Religion and Culture in the Framework of Relationships Between Christianity and Islam

Pedro Martínez Montávez

Arabist, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

In any account in which Christianity and Islam are two fundamental objects of reflection, although they may be presented in a more or less explicit, extensive and decisive way, religion and culture inevitably make up two prime underlying fundamental components, not only in themselves and for themselves, for their nature and condition of principal ingredients, but also for the specific relationships which are established between one and the other and also for the specific ways in which they participate in the total reality of each one of these two objects – Christianity and Islam – and how they act upon them.

The grandeur, importance and representative significance of the figure and work of Ramon Llull, which are absolutely exceptional, constitute, among many other things, a particularly pertinent and confirming example of the pre-eminence of these two elements, not only in a general sense, but also in the particular field of established relationships between Christianity and Islam. This would be a first explanation – if it were necessary – of the election of the theme that I have made, background justification, permanent, timeless, always valid. However, there is also a second explanation and justification, which is formal, conjunctural, temporal, especially valid for now, and also necessary and requirable.

Thus, religion and culture have always been two preferential matters, and inevitable ones, for analysis and principal reference in the complex panorama of agreements and disagreements, of understandings and misunderstandings, of approximations and distancing and of war and peace which have always been present between Christianity and Islam and for which the responsibility and guilt is reciprocal and obstinately attributed by each to the other.

However, this situation which has been habitually maintained is presently under great strain and we run the risk of it becoming insurmountable and reaching a point in which it becomes an insuperable obstacle that leads to the downfall of both sides. Even if the prejudices received and damage done in each case differ greatly in quantity and quality, just like the unworthy “benefit” that would be in store for each side. Whoever is not conscious that we are living one of the most threatening and terrible periods of this situation is not conscious of the reality that we have upon us. It is not the time to ignore this chronic problem, but a time when it is especially necessary and requirable to acknowledge it, as I said.

What Does Islam Mean Exactly?

I am convinced that we still do not know exactly what the term “Islam” means in its totality, in its full integrity. I confess that it has also been difficult for me to understand the term. It is possible that I still have not managed to fully interpret its meaning, and that the explanation I propose here is still nothing more than a personal approximation.

My starting point is what a term is above all else and in its origin: linguistic material. It is not that it is reduced to this, but this is the essence of a term. Islam can be translated for “compliance with the divine will, total acceptation of it, submission to it,” or whatever other similar formula. And this translation is only partially correct, not because it is tendentious, but because it only translates a part of the full meaning, of its complete semantic meaning, and it by no means exhausts its interwoven semantic totality.

Islam is a word incrusted in an Arabic triconsonantic root and basically means something along the lines of “to be sane, integral, irreproachable, safe”. In such a sense, it is clear that Islam also implies a safeguard, that a Muslim is conscious – although he or she may be more or less aware of being so – that, precisely for being a Muslim and for no other reason than that, “he or she is safe and protected.” Here, I am not going to enter into any anthropological considerations; however, I do wish to express this conviction. Islam, therefore, also means a firm safeguard that is guaranteed and indisputable from the basics that we have and which identifies us: language. Consequently, not having Islam, or worse – having had it – renouncing it entails being without such a safeguard.

Is it easy and frequent to renounce having safeguards, securities in the complex, often enigmatic and inexplicable, adventure of existence? How many human beings would be prepared to do such a thing and finally take this resolution? This natural and inherent value that Islam has as of its very own language forms its incomparable base. I renounce the opportunity of adding any other explanations and to extend in such given that I believe, among other things, that what has been stated here is enough for the moment.

Within the conception and the feeling of such a dedicated integrating vocation as that of Islam, religion occupies a position which is central, crucial and determining, and forms the prime hub of activity within civilisations. It surely does this in all fields although its degree of intervention and conformity may vary – and in fact, it does – in each and every one of them. It is not a question of Islam being no more than a religion – as it has frequently been purported to be and is still maintained to be, even within Islam circles – but it is undeniable that the religion constitutes its foundations and first and foremost identifying base, its principal pillar. It is not that Islam is only and always, inevitably, a theocracy, but that it is unquestionable that the revelation and divine message constitute the key to its monumental human construction. The humanism of Islam – which also exists and always acts, in many ways – has had to manoeuvre within this original dialectic and, more often than it would like to admit or recognise, in a distressing way although almost never completely in despair or without hope.

