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The impact of western hegemony on Muslim thought Pt 1

Yusuf Progler

[The first part of an abridgement of the paper given by Professor Yusuf Progler at the Kalim Siddiqui Memorial Seminar at the Commonwealth Institute in London on April 11, 1999. In this part, he outlines the Western legacy of deicide, ecocide, and genocide. In the second part, in the next issue, he will sketch ways that Muslims can escape this legacy.]

About ten years ago, I saw Dr Kalim Siddiqui on a documentary on Canadian television, with a typical title like ‘Holy Terror’ or ‘The Sword of Allah’. A journalist asked him, ‘Do you think Islam can ever be tolerant of the West?’ Dr. Kalim replied, ‘We wear your clothes, we eat your food and go to your schools, we drive your cars and work in your shops, we watch your television...’ and he rolled off a litany of things that Muslims do in Western societies - complying with virtually all its laws, regulations, customs, and habits. And then he asked, ‘what more do you want?’ Met by the journalist’s puzzled silence, Dr. Kalim pointed out ‘it is you who are intolerant.’

This story illustrates a non-hegemonic way of thinking. People who think like this operate outside the usual assumptions. The usual reaction would have been to apologize. Instead, Dr. Kalim questioned the question, trying to address its underlying assumptions. In this spirit, I want to help you get underneath some things that are now going on in the world.

One hears a lot of talk about ‘the millennium. There’s a daily countdown - one can buy watches that number the days. And there are numerous academic conferences involving Muslims in programs like, ‘interfaith dialogues for the new millennium’ or ‘new thoughts for the new millennium.’ There is a plethora of events, papers, speeches, and special programs, about this millennium. And although many of them involve Muslims, they emanate from the dominant Western culture, through its media, politicians, corporations, and churches. Everyone’s got ‘2000’ attached to something. In American education reform, for example, we find ‘Goals 2000’, ‘Education 2000’, ‘America 2000.’ Pretty soon, they’ll have ‘Pepsi 2000.’ Everything must have this magic number attached to it.

But there’s only one question: whose millennium? A quick look in the history books provides clues for an answer. Virtually no other civilization that keeps a calendar has any corresponding significant date. The Muslims’ year is 1420. On the Chinese calendar, it’s 4607 and for the Jews it will be 5760. For the Zoroastrians, 2000 corresponds with 1368, and for the Hindus with 5101. So we are all thinking in terms of the Western Christian calendar.

This millennial hoopla serves a definite purpose. It imposes the destiny of the West over our destiny, demanding that we join with it and celebrate, implying that this joining will bring prosperity and the good life. In other words, the millennium is a hegemonic ploy on the part of Western civilization. Everybody in the West believes in this millennium, and advertisers and politicians manipulate this. But should we cooperate? We have a couple of choices: we can just try to forget about it, but of course if you have a television or satellite or you go to school or you have a job or you read the newspapers, it’s going to be pretty hard to ignore. Alternatively, one can try to survive with some kind of cognitive dissonance by saying, ‘okay, I know it’s not my millennium but I’ll go along with it anyway’.

Neither option seems a logical or dignified way to live vis-a-vis this hegemonic operation, so I propose something else. We ought to use this event to take stock of the legacy of Western civilization in its millennium, on its own terms. Let’s see what it’s done over the past thousand years, and what is cause for celebration.

In religion, Western Christianity starts out with a flawed conception of God and the Divine. There’s a Jewish idea of God in the Bible that says that God’s hand reached out to create the world and then slipped back into its sleeve. As the Qur’an says, ‘they say that Allah’s hand is chained.’ This concept of Divine Majesty limits the power of Allah to the moment of creation. Their theology based itself on pinpointing this exact instant in which the Divine Majesty of God could be observed, after which it receded back into the sleeve.

There’s also a form of negative theology that emerged in the West during these thousand years, ascribing to God only that which the human mind cannot comprehend. In early times, God caused everything, supposedly because people understood nothing. In this negative theology, as human ignorance receded so does God. So we have this negative theology and this moment of creation: they’ve already begun to strip away the Majesty of the Divine from their daily lives and from their theology.

Along with this, over this same thousand years, the Church began to play with its texts, with its beliefs, and its rituals, and made up a lot of dogma: simony and celibacy, for example. These things and other have very little to do with the practice of Jesus and less to do with Christianity as Muslims understand it. The Church developed a number of self-serving doctrines that replaced the message of Jesus, however corrupted that was, in their texts.

They developed doctrines that were tied up with male privilege, property-ownership, and all sorts of xenophobic and violent practices, which they then presented as ‘Christianity.’ Divinity comes through the Church, salvation comes through the Church alone. People who denied this contrivance were tortured, burned or driven out. The institution itself, of course, was based on innovation, which many people realised; so the Church had to use violence to impose innovation which drove many people away.

Then there was the Reformation, which removed some of the Church’s power but kept a lot of its innovation and enforcement. Then leads to an ‘Enlightenment’ and on into the end of the nineteenth century when a philosopher like Nietzsche, could claim that ‘God is dead!’ In a sense, they killed God - it took about a thousand years or so, but, in their minds, astaghfirullah, they killed their deity. Deicide is one of the legacies of Western civilization.

In fact, we should call this the ‘millennium of murder.’ Remember this the next time you think about the year 2000, and someone says, ‘march along, folks!’ The road they are marching was paved during the millennium of murder. A few examples will make the point. Look, for instance, at ecocide: killing the environment. The Church tried to eradicate paganism, but they had a flawed text and a flawed understanding of monotheism and tawheed. They also misunderstod the concept of shirk, and so they associated polytheism with the natural world. Anything in the natural world became suspect.

