Progress for Arabs and Muslims is a negative concept, as the movement of history is constantly one of going from bad to worse. This fact is confirmed both by prophetic hadiths and popular sayings, such as Imam Mālik’s famous quote: “The last of this nation will not be reformed except by what reformed its first” or the hadith: “The best of generations is my generation, then the one that follows me.”


HISTORY, FOR MUSLIMS, proceeds from unity to diversity, “from perfection to imperfection, from pinnacle to base, and from faith to disbelief. The Companions are superior to the ‘Followers’, as the Followers are to the ‘Followers of the Followers’[1] – all the way to Judgment Day when disbelief will have become overall and true faith will have vanished”.

“History proceeds as a permanent collapse, time is a negative factor, and it cannot be more creative than it already has been. There are the predecessors and there is the misery of those who come after. This is what is clearly evident in Ibn Khaldūn’s philosophy of history, whereby there is no accumulation in the lives of the various peoples, as if generations do not improve upon each other, as if the ancients are in the right and the modernists are in error, as if the whole world is heading towards collapse … In this history the other becomes rejected a priori and diversity is a sign of degeneration, since the transition from unity to multiplicity was early seen by the ancients as a transition from faith to disbelief, from Sunna to heresy, and from Ahl al-Sunna to the people who merely follow their lusts”.[2]

In the Islamic mindset concepts and terminology are subject to the logic of import and export, and appearance at the expense of substance. Hence the interest in words, not in things, and in their source, not in any positive or negative value they may have. The strongest evidence of this is the prevalence of the concept of ‘cultural invasion’ when describing everything that comes from outside the Arab-Islamic cultural environment. At the same time they do not pay attention to the extremist ideas that daily spring from within via the various media, ideas which are pumped out by extremist Islamic groups such as the Wahhābīs and others.

For this reason, Muslims abhor the manifestations of ‘materialist’ civilization at the same time as being preoccupied with searching for the causes of their backwardness and the factors that lead to progress. Their hatred for civilization stems from a hatred for the manifestations of Western civilization, which they describe as a ‘materialist civilization’ and a ‘decadent civilization’ that is devoid of spirituality.

Thus, instead of calling for a break with the past, they call for a break with contemporary civilization as a civilization of the ‘colonial other’. And all the while that they are preoccupied with the question of progress, they put forward ideas for a resurgence that insist on perpetuating backwardness, i.e. the rejection of modernity and the rejection of the civilization of the other. It is as if their tongue was saying: “It is better for us to remain behind than advance the same way the West has advanced!”

This was Ṭarīq al-Bishrī’s stance at the ‘Arab Nationalism and Islam’ symposium organized by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut in December 1980, where he summed it up as follows:

“If evolution condemns me as a group, then I do not believe in evolution, and if progress negates me and demolishes me as a group, well then I count myself among the Returners!”[3]

In the ‘Heritage and the Challenges of the Age’ symposium organized by the same center,

Muḥammad ‘Azīz al-Ḥabbābī – despite considering himself the founder of the philosophy of ‘Tomorrowism’[4] –  criticized the discourse of forward progress on which the ideology of the Arab renaissance was based. Despairing of the very possibility of progress, he proposed breaking with contemporary civilization and retreating into the past as some form of preparation for leaping forward into the future.[5]

A manifestation of this abhorrence of contemporary Western civilization derives from an ideological desire for differentiation and rejection of Westernization and dependency, as expressed by Muḥammad ‘Ammāra at a symposium organized in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1988 on ‘Heritage and Folklore’:

“If the West parts their hair on one side, we part it on the opposite side, if he shaves his beard, we let it grow long, and if he lets it grow, we shave it.[6]

This position, which is based on reverse mechanical imitation, is a position that has no substance or purpose except in creating its opposite. It is thus completely devoid of any originality and based not on action, but on reaction. Space does not allow me here to present examples of contemporary Arabic writing in which in everything related to politics, economics, society, or even literary criticism the term ‘the West’ or the adjective ‘western’ is transformed into ‘accursed’. By just pronouncing it one immediately brings to the field of consciousness the necessity of acting or thinking in the opposite direction.[7]

And since modernity and its values are the principal keys to Western progress, freedom and progress in our popular culture has become synonymous with abandoning religion, just as engaging with philosophy, in the present as much as in the past, signifies heresy. Such a relationship was poetically expressed by Ḥajj Abū al-Ḥusayn ibn Jubayr (1145-1217):

Oh, how Islam lies abandoned, as there is a sect that now occupies itself in foolishness,

Casting aside the religion of guidance in their claim to wisdom and philosophy!

