Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Culture Matters

If you got intimidated by the length of my previous post, here's a CliffsNotes version:

  1. Things that we do with regularity (even little things) become our culture.

  2. Cultural traits act like enzymes. Tiny little things eventually determine whether or not big things are possible.

  3. Al Ghazali, a genius and a rare scholar, deeply renowned in his own life time for his scholarship who adopted a highly spiritual path in the later stages of his life (lived in the 12th century CE), successfully (albeit erroneously, possibly unintentionally) pleaded a case to the Islamic civilization that things of this world were meaningless and matters of spirit and the business of there Hereafter, were more worthy pursuit.

  4. Al Ghazali was so renowned that his thesis slowly but surely started to deter Muslims away from the pursuit of scientific research, scientific knowledge, possibly even commerce, exploration, and innovation. Think about it, over several hundred years, young men and women made career decisions ever so slightly influenced by what a giant of a scholar and pious man had written, choosing a path closer to "piety" than "worldliness." Over time, this became our culture. New enzyme was no longer being produced, we survived a few hundred years off the "savings" from prior centuries. But we were running out of the good stuff. Many scholars tried, albeit in vain, to point out the critical error.

  5. The engine of innovation, discovery and scientific pursuit that Islam had unleashed continued to fire for a few hundred more years because of the sheer momentum (just like fast-moving car keeps moving even after you apply brakes...the brake in this case was gentle, but definitively there). Over time, though, it lost its vitality and intensity, sputtered, then gasped, and finally fell into a smoulder of its great history. The enzyme that made good reactions happen had been depleted below the critical threshold and so good things had ceased to happen beyond the required level to be a vital and thriving civilization. Essentially, our culture killed us.

  6. Ironically, just as our culture faltered, other societies which had been drowning in bad culture, selectively started to drain out the bad elements in their culture. They adopted innovation (often inspired by us), exploration and scientific methodology. Very soon, they were knocking on our doors, arriving on faster boats, armed with better weapons, with ability to predict the behaviour of elements of nature. They had mastered better organizational skills, replaced tribalism with meritocracy, embraced a culture of taking risks and ascribed heroism to trying new ventures even if it led to failure. In our culture, heroism was ascribed to only attaining greater spiritual levels.

  7. We were colonized as nations and dehumanized for over 200 years. In the great centers of learning in Baghdad, Bukhara, Samarqand and Al Azhar the structures remained, the drill was enacted, but the spirit had died. It remains largely dead till this day. The contemporary Muslim civilization despite numerous things worthy of celebration, (in general) lacks clarity on seeing its history in its proper context. (As a nation) we are slow to read the rules of engagement with our neighbors, react emotionally. Like a sharp chess player, we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Our lot has been rather miserable.
  8. (All this is said as a generalization. It is only an approximate truth from my perspective, and applies to our state as a nation. There are sub-groups and individuals among Muslims to whom this clearly doesn't apply. So if you know a certain Muslim who is all together, that does NOT constitute proof that my thesis here is wrong.)
  9. Diagnosis: Cultural Tilt that Favors The Spirit Over Matter
    Rx: Cultural Adjustment to reset this tilt (1-1-1) (i.e. over three generations) and restores the balance.
  10. Practical Change: The next time you see something about dunya that looks bad, don't shrug your shoulder and laugh at it as if it's an alien entity. It's our dunya. Pause, reflect on it and ask yourself if there might have been anything POSITIVE in what you're witnessing. Then, also reflect on what was deficient in it that led to the problem.
  11. Another Practical Change: If advising someone to be mindful of the pitfalls of this dunya, please remember to add "there may be pitfalls, but as God's khalifas in this world, we are also required to exert ourselves on matters of this world, so go forth, don't be too scared, work hard and pray hard...you may find odds but over time you will prevail, Insha'Allah."
  12. One More Practical Change: If you are a young Muslim, ask yourself, am I taking the easy path or am I exerting myself? Don't take the easy path. Exert, strive and struggle. Don't worry about setbacks, failures, names you get called...work hard. Do things that benefit humanity as a whole. Live your life outside the comfort zone. Insha'Allah, there will be plenty time to rest in our graves!

OK, some CliffsNotes are longer than the original. What're you going to do!

(Credit: I borrowed the title of this post from a book by Harrison and Huntington.)

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