The Words al-muthanna and yuhsen in Arabic as Examples of Cultural Diversity and of Clarifying the Meaning of Intercultural Dialogue

[Presented at UNESCO conference “Towards Mainstreaming Principles of Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue in Policies for Sustainable Development”, Paris, May 21-23, 2007]

I will first choose the word al-muthanna in Arabic as a pivotal idea to explain what I want to say concerning the main words used in the conference materials: universal, diversity, principle, culture, dialogue, policy, and sustainable development. By choosing a word from Arabic that most Arabs experience daily and that forms a good part of the grammatical structure of the language and, at the same time, has no equivalence in any European language, I would be practicing intercultural dialogue, embodying cultural diversity, and shedding light on what kind of principles and policies should guide our actions. It can also clarify what such words as ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ would mean in relation to cultures. In addition, choosing words from Arabic demonstrates the richness that exists in every culture and, at the same time, shows the limitation of cultures. There is no culture that can encompass the totality of experience, of being, of life; no culture can have universal claims about life. Every culture has something to offer and inspire and, at the same time, is limited. That’s why I believe that humility is crucial in creating meaningful and mutually nurturing dialogues among people and cultures. Humility is in the very nature of al-muthanna experience.

What triggered me to choose al-muthanna was something that was mentioned in the working document in the conference written by Roger-Pol Droit. He points to what he considers “a very old philosophical debate: the relationship between the One and the Many” (p. 4). When I read that, I thought, “I don’t remember I ever experienced I was one or many but, rather, I always felt I am made up of muthannas”. It is an alien concept to Roger because it is absent from European languages, and seems to be absent from people’s experiences in Europe in general. I believe that children in all cultures – including those where al-muthanna is not part of the language – experience it when they are little, and some adults retain it, but it usually gets lost in cultures where the language does not reflect it or where experiences do not embody it or lived values do not cherish it. Al-muthanna refers to a relation between two people that becomes very important in the lives of both, and yet has a life of its own – almost like a common baby. It is neither a legal relation nor intellectual nor economic nor social… it develops in a free and natural way between the two. It is neither a couple nor dual – although the latter is usually used to refer to it. Al-muthanna does not perceive the other as non-I or as a person that is a copy of I, and it is not a higher synthesis/ unity of the two. Each person remains who s/he is but a relation starts developing between the two, a relation that becomes so important in both persons’ lives that neither can live any longer as if it is not there. In this sense, it embodies a logic that is different from both Aristotle’s and Hegel’s logics. The other person is a ‘you’ rather than a non-I or a copy of I or forms a higher synthesis with I. It is also different from Descartes’ logic who said “I think, therefore I am”. In the logic of al-muthanna, “YOU are, therefore I am” – my existence depends on my relation with you. That’s why I believe that without al-muthanna, it is very difficult to develop a pluralistic attitude in living and perceiving. Without having experiences that embody al-muthanna, one would consider a place like Boston to be pluralistic. No doubt, there is cultural diversity in Boston but, for me, it is more like the diversity in a zoo, where each group lives in its own cage. Living in cages or living a “melting pot” of cultures is contrary to the spirit of al-muthanna. This also explains why a person like Samuel Huntington oscillates between conflict and integration; he can’t think of the other in any way that is not conflictual or being an identity/ copy of Huntington’s way of living. His two books The Clash of Civilizations? and Who Are We? reflect the only two possibilities that Huntington seems to be able to imagine: he could only perceive cultures and civilizations in conflict with Western civilization or copies of it. The limitation of his mind and imagination springs from the lack of al-muthanna in his language and in his experience. In such cultures as European ones, one has to work hard in order to unplug self from the dichotomy of the one and the many; to keep the spirit of al-muthanna alive in one’s life.

Al-muthanna cannot happen in formal meetings or through rational planning. In conferences, for example, it happens on the side, in the margins, through free associations and interactions… and lets the nurturance between the two grow naturally. Mutual nurturance happens when the relation is a healthy muthanna.

