Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What The West Can Learn From Islamic Civilization

This is Chapter 4 in Part 2 of the non-fiction book I am currently working on, titled How to Repair the World. It will be preceded by two or three other chapters that will discuss what we can learn from Western, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese civilizations. Currently three chapters of the first section "A Basic Psychological Tool Kit For Everyone" have already been written and posted. These include:  the introduction to the first part, the first chapter, Elementary Jungian Theory, and the second chapter, Transactional Analysis: Introduction for the Layman and Analysis of Seinfeld's "The Opposite".

It may seem a bit ridiculous to write about the things we can learn from Islam when Islamic countries are dominated by ruthless dictatorships, tribal feuds, and daily atrocities and crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, I believe that there is more to Islam than murder and mayhem, and that the West has important things to learn from this civilization. Also, in this section I am looking at the most positive aspects of the four civilizations discussed, not their worst (thus I did not discuss, for instance, the persistence of the caste system in India, Chinese Communism, European colonialism, and so on). Another reason for such an approach is that Islam is not a uniform phenomenon; it has varied and still varies from place to place and time to time. In the first centuries of its existence Islam was a vibrant, tolerant, and curious culture. The library in Baghdad was one of the greatest libraries of its time. At the Western end of Muslim rule, the Cordoba Caliphate had a magnificent library of its own, with four hundred thousand books – likely more than all of Europe at the time – and five hundred attendants. Caliph Abd Al-Rahman III (reigned 912–961) seems to have been particularly enlightened and tolerant.[1] Eventually, as we know, things changed. The library in Baghdad was closed by the anti-rational party that came to completely dominate Islam from the 12th century onwards.[2] The tolerant Cordoba Caliphate in Spain splintered in the 11th century, its library burnt by Muslims[3], and eventually was replaced by Christian rule, which soon imposed upon Jews and Muslims alike the choice of converting or being expelled. But for about three or four centuries, Islam was the most advanced civilization in the region.

We also can see that Islam has many internal variations. Ismailites, Ahmadis, Druze, and Alawites are Muslims too. There is also a very large Islamic minority[4] of Sufism, which is a mystic and very personal interpretation of Islam. Even the gentle and humanistic Baha'i religion originated in Islam. Of course, most of these variations of Islam are persecuted by the majority Sunni or Shiite Muslims, but to me this shows that Islam does have the potential to foster non-violent, individualistic, and humane expressions of faith. In any case, here I will discuss the dominant version of Islam: the Sunni version that originated in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century, both because of its unassailable standing in the Muslim world and the fact that this is what I am familiar with  through living in Israel, a country with a seventeen percent minority of Arab, Sunni Muslims[5].

So, that said, what can we learn from Islam from a psychological standpoint? I see several possibilities: faith, sense of belonging, and attitudes toward time and food.