Developing a New Perception of Civilization
Emeritus Professor of Mimar Sinan University Sadettin Ökten speaks to Lastprophet.info.
- What can you say about how we can form "a new perception of civilization" based on your experiences?
- There are not many practical things I can say about this matter. However, I can explain to you the point to which I have come. I come from a conservative family. Perhaps this has given me some sort of advantage; I have grown up with pure Ottoman culture. I was born in 1942. In Istanbul, I was involved in discussions with people who had been brought up in the Ottoman period. I unconsciously took on some aspects, style, and color from them. This has continued since the end of the 40s through to the 60s. One of these people was my father and another was my uncle. Others were also the Cerrahi Sheikh Ibrahim Fahrettin Erenler, Mahir Iz, Hafız Ali Efendi, Ali Uskudarlı, the Uzbek Sheikh Necmettin Efendi, and Mehmet Zahit Kotku. We grew up with these people. We were not always with them, but now I understand that these people colored and shaped our lives, giving us a certain perspective. We should not forget about the women. In particular, my grandmother and mother had a great influence on me. My mother was born in 1929, but she embraced the culture and attitude of the Ottoman period. My grandmother was born in 1880s, and she continued with the same understanding. However, there were also women who were three or four years younger than my grandmother who had embraced the West. These were the people with whom I grew up. I graduated from the Vefa High School. Then, I attended Istanbul Technical University. The Technical University was a completely foreign institution. It also had a characteristic content, atmosphere and ambience. Events led to my becoming an assistant at this institution in the summer of 1964. My mother greatly encouraged me to stay in Istanbul. Once become an assistant in a university, the perspective from which one looks at life also transforms dramatically.
I am a bit different; in other words, I am not closed to the West and I have no problem using European methods in comparison to my friends. This of course introduced a new dimension into my new life; I realized this at the Technical University. For instance, Fethi Gemuhluoglu realized this and eagerly supported me as he also used European methods.
- Does your family have such tendencies?
- Yes. However, my father was a true Ottoman at home in terms of his world of intellect and his likes and dislikes, but he never broke away from the European methods.
- When you define your stand, you say that it is of both a local nature and not local. To what extent is it possible to preserve both local methods and an open the mind to the West in situations where one must be local in nature?
- I speak often on this issue. I have realized that the things I inherited and practiced without questioning from my mother, grandmother, father and Mahir Hodja are also valid in modern times. I realized this when I was in my 50s. Their values are perfectly up-do-date, valid and correct. For instance, if you ask me about which values I observe in Islam, I say that I follow the final periods of the Ottomans. The other periods were like a dream for me, as I did not have the opportunity to experience them. In one's life, experience and practice are very important. When one does not practice these things they are pushed outside of life, and the space one previously occupied is taken by someone else. When and where were these values experienced, and can one lead a life on their own with these values? Postmodernism has shown me that it is not possible to live with the values of the West and Europe, or the values offered by the U.S. after 1945.
- But these countries do not live with these values either.
- But they do not deny that they are not living without them. Quests are continuing. What matters to us is that a Muslim person does not go to bed with a full stomach when his Muslim brother is hungry. Who is this Muslim brother? The person who says the shahada (oath stating the Oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad as His Messenger) and is our Muslim brother. Nothing else is important, for instance, the person's gender or age. Such understanding cannot be found anywhere else. This is my perception of civilization! We must reinforce the values of Islam with utilizable practices. We must carry and reflect these values in today's world. We will try to accomplish this; I don't know how, but we will try. Otherwise, we will witness the downfall of the earth. If I see something, and if the thing that I see similarly evokes accurate knowledge in me, I must express it.
- How can this be accomplished?
- An understanding of civilization, a perception of civilization, must be put into a method, and not just stay in minds and hearts. The basis of this understanding is the Holy Quran, the hadith and the 23 years of life experienced by the Prophet. Then, there are scholars and a large collection works. What can we do today, what kind of a method can be developed, and what kind of a life can be led according to the knowledge that comes from these sources? When we cannot accomplish anything, other methods begin to predominate.
Civilization is a collective outlook. I am not well acquainted with this collective outlook, but I feel, sense and hear this collective outlook. I try not to break off from it. I think that there are no extra points in the events during the periods of the Companions. They are very refined and unaffected practices. Relations between men and women, family problems, material ambitions are all included in this. Each century which passed since that time has knowingly become a fascicle, a chapter, and a library. You must bring the life model of that time to today's world by practice, skipping 1,488 years. You must practice these actions. I think that with the feedback one receives from these during application, your mind and heart will form a new conceptual framework. We can do so in the language of today, but without being enslaved by it. We can create a new method by forming our own jargon instead of today's jargon. To succeed in this, the first step is to cross over the barriers of the mind as a first step. Barriers exist in the minds of our people. What are these barriers? Capitalism is one of the basic problems. The Islamic world, unfortunately, has not overcome these barriers. I think that the methods arise by themselves. For instance, some methods are gradually emerging. The society will select among these. Some people will say things that are more refined. Their opinions will be discussed, and impractical ones will be eliminated.
- What kind of filters must we use in such situations? What will be the criterion for society while selecting among them?
- The criterion is as follows: we look at the criteria of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his respected Companions, and the people that we trust and believe who descended from them. When I say criterion, I clearly mean, "remembering the practices of my father and Mahir Hodja" in similar situations. For instance, as soon as the Hodja received his salary, he would give one fourth of it as zakat (alms), but we only learned this fact after Mr. Mahir had passed away. There was no way we could have known this when he was alive. Summer and winter, we always saw him wearing new outfits. We found out that he would have a new suit tailored in the early summer and give away his winter suit, and in the winter he would have a suit prepared and give away his summer suit. These are the methods. He chose this method. All these seem very simple, yet as a result something emerged from here.
