In one of the many cultural quiz shows that abound nowadays, one question was to identify a prominent ‘lascivious’ Arab poet [of the erotic Jahiliyya poetry tradition]. After the contestant picked his answer from the choices, the show’s presenter boomed back the answer in confirmation and congratulated him for being well-cultured – and for the money he had just won. That’s what made me stop to think, a number of not-so-innocent questions roaming through my head; who decides if this poet is lascivious? Or rather, who determines the difference between what is virtuous and what isn’t, and who draws the line between virtue and vice?
Through competitions like these and other situations we encounter in life, we find that there’s always a form of agreement over certain issues and specific assumptions that are unquestionable – despite the fact that assumptions naturally breed suspicions. Based on that, specific judgments are passed and the meanings of certain concepts and ideas are taken for granted. As such, matters are dealt with as a given or as natural assumptions. For example, Ibn Bord is an blasphemer, Ibn Abdul Qudoos is a disbeliever, Abu Nawas is a philanderer and the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa follows Manichaeism, and so on. The issue I mean to highlight here is not about testing the accuracy of the attributes ascribed to people inasmuch as it is an inquiry into who gets to decide and judge, as well as who is responsible for labelling and categorizing people? The bigger picture extends beyond this simple matter and transcends poetry and poets, literature and writers, science and scientists, and it is one that is introduced into every single detail of our lives. And so it’s natural that a particular manner is considered virtuous and another disgraceful, or a certain action lewd versus what is deemed chaste without ever questioning who set the criteria to distinguish between what is believed to be proper and what isn’t. It’s true that societies and cultures are governed by social and cultural perceptions but that doesn’t mean that these presuppositions or assumptions are factually true in and of themselves, rather, it signifies that certain actions and norms have become accepted into the governing customs and traditions. However, neither customs nor traditions constitute a part of the abstract truth.
Societies and cultures cannot exist in history except through a set of traditions or propositions and under certain presuppositions and fixed assumptions. The real problem lies in the ongoing influence of a certain custom, tradition or social norm that was relevant to the time it was created but has been rendered circumstantially obsolete with the passage of time. In this case, everything in the society and its culture becomes imprisoned by this situation at the expense of the community, and the culture becomes stagnant devoid of any creativity.
Human behaviour is generally guided by what we believe to be the meaning of the truth that surrounds us, and by what we undergo and how we handle matters. This crystallizes in the end to become a custom, tradition, social norm, or rather, a certain social reality that imposes itself until it becomes truer than the reality of that truth itself. Mental perceptions are made up of a general understanding that lends us the ability to act, make decisions and then pass judgments; both absolute and relative, even though in the end nothing remains but the absolute judgments – even when they’re not absolutely correct in their essence. Behaviour is linked to several concepts and visions, which give meaning to once useless matters or interactions. Animals don’t have an imaginative ability or a conceptual grasp, their behaviour is ruled by instincts and preservation measures to ensure that food, water and sex are available. All else has little meaning to them.
The issue is not strictly philosophical and unrelated to human behaviour or actions; this is a critical issue that touches upon the intricacies of relationships among humans, and between humans and other things in life. Examples might serve to clarify the matter: When the world decides, according to a specific outlook, that things exist in absolute dichotomies like faith and atheism, the concealed meaning implies that there are two different worlds – which only seems natural – however these two worlds are contradictory to one another. As such, a clash seems inevitable and is only about a matter of time, it’s no longer about whether or not the confrontation will take place. The same applies when the classification is based on different views of the same principle or concept such as is the case with the ‘clash of civilizations’, or dividing the world’s population into good and evil, or who is deemed a slave or a free man, and other categories that we encounter in our everyday lives. But it’s not only about major issues on a general level, the core of the matter lies on an individual level in the relationships among humans. When someone is subjectively labelled virtuous or deviant, treacherous or patriotic, the result is always the same; the imposition of a mind map for human behaviour that negates all else.
The understanding that results from enquiring into and pondering life and Nature is what makes natural differences a source of creativity that enriches our lives, but the flipside of the coin is when it transforms it into a destructive disagreement over differences that kills all beauty and dynamism. Dividing the world between faith and atheism, and good and evil is contradictory to the natural differences between ‘male and female’, and all the world’s different populations who require integration, and yet all of these interactions are determined by preconceived ideas and particular approaches through which meaning is to be decided.
Some might argue here, and their protests are valid, that the concept and its relevant outlook is based on certain references, whether cultural or otherwise, and that nothing can exist without a reference point, or else it becomes absolute nihilism. That may be true to a large extent, still, the inevitable existence of references does not mean that they have to be one-dimensional or have a single interpretation. Western societies and cultures for example, have references that are deeply rooted and connected to the world and to secularism, to freedom and individuality, and to the notions of progress and a productive work ethic. This doesn’t mean that there’s only one single meaning to all these concepts that make up a system of references. Based on this particular reference, one can criticize American politics for example, which despite originating from the same system of references can still result in different interpretations. An Islamic system of references, for example, can allow you to be a member of the ‘Morj’eas’ or ‘Kharijites’ schools [the two utmost extremes in the Islamic schools of thought], or anything that exists in between. Even though such concepts or absolutes derive their legitimacy from the same reference point, it is only interpreted from one perspective such as when the United States deems itself the sole representative of liberalism, or when Iran claims that it is the only true Islamic country, and so on. Although concepts and preconceived ideas may lead back to the same reference, it doesn’t mean that they are identical in their make-up, or direction and orientation. There is a vast difference between the concept of ‘getting acquainted’ and that of ‘fighting’, despite the fact that they both derive from the same reference; their only differences lie on an interpretive, explanatory or circumstantial level. *
But over and above all else, there is a choice: Should we aim at a greater integration or a deeper collision? This is the real question of our times.
*[This refers to two verses in the Quran which state the fact that people were intentionally created to be different, thus reconciling these differences is implied, while another verse says that everyone should be completely united in every way thereby supporting the idea of universalizing all aspects].