Evaluation of Modern Occidental Civilization
By: Ayatullah Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari
The world we live in has been making giant strides, entailing a revolution in thought because of science's daily advance in the study and the satisfying of man's needs. Science and industry have unloaded the work that yesterday imprisoned man in hard labor onto machine-tools. These set man free to enjoy life's luxuries in ease and leisure. They liberated his mind and spirit from the bonds of business to expand into limitless research into Creation's mysteries.
So swift has been this progress that developments which took centuries of the olden "time" measured in "nights and days" take only minutes or even seconds of modern "time". Ships which took months and years to cross oceans by the force of winds on sails, now by steam or electrical power take days for the distance.
Land transport, once dependent on beasts of burden, now moves on trucks, trains and planes with jinn-like speed. Man's gaze, no longer earth-bound, explores our galaxy and outer space, plumbs sea-deeps and penetrates to the earth's core. Old ignorance of this marvelous planet yields to fascinating new knowledge of the facts of nature, from infinite space to the atom's infinitesimal components, magnified a million times and made visible by electronic microscope.
Modern Western civilization’s productivity, affluence, comfort and leisure cannot be denied or decried. Advances in health and welfare, childcare and maternity have cut infant-mortality, increased longevity, produced cures for diseases deemed incurable, swept the plagues and pestilences of the past into oblivion.
Nonetheless, although science and technology have moved mankind farther and faster in the last century than in 10 previous millennia rolled into one, we of the Jet, Atom and Space Age know we have only started to learn the ABC of the writings in nature's mighty Book of Truth which await perusal.
It must be regrettably acknowledged that Western civilization’s short comings and weaknesses are no fewer than its advantages. Despite the leisure and ease which knowledge and culture provide for society, despite the new pages of history turned, human happiness has not increased nor have social ills diminished.
Technology and industrialization have reached a zenith while moral and spiritual life has sunk to their nadir. While science climbs, thought declines, divisions proliferate, and the West, rejecting spiritual and moral values, has bowed its neck under the yoke of worship of the machine. Machine-worshippers will never lay hands on joy or peace or happiness.
Science imposes an order on life which provides affluence but not happiness, since happiness is outside its competence. Science does not distinguish benefit from harm, or ugly from lovely, but only true from false. The order imposed on human living by science alone will set Hell on fire and must be resisted at all costs.
For civilization draws in the train of its priceless gifts a pernicious and deadly insecurity, breeding-ground of crimes and corruptions. It kindles a fire of lusts and longings that burns warp and woof of soul and spirit. It bans calm of mind, spirit, faith. Far from lighting a lamp to illumine human conduct, science has lunged it into deeper dark and murk.
Science's conquests and victories, like those of war, leave an aftermath of ruin and waste, sadness and suffering beyond the reach of remedy. Beside every flower blooming in civilization’s garden grows a thorn that wounds the soul.
Balance the boons of cars, planes, factories, surgery, wonder-drugs and affluence against the banes of bombs, gas, jets and rockets, death-rays, crime and violence. Within its own limits intellect is a good servant. But it cannot grasp the non-material. Hence with the decline of virtue many axioms of ethics have been consigned to oblivion beyond recovery.
The Islamic world, though not in midfield of the disturbances and activities of science, does not escape their manifestations in personal, social, educational or cultural life, and the flood of "civilization" rushes upon us. For ideas and ethics know no national frontiers; they infiltrate from land to land—good as well as bad. Man's inclinations being what they are, the evil and corrupt go quicker and deeper. Hence, though our society cannot compare in scientific or technological advances, it manifests the complete pattern of Western decadence.
A society can suffer no worse disaster than the loss of the power to distinguish good from bad; no society that has suffered this loss can attain welfare or wellbeing.
Too many see only the fascinating externals of "civilization", but are blind to the painful tragedies and the moral crisis of the modern age. The "civilized" world displays its superficial charms, so that persons who briefly sojourn there willingly abandon their discernment and judgment and shut their eyes to unpleasant facts and wrongdoings, feeling that the slightest difference in their own manners of habits or talk from those that obtain in the West is shameful; and instead of seeking the causes of Western progress and the means of reaching such ends, bring home as gifts a load of moral degeneracy and spiritual degradation. Such self-deception is the worst of defects, causing the loss of personality, of independence of thought, and of appreciation of the treasures of national culture, religion and nationhood.
This misleads thought away from religious conviction. It robs people of the power to assess and analyses events by a deep and universal doctrine that distinguishes good from bad. By this means many a truth is obscured.
The nations of Europe have been able to arrive at their modern welfare states without rejecting their religion and manners.
Japan, too, has made notable progress while preserving her creeds, customs and characteristics: and has with lightning speed soared up towards a high level of civilization. From being, through centuries, one of the world's backward lands, Japan has, in a mere 60 years, entered the ranks of progressive nations.
