Man has no choice, at least so far, within current scientific aptitudes, but to share the planet earth for living and coexisting, with all that such predestined fate may imply. Foremost among any implications is the mammoth challenge of how to muster cultural coexistence, since humans are only more different when their beliefs, habits, traits, and other attributes are considered. When seen naked of any affiliation, humans are essentially identical, a fact often blurred by clouds of belatedly acquired attributes.
In the age of information and communication revolution material barriers tend to fall apart and people communicate and access one another faster and more easily. However, ‘material’ barriers are not the only obstacle before human communication and interconnection. Among the most significant non-material obstacles in this connection is culture, with all its components and bifurcations. There are several definitions of “culture”. However, for the purposes of this article this writer adopts the following definition which is derived from Merriam-Webster dictionary: “The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”.
Individuals and societies not only identify to their cultures, but can be said to have been ‘made up’ of the ingredients of such cultures, in as much as their traits, emotions, perceptions and way of thinking and behavior – all forming parts of culture – play a significant role in influencing their verbal and physical interactions with other individuals and groupings. While the modern time information and communication revolution succeeded in removing material barriers between human beings in their individual and societal settings, it could not neutralize the conceptual barriers, such as culture, that keep people apart, regardless of geographical or physical proximity.
One wonders if the unpremeditated removal of material barriers, at certain times and places, only brought together – rather hastily – people of different and incompatible cultures, thereby fueling more conflict than reconciliation, due to abrupt contact and lack of the circumstances necessary to make acclimatization more conceivably attainable. It follows that the information and communication revolution, while it immensely facilitated motion and access at the material level, it brought more challenges of even more intricacy and sophistication at the cultural level.
“Difference” or “otherness” is a key word, connoting a central concept to deal with when talking of culture, cultural communication and cultural coexistence. Dealing with the “other” or “different” person, entity, society, country or any grouping, represents a delicate and lifelong challenge which can easily be said to have been a major cause of most conflicts and wars through history. So long as there is independent existence of individuals and entities of all “different” affiliations, there will always be an “other” to deal with. Several branches of knowledge and disciplines approach the challenges of communication and mutual existence among different societies and groups with discourse and analysis. However, the application of any of the numerous solutions emanating from such theoretical discourse is more than often encountered with prodigious practical complications, which are however beyond the scope of this account.
A major objective of this article is to look, albeit briefly, into possible solutions to the cultural challenge from within culture itself. If culture is so entrenched and deep-seated in the psyche of the human being as to cause such immense influence on human behaviour, why not engage culture itself as a cure?
In the case of Islam, as a pivotal source of the cultural scheme for Muslims, the Muslim Holy Book or the Quran represents the textual custodian of divine values and sacred instructions. How does the Quran deal with the concept of “difference” and “otherness” in such manner as to defuse conflict? The Quran deals with the issue of difference, as applied to human individuals and groupings in many of its verses. Principal among these is verse 13 in Chapter 49 of the Quran, called Al-Hujurat or ‘the Cambers’, ordaining as follows:
“O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you …”.
It is clear from the opening of the verse that it addresses all human beings, with all their different sexes, races, tribes and nations. The encompassed meaning may be extended to cover all types of human grouping in the world. In other words, the verse comprises all the “different” human “others” that exist. It follows that the Islamic tenets ordained in this verse are meant to provide for the conceptual and practical management of the human “other” in all its hues, colors, forms and shapes, regardless of origin, race, sex, religion or any other affiliation. Although the Quran, as a Holy Book is binding upon Muslims alone, but as a philosophical treatise it provides visions open for use by any willing human. The same may be said of the Bible, the Old Testament, etc. There is nothing that prevents any human being from benefiting of the wisdom comprised in these or any other book, sacred or secular, divine or mundane. The aforesaid verse, it is submitted, provides the way Islam perceives and manages the concept of “difference” or the “other” in certain specific ways, of which three points may be distinguished.
The first point in the conceptual management of the different “other” in this given verse is to remind mankind of their unity of origin, by pointing to the single pair or couple of parents from whom all human beings have descended, as children of Adam and Eve. This is supposed to diminish much of the perceived “difference” that may be the cause of potential disagreement, disenchantment or conflict between human beings.
In a second point the verse, having recognized the different manifestations of human existence, in tribes, races, and nations, each recognizable by distinct characteristics, it proceeds to lay down the master criterion of preference or honor among these different forms of existence. This criterion is righteousness. The most important aspect of such criterion is its neutrality in relation to the different entities. If the criterion was based on sex, race, tribe, color or nationality, it would never have been fair or egalitarian. Righteousness is defined by the code ordained by God throughout the text of the Quran. For a generalized application in a secular setting, the criterion should be that it is he or she who is more law abiding that attains honor. No preference can be attained by virtue of any other criterion.
The third point in the verse is a positive command directed to mankind, which serves to highlight and accentuate the joint effect of the two previous points towards the management of human differences and otherness. This is a call on all humans of all sexes, tribes, nations and other affiliations to get to know each other. By getting acquainted to each other human beings minimize the existence of incongruity and oddness that open the door to divergence and conflict. As the Arab proverb goes, ‘man is enemy of what he ignores’.
We have seen how Islam, as expressed in the aforesaid verse contained in the Quran, dealt with the concept of “difference” or “otherness” in human beings, with a view to diminish and soften the conceptual forces that influence human beings towards incongruence. Islam, in other words, proffers some conceptual tools that are supposed to intellectually motivate the human being towards bridging the intangible barriers of culture that separate human individuals and societies.
In conclusion, it is submitted that the most effective means for the removal of intangible obstacles to human coexistence, possibly even paving the way for mutual cooperation, is by extracting an antidote from the very cause of the ailment. Although religion is a significant attribute in the creation of “difference” between individuals and nations, thereby satisfying the condition for disparities, disagreement and conflict, which can at times be violent, it may effectively be used to provide the most influential solution for healthy coexistence.
Since almost all religions call for peace and virtue, regardless of certain interpretational oddities that tend to reverse the main course of their messages, the very method adopted by Islam to encourage peaceful coexistence is expected to exist in the teachings of most religions. It is up to intellectual adherents of different religions to do the necessary research to serve such a noble cause. If successful, such efforts can contribute solutions to many a threatening menace at the global level, such as violence and terrorism. Admittedly, much work still awaits scholars and enlightened clerics before this mission can be streamlined. Misinformation, stigmatism and phobias associated to religions and everything religious stand at the forefront of enormous obstacles to be first removed. But with coordinated, cross-cultural and inter-religious determination, accompanied with carefully researched campaigns of information and awareness, it should be possible to lay a solid basis for a sustainable and well-oriented atmosphere for culturally enriched solutions to global coexistence and cooperation.