Monday, February 06, 2006

Islamic civilization?

Whatever happened to it. I was going to write about it but I've only read one book on it and half read another tangentially related, along with some journal articles. It seems to me that to describe it one would have to explain the decline of Islamic civilization to its rather pathetic state or at least speculate on it. Maybe in the future I'll venture a hypothesis, if we're not all killed over a cartoon first. It is tempting to believe that civilization is good but it is probably for the best that Islamic civilization has declined, come to think of it. One might think or believe the Wester myth that civility and civil rights are indelibly linked to civilization and so education and literacy are the key to all, but actually history shows that civilization is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for civility.

It seems to me that to explain a decline of civilization you have to look to what defines it, i.e. language. So that's what I would try to look into in Islamic civilization. The pollution of language is generally the way that civilizations and Empires tend to rise and fall, e.g., the Roman Empire began mixing a little copper in the coin, a little more copper in the coin, and so on until its “word” was no longer as good as gold. Instead it was devalued and contained less value or meaning. It all seems to rely on the spirit and meaning of things even as people continue in their daily business with nary a thought about it. I.e., for credit to exist you have faith that someone will pay you back in the future and a contract may as well be a covenant, while things are done in good “faith” and so on. Money can be the root of all kinds of evil because it’s all quite religious.

Well, it would take a book to try to describe how the past came to be the present with respect to Islam. It seems to me that the future is bundled into the information of the present, although the whole system may not be closed. I have noticed that most of the ancient prophets claimed to see beings of light who are not bound by the system, interesting to note that light is the best way to communicate information. I wouldn’t say information derived from supposed revelation is necessarily of God. You could almost perform a study and have one person claim a form of revelation to see how many imitations there would be. But I do believe that some religious traditions were begun by an actual revelation of information, just as the original witnesses claim. It is interesting to note the impact of information technologies on such traditions, e.g.:
More than five hundred years ago there was a revolution in information technology; Johann Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press for the Roman alphabet. This made possible a further revolution, a revolution in the transmission of knowledge. Down to the Middle Ages, oral transmission was the normal way in which knowledge was passed on. Knowledge was stored up in men; the art of memory was amongst the most highly prized of arts; scholars were masters of mnemonic tricks. But, the advent of mass-produced printed books steadily reduced dependence on oral systems of transmission, until they became mere traces in our language and our values; we still talk, for instance, of auditing accounts, we still worry about the loss of the arts of memory in educating our young. Gutenberg’s press also accelerated a revolution in human consciousness. This is, of course, the particular insight of Marshall McLuhan and George Steiner, who perceive a transformation of human consciousness as it moves from oral to written speech, as it moves from a consciousness dominated by sound to one dominated by visual space. Knowledge became less warm, less personal, less immediate and more cold, more abstract, more intellectual.
It is hardly surprising that Francis Bacon named printing, along with gunpowder and the compass, as one of the three things that had changed ‘the appearance and state of the whole world’. A host of major historical developments are associated with it: making the Italian Renaissance a permanent European Renaissance, pressing forward the development of modern capitalism, implementing western European exploration of the globe, transforming family life and politics, making possible the rise of modern science and so on. But, amongst the most important of the ramifications of print was the transformation of the religious life of western christendom. Print lay at the heart of that great challenge to religious authority, the Protestant Reformation; Lutheranism was the child of the printed book. Print lay at the heart of the Catholic counter-offensive, whether it meant harnessing the press for the work of the Jesuits and the office of Propaganda, or controlling the press through the machinery of the Papal Index and the Papal Imprimatur. Print, and the enormous stimulus to literacy which the desire to read the Bible gave, was at the heart of that slow change in northern European Christianity from a time when a Church building and its decoration might be read as one great iconic book to one which was increasingly focused on the Bible, the Word, which many could read and all might understand, because at last it was in their language.
[In contrast:] Print did not begin to become established in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century, four hundred years after it began to become established in Christendom. Where Muslim regimes still wielded power, but were threatened by the expansion of the West, such as Egypt, Iran and the Ottoman Empire, presses were started up in the early nineteenth century but not widely used until the second half of the century. It is not until the years 1870—1890, according to Mehmet Kaplan, that it is possible to see the Ottoman elite beginning to be transformed by book knowledge.
( Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print
By Francis Robinson
Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Special Issue: How Social, Political and Cultural Information Is Collected, Defined, Used and Analyzed. (Feb., 1993) :231-232)

No comments: