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Transferring the New Civilization to the Islamic Peoples

By:
Şemseddin Sami Frashëri
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Transferring the New Civilization to the Islamic Peoples

Şemseddin Sami Frashëri

Commentary

Şemseddin Sami Frashëri (Albania-Turkey, 1850–1904) was a leading Ottoman intellectual, journalist, and linguist. One of seven children in a prominent Albanian family, he learned European languages at a Greek high school and Middle Eastern languages from special lessons at Islamic schools. Following graduation, he worked for the governor of Ioannina, and then the press bureau of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. At the same time, he published his own articles and plays, which resulted in his banishment through appointment as editor of the official gazette of Tripoli, in North Africa. The following year, he was granted an imperial pardon and returned to newspaper work in Istanbul. Şemseddin Sami was the author of the first modern geographical and historical dictionary of the Ottoman Empire, and many other lexicons. He also established a series called the “Pocket Library” to publish short essays for the general public. It seems that he suppressed his more radical opinions in these pamphlets—on the Islamic roots of European civilization, for example, and the veiling of women. Furthermore, his attempt to translate the Qur'an into Turkish was frustrated by the authorities, and he was compelled to destroy the parts he had completed. Meanwhile, his newspaper articles —including the one translated here—were outspoken in promoting positivism and modernization. These publications, along with his participation in Albanian cultural activities, caused the government to treat Şemseddin Sami as suspect. Although he was appointed to official positions, he was asked to conduct his studies at home and lived his last years under virtual house arrest.1 Hikmet Turhan Dağlîoğlu, Şemsettin Sami Bey: Hayatî ve Eserleri (Şemseddin Sami Bey: His Life and Works) (Istanbul, Turkey: Resimli Ay Matbaasî, 1934); İsmail Hakkî, On Dördüncü Asrîn Türk Muharrirleri: Şemseddin Sami Bey (Turkish Authors of the Fourteenth Century [A.H.]: Şemseddin Sami Bey) (Istanbul, Ottoman Empire: Kasbar Matbaasî, 1895); Agah Sîrrî Levend, Şemsettin Sami (Şemseddin Sami) (Ankara, Turkey: Türk Dil Kurumu Tanîtma Yayînlarî, 1969).

As may be understood from our previous articles on [Europe's] history and state, although civilization passed through many hands before reaching those of the Europeans, in comparison to modern-day European civilization those ancient civilizations—for all that the later ones were always more perfect than the earlier—are like mere drawings made on a wall with coal by a child in comparison to a painting by the famous artist Raphael [Italy, 1483–1520]. In addition, those old civilizations have already been destroyed; dealing with them is a duty reserved to history and to the science of archaeology. Many works of Islamic civilization—the latest of the ancient civilizations —and of its predecessor Greek civilization are extant, but given the existence of [modern] works and beacons, whose number is increasing daily, having recourse to these ancient works, or contenting oneself with them, is tantamount to trying to benefit from the wick of an oil lamp in the presence of sunlight. Thus the scholars and philosophers of presentday civilization consider Aristotle [Greece, 384–322 B.C.] and Ibn Rushd [Andalusia-Morocco, 1126– 1198] as two great mentors of civilization and hold them in high esteem; yet in today's schools they do not teach Aristotle's History of Animals or The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina [Iran, 980–1037]. They rendered great services to humanity; they each lit a lamp in gloomy centuries enveloped in the darkness of ignorance. Gradually people left this environment of darkness, finding the way with the help of their lamps. At last the sun rose, the light of education flooded the world. The duty we owe to those lamps today is simply to cherish and respect them for their role in getting us out the darkness. To go beyond this and to draw a curtain of ignorance and fanaticism in front of the light of the sun, and to content ourselves with the weak light of those lamps, is sheer folly.

Therefore, saving the Muslim peoples from ignorance and once again bringing them to civilization are among the most important priorities of any zealous person who loves his religious community and fatherland, since the survival and glory of Islam are contingent upon this alone.

It is true that religious zeal would impel a man to be content with the lamp which he knows to have been lit by his ancestors; yet it is essential that reason and wisdom should overcome any such feeling. Today, however much effort and expense is required to revive the medicine of Ibn Sina, the wisdom of Ibn Rushd, and the chemistry of Jahiz [Iraq, circa 776– 869], to extract their books from underneath the dust of libraries and translate them into the various Muslim languages, to publish them, and to found schools and colleges devoted to teaching them, we must make the same effort and go to the same expense to put into circulation among us the best scientific works of our own century. For just as we cannot cure even malaria with the medicine of Ibn Sina, so we can neither operate a railroad engine or steamship, nor use the telegraph, with the chemistry of Jahiz and the wisdom of Ibn Sina. For this reason, if we wish to become civilized, we must do so by borrowing science and technology from the contemporary civilization of Europe, and leave the study of the works of Islamic scholars to the students of history and antiquity.

It is a regrettable circumstance that, because today civilization seems to belong exclusively to the Christian nations, ignorant masses of our own nation take it to be a symbol or requisite of Christianity, and thus deem distancing themselves from it and guarding themselves against it to be a religious duty.

We can affirm that it is not the religion of Islam which prevents Muslim nations from becoming civilized; rather the cause is the religious difference and conflict which exists between the Muslim and the civilized nations—in other words, the fact that present-day civilization is in the hands of the Christian nations.

