InsightNovember December 2004


Ali A. Mazrui

One of the most memorable verses of the Qur’an is a celebration of human diversity. Through the Qur’an God addresses the human species as a whole. He says:

O humankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female, And made you into Nations and tribes, that you may know each other [respectfully]. Verily the most honoured among you in the sight of God is the most righteous among you. God is the most knowledgeable, the best informed. [Sura Hujurat, 49 verse 13]

Yaa ayuha Nasu! Innaa khalaqnakum min dhakarin wa unthaa wa jaalnaa kum shu’uban wa qabaila li-taarafu. Inna akramakum i’nda ‘llahi atqaakum. Inna ‘Allaha alimun khabir. At the core of this Qur’anic verse is a celebration of human differentiation. Education is about understanding ourselves (auto-comprehension), about understanding other people (ultra-comprehension) and about understanding our environment (eco-comprehension). On issues of war and peace, friction versus friendship, conflict versus cooperation, education is ultimately about how we relate to human diversity.
Let me be presumptuous and assert that God is on the side of creative diversity. Different religions have emphasized this fact in their different ways. Let me quote again from a lesser known scripture in the United States – the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God directly. In the Qur’an God addresses human kind quite simply as follows:

We have created you from a male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.
[Qur’an: Chapter 49, Verse 13]

Note the plurality of “nations and tribes” and the singularity of purpose – that “you may get to know each other.” The idea is for human beings to seek to know each other across tribal and national divides. What about across the religious divide?

The Qur’an is explicit on that also. It says emphatically that coercion and confession do not go together. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion” [Laa ikrahu fi’din]. The God of diversity approves of diversity of the religious experience also.

We created…you nations and tribes that you may know one another. But as the population of the human race grew and grew, it seemed unlikely that people would get to know each other as God planned. This is when history set in motion the process of human amalgamation. The number of individuals continued to grow almost endlessly…but over time the number of tribes and nations decreased. Through conquest, spread of languages, expansion of religions, and empire-building, human clans amalgamated into larger tribes, and small societies merged with bigger nations.

When the white man first arrived in Southern Africa five centuries ago, there were far fewer people but more numerous little clans than there are now. Shaka Zulu alone conquered so many non-Zulu clans and absorbed them into a larger and larger Zulu nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Empire, migration, trade, and cultural expansion increased human interaction and social intercourse across vast distances. The history of human kind is, on the whole, a history of changing boundaries and expanding societal scale.

We have created you…nations and tribes that you may know each other.

These changing social and economic boundaries were slowly leading towards a process which we now call globalization. Let us now examine this wider phenomenon in greater detail.

Africa and the Middle East in this twenty first century are likely to be among the final battlegrounds of the forces of globalization – for better or for worse. This phenomenon called GLOBALIZATION has its winners and losers. In the initial phases, most of the developing countries have been among the losers as they have been increasingly marginalized. There are universities in the United States which have more computers than the computers available in a developing country like Yemen with millions people. This has been the great digital divide. The distinction between the Haves and Have-nots has now coincided with the distinction between Digitised and the “Digi-prived”.

Let us begin with the challenge of a definition. What is globalization? It consists of processes that lead toward global interdependence and the increasing rapidity of exchange across vast distances. The word globalization is itself quite new, but the actual processes toward global interdependence and exchange started centuries ago.

Four forces have been major engines of globalization across time: religion, technology, economy, and empire. These have not necessarily acted separately, but often have reinforced each other. For example, the globalization of Christianity started with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in 313. The religious conversion of an emperor started the process under which Christianity became the dominant religion not only of Europe but also of many other societies later ruled or settled by Europeans. The globalization of Islam began not with converting a ready-made empire, but with building an empire almost from scratch. The Umayyads and Abbasids put together bits of other people’s empires (e.g., former Byzantine Egypt and former Zoroastrian Persia, for example) and created a whole new civilization. The forces of Christianity and Islam sometimes clashed. In Africa the two religions competed for the soul of a continent.

