Let me begin with civilisation. A British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, once said ’civilisation was born out of the pursuit of luxury’. Because luxury was pursued you ended up with great works, music, the Palace of Versailles, the Taj Mahal etc. Then much closer to our times you had civilisation interpreted more in economic terms, and you had Adam Smith virtually who said that civilisation, or at least Western civilisation was born out of the pursuit of profit. And then also closer to our times Karl Marx saw civilisation and the march of history as borne out of the pursuit of surplus.


Let me begin with civilisation. A British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, once said ’civilisation was born out of the pursuit of luxury’. Because luxury was pursued you ended up with great works, music, the Palace of Versailles, the Taj Mahal etc. Then much closer to our times you had civilisation interpreted more in economic terms, and you had Adam Smith virtually who said that civilisation, or at least Western civilisation was born out of the pursuit of profit. And then also closer to our times Karl Marx saw civilisation and the march of history as borne out of the pursuit of surplus.

I will propose a slightly different idea in this lecture: that civilisation was born out of the pursuit of creative synthesis. The synthesis may be between ethics and knowledge, between religion and science, between one culture and another. The central dynamic is creative synthesis.

We also start therefore in this lecture from the premise that Islam was at its most creative when it was ready to synhthesise between ethics and knowledge, between religion and science and between Islam and other cultures.

Doctrinally Islam became a synthesis of three religions: Judaism, Christanity and the message of Mohammed (pbuh).There is a lot about the Torah and of the Old Testament in the Quran and the substantial recognition of the Jewish prophets. There is a lot from the New Testament in the Quran, from the virgin birth of Jesus, to his sacred miracles. And then there are the contributions of the Prophet Mohammed himself and his own times in Mecca and Medinah. Islam as a civilisation began as creative synthesis.

Between the 9th and 14th centuries Islamic civilisation also demonstrated a high capacity for scientific and technological synthesis. Just as Islam had been receptive to Judaism and Christanity in the sphere of religious doctrine it demonstrated receptivity to ancient Greece in the secular field. Enter people like Ibn Rushd in 26 – 98 CE. Many regard Ibn Rushd not just as a confirmed Muslim but Aristotelean as well as being an early Muslim convert to the conclusion that the world was round.

Ibn Sina 980 – 1037 CE wrote extensive commentaries on Greek philosophers. Many have interpreted Ibn Sina as being in some senses neo-Platonic in many of his dimensions. He is credited with the single most important medical work of medieval times, which is itself a synthesis: The Canon of Medicine which became a standard medical reference book at European universities until well into the 17th century. So Islam has learned from ancient Greece and educating medieval Europe.
Civilisation as a process of creative cultural synthesis was unfolded. Fioloblia and Filoscience have preserved more than 100 of Ibn Sina’s works across cultures. Filobiblia is a love of books and Filoscience is a love of knowledge. Islamic filobiblia and filoscience go back to the first verses of the Quran. When those first verses were articulated the Prophet Mohammed did not realise, I would imagine, that these were the first words of what was destined to become the Quran and destined to become the most widely read book in its original language in human history. The bible became the most widely read book in translation. But every day of the week, today, yesterday and the day before yesterday, the Quran is ready in its original Arabic by millions of worshippers across the world. When those simple first verses were proclaimed 14 centuries ago the stage was being set for a culture of reading – a civilisation of respect for knowledge.

What were the origins of this filoscience and filobiblia? Muslims believe that those first words from the Prophet Mohammed were indeed about knowledge and God’s first command to the prophet was the imperative iqra’a (read!). Those earliest Quranic verses linked the biological sciences with the sciences of the mind. Moreover by proclaiming that all knowledge is ultimately from God warned of the arrogance or pseudo omissions among humans. Science was morally accountable. So we were told by Quran “read in the name of thy Lord who created man out of a mere drop of congealed blood. Read and they Lord is most bountiful. He who has taught by the pen men which they knew not, yet man doth transgress in that he looketh upon himself verily to the Lord, the final arbiter.”

So God taught by the pen and used the pen in doing so. And the pen today could be interpreted as the computer. God taught human beings what they did not know and these were absolutely the very first verses of the Quran. They were about knowledge and a warning against ignorance. They were therefore a respect for skill.
Today more than ever we know that power resides not among those who own what, in spite of Karl Marx, but among those who know. The first verses of the Quran were a prophecy of the triumph of knowledge and the potential tyranny of skill. The first verses of the Quran have echoed across the centuries since the first pronouncement of Islam, directed at acquisition of knowledge as the basis of ultimate creative synthesis.


