Volume 16 Number 5
Collapse of Civilizations
01 October 2003

Fuad Nahdi is publisher and founder-editor of the British Muslim monthly magazine, ‘Q-News’.

The fashionable understanding of global issues is dominated by the concept of the ‘clash of civilizations’. Recently this concept has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many have been lured by this simplistic analysis. Others have attempted to challenge this negative and dangerous notion by suggesting other ways of perceiving what is going on around us.

I believe there is a third and more relevant way of perceiving our reality. The East/West dialectic is not only outdated but also misleading: there are places in Bradford which are more ‘East’ than the ‘East’ and areas of Cairo or Jeddah which are more ‘West’ than the ‘West’. And the more optimistic approach, based on mutual experiences, is also flawed, because it makes too many unrealistic assumptions. One is that we all have a shared under-standing of our being and purpose in life.

What we are experiencing is not so much the clash of civilizations as the collapse of civilizations. The reality is that we are not standing between two mountains but stuck between two swamps.

I was born in Mombasa, an island on the East African coast, of parents who originally migrated to Kenya from southern Yemen. I grew up in a multiracial, multicultural and multifaith environment. But within it my Muslim identity was never an issue. Both my grandfather and father went to study in Tarim, the world famous centre of scholarship in Yemen. I would have done so too, had not the Marxist regime in the Sixties ensured that the centre stopped its teaching.

As a result, it was decided I should have the best ‘secular’ education available and I was sent to St Joseph’s Seminary in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where we were living at the time. This involved reaching a compromise with my grandmother: after five days at the mercy of the priests, the weekend was her domain. She used it to ‘dis-christianize’ me–as she called it.

journey of understanding
The result could have been a strange cocktail of lapsed Catholic and failed mullah. Instead, by the time I went to University in Nairobi, I was more able with Latin and Bible studies than most of my non-Muslim friends and more Qur’an- and Hadith-friendly than many of my Muslim friends. I was a walking manifestation of interfaith dialogue.

Then followed studies in Arabic and Islam in Sudan before arriving in England and more studies in Journalism and Islam. Finally, when I got married in 1989, I became that strange and complex creature: a British Muslim.

Since then my life has been one big journey in understanding what is going on around us. After years of being actively engaged in the frontline of community relations, I feel frustrated and tired: but experience and instincts tell me that bridge-building has to go on.

But we must bring some pragmatism to the madness: hence the ‘collapse of civilizations’ theory. I would like to suggest both Christians and Muslims are witnesses to the decay and failure of the ingredients which made us ‘civilized’ in the first place.

What is it that makes us civilized? Is it McDonald's and Coke, or kebabs and lassi? Is it the rampant gluttony and crass materialism that dominates our high streets or the civil disorder and chaos in our cities?

Our lack of understanding of what makes a civilized society has led to the defense of the indefensible and the perpetuation of distortions and half-truths: in Muslim ex-perience, things like violence, dishonesty, lack of accountability and extremism.

Where I come from you judge a civilized person by five qualities: his generosity, his integrity, his loyalty, his honesty and his dependency. To make genuine progress we must learn first and foremost to be human. We must grasp and hold close to our hearts those universal values that this wounded world and its inhabitants need so badly.

We cannot change the fundamental character of the world as we find it, but we can in some measure change ourselves. And this is a Qur’anic principle: for God does not change a situation until the people change themselves.

falling of a leaf
In our troubled circumstances there is no substitute for love and compassion: every act of love, every act of friendship and every act of kindness is like an axe taken to the roots of war. The Prophet of Islam, speaking of sadaqa (charity), included ‘meeting your neighbour with a smiling face’. This may seem a small thing, but it is nonetheless an act of defiance against anger, ill will, malevolence and all the negative forces which stain the earth with the blood of conflict.

In self-surrender to the Will of God, which is the essence of Islam and its meaning, we have to accept that everything, down to the falling of a leaf, is in the hands of an all-merciful Creator.

For effective change to take place we need to rediscover our essential humanity, and to confront our own position vis-à-vis our Creator and the rest of humanity. Only once we have mapped our own position will it be logical to chart out our neighbours’. The compass here should be our most valuable organ: the heart.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0