Tag Archives: Culture And Civilization
Among the great human themes which have invited profound discourses among philosophers, historians, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists, one theme that still bugs our minds and perhaps begs more discourses is “culture and civilization”. Along with lingual and ethnic identities (more will be said about it later) culture and civilisation, on a universal scale, is inflicting a deadly divisiveness among human kind, and all this at a time when we are leaping into the twenty-first century. But sadly, one has only to utter the word “culture”, and it immediately generates centrifugal tendencies leading to more and more hatred misunderstandings and bloodshed. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Europe split into bits as the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires disintegrated; today, the socialist collapse is witnessing another disintegration of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a whole; one of the worst spots being Yugoslavia wherein Bosnians, Croats and Serbs are in a deathly grip.
Similar rumblings are being felt in south Asia, very close at home, and other parts of the world. At one point in history, humankind set in motion a prolonged and tough struggle to reject religion from public and political life so as to create better understanding and cohesiveness in inter-human relationship, but then the vacuum was filled in by “culture” and geographical nationalism which has proved and is currently proving no less venomous than the old religious divisions. Accordingly when Iqbal was challenged about his “religious communalism” he retorted thus: “All nations accuse us of fanaticism. I admit the charge–I go further and say that we are justified in our fanaticism. Translated in the language of biology fanaticism is nothing but the principle of individuation working in the case of a group. In this sense all forms of life are more or less fanatical and ought to be so if they care for their collective life. And as a matter of fact all nations are fanatical. Criticise an Englishman’s religion, he is immovable; but criticize his civilisation, his country or the behaviour of his nation in any sphere of activity and you will bring out his innate fanaticism. The reason is that his nationality does not depend on religion; it has a geographical basis – his country. His fanaticism then is justly roused when you criticise his country … Fanaticism is patriotism for religion; patriotism, fanaticism for country.” We see therefore that humankind is as fanatical or intolerant as before, only religious intolerance is replaced by cultural and national intolerance. The situation is the same, only the subject and emphasis has changed.
It is also interesting to note that the term “civilisation” is interchangeably mingled with “culture” in their usage. Surely, as two distinct terms they must have distinct definitions and implications, and their correlation. But this aspect is also ignored and the result is a complete hotchpotch ending in confusion. Even writers of caliber and learning interplay on these words carelessly.
According to A. Huxley, words carelessly used can have a dangerous impact. In his “Words and Meanings” he points that the word “enemy” does not have the same sensitivity in its implication as, if we were to use the words men, women and children instead. Also, a slight change in the shade of meaning can change the whole perspective of life, a whole world
view. Hence semantics or science of words has gained tremendous significance in the modern world. The developing countries with their static societies have not given any attention in this area of research.
It is now recognized that through evolutionary process and the dynamics of experience the meaning of words change. However, there have also been negative forces at work through the ages in all societies. The words are retained, but the meaning and its relatedness to life is changed. This is a deliberate and concerted measure on the part of the priestcraft to suit the existing status quo and the vested interests. This is how great revolutionary movements are stalled and people start regressing. For instance “ibadat” (obedience to) of either Pharaohs Laws or Allah’s Laws is now understood as “worship.” Similarly, “Service” (to humanity) has been narrowed down to “service” in the church. Such examples could be endless in all languages and among all people of different regions. After this all that the rulers (kings or politicians of today) have to do is to pick up words and phrases out of context from the works of “anbiya” or great thinkers and scholars and beat them hollow by repetitive slogan mongering. Great human concepts are thus lost to humanity and to posterity. It is therefore pre-requisite to progress to lay emphasis on the discipline of semantics. For one thing semantics helps in clarifying our thoughts. For one thing semantics helps in clarifying our thoughts and dispelling ambiguity; after all, definition of words is what philosophy is all about. Defining a word is half the problem solved; and after all what is Socratic claim to immortality but the defining of words?