The crucial question to be asked is the following: Can Islam be understood in terms which are not strictly and simply religious, in something of a civil way? Obviously, we cannot embark on this debate here or even comment on the arguments sufficiently to reflect on this question. Nevertheless, I shall give evidence of a very suggestive idea, which is also fundamentally centred on the linguistic matter, as formulated by a very outstanding and representative contemporary Arab poet and thinker, Adonis.

This is the way in which he formulated the idea sometime ago: “Does the nature of the Arabic language impede the Arab Muslim from asking, for example, from a non-religious point of view, what is man, what is the world, what is fate, does God exist and in what form, what is the nature of the relationship between man and the world? Or whatever other question about things concerning life, civilisation and progress. Is there anything in its nature that impedes him from producing a knowledge which is the opposite of textual knowledge, anything that impedes him from naming the world, man and things in existence with non-religious names? … Obviously, the answer is ‘no’.”

The very same Adonis has recently referred, for example, to multiple religiousness (al-tadayun kathiran), in a paragraph in a future “notebook of thoughts” that also includes many other lucid reflections such as one that he makes concerning freedom: “Freedom is power. Should we really take any notice of anyone who says: there are peoples, and we the Arabs are among them, who do not have the capacity of being free?”

In fact, any question concerning the contemporary Arab world invariably leads to the issue of freedom and reconsiders it. No, the Arabs should not take any notice at all of those who think in this way and declare that, because they do have the capacity to be free as all men although the circumstances and ways of obtaining it are unquestionably very different – and this is an aspect of the problem that we should always bear in mind and ponder upon. But, of course, they have the power to achieve freedom. In one of my latest books, I highlighted as it deserved the lucid and brave distinction that Sadik Yalal al-Azm made upon being asked if Islam could be conciliated with secular society, democracy, human rights, modernisation, etc., to which he answered without a shadow of a doubt: “Doctrinally, as a method, I will say that certainly no. Historically, as a reality, I will say that certainly yes.”

The crucial question to be asked is the following: can Islam be understood in terms which are not strictly and simply religious, in something of a civil way?

The answer from this outstanding thinker is, without a doubt, excessively blunt, but it establishes a methodological and interpretive principle that I consider to be particularly correct and fertile. As I wrote some years ago as an ending to my brief essay Pensando en el Oriente árabe:1 “[The Arab world] is urgently and totally in the need of establishing and applying a combination of history and doctrine much more equitable and pondered, respectful and efficient than those that it has unsuccessfully used for too long. Because up until now, they have been clearly and deeply uncompensated for against history.”

What Is the Situation Regarding Islam and Democracy?

I bear in mind that these pages were proposed as an exercise in reflection concerning the possible relationships between religion and culture, included in the overall framework of the debate on the relationships maintained by Christianity and Islam, or the platitudes of the East and the West. It is evident that, up until now, I have almost exclusively referred to the Islamic religion because that is what I should be taking into consideration here, and that culture has appeared very little, at least in a direct and explicit way. Not by chance, however, mention has appeared of other terms and concepts inevitably related with the previous: history and freedom, for example. That is to say, human existence.

