Islam & the West have been neighbours for 1400 years. The West grew up under the shadow of Islam, and then after the Renaissance, in a dramatic reversal of roles, the West became world conquerors and subdued all other cultures and civilisations, including Islam. This transformation ushered in the modern world, a world unlike any that had existed before. A key development in this transformation took place when, during the Enlightenment, a narrative was produced which introduced the idea of human progress. This was a revolutionary concept that would replace the Christian narrative of salvation.

This new narrative saw the Christian millennium as a dark age of ignorance and superstition. It became known as the Medieval or Middle Ages, a period between the illumination of the ancients and the light of the modern world. Later, Islam was introduced into this narrative by giving it a ‘golden age’ during Europe’s Dark Ages, a time when it kept alight the torch of Greek and Roman knowledge. It was said that, having passed the torch to the Europeans, who then accelerated into their dynamic arc of progress, the Muslims went into a deep decline and stagnation. The world of Islam is now part of a developing world that is having to catch up with the West. In brief, the narrative tells of the triumph of the West and how the rest were left behind, including Islam.

The philosophers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries who were responsible for developing the modern idea of progress, approached its unfolding in very different ways. Immanuel Kant saw progress as ‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’ For Hegel, the constant convulsions and revolutions in modern European history entail that it is the European alone who embodies freedom and progress. According to his view, when a political and social state of affairs (thesis) is rocked by conflict and opposition (antithesis), revolution brings about human freedom and greater societal progress (synthesis). Hegel believed that periods of happiness are empty pages in history, times when the antithesis is missing, with the result that ‘the history of China has shown no development. China and India, as it were, lie outside the course of world history.’ Karl Marx believed that on their road to progress, human societies must pass through primitive communism, slave societies, feudalism, capitalism and socialism before culminating in fully-fledged communism. August Comte taught that the scientific method was the only guarantor of knowledge and had replaced metaphysics in man’s social evolution. In his law of human progress, Comte taught that human societies must pass through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive or scientific. Herbert Spencer, following in the steps of Darwin, believed that progress was not an accident, but a necessity; humanity must evolve to become perfect. This perfection, however, was only available to Europeans, since the physical characteristics typical of progress are ‘stronger in the European than in the savage’. It was not Darwin but Spencer, who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’…

. . . In the chapters which follow, we shall see how, when Islam and the West are viewed through the lens of mīzān or balance, an entirely different story unfolds: the Western trajectory can be seen to lead inexorably to the Age of Crises, whilst a new understanding of Islam and its civilisation emerges.

You can order the complete text of Rethinking Islam & the West by Ahmed Paul Keeler here.

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