The Qur'an, as a civilisational text, intended to turn the Arabs from oral communities to literate communities. But the collective discourse of these communities expressed their rejection of this transformation. What took place subsequently was the modification of civilisational Islam for the benefit of Bedouin custom and tradition.


THE THING that most distinguishes ‘primitive peoples’ or those dubbed ‘pre-historic’ is the relationship of the unconscious that binds them to their social habits and institutions. Oral societies, according to Levi Strauss, are distinguished by their unconscious infrastructure, and the thinking that these societies produce from this constitutes ‘collective thought’, while literate societies exercise critical thought.[1]

Does this mean that Arab and Islamic societies are still primitive, in which oral culture enjoys prestige at the expense of written culture, in which the low level of reading and cultural productivity effectively equates them to oral societies? Does Qur’ānic discourse on the Jews and Christians, in their capacity as ‘People of the Book,’ have any connection to this issue? Is it possible to explain the cultural demarcation line experienced by Muslims any other way than in light of the migration towards book culture (authored or translated) or the link with the Renaissance and European civilisation other than through its continuing, intimate connection with it?

The following is an example of the Arab position on writing and records:

It is said that the rebel Sufyān said: “My heart never left behind anything without it subsequently betraying me”, and “Paper is a troublesome warehouse”. Al-Awzāʽī is recorded to have said: “This knowledge was something honest for as long as it was in the mouths of men circulating it and recounting it; but when it was turned into books its light faded and passed over to those to whom it did not belong.”

What gives these ancient words a cultural value is the fact of its widespread application today.

Their unconscious signal is their rejection of writing

The Qur’ān, as a civilisational text, intended to turn the Arabs from oral communities to literate communities and for this reason it inaugurated its discourse with the command “Read!” But the collective discourse of these communities expressed their rejection of this transformation through the false attribution to Muhammad of the response “I cannot read” to the Angel Gabriel’s commanding of him to read in the cave of Hirā’. The tale was designed to indicate that prophethood was imposed upon Muhammad from outside. By putting abroad the ‘illiteracy’ of the Prophet Muhammad the conscious intention was to indicate that a miracle had taken place, yet their unconscious signal in this is their rejection of reading, that is, the rejection of a cultural transformation to a people of the written word.

The revelation of the Qur’ān in the Arabic language does not imprison it in the Arab region, since the value of the Qur’ān is not in its Arabic alphabet but in the cultural values it contains. It can only be a message to all nations if it binds together the world with a singularity of cultural values before binding them theologically with a single God. This is what the Qur’ān attempted to achieve through its civilisational content when it attempted to extract the Arabs out of the obscurities of localised nomadism and usher them into the light of world civilisation.

Civilisational values in the social, moral and civic arenas were not invented by the Qur’ān, nor did they hail from beyond this world. They were inspired by the influence of other cultures upon the Messenger. Since the Arabs are averse to imported ideas that have no origin amongst themselves, they rejected them irrespective of whether they contained any positive or negative value. They consequently emptied Islam of its civilisational elements and contented themselves with its rituals and superficialities. What took place subsequently was the modification of civilisational Islam for the benefit of Bedouin custom and tradition.

Because the values of Islamic civilisation were neither new nor unfamiliar to the non-Arab nationalities that adopted the Islamic faith (they were simply their own wares returned to them) their response and participation in the construction of Islamic civilisation was made on the basis of experience and knowledge as to how a civilisation is to be constructed. Their participation was a practical process, albeit one inspired by a new impetus – Islam. Yet these values, as soon as they found expression, nevertheless appeared to the Arab desert community as something foreign, since they were not used to the concept of a new and unfamiliar civilisation, and so their participation in it was marginal.

The Arab was bound to the appearance of things at the expense of essence, and this may be the reason that the Qur’ān applied the term ‘ignorance’ (jāhiliyya) to the period that predated Islam, for all the appearance of a brilliant Arab culture at the time. The term jāhiliyya, which Islam applies to the age that preceded it, was not a derogatory term so much as a description of its visible aspect: its people’s attachment to idols, and in essence it expresses their absence of creative thought.

