Address at the Washington National Cathedral, 7 September 2006


In the Name of God

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

“As-Salam-u-‘Alaikum” — Peace be upon you.

Knowledge of the human soul has been one of the most significant debates in philosophical discourse throughout history.  A part of this tale was written in the Orient and another part in the Occident.  It is important to realize that each of these narrations reflect one aspect of the reality of human existence.  In other words, the part written in the Orient reflects the eastern part of the human essence and existence; while the part composed in the Occident demonstrates its western portion.  Thus, the human being is the point where the soul, the Orient, and the intellect, the Occident, meet.  To deny any of these two aspects of human existence is to deprive ourselves of understanding the human state in a perfect manner.

The most important claim of great religions has been guiding the human being and acknowledging his or her place in the infinite realm of existence.  In discussing the question of the creation of man, the Noble Qur’an describes God with His attribute of Generosity (Karim), whereas when discussing the knowledge that He gave man, God is addressed as the Most Generous (Akram).  Only on one occasion, that is, when God completed the creation of man and gave him knowledge, He praises Himself: “Praise the Lord who is the Best of Creators.”

Divine revelation that was descended upon the heart of the prophets was sent down for the sake of man, and as is often repeated in all Sacred Scriptures, God always addressed man as insan, that is, he who seeks intimacy.

With this appellation, God transformed man from an individual to a human being.  In such cases when God addresses man in a universal sense, He does not specify any particular form, gender, physical appearance, psychological makeup, or a particular socio-historical setting.  What He addresses is the true essence of man: a non-historical being, man beyond time and space.  That is the reason that the divinely revealed religions have no differences with each other at the plane of essence.  They are different only when it comes to the theology that deals with the laws and commands within any given religion which determine the rules that apply to a particular society and the rights and responsibilities of its citizens.  This aspect of religion can and must be changed and/or modified through interpretation of the law and debates in a dynamic way to meet the needs of the time.  Unfortunately, sometimes habits, prejudices, and worship of forms within a religious universe lead to a static and stagnant situation.  Consequently, the truth of religion that deals with the essence of the human being is forgotten and the worship of form replaces the reality of religion.  This situation harms the faith and victimizes the religion.  In fact, many wars are the result of such shallow and formalistic understanding of religion and religions.

Now the question is, “Who is this man that is addressed by God?”  For centuries, many philosophers have attempted to find an answer to this question.  In defining who this man is, we should not fall into the trap of individualism or collectivism.  On the one spectrum stand those people who argue that in modern societies, the individual is the basis and the criterion for all institutions, laws, social relations, and contracts.  They argue that human rights, civil rights, and the like are all in fact the rights of the individual.  On the other spectrum stand those people who advocate collectivism.  In fact, collectivism is attained when the same individual is looked at as a collective body of men.  Therefore, individualism and collectivism indeed share the same philosophical basis.  They are the two sides of the same coin.  If one examines the contradictions between individualistic liberalism and collectivist socialism carefully, one will realize that the differences between the two views are indeed accidents and insignificant.  We believe that the concept of “man” can be properly explained within the context of Islamic spirituality as Muslim gnostics and sages have done for many centuries.

Muslim sages consider man as a microcosm: a universe in and by itself.  The principality of man, in their view, is neither in his individualism nor in collectivity.  Rather, it lies in the sole fact that man is the only creature that God addressed.  It is because of this call that the human soul is exalted and, through the exaltation of his soul, the entire universe finds a meaningful, beautiful, just, and divine character.  If one contemplates on the development of philosophy from its origin to the present, one clearly notices that most thinkers in history have in fact moved between two extremes.  Modernism (and modernity) is the last cycle in this process.  Modernism contains within itself many philosophical, artistic, scientific, historical, and ethical components.  The common denominator among all these aspects, however, is the catastrophic transformation that toward the end of the Middle Ages penetrated into the depths of the minds of the intellectuals.  The new era that we call the Age of Renaissance not only sought to revive the intellectual and cultural heritage of Greece and Rome, but its main objective was to adopt new approaches and ways of expression in relation to religion and its place in human society.  The Renaissance-era intellectuals and thinkers defined human beings in a different light.  Instead of turning his back to the world and despising material life as the primordial human being had done, the newly defined man was an individual who turned to the world and material life.  Thus, the human being became the subject of a new religion.

In its turn, worldly life embraced this new creature.  The mutual acceptance and admiration of man and the world by each other is the most remarkable peculiarity of the Renaissance legacy.  In its essence, this extraordinary religious event started with the purpose of reforming religion, rather than opposing it or pushing it to the background.  Yet in its historical development, this process deviated from its original objectives.