I first learned the meaning of pluralism and humility through a very special muthanna in my life: my relation with my mother. My encounter with the world that was embedded in her life – starting with when I first (in 1976) ‘discovered’ her math and knowledge that were radically different from mine[1] – clarified for me the meaning of many words, especially pluralism, humility, culture, dialogue, and universal. The fact that my first experience with pluralism was related to math and knowledge (which are usually considered neutral, objective, and universal) had a profound effect on me; it helped to quickly unplug me from the belief in a single path in learning, knowing, and developing/ progressing – the essence of what is referred to as universal thinking. Realizing that I could neither understand nor do what she was able of understanding and doing, taught me both humility and pluralism of knowledges. The ‘dialogue’ (which was not verbal) that I had with my mother’s world (and which continued after her death in 1984) has been the longest and most inspiring dialogue in my life. She embodied a whole world/ universe within her; a world that is harmonious and not fragmented like the one I acquired in schools and universities. Using an analogy, she saw the world like she would see her full face in a mirror, while I was seeing the world like looking at my face in a broken mirror: fragmented and every piece out of place. There is a difference between a person believing in universals and that same person striving to have one’s life embody a universe. The problem does not lie in believing that what one thinks is universal as much as what one thinks does not constitute a universe/ a world. What my mother was trying to constantly accomplish/ fulfill in her life was to build a harmonious world within her. In contrast, what the knowledge I had acquired at universities tried to make me believe that what I was acquiring was universal. There is a world of difference between claiming one’s beliefs are universal AND striving to make one’s beliefs embody a universe!

Stressing that I am “made” of muthannas brings up into question another word, widely used in relation to cultures: identity. In cultures where people experience muthanna, the word identity is meaningless and alien – even contrary to the spirit of al-muthanna. It is worth mentioning here that the word used in Arabic as a synonym of identity is howiyya which literally means that the reference to who I am is not me but s/he – the other.

The other word that I mentioned in the title as an example of cultural diversity and of clarifying the meaning of intercultural dialogue is the word yuhsen. In 1998, when I first established the Arab Education Forum within the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, I came across a statement in Arabic that had a profound impact on me. This time it was in relation to the source and meaning of the worth of a person. The statement was articulated by Imam Ali 1,400 years ago. It says in Arabic: qeematu kullimri’en ma yuhsenoh قيمة كل امرئ ما يحسنه  According to it, the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsenYuhsen, in Arabic, has several meanings, which together constitute the worth of the person: the first meaning refers to how well the person does what s/he does, which requires technical knowledge and skills; the second refers to how beautiful and pleasing what s/he does (the importance of the senses, the aesthetic dimension); the third refers to how good and useful it is for the community, from the perspective of the community; the fourth refers to how much one gives of oneself and not what one transfers from one place to another; and the fifth meaning refers to how respectful (of people and ideas) the person is in discussions. Thus, according to the statement, evaluating a person or a person’s worth is not judged by professional committees or official bodies, or by measures that claim to be objective and universal, but by the five meanings embedded in the word yuhsen. It is only in relation to the first meaning – technical knowledge and skills – that professionals and institutions may be needed. The five dimensions of the word yuhsennaturally embody pluralism, humility, contextual meanings (personal, cultural, and community), and dialogue. However, they do not constitute another “super system”. They become obvious and crucial when life compels us to take a stance in the effective presence of others, and in realizing that it is not possible to avoid mutual interference as well as in realizing that conflicts cannot be solved by the victory of one over others. I strongly believe that the world cannot survive if we continue to measure people and cultures along a vertical line that claims to be objective, neutral, and universal. As long as one’s worth comes totally from outside the person and his/her relations with the community and surroundings, one’s inner world (including one’s knowledge and perception of self) would be fragmented and shattered, and the social fabric in the community constantly torn. Universalism and fragmentation go hand in hand: every universal claim shatters the possibility of building a universe within each person and tears apart the social fabric in communities. Within this perspective, the term ‘underdevelopment’ is not only inappropriate but it also blinds us to the richness and uniqueness which are true of every culture. It blinds us to the fact that people cannot be measured – in the sense mentioned above. This brings up the question as to whether ‘underdevelopment’ reflects reality or was invented for some undeclared reasons.

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In what follows, I will say briefly what the above discussion means in relation to policies. Some of the convictions/ principles I mentioned above run contrary to dominant practices and, thus, there is need to challenge the logic that underlies them. Such challenge requires intellectual honesty, moral courage, and social action – traits that are crucial in sustaining cultural diversity and life on Earth.