In more modern times the following verse applies:

If progress means leaving religion, then die, O soul of mine, before you ‘progress’!

or otherwise put:

If freedom means leaving religion, then die, O soul of mine, before you are ‘free’!

And thus it is that, for a broad spectrum of Muslims, the repudiation of freedom and adherence to its opposite preoccupies them, to ensure adherence to the correct faith.

One other aspect of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ hatred of Western civilization can be seen in their denial of progress coming from the West, a denial founded upon their divergent conception of progress and backwardness. Progress for them is spiritual progress, and since the West lacks this spiritual dimension and since the entirely of its civilization is materialist, its civilization must therefore be backward. Some build the very idea of progress for Arabs and Muslims on the basis of the backwardness of the West, or make the backwardness and retreat of the Other a necessary prelude to its progress, in some form of civilizational alternation on the grounds that progress for one must necessarily mean backwardness for the other, and vice versa. We are presented here with

“an evident case of negative identity, or what Hegel termed the negative formation of the self based on the negation of the other”.[8]

The denial of the progress of the other may be understood by the term ‘regression’, which indicates

“an attempt to curtail growth and deny the fact of progress. This attempt may be classified as an illusion of omnipotence … because every progress must be, if we wish, a decline from a regressive or ancestral perspective.”

The sense of being complete, perfected and omnipotent – in contrast to the imperfection of the other, is nurtured by

“the symbolism of The Revelation, as a prior basic given, one that can provide a solid foundation from which to project the illusion of omnipotence and superstitious fantasies that accompany most cases of such regression.”

It can also be understood through the understanding Revelation

“as an ideal given and a generator of ideal essences, one that grants its adherents a state of immunity and infallibility in conformity with this ideal. The distance between this ideal and reality, between the ideal ego and the actual ego, is nullified, and nullified alongside it is the very need for progress and growth”.[9]

Why this hatred of civilization?

There are many motives for hating contemporary civilization: historical, religious, cultural and political motives. But the most important motive is related to the meaning of life in the minds of Muslims. The very idea of building an earthly civilization – even if it is humane – is not a noble one unless it is linked to a noble goal in the afterlife. Such a ‘worldly’ civilization is merely a wasteful endeavour destined to go to the four winds for as long as ‘the face of God’ is not its purpose. The true, eternal life lies in the Hereafter, not in this world. And since the idea of civilization is associated with this ‘worldly’ life, it is to be abhorred as some existential burden to be cast aside in order to progress as soon as possible to the Other Life. In the concept of jihād Muslims have found what they need to meet this goal. The result is that this miserable conception of the meaning of life effectively kills off every human activity or any aesthetic or civilized act of creativity.

This miserable conception of the meaning of life effectively kills off every human activity or any aesthetic or civilized act of creativity

The rejection of modernity, secularism, and liberalism stems from a refusal to benefit from the experiences of others under the influence of a discourse of ‘particularism’, of cultural ‘constants’ and a fear of ‘intellectual invasion.’ One reason for this rejection is the negative image of these concepts presented by the United States as a result of its foreign policy, vis-à-vis Arab and Islamic states and peoples. Their underlying logic is that the bad image that the United States presents through its foreign policy indicates the bad values inherent in these concepts.

Hating contemporary civilization or its thought, at the same time as desiring its modern technological products and acquiring its sciences, manifests the contradictions and duplicities characterizing the Arab personality. One manifestation of this is the attempt to obtain scientific progress through joining scientific departments in various faculties, and by focusing on the consumer aspect by importing the latest technological tools produced by Western factories.

At the same time the attempt is being made to fragment freedom – by adopting its political dimension (the freedom to attain power through the ballot box) and preventing and prohibiting its other forms (freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion, sexual freedom, and so on).  Here, the answer to the riddle of the Arab renaissance lies in its interest in modernization at the expense of modernity, that is, fashioning a civilization from its products and at the same upending the criterion for civilization which states that ‘it is the civilization itself that gives birth to its products.’

