Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Review: A Dialogue of Civilizations

Author: B. Jill Carroll
Publisher: The Light, Inc., & The Gϋlen Institute
ISBN: 978-1-59784-110-8

North American scholars, writers and politicians frequently refer to the distinctions between Islamic and Western cultures as a “clash of civilizations.” Dr. B. Jill Carroll takes exception to this characterization. As the title of her book suggests, she prefers to look beyond the overt differences between Islam and other cultures and to examine points of similarity between them. Thus, rather than perceiving cultures as engaged in inevitable conflict, Dr. Carroll believes that there is substantial common ground upon which they can reach mutual understanding and respect. To this end, she compares some of the core ideas of Western philosophy and Confucianism with those of M. Fethullah Gϋlen, a Turkish scholar of the Sufi tradition of Islamic faith.

Carroll organizes the book around five major concepts that philosophers from a diverse range of cultures have addressed over the centuries. These are:

• Inherent human value and human dignity
• Freedom
• Ideal humanity
• Education
• Responsibility

Carroll dedicates one chapter to each concept. She begins each chapter by discussing the writings of one or two non-Islamic philosophers. She then introduces the writings of Gϋlen on that topic and proceeds to compare and contrast his ideas with those discussed previously. The chapter on human value and dignity examines the works of Immanuel Kant and Gϋlen. In the chapter on freedom, Carroll compares the thoughts of John Stuart Mill and Gϋlen. The chapters on the human ideal and education examine the ideas of Confucius, Plato and Gϋlen. The final chapter, which deals with responsibility, compares the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Gϋlen.

In each chapter, Carroll offers excerpts from the writings of the philosophers whose work she is discussing, and then presents her own summaries and analyses of the excerpts. This technique is helpful for readers who may be unfamiliar with the body of philosophical writings being considered. Readers who have never encountered the writings of Kant or Sartre, for example, may find them difficult to understand without any assistance. Carroll’s explanations restate the philosophers’ prose in language that is accessible to twenty-first century readers. Some readers may posit that she should have omitted the excerpts and just offered her interpretations. This, however, would be a lazy, perhaps even specious, approach. Carroll demonstrates her integrity by offering the excerpts alongside of her analyses and allowing her readers to judge for themselves whether she is being faithful to the original authors’ intentions.

Notwithstanding the clarity of Carroll’s writing, one cannot help wondering if, when she began this project, she was entirely clear about her purpose. If she sought to create a dialogue between Western and Islamic thought, then the inclusion of Confucian philosophy may be out of place. If she sought to create dialogues between Western, Islamic and Eastern thought, then the writings of Confucius should have been included in the chapters from which they were omitted. As it stands, the Western and Islamic voices are present throughout the conversation, but the Confucian voice is only allowed into selected segments of the discussion. Thus, the Confucian voice is relegated to a lower status in the overall conversation.

It is also interesting that the writings of one man, Gϋlen, are juxtaposed with those of several giants of Western thought – Plato, Kant, Mill and Sartre – as well as a giant of Eastern philosophy, Confucius. Carroll chooses an array of philosophers to represent Western ideals, yet allows only one voice of many from Islamic thought, that of Gϋlen. A more substantive dialogue could have been created by including the voices of several Islamic scholars, just as the voices of several Westerners were included. Similarly, if the conversation was intended to include Eastern thought, then other representatives, in addition to Confucius, should have been invited. As it stands currently, the conversation is lop-sided.

In spite of these shortcomings, A Dialogue of Civilizations is worthwhile reading. It is a good book for readers who may want to delve into philosophy but are afraid of diving in too deeply, too soon. Readers can read the excerpts sprinkled throughout this book, as well as the endnotes and bibliography, and decide which authors and books may be of interest to them for further study. Perhaps more significantly, this book introduces readers to ideas that have moved and molded civilizations for millennia and it allows them to look at other cultures with respect and empathy rather than fear.


Stephen said...

I always appreciate those who try to tie a thread through various faiths and philosphies. By and large I have discovered that there is enough common ground that we are able to develop a respect for one another no matter one's relgious or ideological background.
We have to move from being a "tolerant" society to that of one that celebrates not only our similarities, but each others uniqueness.

Erik said...

I like it when people try to find similarities instead of differences, because we are all people of one and the same species. I also find that especially women emphasize these shared views and realities, while men are more inclined to see differences and immediately have their judgment ready.
Because I am a man, I can see this difference between men and women better than a woman :-).

Evie, thank you for reviewing this book. I'll see if I can get hold of it, very interesting stuff.