The Muslim world in the 21st century is likely to be one of the battle grounds of the forces of globalisation, for better or for worse. The phenomenon of globalisation has its winners and losers. In the initial phases Africa and much of the Muslim world have already been the losers. It has been increasingly shown that we are paying the price. There are universities in the United States which have more computers than computers available in the whole of Bangladesh or Senegal. This has been the great digital divide. The distinction between the haves and the have-nots has now coincided with the distinction between the digitilised and the deprived or the de-digitilised. So let us begin with the challenge of a definition. What is this globalisation? At one level it consists of processes that lead to global interdependence and the increasing rapidity of exchange across vast distances. As we begin the new millennium it has acquired three different distinct meanings:

1) Information meaning of globalisation:
Forces which are transforming the information pattern of the world and creating the beginnings of what has been called the information super highway. Expanding access to data and mobilising the computer and the internet into global service. Is the Muslim world marginalised under this definition of globalisation?

2) The economic definition of globalisation:
Forces which are transforming the global market and creating new economic interdependencies across vast distances. Africa and the Muslim world are of course affected but not central. It is possible that parts of the Muslim world are not central to this economic sense of globalisation. Why? Because very often they produce petroleum which has entered the engines of the economic side of globalisation.

3) The third meaning of globalisation is comprehensive:
All forces which are turning the world into a global village, compressing distance, homoginising culture, accelerating mobility and reducing the relevance of political borders. Under this comprehensive definition, globalisation is the gradual villagisation of the world. These forces have been at work in the Muslim world and in the rest of the globe for a long time. The word may be new but this sense of globalisation is old.
For the comprehensive sense of globalisation four forces have been major engines of globalisation: religion, technology, economy and empire. These have not necessarily acted separately. On the contrary they have often reinforced each other. For example the globalisation of Christanity started with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in 313CE. The religious conversion of an emperor started the process under which Christanity became the dominant religion not only of Europe but also of many other societies which Europe later ruled.

The globalisation of Islam began not with converting a ready made empire but with building an empire almost from scratch. The Ummayads and the Abbbasids put together bits of other people’s empires – former Byzantium, Egypt and Persia and created a whole new civilisation. The forces of Christianty and Islam have sometimes clashed. The two religions in the expansionist movement have themselves contributed to globalisation in the comprehensive sense.

Voyages of exploration have been another stage in the process of exploration. Muslim seafarers travelled the east but missed their chance westwards. Europe moved both east and west. Vaso de Gama and Christopher Columbus opened up a whole new chapter in the history of globalisation. Economy and empire were the major motives. There followed the migration of people.

Islam on the Receivng Side:

I am prepared to learn from Aristotle. I am prepared to learn how other cultures are doing and then to look afresh at my Islamic culture and see how it does. My father was polygamous. I don’t say this in a censorious family. I did not live in an oppressive extended family. The part I remember is that my father wanted me with him all the time: both when he was with my biological mother and with his other wife. I was therefore with both women whenever he was with them. The other woman treated me as her own child. The point I am raising is not whether there is an objection to polygamy.

We can discuss this if you wish. The point I am making is that my father died a long time ago. The second woman, who is not my biological mother, is still alive today. And I love her. And so do my children. And I take them to her and they tell me she looks much younger than me and although I protest I have to agree with them. This is my second mother and from the day I started earning my first pound one of my obligations included my other mother. My father died in 1947. This loyalty continued to the present day. I think it is a combination in my case of two cultures: my Islam and my Africanism where you maintain loyalties beyond the life of the father. The extended family is real.
So constructing the next civilisation is not just the pursuit of luxury as Bertrand Russel has said. It is not just the pursuit of surplus that Karl Marx tried to convince us. Civilisation was not born out of the pursuit of profits as Adam Smith told us. There are other things that include creative synthesis even in family relations and there are rules of family from culture which need to be made available to the next set of standards in the future.

I would like to believe that in Islamic culture and in African culture there are family rules which are still being followed today and which mightbenefit the West as well. And if there is a civilisation to be reconstructed that is one element that these at the moment endangered civilisations, in the face of Western power, can contribute towards moderating some of the tyrannies of triumphalism. Thank you very much.

Discussion, question & answer :

Q: We can learn from the West as far as technology is concerned but do we have anything to learn from them as far as morals and values are concerned.

Mazrui: On the issue of values, gender relations, that are disadvantageous to women are unfortunately widely defended in the name of Islam, by rulers, ulemas as well as by husbands. I don’t disagree with you at all that we should look at Islam in ways which are fair to women. But that requires particular fatwa that are in my terms more enlightened than in Muslim societies. So a body of knowledge does not exist independently of its interpretation. Similarly Islamic doctrine does not exist independently of its interpretation. Many of the interpretation of Islamic doctrine have been made in ways which are disadvantageous to women.

