Asfar Shaov on influence of the West on Islamic world: 'We are on the verge today'

Muslims should comprehend their civilisation through their own description language to preserve culture and traditions

Asfar Shaov on influence of the West on Islamic world: 'We are on the verge today'
Photo: Maksim Platonov

The alienation of people who have fallen from the Islamic environment into the conditions of Western civilisation from the origins of their culture is a colossal tragedy, says Asfar Shaov, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor at the Adyghe University. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, he said that in order to preserve its identity, the Islamic world “should look for its own intellectual conceptual language”, without referring to the ideas of Western civilisation. “We, being representatives of small cultures — you as a representative of the Tatar ethnic group, I as a representative of the Cherkess, can even feel this problem ourselves. What is left of our cultures? Nothing indicates that we are still the inheritors of our traditions," the scientist explained.

“Identity crisis”

Doctor Shaov, much has been said about the colonisation of Muslim countries. This was a big blow to Muslim societies. However, it's all gone, and the European states left the Greater Middle East, but retained the regimes. The state of the Middle East, which includes these regimes, is different from what it was there before European colonisation. It is also called “colonisation of consciousness”, when the colonised peoples became alienated from the state before colonisation. Could you explain in more detail how this colonisation was expressed?

I agree with the paradigm theory, which takes the responsibility to explain these historical changes. It can be put into the triad “colonialism-postcolonialism-decolonialism”. There are a lot of studies on this platform, and they begin already from the end of the 19th century, in the middle of the 20th this wave grows, and today these studies are already becoming commonplace in academic, non-Western, as a rule, but partly also intra-Western, culture.

When Western civilisation began its expansion into the non-Western world, it primarily represented military colonisation — the expansion of territorial borders, economic imperialism of capitalist oppression. The West begins to expand its influence beyond the borders of the “Western ecumene”.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Western civilisation post factum includes the entire ancient world in its orbit, the civilisational matrix, although historically, it would seem, it has no direct relation to this heritage.

What is the “Western ecumene”? This is almost a two-thousand-year period of the formation of Western civilisation, which passed a complex, often illogical way. After all, Western civilisation itself is a complex fusion of various mythological, ideological, political, metaphysical, legal, and economic ideas. It is built on certain gaps, which are replaced at each new stage of its development. For example, Western civilisation post factum includes the entire ancient world in its orbit, the civilisational matrix, although historically, it would seem, it has no direct relation to this heritage. But suddenly, philosophically, metaphysically, the entire pre-socratic, post-socratic, the entire ancient philosophical resource becomes its heritage because historical Christianity arises within the framework of the ancient world. Some contacts inevitably appear here. They have a complex character, but later European civilisation includes this entire period.

Further, the process of formation of Western civilisation since the Middle Ages goes within the logic of the general Western civilisational ecumene. The Christian world is built on a break with the ancient world, then, at a new stage, this gap is removed. After that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment come, which also break with the Christian matrix, but with this break, the continuity of the Western Ecumene persists, sweeps further, and is already global in nature, spreading its influence to the rest of the world. This spread occurs primarily through military expansion.

When military expansion came to the non-Western world, to all parts of the globe, political, economic, legal and educational administration began to be established. Administrative institutions became such Western intellectual and spiritual “implants”. Non-Western cultures that developed within the framework of local epistemic logic, that is, they relied on local knowledge, suddenly need to be adapted, planted all the political, educational, economic, legal institutions that the West historically and culturally formed in itself. This process of “implantation”, which took a long time after the military expansion, established forms of rationality, thinking, and a view of the world on the basis of non-Western cultures, affecting all spheres, from political to ethical or even aesthetic. We, the heirs of non-Western civilisations, carry the elements of this “implant” inside our cultural body.

Certainly, this destroys the civilisational cores within non-Western civilisation or very actively deforms them. When suddenly people, brought up by a thousand-year tradition of their culture, begins to adopt experience, changing the ideas about themselves — structure of thinking, and at some point comes to the conclusion that their identity — cultural, ethnic, civilisational, religious — is emasculated in them and is replaced by some surrogate of ideas that are not characteristic of their authentic culture, historically connected with their local knowledge, then they naturally intellectually and spiritually enter into a situation of such schizophrenic dissonance.

Photo: wikipedia.org
When military expansion came to the non-Western world, to all parts of the globe, political, economic, legal and educational administration began to be established.

