The Past of Islamic Civilization

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

― George Orwell, 1984

Cyprus_by_Piri_ReisThese days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.

As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?

For the majority of Muslims, it is the time of the Prophet that represents an idealized society. However many of them implicitly also realize that by its own constitution that era cannot be replicated precisely because of the Muslim belief that the Prophet cannot come back and there will not be another prophet – a perfect society needs a perfect man. The era after that which is most revered by (Sunni) Muslims is the era of the Righteously Guided Caliphs. What most folks fail to realize that that era was revered in classical Islam not because of it was a time of peace and prosperity but because of its proximity to the time of the Prophet. On one hand it was a time of great expansion where the foundations of Islamic governance were also laid down. On the other hand it was also a time of civil wars when there was a great deal of intra-Muslim bloodshed. To anyone who wants to revive that era, one must caution that it is also the time when the Khawarij, the intellectual ancestors of groups like ISIS first arose. One must be careful in what one wishes for.

Then there is the Golden age of Islamic civilization centered on Baghdad, Cordoba and Samarkand. While the Islamists tout the greatness of this era what gets shoved under the rugs is that many of the rulers of this era were less than exemplary when it comes to their orthodoxy. Another fact that many people fail to recognize is that even during the Golden Age the majority of the subjects of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims including an appreciable percentage of scientists and philosophers who were instrumental for the rise of Islamic civilization. Science and technology back then as it is now is an international collaboratory enterprise. The last point is especially relevant to our day and age since the exclusion of non-Muslims in the national narratives in the Muslim world has unfortunately become the norm. Outside of small academic circles most people, Muslims or non-Muslims, are unaware of the fact that what came to be identified with the Islamic systems of governance was heavily borrowed from the Sassanids. The millet system of the Ottomans was inspired by a similar system that the Rightly Guided Caliphs has enacted which in turn was invented by the Sassanids. When the rulers of Vijaynagar in South India were copying the style of Muslim palaces they were actually copying the plans that Muslims had acquired from Sassanids. The greatest irony here being that while some modern day non-Muslim Iranians blame Muslims for destroying their culture, it was actually the Islamic culture that led to the widespread dissemination of the Iranian culture but under the Islamic garb.

The lesson being that he early Muslims had to deal with many practical considerations of ruling a multi-ethnic multi-religious Empire and inspiration had to be taken from anywhere and everywhere. Even the aesthetics that came to be identified as quintessentially Islamic had roots in earlier civilizations. The archetypical image of how a mosque should look like is heavily borrowed from Eastern Orthodox Churches that the Muslims first encountered in their conquests of Syria and the Levant. These observations do not make these developments less Islamic but rather it shows the openness of the Islamic culture of a bygone era. The translation of Greeks works did not start in the time of Abbasids as in the popular imagination but rather it had already started in the second generation from the time of the Prophet. Khalid bin Yazid, an ummawid prince and a scientist himself was instrumental in sponsoring the translation project in Alexandria less than 50 years after the time of the Prophet.

Then there is Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain has been romanticized by people as diverse as Tariq Ali, Osama bin Laden, head of States etc. It is supposed to represent a time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in an era of supposed harmony. While one may disagree with the details of convicencia how it came to an end is where a great deal of disconnect lies in the minds of the Muslim masses. It was not just the advancing armies of Aragon and Castilia that doomed the culture of tolerance but the Almohad were equally intolerant towards the culture of coexistence. It is easier to kill a culture if it already has a self-inflicted wound. The last great flowering of the Islamic civilization was of course the Ottoman Empire. It is also arguably the most successful Muslim empire in history. The empire that now stands as the emblem of the Caliphate only took up that mantle in its declining years. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was followed by more than a century of Romanphilia. In fact Mehmet the Conqueror wanted to conquer Rome itself to “reunify” the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Sultans styled themselves as the Emperors of the Romans till the very end of the empire. People in the Balkans focus on the ethnic conflict in the dying days of the empire but fail to mention the 5 centuries of coexistence prior to that. Thus the question of brining back the Ottomans is more appropriately phrased as which incarnation of the Ottoman Empire as it greatly changed over the course of seven centuries. The dichotomies of Christian vs. Muslim disappear even more when one realizes that the majority of the Ottoman army at the siege of Vienna in 1683 may actually have been made up of Christians. Can we really imagine such a scenario three hundred years after the fact?

If the Abbasids represented the Golden Age of Islam then perhaps the rise of Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids, the Mali Empire, the Indian Ocean trade networks and the spread of Islam in South East Asia should be termed as the Silver Age of Islam. There may be many more things that we can learn from the less glamorous and the seemingly peripheral parts of Islamic history: The question of Islamic law and how Muslims should live as minorities in a non-Muslim state has come to the fore in the West recently. Even some of the learned ulemas act as if this is an unprecedented situation and as if this has not happened before. Islam has been in China for longer than most Muslim majority places in the world. Chinese Muslims have a long history of integrating with and long conversing with a foreign civilization. Chinese Muslims arts, culture, language and even philosophy has much to teach the rest of the Muslim world if only they are willing to listen. Al-Andalus was not the only region of Europe that was occupied by Arabs and Berbers and brought advanced civilization there. Sicily was the Andalus that disappeared early on. What is however missing from discussions of Sicily is that Muslims did continue to flourish in Sicily for 150 years even after the fall of Islamic rule there mainly because of the somewhat enlightened rule of the Normans in Sicily. The most well known of these Christian rules was Roger II, after whom the most famous book of Islamic geography is named Kitab ul Rigel (The Book of Roger), by the celebrated geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi. Even after the persecutions started it was not until 1336 that the last group on Muslims in Italy were forced to convert.

My point here is not to argue that one must not look at the past for inspiration but as with most things in life the good comes with bad. It could be that none of the examples that I have outlined previously are that relevant to the present predicament of the Muslim world. Pick up almost any history text on Islamic history especially in Arabic, Persian or Urdu it reads more like a series of events than a meaningful analysis of history. Thus missing from the narrative of the Islamic world is the impact of the Black Plague in the historical imagination of the Muslim world even though which is equally devastating in the Middle East as it was in Europe or how the disruption of the Indian Ocean trade network by the Portuguese was instrumental in the long term economic decline of the Muslim world.

Perhaps the answer may lie in something else entirely – alternate history. By forcing Muslims to think about what could have been they may also start thinking about what could be in a more nuanced manner. There will of course be people who might object and say that why dwell in the past in any form whether positive or negative. It is however impossible to escape history, the kind of people that we want to become is usually a function of how we imagine how we got to be what we are. Historians may argue that all national, ethnic and even religious histories have an element of useful fiction and objectivity is relative at best. Even if we take this view we still have to answer the question, what kind of fiction do we choose for ourselves. We are who we are by the virtue of stories that we tell about ourselves. Make sense of history thus becomes paramount in moments of civilizational crisis. This is of course not to discount that there are indeed more urgent problems in the world like the Syrian Refugee crisis or the Climate Change but with a group of people that constitute around a forth of humanity there are enough people to have interesting and valuable thoughts to any subject under the Sun and perhaps even beyond.