Saturday, 11 February 2017

If Aquinas is a philosopher then so are the Islamic theologians

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast.

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Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think people today mostly acknowledge the importance and originality of philosophy in the Islamic world. Would any scholar now say in print, as Bertrand Russell notoriously did in his History of Western Philosophy (written in 1945), that ‘Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators’? I certainly hope not. But even if we now see more clearly, we still have blindspots.

Painting: Detail from ‘The Meeting of the Theologians’ by Abd Allah Musawwir, mid-16th century. Courtesy Wikipedia

The thinkers taken seriously as ‘philosophers’ are typically the authors Russell dismissed as mere commentators, men such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes. Though they were far from unoriginal, they were indeed enthusiasts for Aristotle and other Greek authors. Yet these were not the only intellectuals and rationalists of their time, nor did rationalism and philosophical reflection die with Averroes at the end of the 12th century, as is still often believed. Throughout Islamic history, many of the figures of interest and relevance to the historian of philosophy were not Aristotelians, but practitioners of kalām, which is usually translated as ‘theology’.

The word kalām literally means ‘word’, and here abbreviates the Arabic expression ʿilm al-kalām: ‘science of the word’. It is often contrasted to the term falsafa, which as you can probably guess was imported into Arabic as a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. When modern-day scholars draw this contrast, when they assume that kalām was non-philosophical or even anti-philosophical, they are taking their lead from the medieval tradition itself. In particular, from two self-styled ‘philosophers (falāsifa)’, al-Fārābī and Averroes. In their eyes, the ‘theologians (mutakallimūn)’ engaged in mere dialectical argumentation; whereas philosophy offers demonstrative proofs. The theologian does not ground arguments in first principles, but just defends his own favourite interpretation of scripture against rival interpretations. Averroes was scornful of the results, complaining that it can lead to violent schism. For him, only a philosopher can offer a really reliable reading of the Quran, since the philosopher knows what is true on independent grounds – that is, on the grounds of Aristotelian science.

But should we accept this sharp opposition? These Aristotelians talk as if kalām makes insufficient use of reason. But most contemporaries would have seen it as controversial precisely because it was so rationalist. Theologians often departed from the surface meaning of the Quran on rational grounds: Revelation might seem to speak of God as if He had a body, but we can rule this out by giving arguments against His corporeality. The mutakallimūn also engaged in detailed disputes over such central philosophical issues as free will, atomism and the sources of moral responsibility, and debated such technicalities as the inherence of properties in substances, or the status of non-existing objects. If history had gone differently and there had been no hard-line Aristotelians writing in Arabic, I have no doubt that historians of philosophy would consider the output of the mutakallimūn to be the ‘philosophical’ tradition of the Islamic world.

That would have made our approach to Islamic intellectual history more like our treatment of Christian medieval thought. After all, medieval philosophy classes are mostly devoted to figures who considered themselves to be ‘theologians’, such as Anselm, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like medieval philosophy either, precisely because of its religious context. But my view is that philosophy is where you find it, and that it is narrow-minded to ignore philosophical argumentation put forward by thinkers simply because they have a religious agenda, whether that agenda grows out of Christianity (as with Aquinas), Judaism (as with Maimonides), Hinduism (as with Nyāya epistemology or Vedānta philosophy of mind), or Islam.

The refusal to appreciate the philosophical interest of kalām is especially pernicious when it comes to the period after the pivotal figure of philosophy in the Islamic world, Avicenna (he died in 1037). His impact was enormous and pervasive. So we find ‘theologians’ such as al-Ghazālī (died 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (died 1210) engaging in minute analysis of Avicenna’s arguments, accepting some aspects of the Avicennian system while finding fault with others. Al-Ghazālī is notorious for his critique of Avicenna’s metaphysics in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, but he also heaped ridicule on anyone who denied the utility of the philosophers’ logic. As for al-Rāzī, his enormous theological compendia are comparable to those written by men such as Aquinas and Scotus in Latin Christendom, filled with scholastic argumentation and even structured in terms of philosophical elements like the Aristotelian categories. The myth that philosophy somehow died out in the Islamic world around the time of Averroes (died 1198) is in part the result of assuming that such texts fall outside the remit of the history of philosophy, despite being chock-full of intricate philosophical argumentation.

All of which is not to deny that some other kalām texts would be of limited interest to the philosophically minded reader, or that the mutakallimūn did typically proceed on the basis of scriptural exegesis instead of (or in addition to) pure rational argument. Nor is this the only reason that kalām texts can frequently be frustrating to the philosopher. Al-Fārābī and Averroes were right that there was a ‘dialectical’ tendency in their theological contemporaries. Premises might go unexamined because an envisaged opponent is bound to accept them, and there is a tendency – in early kalām especially – to answer questions with verbal formulae that all parties might accept, rather than delving deeper to find a really satisfying answer. But that tendency is reduced to some extent in later kalām literature. In fact, my impression – which I offer tentatively, given the vast amount of later kalām literature that is as yet unedited, and unstudied – is that kalām becomes significantly more ‘philosophical’ as the tradition developed. In the post-Avicennan period, the situation was increasingly like what we find in late 13th-century France: the most interesting and sophisticated philosophers were the theologians.

It might seem greedy of me to ask that a wide readership come to appreciate kalām, when most self-described ‘philosophers’ in the Islamic world are still rarely studied by non-specialists. It’s not as if undergraduate students are already routinely asked to read Avicenna and Averroes, never mind their ‘theological’ contemporaries and heirs. But even if the relevant texts remain largely unstudied, it is worth spreading the news that rationalism in Islam did not die with Averroes, and that the famous partisans of philosophy in the Islamic world, like al-Fārābī, Averroes and Avicenna, had no monopoly on philosophical thinking there.

A Muslim Valentine Message

02/09/2017 10:29 am ET
Published at Huffington Post - All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Now that Valentine’s Day is upon us, let’s offer a toast to the medieval Arabs from whom Europe learned to respect and honor the feminine. What?! That religion in which women are oppressed chattel, forced to cover themselves in black, segregated from public life! We are certain of our cultural superiority, of the high values of Western civilization, assuming that there has always been something innately superior about our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

Most people are unaware of how little honor was given to the feminine in the Graeco-Roman world, in early Christianity, and in Europe during the first thousand years of the common era. The Roman world offered no moral code worthy of admiration, nor any wholesome model of marriage. Christianity looked upon marriage as a necessary evil to preserve people from sin and facilitate procreation. Nowhere in the European world was Woman honored in the way that the knights of the desert did, following their ancient code of chivalry, muruah, or manliness, which combined physical prowess, heroic generosity, loyalty, and, above all, honoring and defending women.

