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Opinion: We're not as different as we think - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Recently, I was invited by a cultural center in Dubai to speak about the cultural relationships between Arabs and Iran. The cultural center was indeed cultured! It was housed in a unique building—a building that made you feel you could breathe comfortably and joyfully, because it possessed a cultural atmosphere.

To be honest, nowadays politics has killed the soul of culture.

Based on culture we should accept other people, though it may be that they do not think as we think. Differences may be obvious in their values, ideology and traditions. We might be living on one planet, in one country, one city, or even in one family, but there may still be a significant gap among generations. Culture makes a bridge between people, and politics and extremism in any form destroy these bridges.

In ancient history, the Greeks believed they were unique, because they were Greeks and all others were barbarians. Arabs believed they were Arab and others were Ajam. Jews believed they were the “chosen people” and others were Gentiles.

Look at the tall walls in Palestine, and how Israelis divide themselves from Palestinians—but we should be mindful that the real walls are, in fact, built into their minds and their beliefs about each other.

A question arises: Is it possible to truly exist without others? Let me give you an obvious example. Persian is mixed with Arabic more than any other language. At least fifty percent of Persian words are Arabic. Before the Islamic revolution, Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and a group of secular and anti-Islamic academicians tried to delete the Arabic words from the Persian language, but the result was a joke. For the Arabic words, they came up with replacement words that were so ridiculous that no one took their work seriously. In other words, what is intertwined with culture cannot be divided by politics.

Not only is the Persian language enriched by Arabic words, but Arabic is the academic language in Iran’s seminaries, too, including those in Qom, Mashhad and Isfahan. Ayatollah Tabatabaei—the great Iranian philosopher, theologian, and interpreter of the Qur’an—wrote his Qu’ranic interpretation, Al-Mizan, in Arabic in 20 volumes. He wrote his classic books on divine philosophy, Bedayat Al-Hikmah and Nehayat Al-Hikmah, in Arabic. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote his interpretation on Al-Fosoos Ibn Arabi in Arabic at the age of 28 and, interestingly, Khomeini’s interpretation on Fosoos has not been translated into Persian yet! In addition, the great classic book in Islamic philosophy, Al-Hikmat Al-Motaalieh was written by Sadrol-Mataallehin Shirazi in Arabic—all nine volumes of it. It is the main academic book for the leading Shi’a seminaries in Qom and Najaf.

Ibn Sina used the wisdom of Greek, Indian and Persian medics to create a great encyclopedia of medicine, again in Arabic. Using three trends of thought and philosophical tradition—Greek philosophy, Persian philosophy and mysticism, and Islamic theology—Sadr Al-Motallehin Shirazi established a new school of thought in the divine Islamic philosophy, and he titled it “the divine wisdom.” This shows that the Arabic language was and still is the academic language in Iran’s seminaries.

I believe the enrichment of the Persian language by Arabic—and more importantly, the enrichment of the Persian theology by Islamic concepts—was a great turning point in the cultural history of Iran. For instance, when we compare Iran with Greece, we can see that before Islam, we in Iran did not have great philosophers, poets and thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Homer and so on. On the contrary, the Islamic period gave birth to science and literature in Iran.

Unfortunately, today we are faced with an organized program to create animosity, hatred and rancor between Iranians and Arabs. I do not want to focus on the role of politics and its negative effects on culture, which could be seen in instances such as the case of Saddam Hussein, and the major role he played in destroying the image of Iran and Iranians in the Iran–Iraq War. He referred to this conflict as the war between Arabs and “Majoos.”

I think we should concentrate on culture, and political ambitions and agendas need to be put aside. We should pay attention to culture and common ground, not politics and difference. It is said that Andre Malraux’s chair in the French cabinet was located on the right hand of General De Gaulle. The foreign affairs, interior and defense ministers asked De Gaulle, “Why is the Minister of Culture’s chair the best?”

De Gaulle replied: “Because I want to look at politics and other affairs through the eye of culture.”

Ataollah Mohajerani

Ataollah Mohajerani

Ataollah Mohajerani is an Iranian historian, politician, journalist and author. He was Mohammad Khatami's first minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran. He also served as speaker of the Cabinet. He later became the president of the Iranian International Centre for Dialogue among Civilizations.

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