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   Conferences / The Thirteenth General Conference : Renewal in Islamic Thought
Islam and the West:Tradition and Modernity

Islam and the West
Tradition and Modernity
Mr. Adbul Hadi Hofmann
Muslims from many countries have met here today to learn from
each other and to exchange their views. As a Muslim who has come from
the North side of the Mediterranean to this city on the South side of the
Mediterranean, I would like to focus first on this Mediterranean North-
South relation, because I know this region from my personal experience.
I shall then come to the question of the global relations between Islam
and the West, the Orient and the Occident, and examine whether a
return to our Islamic roots (tradition) or the pursuit of further
innovation (modernity) will be the right path into the future.
The Mediterranean Double Helix
What do we know about each other? Looking at the history books
we find in most cases two strains of history: on one side the history of the
Islamic world, on the other side Western history.
In history books the story of the Islamic world is told in a few
sentences: it is the story of tribes and dynasties, oriental despots, The
Thousand and One Nights. Little is said about the development of
theology and philosophy, hardly anything about the great achievements
of the young Muslims in medical and pharmaceutical sciences, in arts
and culture.
History books about the Western world show also a clear line of
story telling: Starting in ancient times, they describe the dark middle
ages, then the Renaissance and the beginning of humanism- the period
from which onwards man put himself into the centre of the Western
world-then enlightenment with the discovery of human rights and
democracy, leading to modernity with its rejection of religion and the
installation of "reason" as the guiding principle.
Looking at these two approaches we can make several
1. From the little we find in books about the Islamic world even less
is integrated into schoolbooks and teaching. How can it be a surprise
then that many people in the North / West easily believe negative stories
about fundamentalists chopping off other peoples' hands?
2. The image, which the Western world has created of itself-not
only around the Mediterranean, but globally-is the dominant doctrine of
world history. It is used as a measuring rod for the evaluation of the
development of all other regions and nations. This leads not only to the
conclusion that any culture that does not know the Western Renaissance
and enlightenment is a priory "behind", but it leads also to the demand
that the results of Western development should be global values to be
universally applied. (We all know they are only too often neglected by
the West and put behind political opportunism and economic profit
maximization, but I shall not go deeper into this, because it is not my
topic today.)
3. Most importantly, in most of the existing literature the two
strains of history are described as separate strains, independent of each
other. If the relation of the Islamic world towards the European world
(to stay within the Mediterranean region) is mentioned at all, we hear
about warfare: the defeat of the Muslims at Tours and Poitiers, the
crusades, the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, the Turks before
Vienna, colonialism and imperialism. The fact is hardly mentioned that
European culture owes the knowledge of the Greek philosophers and the
Indian numbers to the early Muslims, as well as a great number of
discoveries in natural science. People in Europe have no idea about the
immense contributions of the Islamic world to their culture.
If we want to change our Mediterranean North-South relations and
beyond that the Orient-Occident relations, we must start from here: We
have to accept that around the Mediterranean, Islamic history and Non-
Islamic history are two strains of a genetic code; The Mediterranean
Double Helix.
Politics, science, education, and media have to take up their
responsibilities to ensure that more information about ourselves, about
each other, and about our relationship towards each other are brought
to common knowledge. For a start, solutions could be, e.g. joint research
projects and joint commission on schoolbooks to rewrite the
Mediterranean history.
Going back to the roots of Islam
Undoubtedly the Western paradigm is the dominant paradigm not
only in the Mediterranean region but worldwide. Muslims for
generations have struggled with the question on how to deal with this
situation: Catch up with the Western mind, neglect Islamic knowledge
and tradition, and become secularists themselves or go back to the roots
and shut themselves of any modern development.
To my mind there is a third path, the path of Tajdid: going back to
the roots, but using them as a guide through our present times. Using the
teaching of the Revelation as the measuring rod for modernity and
hopefully turning it into a guidance for people on a global level, with the
help of Allah, s.w.t.
Judging from the Theme of this Congress "Renewal in Islamic
Thought" I think there is a consensus here that there should be this kind
of renewal on the basis of the Revelation. In lectures we heard about
renewal of Islamic fiqh, even of the development of a fiqh for minorities.
But fiqh is based on the Qur'an and the Sunna, and I think we have to go
one step further. We have to go back to the message of the Qur'an,
reread it and see how it relates to the development of the Western world,
and this message can be applied to correct the mis-developments of the
Western world.
How can we do this?
We know from the Qur'an that it is God's last revelation following
other ones:
"God There is no god but Him, the Living, the Ever-existent One.
He has revealed to you the Book with Truth, confirming the
scriptures which preceded it; for He has already revealed the Torah and
the Gospel for the guidance of men, and the distinction between right
and wrong." (Sura 3:14)
And we know how Allah, s.w.t. has corrected in the Qur'an man's
earlier notions about God: That there is only one god, not three, that
God is not the father, and Jesus not the son.
"Say: God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He
begotten. None is equal to Him." (Sura l12)
But usually Muslims born and raised in the Islamic world do not
realize the importance of some ayat from the Qur'an which correct a
specific message of Christian teaching that can be regarded as the basis
root of the development of the Western world-a message which was the
basis for the late start in science of the Western world and a message
which was the reason why the pattern of behaviour of the Western
civilization is a pattern of rebellion and not like in Islam a pattern of
As a Muslim born and raised in the West I look at this passage with
different eyes, and I would like to use it as an ignition key to start the
Western development to move into a different way. The ayat I am
referring to read:
When your Lord said to the angels: I am placing on the earth one
that shall rule as My deputy, they replied: "Will You put there one that
will do evil and shed blood, when we have for so long sung Your praises
and sanctified Your name?