Titus Burckhardt in Moorish Culture of Spain writes that the European chivalry of the Middle Ages was learned from the Spanish Moors. The quintessentially Western ideal of chivalry was unknown in the Western world until it came into Europe through Islamic Spain. The Moors, as they were called, were still living according to this code, prolifically composing poems and songs honoring the Feminine. Eventually, this was adapted by the Provençal troubadours from the Arab courts in Andalusia who sang of yearning for the beloved, elevating the sensibilities of the European mind from mere sensuality to a new refinement of emotion.

In the Arab context, there was always an ambiguity about whether it was the earthly beloved or the divine beloved that was being addressed, and this ambiguity was enjoyed, offering spiritual delight to the sensuous, and perhaps some sensuous delight to the spiritually minded. It is worth noting that the veneration of the Virgin Mary began around this time. While there had long been an esoteric current associated with Mary Magdalene in southern France, where she is believed to have settled after the death of Jesus, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the honoring of Mary, mother of Jesus, to whom all the cathedrals were dedicated, had entered European consciousness during this time both from the Spanish influences of Islamic Spain, as well as from the cultural cross pollination of the Crusades.

The great Cambridge scholar, R.A. Nicholson, wrote about the impact of Arab al-furusiyyah and muruah on European chivalry: “The chivalry of the Middle Ages is, perhaps, ultimately traceable to heathen Arabia. Knight-errantry, the riding forth on horseback in search of adventures, the rescue of captive maidens, the succor rendered everywhere to women in adversity — all these were essentially Arabian ideas, as was the very name of chivalry, the connection of honorable conduct with the horse-rider, the man of noble blood, the cavalier ... But the nobility of the women is not only reflected in the heroism and devotion of the men; it stands recorded in song, in legend and in history.”

Yes, contrary to the current myth that women are entirely degraded in Islamic culture, there was once a time when the Arabs civilized Europeans. One of the greatest of Muslim theologians, a Sufi, Ibn `Arabi (d. 1240), wrote that the contemplation of God is possible, indeed enhanced, through the human form: When man contemplates the Reality in woman he beholds God.

A similar influence entered the modern world with the recent wave of translations of the great poet Rumi. In a culture that is just beginning to heal the wounds of both life-denying Puritanism and heedless hedonism, Rumi’s poetry helps us to embrace our humanness and find something profoundly sacred in this earthly life, and especially in the intimacy of human love.

There are conventions of Persian poetry that use the metaphor of the beloved in very sensual terms, and it is not surprising that readers might interpret these poems on at least two levels. While Rumi would not blame us for imagining a personal beloved, especially if the poem engenders a tender intimacy in human relationship, it is not quite what Rumi had in mind. He speaks often about the spiritual archetype of the “Lover,” and for him this was the pinnacle of human attainment.

 Through the disciplines of the spiritual path, he had discovered something very sublime; he said “there is no greater love that love with no object.”
You, ignorant of the marrow, deceived by the skin,
be aware. The Beloved is at the center of your soul.
The essence of the body is sensation and the essence of the senses is the soul.
Not until you transcend body, senses, and soul, is everything He/She (God).
(Rumi, Quatrain 322, translated by Kabir Helminski)
But such transcendence is not for everyone. And so, for this Valentine’s Day, here is a Valentine’s wish: As the Quran says, “Honor the wombs that bore you.” May all women be honored, cherished, and protected, and may we honor all honest forms of love... and all true lovers.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The legacy of Islamic philosophy Although they worked within a religious framework, many philosophers in the Islamic world were pioneers of rational thought.

–   By Peter Adamson   –

This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

What can humanists or other non-believers find to interest them in Islamic philosophy? The phrase suggests the problem. If a philosophical tradition is distinctively Islamic, it would seem the humanist can see only a target for critique. The humanist might go further and argue that “Islamic philosophy” is a contradiction in terms. Philosophy is an exercise of unbounded reason, a search for understanding on the basis of discernment rather than revelation or faith.

Arab philosopher Averroes. Detail from Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) (photo)

Plausible though this line of thought is, I want to persuade you that it is wrong. Let’s start with the biggest    assumption, that philosophical reflection must exclude a religious context. This is clearly unsustainable. Nearly all mediaeval Christian philosophers considered themselves to be theologians. It seems pretty clear that a definition of “philosopher” that rules out Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus is a definition that is in urgent need of revision. Looking further back, many ancient thinkers worked within an explicit religious framework. This is especially obvious in late antiquity with Christians like Augustine and Boethius, but applies at least as much to pagan thinkers like Iamblichus and Proclus. And what about Plato? We don’t think of him as a “religious” thinker, but he certainly weaves religious ideas into his philosophical works. Just read the Phaedrus to see what I mean.

Yet there does seem to be something to the idea that philosophy should distance itself from religious assumptions. What could be less philosophical than accepting a certain belief as true, just because that belief is endorsed by the Bible, or some other scriptural text? Plato wouldn’t do that, we hope. Would Aquinas? Well, yes and no. Like many Christian mediaeval thinkers, he adopted a sophisticated view of the relationship between reason and faith. The natural light of reason is sufficient for the establishment of philosophical understanding, from logic to natural philosophy to the study of the soul, ethics and politics. Reason can reach even as far as God, proving his existence and many of his traits. Yes, there are other truths inaccessible to reason, such as God’s being a Trinity. But these truths, once accepted by faith, can be more fully understood using reason. Most thinkers in the mediaeval Christian world would be able to meet the humanist halfway, offering rational arguments without appeal to the Bible.

What about Islamic philosophy, or, as I prefer, “philosophy in the Islamic world”? The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism may lead you to expect that throughout history, Muslim intellectuals have been bound to the dictates of their religion, more even than mediaeval Christians like Aquinas. This is not the case. In Latin Christendom, it was only occasionally that philosophy was practised without any explicit theological context or agenda, as, for instance, with theories of logic and language developed at the universities in the 13th and 14th century. In the Islamic world, such independent pursuit of philosophy was closer to the norm than the exception.

* * *

In the formative period of philosophy in the Islamic world – that is, up to the 12th century or so – “philosophy” was strongly associated with Greek culture. It was even called falsafa, a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. “Philosophers (falāsifa)” were pursuing a science with foreign origins, centred above all on the study of Aristotle, but drawing on numerous other sources in mathematics (e.g. Euclid), medicine (e.g. Galen), natural science (e.g. Ptolemy) and philosophy (e.g. Plotinus). For this reason “philosophy” was considered to be outside the Islamic sciences, and it was not grounded in scriptural authority. Naturally, Islamic concerns did play some role in the writings of philosophers. They might quote the Qur’an to show that their theories were in agreement with the holy book. Sometimes, one suspects that the theories themselves were engineered to fit with Islamic belief, as when the supreme oneness of God or immortality of the soul are proved by rational argument. On the other hand, the supreme oneness of God and immortality of the soul were standard topics in Greek philosophy (Plotinus insists on both), something that could hardly be overlooked by the readers of the Arabic translations. So even these doctrines were not seen as distinctively Islamic. Philosophers spent much of their effort working on logic, epistemology, natural philosophy and so on. They were handling topics with no obvious religious import and, unlike in Latin Christendom, working outside any religious institution.

