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Islam's missing artists
Was the Golden age of Islam a reality or a myth?


January 9, 2006

Paris -- As Baghdad burnt, her libraries were ransacked and her books flung into the river Tigris so that a passage had been made through that thick deep torrent. The ink of scholars and the blood of martyrs stained the river.Baghdad was the first among equals; the fabled Islamic cities of lore, during the fabled golden age. Over the centuries, she had held at bay the encroaching Arabian Desert and instead transformed into an oasis of knowledge, tolerance and peace where generations of scholars flocked to her centers of learning.

Baghdad's vicious destruction didn't transpire in the last, rather recent, invasion but some seven hundred fifty years ago when the Mongol horde finally succeeded in the capture of the capital of Islam.

History is a little blurred on how Hulagu, the leader of the Mongols, dispatched the Caliph of Islam, the universally acknowledged leader of the Ummah. A story passed down that Hulagu toyed with the Caliph for a while, dining with him and discussing theology and pretending merely to be his guest. Another narrates that the Caliph was locked in his treasury and was brought gold rather than food. When the Caliph protested that he could not eat gold, Hulagu asked why he hadn't spent his treasury on providing for his army and defense to which the Caliph cried "That was the will of God".

In response Hulagu replied, "What will happen to you is the will of God, also," leaving him among the treasure to starve. The last history states that Hulagu, fearful of spilling the sacred blood, wrapped the Caliph in carpets and had horses gallop on him. Unlike Karbala, where Yazid mercilessly sprinkled the bluest of bloods, that of the grandson of the Prophet, on the desert plains, at least the Mongols were polite enough not to let the pedigreed blood from the lineage of Banu Abbas to be spilled. They made sure to avoid the possible wrath of God as their counsels advised that holiest of the blood be soaked in the thick silk forms of the Caliphs flamboyant carpets.

The traumatic scar of the deeds perpetuated towards the capital and the sovereign of Islam persists to such an extent that in a book on Arab cultural identity, published in the 1950s, a Syrian government official is quoted as saying that had the Mongols not destroyed the libraries of Baghdad, Arab science would have produced the atom bomb long before the West. The Golden Age of Baghdad, Cordoba and Islam's cities is widely considered to have been wiped clean by the Mongol devastation and Spanish Reconquista. The catastrophic devastation and the foreign horde conveniently provide history with a date to mark the end of the flowering of the Islamic Renaissance. But what if there is more to the tragedy of the end than merely foreign invasion, what if the answers are deeper within the Islamic world? Sapere aude, dare to know, defined the Enlightenment with an inspiring vision and compelling argument that truth alone can set us free.

Pluralism of ideas and the prosperity of any land are intertwined. Freedom of minds and skill of intellect to 'think the unthinkable' is how humanity progressed; when minds are incarcerated, nothing endures. Renaissance within all three monolithic religions was built around norms of a free mind; renaissance was about literature, architecture, arts and chiseling of marble to exquisite forms. David could only have been created by a "free" Michelangelo's labour of love; an enslaved mind cannot be an artist nor a creator. An enslaved man can be a revolutionary and many an enslaved peoples have helped changed the world, but their minds were free; they accepted death instead of compromise with totalitarian or dogmatic despotism.

From the earliest days, the Umayyads wanted to be seen as intellectual rivals to the Abbasids, and for Córdoba to have libraries and educational institutions to rival Baghdad. Although there was clear rivalry between the two powers, freedom to travel between the two Caliphates was allowed, which helped spread new ideas and innovations over time. The historian Said Al-Andalusi wrote that the Caliph Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Rahman had collected libraries of books and patroned men to study medicine and "ancient sciences".

Later Al-Mustansir (Al-Hakam II) vastly improved this by importing philosophical volumes as well as varying series of books on diverse subjects, including medicine and music from the East to his new university and libraries in Córdoba. Under his reign, Córdoba had become one of the world's most important cities for medicine and philosophical debate. One of the most significant contributions made in Al-Andalus was to the advancement of theological philosophy. To see knowledge without ownership of any creed and expand knowledge to new frontiers was the creed of this Islamic Golden Age; something that has sadly been lost.

The Golden Age of Islam shared much of the ideals and values, and this shared inheritance is typified by the great Islamic philosopher, Ibn 'Arabi. He was a Muslim at a time when the southern half of Spain had been deeply 'arabised' and islamicised by over 5 centuries of Muslim rule. Here in 'al-Andalus' the three creeds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam flourished and Arabic was their common tongue; this lavish and elegant world has left us powerful reminders in monuments such as Alhambra in Granada, and the Great Mosque at Cordoba.

Ibn 'Arabi was part of a global and tolerant Muslim society that had learnt to accept and build on the contribution of other races and religions. The great classics of Greek literature, particularly Aristotle and Plato, were translated (first into Arabic and then Latin) and studied alongside the great Prophets of the Abrahamic relgions. In this glorious milieu, Ibn 'Arabi carefully crafted his beliefs in the primordial nature of love and considered Prophets and saints powerful explainers of this sublime essence.