  1. The first dominant practice that needs to be challenged (which I mentioned above) is measuring people along a vertical line. Such measurement is a main factor in destroying diversity in life. The belief in a single undifferentiated path for progress and development (which is a necessary assumption that underlies such measurement) is in total contradiction with pluralism. Any talk about preserving cultural diversity and sustainable development while at the same time continuing to measure people is naïve at best. Thus, the first principle in a policy that aims at preserving cultural diversity and creating authentic intercultural dialogue is to STOP MEASURING PEOPLE AND CULTURES along a vertical line that claims to be objective, neutral, and universal.
  2. The second dominant practice in the world today is that of starting with what is lacking, with needs, etc. This in my opinion is the wrong starting point. When a body gets sick, the healthy part rushes to start the healing process. Without the healthy part doing this, a thousand physicians and all medicines cannot heal the body. Similarly, a dialogue that starts with what is wrong in oneself or in others can never lead to a mutually nurturing interaction and dialogue. Thus, the second principle is to start the dialogue with what is beautiful in THE PERSON and what THE PERSON finds inspiring in THE OTHER.
  3. The third dominant practice that needs to be challenged is the claim (and practice) that the way to protect, preserve, and vitalize threatened cultures is through official policies and plans to implement them from above. Nothing robs the spirit and essence of a culture than a formal policy to protect it. The principle here, thus, is to follow a policy in dealing with cultures which tells “experts”: GET OUT OF THE WAY. What a culture needs in order to flourish is a space, a physical space where people live in accordance with their ways and in free associations/ interactions with others. Such a space would guarantee sustainability of that culture more than having a formal policy, and would guarantee the development of that culture in a way that is in harmony with the respectful principle articulated by the Zapatistas: CHANGING TRADITIONS IN TRADITIONAL WAYS; i.e., without shattering the harmony within persons and tearing apart the social fabric in communities. Every culture embodies a world/ universe/ cosmology. No culture is universal, but a culture that does not constantly strive to embody a universe would be shattered from within. For ‘outside experts’ to put policies is outrageous; cultures cannot be fully understood via words and concepts.
  4. I personally believe that it would be impossible to preserve cultural diversity and create authentic dialogues as long as we go on imposing education and development in their present dominant conceptions and practices. Thus, a necessary accompanying policy (in relation to education) that guarantees cultural sustainability and true dialogue is to reclaim a good part of the budget allotted to the dominant single path for learning (called education, in all its forms: formal, informal, non-formal) and use it to support or CREATE DIVERSE MEANS, MEDIUMS, and SETTINGS FOR LEARNING. We need to end the monopoly of schools over learning. Learning via cultural expressions and learning from life in general require ways and settings that are radically different from school methods and settings. Al-muthanna can be inspiring in this regard. Using mujaawarah (neighboring – apprenticeship is a poor synonym) as a medium of learning is in my opinion crucial in dealing with learning as a personal and communal responsibility, and doing it in freedom.

Introducing the two words in Arabic that I mentioned above – al-muthanna and yuhsen – brings the beauty in Arab culture and invites others to bring the beauty in theirs, as part of the dialogue. This way we would be in harmony with the four principles mentioned above: no measures, starting with what is beautiful and inspiring, letting cultures flourish freely and change from within, and supporting diverse ways of learning. They form inspiring examples of how a pluralistic attitude is crucial in meaningful dialogues.

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We need to heal from universals and from the arrogance of the claim that the mind can encompass all of life/ being. The mind needs to learn to be humble again and to go hand in hand with wisdom. And we need to realize that universals are contrary to both humanity and nature. All attempts to build a “universe” rather than to deepen the “pluriverse” (where various worlds enrich and nurture one another) have not only caused much destruction and misery but also have failed (the futility of such a dream/ nightmare is now obvious). One of the few positive aspects of modern technology, in my opinion, is that it is increasingly making isolation impossible and making the pluralistic nature in life more obvious. We need to build paths that take us out of our provincialities but without dumping us all into a single global culture. The importance of pluralism arises as a living challenge; it arises from the fact that most people today experience disorientation and disunion. It does not arise from a purely theoretical source. Thus, the solution to such a challenge (and others we face in today’s world) will have to be in the praxis and not in the intellect. In this sense, peoples in the Two-Thirds World are more equipped to produce the necessary shift: most still live in pluralistic communities. This fact is usually invisible because there is very little talk about it in public discussions.


[1] See, for example, my article, “Community Education is to Reclaim and Transform What Has Been Made Invisible,” in the Harvard Educational Review Feb. 1990. See also, my article, “How to Eradicate Illiteracy without Eradicating Illiterates?” (presented at the International Literacy Day at UNESCO, Sep. 2002).

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