These were the conditions that made it possible for some thinkers of the Islamic world to embrace a rationalism far more radical than anything we can find in Christian Europe of the same period. In particular, we see such an attitude in al-Fārābī and Averroes, who lived respectively in 10th-century Iraq and Syria and 12th-century Islamic Spain. For both, philosophy is the effort to establish truths demonstratively, which means providing unshakeable proofs based on indubitable first principles. Both saw Aristotle as a figure who had come closer than any other thinker to completing this ambitious project; the theory of demonstrative truth itself is based on his works. Aristotelian science has for both al-Fārābī and Averroes the highest possible status, with all other forms of knowledge – including religious – necessarily falling short. Which is not to say that the Qur’an is false, only that it presents truths in a non-scientific way. Religious discourse is persuasive and powerful, just right for the ordinary believer, but it does not lay out the scientific explanations for the universal truths understood by the accomplished philosopher.

One consequence of the universality of philosophy is that the truths and demonstrations it discovers are in principle open to all peoples. And not only in principle. Aristotle had used his reason to get further than anyone else in Greece, and in the Islamic world philosophy developed as an ecumenical enterprise, with Muslims, Christians and Jews meeting on the common ground of philosophy. The very Greek-Arabic translations that kicked off the falsafa traditions had mostly been made by Christian scholars, at the behest of Muslim patrons. So, especially in this early period, to engage with falsafa often meant collaborating with Christians. In the 9th century the first self-styled faylasūf of the Islamic world, al-Kindī, led a group of those Christian translators. A few generations later al-Fārābī had Christian teachers and students, one of whom, Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī, engaged in a philosophical correspondence with a Jewish interlocutor. Al-Fārābī and his colleagues emphasised that philosophical disciplines are cross-cultural in other respects too. Philosophy is not bound to any place, people or language. They liked to contrast the universal validity of logic with the parochial concerns of grammar, a burgeoning science of their day.

Hence my preference for “philosophy in the Islamic world” rather than “Islamic philosophy”: many of the thinkers in question were not Muslims, and even those who were Muslim often engaged in an inquiry that they themselves distinguished sharply from “Islamic” sciences, like Qur’anic exegesis. One should be careful not to exaggerate, though. Philosophy was indeed an ecumenical enterprise, but its tools could also be used for interfaith disputation. Al-Kindī was happy to collaborate with Christian translators, but he deployed Aristotelian logic in a short work intended to refute the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The very foreignness of philosophy made it an easy target. Some argued on behalf of the indigenous Arabic or Islamic sciences, like the grammarian al-Sīrāfī, who mocked Greek logic as pretentious and useless for parsing actual arguments and sentences. Later critics went further, issuing legal decisions condemning the practice of logic.

Another caveat is needed here: al-Fārābī and Averroes are famous, but hardly representative of philosophy in the Islamic world. Their radical rationalism and detailed engagement with Aristotle has endeared them more to today’s historians than to contemporary readers. Averroes, through Hebrew and Latin translations of his works, had a vastly greater impact on Jewish and Latin Christian readers than on his co-religionists. More typical was an irenic approach, which did not make the provocative claim that philosophical demonstration is superior to religious discourse. Instead, it was suggested that philosophical inquiry would reach the same conclusions as those set out in scripture; an independent confirmation of revealed truths.

* * *

So far I’ve been talking about self-professed philosophers. But returning to philosophy in mediaeval Latin Christendom, many thinkers from that culture whom we now treat as “philosophers” would not have used this name. They thought of themselves as theologians, or perhaps something else. Similarly, in the Islamic world many people were doing philosophy despite refusing the label of faylasūf. Perhaps the best example is al-Ghazālī, famous for a work called Incoherence of the Philosophers. In it, he tries to show the flaws in the philosophy of the falāsifa, by which he means the philosophy of Avicenna. If asked to identify al-Ghazālī’s intellectual profile, most scholars would probably say that he was a theologian (mutakallim). And though he was exceptional in many ways, he was not in this respect. Many thinkers who engaged in theology (kalām) engaged in philosophical argument, arguing back and forth over such topics as free will and the nature of knowledge.
A widespread misconception is that philosophy in the Islamic world drew to an end in the 12th century. But it’s now agreed by most experts in the field that this was not the case. The impression that philosophy died at this time, with Averroes as its last representative, can be traced to two factors. First, until recently scholars were interested almost exclusively in Arabic philosophical works that were translated into Latin, because they wanted to understand those who influenced Christian thinkers like Aquinas. Since the Latin-Arabic translation movement peaked in the 12th century, later thinkers made little impact in Europe.

Second, there really was a change in the 12th century, insofar as Avicenna (who died in 1037) now replaced Aristotle as the central philosophical figure. If one thinks of “Islamic philosophy” as engagement with Greek sources in Arabic translation, one may easily conclude that it ended in the 12th century. But this is a pretty narrow definition of philosophy. For many generations, all the way to the colonial period, there was intense engagement with the provocative and brilliant ideas of Avicenna, who reworked Aristotelian philosophy and put his own distinctive stamp upon it. His works were the subject of commentaries, critiques and summaries, works which duly received their own commentaries and critiques. Reactions ranged from enthusiastic embrace of Avicenna’s philosophy to bitter opposition. But Avicenna’s impact was enormous, greater even than Aristotle’s in the formative period, because it was felt more widely. His methods and terminology became pervasive in intellectual discourse, and set the agenda for philosopher-theologians from Egypt to Muslim India.

Avicenna was notorious for several reasons – he drank wine and thought the world was eternal. But the intellectuals of the Islamic world saw in his writings a source that could help them engage in their own independent reflections, on matters both philosophical and theological. Even the titles sometimes tell the story, as with the Mu‘tabar of the Jewish-Muslim convert Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī: it means What has Been Carefully Considered. Other thinkers, like the prolific and subtle Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, likewise revelled in their ability to weigh up arguments on all sides of an issue before passing judgement. As a whole, later Islamic theology constitutes a powerful rebuke to anyone who thinks religious thinkers are tradition-bound. Arabic speakers had a word for such uncritical acceptance of authority: taqlīd. If there is any theme that runs through the whole history of Islamic thought, it is the importance of avoiding this intellectual sin.

