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Written by Louay Safi   
Apr 18, 1994 at 09:40 AM
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Developmental Trends in Contemporary Society
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In Mustaqbal al- Thaqafah fi Misr, Hussein set out to demonstrate the Western nature of the Egyptian culture. Stressing historical continuity and the interrelationship between past and future historical conditions, Hussein wrote: “I do not want us to contemplate the future of culture in Egypt except by reflecting on its distant past, and near present. Because we do not want, and cannot afford, to sever linkage between our past and pre­sent.”[22]

To demonstrate that the Egyptian culture was historically part of the European culture, Hussein argued that Pharaonic Egypt was in harmonious relationship with the “Western” nation of Greece, while it was engaged in a bloody conflict with the “Eastern” nation of Persia.[23] He pointed to the cultural exchange that took place between the Egyptians and the Greeks during the reign of Alexander the Great. “The Egyptian mind, during the reign of Alexander”, he contended, “influenced, and was influenced by, the Greek mind, sharing many, if not all, of the latter’s characteristics.”[24] This is what happened in the distant past, but what about the near past? Hussein recognized that Pharaonic civilization was superseded by over one millennium of continuous Islamic civilization, but rejected the notion that the Islamic culture had restructured the Egyptian mind. He rather contended that as Christianity. was forced to readjust to fit into the European culture, failing thereby to reshape the European mind, which continued to be faithful to its Greek roots, so did Islam change so as to conform to local cultures, thereby failing to change the Egyptian mind, or for that matter, what Hussein called the “Mediterranean mind”. “If it is true that Christianity did not change the European mind, and was not able to deprive it of its Greek heritage, or strip it of those characteristics it acquired by being part of the Mediterranean region, it should be [equally] true that Islam did not change the Egyptian mind, or the minds of other Mediterranean people.”[25] Hussein conceded that most Egyptians saw themselves as part of the East, not only the geographical, but the cultural as well.[26] He, however, dismissed this belief as a misconception, arguing that religious similarity among Middle Eastern societies, though can be the “basis of economic exchange, is not sufficient to be a basic of cultural unity.”[27]

Hussein returned from the distant past to the present to find that the old close ties between the Egyptian and European society have been renewed in the last few decades. He noted that the Egyptians have copied the Euro­pean life in all aspects.

Europe built railroads and telegraph and telephone lines, so did we. Europe uses tables [for dinning], and produces [different kinds] of dining wear, tools, and food, so do we. We have gone further to emulate Europeans in their clothing, and even their lifestyle, without being selective or cautious; nor have we distinguished between what is good and what is not, nor what is appropriate and what is inapprop­riate [when emulating the European]. Our political system is purely European, we have copied it from Europe without being cautious or hesitant.[28]

If the Egyptian society had already become in practice a European society, as Hussein asserted, why is it necessary, then, for him to prove the obvious? Hussein realized that the Europeanization of the Egyptian society was incomplete. For one thing, only the “upper” social classes (al-tabaqat al-raqiyyah) had been Europeanized, while the vast majority of Egyptians had not. But for another, Hussein recognized that the development of the upper classes, and the Europeanization of the Egyptian society, and by implication, of other Middle Eastern societies, had been superficial. What had been Europeanized is people’s taste, not their intellect. They had ac­quired European appetite, but not the European assertiveness, creativity, productivity, or scientific curiosity. Even the parliamentary system and the democratic rule, a source of great pride to Hussein, which he thought were so entrenched in society that no Egyptian would be willing to give them up,[29] were after all not so deeply rooted in pre-1950 Egypt. Hussein himself was allowed to live enough to see the democratic system vanishing in the air in 1952.[30]

Be that as it may, Hussein contended that Western culture remained at the surface, unable to penetrate deep into the heart of the Egyptian society, because Egyptians have been reluctant and selective in adopting European culture. In order to ripe the fruits of modern civilization, Egyptians would have to follow the example of the Japanese, who, although exposed to Western civilization for a shorter period of time, stand today on equal footing with the West, because they have not been hesitant in adopting Western ideas and practices.[31] In short, to stand on competitive ground with the Europeans, the people of Egypt, Hussein contended, have to become Europeans themselves; they have, that is, to embrace the European culture in all of its aspects, both the “good” and the “bad”.

The road to [civilization] cannot be traveled on empty words, super­ficial semblance, or compromised positions. The road is rather straightforward, with no alternatives. The road is this: we have to follow in the footsteps of the Europeans, and adopt their ways, in order to become their equals; we have to become their partners in modern civilization], in its good and evil, in its sweetness and bitter­ness, in its attractive and repulsive aspects, and in its elements which can be celebrated and those which should be faulted.[32]

The model of modernization qua Westernization was carried vigor­ously by almost all Muslim secular regimes that had dominated Muslim societies since the middle of this century. The result has been a very slow pace of material growth without development. Surely, for all appearances, life in most Muslim capitals seems to be as modern as it is in Western capitals. But beneath the facade of modernity lies an eerie emptiness. For as soon as one delves deep to examine modern practices, one finds that Muslim elites have acquired only Western taste, but not Western industrious­ness and creativity. That is to say, Muslim elites’ interest in modernity lies for the most part in consuming modern goods, and imitating Western lifes­tyles. Even when one encounters modern institutions and technologies in Muslim societies, one finds them lifeless and dysfunctional. Hence parliamen­tary systems in most Muslim countries share with their Western counterparts only the procedural element of vote-casting, but not the spirit of popular political participation. Similarly, factories may produce products similar to those manufactured in developed societies, but the technologies and the innovative ideas behind them are made abroad.

The failure of the secular project of modernization lies primarily in the fact that secular elites thought they could impose Western culture and practices through an act of bare force. They failed to understand that the mode of change lies ultimately in the psychological and cultural aspects of society, which can only be influenced through an open debate aimed at persuasion, and not through compulsion and harassment.


It was against the background of the violent model of secularization that the current Islamic model of development emerged and matured. The model of change, which continues to be dominant within the rank of Islamists, is epitomized in the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb organizes his system of ideas around three key concepts: “jahili society”, “Islamic society”, and “the Islamic vanguard”. He contends that all societies could be subsumed under one of two, mutually exclusive, societies: Islamic and jahili Qutb developed the concept of jahiliyyah or jahili society, to analyze modern society and expose its shortcomings and deficiencies. The term jahiliyyah was first introduced in the Qur’an in reference to the faithlessness of the pre-Islamic Arab society and its ignorance of Divine guidance. Sayyid Qutb, however, adapted the term and gave it a new definition. According to Qutb, the jahili society is one that has been established on rules, principles, and customs that have been founded by man without regard to, or in ignorance of, divine guidance. In such a society, Qutb argues, man’s unrestrained greed and self-aggrandizement become the overwhelming forces that domi­nate social, economic, and political relationships among its members, leading to injustice and exploitation of some persons, classes, races, or nations by others.


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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