With reference to what has been said above, it becomes obvious that while we retain the right to define or even invent new words when we are expressing our own ideas and concepts, our own times and experiences, the books of by gone days must be understood in the words and meaning of the times in which they were written, whether they be Greek philosophers, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers, the Bible, or the Quran. Actually, this is a subject by itself and should be studied as such. Semantics goes a long way in revealing and illuminating as to what happened in history and as to why we are still stuck in the quagmire of confusion in our thought processes.
The subject of culture and civilisation becomes particularly relevant and deeply linked to the “Pakistan Idea” because it claims its justification in an attempt to preserve a “culture”, in this case “Islamic” as distinct from “Hindu” or for that matter any non-Islamic culture. However, the tragedy is that whenever scholars of no mean caliber have attempted it, it has been in a way that is highly unconvincing. It may be an essay on “The culture of Pakistan” by Ahmed Ali in Symond’s “Making of Pakistan”, or S.M. Ikram and many other waxing eloquent on the “cultural heritage of Pakistan”, the various ingredients of Islamic culture in the ultimate analysis boils down to the domes and minarets, with Taj Mahal as its masterpiece; the Arabic alphabet culminating in the Urdu language; heritage of popular melodies of Hir Ranjah, Sassi Punnu, and its Arabian and Persian heritage of Laila Majnuu and Shireen Farhad, Arabian Nights and the Shah Nama. Then there is the tradition of the “Ghazal”, “Nazam” and the “Qaseeda” and Amir Khusro’s “Qawwali” and the Sittar”.
To this is added a whole array of saints and mystics, and of course the Mughal miniature paintings and minor arts and crafts of Multan and Bahawalpur pottery, and ‘muslin’ of Dacca, wood and lacquer work, carpets and paper mache of Kashmir, and so on and so forth. This is not all. While speaking at the Islamic Colloquium in Lahore in the late fifties as to what Islamic Art is, Dr. Richard Eithing Housen, Research Professor of Islamic Art, University of Michigan, USA spoke thus: “Islamic Art, he said is charactrised by the “taaq”, Candle” the Arabian alphabet and “illuminations” in the book”. Supposedly then, it was to preserve this culture that Pakistanis established a sovereign state! In this context the situation is inherently confusing and contradictory. It would be worth quoting at length from a text book of Civics by which the citizens of tomorrow are educated. Discussing the clash of cultures, the author says; “Clashes of culture exist wherever two ways of life within the same area are so opposed that they cannot live side by side. The very presence of the one means the suppression of the other. Our own case is a good example. Muslims and Hindus represented two separate and distinct cultures in India. They could not live together or accommodate one another. This clash aggravated so much that India had to be divided so that the two cultures can have their own areas.” In the very next paragraph, on the same page he talks about the phenomenon of “cultural ambivalence.” He argues that “a person is caught between two opposing cultures. He does not know what to do. His whole life is split up.” Having explained this the author gives an excellent illustration” of this from “urban educated class of Pakistan”. “We are torn”, he says, “between two opposite patterns, two distinct ways of life
the western and eastern”. We read and speak English in offices, colleges and restaurants, we use Urdu or the regional language at home. We wear our oriental dress at home but outside we mostly use western dress. Our values are partly Eastern and partly Western. Basically our attitude is that of an orthodox oriental but we are too prone to western polish. The result is that we have no culture of our own, or at least none that is worked out, peculiar to our genius and distrinct in shape or form”.
Without blinking an eye, the author has categorically declared that “we have not culture of our own” and yet we achieved Pakistan according to him because we had a separate and distinct “culture” from the Hindus!
However, the confusion does not end here for many of us have confusion the terms “culture” and “civilisation”. West Pakistan has witnessed a “fusion of cultures” says one author. These cultures he argues, are Indus Valley Civilisation, the Persian and Greek occupation of West Pakistan, the Saka and Kushan Conquests, and course, the Turk, Afghan, and the Mughal rule in India. Pakistan may be a new country, but she possesses a cultural heritage that is 5,000 years old. It can be traced back to the statuette of an unknown dancing girl in Moen-jo-Daro and the undeciphered script on the exquisite seals of the Indus Valley Civilisation, and not as recent as the Arab Conquest of Sind, which in any case did not leave behind any monument worth the name. It is obvious that there is a great deal of confusion and it stems from our misconception of the terms culture and civilisation. Since such confusion has proved and is proving divisive and rather naive and shallow it is time to pause for a while and do some re-thinking on the subject. For a nation of sheep or a caravan that moves on without a clear destination, even a small pause can be the beginning of a new life.