From an early period, we see sunnis (including such different thinkers as Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and al-Ghazālī) accusing shi‘ites of taqlīd, on the basis that shi‘ites follow the authority of an Imam, who must be descended from the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī. But the insult is not thrown only across the sunni-shi’ite divide. Philosophers complained that theologians are guilty of taqlīd, and theologians returned the favour. After all, didn’t the philosophers blindly follow Aristotle? This is not to say that one must always start from scratch. In Islamic law, the founders of the legal schools were respected even as room was left for the individual judgement of the jurist. Similarly, in philosophy and theology the views of Aristotle or al-Ash‘arī, founder of the eponymous Ash‘arite school, were admired, even revered. But no Aristotelian or Ash‘arite would be caught dead saying that they believed something simply on the say-so of an honoured predecessor. Rather, independent and honest inquiry ratified the school’s teachings, and often led to revisions or extensions of those teachings.

* * *

The negative attitude towards taqlīd continued well past the formative period. A recent book by Khaled El-Rouayheb discusses the 15th-century Moroccan theologian al-Sanūsī, who said that all Muslims have the duty to engage in independent reflection. Failing to do so is taqlīd, which for al-Sanūsī is “the root of the unbelief of the idolaters”. Few thinkers went quite this far. More typically, it was assumed that taqlīd is appropriate for the uneducated mass of humanity, who are not in a position to go beyond received opinion. Instead, they should follow the lead of the learned scholars, or avoid inquiring into matters above their level – a strikingly similar idea to the one put forward by al-Fārābī and Averroes, except that here it is experts in religious law and theology who form the intellectual elite, rather than philosophers.

One might argue that the rejection of taqlīd, and the spirit of rational inquiry that this implies, was the common thread that bound together all philosophically inclined intellectuals of the Islamic world. It was a thread that ran across historical and religious boundaries. A Jewish legal and philosophical expert like Maimonides had much in common with his contemporary and fellow Andalusian Averroes – in some ways, more than he had in common with the average Jewish believer. Of course not all learned men were so optimistic about the prospects of individual inquiry. We’ve already seen that there were sceptics about logic, and many mystics and theologians did emphasise the limitations of human reason. Then too, codified teacher-student relationships existed across the intellectual spectrum, implying a period of apprenticeship while the student’s mind was being formed. But well into the modern era, mature, mainstream theologians presented themselves as disinterested inquirers into the truth. In so doing, they were following the lead of the earlier philosophers and those influenced by them, like al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. This is not to claim that these figures were somehow humanists. But it is to say that in the Islamic world, faith has very rarely been blind.

Friday, 30 December 2016

BBC Radio Scotland - Thought for the Day

Friday 30th December 2016
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

After the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher, I read a friend’s response, that he wanted to basically wrap up all his favourite stars in cushioning in order to preserve them.  If only it could be that easy.  The end of anything is often hard to face up to.  I think there is a moment of limbo in our lives as we move toward the New Year. But can we plan forward for a new year with certainty?  I’m looking forward to a trip planned to Granada in Spain next May. Booking that flight offered certainty and hope that I would end up there.

In a way we plan for a future through hope and inspiration from different things.  Religious stories from sacred texts offer us some hope that good overcomes evil.  We may even overlook the out-of-this-world miracles that make up these stories.  Dreams of hope are often inspired by the magical, the mythical – and their power cannot be underestimated. The tales, the fables, the folklore we recall from the past help to strengthen us when moving forward.

Maybe that’s why we never grow too old for the cartoons or animated movies, they retell old myths but present them in new colourful, hopeful forms. Hope for a better tomorrow or New Year needs imagination.  It helps us focus some form of certainty on the uncertain.

But how do we take wisdom from the sometimes real and sometimes mythical stories from the past, to help us with our present and with our future?  I’ve read so much about Muslim Spain.  Its architecture has always amazed me but also of that fabled past where the people lived peacefully.  A positive reading of hope, peace and tolerance often helps us move forward if we’re living in the opposite reality. Maybe the past was just as broken but I’d rather focus on the positives.  So here’s to a new year that we really have no idea how it will turn out but in the hope that it will be a happy new year.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Mein Talkhiye Hayat se Ghabra ke Pee Gaya Poet: Saghar Siddiqui

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN - Main Talkhiye Hayat Se... by sweetsongs58

English Translation: Dr. Amanullah De Sondy 

The antipathy of life led me to drink, in rancour
The colours of grief, the dark night.  I intoxicate nervously
The goblet was, wet, tearful...and there, tense, worried were the tresses of the beloved
These incidents led to intoxication, nervously

A mere human being not an angel indeed, oh respected one
Today the confusion of subjectivity, of being in myself, led to intoxication, nervously 

Such an abstruse, delicate, abstruse entity, how can one understand?
Attributed to divine events, mercy, I intoxicate nervously
Thorns are but thorns, what objection is there to raise to them?
But those flowers, their incidents. I intoxicate nervously

The events of this world are but one long painful song
The events of world. I intoxicate nervously.

Saghar, they were saying, please drink
Because of his requests, those pleadings led to intoxicating nervously

Main Talkhiye Hayat Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya
Gham Ki Siyaah Raat Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Chalke Hue The Jam Paresha'n Thi Zulf e Yaar
Kuch Aisay Hadsaat, Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Main Aadmi Hoon Koi Farishta Nahi Huzoor
Main Aaj Apni Zaat, Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Itni Daqeeq Shai Koi Kaisay Samajh Sakay
Yazdaan Ke Waqiyaat Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Kantay To Khair Kantay Hi Hain Unse Gila Hi Kya
Phoolon Ki Wardaat, Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Dunia e Hadsaat Hai Aik Dardnaak Geet
Dunia e Hadsaat Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Sagher Wo Keh Rahe The Ke Pee Lijiye Huzoor
Un Ki Guzarishaat Se Ghabra Ke Pee Gaya

Monday, 5 December 2016

The people who shaped Islamic civilisation A new book celebrates the achievements of early Muslims, and dispels some myths along the way

Nicolas Pelham | December 5th 2016
Published in The Economist - Copyright, All Rights Reserved
Coverage of violence and Islam often go hand in hand. So it comes as a relief to be reminded that historically, culturally and intellectually, Islam is less a nihilistic creed than a global civilisation. A new book by Chase Robinson, which includes 30 pen-portraits of significant figures in Islamic history, is an elegant digest of the many colourful, creative and technologically innovative manifestations that the Prophet Muhammad inspired from his seventh-century oases in the Arabian peninsula.
Majestic The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
The warriors and potentates are there, of course. Starting with Muhammad and ending with Shah Ismail 900 years later, they bookend the narrative. But in Robinson’s telling their martial arts are secondary to their aesthetic ones. Muhammad is celebrated not for his battlefield victories but his verse. Abd al-Malik, the caliph who took Cyprus, was better known to Islamic chroniclers for building Jerusalem’s majestic Dome of the Rock and, less appealingly, halitosis so severe it could kill a fly. Mahmoud of Ghazni, the jihadist who conquered the Hindu kingdoms of north-western India, was admired for decorating Islam’s eastern periphery with gardens. (“You have strung the wild rose with patterns of pearls,” oozed a court poet.) Timur, the Mongol “sheep-rustler and world-conqueror”, built towers of skulls but also the soaring, sublime mosques of Samarkand. Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, was “a renaissance man”.

