Civilizational Dialogue and the Islamic World

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Posted Sep 25, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Civilizational Dialogue and the Islamic World*

By Seyyed Hossein Nasr

When discussing civilizational dialogue, it is necessary first of all to ask what we mean by civilization. For several centuries in the West, the power and glitter of the world dominated by modern civilization had made the very term civilization synonymous with modern Western civilization, and all the other civilizations were considered as stages in the development of this particular civilization, which the Encyclopedists called la civilisation. For a long time intellectual discourse in the West had reduced the use of the term civilization to the singular, and since the 19th century many a modernized Asian and African also surrendered to this Western view.


It is therefore necessary to turn to the traditional understanding of the very concept of civilization, an understanding which enjoyed a remarkable universality among various traditional human collectivities


But despite the overwhelming power of Western civilization, which itself came into being as a result of rebellion against the Christian civilization of the European Middle Ages, the other civilizations, although weakened in many ways, did not die out. And now, at the beginning of a new Christian century and millennium, there is again talk of civilizations in the plural, despite the aggressive spread to the farthest corners of the earth of global consumerism and with it some of the shallowest aspects of Western popular culture. No, the other civilizations have not died out, and some, especially the Islamic, are in fact seeking to revive themselves. It is therefore necessary to turn to the traditional understanding of the very concept of civilization, an understanding which enjoyed a remarkable universality among various traditional human collectivities that have occupied the world over the millennia, before dealing with the contemporary situation.

The term civilization is related to the word civitas or city in the Latin language, civitas itself being derived from the Greek root kei, which means to lie outstretched. ?A city is thus a ?lair,? in which the citizen ?makes his bed? on which he must lie.?[1] The question then arises as to who occupies this city. The Sanskrit word for city, pur, reveals the answer, for it is also the root of the word purusa or Universal Man (al-insan al-kamil) of Islamic metaphysics. The dweller of the ideal city is purusa who is, according to the Upanishads ?the citizen in every city,?[2] or as Philo has said, going even further, ?As for lordship (kyrios), God is the only citizen.?[3] This city, which is at once cosmic, social, and microcosmic, is the origin of the traditional understanding of civilization. This city at once transcends the human order and penetrates into the traditional civilizations but in different forms and according to the religious norms which are the foundations of all those civilizations. All the realities that comprise the life of a tradition are contained in the particular ?City of God? whose manifestation on earth has created the particular civilization in question. Moreover, each human being contains this ?City? within himself or herself and is able to realize it if he or she is able to perfect himself or herself spiritually. Traditionally speaking, the truly civilized man is one who has realized this civitas Dei within himself and gained the inner vision with which he is able to realize that the only master of this city is the Immortal Spirit within and not his rebellious ego. Without this realization, man lives in barbarism even if he invents the fanciest of gadgets.

From another point of view, it might be said that every traditional civilization is dominated by a ?Presiding Idea,?[4] or a heavenly given dispensation whose spirit guides that civilization and whose form determines its particular formal structure in conjunction with the ethnic genius of the people destined to create and be members of that civilization. That ?Presiding Idea? may also be identified with religion in its most universal sense (ad-deen in Arabic). A traditional civilization remains always aware of this at once transcendent and immanent reality. The people of such a civilization have always lived in a space which is like the space of a circle with an immutable Supreme Center and have experienced time always in relation to the Origin, which is also their End, that is, the alpha and omega of their existence.[5] Traditional civilizations never lost site of either the Center or the Origin.[6] This common vision does not, of course, mean that the ?Presiding Idea? is the same in every traditional civilization, despite the inner unity that binds them together. As Marco Pallis writes, 


Traditional civilizations never lost site of either the Center or the Origin.


The fact is that every civilization that can be called authentic is endowed with a principle of unity peculiar to itself, which is reflected in varying degrees, in all the institutions of the civilization in question. By a principle of unity is meant a predominant idea, corresponding to a given aspect of the truth, which has been recipient of particular emphasis and for the expression of which, if one may so put it, that civilization shows a peculiar ?genius.?[7]

The inner or transcendent unity to which we have referred does not in any way annul the reality of the principle of unity peculiar to each traditional civilization. Consequently, as traditionally understood, there are multiple civilizations each with its own particular formal order and ?mandate from Heaven? yet with remarkably similar perspectives on the nature of reality resulting from the universal truths which through different forms have created, presided over, and sustained traditional civilizations over the ages.[8]

