Western and Islamic Culture

by Paul Varnell on October 31, 2001

Originally appeared Oct. 31, 2001, in the Chicago Free Press.

IT WOULD SCARCELY be politically correct and it would certainly seem rude to claim that Western culture, as exemplified by, say, America, is better than Near Eastern or Islamic culture, as exemplified by, say, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

But perhaps it is useful to point to a number of important differences between the two so we can understand their different natures and potentials.

One aspect of Western culture is that it has two contrasting foundational principles: one is the Jewish and Christian religions, often conveniently referred to as "Jerusalem"; the other is the tradition of philosophy or the search for truth that developed in ancient Greece, often referred to as "Athens."

The two principles, existing in unresolvable tension, have challenged each other's primacy but neither has ever entirely defeated the other.

"Jerusalem" contributes to the moral seriousness with which we approach our lives. "Athens" urges us to hold our beliefs, even and especially our most important beliefs, tentatively and be willing to doubt and question, always alert to the possibility of rejecting our views and considering new truths.

A second aspect of Western culture: "Athens" itself not only creates conceptual space for doubt and questioning, but urges us actively to challenge and criticize our own views. It insists that we seek new sources of information and that we investigate the heavens and the earth to replace faith (or speculation) with knowledge.

This questioning, openness, and experimenting is what generates developments in the arts and sciences, improvements in our understanding, and the social and intellectual changes we call progress. Not all change is progress, but no progress could happen without openness to change.

A third aspect of Western culture: Our openness to critical analysis requires that we accept, even welcome, the presence of numerous competing viewpoints, schools, sects, or ways of looking at things, even different ideas about what is the best way to live. In other words it requires pluralism.

Since we cannot think of everything ourselves, we have to be open to new ideas and interesting concepts wherever they come from. That means we must be open to "foreign" ideas, insights from abroad, intellectual and artistic innovations from other cultures. In short, Western culture by its nature must be "multi-cultural."

To take our own case as just one example, it is important to remember how much the growing equality of gays and lesbians owes to all these factors. Religion's prioritizing of reproduction and its demand for the "right" form of sexual interaction were open to the questioning philosophy requires.

The challenge to rethink settled views spurred scientific and social science research to learn more about gays. Alfred C. Kinsey's studies are a prime example of the Western willingness to challenge previous thinking and replace faith (or self-deception) by knowledge.

Our culture's pluralism allowed pro-gay voices to exist and make their case, and that case was better articulated by being confronted with disagreement. Openness to learning about the ways homosexuality is expressed in other cultures has given us examples to learn from and test our own experience against.

Few of these components of Western culture seem present in Islamic culture.

For Islamic culture, there was never a background or development of any sort of secular or rationalist tradition to defend science when it was attacked. Philosophy never gained serious standing; when taught at all, it was in private with just a few disciples.

Attempts by Alfarabi (870-950) and a few others to promote philosophy were decisively countered by the conservative Baghdad theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) who denounced philosophy, scientific investigation, atheism and heresy, and promoted an implausible alliance between irrational mysticism and Qur'anic legalism.

According to J.J. Saunders' "History of Medieval Islam," "The attempt of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in Spain to answer Ghazali and defend the pursuit of secular science fell on deaf ears and exposed him to the charge of teaching atheism."

As a result, says Saunders, "The profane sciences, which had always operated on the fringe and had never been free from the suspicion of impiety, were largely and quietly dropped as 'un-Muslim.'" Accordingly, "Arabic philosophy was dead by 1200, Arabic science by 1500."

It was al-Ghazali who promoted Qur'an-based religious schools called "madrasas" that today in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan turn out uneducated young fundamentalists who fight for the Taliban, support Osama bin Laden, and view the struggle against the West as "jihad." Higher education is no different: Two-thirds of all Saudi PhDs are in "Islamic Studies."

There is no pluralism, cultural or religious, in conservative Muslim nations. The whole of Saudi Arabia is regarded as "sacred" Islamic soil. Saudi religious police compel Muslims to attend prayers. The West is resented and signs of its presence are regarded as "Western imperialism."

None of this is to claim that Western culture is better than Islamic culture. It is only to point to marked differences between their attitudes toward faith, science, progress, free discussion, the moral and intellectual autonomy of the individual, and the role of the state in enforcing behavior.

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