We do not want to say we are learning from the West. We want to say we are having a new fatwa. The trigger mechanism may be the West but the situation in the Muslim world is not one in which we can say we have no problem in gender relations. With the sister’s point about whether we can have a common language in Arabic, may be we need a religious interpretation which is almost the equivalent. If only we could find a religious interpretation that is mainstream and at the same time progressive. This could apply to relations between men and women. This would be ideal.

We have formed a group in the USA which is called the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy and it is diverse in points of view. We do not say you should belong to this point of view. We just want to provide a context in which people can debate how Islam relates to democratic values, whether there is a particular Islamic approach to democracy or whether Muslims say we do not want democracy, there is something else we would prefer. So we have created this and we are having lectures and conferences and newsletters and we hope to expand our activities on campuses.

My own position in classrooms in the USA is that I teach courses on Islam not from a traditional point of view but from the point of view of Islam in world affairs and Islam and democracy and that sort of thing. So I would ask students which factors in Islam are democracy friendly and which factors are democracy challenging? Invariably the issue of gender relations comes are democracy challenging. Very often Muslim women take that position. Whereas on race relations there is considerable consensus that Islam is democracy friendly. For 1400 years Islam has been ahead of most other cultures in regarding skin colour as irrelevant. With regard to zakat and economic justice, we have discussions and we decided that it is democracy friendly, but is it democracy friendly enough. That has been debated by students in the classrooms.

Q: First of all you tried to define civilisation in a number of terms but I did not hear you mention creative challenge – the successful response to a particular challenge is what characterises civilisation. Secondly you have made controversial assertions about Islamic globalisation and globalising Islam. But you have probably noticed the homogenising aspect of Islam by creating strong globlisation. When you go to Nigeria or when you go to Malaysia you probably find yourself at home when you are a Muslim. People in Indonesia and Senegal who speak no Arabic still witnesses a certain kind of homogenisation according to Islam. At the same time what does this infer now?

You seem to oscillate between whether you support democratising religion – globalisation is after all the free exchange of cultures and values like the market and in the end are you going to produce a better thing. Or are you of the more Marxist view that this is not genuinely free and fair. There is a clear hegemonic aspect to it.
Q: We Muslims who have had a glorious civilisation in the past. But to keep clinging to the old civilisation will not create another one? And secondly don’t you think that the technological gap between Muslims and the west is so great that it is not so easy to become a new civilization?

Mazrui: Did I exhaust the definition of civilisation? I don’t think so. I gave three and then I had my own. Challenge and response is another definition. Whether Islam is itself a form of homognisation. It is true there are elements of Islam which homogenise and that is what makes people from otherwise different cultures recognise each other. They ask ’are you a Muslim too’ and then something clicks. But because the religion has lacked a centralised priesthood and the equivalent of the Vatican or the archbishop of Canterbury on the whole there has been considerable accommodation of diversity of cultures. Senegalise Islam is very different from Indonesian Islam. The remarkable thing is that despite this the one thing in Islam which has not been culturally accommodationist is the language of the Holy Book. In Christainity people do not even know what language Jesus spoke.

I ask people in my classes in the USA and half of the Christains do not know what language Jesus spoke. The bible is read in a language which has nothing to do with either Jesus or the people who crucified him. Whereas with Islam the one thing that is not accommodating is that the Quran is read in its original language, prayers are conducted in their original language, the muzzein calls the believers to prayer in the original language. So despite the absence of centralised control this has remained constant in civilisations which are otherwise very different. This is remarkable. So there has been some homogenisation – you are right.

And is globalisation just another world for Westernisation. That is always a danger, you are quite right. Sometimes we used to talk about modernisation and that was just another word for Westernisation very often. Have we just made another step forward to globalisation? Are we just playing with words describing the forces of the West under different names. In reality there is a factor which involves the planet and how much of the planet is affected by the West, so there is a planetary factor which it makes sense to call globalisation. But it is right to warn out that this could carry hegemonoisation at the same time.

The Muslims today comprise of a civilisation – a fragmented one. There is enough there in the form of homogenisation to compromise a civilisation. It is a very fragmented one and not politically. The value systems have been affected by distance and by the impact of other forces. Curiously enough one of the factors which has slowed down the fragmentation is the technology which has come from the West and the extent to which Muslims have communicated with each other more as a result of the West. The West inspite of itself has slowed down the fragmentation of Muslims civilisation. It has helped it to retain some degree of coherence so that we can have the Organisation of the Muslim Conference, banks in the Muslim world, radio stations etc and we can try to influence each other as Muslims.

Q: Are people who have had civilisation in the past prisoners of nostaligia that cannot get out of nostalgia and build future civilisations?