In contrast to all that has been said, modern civilization, which was created in the West on the basis of and also in opposition to many of the basic tenets of Latin Christian civilization but which has now spread to all the four corners of the globe, is based on the absolutization of terrestrial man, on a Promethean individualism, rationalism, and humanism. For the most part it has substituted the kingdom of man for the Kingdom of God.[9] It no longer possesses a transcendent ?Presiding Idea? as did all traditional civilizations, and the ethical and spiritual values that are present in it are the heritage of the Christian civilization which it has sought to supplant. In fact, strictly speaking, one cannot speak of modern Western civilization as a new civilization. Rather, it is both a continuation of and reaction against and deviation from Western Christian civilization.

From the traditional point of view, in the present day situation all civilizations have decayed and fallen from their ideal except that the Oriental civilizations began to decay in a passive way during the past few centuries and Western civilization in an active way since the Renaissance.[10] More recently, a certain type of decadence associated with Asia and Africa in modern times is now beginning to appear in the West, and that active decay in the form of deviation from traditional norms is now beginning to manifest itself in non-Western civilizations. This reality must be considered in any serious civilizational dialogue.

Today, we see on the globe several major and a few smaller civilizations, including the Western, the Eastern European and Russian, the Islamic, the Indian, the Chinese and Japanese, the black African and the various remnants of indigenous civilizations and cultures. Some like Samuel Huntington would count South America as a civilization separate from the Western, and the Japanese as a civilization distinct from the Chinese.[11] There are also many sub-sets within each of these civilizations distinguished by ethnicity, nationalism, various religious interpretations, languages, and other factors. Nevertheless, the reality of these civilizations can hardly be denied.

There are today no intact traditional civilizations. Nevertheless, there is a major difference between modern Western civilization and the others in that it is this civilization which represents most of all modernism and is still powerful enough to project its worldview and values upon other civilizations; whereas the reverse is not true. If there had been a movement to carry out civilizational dialogue six centuries ago, the situation would have been very different. Each civilization would have then been based on that ?Presiding Idea? which offered remarkable similarities with the ?Presiding Idea? of another civilization despite obvious differences. If members of these civilizations were to discuss the nature and goal of human life, there would be remarkable resemblances. When one reads the list of basic virtues in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, it is as if one were reading an Islamic text on ethics. And most important of all, they would all agree that the reality of the cosmos and of man is derived from and based upon an Ultimate Reality, which is both beyond and within all things. They would have little difficulty understanding each other on the metaphysical level, whether they were speaking of Brahman, Atman, the One, Ahura Mazda, Deus, Allah, or for that matter, nirvana.[12] Such, of course, is not the case of modern Western civilization in which there are still Christian and Jewish elements but in which a secularist and scientistic discourse dominates much of public life as well as philosophy, science, and the arts. Today civilizational dialogue means, on the one hand, dialogue between traditional civilizations weakened and modernized to various degrees and, on the other hand, between each of those civilizations and the modern and postmodern Western civilization, in which there still exist important religious and spiritual elements but which is also the driving force behind all the ideas and ideals which seek to destroy the very foundations of the still existing albeit weakened traditional civilizations.


To carry out serious dialogue under these difficult conditions, one must first of all remember that all the civilizations of which we have knowledge, those still living and those which have perished, have been created by a religion or the ?Presiding Idea?


To carry out serious dialogue under these difficult conditions, one must first of all remember that all the civilizations of which we have knowledge, those still living and those which have perished, have been created by a religion or the ?Presiding Idea? already mentioned. Chinese civilization is based on Confucianism and Taoism, Western civilization on Christianity, Islamic civilization on Islam, as Roman civilization was based on the Roman religion and Egyptian civilization on the Egyptian religion. This does not mean that a civilization does not borrow from what came before it, but a new dispensation from Heaven integrates various elements of what went before into a new unity reflecting its own spiritual genius. The Christian civilization of Europe certainly owes much to Greece and Rome but is not simply their continuation. There is nothing more different from a Roman temple than a Romanesque church or from a Greek temple, a Byzantine church. It is the new spirit infused by a new religion into the ?material? and ?earthly? elements to which it is sent that creates a civilization with its own distinct social structure, ethical norms, sciences, and the arts.

