I am not a great reader myself. But I have read History books, among other things. History teaches us that life is so beautiful for those who understand it. It teaches us that, in normal circumstances (i.e. no war, no natural disasters…), one can live happily with the bare minimum if one can define one’s essential needs from the needs imposed by society.
By taking a philosophical look at life from a historical point of view we can overcome many difficulties of psychic nature. Today we see the glamour of others, we see how ‘lucky’ people live, we see the growing gap between the poor and the rich ... and we just cannot understand all that. And what do we see when we take a close look at History? Well, roughly speaking, we see that there were before us, in those ancient times, as well as in more recent times, people who enjoyed some glamour, too ; there were handsome men and beautiful women who loved each other, who had children, who lived in beautiful mansions, who worked (for some), who listened to music, who walked in beautiful gardens, who said sweet things to each other, who made love, who dreamed of better days, who fell ill, who divorced, who waged war, who killed each other, who got injured, and who died. People just like us. Are we therefore simply a continuation of the human species? Where are we heading? Will we always have the same so-called pleasures, the same frustrations? Why are we here on this earth? Will there not be a day when misfortune disappears for ever? What’s life worth if one does not live it fully, in joy and quietude? What’s the use of History, what’s the use of philosophy, what’s the use of literature ... if historians themselves, if philosophers, if male and female writers take their own lives sometimes to escape their terrible realities? I do not have answers to that. However, I just notice that there are many people who do not commit suicide. They confront life with the few means they have. That means that, at least for these people, life is worth living. Now, is life really worth living – whatever our sorrows? To try to answer this question, it is necessary, I think, to see how people in all corners of the planet are leading their lives.
We have been led to believe that man has gone through several stages. We were told about pre-history, where man was rather wild, and about the Bronze Age, and so on. But in some parts of the earth there are still humans that could be called 'savages', according to historical terminology. There are people who could be said to be still in the 'Bronze Age'. Why aren’t these people 'like' us? But who has the right to say that these people are not like us? At least they have eyes, mouths, ears, feet, sexes like us. At least they get hungry like us. At least they marry, laugh, dream ... like us. Are we therefore like animals? What about animals? They too have eyes, ears, feet, genitals ... They too make love and give birth to little ones ... They too eat and die as we do. What about plants? They too live and die like us. They cannot live without water, just like us, and like animals. They too are of different colours, different shapes, different degrees of beauty ... They grow everywhere. Where there are men there are plants and animals. We all need water and oxygen. The same water from the Seine (River), or the Nile, is drunk by plants, animals, whites, blacks, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists ... This water does not stop at the borders. It has no nationality. Provided there is water for all! Sometimes there is none, or not enough. People are dying of hunger or thirst. Others migrate to flee famine. They go to countries where there are humans like them. Some of these migrants are beautiful, for beauty, like ugliness, is everywhere. Some of these migrants settle where they arrived. They marry people from the host country. There will follow mixed children. Mixed but not so different, because all remain human after all. All eat vegetables and fruit, bread and cheese. All want to grow up, work, get married. All will have the same problems and the same pleasures. A mere continuation of the human species? Americans of Irish descent may not be exactly like their ancestors who had to leave Ireland after years of scarcity. There is some progress, nonetheless. Both at the material and intellectual level. These brave Irish children have contributed to the emergence of one of the greatest civilizations in the world. Some of their American brothers had to flee persecution in Europe. Together, the Americans built a fabulous federal state governed by strong democratic institutions. However, evil is still not eradicated from this country, nor from any other country in the world, for that matter. Is that a frustration? Should we, even if we could, completely eradicate evil? Is it possible, for example, to dispense with military means for national defense, since it only serves war, and war is evil? Yes, it may be necessary to go through this to be able to answer strictly personal questions.
Now, let’s have a quick survey of History. Whether we read History books or ancient tales or poems we can easily notice that people have always been more important than their dwellings, mounts, money or anything else they might possess. Man has always been afraid of sickness, death, poverty, among other things. Man has always needed to feel reassured, protected, safe. Man has always made peace after the war; he has always created courts to do justice; he has always built schools to educate future generations; he has always built cities and villages to enable men to feel close to each other, to create all kinds of healthy relationships, to join hands, to exchange services, even when personal relations or between immediate neighbours or clans are not perfect. At times we may suffer from the cold, heat, hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, loss of loves ones ... But then we enjoy the pleasure of eating after hunger, the pleasure of drinking after thirst, the pleasure of rest after getting tired, sexual pleasure, etc.