Mazrui: I don’t think so. If that were true no civilisation would have developed as all groups have nostaligia. There has always been a culture in the past before somebody else built a new one. So Muslims if it is Muslims who want to do it, or Arabs or the shah who tried to go both backwards and forwards. He wanted to go back 5000 years and at the same time link up with the West with regard to Persia. So it is dual, you can have a culture of nostilgia and link it up with a culture of anticipation.

Is the technological gap too wide between the Muslims and the westerners that there is no hope of us having any control over what happens? It is a serious danger that we may not have adequate control especially since we do not have rebellious elites or rulers who want to rise to the challenges posed by the West. So the technological gap is not adequately closed by political will.

Q: How do you view the call for implementing Sharia in Nigeria?

Mazrui: The shariah debate in Nigeria (I was in Nigeria last month). It is true there are major tensions over this issue between the north and the south and those particular states in the north which are moving in the direction of adopting Islamic law. The major factors (I know you are interested in capital punishment but the audience may not know what the issue is about). Until last year there was an uneasy equilibrium in Nigeria with political power exercised substantially by the north of the country and economic power and control substantially in the south. So it was a bit like Malaysia where the ethnic Malays are in control of the polity and ethnic Chinese are in control of the economy. So with the election last year that particular equilibrium changed. A southerner was elected president.
Paradoxically he would not have been elected president but for the north. The north supported Obisanjo to become president. But the north in my opinion prematurely think they have been let down. So they feel they have been both marginalised economically, as they have always been, they are now being marginalised politically as a new oppression. How do they respond to that? One way is through a retreat to cultural origins. Since the north has a large Muslim population one way of doing it is to say we want to go back to Islam and they say they want the Sharia. Some of the states have huge non Muslim minorities. That can cause tension in those states and in the wider federation of Nigeria there are major tensions that would shake the federation. They have not resolved that issue. The present president, Obisango, because he is a southerner does not want to take on the Sharia issue head on so he is hoping it would gradually fizzle out. I don’t envy him politically, he is in a very delicate situation at the moment. So we wish Nigeria the best.

On the issue of capital punishment if you are interested in my personal view, I do not believe in capital punishment and this is not just in relation to the debate in Nigeria. My own position has been that there are things which God intended us to learn across time but there is one one messenger of God who was not a human being like Mohammed and that was time. Time teaches us more about crime, more about its causes and how to control and just as it makes sense that we should listen to Prophet Mohammed as the last of the human “rasul” we should also pay attention to time as a “rasul.”

I first went public on that issue when I condemned Salman Rushdie and at the same time objected to the death penalty. Not for Salman Rushdie. I objected to the death penalty, period. I think his book was disgraceful, he just played to the gallery of the West.

Q: When Allah speaks He makes it clear that the hands of thieves have to be cut. Where does Allah speak of democracy?

Chairman: there are only a few minutes left to respond to the remaining questions. In the meantime I would like to take the prerogative of the chair to respond to the comments from the brother. In response to the brother who said there is nothing in the Quran about democracy, there is also nothing in the Quran about dictatorship.

Mazrui: You all have very big questions and I have only five minutes. Let me deal with it by putting it this way : Why did this grand civilisation gradually stagnate and become left behind to be colonised?

The thesis of my lecture is when you stop learning from others. That is the whole point of creative synthesis. At some point in the history of Islam legalism took over and walls against systhesis were created. And from then on Islam was on the downward trend. We know we are down. Half the questions here are about whether we are left behind, can we ever catch up, what shall we do. We are behind, we were colonised, we can’t even get our own petroleum out of the ground. We do not have the skills to exploit our own resources without foreigners doing it for us. We can’t even get to our own wealth without foreigners doing it for us. So ask yourself what happened? The thesis of this lecture is that Islam stopped prospering when it stopped learning from others. This is what the thesis of creative synthesis is all about. The walls of legalism which were created by distinguished ulema whom we have refused to overrule for centuries.

The walls have to start being dismantled if we were to get out of this situation. We must learn to learn from others, it is as simple as that. It is true that Allah’s word is supreme but Allah’s word is interpreted by human beings. The Quran is not available to us with God himself talking to us. The Quran is available to us from the texts printed probably next door, proof ready by somebody else. It is available to us because it has been handled by human being, interpreted by human beings, with books and books and sometimes interpreted by human being centuries ago. They felt more free to interpret it than we do. The word of the Quran is not independent of its interpreter. How can it be? We are human beings. We are not God. We cannot say we know exactly what God meant. We are not God. We are only human beings therefore some human being who interpreted it this way, is that human being God? He is not. Why can’t another human being reinterpret it? So I make a plea: do not let us forever be confined to the walls of legalism created some ten centuries ago and for us to remain impervious from learning from others, we are just condemning ourselves.

Source : Islam21.

Professor Mazrui was speaking at a seminar held at the Project on Democracy in the Muslim World, London, on 5 September 2000.