-How should we develop these methods that you mentioned? How do you think these values of society have changed?
What is important here is the fact that people want to exist. There are certain conditions in this existence. Some exist with their cars, some with their houses. However, instead you can give people values that are more divine, yet more intangible and abstract; I think these will rapidly reduce their addiction to material things. This is, of course, related to the environment in which you live and your disposition, but I am saying this for Muslims who live in Turkey. Training in art is very important, not craft training. This is an art that constitutes a certain philosophy, thought and meditation. Otherwise, a dog-eat-dog struggle emerges among people.
If you introduce other values to people, the things that are determined as priorities, such as automobiles, houses, health or cash in the bank, will change. Then new values, which are gentler, more beautiful and more common, emerge. For instance, humility, mercy and compassion, which connect people and create solid, unbreakable bonds, are very important values. However, none of these are material, yet these are traits that require material sacrifice. Human beings are interesting creatures. They do not give unless they receive. They will first take and then give. Allah Almighty fills this gap with the blessings He grants upon us. The former society was a society which was fed in such a way. The society lived upon those values and received rewards through other-worldly channels, or interpreted them that way. Now we look at the glass, and ask "Is it full or empty?" For instance, a person with reason says that all is coincidence, yet a person who thinks with their heart describes this as the arrangement of Allah. Where is the beauty, if it is a development that results from a plot created by Allah? Muslims and love are in contact with the world. This is a very significant thing; in this way we can receive confirmation. We are again obliged to set forth a new accumulation and a new development according to ourselves, our environment, our people and our friends. In Turkey, there is no adequate investment in science and knowledge; this is the problem.
- The issue of culture and art is important in this field. When forming a perception of civilization, the required values should be attached to the culture, art and aesthetics. What can be done about this?
- Now, I define the culture in such a way. Looking from the perspectives of Sezai Karakoc and Yilmaz Ozakpınar, civilization, as far as I know, is a mental and conscientious structure and made up of values.
- In a sense, culture is the implementation of this civilization. Therefore, all our methods are included within the culture. Art is the reflection of this. However, art is naturally a prominent fact when the intricate relation between civilization and culture is created. It is not a routine action. The material aspect increasingly diminishes; the spiritual aspect comes forward with the dimension that is related to heart and mind. This is what art is like. Naturally, as far as art is concerned, aesthetics, which is the knowledge of that beauty, immediately becomes prominent. All great civilizations have great art and they express themselves through their art. This includes everything from the rational and ancient Greek civilizations to Post-modernity. The important issue is the depth of one's perception of civilization, its extent and covering power. When it is small, narrow and local, it cannot bear this burden and cracks will appear.
Our civilization has a rational aspect, yet its irrational aspect, which is the dimension that the mind cannot comprehend, is superior to the rational dimension. This is why art is very important for our civilization. In the post-Renaissance society of the West, there is a world which cannot be explained with rationality, a world that the mind cannot surround and which is considered to be nonsense. In a sense, its art lies again within the limits that are drawn by the mind and which, from time to time, break out of these limits. This is not the case for us. We seize the day. We do not think of being permanent. We are not perpetual, we are mortal. Since our perspective of life cannot be surrounded by calculation, art is very crucial here. Here, music is very significant too. This is because the most abstract art is the art of music. Therefore, it does not require us to experience what I mean by a "common situation" (which is different from empathy), to share the same mood or to go through the same spiritual adventures. Why do people write poems and compose hymns in Islamic civilization and in natural Islamic mysticism? Because what they describe is something beyond the boundaries of mind; they are conveying emotions to you. They can only provide this with that language. Beyond this is divine inspiration. Neither knowledge nor art can totally embrace this. Art is necessary in order to express the irrational world. When art arrives, the aesthetic also arrives. I say "Allah likes romance". He loves emotionality, and you can only convey such emotionality in this way. Art cannot be achieved with mundane words. You can of course use such expressions, but this is not a style. You must add color so that it becomes aesthetic. There are rules in art. Here and in the West rules for this exist. Therefore, our people are in great need of art education. In life there are always mundane people. They are always interested in mundane things, as this is what they need. For instance, take a look at the Companions; they are all elite people. Then there are the People of the Suffa (those who live by the Masjid of the Prophet in Medina) from among these people. What I mean is: Since our civilization is specifically irrational - I am using this word in particular - art education is very significant. Mystic thought, meditation and art feed from the sources that come from this world, and this means that certain occasions occur where they do not emanate from humans; you can just feel this. We are the children of such a civilization. That is what makes us different. It also happens in the West, yet they do not want it, because it cripples the jargon, becomes a burden for their egos or distorts the general framework. In this sense, Muslims become the people who comply with the distortion of that framework. We have an attitude. The instrument is not important. We use every means possible. It is crucial that you paint that instrument with your own hues. How would the original Ottomans form such a stand, being familiar with the former peoples? And of course, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself "What do I expect in return for this?" Say this. Allah will not be angry about this.
- How should we transmit Prophet Muhammad and his universal message to our time?
- While doing this, one should search into who has done it before and how they have managed to carry it out. This is why Ottoman practice is very significant. Even in our most Marxist neighborhoods, there is the idea of Allah.