Culture is none of the things mentioned above. The culture of a people is basically on “attitude of mind”, a world-view, a way of looking at Nature, at life itself. Culture is an idea in the mind that inspires people into action or inaction and mould their lives in a particular pattern. It is something that happens inside a human being. It is a human condition, an internal change, progressive or regressive as the case may be. It is this internal change that brings a transformation either way in the fundamental constitution of a people’s mode of thought. As such, culture is abstract and philosophical, denoting a whole value system encompassing all aspects of life. Culture is not the externalia of life, externalia which point out to the fashions of the day, habits and customs. Dr. Syed Abdul Latif has presented a very apt distinction between the two. He says “In societies where this is to understood in its proper perspective, the term “culture” is at times confused with the term “refinement”. In this indifferent or popular sense, the term “culture” stands for the fashion of the day, primarily in the externalia of life, in dress, in drawing room manners, the material amenities of living, the recreation of diverse forms catering for the senses, and the similar signs of seeming or outward polish. But such a condition or state may not necessarily argue a refined state of mind, the hall-mark of true culture. ‘One may smile and smile and be a villain’ says Hamlet, and he draws attention to what should not pass for “culture”.
Culture is thus the refinement of the mind and not the externalia of life. From here we move on to the term “civilisation” and how it relates to culture. Oswald Spengler uses the word “soul” to explain culture. He then further explains that “every culture has its own civilisation. Civilisations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable”. Such is their relatedness. One is the “soul: the other “intellect” epitomized by Greece and Rome respectively. Culture is thus a creative process objectifying itself in the society; it tries to perfect itself in civilisation, that is, in social, economic and political institutions, fine arts; scientific discoveries and inventions.
One can see now that while culture is abstract, intangible, invisible and internal, civilisation is concrete, visible and external. But, and this is a very big but, during this creative process, the manifestation of culture in civilisation there is no common denomination. They are varied, diverse, ever changing. In other words, one particular culture and manifest itself in different forms of civilisations, thus making the civilisations historical and regional as well. It would indeed be a dull and morbid world if complete uniformity was imposed. Variety is the spice of life, making life so much more colourful and rich. Local variation and touch must be preserved even when the whole of mankind accepts one culture. Ernest Cassirer in his “Essay on Man” has rightly said that “here we seek not unity of effects but unity of action, not unity of products but unity of the creative process. If the term “humanity” means anything at all, it means that, in spite of all the differences and oppositions existing among its various forms, these are, nevertheless, all working towards a common end.”
This is as far as the definition of “culture” and civilisation” goes. Since the reference to the context of these terms in this exercise is the “Pakistan Idea” in an Islamic perspective, the definition of “Islamic culture” as distinct from “non-Islamic culture” becomes incumbent.
Islamic culture then is a culture that says YES to life. It is a culture that places Adam (humankind) in a position where the Malaika (laws and forces of Nature) prostrate before him; it is a culture that makes Humankind the co-worker of God. It is the spirit of adventure and enterprise, the unquenchqable thirst for learning and research, the prodigious intellectual curiosity to unravel the Laws of Nature, and the sheer joy of living on this beautiful, wonderful world which lays before humankind such immense possibilities. This motive force leads them on to exploit the unlimited resources around them, control the forces of Nature and make for themselves a heaven on earth. There is an outburst of creative activity and the flowering of talent. Deeply imbued with this culture, no task is too great for humankind, no obstacle unsurpassable, no challenge that cannot be responded to.
The anti-thesis of this culture is the one that says NO to life. It is a culture that condemns this world as a stinking carcass fit for the dogs and vultures. The interest of the people, who are priest ridden, are diverted from this world to the other world. Instead of constructing a heaven on this earth, their attention is focused solely on the heaven hereafter. Life on this earth is not important; it is the life after death that really matters.