One aspect of this contradiction is how it seizes the achievements of Western civilization at the same time as rejecting its roots in the experimental scientific approach which, on the one hand the West took over from Islam and which, on the other hand, it refuses to adopt on the grounds of it being an intrusive western approach.

As for the position on philosophy, they will praise Ibn Rushd (Averroes) when talking about its importance as a mediator contributing to the progress of the West, but turn this positive evaluation into a negative in glorifying the burning of his books and prohibiting their use in education and refusing to take his rational philosophy as inspiration for the renaissance project. They thus affirm the West’s indebtedness to Islamic civilization, but refuse to acknowledge the indebtedness of Islamic civilization to Greek civilization. And at the same time as they affirm that the mind is a divine gift that Islam gave importance to and intended to be activated, you see them seeking a type of renaissance that bypasses the intellect.

They thus condemn the 19th century Arab revival – the Nahḍa – because it represented a triumph for the intellect and accuse it of being a time of apostasy, decline and alienation. They launch the accusation of ‘sectarian agents’ against secularists and Arab revivalists such as Shiblī Shumayyil, Yaʽqūb Ṣarūf, Faraḥ Antoun, Nicolas Ḥaddād, Salāma Mūsā, Walī al-Dīn Yakan, Louis ʽAwaḍ and others, claiming that they were pro-Western Christians. This type of discourse ends up as both a ‘revival’ and ‘anti-revival’ discourse at one and the same time.

It seems that the reason for this duality is the fact that

“the invading Western civilization pushed all the conquered civilizations and cultures into a tight corner. At the same time it created an urgent need for establishing identity and effecting change. This in itself is a schizophrenic position: how can an entity both change and remain as it is at one and the same time? … The dilemma that western civilization confronts us with is that it does not leave our river any other option other than to be a tributary.”

Perhaps the fear or ‘narcissistic wound’ lies in this fact that “the river has become a mere tributary and, moreover, it is also unsure of in which direction it should flow”.[10]

Thus, the position of the Arabs and Muslims towards contemporary civilization is akin to a smoker who hates cigarettes but at the same time cannot give up the habit!


[1] See Glossary: ‘Sahāba’ and ‘Tābi‘ī’.

[2] George Tarabishi, المثقفون العرب والتراث  (Arab Intellectuals and Heritage), pp. 255-7.

[3] ‘Returners’ here means those who pass away, as a reference to Qur’ān II (al-Baqara), 156: إنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون   ‘Surely we are Allah’s and to Him we shall surely return’. (Ed.)

[4] Al-Ḥabbābī’s Falsafat al-Ghadiyya focused on the need to “study the past as a means to understand the present, and a means to prepare the future, instead of studying this past as a value in itself, as is the case in the schools of the third world” and sought a universalism in values, as an opposition to ‘self-centered western cultural hegemony’. His focus was on a palingenesis, of “radical cultural, ethical, and psychological changes, to re-humanize the human being with a comprehensive view and international solidarity” and “invent a new thought at the level of human dignity”. The decontamination instinct is evident in his book Al-Shakhṣāniyya al-Islāmiyya, where he underscores the need to return to the first sources of Islam “before its contact with the Greek, Persian and Indian cultures” so that “the constituent elements of an original Islamic personality” can be highlighted at the moment of the beginning, the ‘moment of purity’. (Ed.)

[5] George Tarabishi, Op. cit, p.31.

[6] This is a attitude deeply rooted in the heritage, as can be seen, for instance, in the work of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) entitled اقتضاء الصراط المستقيم لمخالفة أصحاب الجحيم  (‘Cleaving to the Straight Path means Opposing the Inhabitants of Hell’), where the starting point for a Muslim’s life was the point at which a perfect dissimilarity with the non-Muslims has been achieved: “Even the good things they do in their lives could be harmful to us in our lives or in the hereafter, so remaining different from them will bring us goodness.” (Ed.)

[7] Op. cit, pp.50-51.

[8] Op. cit, p.205.

[9] Op. cit, pp.143-144.

[10] George Tarabishi, من النهضة إلى الردة  (From Renaissance to Apostasy).

Read Part 1 of this series here

Read Part 2 of this series here

George Tarabishi: “Progress for Arabs and Muslims is a negative concept”
Muhammad al-Habbabi: “We should break with contemporary civilisation and retreat into the past” to fashion a future free of contamination
Muhammad ‘Ammara: exploring the problem of ‘reverse mechanical imitation’