This was extended much farther into a general alienation from the natural world, from creation, to the point that in Christian theology there emerged a belief that the human being is a partner with God (astaghfirullah) in changing the world. Human beings, instead of being part of creation, became partners of God. Shirk became institutionalized. Things became even worse when this thinking carried on into the scientific and industrial revolutions, because human beings obtained the tools with which to increase the illusion that they are godlike.

This led to the development of exploitative and destructive relationships with nature because it was thought to be inherently evil and dirty, and at best something to be dominated and used. With this attitude, a driving force, the West developed industries, economies, and cultural practices that are completely destructive. They have forgotten survival is a partnership with the natural world. All this can be seen in the wasteful habits of use, and the culture of consumerism that emanates from America. The American legacy to the world at the end of this millennium is wanton consumerism writ large, wasteful of the environment - a form of ecocide institutionalized into the culture.

Then, in European history, you see fratricide - killing one’s brother. This starts with the Church eliminating heresy after institutionalizing its innovations, by enforcing them with violence and then destroying those Christians who denied the Church’s innovations. Christians who walked in the sunnah of Jesus, upon whom be peace, as best they could with the texts that they had, were murdered by the Holy Roman Church as they enforced the Trinity. The best-known example is the Albigensian Crusade, but there are several other instances of such fratricide, first in a religious context but then as petty princes and secular rulers begin to jostle for Europe’s land

All this leads to the West’s horrid legacy of feudal warfare: the hundred years’ war, the fifty years’ war, the thirty years’ war, the twenty years’ war. Watch the History Channel on your satellite dish - it’s all about war, because that’s what the West has done best. And a lot of that war was fratricidal war, within its own society, its own civilization, over religion, ideology, and land. Then the millennium of murder marches on into genocide. Women constitute the first wholesale victims of genocide in Western civilization. In America, they make fun of the witch-hunts, with a holiday called Halloween. But it’s not so much fun when one realises that they murdered millions of women in Europe in this millennium. This was really the first holocaust of Western civilization. Eventually, the genocidal mentality flows out of the West with the age of expansion, and begins to engulf millions of Africans dumped overboard from slave-ships or worked to death in the colonies: another form of genocide. They needed so many Africans to work in their plantations because European conquest and disease wiped out the Indians. Such genocide continued into the twentieth century with the legacy of minorities in Europe being wiped out, which is continuing to this day. Deicide, ecocide, fratricide, and genocide... the millennium they want us to celebrate is a millennium of murder.

We can go on by talking about homicide. Since the great achievement of the West is in warfare, the culture is infused with violence, even down to an individual level. People have their own wars on the street with each other, drug wars and gang wars. Then there’s infanticide, which the Qur’an forbade 1400 years ago. There’s a sex-obsessed culture in the West that makes forms of infanticide seem like a rational choice. So I put it to you that this millennium is one of murder and mayhem, and that you should bear this in mind when next you hear someone proclaiming that we must join hands to march into the next one. With that kind of legacy I’d be pretty scared as to where they’re going to lead me.

Western civilization reached out to the world during the millennium of murder. Part of what they did was to exterminate - as they exterminated religious heresies in-house, so they began to seek out ways to exterminate heresies outside of its house. First, there were Christian heresies but soon Islam becomes a sort of Christian heresy in the west. Look at what Pope Urban II said in his famous speech at Clairmont in 1095: the faithful Christians must ‘exterminate the vile races’ of the Turks and the Muslims from the face of the earth. The effort failed, but the mindset continued. And Western civilization institutionalizes this extermination by developed unprecedented war-machineries. Remember -- the Chinese had gunpowder long before Europe, but they didn’t develop weapons of mass-destruction.

But the ethos of extermination had a catch. They couldn’t exterminate everybody because people resisted being exterminated, and because that would leave no slaves to rule over. When extermination was not an option, the second choice was to domesticate. One of the major theological debates in Christianity, sparked by Columbus’ misadventure in the Americas, was between Las Casas and Sepulveda. They debated whether the Indians are inhuman (and therefore should be exterminated) or human (and therefore should be domesticated).

At first, domestication got intertwined with slavery. The West believed that they were helping people by enslaving them. In the time of chattel slavery, missionaries began to redefine local cultures. Later on, colonial education carried on the work of dismantling and redirecting local forms of thinking and acting, which was another form of domestication. Of course, for those who resisted domestication, there was always the option of extermination. This two-prong effort served the west for centuries.

One of the goals behind the extermination and domestication movement in the West is to liquidate people’s assets, be they cultural, land or natural resources. The assets of exterminated people could simply be confiscated, whereas domestication usually resulted in people giving away their assets. A later version of Las Casas/Sepulveda debate involved Thomas Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, revolving around whether the Indians were rational and therefore able to sell their land, or irrational and therefore not entitled to own land.

A later version of this choice, extermination or domestication, faces colonized people around the world at the end of the millennium of murder. The damage is both bodily and intellectual, and both need to be healed. This is an immense project, and can only be sketched briefly in the context of this article. In short, however, the situation calls for the development of non-hegemonic ways of thinking and acting.

[Professor Yusuf Progler teaches Social Studies at the City University of New York.]

Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 9

Rabi' al-Awwal 17, 14201999-07-01

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