Japan never leant towards the West, nor fixed eyes and ears on Europe as a model to copy. She has clung fanatically to her heritage and nationhood. Cherishing the traditions of the great men of her history, she has continued to act as for centuries past, still preserving her ancient "Shinto" and "Buddhism" and pursuing vehemently her own forms of worship — however light-minded a sensible person might consider that worship.
But revolutionary freethinking gives no basis for diagnostics. It cannot analyses or unravel even the most obvious of social problems. Yet it welcomes every form of protest against, or criticism of, religion, with respect and joy, as being tokens of "enlightenment". Such negligence will never be able to face life's realities with a free mind.
The vast extension of scientific exploration into all aspects of material life has enabled human living to make an astounding leap forward. But while scientists busy themselves laying bare nature's powers and channeling their discoveries into technological industries, they fail to notice that they are only occupying one corner of a vast laboratory and neglecting all but the physical side of human nature. Could this be the deep cause of the mounting tide of licence and excess?
The perfecting of material science has not been accompanied by increasingly profound ethical insights. In fact the two disciplines proceed on different courses — so different that progress along one course may even precipitate retrogression on the other, from sheer satiety.
Recently a European professor said to a science conference held in Tehran: "In the field of morals the West envies the East. For the East's moral achievements are richer and finer than the West's. While the East profits from Western science and industry, the West needs to profit from Eastern ethical achievements."
To keep alive, human society needs other principles alongside industrial and technical culture. When the political and social set-up cuts the human community off from its basic philosophy of living so that life is bereft of altruistic ideas of mutual help and turns into a monotonous unremitting pursuit of enough to eat, the masses fall prey to the type of violence which the poet called "man's inhumanity to man."
Unfortunately mankind today is still in the kindergarten stage. We still have to attain an adult intellectual level if we are to make full use of the priceless reserves hidden in the heart of nature and at the same time to invest our spiritual capital in ways that yield dividends of happiness of heart and enhancement of spirit.
Infant mankind is childishly at the mercy of passing moods and passions instead of obeying the dictates of mature common sense. The bulk of humankind fails to recognize its prejudices and superstitions as idols, but worships them as much as "progressive" people worship "science".
Millennia of unpalatable experiences, and constant fresh miss adventures, must finally drive man to realize that the only alternative to inevitable annihilation is self-committal to the Road of Right and of Divine Guidance.
The sociologist Stanwood Cobb writes: , in his "Lord of 2 Ka'abas" (p.1): "Each vital facet of Western society's life, organization and culture is marred by some extraordinary crisis. Its whole body politic and soul are sick. Its nerves are on edge because the world is teetering on the brink of the divide which separates the moribund age of materialist scientific glory from the dawning age of tomorrow's moral culture.
We are experiencing the thoughts and deeds of the last minutes of a 6-centuries old materialist civilization; and glimpsing the first faint rays of the new. They are still too weak to sustain a sure hope. The long dark shadows cast by the old as it sinks below the horizon dim nascent brightness, making the road towards the new even more difficult to descry.
Human culture is experiencing that longest night of the winter-solstice as it broods over our past culture, and torments our spirits with nightmares and bogies and phantoms, ghosts and ghoulies and gooseflesh and horrors. Yet beyond that night lies the morning of the new culture, truly universal and moral, awaiting its chance to bless mankind." 1
We boast our "realism". But it is highly unrealistic blindly to accept, to follow and copy, the manners and customs, the institutions and formulae, of others. Such imitativeness merely binds a yoke of obedience on its own neck. Initiative is the fount of independence. Imitation is the parasite that devours independence.
The confusion in our ideas and ethics is due to the torpor caused by imitation. Nor does our turning our back on our own historical and spiritual traditions in favor of Western habits help us towards clarity.
In his book, "Islam and Others" (p.42) a great Islamic thinker wrote: "We do not ask for intellectual or social seclusion. We do not draw aside from the course which history compels civilization to follow, for we are fellow-travellers and partners in mankind's caravan. But we have been Muslims and, as such, have given great treasures to human culture.
The positive achievements of our great past laid the foundations of the modern world edifice. Yet we fail, alas! to give this pioneering due credit, and to preserve its esteem and dignity. When we learn to value our past successes properly, we shall free our hearts of the inferiority complex which bows the neck to tyranny, and take up the pure reasoning of free men.
Instead, like beggars cap-in-hand on the rich man's threshold, we accept gifts when we should throw them back in his face—or act so nobly that we win him to imitate us. In fact, for us civilization has a two-fold significance.
It comprises, first, our own far from undistinguished share in founding civilization, which we must not consign to oblivion but preserve in the stable practices and personality, the bright and shining extension of human experience provided by our people's way of life: and, in the second place, those fascinating manifestations of others' culture, prepared and matured by them for themselves, from which we must choose such a selection as will suit our needs without damage to our heritage.
"Civilization" derives from the same root as "city", and belongs to the sublime side of human thought. To debase its creativeness for mere imitation is to reduce whole communities to mere monkey-life."