And it suddenly begins to find itself lost. Let's call it conditionally a “crisis of identity”. What happened? The thinking, consciousness and view of a person, a representative of non-Western culture, is deprived of its authenticity. For some part of the population, this becomes natural and normal: a person adopts the ideas of the Western European cultural matrix, which states that we are moving from one format of traditional culture to the modern modernist world, in the form of the idea of progress, which legally leads somewhere to a “happy future”.

“The ideas of the West are fundamentally different from what Islamic thought represents”

Another part of the population believes that losing yourself is finding semantic death, falling into semantic emptiness. And they try to somehow restore, fight, make sense of themselves.

If we are talking about the Islamic religion, then it is united with Christianity by conditional monotheism. Of course, there are differences — the denial of the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ. Nevertheless, of all the colonised cultures, the Islamic culture is the closest to the European one. Why, with this closeness, it is the Islamic world that has the greatest rejection of the colonisation of consciousness against the background of the Chinese, who have completely adopted the left-wing ideology derived from European culture, albeit adapted to Maoism, or India, an ally of America and the European world. It is the Muslims who internally, consciously, and popularly show the greatest rejection. Moreover, this rejection passes through its own religious heritage. Why?

What is the peculiarity of contiguity between Western and Islamic civilisation at different historical stages: sometimes active, sometimes more friendly, and sometimes confrontation with armed clashes? This will be clear if we decipher the semantic base of the paradigm shifts of colonialism-postcolonialism-deolonialism. Colonialism is just some kind of military aggression associated with economic influence and political pretension. Then non-Western civilisations (let's reduce them to the Islamic world for now) suddenly realise that they are losing their political and economic independence. At the first stage, this is perceived by them only as military and economic aggression. However, after the military expansion leads to the establishment of political, legal, educational and economic control, the intellectual and spiritual elite of the Islamic world comes to a different understanding that we become dependent on conceptual ideas. Ideas that are spread through political, economic, legal, and educational institutions.

Photo: wikipedia.org
If the theological justification of a person in Western European civilisation is not in demand for various reasons, then it is necessary to fill this vacuum with some other view.

These ideas are fundamentally different from what Islamic thought is. The very rupture of Western European civilisation, which occurs in the modern era, when there is a process of secularisation, separation of the institute of politics from religion, and then subsequent socio-cultural institutions — economics, law, ethics, aesthetics and art, leads to the emergence of a new world. Then the understanding of Western European civilisation connects itself with political, economic, and legal sciences, which are secular, not theological in nature. Psychology, ethnology, and anthropology arise. We see that science as such, its entire humanitarian body, is separated from the theological, historical, and cultural heritage of Christianity. Through scientific disciplines, a special explanation of the world is constructed. If the theological justification of a person in Western European civilisation is not in demand for various reasons, then it is necessary to fill this vacuum with some other view. Scientific disciplines in the form of political sciences are strictly separated from the theological framework.

The idea that the world can be constructed within the human dimension through scientific knowledge suddenly comes to a civilisation that does not have this division into secular and religious. Here, the idea of Islam and Islamic civilisation is identical within itself, and the world is perceived only through the prism of theological view. And through these political, economic, educational institutions that carry secularism, suddenly there is an idea of the world and of oneself.

You have named some ideologies that will be served by this secular view in some civilisations. But the Islamic world, in the spirit of intellectual and spiritual communities, has no idea about the separation of the secular and the spiritual. For them, the problem is how to detach political, economic, and educational institutions from the theological civilisational framework. Here there is a complex dissonance, because secular science itself originated within Western civilisation, corresponded to its historical and cultural path. Other civilisations do not have this experience and understanding, but they must build their inner world within the framework of the secular.

The Islamic civilisation and its intellectual, as in other non-Western civilisations, naturally begins to rebel internally against this idea. The idea of postcolonialism arises. Islamic intellectuals brought up within the educational resources of Western European universities try to use this resource to explain and understand themselves. The corpus of Western ideas (Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist), which have their circulation in Western European universities, the Islamic intellectuals who studied in Paris, London, Cairo, Beirut, having already received a European education, having mastered European languages and the corpus of ideas of this civilisation, try to comprehend the Islamic world through the prism of these conceptual matrices of European sciences. We call this period the postcolonial period, following colonialism.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Islamic intellectuals brought up within the educational resources of Western European universities try to use this resource to explain and understand themselves.