He said: I know what you know not.
He taught Adam the names of all things and then set them before
the angels, saying: Tell Me the names of these, if what you say be true.
Glory to You, they replied, we have no knowledge except that
which you have given us, you alone are all-knowing and wise.
Then said He: Adam, tell them their names. And when Adam had
named them, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the
heavens and the earth, and all that you reveal and all that you conceal?
And when We said to the angels: Prostrate yourselves before
Adam, they all prostrated themselves except Satan, who in his pride
refused and became an unbeliever.
To Adam We said: Dwell with your wife in Paradise and eat of its
fruits to your hearts content wherever you will. But never approach this
tree or you shall both become transgressors.
But Satan removed them thence and brought about their
banishment. Go hence. We said, and be enemies to each other. The
earth will for a while provide your dwelling and sustenance.
Then Adam received commandments from his Lord, and his Lord
relented towards him. He is the Forgiving One, the Merciful.(Sura 2:30-
These ayat correct a lot of the teachings of the Bible: That it was
not Eve who seduced Adam, but it was Satan who removed both, that
God gives the knowledge of all things, that mankind will receive
sustenance from earth for a while, and should not conquer it as in
Christian teaching.
However the most important message is in the last sentence: "Then
Adam received commandments from his Lord, and his Lord relented
towards him. He is the Forgiving One, the Merciful. "With this aya the
Christian message of the Original Sin is abolished once and for all. The
weight, which bent down generations of Christians, is taken from
humanity. A Muslim born and raised in an Islamic environment can
hardly understand what it means to be raised under the weight and
pressure of the Original Sin and what a relief it is to discover this
message in the Qur'an. It may also be difficult for him to understand
that Christians on one side accept this teaching, but on the other side
rebel against it at the same time. Christians accept that Jesus Christ has
died at the cross taking up the sins of mankind, but also from the start
they rebel against this teaching trying to free themselves. Looking at the
consequences of this behaviour we come to see the history of the West
indeed as a history of rebellions, against world rulers, against religious
institutions, finally against God, and today against any value passed on
from parents to children.
Bringing these ayat to the mind of Western people always makes
them very pensive, because they understand that in Christianity
mankind will never be able to fulfil God's commandments, because from
the beginning he is a sinner, whereas in Islam mankind has the potential
and the chance to live according to God's will. A Muslim is the `abd,
servant, of Allah, s.w.t., but at the same time he is free from the burden
of the Original Sin.
In the context of the Mediterranean Double Helix the information
about these ayat carries in itself the potential to give back a greater
weight to the "Islamic strain" of development. These words from the
Revelation of Allah, s.w.t., show Northern and Western people the way
to live free from the burden of the Original Sin, without having to
emancipate themselves from anything. With his Revelation people in the
West have the tool for a new start of their conglomerate history, which
begins from some "pre-existing" but not God-given "natural right",
putting God's word into the private quarters of the individuals and
ending with the new secular religion of human rights. This message of
Allah, s.w.t., has the potential to replace the Western paradigm as the
guiding universal principle. We only must bring it to the people. (But
this leads me to new approaches to Da'wa, which is not my theme.)
Lastly these ayat are an obligation for us: Going back to the roots
means going back to the religious duty of seeking knowledge even if we
have to go to China. Following the classification of a great author there
are "The Seekers", "The Creators" and "The Discoverers". Thanks to
Allah, s.w.t., we Muslims are no longer seekers, because He has given us
the Qur'an. We do not claim to be creators, because we know there is
only one Creator: Allah, s.w.t.
But we should go back to what Muslim did in the first centuries
after the Revelation. Let us be discoverers again: rediscover our own
roots, discover how to live as Muslim in modern times, aim for new
discoveries in the sciences, and try to discover new ways of living
together in peace. Thus we can be Muslims in the true sense of the word
Islam: Following the will of Allah, s.w.t., aiming for peace within
ourselves, with our neighbours and on earth.
The Mediterranean Double Helix
Islam and the West: Tradition and Modernity
Short summary:
The history of the Islamic world and the history of the West are
usually told as two separate strains of history. Relations between them
are mostly described in terms of warfare; the exchange of trade and
culture are generally neglected. In the first part the lecture will show
that contrary to the common concepts of history writing, Islam and
Western development around the Mediterranean are indeed two strains
of one development, which cannot be separated; together they form the:
Mediterranean Double Helix
In the second part follows the description of the precondition which
is necessary for the Islamic strains of development to be strengthened
vis--vis the Western strain so that it can play a leading role in the
development of the future: Muslims must go back to the origins of their
religion-the text of the Qur'an-and confront it with the theoretical
concepts and the reality of Western modernity. By informing about
Islam in a way that can be understood in the West, the foundations can
be laid for positive changes in the Western world, with the help of Allah,
Ahdul Hadi Christian H. Hofmann
German Islamic Institute
for Scientific and Cultural Cooperation
Am Wasserturm 33A
29223 Celle

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