Here, I will reproduce, integrally, the beginning of a text that I wrote more than ten years ago in my book El reto del islam. La larga crisis del mundo árabe contemporáneo2 (The challenge of Islam. The long crisis of the contemporary Arab world). It reads as follows: “As you get deeper and deeper into the multiform and dilated panorama of the contemporary cultural and intellectual Arab world, you get the feeling, clearer and stronger, that it is basically a world of contrasts, clashes and contradictions. It reflects a world permanently and inevitably governed by a crisis of growth and adaptation, of a necessary re-explanation of things and their causes that goes on over and over again insistently and without ceasing. It reflects a world subjected to questions and prolonged recalcitrant uncertainties which are almost insurmountable. It reflects a world of lasting underlying tensions, tied to the actions of rivals of a similar force and condition in the hard and lengthened process of finding a compensated pairing off, a harmonization, of accepting at last the dominance of one over the other, the triumph of one side and the defeat or annulment of the other. It is a feeling that is as fascinating as it is overwhelming and, to sum up, natural. Because it is also natural and in keeping that this situation exists.” It gives the crushing impression of being exactly that: a world permanently governed by a crisis of growth and adaptation which has been repeatedly confronted, in many and extremely varied circumstances, but never resolved in a sufficiently positive way up until now. It is a question of a singular and exceptionally “historic” world.

I have stated that the main purpose of this modest contribution is to offer a brief reflection on a question of huge dimensions and complexities: the meeting between the European Christian “West” and the Arab Islamic “East”. I prefer to use the neutral and generalising term: meeting, rather than a term bearing connotations. I simply refer to the occurrence and not to any of its different forms, consequences or characteristics.

For the vast majority of those who consider themselves to be Westerners, Islam is the complete opposite of what distinguishes and characterises the West: democracy

From this meeting, multiple and enormous themes, questions and frameworks for debate have been derived in order to finally constitute, in the majority of the cases, equally immense platitudes obstinately redefined and argued. From such a magmatic arsenal, I shall bring no more than one: democracy as a key element for development, progress and modernisation. I know that this is a question of concepts that, for the best part, are conventional and impossible to define and assess in a general and unique sense and to be accepted by everyone. However, I shall use them here basing my ideas on that portion of common acceptation and understanding in which practically all of us coincide. It is not a question of seeing democracy simply as an element of political action, but also from a sociocultural point of view, as an element of joint human development.

To start with, there is an indisputable piece of evidence: for the vast majority of those who consider themselves to be Westerners, Islam is the complete opposite of what distinguishes and characterises the West: democracy. It is its opposing option, its antagonist, its negation. And there is another added consequence coherent with this schematic vision: democracy, by nature, is impossible in Islam. It should be added that there are also many Muslims who defend and share such categorical and destructive opinions, and particularly the second idea: democracy is impossible in Islam. The most atrocious expressions of exclusive fundamentalism belong to no particular “line of thought”.

These statements are unjustified, not only from whatever theoretic limbo, but also from the past and multiple historic reality itself. However, it would be an error to conclude from this that the introduction and exercise of democracy is simple and easy in Islamic contexts. It is quite the opposite: it is complicated, and frequently extremely complicated. And to demonstrate that, there is also the theory and practice, the textual material and the historic material.

On more than one occasion, I have brought up a text by a contemporary Moroccan thinker, Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri – eminent socialist of mind and action –, which has always seemed to me to be an outstanding explanation. I find myself obliged to include it here in a very fragmented and summarised form. It reads as follows: “I do not hide from the reader that, whenever I start thinking about the question of democracy in the Arab world – the old, the modern and the contemporary Arab world – I feel as if I wanted to shove an ‘alien’ element into its body. Nevertheless, what helps me resist this feeling and not give in to it is my faith that nothing justifies the judgement that this body, by nature ‘rejects’ such an ‘alien’ element: democracy … . We could define it positively by saying that it is the people’s power expressed through the institutions which they freely elect. And we know that this is something we lost and that remains lost for us … . I would prefer to reach democracy by democratic means, as this is the only way to form a legitimate type of government. Because other ways do not lead us, in our Arab context, anywhere other than to the futile repetition of despotism, living the night during the day.”

Indeed, what the debate on democracy poses in the Arab media – and also in all of the Islamic media – today is unquestionably the true impossibility of the expression and exercise of freedom. It is freedom itself which is frightening and, consequently, also its natural and direct derivations, among which is, for example, democracy. And not only for political motives, for regimes or ideologies, but also for sociocultural reasons. Among these is the religious factor, which can come to intervene and be the most active and determining. However, it is never the only one by any means, and to insist on presenting it as such is nonsense, a mistake, and shows a lack of knowledge of the reality of the situation.