As fascinating as the fighters are the characters in the courts they patronised. 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.

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. 
Three centuries before Columbus A reproduction of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s world map in the Book of Roger (1154)
By the 14th century, Islam’s centre of gravity had shifted to Istanbul, but its courts continued to attract the world’s leading scientists and artists and remained at the cutting-edge of medical advances and military technology. After a familiar bout of devastation, Mongol rule ushered in fresh investments in science, particularly its 13th-century observatory at Maragheh, whose findings underpinned Copernicus’s models of the universe. Multiculturalism, perhaps even trans-confessionalism, remained a familiar trope of Islamic rule. Alternating between Sunni and Shiite rites, the Mongols’ faith felt remarkably fluid.

Uljeitu’s vizier was Rashid al-Din, an Iranian-born Jewish convert to Islam, who assembled a warehouse of global researchers near Tabriz in the 14th century and set them to work on “an industrial-sized” history of the world, the “Compendium of Chronicles”. Its encyclopaedic breadth is a composite of texts drawn from Hebrew scholars (apparently translated by Rashid al-Din himself), Kashmiri monks, Chinese envoys and perhaps the most sympathetic account of Buddha in a non-Buddhist text. More than 2,000 miles away in Tunis, Ibn Khaldoun penned a social history which for the first time ditched the composition of court chronicles to examine the causes behind historical events.

There are, of course, characters closer to the caricatures of modern-day Muslim fundamentalists. Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th-century judge in Damascus and Alexandria, railed against the Mongols for favouring Shiism and applying their own yassa law, not Sharia – a sin which, he declared, rendered them apostates. When the Sunni Mamluk authorities he favoured overlooked a Christian’s insults against the Prophet, he agitated the mob to demand his beheading. A bit-player in his time, the Salafists have elevated him to centre-stage today, ranking his teachings alongside the Prophet’s in Saudi Arabia’s core curriculum. Islam’s most zealous detractors and practitioners alike could do worse than to recall Robinson’s other 29 characters too.

Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives by Chase Robinson, published by Thames & Hudson

Saturday, 12 November 2016

International Islamic scholar to speak at Centenary College - Louisiana - USA

Press Release

November 7, 2016

SHREVEPORT, LA — Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork in Ireland, will visit Centenary on Wednesday, November 16. His presentation, “Islam between Text and Lived Realities: a Conversation,” highlights some of the tensions that Muslims face living in the modern world as they uphold ancient texts and traditions.

Dr. Spencer Dew, Chair of Religious Studies at Centenary, will serve as Dr. De Sondy’s conversation partner. The 7:00 p.m. event in the Whited Room in Bynum Commons is free and open to the public.

“Centenary is indeed privileged to welcome Dr. De Sondy to our campus and to Shreveport,” says Jenifer K. Ward, Provost and Dean of the College. “It is fitting that we should deepen our understanding of one of the great world religions as part of our ‘Religion Matters’ series, and the form of the event—a conversation—signals Centenary’s commitment to open inquiry and exchange. As a college related to the United Methodist Church, we welcome the opportunity to find points of connection in the beliefs and values of our different traditions.”

De Sondy joined the faculty at University College Cork in 2015. He previously taught Islamic Studies at Ithaca College and the University of Miami in the United States and at several Scottish universities, including the University of Glasgow where he earned his Ph.D. in 2009.
De Sondy’s first book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2014 and is the first monograph on the construction of manhood in the Qur’an and South Asian history.

His research connects the study of Islam to key themes of gender, ethnicity, race, and pluralism, and he has written on gender and sexuality in classical and contemporary Islam in relation to Islamic practice and the Qur’an. Additionally, De Sondy specializes in Muslims in Celtic lands (Scotland and Ireland)/Europe/Pakistan and Religious Education (RE) in high schools in these global locations.

Centenary’s “Religion Matters” series is a set of lectures designed to generate wide-ranging conversations about the intersection of religion and other cultural issues across the larger Shreveport-Bossier community. De Sondy’s visit to Centenary is generously underwritten by the Attaway Professorships in Civic Culture Program.

The Beauty of Islam Brought Me Out of the Closet - By Drew Harper November 3, 2016

Published in 'Vice' - All Rights Reserved, Copyright

I grew up in suburban St. Louis, where my father was the pastor of our small evangelical church. My mother is a pastor's daughter; my uncle is a pastor; my grandfather taught Sunday School for decades. When researchers finally confirm the link between a highly churched background and growing up to be a major homo, I will be both case in point and the least surprised.

As a teenager, my devotion to American Christianity through youth group, gospel choir, and summer jobs at Christian camps gave me joy. It also kept me plugging away in "ex-gay" conversion therapy from sixth grade through most of high school. It was the summer between my junior and senior year that altered the straight-to-heaven course on which my life was set: In 2006, I went to Egypt and fell in love with Islam.

In Egypt, the Gothic spires and stained glass windows I idolized in America were rendered gauche next to the domes of Fatimid Cairo, the glazed tiles of her mosques. The songs and dances of Sufism, Islam's mystical cult, awoke within me the same religious passion I'd felt at my most charismatically evangelical moments. And on the final night of my summer-long trip, atop a pony perched on the moonlit sands beneath the pyramids, the 4 AM call to prayer from 10,000 minarets took me on a mystical night journey of revelation like the Prophet's (Peace Be Upon Him). I was one confused little Jesus fag.
I fought this sudden Halal romance as fiercely as I could. I remember befriending one ultra conservative hijabi girl in Cairo who loved to debate religion. The arrogance of my American Christianity, swollen by 17 years of immersion in theology, history, and biblical hermeneutics, got her hot to trot. As a man, she wouldn't shake my hand, but she'd waltz all night through arguments on the evidence for God's existence or how the Council of Nicaea changed the early church. The fearless apologetics she espoused for her Islamic faith left me unnerved. I ended up respecting the hell out of her, which scared the shit out of me.