Voyages of exploration were another major stage in the process of globalization. Before Columbus explored the Western hemisphere, Muslims navigated the Eastern hemisphere. Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus opened up a whole new chapter in the history of globalization. Economy and empire were the major motives. There followed the migration of people. The Portuguese helped to build Fort Jesus in the originally Muslim town of Mombasa. The migration of the Pilgrim Fathers to America was in part a response to religious and economic imperatives in Europe. Demographic globalization reached its height in the Americas with the influx of millions of people from other hemispheres. In time, the population of the United States became a microcosm of the population of the world, for it contained immigrants from almost every society on earth. Islam first arrived in the Americas with enslaved Africans.

The making of America was the making of a globalized society or universal nation. South Africa had Dutch settlers three centuries ago – a potential universal nation on the African continent was initiated.

The Industrial Revolution in Europe represents another major chapter in the history of globalization. This marriage between technology and economics resulted in previously unknown levels of productivity. Europe began to leave the Muslim world truly behind. Europe’s prosperity whetted its appetite for new worlds to conquer. The Atlantic slave trade was accelerated, moving millions of Africans from one part of the world to another. Europe’s appetite also went imperial on a global scale, and one European people, the British, built the largest and most far-flung empire in human experience, most of which lasted until the end of World War II. Countries like Iraq were carved out artificially by the British and separated from Kuwait. The French cut out Lebanon and separated it from Syria.

The two world wars were themselves manifestations of globalization. The twentieth century was the only one to witness globalized warfare: during 1914-18 (resulting in collapse of the Ottomans) and again during 1939-45 (Muslim countries which were devastated included Libya and Indonesia). The Cold War (1948-89) was yet another manifestation of globalization, for it was a global power rivalry between two alliances: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. Turkey was a Muslim member of NATO. While the two world wars were militarily the most destructive, empirically the Cold War was potentially the most dangerous, for it carried the seeds of planetary annihilation via nuclear warfare.

The final historical stage of globalization came when the Industrial Revolution was joined with the new Information Revolution. These are the revolutions which put the West truly ahead of the Muslim world. Interdependence and exchange became dramatically dependent upon the computer. The most powerful country eventually was the United States. Pax Americana mobilized three of globalization’s four engines: technology, economy, and empire. Although in the second half of the twentieth century this Pax Americana apparently did not seek to promote a particular religion, it did help to promote secularism and the ideology of the separation of church and state. On balance, the impact of Americanization probably has been harmful to religious values worldwide, whether intended or not. Americanized Hindu youth, Americanized Buddhist teenagers, or indeed Americanized Muslim youngsters at home and abroad are far less likely to be devout adherents of their faiths than their non-Americanized counterparts. The United States has been a secularizing force in Africa and elsewhere. Paradoxically, the United States itself is arguably the most church-going country among industrialized democracies.

The Global Village and the Universal Nation

In the new millennium the forces of globalization are likely to continue, against the background of the meaning of the twentieth century in world history. As the twenty-first century opened, scholars have interpreted globalization in three distinct ways.

I: Forces which are transforming the global market and creating new economic interdependency across vast distances. Petroleum put the Muslim world in the mainstream of the global economy.

II: Forces which are exploding into the information superhighway – expanding access to data and mobilizing the computer and the Internet into global service. This tendency is marginalizing Africa. The Muslim world is less central to informational globalization.
III: All forces which are turning the world into a global village – compressing distance, homogenizing culture, accelerating mobility, and reducing the relevance of political borders. Under this comprehensive definition, globalization is the gradual villagization of the world. These forces have been at work in the Muslim world long before the European colonization. Indeed, Islam had itself been a globalizing force in history.

As we have indicated, the twentieth century was the only century which had world wars – 1914 to 1918, and 1939 to 1945. This was the only century which created world diplomatic institutions – the League of Nations and the United Nations. By the year 2000 some 50 members of the UN were also members of the Organization of the Islamic conference.

