Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives

The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society. 

Robinson’s cast includes free-thinking physicians and biologists, calligraphers, cartographers (including Muhammad al-Idrisi, below), historians and poets. Though Muhammad himself was illiterate, his tradition was steeped in letters. One of his Suras, or Koranic chapters, was called “the Pen”. By tradition, the first man, Adam, fashioned the first pen, and Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law and successor, coined his own Arabic script.

Tycoons and businessmen are present, too: in the ninth century, as now, manufacturers were complaining of the Chinese dumping mass-produced kitchenware on their markets. Women also make an appearance, as mystics, courtesans and scholars. Beneath the arches of Mecca’s mosques, Karima al-Marwiziyya led Koranic study circles for both sexes. After all, she might have noted, many of the Prophet’s companions and preservers of Islamic traditions were themselves women.

What emerges is a civilisation that was a marketplace of ideas as well as goods. “Urbanisation and literacy was said to be a distinctly modern phenomenon,” says Robinson, “but that is wrong”. Rather the Islamic world, he says, epitomised “globalisation before its time”, “cultural cosmopolitanism”, “a world of cross-pollination” and capitalism. Rich from trade, its cities were the world’s finest. In the ninth century, Baghdad mushroomed as rapidly as Manhattan a millennium later, with intrigue, sex and irreverence no less a part of its makeup. Thirty thousand gondolas plied the Tigris. Another Islamic capital, Cordoba, was the greatest city in Europe and produced some of the greatest minds: without the 12th-century rationalist, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whose defence of Aristotelian philosophy against orthodox theologians influenced people like Thomas Aquinas, the Enlightenment might never have happened.

The book’s accounts will no doubt shock the average Westerner, whose impression of Islam is shaped largely by geopolitics and terrorism. The idea of female academics, romantic poets, and pioneering rationalists emerging in the Muslim world would seem alien today. Modern Islam undoubtedly contends with many internal struggles, both political and theological in nature, which have, at the very least, tainted its image, and at worst caused untold misery and death to millions caught up in sectarian or theocratic struggles. But this book reminds us that it hasn’t always been this way, nor need it remain so. In fact, Islamic civilization has a rich wellspring of cosmopolitan and intellectual values it can draw from:

Through his portraits, Robinson debunks two modern myths about Islam. Salafists, the puritans who dominate 21st-century Islamic discourse, champion the Prophet Muhammad as the founder of a pristine, uniform faith which every Muslim should aspire to replicate. In Robinson’s rendition, the Islam the Prophet bequeathed was amorphous, inchoate and confused. Bereft of their founder, the Muslim community squabbled over not just the niceties of law, but who should rule and how. Muhammad’s favourite wife and his son-in-law fought pitched battles over his succession. The faith was also deeply syncretic: it expanded by absorbing the traditions of the peoples who fell under its rule. Its first rulers saw nothing incompatible between an upright Islamic existence and wine-drinking. Too often the source material was too skimpy to answer basic questions. The literalist Andalusian politician and scholar, Ibn Hazm, for instance, argued against the biblical death penalty for homosexuality, saying that nowhere was it prescribed in the Koran. (Ten lashes, he suggested, might be more fitting.) Only centuries later did the faith congeal into something akin to today’s orthodoxy.

The second myth Robinson punctures is one often propounded by orientalists: that the tightening grip of orthodoxy led to Islam’s supposed inexorable decline. In the tenth century, Abu Bakr al-Razi, a Persian alchemist and physician, wrote a tractate, “On the fraudulence of prophets”, asserting the primacy of reason over revelation and deriding the prophets as imposters and storytellers. Only his defence that reason was a gift of God spared him charges of blasphemy. The following century, Al-Biruni published perhaps the greatest classical account of comparative religion, citing Greek, Persian and Sanskrit aphorisms alongside the sayings of the Prophet. Five centuries before Daniel Defoe, Ibn Tufayl wrote a story about a boy who grew up on a desert island. Without revelation, his metaphor shows, humans develop as rational beings.

And lest anyone think the book presents an entirely rosy view of Islamic history, Robinson’s diverse portraits do also include the fanatics and fundamentalists that are more in line with their modern jihadist counterparts. Altogether, the book seems to offer a more complex and in-depth picture of one of the world’s largest and most globalized religions. It should be a worthy read for anyone wishing to have broader and more balanced understanding of a faith and culture that, like it or not, has influenced the lives of billions, both adherents and outsiders.

I will definitely be adding it to my wishlist, and will perhaps write a thorough review based on my own first hand reading.

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