In the past people brought knowledge – in their heads – from their old people, and then they passed it on to the next generations. Each time new palaces, schools, roads, gardens, factories, etc, were built. Man’s knowledge of the world expanded. And each time there was a new kingdom, good or bad. The question is, why didn’t those "good" kingdoms last for ever ? Why were there "bad" kingdoms as well ? That’s a hard one to answer. But, interestingly, history gives us some clues.
Many of the things we use today were invented by different peoples in different places at different times. Bronze, for example, was invented by the Chinese, glass by people in Mesopotamia, paper by the Egyptians, alphabet by Phoenicians, and so on. Each people learned from the other peoples and made their own inventions, thus expanding man’s knowledge of the world. This knowledge spread through trade and conquest. The conquerors inherited the knowledge of the vanquished people and took it home or spread it to other places. At the same time, the conquerors brought in their own way of life, their thoughts, their arts and their religion.
The interaction between so many powers, so many civilizations and so many ways of life made it necessary for each people to defend their own existence. Each people had to defend everything that was at stake for them. That included their culture. So those who happened to believe in a deity, any deity, had to defend their own faith by using all the tools available, including those that had been invented or developed by nations who did not share their faith. Such tools may have included Phoenicians’ alphabet and Greeks’ logic. Thus all nations were anything but "redundant". They were just as useful to one another.
It is also interesting to notice that most of those early interactions between various contending nations took place just in or around Palestine. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans, and many more in between – all had a foothold there at some point in history. And then came the Arabs, from Mecca. Those Arabs found themselves thrusting in every direction, going towards nations who had known impressive empires, and ended up building their own empire stretching across most of the then known world.
There followed a magnificent world interaction. The Arabs borrowed old, dormant knowledge from the Greeks, the Persians and other nations, and updated and enriched it, and then spread it in every direction. Baghdad emerged as the world capital of science. And in the West there was Cordoba, where Arab science was passed on to Europe through translation. Averroes spoke to Muslims and non-Muslim Europeans of God using Aristotle’s logic.
Baghdad was destroyed, but Islamic knowledge survived. It survived because it was not only in the books that the Mongols threw into the Tigris River, but also in people’s hearts and minds. Like the destruction of the Alexandria Library in antiquity, the loss of Baghdad libraries could have been a much more awful tragedy had there not been what I called interactions. Marrakesh, which was built and made their capital by Morocco’s Almoravid dynasty, was deliberately and completely destroyed by their Almohad successors. These rebuilt the whole city in the most beautiful way possible, because they had already "received" the necessary knowledge from their predecessors. As long as knowledge is intact, it does not matter how beautiful or big a destroyed place was. It can always be rebuilt.
Even the rebuilding of a whole nation is possible if there is the necessary knowledge. Europe milked the Arabs of their knowledge and rebuilt itself in a matter of generations.
But the Arabs’ knowledge was "poisonous" somehow. Averroes’ lectures taught Europeans how to look at religion differently. This led to voices rising against the way the Church taught religion. The Church defended itself by persecuting people of knowledge such as Galileo.
The conflict between the Church and new scientists resulted in new thinking. Some clung to their religious beliefs, defending themselves by use of logic and philosophy. Others broke with the Church altogether and called their way "Secularism". They defended themselves by experimenting with their knowledge of the world, excluding any reference to the Invisible.
The new knowledge of the world, based on experimentation, led to the Industrial Revolution. The boom in industry led to the spread of knowledge on a phenomenal scale. But this knowledge remained confined to where industry was thriving.
The Church was clever enough to make good use of that thriving industry. Wherever there was a new industrial site there was a large church. Moreover, church men paved the way for their respective industrial states to seize new lands on other continents. Both church men and those who were only interested in wealth agreed on a magic word: civilization. That civilization had to be spread through colonization.