This was the only century which created a World Bank – the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) with the International Development Association. The twentieth century also issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted by the United Nations in 1948. This was the only century which established a United Nations University in Tokyo, a World Health Organization [WHO] in Geneva, a World Trade Organization in Geneva, and an International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Then God created America and permitted the United States to become the first universal nation in history. No country on earth encompasses as many races, religious faiths, national and tribal origins, as the United States of America does. Within its own boundaries, the United States has been a human laboratory. It has been experimenting with God’s imperative of diversity – “we have created you…nations and tribes that you may know each other.”

Today the population of the United States is descended from a thousand tribes and many dozens of nations. Within its own borders the United States has begun to facilitate God’s imperative of diversity. Progress in America’s political and social history has consisted of two steps forward, one step backward, advance and retreat. But the total American balance-sheet is a record of human achievement, however imperfect and sometimes painful.

This year the United States celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown versus the Board of Education which came down way back in May 1954. The decision struck down any constitutional basis of racial segregation. It was a major step forward towards rapid integration in God’s laboratory of diversity.

The United States is indeed a democracy at home, but is now also an empire abroad. As a democracy at home, the United States has done more than any other nation in history to create a political system increasingly respectful of racial, ethnic and religious diversity. “We have crated you…nations and tribes that you may ‘know each other.”

But abroad the United States and Israel in recent years have generated more rage, anger and hostility than almost any other country in the last fifty years. Within America the United States is fulfilling God’s purpose of promoting the ideal of creative diversity. In its actions abroad, the United States is making it harder for nations and tribes to love each other. America’s image as a role model of humane governance is tarnished when America descends to the gutter barbarism of some of its enemies – as the United States has lapsed into doing in Iraq.
If the United States wants to be the ultimate architect of democratic diversity, it should focus less on exporting democracy abroad and more on making its own democracy in America work better.

This country is more pluralistic demographically than any other in the world, but that does not mean it is adequately pluralistic democratically. The population demographically consists of almost every group in the world; but the political system does not democratically represent those groups equitably.

Why is it so rare to have a Black person elected to the Senate of the United States? Why have we never had a woman of any race for Vice President, let alone President? How many Muslim Ambassadors are there representing the United States abroad?
Jews have excelled in every area of American endeavour, but why have we never had a Jewish President of the United States? Senator Joseph Lieberman tried hard in 2003 to win the primary race as a Democratic presidential candidate for 2004. Lieberman was not even fourth in the popular support among Democratic primary voters.

Where are the Latinos among high profile Americans? Where are Asian-Americans? Why does half the population of the whole of America ignore their right to vote? Is electoral apathy in the United States a symptom of despair with the political system?

Instead of spending billions and billions of dollars trying to make Iraq less undemocratic, why do we not spend half that amount trying to make the United States more democratic? America will serve its destiny far better when it is a universal democratic nation at home than when it behaves like a universal empire abroad.


Although the term “globalization” is indeed new, the forces which have been creating it have been going on for generations. It is only now that we have realized that the forces at work have had global repercussions and have been sometimes global in scale. The new Muslim migration to the Western world has turned out to be a manifestation of globalization. It also helps to turn the United States into a truly universal nation.
But is a globalized Planet Earth really a global village? The world may be globalized – but what would make it villagized? There is something missing – the compassion of the village has yet to be globalized. Planet Earth will never really become a global village until the contraction of distance is accompanied by the expansion of empathy. Respect for difference and celebration of diversity are needed.

Education world-wide can have a role in that empathy-creation – the adventure of getting to know each other. The rich must learn to be more sensitive to the poor; the better endowed be more concerned about the less; the North must learn to be more just to the South.

The Qur’an tells us that we have created tribes and nations that we may know each other. The best among us are not white or Black, Arab or Jew, Christian or Muslim. The best among us are the most righteous and virtuous.
[Inna akramakum i’nda Allahi atqakum]

Shakespeare tells us, “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It). The new millennium proclaims: “All the world is a village?” A stage is a conceit; a village is authenticity. The beginning of wisdom is to know yourself. The beginning of compassion is to know your neighbor. That is why God crated us from a man and a woman, fashioned us into nations and tribes, that we may know each other. The forces of globalization need to respond to this music of diversity, to this ethic of human dignity.

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