To avoid such fanatical reactions on the part of the people, some of our literary figures who are unhappy with this situation have attempted to make European civilization seem less loathsome in the eyes of the people, and so to make them warm to the new sciences and pave the way to transfer contemporary civilization to the Islamic nations. In order to achieve this goal, they used newspapers, books, pamphlets, sermons, and all available means to spread the view that European civilization was borrowed from the Muslims, that Islam is no obstacle to true civilization, and that most of science and technology which we see in the hands of the Europeans today is made up of Muslim discoveries. This effort of these people is a most worthy one. But because there is as much exaggeration as truth in what they assert, one senses that alongside the good they have done, they have also done some harm. This effort has gone to extremes by exceeding the limits of necessity. Just as a large dose of medicine intended to cure an illness creates a new one, so a new idea has arisen from this exaggeration, and although it is less detrimental than the first, its harmfulness cannot be denied. The number of people among the Muslims who view European civilization as a product of unbelief contrary to and incompatible with Islam has decreased, thanks to the efforts of these preachers of civilization. Yet as a result of their exaggerations, the number of those people who have acquired a new fanaticism—viewing European civilization as something stolen from us, imperfect, and an imitation, and insulting that civilization while maintaining that the true civilization is ours—has correspondingly increased.

This new fanaticism is like an illness arising from an overzealous physician's treatment. Shattering this fanaticism is a most weighty duty for those who want to be of service in civilizing the Muslim nations. This duty compels us to say the following to those who have acquired this new fanaticism: The Europeans borrowed many things from us, that is to say from our ancestors or more precisely our coreligionists who lived eight or ten centuries ago; however, none of the things in their hands today is something that was borrowed from our ancestors. Europe borrowed a seed of civilization from the Islamic world, and planted that seed. It is natural that a seed should decompose in the earth in order to bear fruit. That seed decomposed; the cycle has been repeated many times, with the result that its very genus has changed. The knowledge that Europe derived from the scholars of Islam was very considerable by [the standards of] the time, but by present-day standards it is nothing. At that time she borrowed a lamp from us in order to escape from the darkness of ignorance which surrounded her; but once she had reached a bright place with the help of the light of that lamp, she no longer needed it, and threw it away. Can we wax proud of this? There is nothing here to be proud of; rather we should be ashamed of it, because, after dropping this lamp and allowing it to go out, we do not even desire to benefit from a sun of civilization which rises and shines before our very eyes. Some among us say “this is not a sun but a time just before dawn,” while some of us say “this is an imitation of our old lamp,” thereby preferring to remain in darkness by closing our eyes!

Had the pioneers of Islamic civilization such as [caliph Abu] Ja‘far [al-]Mansur [reigned 754–775], [caliph] Harun al-Rashid [reigned 786–809], and the caliph Ma’mun [reigned 813–833], who established the caliphate on the ruins of Babylon, viewed Greek civilization with similar contempt, maintained that that civilization was derived from, and a mere imitation of, the civilization of their ancestors the Chaldeans, or that depending on works of Greek pagans contradicted Islam, would the Islamic civilization of which we are so proud today have materialized? Although Greek civilization was no longer an ongoing enterprise at that time, and had ceased to exist, children of the Companions of the Messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him salvation) borrowed it in its entirety, revived it, and held Greek sages, in whose footsteps they proudly followed, in high esteem and paid tribute to them. Why then do we not want to benefit from European civilization, accusing it sometimes of blasphemy and polytheism and sometimes of being an imitation? Are the European people of the book [Christians and Jews] more profligate in their religion than the ancient Greek pagans, or are we more pious than the children of the Companions of the Prophet who had the honor of conversing with the Messenger of God?

In Europe, too, fanaticism was often an obstacle on the road to civilization, Islamic scholars were viewed as sorcerers, and those cultivating the sciences were accused of heresy and severely punished. There too at first appeared some scholars who tried to reconcile religious texts with science, and to eliminate fanaticism by appeasing it. But because fanaticism is not the sort of monster that can be won over with kindness, it has brutally destroyed those who have attempted to appease it. Finally, the intellectuals gathered together, hand in hand, and waged a war against fanaticism with axes, crowbars, and gunpowder; they demolished it, and only then did civilization begin to move forward. In our society, too, in order to achieve progress in civilization and save the Muslim nations from the ignorance and Bedouinism that are precipitating their annihilation, for all intents and purposes a war must be declared against fanaticism to crush it by force and thus open the road to civilization.

Far from damaging religion, this would in fact greatly benefit it; for fanaticism is the rust of religion, and just as within a short time rust eats up and destroys even the best steel, so also fanaticism stains even the most truthful religion and rots it. The rust of fanaticism must be removed from religion so it shines with its true and essential luster, and its future is secured. There is as great a difference between religion and fanaticism as there is between light and darkness. The darkness of ignorance and fanaticism must be removed so that the light of knowledge and true religion may together illuminate and reinvigorate people's minds and hearts. There is no alternative.

Bibliography references:

Şemseddin Sami Frashëri, “Medeniyet-i cedidenin ümem-i islamiyeye nakli” (Transferring the New Civilization to the Islamic Peoples), Güneş (The Sun), Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, volume 1, number 4, 1883–1884, pp. 179–184. Translation from Turkish and introduction by M. Şükrü Hanioğlu.

Notes:

1. Hikmet Turhan Dağlîoğlu, Şemsettin Sami Bey: Hayatî ve Eserleriemseddin Sami Bey: His Life and Works) (Istanbul, Turkey: Resimli Ay Matbaasî, 1934); İsmail Hakkî, On Dördüncü Asrîn Türk Muharrirleri: Şemseddin Sami Bey (Turkish Authors of the Fourteenth Century [A.H.]: Şemseddin Sami Bey) (Istanbul, Ottoman Empire: Kasbar Matbaasî, 1895); Agah Sîrrî Levend, Şemsettin Samiemseddin Sami) (Ankara, Turkey: Türk Dil Kurumu Tanîtma Yayînlarî, 1969).

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