What the debate on democracy poses in the Arab media today is unquestionably the true impossibility of the expression and exercise of freedom

To analyse such problems here is impossible, goes beyond my intentions of writing this modest contribution and greatly exceeds my limited knowledge and capacity. For this reason, I shall confine myself to clearly stating that the questions that have arisen are not limited to a political or religious nature. Although they can become, and frequently do, the two most intervening and determining factors. In short, the debate on democracy in the Arab world undoubtedly leads us to paradoxes, fundamental contradictions, which lead to false solutions that, being products of fiction, are servile and extremely fragile, quickly fungible. A most solid and witty contemporary Lebanese thinker, who has also had some experience in politics and government, Gassan Salama, categorically described at a particular time how difficult it was to form “a democracy without democrats.” Or with very few. Being watched, controlled or even chased. Or eliminated, as it frequently happens.

Perhaps the following paragraph is not necessary, and there may be those who consider it to be impertinent. However, due to my personal experience I will nevertheless write it as I consider it not only advisable, but more than ever necessary to clarify certain things and not run the risk that they are subjected to unfounded conclusions. Obviously, I am referring to an authentic democracy, although I very well know that the multiple, repeated and contrasted reality offers various forms of partial democracies, different sorts of attempts and rehearsals of democracy, more or less different from one another, “imperfect” democracies. As so many other things, absolute democracy, total, perfect, is probably a utopia, an unattainable human aspiration, although none of this means that it should be renounced. Obviously, I do not exclude the Christian Euro-American West from this situation. It is all obvious and indisputable, but – in my opinion, and I wish to make that be very clear also – it is also obvious that the options and possibilities of exercising democracy are, in this particular area, bigger and better, more natural, accepted and applied than in the Arab Islamic East and that they are better structured and prepared. All of this is relative and elastic, without a doubt, but it is true and systematically contrasted and contrastable.

In any case, simple objective and realistic observation of the present situation shows that the prevailing arena of relationships between both parts of the world – the Euro-American Christian West and the Arab Islamic East – favours very little the possibilities of collaboration in the task of installing democracies in the latter, even within the flexible systems and margins of those that have been referred to. The circumstances are not favourable in a general sense because the procedures and paths for authentic dialogue, of a meeting between the two sides, are broken for the major part and we do not very well know how to rebuild them, or we do not apply the strength or necessary means that this enormous undertaking requires. To affirm the contrary is, in my opinion, frivolous, blind or impudent and a condemnable exercise of vanity, pride or fraud. Consequently, if the procedures of dialogue and meeting are broken, what has to be done is to simply build and activate them. This is not only demanded by mutual interest, but also by our primary human condition and the necessary and inevitable constant demand to see and resolve problems humanly. Humanly, rather than “humanitarianly”.

Upon demanding “democracy first and foremost, democracy for all time,” the much-acclaimed Arab – although finally stateless – novelist Abd al-Rahman Munif knew all too well that the key to democracy “is not magic nor does it constitute a solution in itself, but it is the tool-condition that will bring us face to face [Munif addresses his community, his “nation”] with the problems and which will lead us to see them with greater clarity so as to later understand them and know how to act before them as a first step towards solving them … . This does not mean that democracy, and especially its predominant meaning in the West, is the magic solution, and particularly with regard to the Third World countries.”

Arab Islam has known and received the direct impact of the two contradictory and differing sides of the West and of the two conflicting forms of behaviour that should be mutually exclusive

Munif rubs some salt in one wound. I do not wish to direct, here, responsibilities and accusations to just one of the two sides mentioned, nor concentrate them in only one direction and from one sole origin. Because there is plenty of salt and there are plenty of wounds and I do not wish to fall back on the simple trick of the apparently neutral fair and equal distribution of guilt, which is unreal, unscientific and false. As I cannot presently go into a minimally sufficient analysis of these affairs, I confine myself to stating them and emphasising their relevance.

