I have had some interesting discussions with my good friend Ohmyrus, who is an ethnic Chinese man but appreciates some aspects of Western civilization that many Westerners themselves appear to have forgotten, or rejected. He is not unique in this regard. One of the best books about European culture published in recent years is Defending the West, written by the former Muslim Ibn Warraq who was born in the Indian subcontinent, not in the Western world. Essentially, according to modern Multiculturalism, every culture has the right to exist – except the Western one. The Iranian-born ex-Muslim Ali Sina denounces Multiculturalism for precisely this reason in his book Understanding Muhammad, which I have reviewed online:
“If any culture needs to be preserved, it is the Western, Helleno-Christian culture. It is this culture that is facing extinction. It is to this culture alone that we owe the Enlightenment, Renaissance, and democracy. These are the foundations of our modern world. It would be a terrible mistake not to preserve this culture. If we do nothing, we face a future where democracy and tolerance will fade and Islam’s more primitive instincts will subjugate humanity. All cultures are not made equal … We owe our freedom and modern civilization to Western culture. It is this culture that is now under attack and needs protection.”
As a native European, it is strange to notice how many (non-Muslim) Asians apparently appreciate my civilization more these days than so-called intellectuals in my own country do. It is challenging to explain how the West could make so many advances in the past and yet be as stupid as it currently is. The question of what went wrong with the West is far more interesting than what went wrong with the Islamic world. The best answer I can come up with is that maybe our current flaws are related to our past virtues, at least indirectly. For instance, being stubborn can be a strength or a weakness, depending upon the situation. The West is a non-traditionalist civilization. We have unquestionably made advances that no other civilization has done before us, despite what some critics claim, but perhaps the price we pay for this is that we also make mistakes that nobody has done before us. Organized science is a Western invention. Organized national suicide, too, is a Western invention. The Western university system once represented a great comparative advantage for Europe vis-à-vis other civilizations. Today that same system is undermining the very civilization that gave birth to it.
Since European civilization is so far the only civilization to have had a truly global impact, this means that all other civilizations have to face the challenge of dealing with a layer of impulses and ideas which are not their own. There is no doubt that this has been a disruptive process in many cases, but it is also true that different non-Western cultures deal very differently with the Western challenge and appropriate very different parts of its heritage.
The Arabs had no significant pictorial tradition of their own even before Islam. The Islamic ban on pictorial arts was not always enforced, just like the ban on alcoholic beverages was not always strictly enforced, but pictorial arts were discouraged and consequently never occupied a prominent place in that culture. Some Muslim rulers could interpret the religious rules regarding the depiction of human figures quite liberally. A tradition for book illustration and miniature painting did develop, but it is important to remember that even the paintings that did exist were intended as illustrations of a text and were almost never designed for exhibition on a wall or in a gallery. Historian Bernard Lewis explains in his book What Went Wrong?:
“One of the attractions of Western art and particularly of Western portraiture must surely have been the use of perspective, which made possible a degree of realism and accuracy unattainable in the stylized and rather formal art of the traditional miniature … In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Western influence becomes very clear, both in the structure of buildings and in their interior decoration. By the nineteenth century it is almost universal, to such a degree that the older artistic traditions were dying and being replaced by this new art from Europe. As the perception and measurement of space affected the visual arts, so too did the perception and measurement of time affect music – though to a much lesser extent … A distinguishing characteristic of Western music is polyphony, by harmony or counterpoint … Different performers play together, from different scores, producing a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. With a little imagination one may discern the same feature in other aspects of Western culture – in democratic politics and in team games, both of which require the cooperation, in harmony if not in unison, of different performers playing different parts in a common purpose.”
In contrast, here is what Lewis writes in The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years:
“Since Muslim worship, with the limited exception of some dervish orders, makes no use of music, musicians in the Islamic lands lacked the immense advantage enjoyed by Christian musicians through the patronage of the Church and of its high dignitaries. The patronage of the court and of the great houses, though no doubt useful, was intermittent and episodic, and dangerously subject to the whims of the mighty. Muslim musicians devised no standard system of notation, and their compositions are therefore known only by the fallible and variable medium of memory. There is no preserved corpus of classical Islamic music comparable with that of the European musical tradition. All that remains is a quite extensive theoretical literature on music, some descriptions and portrayals of musicians and musical occasions by writers and artists, a number of old instruments in various stages of preservation, and of course the living memory of long-past performances.”
There are those who are critical of Mr. Lewis as a scholar and consequently believe that he shouldn’t be quoted as an authority. You should always maintain a healthy criticism of any scholar, but I know from other sources that the above mentioned quotes are largely correct.
Many forms of music are banned in Islam. The Reliance of the Traveller by Ahmad Ibn Lulu Ibn Al-Naqib and Noah Ha Mim Keller has been formally approved by al-Azhar in Egypt, the highest institution of religious learning among Sunni Muslims. It quotes a number of ahadith, authoritative sayings of Muhammad and his companions which form the core Islamic texts next to the Koran, among them one which says that “There will be peoples of my Community who will hold fornication, silk, wine, and musical instruments to be lawful …” Another quote says that: “On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will pour molten lead into the ears of whoever sits listening to a songstress.” The scholarly conclusion is that “All of this is explicit and compelling textual evidence that musical instruments of all types are unlawful.” Another legal ruling says that “It is unlawful to use musical instruments – such as those which drinkers are known for, like the mandolin, lute, cymbals, and flute – or to listen to them. It is permissible to play the tambourine at weddings, circumcisions, and other times, even if it has bells on its sides. Beating the kuba, a long drum with a narrow middle, is unlawful.”