Because of this centrality of religion in the creation of each civilization, understanding between religions?which are the sources of values and ideals of these civilizations?and accord between religions lie at the heart of civilizational dialogue if this dialogue is also to lead to mutual respect and understanding. It is here that the traditional perspective of perennial philosophy, which sees an inner truth that unites the religions on the supra-formal and universal level without in any way violating the sanctity of their particular formal structures, becomes so important in the current discussion about civilizational dialogue. If this dialogue is to result in understanding, one must first of all accept what Frithjof Schuon has called ?the transcendent unity of religions?[13] and realize that despite differences of a formal order all authentic spiritual paths ?lead to the same summit.?[14] Nothing is more important for civilizational dialogue than a common understanding of first principles even between non-Western civilizations and the West where many of these principles have been discarded by the dominating paradigm but nevertheless survive not only among Jews and Christians, but even to a large extent among those who have turned their back consciously or unconsciously on the religion of their ancestors.

* * *


It is not accidental that at the dawn of this new millennium the call for civilizational dialogue, rather than clash, should come from the Islamic world.


It is not accidental that at the dawn of this new millennium the call for civilizational dialogue, rather than clash, should come from the Islamic world, more specifically from Sayyid Muhammad Khatami, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a land which has been one of the major foci of Islamic civilization during the past 13 centuries and before that period the heart of a major empire and civilization. The Islamic world has always been aware of itself as a unified civilization bound together by Islam as both religion, in the ordinary sense of the term, and a complete way of life. The Islamic world stretched from the very first century of its existence from the heart of France to the borders of China. It created a civilizationally unified world with two distinct zones, the Arabic and the Iranian or Persian, to which later zones were added. It contained within itself such diverse ethnic groups as Arab, Iranian, Turkic, Indian, Malay, Black African, European, and even Chinese. It was witness to not only much greater geographical and climatic differences than what one finds in Western European civilization, but also a greater diversity of ethnicities and languages. The main language of Western Christendom was Latin, and all the European languages save for very small linguistic groups belong to a single family; whereas the three main languages of the Islamic world, namely, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, belong to three totally different language families. Yet, very early in its history, Islam had a powerful awareness of itself as a distinct civilization while it integrated many elements of previous civilizations, especially in the domain of the arts and sciences, into its universe.

Classical Islamic historians even wrote about the religious and philosophical, as well as historical, significance of other civilizations, as we see in the works of At-Tabari, Al-Mas`udi, and the like. One of them, Ibn Khaldun, was the father of what one might call civilizational studies and wrote with exceptional depth about the rise, continuity, and decline of civilizations.[15] Another major Islamic historian, Rashid Ad-Din Fadl-Allah, was the author of the first universal history ever written, a work which dealt with the Franks and the Chinese and nearly everyone in between.[16] In fact Islamic civilization was the only one before modern times to have had experience of nearly every other major civilization of the world. It inherited much of the learning, the sciences, the philosophy, and the technology of ancient Egypt, the Mesopotamian civilizations, ancient Greece, ancient Persia, and to some extent Rome, India, and even China; on the basis of what it had inherited, it created the vast traditions of Islamic science and philosophy which also influenced the West deeply.[17] It also learned many ancient artistic and architectural techniques into which it breathed the spirit of the Islamic revelation, thereby creating a very distinct art whose influence is to be seen to this day in South and Central America in the form of mud骡r art. And once it came into existence, Islamic civilization had direct contact with and experience of the Chinese and Indian civilizations in the east, the Byzantine and Western Christian worlds in the west, and the Black African world to the south, not to speak of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia, which became part of the Islamic world. 


In fact Islamic civilization was the only one before modern times to have had experience of nearly every other major civilization of the world.


In contrast to the West, where experience of other civilizations, except for the Islamic, was combined with the advent of modernism, Islam had full awareness of many other civilizations and also religions before modern times. For a thousand years it saw itself as both the central and the most powerful of all civilizations, hence the extreme shock of the realization of its weakness before the modern West brought home to the heartland of the Islamic world with the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt in 1798, combined with the sudden weakness and strings of defeat of the Ottomans in Europe and the destruction of Muslim power in India by the British. 

