For many decades, this gloomy East has been living what might be called a “curse of civilization”. History began here, as did authenticity. On this land, the first man was born and went on to invent writing, cultivate plants, domesticate animals, play music, negotiate and enter treaties, make tools, and construct buildings. It is the very land that God Almighty chose to be the home of his messengers and prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.
Unfortunately, we Arabs have turned this cultural wealth into a weight that overburdened us.
We live in a state of constant flux, faltering between what we want or expect ourselves to be and who we actually are, comparing ourselves to other countries who have in fact learned from the Arabs in the past.
We try without success; moreover, we exert effort without reaching the level of intellectual and technological development that would put us within the ranks of developed nations and entitle us to be the true heirs and competent holders of the history of this ancient region.
A number of questions arise in this regard: How did we get to this point? What paths have we taken? How did the divine blessings on our hands turn to chains binding them? And why does religion separate us when it is supposed to bring us together, while technology, something intended to divide us, seems to unite us?
The strong reliance we Arabs have on our cultural heritage has led us to become dependent people that are more preoccupied with self-created religious divisions and inter-state disputes for the sake of power than advancing as a society.
As a result of this, we missed the train of social and economic development, and were left behind in history.
In the past, we were not like this. The civilizations that previously inhabited this region used to think, research, work, and invent. Their conceptions of God were simple, primitive, and spontaneous, as they generally sanctified everything they feared. They were, however, in a constant and desperate search to answer major philosophical questions such as: “What is the first principle of existence?” and “How was the universe created?”
The abundance of mythical epics from the ancient Near East differ, as each region’s understanding of place, environment and relationships differ, yet they all present attempts to explain the unseen and the unknown, using wonderful and deep symbolic narratives.
We find, for example, that the Sumerians, whose civilization flourished in the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia, believed that water is the source of everything, and that it is the first principle of existence. From water came “Anu”, the god of the sky, and “Ki”, the goddess of earth, and their son “Enlil”, the god of air that separated the earth from the sky, and his daughter “Inanna”, the goddess of the moon who dispelled the darkness. Humans were merely slaves who served the gods.
The myth developed with the Babylonians, and provided the creation myth of “Enûma Eliš”, in which the gods fought bloody wars, with the god “Marduk” winning and receiving the keys of fate. He then came up with the idea of creating the sky, the sun, the moon, and the earth, and created man from the blood of the fallen god “Kingu”.
The myth of creation in the East developed further, with the creation process becoming more complex. It was told that “Baal”, the god of fertility and water, fought “Mot”, the god of drought and death, in a clear embodiment of the binary struggle that would appear in many later religions, beliefs, and ideologies.
The discussion of this primitive understanding of the idea of a deity is a long one, as many myths extend from Egypt and its pharaohs, to the Buddhists and Indians in the Far East. The stories are similar at times and different at others, but all of them—whether they died or survived—suggest that religion was a motive and guide for most of the literary, artistic, architectural, and even political outputs of these civilizations.
However, even when differences occurred between these ancient people, it did not lead to divisions that resulted in fighting or religious wars among the followers of the same faith, such as those which will occur in the history of the three Abrahamic religions.
Judaism was the first Abrahamic religion that provided a complete system of understanding life, death, and the destiny of man. It first appeared in the East, and as it spread its practicers naturally had disagreements, whether they were theological, social, or, in some cases, political.
These divisions, coming at different stages of Jewish history, led to the emergence of different sects, the most important of which are: Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, Essenes, Banaaims, Samaritans, the Moors, alyuwdhueania (A Jewish sect), Haredims, Soferims, Karaites… and many others. Each of these sects claimed to be the ideal and most adherent to the fundamental spirit of the Jewish faith.
The situation was not much better with the emergence of Christianity. Signs of division began to appear as early as the first century AD on the nature of Christ, and then many ecumenical councils followed to resolve disputes and reunite, such as the councils of Nicaea (325 AD), Constantinople (381 AD), Ephesus (431 AD), Chalcedon (451 AD), Constantinople II (451 AD), and many others. Decisions were taken, parties were excluded and others prevailed.
Instead of unity and harmony, conflict and division were exacerbated. Disputes emerged on other matters such as icons and images of Christ, the first of which was by Constantine V (775 AD). He destroyed icons and de-sanctified the statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, considering their reverence as pagan rites. These decisions caused disputes within the Church itself, accompanied by theological controversy and disagreements that struck the unity of the faith, further muddling its identity.