Moreover, while I do disagree with Mr. Lewis sometimes, in my experience he occasionally errs by being too positive when writing about Islamic culture, not too negative. If you believe Lewis, “The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals.” This view fits well with the anti-European, Multicultural bias of modern media and academia, yet it is completely and utterly wrong, as Dr. Andrew G. Bostom has conclusively demonstrated in his extremely well-researched book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.
Dehumanizing Jews as apes (Koran 2:65/7:166), or apes and pigs (Koran 5:60) has been common throughout Islamic history, more than 1300 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. Muhammad himself referred to the Medinan Jews of the Banu Qurayza as “apes” before orchestrating the slaughter of all of their men. As one Muslim living in Germany said, “Jews are the enemy of Allah.” Referring to Adolf Hitler he stated: “The man was a hero, almost a Muslim. I'm one of his fans.” A disproportionate amount of Europeans who convert to Islam are neo-Nazis or Communists.
In 2005, Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf was among the top bestsellers in Turkey, behind a book about a Turkish national hero detonating a nuclear bomb in Washington D.C. Adolf Hitler remains widely popular in many other Islamic countries, too. At the same time, Turkish PM Erdogan stressed that Islamophobia must be treated as “a crime against humanity.” It is banned by law to discuss the Armenian genocide in Turkey, a genocide that allegedly inspired the Nazis in their Holocaust against Jews. Would a country the size of Germany, with a history of a thousand years of continuous warfare against its neighbors and where Adolf Hitler is a bestselling author, be hailed as a moderate, Christian country?
The earliest evidence we have of musical instruments dates back to the Old Stone Age. We know that there were rich musical traditions in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and elsewhere. Indirectly, it is possible that some aspects of Babylonian musical theory and practice influenced the Greek, and by extension European, musical tradition. The ancient Greeks had a number of musical instruments such as harps, horns, lyres, drums, cymbals etc. Greek music theory evolved continually from Pythagoras before 500 BC to Aristides Quintilianus in the late third century AD, whose treatise De musica (On Music) is an important source of knowledge of the Greek musical tradition.
Music was closely connected to astronomy in Pythagorean thought; the great astronomer Claudius Ptolemy wrote on music. Mathematical laws and proportions were considered the underpinnings of both musical intervals and the heavenly bodies. Plato and Aristotle both argued that education should stress gymnastics to discipline the body and music to discipline the mind. Plato was, as usual, the stricter of the two and would only allow certain types of music for limited purposes, lest it could distort the mind. He asserted that musical conventions must not be changed, since lawlessness in art leads to anarchy. Aristotle was less restrictive and argued that music could be used for enjoyment as well as for education. For the Romans, music was a part of most public ceremonies and was featured in entertainment and education.
The Christian Church was the dominant social institution in post-Roman Europe and deeply affected the future development of European music. The ancient Greek system of notation had apparently been forgotten by the seventh century AD, when Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636) wrote that “Unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down.” But with the development of complex chants, what was needed to stabilize them was notation, a way to write down the music. The earliest surviving European books of chant with music notation date from the ninth century. During the early Christian era, the Classical legacy was used, but modified. From the Jews came the practices of singing psalms and chanting Scripture. Church leaders drew on Greek musical theory but rejected pagan customs, and elevated worship over entertainment and singing over instrumental music.
It is instructive to consider the fact that Middle Eastern Muslims, too, had access to Greek musical theory, yet they decided not use it, just like they did not utilize the Greek artistic legacy. Both music and pictorial arts were integrated into religious worship in Christian Europe in a way that never happened in the Islamic world. In fact, it was Gregorian chant and the growth of polyphonic music in medieval European monasteries and cathedrals which established the musical tradition that would eventually culminate in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven centuries later. There was no Mozart or Beethoven in the Islamic world, just like there was no Copernicus, Galileo or Newton.
The invention of musical notation enabled musicians to build upon the work of the past. It may have been a necessary condition for the expansion and development of musical expression, but it is not alone sufficient to explain later advances. The discovery of the connection between mathematical ratios and musical intervals attributed to Pythagoras – and independently the Chinese – was important, but not as important as polyphony. According to Charles Murray, “Just as linear perspective added depth to the length and breadth of painting, polyphony added, metaphorically, a vertical dimension to the horizontal line of melody.”
China had a well-developed musical tradition at least as far back as the Zhou period (1122-256 BC). Chinese opera is generally familiar to outsiders is, but this art form dates from the early centuries of the current era, especially from early medieval times (the Tang Dynasty). Music played a central role in the Chinese court life during the sixth and fifth centuries BC, at the time of Confucius. It was believed by early thinkers to have great moral powers, although some forms of music were better than others for promoting harmony. The word “music” was written with the same character as “enjoyment.”