Added to these aesthetic and intellectual encounters with Islamic religion was the way maleness in Egypt's Muslim society gave the finger to American gender norms. Male beauty—indeed, prettiness—was ubiquitous and celebrated. Boys in skintight pink polos with long lashes and expertly twisted curls blew kisses at one another across the street, or promenaded down the lane arm-in-arm. They held hands and whispered giggling confidences. Nobody was gay, of course, but to my American eyes, everyone seemed pretty damn gay-ish. The visual paradox of these highly un-American homosocial interactions planted seeds of doubt in my mind: If the sureness of my religious superiority could be undermined, what about my sexuality?

It was in Egypt that I encountered, for the first time, male interactions outside the ironclad Western binary of gay/straight. I had been equipped through years of ex-gay ideological brainwashing to dismiss American gay male identity, with its vapid materialism, its promiscuity, and its idolization of youth, wealth, and sex appeal. But tender touches between married men that were neither wholly sexual nor un-erotic was not covered in my American ex-gay boot camp.

And yet, it was the beauty of a religious expression outside American Christianity that opened me up to doubt, and to change. To live in Cairo was to feel Islam in my daily rhythms and physical surroundings, and I, thank God, was an impressionable teenager. Equipped to dismiss heresies of theology, I was unprepared for heresies of the human variety: Sweet-voiced Qur'anic recitations floating like cigarette smoke through the taxi radio; the fierce self-confidence of a veiled girl who loved her own religion as deeply as she knew the tenets of mine; the beauty of a million people putting their day on hold to wash themselves and pray together. It was heresies of the senses and of the soul that got me.

In Cairo, both America's religion and her gender norms were revealed to be fallible, though the former had to be unmasked to permit the latter. My prior shame-filled experiments with gay sex and gay love were not nearly enough to liquidate, as the old hymn calls it, my "firm foundation." But if Christian superiority could be questioned, so could everything else. The dehumanization of Muslims in my American Christian experience wasn't something I'd even been aware of until I got to Egypt. If Muslims were human beings with full human dignity and equal access to the Divine, maybe gay people were, too.

Thankfully, my experience in Egypt arrived in time. I quit conversion therapy upon my return to the States and told my evangelical parents to fuck off. Islam, and the unshakable implications of that pluralistic awakening, became the yeast that gave rise to my embrace of queerness. Without it, I can't imagine my course ever being so altered. Rather, had I never gone to Cairo, I could see myself instead ending up at a hipster-approved NYC megachurch—one where the worship leaders wear queer-derived fashion while they wring their hands over their choir members' "sinful" gay relationships

By the time I was 17, I had seen a pride parade, but never a communal Friday prayer. One didn't change me, but the other somehow did. After spending years arming myself against the insidious gay agenda, whaddya know—Islam brought me out of the closet. I could have never seen it coming.
Today, watching the blood-soaked popular conception of Islam and Muslims get pitted against Western ideas of gay identity and gay people feels strange. And sad. And infuriating. It's not like I don't understand the homophobia within Orthodox Islam, but then again, I know all too well the homophobia of Orthodox Christianity.

My young experience of Islam and Muslims had been the very thing that liberated me from that. And what's more, I know enough about the interactions of classical Muslim society and Europe to know that we were the ones who brought homophobia as a practice to the Arab world in the first place. It's a complex history, but the long and the short of it is that nobody really gave a shit about men sucking one another's dicks before colonialism got there in the first place. Ironic.

I do feel lucky, though. Because when a nightclub gets shot up, or a bomb explodes in one of New York's gayborhoods, I don't share in the desire to go fuck up some dudes in beards and caftans. I would rather put on some Qur'anic chanting, light a Marlboro, drool over my hot neighbor who left his blinds up, and thank Baby Jesus that he sent me to Egypt while I was still young enough to be turned gay by it.

Drew Harper is the author, with his father Brad, of Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son.

The Secret History of Elizabeth I's Alliance With Islam Catholic Europe shunned England so the Protestant queen traded with its enemies—and changed her country's culture forever.

In 1570, Elizabeth I was in a bind. She had been excommunicated by the Pope, and her country was shunned by the rest of Europe. To avoid ruin, England needed allies. The queen sought help from a surprising source: the Islamic world.

The Tudor period has supplied endless popular entertainments—from Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth movies to the television series The Tudorsbut this story has rarely been told. Jerry Brotton explores the forgotten history of English-Muslim alliances in his new book The Sultan and the Queen. Speaking from his home in Oxford, England, Brotton explains why Elizabeth believed Islam and Protestantism had more in common with each other than with Catholicism and how this cultural exchange may have inspired Shakespeare’s plays and turned the queen’s teeth black.

Queen Elizabeth I of England reached out to Islamic leaders "for hard-nosed political and commercial reasons," says author Jerry Brotton.

From Donald Trump to Brexit supporters, many Westerners view Muslims as a threat and want to close the borders. But 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I made alliances with the Shah of Iran and the Ottoman Sultan. What can Elizabeth I’s relations with the Islamic world teach us?

A lot. They can teach us that there’s a form of pragmatic exchange and toleration and accommodation, which trumps ideology. One of the key stories in the book is the issue of trade and the way trade collides with religions. The reason Queen Elizabeth develops this relationship with the Islamic world is theology initially. She’s establishing a Protestant state and England has become a pariah in Catholic Europe. So she reaches out for alliances with the Islamic world.
What flows from that is an exchange of trade and goods, regardless of sectarian and theological differences. Elizabeth is not reaching out to Sultan Murad III because she’s a nice person and wants religious accord. She is doing it for hard-nosed political and commercial reasons.

Elizabeth’s alliance with Murad III was essential to her self-preservation, yet this story has largely been left out of Tudor history. Why do you think that is?

In the last few years, there’s been a parochial identification of the Tudors, reflected in the way they have featured in recent TV shows, like The Tudors. It has become an index of Englishness, connected to whiteness and Christianity. But it never tells the wider story of what’s going on internationally. I started working on 16th-century maps and what the maps were telling me was that there was an exchange between the Islamic and Christian worlds, which wasn’t being told in the official histories.

Look at Tudor portraits. It’s all Orient pearls, silk from Iran, or cotton from the Ottoman territories. The English language changes, too. Words suddenly enter, like sugar, candy, crimson, turban, and tulip, which have Arabic or Persian roots. They all come in with the trade with the Islamic world.

These paper animations will take you on a journey through the city's history—from the Stone Age to the present day.

