If we examine the condition of most Arab Islamic societies at the present day we find that the gap between theory and application, between words and deeds, between what is apparent and what lies beneath, is still fast. One could say that most Arabs and Muslims still maintain, in words, their belief in Islamic cultural values, while at the same time they apply the opposite of these values in the way they behave: they are in love with the slogans and material benefits of civilisation, but their actual behaviour contradicts it.


ARAB ISLAMIC CIVILISATION is, as Hāmid Abū Zayd put it: ‘a civilisation of the text’, or as Muhammad ‘Ābid al-Jābrī put it: ‘a civilisation of jurisprudence’. It is a civilisation of the word, in compensation for the absence of a civilisation of the deed. The difference between theory and application, between words and deeds, is a common justification for the backwardness of the Muslims, as a way of raising the perfection of Islam above it all, as opposed to any faulty application of it by its followers.

But the differences soon make themselves apparent amongst the followers of this Islam ideal, especially between the two denominations of Sunnism and Shīʽism. Despite the fact that there is a single Islamic authoritative point of reference, history – political history in particular – has on many issues split the two denominations.

We know from the context of the revolutionary history of the Muslims that in the Umayyad state the Shīʽites and the Sunnīs both constituted parties of revolt, for all the differences in the means in which this revolt was expressed between these two denominations.

The Shīʽites revolted against the state by means of the sword, while the Sunnīs rebelled against it by means of their prophetic hadith; the latter ‘forbade that which was evil’ with their tongues while the former effected this with their hands.[1]

The Arabs are afflicted more than any other people with a split personality

In a discussion on broad features rather than fixed templates, we have to ask ourselves: why was the ‘culture of the deed’ associated with the Shīʽite denomination, whilst among the Sunnīs primacy was given to the word over against the deed?

Perhaps the answer lies to a large extent in the concepts of ‘duality’ or ‘the unity of opposites’, in the tendency of one person to aim towards a single target while at the same time seeking to avoid it. To believe in something with words and practise the opposite in one’s actions and in one’s application, is one evidence of dualism in the Arab Islamic personality with respect to the values of the Bedouin and the values of Islam. Following a long study of the conditions of the Arabs, the thinker ‘Alī al-Wardī observed that they were

afflicted more than any other people with a split personality. This may stem from their having fallen under the influence, during their cultural development, of two contradictory drivers: nomadism and Islam. They are, at base, nomads living in the desert; but Islam subsequently came to teach them things which contradicted these ancient nomadic values.

The values of nomadism encourage arrogance, the love of supremacy and the glorification of lineage. But Islam is a faith of humility, piety, justice and the like. I am perhaps not exaggerating if I say that the Arab, deep down, is nomadic in his internal mentality, but a Muslim in his external mindset. He glorifies power, prestige and supremacy in his acts, all the while preaching in his words piety towards God and equality among men.[2]

This duality was also described by Hegel. According to his philosophical view the personality of the Muslim appears dualistic and contradictory: “On the one hand he is generous without peer, and on the other hand there is none to match his love for destruction.” In other words, Hegel confirms that Islamic spirituality is “the finest of Eastern spirituality,” but according to his philosophical view he describes the pre-Islamic Arabs as

It might be said, to counter this, that the weak contribution of the Arabs to Islamic civilisation does not necessarily come from some reluctance in their race towards civilisational activity but from the short period of time that existed between the emergence of Islam and the dawn of the new civilisation. Islam could therefore not reasonably be expected to inspire in them the spirit of civilisation in so short a time. Nor had the constituent elements in the genius of a civilisation yet come together. According to Walter Schubart, civilisation is “a product of the genius of a specific age and is not a product of the genius of a specific race.”

a disparate folk made up of a large number of independent desert tribes too hostile to each other and their neighbours to allow for the building of a developed state and an advanced civil society, since their life in the desert and their constant mobility profoundly conflict with the establishment of a state and a civil society.

He also goes on to describe how

these multitudes of wandering tribes are incapable of achieving any development or education from their original selves, and can only acquire the traits of civilisation after settling themselves on the plains they occupy, or at such time that they have lost their primordial traits.[3]

The general picture presented by ancient Western sources on the Arabs and on Islam are in agreement that the Arabs were a primitive people in love with violence, simple in intellect and consequently incapable of any logical thought or any new philosophical or spiritual achievement.[4]

But have Arab societies actually passed beyond the state of nomadism to an urbanised phase?

Let us attempt to answer this question by examining the difference between the characteristics of a civil society and those of a nomadic society on two levels: religion and politics.

Suggested Reading

The Arabs and Islam – 3

Religiosity in a sense stands at the opposite pole of nomadism … If religion’s intention were to stir up the element of intolerance, stoke the fires of sectarian conflict and impose some imaginary uniformity over people, it would come up against the conflict between religiosity and civil society … For the problem of religion in religious societies is not represented in religion itself so much as in the religious believers and the scholars of the religion, who at times employ it as a means for disseminating ignorance, backwardness and conflict.[5]

What is needed is to purge religion of psychological defects and mundane motivations and to recognise pluralism in the sphere of faith. Without this we will fail in both religion and civil society, and remain at the level of nomads.

