Annual issue 2018

By | Books | Published 2 weeks ago

Covering, in a little over 500 pages, fourteen centuries (1407 years to be exact) of the history of a religion, of a people, and of empires that spanned from the Atlantic Ocean to China, and from Russia to Africa, seems like an implausible, if not altogether impossible proposition. But Ali Mahmood has done just that. He has compiled a holistic narrative of an extraordinarily rich, maddeningly diverse and hugely achievement-rich era, that saw major strides in science, medicine, architecture and the arts; and alongside, the people that were the heroes of that history, the great and wise leaders, of both war and peace; and then the others, the not-so-great, the infinitely cruel and degenerate men and women who made history of their own for all the wrong reasons.

Muslims is the story of Islam and Muslims: How the faith was born, how it spread, what it accomplished, who the principal personnages were and so on and so forth. That made for a massive assignment. That it was undertaken by a single individual over a five-year period, with information gleaned from a plethora of secondary sources, is an unarguably remarkable feat.

The fast-paced, three-page introduction very succinctly encapsulates the history of the Muslims – and their dilemmas — as Islam spread its net far and wide, overtaking and ending the reign of the two great empires of the time, the Byzantine and the Persian. The introduction can, in fact, be used as a stand-alone window into a fabulous, fractured, and now, much maligned, people and religion. An example: “When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) left Mecca for Medina he had less than a hundred followers. Within a century after his death the Muslims had conquered all the territory from the Atlantic Ocean to China, and the empire of Islam led the world in science, education, medicine, culture, commerce and war. This empire dominated the world for a thousand years.”

The book is divided into 29 chapters, starting with the birth of the Prophet (PBUH) and ending with an overview of the scourge of the Islamic State (IS) and of US policies under Trump that are pushing the world into, perhaps, the worst global crisis in recent times. Though not a scholarly account, Muslims touches on most of the broad strokes. What sets this account of the Muslims apart, and spices up the history, are the anecdotes, the sidelines to history, often not quoted in more scholarly works, but that, nonetheless, played a critical role in the way events played out.

The start of the chapter on Muslims in Spain is fascinating: “The 800 year Muslim rule in Spain began with the rape of a beautiful young girl, reached its height due to the love affair of a queen and met its destruction due to the jealousy of his wife when the King fell in love with a Christian slave girl. True that it was not just the emotions of women that created or destroyed this magnificent era, but they were certainly the spark that lit the fires that in turn led to the birth, height and death of Muslim rule in Spain.” In fact, as Mahmood points out, the conquest of Spain was a fortuitous accident, never planned: “Tariq bin Ziyad, responsible for the conquest, was reprimanded and struck by a whip by his boss, Musa, for having acted without authority or even permission.”

Mahmood starts from the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), goes on to the four Caliphs, the rise (and fall) of the Umayyads; the Abbasids; Muslim rule in Spain, Egypt; Genghis and Tamerlane; the Delhi Sultanate; the Moghuls; the Safavids of Persia; the Ottomans; the birth of modern Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran; the Afghans; the Qajars and the Pahlavis; Jinnah and the creation of a Muslim homeland; the ‘periphery,’ including Indonesia, Muslims in China, Europe and America; the five Central Asian Republics (Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan), and in passing, a reference to Uzbekistan’s main claim to fame under Karimov: one of the world’s leading practitioners of torture today. A tragedy, considering that it is the same land that gave civilisation Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the father of medicine; al Khwarizmi, the father of Algebra; and the famed Ulugh Beg centre of learning, built during the Timurid dynasty in Samarkand in the 15th century, whose observatory was centuries ahead of its time.

As was the Muslim focus on education and learning: “between the 7th — 17th centuries…the world of Islam flourished, while the Dark Ages of Europe kept life nasty, brutish and short…The laws of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) dominated medicine in Europe for 500 years and Ibn Firnas demonstrated flight (he actually flew) at the age of seventy, 600 years before Da Vinci drew his sketches but never risked an attempt to fly.”

Mahmood expands on how Muslim civilisation and its living standards were at a completely different level to Europe, where “the great emperor Charlemagne was learning how to write his name.” Hard to believe in today’s Pakistan, but back in the 8th century the cities of Cairo, Cordoba and Baghdad had   “garbage collectors, public baths and a new type of institution, hospitals – whose doors were open to rich and poor alike, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Under the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and, later, his son Mamun al-Harun, Baghdad emerged as the most splendid city of its period. This period established the “dominance of the Muslims in knowledge, science, education and civilization.” The Bayt al Hikmat – the House of Wisdom set up by Mamun – which embarked on translating works of the Greeks, and others, brought the wisdom of the world as it was then, onto library shelves in Baghdad. Cordoba had its Dar al Hikmat and Cairo had laid the foundation of al-Azhar.

One of the greatest Muslim doctors, al-Razi (whose portrait, along with Ibn Sina’s, hangs in the School of Medicine in the University of Paris) was perhaps the first to realise how behaviour and diet impact on health – and that there was a specific cause for disease; it was not a punishment from God.

The Arabs quickly moved ahead of the Greeks in knowledge. In this they were helped by, again, a fortuitous victory. While the Muslims went as far as Tours in France and then retreated, they were victorious against the Chinese on the eastern front in Talas. It was this victory that led to a revolution in the spread of knowledge. “It was here that the Arabs captured the artisans that produced a new Chinese invention, Paper…within two centuries the superiority of paper over parchment, and Islam’s emphasis on knowledge resulted in libraries of half a million books in the Islamic world at a time when the greatest libraries of Christian Europe had less than a thousand.”