Finally, the last in this triad is decolonisation. In the end, here it also takes two or three generations, who realise the falsity of the idea that the world of Islamic civilisation, its authenticity and culture, should be known by the methods of thinking of European sciences, which, when applied, distort the entire optics of understanding. Now decolonialism, as the last logical stage of development in this triad, asserts that we should find our own intellectual conceptual language, comprehend our civilisation through an internal intellectual resource and our own language of description.

“Islamic civilisation is a natural development of Abrahamic monotheism”

You say that Western civilisation was built on the ancient heritage and the Christian religion. Is there anything similar with the Islamic world? Muslims have also absorbed the ancient heritage. Moreover, much of this heritage was translated from Arabic into Latin and the national languages of Europeans.

When you say: to what extent, developing, coming into contact with each other as a culture, as a civilisation, we were enriched by the ancient heritage, transmitted it further — the idea that the Islamic world was like an intermediate link in the transmission of the ancient heritage. Hasn't the Islamic civilisation itself been a conductor of these ideas historically?

In this sense, we raise the question: what is Islamic civilisation? In the book 'Alien. Other. Our', I assume that the Islamic civilisation is reduced to a monotheistic conceptual unity, which can be reduced to Abrahamic monotheism. I take as a conceptual step the city of Harran, from which, according to the Bible, Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham, comes. For us, the symbol of Harran is important as a symbolic place, but you can designate both Jerusalem and Mecca. This symbol is reduced to symbolic “Harran act” as a pillar of Abrahamic monotheism, which gives an intellectual impulse to subsequent generations of monotheists. In my research, I contrast this “Harran act” with the ancient world, which is the ecumenical of the entire Western civilisation, reducing it to the city of Millet. The city of Millet is a place where philosophical discourse arises. Here, for the first time, the question is asked about the ontology of being, which is understood as Destiny, Fate, and Body, which I will analyse in more detail in the book.

Photo: pixabay.com
For us, the symbol of Harran is important as a symbolic place, but you can designate both Jerusalem and Mecca.

Islamic civilisation is a natural development of Abrahamic monotheism. Yes, it spread almost everywhere, and contacts with other civilisations had their intellectual and spiritual “effects”. However, at its core, it is a cultural and intellectual retransmitter of monotheism in its pure form, which was laid down by Abraham. Whatever evolution the Islamic civilisation has undergone, it still claims to be the exponent of such tradition. We should act within the framework of this idea.

What difficulties and problems does a person experience who has fallen from the Islamic environment into the orbit of Western civilisation, forced to think inside it, alienating himself or herself from the origins of Harran?

This is a colossal tragedy for all non-Western civilisations. We, being representatives of small cultures — you as a representative of the Tatar ethnic group, I as a representative of the Circassian, can even feel this problem ourselves. We are the peoples who are involved in the orbit of the Russian and empire, which in its cultural being had close contact with European civilisation. We were also indirectly involved in this influence through various institutions. What is left of our traditional cultures, our local epistems that have conditioned the picture of the world of our cultures for centuries and millennia? What's left of them? Nothing indicates that we are still the inheritors of our traditions.

Naturally, a colossal blow is suddenly struck in all directions of the great Islamic civilisation — in the Middle East, Indian or Caucasian parts. These influences are of various kinds: in the Arabian Peninsula, they may be to a lesser extent compared to Egypt or North Africa.

Even what is happening now in Saudi Arabia. Yes, I am not an expert, but even outwardly it is interesting to observe this: it is as if they have finally opened up to the happy Western world. How rapidly this is happening!

Photo: Maksim Platonov
What is remained? Often it is only an emotional connection, which is represented as a life-giving force in the form of a source of “traditional values” and “cultures”. We say it, but we don't believe what we are saying.

Today we are standing at the line: if the Islamic intellectual resource, and our cultures are conditioned by the Islamic religion, does not join in the development of a civilisational project based on its theological resource, does not connect the world of modernity with it, expressing it conceptually, then we must prepare for the most tragic events…

I propose a concept expressed in the Quranic verse “Read!” The Almighty Creator appeals to our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) with the call — learn!

As we ourselves are fully aware of what a deep entrance into religion this is. After all, it is impossible to enter the house without crossing the threshold. “Read!” — this is the threshold to our Islamic home.

Karim Gaynullin