Arabic Islam has known and received the direct impact of the two contradictory and differing sides of the West and of the two conflicting forms of behaviour that should be mutually exclusive. It has known and received the confrontation with this “Janus-faced” West for a long time, but now, it is without a doubt living a time of a terrible worsening of this situation of an incalculable devastating effect. This West cannot teach, offer or ask anything of the Islam, because it is the cultured and barbarous West, the West which is worthy of being imitated and which deserves to be rejected and forgotten; the West of justice, equality and democracy in private, and the West of injustice, inequality and totalitarianism in public, of double standards, of shady dualism; the West with a conscience and without a conscience. Logically and justifiably, the question that arises is: To which of these two Wests does the message of democracy belong? Should we look at the moral West and follow it, or at the immoral West and reject it?

However, Islam – or part of it, at least – cannot continue to be castled with implacable devastating anachronisms, insist on backing worn-out useless methods, false ephemeral answers, failed harmful experiences. Above all, because the one mainly responsible for these errors, the most damaged by the perpetuation of them, is Islam itself. It can no longer keep out of time, or be situated in a timeless, rigid and inadaptable, unmodifiable time. This time is antihuman by nature and effect and it has no justification.

Doctor Wafaa El-Cherbini wrote in a well-known nationally distributed newspaper of Barcelona upon referring to the challenges and intentions of the Arab world:3 “The second [challenge] is the absence of institutional foresight and democratisation.” Completely true, this is the current world scene – and it goes back a long time – from the political and administrative angles. To deduce from this, however, that a widespread debate on the question of democracy is not going on would be the product of ignorance, inadequate information, bad faith, or of whatever other accumulated more or less shady ingredient. Something which is not surprising, by the way, because all these reasons, and many more, tend to lead to an unbearable mixture when our highly advanced cultured super technical media-oriented society presents themes and affairs concerning the Arab world. Nevertheless, this debate exists, it also goes a long way back and has a long way to go, and it is nothing but the logical reflection of the feelings on the issue, an illustrative manifestation of autocritical discomfort present in more than a few Arabs and that is also growing in volume, intensity and intention. I myself have been pointing this fact out and writing about it for some time. The fact that this issue continues to be almost totally unknown and not dealt with in our circles – even in those considered to be the most expert and interested in this world – is another story which does not speak in favour of the supposed authority of these circles and professionals in the matter.

The enormous and accumulated lack of freedom in the Arab social reality of our times, as a fully structural characteristic, is undeniable

Therefore, it is evident that this existing debate has not influenced substantially in the scarce and timid measures described as being reformist that a number of Arab countries have tried to introduce and implement over the last few years. I am referring to an authentic advanced, brave, really innovative reformism with not only political effects, but with sociocultural effects as well. What has been achieved up until now cannot be considered to be this. These effects can be widely perceived, however, in the intellectual arena. The theoretical and conceptual effort developed has not until now found its correspondent in those other contexts and levels. It brings up, among other questions, the role that the intellectual, the thinker, the writer – the creator in general – plays and can play in present-day Arab societies. A theme which is, without a doubt, fascinating, but which we cannot tackle here.

I insist on the fact that this intellectual effort is not new. In reality, it has accompanied all contemporary Arab thought and literature over almost the last two centuries. Nowadays, in addition, pertinent and very representative manifestations of it also come about in other less classical, more “modern”, fields: cinema, caricatures, comic strips, music, the arsenal of multimedia…, but its consequences and political effects are still insignificant, as well as arriving hesitantly and with delay. All of this is the inevitable consequence of the existing strong and ruthless apparatus of control, censorship and repression. Differences should be established between some particular cases and others, but it would really be of little weight, insignificant. To sum up, the enormous and accumulated lack of freedom in the Arab social reality of our times, as a fully structural characteristic, is undeniable. There are founded fears that, should things continue in this way, it may become an insuperable dead weight that will end up annihilating or disfiguring the Arab society, turning it into something different to what it is by nature and according to its possibilities.