According to The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, “Archaeologists have unearthed quite a few sets of instruments used in court performances in Zhou times. Key instruments were stone chimes, bronze drums, stringed lute-like instruments, bamboo flutes, and sets of bells, struck from the outside. The biggest cache of instruments was discovered in the tomb (c. 433 BC) of Marquis Yi of Zeng, ruler of a petty state in modern Hubei just north of the great state of Chu. In the tomb were 124 instruments, including drums, flutes, mouth organs, pan pipes, zithers, a 32-chime lithophone, and a 64-piece bell set. The zithers have from five to twenty-five strings and vary in details of their construction; they may have come from different regions and been used for performances of regional music. The bells bear inscriptions that indicate their pitches and reveal that they were gifts from the king of Chu. The precision with which the bells were cast indicates that the art of bell-making had reached a very advanced state.”
There is no direct equivalent to Mozart or Beethoven in Asia, but perhaps the fact that they have such an ancient and deeply-rooted native tradition makes in easier for the Chinese to appreciate the fruits of other musical cultures. Many East Asians are at the turn of the twenty-first century eagerly appropriating the best traditions of European Classical music.
David P. Goldman writes under the pen name “Spengler” as a columnist for the Asia Times Online. He thinks that “The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.” According to him, European Classical music “produces better minds, and promotes success in other fields.” This is because “Western classical music does something that mathematics and physics cannot: it allows us to play with time itself.”
There is some basis for these statements. Albert Einstein received a thorough philosophical education by studying the thoughts of Kant, Schopenhauer and Spinoza in addition to the physical theories of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Maxwell. It taught him how to think abstractly about space and time. “The independence created by philosophical insight is - in my opinion - the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth,” Einstein once wrote. He was an accomplished amateur musician as well, and would furiously play his violin as a way of thinking through a difficult physics problem.
A strikingly high proportion of the students at top Western musical schools are now Asians, followed by Eastern Europeans. For some reason, there are comparatively few North Americans or Western Europeans among the best instrumentalists, in Spengler’s view because many of them simply don’t have the discipline to practice eight hours a day. One of China’s most famous musicians at the moment is the pianist Lang Lang (born 1982).
According to Spengler, “the Chinese nation that looks to Lang Lang as one of its heroes is learning the high culture of the West with a collective sense of wonder. Something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require….Except in a vague way, one cannot explain the uniqueness of Western classical music to non-musicians, and America is governed not by musicians, but by sports fans.”
Other civilizations most easily appropriate that in Western culture which speaks to them and which resonates with their own heritage. Westerners have virtually nothing in common with Muslims. While different, we can find common ground with Hindus, Buddhists and Christian Asians when it comes to pictorial arts, for instance, while we share absolutely nothing in this field with Muslims since Islam is rather hostile to many forms of music and most forms of art.
I don’t think it’s bigotry to state that Beethoven and Mozart represent a peak in the world history of music, not just in the European tradition. But the great European composers lived in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Europe clearly was the leading region on the planet in science and technology. There appears to be a close correlation between the sciences and the arts. Perhaps it has something to do with cultural confidence and sense of purpose, or lack of such. In the early twenty-first century, not only do Europeans not produce composers that are anywhere near the stature of a Mozart or a Beethoven; many of us do not even listen to the works of great composers we once produced.
Very few young people in Western Europe seriously study European Classical music these days. Asians thus adopt the highest cultural achievements of European civilization at a time when many people of European descent themselves appear to be on the verge of forgetting them, which is symbolic on many levels. On the other hand, Asians are more or less immune to the self-loathing of the contemporary West. I see this as a sign that they appropriate the best aspects of the Western traditions but stay away from the worst ones, which makes sense.
It is sad that people from other cultures sometimes copy our bad ideas such as Communism more readily than our good ones, of which we do have many. I don’t by that mean to imply that Europeans alone “invented” totalitarianism. The Incas practiced something resembling Communism in South America. While I may be critical of aspects of Confucianism, I don’t think it can properly be called totalitarian. Totalitarianism in the true sense of the word does, however, have a native Chinese precedent in the ideology of Legalism, which was supported by the state of China’s brutal First Emperor. There is a reason why the Communist dictator Mao Zedong (1893-1976) personally identified with the First Emperor, not with Confucius.
Despotism comes quite natural to Islamic culture. When confronted with the European tradition, many Muslims freely prefer Adolf Hitler to Rembrandt, Michelangelo or Beethoven. Westerners don’t force them to study Mein Kampf more passionately than Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Goethe’s Faust; they choose to do so themselves. Millions of (non-Muslim) Asians now study Mozart’s piano pieces. Muslims, on the other hand, like Mr. Hitler more, although he represents one of the most evil ideologies that have ever existed in Europe. The fact that they usually like the Austrian Mr. Hitler more than the Austrian Mr. Mozart speaks volumes about their culture. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern Muslims have been confronted with the same body of ideas, yet choose to appropriate radically different elements from it, based upon what is compatible with their own culture.
One of these cultures has a future, the other one does not.