Colonization made it possible for more people to go to more places. Africans "went" to America, taking with them their religions, including Islam. Other Muslims were taken into Europe, where they continued to practise their faith, at a time when large numbers of Christians ceased to go to Church. Orientalists (from Europe) went to the Arab and Islamic world to "return" part of the Arabic and Islamic heritage to the newly awakening Arabs and Muslims.
Now that imported material is being exported with an added value. It is done through the Internet and satellite TV stations.
Islam has become the fastest growing religion in America, which invented the Internet and satellite TV. There are now American-born imams who know the Koran and the Haddith by heart and are authorized to issue fatwas. All the Islamic literature is now everywhere, thanks to the Internet. This was made possible by American technology and Arab oil money.
Arab oil money has contributed to the building of large mosques, big Islamic institutes and libraries, and to the printing of the Koran and other religious books in large quantities in many languages in many parts of the world.
Even within the poorest Islamic states Islam is growing as fast as demography. Wherever you go, there is a new mosque and a new school because there is a new village, town or suburb. Small towns are swelling into big cities, and so small mosques and schools are becoming bigger and bigger.
Modern means of communication and transportation together with modern educational systems have made world interaction incredibly easier every day. More and more people are coming out of illiteracy. More and more people are learning more and more about each other. More and more people are coming towards each other. Migration, tourism and business travel are playing a great role in the ever-increasing exchange of human experience. Globalization has pushed this exchange even further.
It is again interesting to remember that Islam entered many parts of the world without having to draw the sword for it. Indonesia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa are such places where Islam was introduced through trade rather than war. Similarly, lots of Western things (the ways of dressing, eating, learning…) have been introduced to the Arab-Muslim world through trade rather than war.
When, in the 7th century AD, Islam reached the lands beyond the Arabian peninsula, non-Arab Muslims (who learned Arabic for social, political, professional and scientific reasons) shared the Arabs' astonishment at the wonderful language of the Koran. If Romans and Persians had hitherto expressed their aesthetic tastes and know-how through the way they adorned their palaces, churches and temples, the Arabs had expressed beauty through poetic descriptions of every beautiful thing they could find or see around them: horses, camels, gazelles, human bodies and faces, landscape... Putting the same Arabic letters together, the Koran did unimaginably better than any Arab or non-Arab poet. The Koran came with something simple and sophisticated at the same time for both Arabs and non-Arabs. Those non-Arabs used tiny pieces of wood, glass, stone, etc, that they put together in basic geometric forms (in imitation of flowers, stars...) to adorn gates, domes, walls, floors, thrones, etc, in the best beautiful way possible.
In a way the history of Islam cannot be different from the history of ancient Egypt or Greece or any other civilization or empire. They all reflect human nature one way or another. Islam was a victim of its own success. Islam appeared in Mecca, then moved to Medina, then spread in a matter of years to virtually the whole of the Arabian peninsula. Medina became the Capital. There was so much money coming in, an ever-expanding territory, plentiful opportunities for ambitious people. This could only lead to rivalries even amongst Arab Muslims. This is human. This has happened in all nations throughout History. In all nations kings killed sons and brothers and princes killed their fathers and uncles – for the sake of power. The Prophet Muhammad’s grand-sons were both killed for political reasons: Hussein was beheaded and Hassan was poisoned. That happened under the Umayyad dynasty, the same dynasty that built the beautiful Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and brought Islam into Spain. The last Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty was, according to some historians, “rolled in a carpet and trampled to death” by the Mongols, the same Mongols who later built the beautiful Taj Mahal in India. The Mongols not only massacred countless people during their conquest of Iraq, they also destroyed the libraries of Baghdad, which contained books of Greek philosophy and sciences, books of Indian and Persian wisdom and arts, books of the Islamic theology : all was thrown into the Tigris River. But those ‘barbarian’ Mongols gave birth to greatly civilized Mongol rulers who brought Islam to lands stretching from India to China to Russia… Most of the old mosques in those places were built by Mongols – the same Mongols who committed atrocities against not only Arabs, but many other nations as well. It’s them who sold into slavery free men from Central Asia, men such as Baibars, who became one of the greatest rulers in Egyptian and Syrian history ! The Mamluks, Baibars’ dynasty, had their part of ‘barbarism’. They too committed atrocities, but people remember them more for their beautiful legacy than for their ‘barbarian’ side. Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus are full of beautiful Mamluk monuments. The Mamluks were succeeded by the Ottomans, who brought Islam deep into Europe and built a great empire including most of the Arab world.