From the 18th century Islamic civilization began to weaken to various degrees in different areas. Much of the Islamic world became colonized by various European powers, chief among them the British, the French, the Dutch, and the Russians. From the 19th century onward, modernized Muslims, seeking to emulate the West with the hope of gaining power and therefore making themselves independent, began to weaken Islamic civilization in the name of trying to save it; this process continued to accelerate up to the end of the first half of the 20th century. At first there was much resistance, but governmental authorities, controlled by either colonial powers or modernized Muslims who did their bidding, usually won the day. Islamic dress began to change in favor of Western dress, as did art, architecture, and city planning. Western style educational systems were established everywhere to introduce Western science and learning at the expense of Islamic ones. Even laws, which had been that of the Shari`ah or Divine Law based on the Qur?an and the traditions (Hadith) of the Prophet of Islam, were changed in many lands in favor of Western legal codes. Many thought that soon nothing would be left of Islamic civilization.

Yet, despite the unbelievable havoc brought about in nearly every domain, Islamic civilization did not die out completely because the religion of Islam which had created it was still very strong. From the 1950s onward, along with the revival of Islamic thought and the rejection by many newly educated Muslims of the complete and blind imitation of the West?which itself was beginning to experience a major crisis in the domain of values?gradually some aspects of Islamic civilization began to be renewed. This process is still very much going on, and, because it seeks to re-assert the Islamic identity of the Islamic world rather than simply to emulate a West no longer completely certain of where it is going itself, it is often construed as being anti-Western.


Because the West has ?interests? in various Islamic countries which it wants to protect and it is still more powerful and dominant than all non-Western civilizations, some of these attempts at self-assertion by Muslims take extreme forms, often using Western ideologies to combat the West.


For obvious political reasons, opposition to Western ?interests? in the Islamic world is often interpreted as opposition to the West itself, whereas the current revival of things Islamic makes no claim whatsoever about the West?s right to do what it wants in its own world. But because the West has ?interests? in various Islamic countries which it wants to protect and because it is still more powerful and dominant than all non-Western civilizations, some of these attempts at self-assertion by Muslims take extreme forms, often using Western ideologies to combat the West. In many places some Muslims find no other channel for the achievement of their goals, which should normally be through peaceful means. But these extremist actions, no matter how much aggrandized in the Western media, are secondary factors compared to the larger reality of the desire of Islamic civilization to re-assert its own identity and preserve its own religious and cultural ethos even under the unprecedented pressures that it faces. The vast majority of Muslims have no desire to have clashes with other civilizations nor wish to have ?interests? in the Gulf of Mexico or the English Channel, which would then need to be protected through clashes. In fact where there are clashes in the Islamic world today, such as in Palestine, Kashmir, or Chechnya, it is always the question of Muslims seeking to protect their own rights, freedoms, or land that have either been taken away or are being threatened, and not to conquer others and then try by force to rule over them. 



If an accord could be created between the religions including those in the West where secularism has become victorious in so many domains, civilizational dialogue leading to understanding would be facilitated.


There are numerous factors today which oppose dialogue and understanding between civilizations and even within civilizations. There are economic interests, ethnic and nationalistic assertions, and even the missionary zeal of imposing one?s views on others by political, ideological, or economic means. But there are also forces which seek to heal rifts both within each civilization and among civilizations, for we realize that without accord with other men and with God?s creation, there is no future for human life on earth. Man?s future seems to waver between clash or dialogue of civilizations. Men and women of good will?whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist or even some outwardly agnostic? now realize that there is no way for the human species to survive save through dialogue and accord, even with those with whom we disagree on principles. In the present context there must first of all be a civilizational dialogue between members of what remains of the traditional civilizations on the basis of the unity of that transcendent Truth which binds them together. Then there must be an accord on the basis of mutual respect and the acceptance of the thesis of agreeing to disagree even with those who do not accept the traditional principles. If an accord could be created between the religions including those in the West where secularism has become victorious in so many domains, civilizational dialogue leading to understanding would be facilitated. And then on the basis of that mutual understanding, a greater accord could be created at least on the level of action between those who accept a transcendent Principle and an ultimate goal of human life beyond the purely mundane and earthly, and those who do not. 

Every civilization today, each in its own way, is faced with an unprecedented crisis. There are wars, the breakdown of social order, the weakening of ethical norms, and, most ominously, the destruction of the natural environment, for which all the civilizations are to blame. Each civilization should be given the freedom based on mutual respect to turn its attention to its own spiritual, intellectual, and social problems. And on the basis of mutual respect, various civilizations must be able to join hands in facing global problems such as the environmental crisis or the spread of new bio-technologies without consideration of their ethical consequences. These problems recognize no national or civilizational boundaries; only dialogue and accord, not clash or brutal military or economic force, can hope to confront and solve these problems.

