Sunday April 14, 2024

The East and the West

By Mubarak Ali
January 21, 2019

Whenever our intellectuals compare the East with the West, they tend to admire and idealise the Western civilisation, with its developments in science and technology and sophistication in other spheres, and condemn the East for it backwardness and intellectually bankruptcy.

These intellectuals portray the people of the East as lazy and unintelligent. It appears from their arguments that the difference between the East and the West has perhaps remained the same throughout the ages. As far as the present is concerned, there is some truth to these arguments. But if we study the history of humankind, we find that Eastern civilisations in the past not only achieved development in science and technology, but also introduced philosophical ideas and contributed towards literature, art and architecture.

All great civilisations have originated from the East. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerians, Acadians, Assyrians and Babylonians invented a writing system; produced highly-developed state institutions, with a system of law and an administrative setup; and developed commercial relations with other countries.

The Egyptian civilisation followed in the footsteps of the Mesopotamians and further enhanced the process of civilisational development. The pyramids built by the Egyptians reflected their sophisticated architectural and engineering skills and their mummification techniques indicated their sound knowledge on how to preserve bodies for a longer period. These mummies, which can be found in museums across the world, suggest that the Egyptians had a form of medical knowledge that still remains a source of wonder for modern scientists. They built huge temples in honour of their deities and carved statues of pharaohs in order to pay homage to them.

The Chinese civilisation, which largely remained isolated from the rest of the world, also produced many wonders. It invented the compass; manufactured paper; produced silk that was widely distributed throughout the known world, including the Roman Empire; produced gunpowder; popularised the moral and ethical teachings of Confucius; and set up a well-organised bureaucracy to run the state. As a whole, the Chinese civilisation changed the social, political and economic structures of the world.

The Phoenicians were traders and seafaring people from Lebanon and established their trading centres in Carthage, Spain, Sicily and Marseille. As a result of their trading activities, they brought many Eastern countries and some parts of the West together. Panini from Taxila University formulated the first Sanskrit grammar whose pattern was adopted by other languages.

The Greek and Roman civilisations were highly influenced by the Eastern civilisations. All great religions originated from the East, including Buddhism, Zoroastrian, Hebrew, Christianity and Islam. These religions had a significant impact on Western beliefs and faiths. Therefore, the East was on the zenith of civilisation while the West was in a state of barbarity, divided on the lines of a tribal system and engaged in warfare. It was backward – politically, socially and economically. Eastern civilisations helped the West turn its wheel of civilisation from backwardness to progress.

Some European historians have admitted the role of Eastern civilisations in making Europe what it is today. In his book titled ‘Asia in the making of Europe’ (1965), Donald F Lach examines how European civilisations are indebted by the Eastern ideas, philosophy and culture. In his book ‘The Theft of History’ (2006), Jack Goody explores how Western historiography stole ideas from the East without due acknowledgement and adopted them as their own creation.

In his book titled ‘The French enlightenment and its others: the Mandarin, the Savage and the Invention of the Human Sciences’ (2012), David Allen Harvey explained that the rise of Europe was gradual – from the ancient past to the present. In the 18th century, Europe had surpassed the East. But French enlightened intellectuals were adamant to determine the status of the East. Many of them were curious to learn about Islam, the Chinese civilisation and the American people. Some orientalists collected manuscripts from the East, learnt their languages, and studied the ideas and philosophies that were prevalent in Eastern civilisations. Others appreciated their culture and even accepted that they had borrowed knowledge from the East.

However, this attitude changed when European imperialist powers colonised Eastern countries and dominated them politically. At this stage, the perception of Western intellectuals changed drastically. The people of the East were billed as barbaric and uncivilised, and the West took on the responsibility to ‘civilise’ them.

In history, no nation can preserve its status. Civilisations rise and fall and societies are continuously transformed. While the East had superior status in the medieval period, the modern period is the age of the West. However, the world is changing and there is a strong possibility that Western countries will lose their superior position and be replaced by other nations.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.