Materialist Europe's Religious Practice
So far has the materialist spirit infiltrated civilized peoples that today you will find hardly one European with any aim in life loftier than scratching up a livelihood. Nonetheless many hold religious beliefs, and cling to their inherited Christianity, however adulterated it with heresies, and incapable of meeting anyone's spiritual or moral needs.
It may seem odd that such a religion can still exercise any authority in this "progressive" world: yet it has shaped and still shapes the spiritual and ethical mound of Western civilization. On Sundays shops and secular institutions are closed. Church bells ring out on all sides with their distinctive clanging. Congregations of all social classes gather and attentively listen to sermons. The TV gives special religious broadcasts supervised by the churches.
The religious take their babies to church to be christened at the priest's hands, and affirm their faith before him. Religious leaders are respected and called "Father" i.e. spiritual father of the community. During the long centuries of the Church's ascendancy, while all Europe's economy was based on land-ownership, a tithe of all agricultural produce was exacted to support the heavy expenses of religious institutions.
During the last 200 years or so, with the increasing secularization of society and the shift of the economic base to industry and commerce, one land after another has abolished the system of "tithing" and of the parson's "Glebe Land". But huge endowments have remained, while the faithful make regular voluntary contributions, often under a system of "stewardship". This is how Christianity's spiritual leaders come to command an adequate budget for their vast undertakings.
A committee on printed matters controls publications, and in this the Church plays the leading role. The Church supervises educational planning for nursery and primary schools. For all nine years of their schooling, pupils are obliged to attend church on Sundays for services specially prepared with religious instruction suited to their age-group. Strangest of all, innocent babes have to go into the confessional and admit their sins to a priest.
Films may not be shown without the permission of a board consisting of church leaders, doctors, sociologists, economists and psychologists; and the angles of religion, psychology, sociology and economics are all taken into account.
An Iranian in Europe
The writer had the misfortune to require medical aid in Europe. I was taken into a Catholic hospital in Germany. I was welcomed and accorded the attention they give to religious who come as patients; in my room, as in all rooms, was a statue of Jesus and a painting of the Virgin and Child. Regular prayers were offered in the chapel for the cure of the sick!
One day I saw them lighting candles before the statue of Jesus in one of the large halls of the place. Fancy that! Lighting a candle in broad daylight beside a man-made statue — and that in the hub of science and learning! What an outcry there would be if a simple peasant in Iran were to light a candle on a dark night at the shrine of a saint! How our "lessoned" youth would mock him and his "old-fashioned" ways!
I shall never forget one occasion when blood was needed for a transfusion. The head of the hospital asked me: "What sort of blood does Islam allow for transfusions? May Muslims accept non-Muslim blood? We will prepare blood for you according to Islamic principles!"
Developed countries set voluntary limits in the true interests of freedom. For the limits are intended to prevent misuse of the products of civilization. Thus the TV shows sports matches, holds teaching sessions, pictures the life of distant lands, and, in brief devotes the major part of its screenings to educational programs.
In the name of freedom it is prohibited for anyone to turn up his radio so loud that it bothers neighbors or passers-by. No-one may give parties that last on into the small hours if they disturb his neighbors. In fact, when you are in the streets you never hear a radio.
Though it is true that I did once hear a radio noise that made the welkin ring. I was just leaving my hotel and was astounded; for this was the first time I had ever heard anything like that in Europe. And what type of sound fell on my ears?.
Iranian music! I decided to investigate. Next day I chanced to meet an Iranian who had taken up residence near the hotel. In the course of conversation I casually mentioned the event. Putting his finger to his lips, he confessed with a smile that it was he who had perpetrated the noise on the day before just to see what would happen!
It is truly sad that in Iran we have not mastered the right use of modern amenities. This is because we have deviated from the track traced for us by our ancestral principles, and plunged into disgrace. Everyone knows the undesirable effects of TV's presentation of life. Much of the blame for the decline of the morals of society lies at its door. All that viewers gain from such films and programs is an increased urge towards moral corruption and mayhem.
Everywhere in Iran radio noises reverberate from every side in nerve-racking volume.
Industrial discoverers and inventors never meant to guarantee the sort of profits now obtainable from the exploitation of their brain-children nor could they have offered any such guarantee, for nothing was further from their thoughts than the idea their products, conceived for a rightful use, might one day fall into the hands of people who would turn them to purposes which are positively harmful and, for the population of a country like ours, threaten mortal peril.
Without exception, all the phenomena of industry, its tools and its products alike, are capable of falling victim to the process by which mercenary profiteers squeeze personal advantage out of public demand. The natural unreason of man, the tendency to mistaken attitudes, rapidly makes selfishness epidemic, so that people compete in technological profiteering to the tragic loss of others.
The root of this tragedy must be sought in the fields of learning and wisdom rather of ignorance and folly! For a Muslim to desert the humaneness and courtesy which his religion enjoins is surely a moral blemish of shocking proportions! God forbid that in our country such unbridled self-seeking and wrongdoing should be allowed in the name of "Freedom" to spread its evil disease unchecked.