In this complicated process upon whose success depends the future of humanity, Islam and Islamic civilization are destined to play a central role. Islam is the last major religion of this cycle of human history, and the Qur?an speaks explicitly of the veracity of religions sent to mankind before Islam. As for Islamic civilization occupying the middle belt of the world, by geography as well as by its historical experience, it is suited in every way to carry out civilizational dialogue with various civilizations and to be itself a bridge between East and West, reflecting the light of that blessed olive tree to which the Qur?an refers as being neither of the East nor of the West, as it is also the message of surrender to the Lord Who is the Lord of all the Easts and all the Wests.

* This work is published with the permission of Encounters: Journal of Inter-Cultural Perspectives and the Islamic Foundation.

** Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is the University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University in Washington DC. He has authored over 40 books and 500 articles. The author has dedicated this article to the memory of Dr. Syed Ali Ashraf, pioneer in educational philosophy in the context of civilizational dialogue.


[1] A. K. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilization? (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1989). In Islamic languages, the terms for civilization are also related to the city as traditionally understood. In Arabic the word civilization, al-hadarah, is derived from the root hdr meaning a place of settlement or town or city. In Persian and many other Islamic languages such as Urdu and Turkish, the terms tamaddun or madaniyyat usually used for civilization are also related to the word madan, which likewise means town or city.

[2] Coomaraswamy, ibid., p. 2.

[3] Coomaraswamy, ibid., p. 2.

[4] See M. Pallis, Peaks and Lamas (London: The Woburn Press, 1974) chapter 22, pp. 299?332.

[5] As we have had occasion to mention elsewhere, there are numerous treatises on traditional metaphysics and philosophy in the Islamic world with precisely the title Al-Mabda? wal-Ma`aad in Arabic or ?haaz wa Anjaam in Persian, both terms meaning ?origin? or ?beginning and end.?

[6] ?The whole existence of the peoples of antiquity, and of traditional peoples, in general, is dominated by two presiding ideas, the idea of Center and the idea of Origin.? F. Schuon, Light on the Ancient World, trans. Lord Northbourne, (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom Books, 1984) p. 7.

[7] M. Pallis, The Way and the Mountain (London: Peter Owen, 1991) p. 178.

[8] See R. Gu鮯n, ?Principles of Unity of the Oriental Civilizations,? in his Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines, trans. M. Pallis (London: Luzac & Co., 1945) pp. 19 ff.

[9] See T. Lindbom, The Tares and the Good Grain, trans. A. Moore (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983).

[10] ?All civilizations are in decline, but in different ways; the decline of the East is passive and that of the West is active. The fault of the East in decline is that it no longer thinks; that of the West is that it thinks too much and thinks wrongly. The East is sleeping over truths; the West is living in error.? F. Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts. (P. Townsend, Pates Manor, Middlesex: Perennial Books, 1987) pp. 22?23.

[11] S. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996) pp. 40 ff.

[12] On how the Buddhist perspective can be integrated into the understanding of this wisdom or philosophia perennis, see S. H. Nasr?s response to Sally King in E. Hahn et al. (eds.), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 28 (Chicago: Open Court, 2001) pp. 22 ff.

[13] See F. Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1993). See also S. H. Nasr, Knowledge and Sacred, (Albany, New York: The State University Press of New York, 1989) Chapter 9, pp. 280?308; and S. H. Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) Chapter 1, pp. 3?38.

[14] See A. K. Coomaraswamy, ?Paths That Lead to the Same Summit,? in his The Bugbear of Literacy (Pates Manor, Bedfont, Middlesex: 1979) pp. 50 ff 15.

[15] See his Muqaddimah, trans. F. Rosenthal, 3 Vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967); also M. Mahdi, Ibn Khaldun?s Philosophy of History (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957). 

[16] See his Kitaab Jam` At-Tawarikh, ed. E. Blochet, 2 Vols., (Leiden: Brill, 1911).

[17] On the transmission of the ancient sciences and the rise of Islamic science and learning, see S. H. Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1995) pp. 3 ff.

Originally published on the Islam Online Website at**  reprinted in TAM with permission of Professor Nasr.