A society that revolves around the axis of power and force in the formulation of legitimacy is not a civil society; a society that seeks support for its rights from sources other than the public consensus is not a civil society; a society in which there prevails one single view recognised by the authorities, and where a plurality of opinions is prohibited, is not a civil society.[6]

Bedouin society does not mean that there is a lack of government or authority of any sort, but rather concerns how this government is formed and how it interacts with those whom it governs. There is a difference between a ruler who imposes his governance upon others and one who is elected by the people to this office, and who engages with them in the process of governing. The theory of civil government is inseparable from democratic theory, in that they are born together. In civil society the element of chaos takes on another form – discipline – and is because people, in total freedom, choose a person to arrange their governance. This is what is called democracy, whereby the will of everyone is transformed into the will of the governor, by the very will of those who are governed. True law is that which derives from the actual conditions of people and their choice, with the aim of organising their lives in society. It is this that gives birth to civil society.[7]

The military coups in Arab societies are manifestations of the persistence of nomadism

In this civil society the ruler does not impose his will and his authority upon society – as opposed to the monarchies that have been in power the length of Islamic history, or the republican systems that still govern today. Here we may conclude that the military coups that have taken place in Arab societies are manifestations of the chaos expressed by the persistence of nomadism. Hence civil society is unachievable under such regimes.

The upshot of all this is that civil society

comes about when people have the right to delegate the choices and the rights to a machinery of government that is founded upon the dismantling and separation of powers, as well as upon diversity and pluralism in currents, opinions and ideas. That is to say: in this type of society a man is able to acquire information from various sources and adopt his own various opinions, he is able to enjoy the right to life with dignity and honour in such a community, and play his role in supervising the activities of government from a position of cultural and legal awareness.[8]

If we examine the condition of most Arab Islamic societies at the present day we find that the gap between theory and application, between words and deeds, between what is apparent and what lies beneath, is still vast. One could say that most Arabs and Muslims still maintain, in words, their belief in Islamic cultural values, while at the same time they apply the opposite of these values in the way they behave: they are in love with the slogans and material benefits of civilisation, but their actual behaviour contradicts it!

As for values and concepts, these hold no intrinsic value for them beyond identifying their source: if any concept hails from abroad it is considered to be an interloper, and is thus handled as if it were some enemy. This applies to cultural concepts such as democracy, secularism and modernity and other, similarly imported, concepts. The term ‘foreign’ is applied to every revolutionary word or deed that stands beyond the prevalent norm, even if its source is actually intrinsic. Historically this term was applied to the Khārijites,[9] not only because they ‘went out’ against the Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, but more importantly because they went out beyond the prevailing belief values of their society. Similarly the term ‘heresy’ was in ancient times applied to the rationalist trend of the Muʽtazila, and is still today applied to any intellectual.

If any concept hails from abroad it is handled as if it were some enemy

The concept of civilisation therefore attracted negative connotations, not because it was in essence something evil, but because it was foreign. And it is perhaps for this reason that some seek the Islamization of science and foreign terminology, just so that they may become acceptable and applicable in a new environment, under the pretext on the one hand of the ‘special’ nature of this environment, and on the other hand out of fear of an ‘intellectual onslaught’. These terms are neither innocent nor neutral but carry an intellectual and epistemological baggage which the Arabs and Muslims fear will wield a negative influence over them.

The truth is that any remoulding of these imported concepts and terms could be a legitimate matter if this remoulding did not mean its incarceration with religious shackles, whereby it loses all value and meaning. A term such as democracy, if it has not been theoretically Islamized into a term such as shūrā (‘consultation’),[10] has still been Islamized practically whenever it is reduced to a process of acceding to power through the mechanism of the ballot box, and whenever its true content – which is bound up with secularism and modernity – has no influence upon their social and cultural practice of it.

[1] ‘Alī al-Wardī, وعاظ السلاطين  p. 248.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hussein al-Hindāwī, , هيجل والاسلام , لوثـرية فـي ثوب فلسَفي (‘Hegel and Islam, Lutherism in Philosophical Garb’), Nazwī, no, 75.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush, Secular Religion, tr. Ahmad al-Qubbanjī, pp.39,44,48,49.

[6] Soroush, Op cit. p.146.

[7] Soroush, Op cit. p.26,27,30,31.

[8] Soroush, Op cit. p.37.

[9] See Glossary.

[10] See Glossary.

Main picture: Kuwaiti women shopping in Kuwait city

Hegel: ‘Wandering tribes incapable of achieving any development’

“Generous without peer, but none may match his love for destruction”
Abdolkarim Soroush: ‘A society where a plurality of opinions is prohibited, is not a civil society’