Poverty, disease, natural calamites, all are borne with a spirit of resignation and fatalism, the creative process is dead and the faculty of thought is suppressed and lost. Meaningless and pompous ceremonies control life and are directed towards the salvation of the individual soul or its annihilation. In short, this is a dead people. It does not mean that it is physically eliminated, but its physical existence is at the mercy of powerful countries to whom they look upto for every morsel they consume.
Thus basically there are only two cultures in the world–one that says YES, and the other that says NO to life. One is Islamic the other non-Islamic. Indeed any nation at any time or place has an important ingredient of Islamic culture when she says YES to life. If is this spirit that made Tariq burn his boats: it was the same spirit that made Europeans expolore the world, across deserts and the high seas and discover new continents; it were not the gods but just ordinary human beings who traversed the deserts and who ventured into dense forests where wild beasts lurked and where unruly rivers unleashed their fury; it is ordinary human being again who have conquered geography in places where it was considered to be inimical to the spirit of activity and initiative; and today the same spirit is moving into space, landing on the moon and pushing its way to other stars and planets. In a sense from ancient to modern times, emperors and dictators like Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, Changez Khan, Temur Lang and Hitler threw challenges to others and accepted them from others in the same spirit. Tyrannical they were but there was life and vigour. On the other hand, when the spirit dies it degenerates into the culture of the opium caters of pre-revolutionary China over which the yellow river ruled, or the Hindu Indian fear, as recent as the nineteenth century, that sailing on the high seas makes them impure resulting in the dissolution of their marriage!
However, the similarity between Islamic culture and the examples given above ends here, for the survival of a culture depends upon how it uses and controls the political, economic and scientific power that it inevitably achieves after saying YES to life. Does it arrest and monopolise wealth, or does it leave it open for humankind? Do they plunder and loot others or do they become the nourishers and sustainers of humankind? Are they guided by purely material values or by permanent human values? The Quran declares in unconditional terms that the culture that nourishes and guards humanity and harnesses its scientific power by the reins of permanent values, alone can survive. The duration of culture depends upon the extent of its aiding value to human life. Dr. Latif points out that “a nation or a social group may have attained a high standard of material progress, and he distribution of its benefits within its own circle may be equitable but it may prove a danger to humanity at large all the same.” To this I would add that sometimes a wealthy nation might help other nations for its own self-preservation, but even that proves futile in the long run. The goal must be “humanity” and not the interest of ones own group. This is the test of survival and hence its veracity.
At the point, having defined “Islamic” culture, the clarification of “Islamic” civilisation, that is, how the two terms relate and function together would be in order. As already stated above, civilisation is the objectifying of culture in society in variegated and changeable forms. In this context it would be very erroneous indeed to say, as it is always being said that the minaret and dome, the “ghazal” and “qaseeda” are the monopoly of Islam. There is no reason why it cannot express itself equally well in the pagoda and the steeple, the sonnet and the ballad. Again, if one speaks English or Chinese, builds his house on Amercan style and adopts western or any other dress, one is certainly not on the “cultural crossroad”. If Bulbul Chandhri’s dance is identical to that of Ram Gopal’s, and if the “rags” that Roshan Ara sang are the same as that which Hira Bai Barodkar sang, it does not mean that one ceases to be a Muslim and a Pakistani. Likewise, if one consumes Italian, French or Chinese cuisine, one is not destined to enter hell! Islamic culture is not enshrined in “pulaao” and “Seekh Kabab.” Thinking in such terms makes any group of people a laughing stock and what is worse, these so-called identifications with Islam or any other philosophy of life makes it static and petrified.