Man’s success in controlling the world did not stop there.  Rather, it turned into aggression and domination that extended beyond the world of nature and to human societies as well.  The development that came to be known as colonialism, which was the natural outcome of the domination of modern science over nature and was extended to human sciences as well.  The extreme reaction against the absolute domination of the church over man in the Middle Ages, and the denial of his fundamental rights and freedoms, led to another extreme reaction in the form of an encounter between faith and reason in modern times.  In the new environment that was created, instrumental rationality confronted faith.  As a result, man showed utmost effort to dominate not only nature; but also once this was accomplished, the strong established dominance over weak societies.  After the establishment of what we know as Western Civilization, we witnessed the emergence of a belief in both the dominance of that civilization and in the integration of other civilizations or the remnants of other civilizations into a unified Western one.

This viewpoint is evident in the works of Arnold Toynbee, the British historian who proclaimed: “We, the children of Western Civilization, are threading the path of life alone and find nothing but the ruins of other civilizations around us. . . .”  In like manner, great philosophers and thinkers of the West such as Voltaire and Marx spoke of the emergence of a single grand scientific and industrial civilization.

In this worldview, older civilizations must morally give in to rationality-based and science-based modern civilizations, just as agricultural civilizations physically gave in to the industrial and post-industrial civilizations.  This over-optimism is gradually fading, however, and it is being replaced with serious reservations and doubts by even Westerners themselves.  Despite all efforts aimed at summarizing the entirety of Western Civilization in liberal democracy and the multifaceted justification of this point of view, and dreams of an end to history, the rising crisis of modern rationality and modernism on the one hand and the resistance of other civilizations and smaller communities based on faith on the other, and even the emergence of anti-modernist traditional movements in the twentieth century, have created doubts about the ultimate domination of reason-based modern civilization.

Here, I must call attention to the fact that there is a profound difference between my criticism of modernism and the perspective from which I make my argument and that of modernity’s famous critiques in the West — particularly from a philosophical viewpoint.  They see no discerning power in reason and consider it a mere weapon that destroys all including itself and compare it to a rusty tool that is only suitable for a museum.  It must be kept in mind that without acknowledging the discerning ability of reason, we cannot utilize it as a tool for criticism.  This discussion regarding discernment, and particularly its relation to domination and power, is beyond the scope of our current discussion.  It suffices to state that, without the discerning power of reason, we cannot have a clear view of the most vital human concepts such as human rights, peace, justice, and freedom, and therefore we cannot strive towards their implementation.

This is by no means an invitation to the European rationalism and logocentrism belonging to an era before post-modernism.  The West, being the greatest victim of over-reliance on reason, is seeking the help of intellectuals and philosophers to deprive reason of every credit and privilege that was once bestowed upon it.

The Orient, which by definition means guidance and orderliness, can engage in a historic dialogue with Europe and the United States, inviting them to moderation and tranquility.  The time has come for the West to take a step forward and view itself from another angle.  And this is by no means a call for the West to forgo its lofty cultural heritage and civilization.  Neither is this an invitation to obscurantism but an attempt at persuading the West to seek new understanding and to better comprehend the cultural geography of the world.

On the other hand, the Orient and specifically the Islamic Orient, can fill the enormous void of spirituality and estrangement from the truth of existence, which today is the great affliction of our world, by reliance upon its moral heritage and transcendental wisdom and by the avoidance of ostentation and superficiality.  Great religions, particularly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, can help mankind solve modern problems and challenges by a return to their vital, vibrant, and common essence.  At the same time, the East needs to utilize the rationality and prudence of the West in its worldly affairs and must embark on the important path of development.

Today, no other course is before us but that of recognition of the right of humankind to rule its own destiny and the manifestation of this right in democratic systems that ought not to be limited to liberal democracies.  We also need to utilize science and technology, and it is now up to the East to understand its own spiritual wisdom in a way that enables it to utilize the accomplishments attained by the West without disregarding the more important spiritual and moral aspects of the human soul.

History teaches us that, whenever the East or the West over-relied on one aspect of existence and ignored the other, great calamities engulfed our world.  The time has come that, in the midst of chaos, war, violence, terror, and insecurity on the one the hand, and poverty, ignorance, and backwardness on the other, we seek to envision a world of peace, morality, ethics, and progress for all humankind.

The proposal for dialogue among cultures and civilizations is brought to the table in such an environment.  For true inter-civilizational dialogue to materialize, the East should no longer be the “object” of understanding in the West as it was in Orientalism, but it must be recognized as a partner in dialogue and communication.  The East, too, must differentiate between the political manifestations of the West such as colonialism and Western rationality (and scientific thinking) and, while relying upon its distinguished moral heritage must prepare the psychological grounds for such dialogue.  Both sides must agree to fairly and impartially re-evaluate and critique modernism and tradition and open the path to a better tomorrow, and to rescue life from the claws of warmongers and violence-seekers and ostentatious leaders.  And may it all come true.

Mohammad Khatami

Mohammad Khatami was the fifth President of Iran from 3 August 1997 to 2 August 2005.   The text of his 7 September 2006 address was made available by the Washington National Cathedral as well as by Khatami’s Web site.  See, also, the Financial Times interview with Khatami (5 September 2006).

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