Islamic civilisation: globalisation before its time

The Economist: THE PEOPLE WHO SHAPED ISLAMIC CIVILISATION

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.

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