In my Baccalaureate year, I was assigned to give a lecture in Arabic on Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi, an Egyptian poet of Turkish origin. Some classmates were avid readers and they read almost everything, especially philosophy and literature. I knew I would have hard time once they began asking me questions, however my lecture might be. Their questions were very hard indeed and I was embarrassed, but I had a trick up my sleeve. When I felt defeated, I offered to read excerpts of al-Baroudi's poetry. I read out one of his love poems and there was loud applause in the classroom! Even those hard-talkers, who had never been convinced by anybody's answers, were bewitched by the beauty of al-Baroudi's poem. Al-Baroudi was a soldier who loved the Arabic language. He gave it his heart and it gave him fame and glory. His time marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Renaissance. This Arab renaissance began with Arabic poetry. Ahmad Shawqi, who was nicknamed "Prince of Poets", was of Turkish origin, too. His poems sung by Umm Kaltoum 'united' the souls of so many Arabs and Muslims around the world. Those "new Arabs" realized how much important Classical Arabic was even in their time. Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad revived that beautiful Arabic language. As a student, I used to hear the saying: "Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads" ! But there were Arabic readers and writers even in the Americas ! In fact, non-Muslim Arab writers, such as Christian Jubran Khalil Jubran, Elia Abu Madi and Mikha'il Na'ima, who lived in the U.S.A., further enriched the Arabic literature with their poetry and prose in Arabic. So many old Arab and Islamic books were snatched from oblivion (by Arabs and Orientalists) and broke into print, for the first time. Cairo became the Mecca of Arabic-language writers and translators. The number of Arab schools and Arab literate people started growing by the day. But not all Arabs were proud of their history, of their language, of their religion, of their civilization. Many Arabs were impressed by the colonizers. Ibn Khaldoun, the famous Arab sociologist, had pointed out in his Muqaddima that the vanquished peoples tended to ape the victors.
A century ago, most Arabs lived in the countryside, most were illiterate, most lived on agriculture and grazing. Under colonial rule, many Arabs drifted to towns, many gave up agriculture and grazing to work as blue-collars in factories or as artisans in small shops. Their children went to school and, when the colonizers went away, became white-collars in franchises. Some became State-employees in the new Administration. More and more people tasted the pleasures of lifelong jobs; youths became financially independent, then socially independent. Anybody could lead the life he/she wanted in his/her new home. Within a few decades, villages became towns and towns became cities. A lot of jobs with the State, a lot of factories (mostly franchises), a lot of workshops, a lot of shops of all kinds and sizes. Prosperity was within reach for so many people, literate and illiterate. It was easy for many people to build a home, to send children to school, to set up businesses, to live in the city. Those who went abroad, mostly as blue-collars, sent money back home, then built their own homes, set up their own businesses. Their children became very successful. In newly independent oil-rich Arab States opportunities were much, much more important.
Then, the first economic crisis (in the 1980’s). Then, the ever-worsening problem of unemployment. Then, the ever-growing crisis of housing. Then, all sorts of problems. Life is no longer as rosy as it was. People are now worried about their retirement pensions, about the future of their children, about the consequences of pollution… People have less and less faith in the State. Fewer and fewer people dream of lifelong jobs and comfortable retirement. And in the midst of all this, in the midst of the so many newly constructed neighbourhoods, apartments upon apartments upon apartments, you see a new mosque every year or so.
What happened in the Arab world also happened in other parts of the world. The Welfare State was created to give people a certain sense of security. Some are still nostalgic for the communist era when they could, at least, find with the state a safe haven: housing facilities, schooling for children, free medical care, etc. Neither the welfare state nor the communist state nor the best democratic state in the world can now reassure anybody any more. Globalization has surpassed everyone. Nobody knows anymore what the future will be like. Hence the fear of the unknown. This fear could translate into chaos, as we’ve seen in some Arab countries in this decade.