Sunday, January 27, 2019

Hugh Fitzgerald: Ed Husain on the British Museum and “The True Face of Islam” (Part One)

Hugh Fitzgerald: Ed Husain on the British Museum and “The True Face of Islam” (Part One) JAN 27, 2019 10:00 AM BY HUGH FITZGERALD Ed Husain, a self-described former Muslim extremist who now heads the Quilliam Foundation, dedicated to turning Muslims away from Jihadist activities, is ecstatic about the exhibit of artifacts of Islamic civilization at the British Museum that opened last November. In Britain today, Islam in its original essence is not to be found in mosques or Muslim schools, but on the first floor of the British Museum. There, the Albukhary Islamic gallery, newly opened to the public, dazzles visitors and defies every certainty promoted by today’s hardline Muslim activists. This spectacular exhibition of objects from across continents and centuries shows us a history of continuity of civilisations, coexistence of communities. It offers a compelling corrective to current popular notions of Islam as an idea and a civilisation. What “certainties” are those “promoted by today’s hardline Muslim activists”? That it is the duty of Muslims to follow the commandments, found in 109 verses in the Qur’an, to wage violent Jihad? That it is a Muslim’s duty to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Unbelievers? That Muslims should not take Christians and Jews as friends “for they are friends only with each other”? That non-Muslims are “the most vile of created beings”? How do exhibits of Iznik tiles, Persian miniatures, Qur’anic calligraphy, Islamic coinage, illustrations of epic romances, oriental carpets, astrolabes, do anything to undermine those Qur’anic commands to wage Jihad against Infidels, to strike terror in their hearts, to avoid being friends with Christians and Jews, and to despise the “vile” Unbelievers? None of these Qur’anic verses are the least bit softened by that display of astrolabes, carpets, ceramics, and Arabic calligraphy. Too often, we assume that Islam’s arrival on the world stage involved some violent break with the past that brought forth a new Muslim civilisation. The artifacts, coins, pottery, and tiles on display here from the British Museum’s own collection from the 7th century onwards reveal a different and more accurate history. The Prophet Mohammed was born in 570 in a world dominated by the Sassanians and Byzantines. He and his followers broadly followed the art and architecture, empire and power structures, of this pre-existing world. The earliest Islamic coins were copies of the gold and silver drachms used by the Sassanians. Even the name of the Muslim gold coin, the dinar, was derived from the Roman denarius. Did not the earliest Muslims themselves believe that Islam represented a complete break with the past, that pre-Islamic past that Muslims dismissed as the Jahiliyya, or Time of Ignorance? Nothing that came before Islam was of worth. The lightning conquests of the earliest Muslims within the span of a century tore up the political structures of the Middle East and North Africa. The Muslim warriors did not follow the “empire [sic] and power structures” of the pre-Islamic world, but rather smashed those political entities to bits and incorporated the conquered territories into the earliest caliphates. Islam was both a faith and a politics, and in both, it broke with the past. In what way did Muhammad and his followers “broadly follow the art and architecture” of what came before? As for art, the Muslim prohibition on statuary and paintings of living creatures, which were central to both the art of classical antiquity and to Christian art, led to other forms of artistic expression being emphasized in the Islamic lands. These were chiefly Qur’anic calligraphy, ceramics (also with Arabic calligraphy), carpets with elaborate geometric designs, and mosque architecture. There was little connection with the previous art of the pre-Islamic East or of the West. In other words, far from “broadly following” the art of their predecessors, Muslims were prohibited from engaging in the same kind of sculpture and paintings because the depiction of living creatures was forbidden. In mosque architecture, the Muslims did borrow the architectural element known as the squinch, either from Sassanian Persia or from the Byzantines — scholars still argue over which — in building the domes for their mosques, but there are no other obvious architectural borrowings by mosque architects from pre-Islamic buildings. Euclid’s Elements taught Muslims the rules for the monumental mosques they built with their domes and perfect proportions. Gilded flasks from Syria from as late as the mid-1200s show designs with an eagle and dancer, popular motifs in the arts of the Mediterranean at the time. The Prophet’s shirt was ‘Made in Rome.’Medieval Muslim philosophers such as Averroes referred to Aristotle as ‘al-Shaikh al-Yunani’, the Greek sheikh. Islam did not kill the Greco-Roman past, but revived it. That spirit radiates through the British Museum’s exhibition. The use by Muslim artists of an eagle-and-dancer motif found throughout the Mediterranean does not amount to a significant borrowing by them from non-Muslims. Given that both the “dancer” and the “eagle” were living creatures whose images would be forbidden in Islam, it is possible — unless both figures were not real images of either an eagle or a dancer but stylized abstractions — that the “gilded flask” on display was the product of a Christian, not a Muslim, artisan in Syria. The Prophet’s shirt was “Made in Rome” — does that mean Muslims imported their clothes from the Christian West? And if it were true, so what? No one has claimed that there was no trade between the Islamic world and the West. Averroes wrote a lengthy commentary on Aristotle, but that does not amount to “reviving…the Greco-Roman past.” Jewish and Christian translators, in Cordoba and Baghdad, did almost all of the translations of Greek and Latin works into Arabic. Should those translations be considered an achievement of Islam? Were they not, rather, the achievements of non-Muslim translators? It was the Humanists of Europe who revived interest in the civilization of classical antiquity which, in turn, gave rise to the Renaissance. And that revival of European interest in classical antiquity does owe something to the Muslims, but not in the way Ed Husain thinks. The conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Turks — first the Seljuks, and then the Osmanlis — led many Greek scholars to flee to Italy, bringing with them many Greek (and Latin) manuscripts. In this purely negative way, the Muslims contributed to the West’s Revival of Learning, and thus to the Renaissance.

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