If paganism in the eyes of Islam was ‘ignorance’, ignorance in truth is paganism since it does not instil ideas but merely sets up idols, and this is the nature of the jāhiliyya. When the sun sets on thought, the idol emerges.[2]

In its criticism of the Arab Bedouin, the Qur’ān reserves most of its opprobrium for the People of the Book – the Jews and the Christians, for it was aware of the fossilised Bedouin mentality that was impervious to change. For which reason, in more than one verse, the Qur’ān depicts their harshness, roughness and alienation from knowledge. In summary, one can say that Islam was an early first attempt to globalize Arabs and dress them with the garb of civilisation. But since custom is stronger than religion this attempt failed in the face of regurgitated pretexts such as their ‘particularism’, their ‘attachment to their o
rigins’ and their ‘unchangeable verities’. The visible result, after making exceptions for the cultural divide and the deep-rooted heritage, was the failure of the book – the Qur’ān – to transform the Arabs from an oral society into a society of the written word.

Islam’s migration from its Arab environment to a non-Arab environment, and his adoption by heirs to the civilisation of those environments, turned Islam into a factor for success in spreading the spirit of civilisation. This is perhaps evidence that the fault is not in Islam since the same occurred in other religions founded more on grounds of an emotional discourse than one based upon texts for proof, or upon the language of intellect and philosophy.

The structure of religious texts, on this basis, is what allows it to be multifaceted and thus to take on a philosophical content – which the theological and philosophical mindset produces – provided that it demonstrates neutrality, tolerance and pluralism, and renounces the concept of setting a strict pattern for religious orthodoxy, since the latter cannot accept any philosophy from outside and is incapable of distilling philosophy from within for as long as these conditions remain unmet. In sum, the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions share an antipathy to philosophy at the same time as permitting a reconciliation with it. And it is this goal of reconciliation, and how it is to be achieved, that must form the subject of discussion.

The English historian Arnold Toynbee grants geographical factors a key role in explaining civilisation, taking as starting point the process of ‘challenge’ that explains civilisation as a specific reaction, undertaken by one class of people or race, to confront a particular challenge. It is geography that issues this challenge, and according to the level of this challenge and the effectiveness of the response to it, civilisation has three possible outcomes: a leap ahead, stagnation or extinction.[3]

Islam was an early first attempt to globalize Arabs

One philosophy of history views civilisations as a series of stages of efflorescence and collapse that follow one upon the other. Ibn Khaldūn expressed this idea, and this is similar to the concept of the migration of civilisations held by Malek Bennabi and Hadi al-Alawi. Bennabi likened the migration of civilisation and its transferral from one place to another to ‘sunrises and sunsets’, but in this analogy he made civilisation something divinely ordained, in which human beings played no controlling part.

In this context the Iraqi thinker Hadi al-Alawi speaks of the displacement, not the fall, of civilisations, for reasons associated with the relationship of civilisation with philosophy and philosophers. He writes:

Civilisations do not fall, but are displaced … What they call the fall of a civilisation is its coming to a halt in the place of its origin and its transferral to another place … When the tide of Islamic civilisation faltered, its achievements were transferred to Europe, and while Muslims consigned their scholars and philosophers to oblivion, Europeans studied them and developed their ideas. While the European intellectual boasts of his relationship to Ibn Rushd, Ibn Rushd was well nigh unknown in the Ottoman era. In this sense Islamic civilisation did not fall, it did not fail, but rather was transferred.

What confirms this concept of migration – in its intellectual and historical, rather than geographical, sense – is its contribution to the Renaissance, whereby the revolution in history was paralleled by a revolution in geography. The Christian world “which had receded in the West with the fall of Constantinople, took off in the direction of progress … And the Islamic world, which had receded in the East with the fall of Muslim Spain, cast its anchor chains into the swamp of backwardness.” But the advance of the Christian world did not take place solely as a result of a geographical revolution, but more importantly because of “the opening of its ramparts, at the beginning of the 12th century, to theology followed by philosophy.” Just as the backwardness of the Islamic world took place after it had “banished beyond its walls first philosophy and then scholasticism.” Here, then, is how progress and backwardness is a process of reception and passing on, effected by means of philosophy:

Islamic thought, which dispensed with philosophy, entrusted its charge to the Christian world.[4]

[1] Georges Tarabichi, إشكاليات العقل العربي (‘Problems of the Arab Mindset’) pp.288-9.

[2] Malek Bennabi,  شروط النهضة   (‘Conditions for a Renaissance’) p.56.

[3] Ibid, p.101.

[4] Georges Tarabichi, مصائر الفلسفة بين المسيحية والإسلام (‘ The fate of philosophy between Christianity and Islam’), p.122.

The Qur’an intended to turn the Arabs from oral to literate communities

An attachment to idols: an absence of creative thought