This issue has become so confusing and retrogressive that it invites further clarification and repetition. The Quran envisages a culture that is universal. To begin with, let us take the example of the South Asian sub-continent. The moment reference is made to ancient Indian classical music and dance, the “Muslim” of this region balks at it. He has nothing to do with it he says for it is dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses. That is true, but what should matter to him is not the themes but the form which, no doubt, is a class by itself with a long and a great tradition. Even in Bharat, there are groups of people who, though not very effective yet, are thinking in terms of themes other than Hindu mythology. While retaining ancient heritage; the classic form as well can and must be used for modern themes. Similarly, in Pakistan, issues that touch our heads and hearts, issues such as extremes of poverty and wealth, enslavement and freedom, health and education, war and peace, status of women and many more can be choreographed as ballets, becoming a very effective medium of creative process and change. Such a breakthrough was first made by the famous Indian dancer, Uday Shankar, In Pakistan too, second only to Uday Shankar was Mehr Nigar Masroor, who under the auspices of PIA Arts Academy produced a ballet “Sons of the River.” These experiments are good models to understand how a particular form, may be in a modified way, can become a vehicle of great, elevating Quranic concepts.
Talking of sartorial fashions, may be climate, raw material available, the convenience and utility of the form of dress in a given situation, all these play an important role. Now, to keep on emphasizing that “Shalwar-qamiz” and a sleeveless jacket for men, and a “doputta” for women is our identity and hence unchangeable, rejecting thereby trouser-suits, skirts and “saris” as alien is an unworkable proposition. If “sari” is South-Asian, “shalwar-qamiz” is the modified form of pre-Islamic Turkish dress. To wear “shalwar qamiz” as a convenient regional dress is understandable, though how convenient it would be for the army and police duties, is another matter. Many also think that trouser-suit is a smarter and more dignified dress, keeping one alert, as compared to the laziness and shabbiness that “shalwar-qamiz” engenders. As for the identity, perhaps our memories are too short to recall that the sleeveless jacket is linked with the name of Nehru. Furthermore, if “achkan” gains significance because Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah wore it a few times, then it is a mistaken notion. The Quaid would not go in for such triviliaties; he was a well-dressed person, and he carried whatever dress he wore very gracefully. That is all there is to it. In the ultimate analysis what matters is not the outward form but the Islamic cultural spirit of dignity and poise and modesty for both men and women.
Stretching further the sartorial issue, the form of head-gears and beard or no beard is again fashion of the day and individual taste. If Hazrat Mohammad (P.B.U.H) grew a beard and protected his head with a particular designed cloth, tied with a band, so did Abu Jahal. If he was born today, his outward garb would naturally harmonise with the present fashions and utility needs of modern life-style. To make a fuss about these details is both childish and an escape from the grave issues humanity is confronted with, demanding deep research and hard work.
Another vast field that gets bogged down in a so-called culture is architecture. It seems as if the “dome” and the “minaret” were part of the blue-prints that dropped from the heavens! History of architecture informs us these characteristics were already in existence in the Byzantine and Sassanian civilisations. The former had its impact on Russia where a church with onion-shaped domes still forms a land mark and a symbol of Moscow. In Paris a beautiful white church with domes is referred to as “eastern” architecture, meaning Byzantine of course. Later, the Arabs adopted it, and varied shapes were evolved in Moorish Spain, Central Asia and Mughal India. It is not the form, but the creating spirit behind it that matters. If the building, for example, is spacious, open, sunny, airy and not closed, dark and dingy, it is Islamic in spirit, irrespective if the form is classic Greek, Byzantine, Gothic and Pagoda style. In fact, the way walls go higher and higher in Pakistan with an all-round sense of insecurity is un-Islamic, compared to the houses in the western countries that have no walls.
