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Culture is organic. A human culture draws nourishment, raw materials, and inspirational energy from the earlier human cultures in which it is rooted. For instance, Western Christianity grew out of a verdant culture compost including elements of both Hellenic and Middle Eastern civilizations; which in turn grew out of earlier Sumerian, Egyptian and Persian societies. This middle-eastern, mediterranean cultural stew was among the richest in the world due to its favorably centralized location, its wide variety of domesticable plants and animals, and thus its long history of advancing civilizations. Islam too grew out of the same potent cultural soil, but with differing emphases and balances among the elements.
Now, as we stand at the dawn of a new, global age, we can see that the new world wide culture will grow out of an even richer, more seminal mixture of nutrients, since the new age will result from a recombination of the best features of both Christian and Islamic civilizations, along with the crucial inclusion of the ancient far eastern cultures including the Chinese, Indian, and others along with world-wide inputs of even more varied germ-seed material from Oceania, Africa, and the Americas. The addition of these hybridizing cultural memes from around the world gives the new age the most beneficial and variegated source materials of any human civilization in history. Only by the proper inclusion and organic absorption of all of these elements will the world culture reach its coming zenith. The merger of the streams of East and West is most important. The Chinese civilization is the oldest continuously living civilization on earth, and its cultural exuberance and productivity has more often than not exceeded that of the west. We will examine that merger of these deep and swift waters later in more detail.
But, from a near term point of view, the single most defining feature of the coming age is the dialectical clash and hybridization of the two great streams of western history, the Christian and the Islamic. Like two gigantic animals enmeshed in both fratricidal conflict but also in mutual symbiosis, these two great movements in human history are indeed brothers, separated at birth, but destined to re-unite to the greater glory of mankind.
Both religions grew out of Judaic roots, and both supplemented their roots with important cultural assimilation from the grand old Hellenic civilization. Fighting for supremacy and world domination, the balance of power and influence has shifted back and forth for one and a half millennia. In military and political terms, from Sulieman the Magnificent knocking on the door to the gates of the European heartland at Vienna in the late fifteenth century, to the long cultural blossoming of Islamic civilization in Spain, to the intermeshing of the bloody but ultimately desultory Crusades, to the modern day attempts by the west at cultural colonization, the histories of these two colossal civilizations are entertwined.
In cultural exchange terms, the Renaissance of Europe could not have taken place without the cultural borrowings from the Islamic middle east of Arabian, Persian, and Indian developments and advances in mathematics and science; nor could it have happened without the long-term salvation of the knowledge and books of the ancient Greeks, which were largely lost in the west throughout the long European Dark Ages, but faithfully preserved and embellished in Islamic hands and re-given to Europe as invaluable jewels of learning to found the underpinnings of the European Renaissance.
If Christianity featured advances in human ethics and social mores which softened and brightened the glow of human compassion forever, then Islam also added precious and essential ethics of tolerance, government and social compassion. If Christianity stressed the human dimensions of God's grace, then Islam equally stressed the monotheistic heritage of One God for all humanity. If Christianity emphasized the transcendent striving of humans to exceed their bounds, Islam ultimately kept alive the flame of love for and belief in an all powerful God.
Thus the middle east is crucial. The middle east has always been crucial to the evolution of civilization. It is in this crucible that the first Anatolian and Palestinian farming city states were formed; the first sheep and goats domesticated, the first cereal grain plants domesticated, the first urban centers with enough surplus to foster divisions of labor allowing writing and the other arts to develop. Later, the middle east saw the rise of the pivotal and all important Sumerian civilization, the foundational Egyptian civilization, and later still witnessed the flowering of the beautiful and central Persian culture. Truly, the middle east is the crucible of civilization.
The Persian civilization is central in its own way also, for here we find the geographical and cultural fulcrum between the West on one side, and the great Indian and Chinese civilizations on the other side, with the horse driven cultures of the vast central plains of Eurasia balanced on top of Persia to the north. If East meets West, it converges in Persia. Persia was influenced by the great Chinese civilization long before Europe was so graced, and the Chinese culture had much more deep rooted impacts on Persia than on the West (so far). As to India, the great streams of Hindu and Persian cultures are almost brothers in arms, for much like the Islamic and Christian cultures, the Persian and Indian are intermingled due to similarities of birth and development. All of this makes Persia a more central and important land than many westerners realize.
As to religion, Persia gave birth to the great Zoroastrian faith, which subsequently influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in profound and enduring ways. Little do westerners today realize that some of their most cherished cultural symbols and motifs come straight from Zoroastrian Persian soil. Some of the incomparable conceptual gifts of Zoroastrianism include angels, paradise, apocalypse, and the concept of spiritual life after death. Religion in the west is unimaginable without these accretions from Persia.