Finally, the so-called “Great Schism” came leading to splitting what was later called the Catholic Papacy in Rome from the Eastern Orthodox Church, after tens of years of theological ritual and political differences. Christianity split into Eastern and Western churches, which marked the beginning of many fragmentations to come, eventually leading to fierce wars between the followers of the same faith.
The East also birthed Islam, the third and last of the Abrahamic religions. The Holy Quran was revealed, bearing the stories of the ancient and bygone nations and their varied differences and destinies. It would have been more beneficial for Muslims to learn from the experiences of the People of the Book who came before them. However, division extended to Islam as well, and it split—just like Judaism and Christianity—to Shiites and Sunnis because of a difference in understanding the Quran and its interpretation.
This split fulfilled what the Prophet said in the noble hadith: “The Jews were split up into seventy-one sects; and the Christians were split up into seventy-two sects; and my nation will be split up into seventy-three sects, all of which but one will go to hell.”
Many arguments took place, and intellectual debates were held, in which each side claimed to have the correct understanding of Islam and the essence of the Quran. If the disagreement was confined to the ideology, the matter would have been easy. However, it turned into wars that, more than a thousand years later, are still claiming the lives of Muslims—all followers of the same faith and Prophet who came as the last Messenger of God.
Thinking about the essence of these problematic religious sects raises many questions. The simplest, and at the same time most complicated, of them is: Since belief in God, the One, the All-Knowing Creator, is the essence of all religions, why is there such disagreement among the followers of the same religion and between the three religions?
Didn’t God Almighty say: “We […] made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other,” not to fight and destroy each other, or wreak havoc on earth.
Another question as important as the first one: What good did these differences do? What civilizational achievements did they bring forth to serve mankind and contemporary people? We ask these, and many similar, questions to the clerics and spiritual leaders of all religions!
To avoid any confusion here, this argument stems from a concern for this rich and dignified region, which deserves to enjoy security, peace, and development.
It also stems from the desire to protect the true beliefs from those who claim to be religious, and who in reality use religion to exploit others and fulfill their personal interests.
The division and exploitation of religion have pushed many around the world to worship a new idol: technology. Billions of dollars are wasted every month to buy smart devices, applications, and accessories, while billions more are spent on developing these technologies and employing them in several areas, not all of which serve good.
This idol is different from all others: It is strong and widespread, with arms that exceed the number of those of ancient Indian gods. The different types and uses of technology are endless, including social media, genetic engineering, space exploration, or, naturally, weapons, and war equipment.
Today, modern technology and its applications do to man what religion couldn’t do. Technology brings people together, creating connectivity between them, and giving them free and equal access to information. Technology is a global cultural interaction. It builds and constructs, entertains and amuses, and gives power to whoever possesses it, a power so great that it has become a deterrent factor, making everyone think carefully before waging wars. This power, once it existed, has achieved results that almost outweigh its use.
Today, the history of contemporary human civilization confirms that those who do not produce ideas, science or philosophy will be left behind by modernity and remain outside history. Our worthless religious differences have put us outside of history, and now we are begging for “civilization”, while we were the first to build it.
However, despite the above argument, we should not yield to this reality and stop thinking about reconstructing our society. It is still possible, and the first step is through dialogue.
We need dialogue among the followers of the same religion and between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions. A genuine dialogue aimed at building bridges and healing rifts, closing the road to all those who fish in troubled water, and above all, to bring peace.
In this regard, technology can have a positive and inclusive impact. It can reach thousands of users to spread the discourse of tolerance, coexistence, and accepting the other.
Religions have made significant spiritual, scientific, and intellectual achievements for humanity at certain points of history. They can do it again today if they are able to place their internal and inter-differences aside.
They should also consider renewing their discourse to ensure it is in line with the spirit of the age and modernity, make use of the technological revolution, end exclusionist practices based on stereotypes, and listen to the voice of reason.
This recipe is not limited to the East or the Middle East, but it also extends to include the whole world. It is the only remedy for the inevitable clash of civilizations that Huntington suggested, and will allow humankind to live in spiritual and physical peace that gives him/her the ability to once again produce thought, science, and art.