Meaning in a silent universe

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World
March 21, 1997

Western reviewers normally review Muslim civilisation as a whole every time a book on any aspect of Islam is published. This ambitious volume, however, actually invites such a broad assessment. The editor, Francis Robinson, dedicates it to his Muslim friends, a sure way of forfeiting the right to criticise normative Islam. Do we serve our friends well if we insulate them from the sceptical wisdom of the Enlightenment? Islam has had its day as absolute unique truth; it has now become largely a legitimisation of Arab racial pride.

Eight academics, Muslim and non-Muslim, survey the history and culture of Islam. Many colour plates and half-tones, with extensive captions, punctuate the text. There is pathos in the pictures: we know that Islam too is reluctantly bowing to the newborn god of secularity. Enjoy the photo of Al-Aqsa Mosque in daylight looking dignified even without the setting Jerusalem sun adding Semitic gravitas. Its location is judgemental against Judaism; the gorgeous calligraphy on its perimeters contains irrelevant polemic against Christianity. The obsession with women, Islam's bete noire, also shows up in the photos. There is the Taj Mahal in India and the ruins of the City of Zahra palace in Spain: two among many monuments to romantic love built by sultans who knew nothing of relationship problems.

Patricia Crone contributes a controversial piece on the origins of Islam. She is famous for her view that Islam originated as a Jewish messianic sect that attained autonomy only centuries later. This is not an implausible claim. Islam's debt to Judaism is undeniable; Islam is doctrinally the least original faith among the Semitic trio. Crone's objectivity is, however, impaired by her characteristically occidental concern with Muhammad's alleged political delinquencies, especially his massacre of Jewish enemies. Muhammad was not an anti-Semite although, like Paul before him, he did resent what he saw as Jewish intransigence in the face of a better revelation. Killing Jews, however, was a normal part of war; Arab idolaters were also killed. It was naive of Muhammad to expect the Jews to accept him as a universal prophet but it is unsurprising that he should have tried to eliminate his enemies, Jewish or Gentile.

Nonetheless, Crone would be justified in saying that virtually all modern Muslims are shamefully casual in their hatred of Jews. But only a part of this prejudice is traceable to the Quran or to the prophet's political record. To hold Islam responsible for Muslim anti-Semitism would be equivalent to, say, holding Catholicism responsible for the Mafia culture.

Stephen Dale traces the rise and fall of four Muslim dynasties during the era of European expansion. He surveys the splendour of the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids in Iran, the Mughals in India and the Uzbeks of Turkistan. He notes their achievements in art and architecture but also the first signs of decadence and decline. Dale makes a casual reference to the Ottoman sultans' love of self-praise. One sultan described himself, among his more modest self-descriptions, as "the shadow of God" and "the lord of the planetary conjunctions". In this megalomania lies the clue to the decline of Muslim civilisation, although Muslims see the whole explanation in the machinations of that omnipresent villain, European colonialism.

Sarah Ansari's piece opens with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and ends with the contemporary House of Islam. She examines the emergence of nation states as Muslim nationalists fought for independence from western powers. Ansari believes that despite fragmentation into nations, the Islamic world retains some unity, citing as evidence the case of many Bosnian refugees who found new homes in distant Malaysia. But Malaysians have restricted their Islamic compassion to white believers.

Stephen Vernoit discusses Islam's aniconic art. It is an art not equipped to deal with present failure and the disdainful truths of secular pluralism. Strangely, the chanting of the Quran, the sole music of the mosque, merits only two lines. Yet it is Islam's most moving artistic expression, giving Quran reciters the kind of kudos enjoyed by opera singers in western culture. A time is coming when many Muslims will find solace in the Quran's charming Arabian cadences without believing in its dogmas.

Francis Robinson gives an informative account of the role of religious knowledge in Muslim culture. He notes the tension between the orthodox believers and Islam's thinkers and scientists. With its ban on speculative curiosity - and surgery - orthodox Islam was as implacably opposed to secular knowledge as its medieval Christian counterpart. To give official Islam the credit for the rise of modern science is the equivalent of giving the Inquisition the credit for Galileo's astronomical work. Robinson shows how Muslims transmitted classical Greek learning to the Latin West but does not add that imperial Islam also destroyed much of this heritage. Modern Muslims should record their repentance here, though atonement is never possible for whole civilisations.

Two of the Muslim contributors refer proudly to Arab Islam's oil wealth. But oil has proved a curse, not a blessing. For the Arab elite, oil and Islam are both marketable commodities.

Has Islam failed? Many Muslims who now practise Islam do so as a requirement of their professional image: jurists, prayer leaders and Muslim apologists who live in the West. For the rest, Islam is their conscience (or idleness) on Friday afternoons. The contributors do not realise that the failure of radical political Islam is the failure of Islam. The two are linked in a faith where secular power and religious truth were born as twins. The modern attempt to combine the two (in countries where Islam is integral to nationhood) has been a disaster.

Islam has failed but Muhammad has succeeded. He lived in a large but marginal peninsula and began his ideological career very late, at the age of about 40. If he had a sense of humour, he would have been amused by the seriousness with which Muslims have treated his Semitic hyperbole. We cannot believe that all truth is concentrated in one book; there are no revealed short-cuts to wisdom. But let us not insist on philosophical truth. To create ex nihilo meaning for millions in a silent universe is a kind of miracle too. Viva al-Muhammad.

Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher of religion, until recently at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World

Editor - Francis Robinson
ISBN - 0 521 43510 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 352

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