There is much more. As Mahmood points out, the works of the great mathematician al-Khwarizmi, in trigonometry, algebra and mathematics, laid the base for the 21st century of electronics and computers. Incidentally, the term ‘algorithms’ was created from his name, al-Khwarizmi. Omar Khayyam was not just a good poet but a great mathematician; his calculations of the calendar, minus the props, was only off by fractions of a second to that done by the Hubble telescope in the 21st century. The list of accomplishments goes on and on. Nizam ul Mulk, prime minister to the Seljuk Sultans from 1064-1092, left a treatise on governance, the Siyasatnama, that discusses justice, effective rule, and the role of government in Islamic society. It is said to be far superior to Machiavelli’s The Prince. He is also credited with setting up state-of-the-art schools throughout the Seljuk empire. Unfortunately, as with so many other great achievers in the Muslim world – soldiers, scholars, statesmen — he was killed.

Muslims covers a huge span of time and of civilizations and of rifts within the Muslim Ummah itself, starting from the first century A.H. What saves it from becoming just a recital of events is the humanness of the history it narrates – from the sublime to the vilest of acts. I now know where the Game of Thrones got its inspiration from for the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode. Extending an ostensible offer of friendship to the family of the Umayyads (their deadly enemies), in the early days of the Abbasid empire, the first Abbasid ruler, Abbas, invited them to a banquet “of reconciliation.” As 90 Umayyad family members settled down to the feast, most of them were clubbed to death. The hosts then threw carpets over the dead and dying – and the feasting continued “with wine and laughter. The slaughter of the family of the Prophet (PBUH) at Karbala had been avenged.” Only one Umayyad prince, Abd al Rehman, not in attendance (the ‘Designated Survivor’?), escaped the slaughter and after five perilous years found sanctuary in Spain. Impressed by his skills as an accomplished warrior, the Arab elite in Spain offered him their support and he, in turn, went on to found the Umayyad dynasty that ruled Spain for two-and-a half centuries. His grandson, Hakim, in turn, “who enjoyed his wine, women and song,” when faced with opposition in Toledo, repeated, very successfully, the banquet murder formula that had wiped out his ancestors and proceeded to rule, untroubled, for 26 years.

The centuries, the stories of the empires and the leaders meld into one another after a while. And there is a danger of missing the real revolution that Islam brought about: It changed forever the concept of birth as being the only merit for ascendancy. The numerous slave kingdoms under Islam are proof of that. “Islam created a different type of man willing to sacrifice and to struggle for what he believed to be right rather than blindly pursue his own selfish interests.” Men like Saladin, who on the conquest of Jerusalem was reminded by the Christian general of how brutal and barbaric the Christians had been to the Muslims when they took over Jerusalem. Saladin’s response: “I am not of those men. I am Saladin.” A conqueror, he died penniless.

The Muslims gives an account of so many great personages, so many wise and prudent rulers who took Islam and the Muslims to new heights of glory. But, like a stuck record, the pattern was repeated time after time, empire after empire: A great ruler, giving way to those who were degenerate and cruel rulers, who destroyed the good work done before.

While the narrative is informative and interesting, there is a problem for the reader. The centuries/years are not marked and as you read of the throne passing from father to son or to another conqueror, it becomes very confusing. A timeline, of personalities, events and empires, in the appendix at least, would have helped greatly. The author assumes too much prior knowledge on the part of the reader. And even though the bibliography lists nearly 200 books as source material, it would have been more helpful to mention the list of books used as reference, chapter-wise, for those wishing to delve in more detail.

Muslims is beautifully printed (the cover in silk) with a good collection of photographs. It is also available in Kindle. However, in a second reprint, the book would benefit enormously if it were given a detailed edit. Spellings need to be synchronised – either all British or American; missing commas need to be inserted; spellings of names rechecked; and can “publically” be publicly?

But these are minor quibbles. The book is easy to read, densely packed with interesting information on every page. It is a book to have on your bookshelf and to gift. Yes, it is also traumatising to read how ‘we’ lost it all, lost our way, lost our greatness. It seems the greater the Islamic empires became, the more rigid they turned as they tried to control people and ideas. Innovation began to be frowned upon, and surely, but inevitably, came the decline. Commenting on the differences between the world of the Muslims during their phenomenal rise and the Muslims of today, the author theorises that a reason for this could be that “Whereas education, justice and the concern for right and wrong were exceptional in the Islamic world during its rise, they are conspicuous in their absence today.”

The book has funny anecdotes as well. A case in point, which is particularly relevant, given Trump’s latest diatribe: During the 1973-74 oil embargo by the oil producing countries, Henry Kissinger was sent to Saudi Arabia to negotiate with King Faisal. “Faisal insisted that a fundamental condition for him was that Jerusalem becomes an Arab Islamic city. What about The Wailing Wall, Kissinger asked? Another wall, Faisal replied, could be built somewhere else for the Jews to wail against.”

So what now, with the scourge of the Islamic State, the rise of extreme rightwing fanatics worldwide (in all religions and in politics), and President Trump on the warpath against Muslims – and Pakistan in particular? Mahmood has tried to bridge many strands; he talks about the rise of China as an alternative superpower to the US and its implications. He thinks, however, quoting George Santayana that although “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim,” there is still hope. “The coming years may prove to be the most exciting chapter in the long story of the Muslims.” For civilisation’s sake, we truly hope so.