I shall make just a quick reference to some recent illustrative examples. In other previous works of mine, I have given some other examples which are useful to prove the antiquity and continuity of the debate. This small number of selected examples to which I now refer clearly expresses the great interest in the present-day Arab world to find solutions in keeping with our times to the problems set out. Additionally, this allows me to end off my modest contribution with a third question in the form of an extremely brief appendix.

Could a Civil Islam Exist?

In a book recently published in the Jordanian capital, Amman, under the title of Nahwa jitab islami dimuqrati mádani [Towards a Civic Democratic Islamic Discourse], texts presented and debated during a congress held in the same city at the end of May 2006 have been brought together. I know about this volume only thanks to a long and detailed commentary published in an important Arabic newspaper in May 2007 and signed by Muhammad Abu Rumman. In my opinion, it is worth conveying here, translated, the final paragraph of this commentary because it clearly summarises the state of the question and its main deficiencies. It reads as follows: “But this book does not answer the question asked by those who appeal for this ‘civic democratic islamic’ discourse, which is: Why does the revivalist, or conservative, radical trend flood the popular scene and dominate Arab Muslim societies today – and, even more, Muslim minorities – both here and there, while the discourse that we read about in this book is concerned with the question of the elite and its limited diffusion?” Indeed, this is one of the key points of this extremely complex issue that has been insufficiently presented and debated as yet and, consequently, still lacks answers and solutions.

Abdel-Muti Bayumi is the author of a book, al-Islam wad-dawla al-madaniyya (“Islam and the Civil State”), to which Doctor Gabir Usfur, surely one of the most outstanding Arab and Egyptian intellectuals at the moment and a strong advocate of a project for the formation of neoillustrated Arab societies, has dedicated an excellent comment. The book by Bayumi is, in his opinion, a good example of the viability of the creation of a modern State based on pure and simple Islamic models, on their most deep-rooted values and on the possibility of their harsh allegoric interpretation. All of this textual material from the luminous and classical period of Islam is also that which was the subject of fantastic re-elaboration and updating by the great 19th-century reformists such as Muhammad Abduh and his numerous disciples and followers. Plurality, the right to differ and to debate, are also part of and constitute the roots of Islam. The Qu’ran itself supports clearly and explicitly these ideas. The only ones who do not recognise this or admit this to be so are the followers of opposing Islamic groups who are characterised by their great short-sightedness and even partial lack of knowledge of the Islamic tradition itself in its complete extension and richness.

Plurality, the right to differ and to debate, are also part of and constitute the roots of Islam. The Qu’ran itself clearly and explicitly supports these ideas

For many contemporary Arab intellectuals, the real threats against modern democracy in the Islamic world come from both “Islamic fundamentalism” and “secular fundamentalism”. The debate surrounding this question, as I have said, goes back almost two centuries and is presently going through a phase of exceptional worsening. In this context, the case of Turkey probably represents an excellent measuring stick. It is a very representative and important example of the problem in all its dimensions – and not only in its political dimension –, of the enormous risks and expectations entailed. It is as if Islam, in short, was trying to redefine and reconfigure itself as that which is considered by many to be its substance: a singular intermediary and mediating option decidedly distanced from all kinds of extremist radicalism; a solid reformist proposal by nature, condition and vocation; a genuine “third way” that should also take the human being as the principal subject of political and social concern.

To achieve this, religion and culture are crucial original factors, irreplaceable, fundamental and substantial components. All of which also makes up the essence, the substance, of the necessary and inalienable dialogue between Christianity and Islam, between what we banally refer to as West and East. I have decided to bring it up once again at this distressing crossroads-time of human existence, which I consider especially adequate for it, so as to try to continue to find hope in our existence. One of the most luminous, eminent and clear leaders of such a venture was and continues to be, without a doubt, Ramon Llull, whose memory and example we commemorate.