hunke S, Allahs Sonne über dem Abendland: unser arabisches Erbe, Fischer Taschenbuch, Vlg. 2001.

[9] Toynbee A, An Historian’s Approach To Religion, Oxford University Press, London, 1956, pp.193-203.

[10] Huntington S, ‘The Clash of Civilization?’, Foreign Affairs, 1993

[11] Spengler O, The Decline of the West. Ed. Arthur Helps, and Helmut Werner. Trans. Charles F. Atkinson. Preface Hughes, H. Stuart. New York, Oxford UP, 1991.

[12] Pannekoek A, The theory of the collapse of capitalism, Ratekorredspondenz, June 1934. Translated: by Adam Buick in Capital and Class, Spring 1977; https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1934/collapse.htm .

[13] Sanduk M., ‘Is the Technology a New Way of Thinking?’, The Journal of Technology Studies, Volume XXXVIII, Number 2,  2012. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JOTS/v38/v38n2/sanduk.html .