Book Review - What are the Arabs’ contributions to the world recently?

Hesham Taha, Thursday 28 Jun 2018

Western criteria of scholarly and scientific achievement are not the universal standard against which all knowledge must be measured


The Contemporary Arab Contribution to World Culture – An Arab Western Dialogue, edited by Magdi Youssef, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018. pp. 235

This book is rather an argument bearing on the idea of "Unity of Knowledge" in our times. Thus, the disciplines represented in within it are representative of all branches of the arts and sciences in our present day: the natural sciences are represented by pharmacology and industrial engineering, the social sciences through political economy, and the arts via architecture, which encompasses all sorts of plastic arts, and the field of contemporary literary discourse.

The author, Professor Magdi Youssef, is concerned mainly with challenging the common prejudice, either subtle or open, that contemporary production in all disciplines is only the privilege of the modern West, whereas non-Western societies have almost nothing to add to Western achievements.

Youssef asserts that these non-Western societies still have quite a lot to add to world knowledge. However, he wants to address an illusion that exists in the minds of many people, especially among the intelligentsia in non-Western societies, that existing Euro-Western standards and research results constitute an "ideal" to be followed by all other cultures when dealing with nature and society. In order to be able to realise the objective of the "Unity of Knowledge," Youssef had to resort to the collective research work of all experts in different disciplines.

The author has chosen the approach of an Arab-Western dialogue as a means of questioning and challenging the well-established stereotype that the West must exclusively define scientific and scholarly standards.

To this end, expert scholars from both the Arab world and the West were invited to a scholarly meeting of the International Association of Intercultural Studies (IAIS) that took place at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, in 2009. This meeting’s papers and proceedings cover a variety of disciplines. With regard to each of the disciplines discussed, an Arab scholar presented the results of his original research while a Western expert added his critical commentary.

Science can gain by drawing on one’s own inherited pre-modern societal practices. In the case of pharmacology, for example, certain norms of the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) have been revised and underlying assumptions have been corrected by having recourse to inherited food consumption habits of Libyans rooted in their own traditional societies. This was discovered by the Egyptian pharmacology scholar, Professor M Raouf Hamid while conducting research at Al-Fatih University, Libya some 37 years ago.

The same rationale can be discovered in the attempt of Professor Hamed El-Mously, of the Faculty of Engineering of Ain Shams University, to rely on the Egyptian countryside’s local renewable materials within a project intending to sustain local societies.

The book displays a corresponding rationale in approaching the Egyptian agricultural workers’ housing situation that has been theoretically and empirically pursued by Hasan Fathy (1900-1987) in order to meet ecological requirements that most of the "modern" Western housing models failed to consider.

Western-trained architects tackling the problem went for purely abstract, market-oriented designs that would cost exorbitantly more and also alienate inhabitants from their socio-cultural heritage and from a environmentally balanced ambiance.

This example motivated the architect Rasem Badran, who obtained his PhD at one of the top technological universities in Germany, to revolt against imported market-oriented abstract models of design, and to opt instead for the rationale inscribed in his native Arab-Palestinian traditions on building home dwellings.

Both Rasem Badran and Hasan Fathy got their degrees at European universities and both made use of modern Western architectural tools and devices in order to develop a critical distance and re-discover the rationale of their native means of construction.

The same approach was realised in the politico-economic analysis of Mohamed Dowidar, veteran professor of political economy at Alexandria University, when he produced his original interpretation of the 2007/08 world economic crash.

This crash has been mostly interpreted by Western analysts as a "financial" one. Yet Dowidar’s seminal study has delivered proof that it was in the first place the manifestation of a cyclical crisis of a mode of production that is beset with a contradiction between the social nature of production and the private, incentive-based form of appropriation.

Youssef has summed up his endeavour by saying that: “What matters is to start from one’s own socio-cultural context when receiving whatever 'alien' cultures proposed in all disciplines, and to be ready to reconsider and re-test those foreign cultural achievements in a methodological way, springing from the objective difference of the receiving socio-culture environment.

The accurate awareness of the objective difference of one’s own socio-culture environment from that of the received one(s) would considerably enhance the possibility of adding new perspectives to those inscribed in the received culture(s) while being all the more rooted in one’s original socio-culture. This stance would all the same lead to an enrichment of world culture.”

This is a provocative book that requests discussion throughout. Certainly, contributing to world culture doesn’t mean to "start from scratch" or even to attempt to do so. It means that one tries drawing on solutions specific to one's socio-culture environment in dealing with nature, either physically, socially or artistically.

Magdi Youssef is founding president of the International Association of Intercultural Studies (IAIS).

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