Above some areas have been picked up to illustrate what is cultural and what is civilisational. Many more areas could be included but this should suffice to project and clarify the confusion that is dividing humankind. Having illustrated and correlated the all important terms of culture and civilisation, it would now be relevant and easier to refer to a decisive battle and a land mark in history, namely the Battle of Badr. This battle was preceded by Hazrat Muhammad’s (P.B.U.H) departure from Mecca to Medina. Now, when he and his followers left for Medina, it was not because they spoke or started speaking a different language or had adopted different habits and fashions, but because they had adopted a different attitude of mind and mode of thought. They now represented a different culture, although civilisationally they were still the same. Then came the confrontation on the plains of Badr. Who commanded the army? Abu Jahal, Hazrat Omar’s maternal uncle. Also in the opposite camp were Abu Bakr’s son, Hazrat Muhammad’s (P.B.U.H) son-in-law and Ali’s brothers. On the other hand, in Hazrat Muhammad’s (P.B.U.H) camp were people like Bilal, the Abyssinian, Salman, the Persian and Suhaib, the Greek. It is totally a new orientation; a new grouping, a new family, bound by common thought processes rather than blood kinship, race, colour, language or country. In more ancient times, as mentioned in the Quran, Noah and his son, and Abrahim and his father belonged to opposite camps. Thus families and nations are made through likemindedness, not biologically. This, we can see, is an alliance that is as old as humankind, but today it appears to be an idea that is far ahead of our times. This situation vindicates that human mind and purely man-made laws and institutions do not go beyond narrow limits. A global human panorama is still a far cry in spite of advanced technology. This is the biggest paradox of our times.
Before this chapter is wound up, there is one particular area that needs to be referred to. It was on the basis of being likeminded as a binding factor that Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah had graphically stated that the first converted Indian was the first brick laid for Pakistan. But there is a point of view that our history is five thousand years old, tracing back to Moen-jo-Daro civilization, Gandhara and others. In this context Raja Dahir, Raja Porus and later Indian Kings gain a significance simply because they are Indian or south Asian. All this is not only confusing, it once again narrows the vision and curtails the universal dimension of Islamic culture. History, so-called Muslim or non-Muslim, or for that matter, current events, are to be evaluated on permanent human values. An individual or a group of people should receive support and applause if they happen to harmonise with these value. It is parting of the ways if these values are rejected and deviated from. Thus widening the canvas, Islamic culture can be linked with the universal heritage, leave alone that of South Asia only. Its spirit of adventure, curiosity creativity, independence, vigour and hard work along with partially or mostly in harmony with Permanent values, certain historical phases can be described as having imbibed certain characteristics of this culture, for example, ancient Greece, early Roman Republic, ancient civilisatons of the Fertile Crescent, ancient China, Persia and India, European Rennaissance, and the present creative processes of North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Through trial and error or the Directive Power of the Divine (wahi) these historical phases came or have come quite close to the spirit of it. Since perfection is impossible in human conditions, being always in the process of becoming, the closest to Islamic Culture is the life and work of Hazrat Mohammad (P.B.U.H) himself and his immediate successers.
The situation becomes further clarified if examples of opposite ways of life are enumerated
ways of life and thought processes that say “NO” to Islamic Culture. These are the Dark ages of Europe, pre-revolutionary China, post Gupta era in India, pre-Islamic Persia and Byzantine Empire, and the “Muslim” world from the twelfth century onwards. In fact the furthermost from its claims and the biggest negation of the Muslim Culture today is the “Muslim”.
In the end it may be pointed out from the Quranic stance, that the test of survival of any culture is permanent values geared to welfare of “humanity” rather any just ones own group. Cultures do not rise and fall in an inevitable cyclic order as the Greeks opined, nor does one idea or system change for the sake of change as Hegel and Karl Marx would have us believe through their “dialectical materialism” and historical necessity”. Neither is “Civilisation” the conclusion of “culture” as Spengler puts it, or “the thing become of thing becoming”. A culture declines if it is based on man-made laws of exclusive interests and narrow loyalties, but if founded on permanent human values, its creative process continues, ever moving onwards and upwards. Islamic Culture is unique in this respect. It cuts across the vicious cyclic order in which humanity has been entangled since the dawn of history. It has liberated Man from the web of “recurrence” and given a new hope of a culture that will enable the full and free, continuous and consistent development of his potentialities and talents. It rejects all theories of salvation and annihilation of the individual and emphasizes the development of personality. A nation that adopts this culture is a cultured nation. A humanized mind is a refined mind, even though it may be outwardly uncouth. And those who are trying to destroy others are only destroying themselves. This is the lesson that humankind still has to learn.
It was this “culture” that formed the basis of the Pakistan Movement. Its betrayal is of course another story which has still to be recounted, although rich literature on its post-partition history exists.
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