Halil Ibrahim Yenigun
Debates on Civilization in the Muslim World: Critical Perspective on Islam and Modernity, edited by Lütfi Sunar, 195-225. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Publication year: 2017


This chapter is an attempt based on the emerging field of comparative political theory (CPT) to trace civilization’s trajectory throughout the contemporary era, beginning with Rifa’a Rafi ’ al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) up to and including Hamid Dabashi. Although it analyses the rise and demise of this concept, among my chief concerns is to discuss this concept’s current descriptive and normative value. I argue that for the last two centuries, the term civilization has possessed a primarily rhetorical value, for it functioned as a defensive tool that subjugated Muslims could use against the Western colonial discourse that helped justify and perpetuate colonial domination. Thus, the term Islamic civilization itself emerged as a defensive discourse constructed by Muslim apologists to counteract the project of the ‘West’, which had first constructed ‘the Orient’ as a foil to represent its distinct and inferior ‘other’. Beyond this, I maintain, civilization has had little descriptive and normative value for Muslims’ self-understanding or self-projection. Moreover, I argue that its current deployment as both a descriptive term for various Muslim cultures’ self-understanding, as well as a normative goal for Muslims to pursue a socio-political project in the form of constructing or revitalizing an ‘Islamic civilization’, is obsolete and must be overcome. Toward this end, I will pay particular attention to the work of Dabashi (Dabashi 2001, 2008), who has consistently sought to deliver a coup de grâce to this wellworn concept. Accordingly, I view all attempts to formulate a unique ‘Islamic civilization’ vis-à-vis Western civilization as futile pursuits of an outmoded way of thinking about oneself and the other. By the same token, the concept of dialogue among thinkers who draw upon diff erent ontological sources should not be considered a dialogue among civilizations, a concept that is itself a power-effect. Any truthful and reasonable theoretical endeavour that aims to establish dialogue and peace among groups of people, therefore, must first debunk such essentialist concepts. My stance can better be characterized as ‘post-Western’, a post-Orientalist overcoming of the categories of ‘Western’, ‘Eastern’, or ‘Islamic’ civilizations.

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