But let us turn our gaze towards the coming dialectical clash of Islam and the West. This is the crucible on which the near term future of the world will be hammered. While the West imagines itself to be eternally on top of the heap, we should examine the decisive importance of historical Islamic cultures, centering on the three poles of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian impacts. We have already mentioned the preservation of classical literature, and the Arabic sciences and mathematics (informed largely by Indian sources). But how much of our art and philosophy in the future depend upon the intellectual contrast and stimulation between western ideals and those more subliminal, chthonic, geometries of classical Islamic design? How much of our architecture will depend upon the Moorish ruins of Iberia and the domes and graceful lines of the Middle East and India? Could the Taj Majal have ever been designed and constructed by the unitary genius of an individual European like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci, or did it require the hybridizing spirit of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic lore? More importantly, what will the shock of mutual recognition and yet exoticism between Christian west and Islamic east, produce? What will be the symbiotic product of the genius of western individualism confronted and confirmed by the social spirit of the deepest cultural layers of mankind's homeland, the middle east?
The poetry and philosophy of Sufi thinkers like al-Arabi and Rumi are priceless gems only emanating from the east. There is a depth to this Sufi nature which goes all the way back through layers of cultural experiences reaching all the way down to strata of Sumerian and Egyptian societies. Ultimately, the unicorn, a popularly recognized symbol in the west, is the creation of a pre-Aryan Harrapan civilization in the Indus river valley whose writing we still can not read, whose lives we find mysterious, but whose soul is embodied in Sufi thought and literature.
But none of this yet touches the heart of the matter. Islamic civilization may have hit upon hard times in recent centuries, much like Western civilization did in the Dark Ages. In fact, the European Dark Ages were a similar length of time removed from the birth of Christ as the current Islamic woes are removed from the Hegira of Muhammad. So maybe something in the nature of these two great religious civilizations ordained that a dark ages would prevail at this interval. If so, it is worth noting that the West experienced a renaissance soon thereafter which is now due in Islam. But undeniably, the western civilization has made remarkable strides forward in material philosophy and science, and in economics. No one in the world will ever willingly give these things up; yes, undoubtedly Islamic civilizations as well as all others in the world will adopt the better parts of western science and economics.
But one thing Islam has preserved from our Abrahamic heritage better than the west. In Islamic culture, most people continue to believe in God; in one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Jesus of Nazareth and of Muhammad. This priceless heritage is all important and will be a gift re-given to the west, a priceless pearl like unto the gift of the preservation of classical Greek and Roman literature and learning; the gift of the Magi.
I know many people in the west still do believe passionately in God. That is not in dispute. But we westerners as a civilization, I submit, have lost the belief in God as a guiding motif. Notwithstanding the fact that we could never have developed our science and our entire way of life if had not been for our religious roots, we have turned unconsciously away from God as the center which must hold. The Islamic world retains this salient feature; its people believe in God. Ultimately, this will be a defining and momentous fact.
On this point turns fate and empire. Recall how, 2000 years ago, in a remote and tiny corner of the far flung Roman Empire, a child was born. He never traveled far, He never wrote a book, He never governed a town, much less a country; but He moved, upon the fulcrum point of His belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac , and Jacob, an entire world encompassing all of the mighty Roman Empire, and yet much more beyond. No Roman emperor can stand in His shadow without being overwhelmed. Whose power was mightier, the greatest overlords of the then preeminent West ruled from Rome, or the fragile human seed in the east Who believed in God?
This theme of rebound from the periphery is meant to be played out anew in this age. The tiny nascent Faith founded by the Bab and then re-founded on a grander scale by Baha'u'llah, on the far periphery of the then dominant western civilization, will rebound with majesty and might into the heartland of the west to work its wonders. And the seedbed was an Islamic society that, despite all of its many problems, embattled in a subordinate and darkened age, still held the essential ingredient; a people who believed in God, with all their heart, with all their minds, and with all their souls. No sophisticated westerner could perhaps fully comprehend this; it is a sign and a mystery from God for us to contemplate.
Thus the two societies stand face to face. The dominant west, and the soul of the ancient east. Out of this synthesis will be born a great society, embodying all of the scientific and material advances of the west, along with the soul of the east; and the resultant hybrid will be a spiritual society the likes of which has never before been seen. The artistic flowering of this union, the way of life which will result, will be magnificent. No longer will we be wallowing in the nihilism of a too rampant materialistic philosophy.
The eminent and glorious challenge awaits to unite the progeny of this union with the flowering of the far eastern societies. Chinese civilization is not only the oldest continuously living civilization, but is in many ways the richest. The spiritual boons of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy and the artistic flowerings of the east await us. With the Indian subcontinent and China plus the lands in between and the Pacific islands making up more than 50 % of the entire earth's population, with the oldest continuously in use written language on earth, the far east is a cultural stew in every way equal to or superior to that of the west. In this age, we are promised that it will all be brought together in one world wide community.
Out of the cultural ashes, and yes, the cultural treasured beauties of the east and the west, mid-wifed by the Persian magi who stand at the fulcrum of the world, is born a community worthy of the name global.
Quote from Baha'u'llah, Gleanings, page 217: "There can be no doubt
whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive
their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one
God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should
be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in
which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome
of human perversity, were ordained by God, and are a reflection of His
Will and Purpose." And from Abdul Baha: "When religion, shorn of its superstitions,
traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science,
then there will be great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will
sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles-and then
will mankind be united in the power of the love of God." Abdul Baha "Paris
Talks" page 146