Elizabeth did her best to convince Sultan Murad that Protestantism and Islam were two sides of the same coin and that the true heresy was Catholicism. I’m confused …

What she does very shrewdly, when she starts to write to the Sultan in 1579, is say: Look, you and I have many similarities in terms of our theology. We do not believe in idolatry or that you should have intercession, i.e., a saint or a priest will get you closer to God. Protestantism says you should read the Bible and then you will be in direct contact with God. Sunni Islam says the same: You have the Koran, the word of the Prophet, you do not need saints or icons.
Elizabeth is doing this politically. What she’s saying is, you’re fighting Spanish Catholicism; I’m fighting Spanish Catholicism. What nobody mentions, of course, is Christ. [Laughs] Islam believes Jesus is a prophet, but not the son of God. So in all the correspondence, they step around this issue. They always talk about the fact that they both believe in Jesus but not how they believe in Jesus.

The first recorded Muslim woman to enter Britain was called Aura Soltana. She has an amazing story, doesn’t she?

She does. Another extraordinary figure, Anthony Jenkins, one of the earliest Englishmen to establish diplomatic and commercial connections with Persia, is on his way back to England, traveling up the Volga River, in what we now call Greater Russia. In Astrakhan, he buys this woman, Aura Soltana. It’s not clear whether this is a slave name or the name of the place she’s come from, but he takes her back to England.

At around this time, a similar figure is established as a lady-in-waiting in Elizabeth’s court. If it’s the same person—and I believe it is—she becomes a kind of fashion adviser to the queen, telling Elizabeth how to wear certain kinds of shoes or materials. Her exotic background made her exactly the kind of person to whom Elizabeth could say, “Oh, you’ve just come back from Moscow, what are the latest catwalk fashions?”

The subject of this painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger may have been the first Muslim woman known to enter England. (right)

There’s a tantalizing painting of an anonymous woman by Marcus Gheeraerts, called The Persian Lady, which some people speculate is of this woman. She’s dressed in a very opulent, oriental fashion. It could be our lady Aura Soltana, a slave who ends up in Elizabeth’s bedroom, dressing her. It’s an amazing story.

Among other goods, English merchants imported over 250 tons of Moroccan sugar into London every year. Is it true Elizabeth’s love of sugar turned her teeth black?

Yes! [Laughs] We have accounts by European travelers, who describe Elizabeth as a small woman with blackened teeth from eating so many sweet meats and candies. The predominant importation of sugar at that time was from what we would now call Morocco, as a result of Elizabeth’s Anglo-Islamic alliance with the Saadian Dynasties. It’s quite ironic. The Moroccans are fighting the Spanish while Moroccan sugar is destroying Elizabeth’s teeth, and English armaments are helping the Moroccans kill other Christians. [Laughs] Elizabeth liked anything sweet. Candied fruit was a big thing. Everything is just steeped in sugar!

Today, ISIS forcibly converts non-believers. Elizabethan merchant Samson Rowlie experienced a similar fate, didn’t he?

He did. The issue of conversion with somebody like him is fascinating. He’s a merchant from Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, who travels on an English commercial venture in 1577 to the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish pirates capture him. He is castrated, turned into a eunuch, and taken to Algiers. He converts, takes the name Hasan Agar, and becomes the chief eunuch and treasurer of the head of the Ottoman controlled city of Algiers! The English write to him about ten years later, about issues of trade. They say, “We believe you are probably still a Protestant. Would you like to come back?” Rowlie replies, “No way! I have a palace in Algeria. It’s nice weather here. Why would I want to go back to Great Yarmouth?” [Laughs]

You have many similar stories of people converting to Islam or, in the language of the time, “turning Turk.” It’s relevant to the current situation in the Middle East because, invariably, it’s Christians and Protestants who are embracing Islam, not the other way around. There are accounts of people who willingly embrace Islam because, in contrast to the way in which we see that culture today, the Muslim world is seen as tolerant and embracing difference.

Murad III, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, wrote letters to Elizabeth that were dusted in gold. (right)
Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd, Alamy
You write that, “London’s playhouses were in the grip of a fascination for staging scenes and characters from Islamic history.” How was this reflected in Shakespeare’s plays?

Shakespeare is fascinated by Moors, particularly. He’s also using the language of Turks and Persians throughout his plays. One of the earliest plays he writes, which we usually date around 1592, is Titus Andronicus. The main agent of evil, the baddie, in that play is called Aaron. He is described as a blackamore, which means he’s from northwest Africa, from the Barbary States. He causes all the chaos: bloody rape, pillage, mutilation, absolutely awful! People say, “Oh, that’s the predominant view of the Muslim in this period.”

Four or five years later, Shakespeare writes The Merchant of Venice. Another Moor pops up there called the Prince of Morocco. He’s a rather benign, elegant figure who’s a suitor to Portia, the heroine of the play. So Shakespeare is playing with different versions of these Muslim, Moorish characters. You get the evil Aaron and the rather noble Prince of Morocco.

Around 1601 Shakespeare then writes Othello, which draws on both versions. He is the irrational, violent, racist figure of the black man. He’s also this very elegant, powerful military commander: The Moor of Venice. Shakespeare is not moralizing. He’s drawing on this history of Anglo-Islamic relations to say, who is this man? Do we trust him? He might save us but he might also kill us all in our beds.

Post 9/11, it is one of the most frequently performed tragedies because of the complexity of its relationship with religion and ethnicity, which we are now seeing in North Africa and the Middle East. It’s become about much more than simply a black man destroyed by a white man.

Prince Charles laughs with Muslim students in Bradford, the city in northern England where author Jerry Brotton grew up. (right)
Photograph by Phil Noble, Reuters

You grew up in one of England’s most multicultural cities, Bradford, in Yorkshire. Talk about your early life—and how it inspired your interest in this subject.

For me it is profoundly personal because I am not from an elite background. My father was a deep-sea fisherman; my mum was a barmaid. I went to a state school just outside Bradford, where I was born. There was a multiculturalism we embraced, which was my version of Englishness. I played cricket with Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims; we were in the same religious studies classes. Post 9/11 and 7/7, when London was attacked, it was a real shock for me. What had gone wrong? Growing up at that point, those issues of sectarian differences were never in play.

What was the biggest surprise for you in researching this story, Jerry?

Following characters traveling through a world that is now in meltdown. They’re moving through places currently under control of the so-called Islamic state. What they’re doing at that point is encountering an Islamic world that is powerful, sophisticated, and superior to the culture that produced them: Protestant English culture. There’s an attempt to understand and accommodate, and to get on with each other.

That was the real shock and surprise for me, in a good way. There are Elizabethan Englishmen talking about the distinction between Sunni and Shia in the 1560s, when many people today don’t understand the distinction. So, hopefully the book is one little attempt to offer another kind of story of toleration and accommodation.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

‘The Art of the Qur’an,’ a Rare Peek at Islam’s Holy Text

Visitors studying a folio from a large Quran dating to about 1400 in the exhibition “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here, is the first major United States display of handwritten copies of Islam’s holy text. It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.

Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.

A binding of a Quran made from wood and leather dating to the ninth century. It was transferred from the Great Mosque in Damascus to Topkapi Palace in 1911, and to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in 1913. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.

The word Quran (or Koran) is derived from an Arabic verb for speaking from memory or reading aloud. And the book originated with the sound of a voice heard by a man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah near Mecca, the city in what is now Saudi Arabia. A trader by profession, he was in the habit of spending periods of reflection in a cave outside of town. On one visit, in A.D. 610, when he was 40, he heard a command, seemingly coming from nowhere, in Arabic:
Recite! In the name of thy Lord,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man what he knew not.
Fearing for his sanity, he fled the cave. But he returned, and the voice, which belonged to the Angel Gabriel, spoke again, bringing a message from God. The message named Muhammad prophet of a new monotheistic religion and explained its tenets and beliefs to him. He began to share what he’d heard, but encountered violent resistance, and had to move to another city, Medina. The voice followed him there and would continue to speak until Muhammad’s death in 632.

By that point, the new religion, called Islam — “submission, surrender” — had found its footing and attracted followers, though the words Muhammad heard had been only partly written down. With the prophet himself gone, and his closest companions aging, there was fear that the revelations would be lost. So a great effort of copying, collecting and collating began, and by the end of the seventh century, the Quran acquired something like a final shape.

A museum visitor studying one of the holy books at the exhibition. Over the centuries, the Quran became increasingly treated as an aesthetic object and a ritual instrument. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

A curious shape it is. About the length of the New Testament, the book has 114 chapters, or suras, all but one beginning with the same invocation: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Some chapters run several pages; others are just a few lines. Many of the shortest are urgent and rousing: They seem to record what Muhammad heard in those first hair-raising sessions in the cave. Yet they tend to come toward the back of the book, while longer, later passages — about communal practicalities and social justice — are placed up front.

There are many theories addressing this ordering, but no final explanation. The Quran, like all foundational religious texts, is a tangle of ambiguities and mysteries, to which endless annotations can be, and are being, written.

And the pen, along with the voice, became the book’s primary medium. The physical act of copying the text was thought to bring blessings — baraka — to the writer, though the earliest example in the show looks like a quick-and-dirty job. Dating from the late seventh or early eighth century, and found in the archives of the Great Mosque in Damascus, it’s a time-stained parchment folio covered almost edge to edge with Quranic passages. Written in an informal script, with chapter divisions barely acknowledged, it looks more like a personal letter than like a religious text.

The first of a two-part volume of the Quran, dating to 1028. This volume was copied by al-Husayn ibn Abdallah, most likely in Cairo. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Over time, though, highly refined penmanship styles, visual equivalents to the cadences of the spoken word, were designed specifically for the Quran, and masters of those styles were revered as cultural stars. So wide was the fame of the 11th-century Baghdad artist Ibn al-Bawwab (“son of the doorman”) that his signature was routinely forged, as is the case with a Quran in the show that bears his name but was copied by someone else.

One of his 13th-century Baghdad successors, Yaqut al-Mustasimi, was comparably celebrated. When a Mongol army laid waste to the city in 1258, his life was spared so that he could work for the new rulers, which he did for years. Although very few genuine examples of his work are now known, the show has one.

Largely because of its Quranic association, calligraphy came to be regarded as the greatest of Islamic art forms, sacred or secular. Spilling out of books onto wall tiles, ceramic vessels, glass lamps, textiles, mosque domes and building facades, it was both a sensual and ideological unifier, totalizingly utopian in the way that Mondrian’s environmental Modernism would be.

A volume from before 750, in ink and color on parchment. The binding is wood and leather. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Yet calligraphy was not the only elaborating gloss applied to the Quran. After the introduction of paper from China in the eighth century, copying the text on parchment — animal skin — fell into disfavor, and all kinds of experimentation came into play.

Multivolume Qurans — 30 volumes was a typical number, corresponding to the days of Ramadan — became more common as paper made them easier to produce, and compact one-volume versions gained in popularity. Size increased. The show has two pages from one of the largest Qurans on record. Probably made for the Mongol emperor Timur around 1400, they’re the equivalent of six-foot-high billboard advertisements for institutional power: the power of rulers, patrons, artists, religion, the Quran itself.

Over the centuries, the holy book became increasingly treated as an aesthetic object and a ritual instrument. Symbols were introduced to orchestrate the all-important recitation of its contents: indicators of where to pause, where to place emphasis, how to pronounce words. These signs, exquisitely painted, wreathed the text in networks of florets, medallions and arabesques, done in lapis-lazuli blue or light-catching gold.

A single volume of the Quran, dating to around 1580. This volume was copied by Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Shiraz, Iran. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Material preciousness became an end in itself, turning Qurans into prestige objects and political currency, valued as diplomatic gifts, as war booty and as pious, grace-earning donations to mosques and mausoleums. Many Qurans in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts’ collection were transferred there from royal tombs at the turn of the 20th century, when Europe was plundering Turkey for art.

The impression of the Washington exhibition is of splendor, not just from book to book and page to page, but within individual pages, with their nested divisions, their lustrous ornaments and their sprouting, rolling, singing Arabic phrases, which form the ethical heart of a faith and a culture. In a short video at the start of the show, we learn how these elements work together: A male voice intones one of the suras; simultaneously, an animated version of the Arabic text appears, spelled out in gold, on the screen, with an English translation below.

Once inside the show, though, we don’t have the voice, and we only occasionally have translations. What we have are the written words, which, for those of us who don’t read Arabic, we must accept as examples of text-as-design. Is that enough?

Visitors at the exhibition, which displays more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The day I was at the museum, there were just a few late-day visitors, and of those, several were women wearing hijabs. I watched them as they looked intently at the manuscripts arrayed around us, and I knew they were seeing things I couldn’t see, and feeling things I couldn’t feel, because they could read the words.

I was aware — and this is an easy perception — of the larger barriers of unknowing that stand between art and understanding, and of the barriers that stand between cultures, barriers that have, among other things, led our United States president-elect to propose banning entry to this country for women like these, who cover their heads and read a book that most of us don’t, and can’t.
Soon that president-elect will take up residence mere blocks from the Sackler. This show will still be on then. Will he see it? We can hope. But whether or not he does, some of us did, and stayed a long time, looking at, and lingering over, miraculously beautiful things and sharing, in different but not so different ways, the blessing that beauty brings.

“The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” continues through Feb. 20 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington; 202-633-4880,