Mohiyoddin Ibn 'Arabi, founder of the School of the Oneness of Being, was chased out of Cairo for writing love poems to a fourteen-year-old girl. For example, while living in Egypt he published his Interpreter of Desires, a book of poems celebrating his love for a young girl he met while circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. The clergy smelled blasphemy; lbn 'Arabi hurriedly isolated himself to Syria where he further outraged the clergy by writing the Interpreter of the Interpreter, in which he defends his erotic-mystical ambiguities with dazzling scholasticism - when Love is declared the equivalent or perhaps superior of religion; and the human beloved becomes a Witness (shahed). I

bn Arabi's gift to the world was his tremendous love for tolerance, in its various forms. He was born and contributed to a society that was thoroughly cosmopolitan and tolerant; Muslim Spain was great because it was tolerant and provided the fertile ground for such greats as Ibn Arabi to emerge from. The resurgence of knowledge and its 'zenith' is preceded by tolerance. Its 'nadir' is preceded by intolerance.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt considers Ibn 'Arabi as a heretic and they inspired a law banning publication of his Meccan Revelations. Ibn 'Arabi sexual code is ranked heresy by Imam Ibn Taymiyya, who complained, `They kiss a slave boy and claim to have seen God!'. Poets like Fakhroddin Iraqi, Awhadoddin Kermani and Abdul Rahman Jami, who received from Ibn 'Arabi a language of dialogue with which to develop their understanding of an intricate subject already central to their very being: eros, desire, and the frontier between erotic and mystical consciousness, are now alien to Islamic culture.

During the Golden Age, there was a particularly strong tradition of rationalists, the Mutazilites. They stressed a human being's inherent free will countering the predestinarians, who taught that everything was foreordained. The Mutazilites carefully cultivated an 'enlightened moderation' and allowed for the growth of knowledge and, in their active promulgation and acceptance of Science as a part of the religion doctrine, they brought to the Islamic world her Golden Age. This guidance was advanced by renowned thinkers such as Avicenna, Al-Raazi, Al Ma'ari and Omar Khayyam; each of whom would later be remembered for the striking global contribution to the field of art, science and logic.

The decline set in when the puritan Al-Ghazali began to undermine this rationalistic tradition and instead push for dogma over thought, obedience over free will and the primacy of doctrine. It was the beginning of the end as Al-Ghazali strove to put a stop to the tradition that had cultivated the greatest of Islamic thinkers and instead stifle the unbridled creativity of the Islamic world.

Thus the civilization of Islam began to falter as 'Destiny' persevered over reason and logic and lenient ecclesiastical and priestly control once again tightened over the free Muslim people. With the will of Allah sufficing to explain everything, risk no longer mattered and Muslim commerce began to dramatically suffer. The banking and finance capitals that could have emerged in the coastal cities and regions of Alexandria, the Yemen and Sumatra, as rivals to Europe, were stemmed in their infancy. Muslims who could not take out insurance on fate, where risk aborted an infant financial industry that could have provided commercial support to trade and sea-faring voyages were instead confined to the Meditteranean, a Muslim lake, instaed of venturing out like Christopher Columbus.

Any belief that employs "guardians of truth'' on shaping the landscape of intellect will implode. It is said that 'Crutches of faith are introduced when reason sink exhausted.' It is a paradox that when the curtain of dogma was descending within the Islamic lands, killing free thinking, it was slowly and steadily rising in Italy and northern Europe. The Islamic world was being eclipsed because of the internal philosophical challenges of orthodoxy and dogma was gaining.

The creativity and vitality of the golden cities were being sapped as uniformity stifled intellect so that by the time the overwhelming advances of the Mongols and the Inquisition happened, the intellectual defenses had already deserted Islam.

When the Spanish began to reconquer their peninsula from centuries of Muslim rule, the Islamic kingdoms of Cordoba had descended to a few petty Islamic sultanates. In the great expulsion following the Reconquista, the Camelot of Islam, and of Judaism and Christianity, was carefully ripped asunder; intellectually and physically bankrupted. To this day one of the two great traditions of Judaism still remembers Cordoba with the nostalgia and longing that persisted over the centuries for it was during the Jewish golden age of Spain (under Muslim rule) that their greatest philosopher, Maimonides, composed his acclaimed commentaries. In Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic world, the Mongol capture was the culmination of a century of moral and intellectual decay. The Mongol may have plunged the sword into the world of Islam but it was the Muslim rulers themselves, in their denial of their earlier vaunted traditions, who vanquished their armor.

The Islamic world is capable of sublime creativity, truth and reason, as its own history evidences. However, as always, Muslims have to take charge of their destiny and pierce through the recrimination to find the key to their civilization's renewal. Truth, tolerance, responsibility and the primordial nature of love once again have to be the founding values of the Muslim world for a renaissance to once again come about.

Al Farabi wrote Kitab al Musiqa patronising music; later, orthodox schools thought music as the destroyer of soul, a sidetracker of faith and disbanded it, making soul meaningless; devouring a Muslim soul of its very soul. Contentment was considered wicked; one could only be joyful in heavens! The choices became too narrowed; for heavenly pleasure the worldly pleasures became empty, life came to rust, stagnation became part of the mind set. The decay, once it sets in, takes innovation out of societies. It is the madness and rush for invention that creates societies to flourish.

Society is the name of living in totality with all facets of human life that include erotica, music, art and culture. It is either all together that a free mind progresses within, or it is a devastatingly destructive intellectual black hole a society gets sucked in. Guardians of truth are always able to destroy efforts of enlightenment in the name of sanctity of the holy message and legislation of morality. The choices are free and clear - either adapt to the heavenly bliss and wait for life after death, or assume present life to new more acceptable and tolerable ways; one needs to achieve a minuscule part of the heavenly deal here in this world. The day Muslims started postponing everything for 'life after death,' the progress and enlightenment scurried past them.

The hyper-orthodox may today need to closely look at the message of Shaykh al-Akbar Mohiyoddin Ibn 'Arabi. They consider him somewhat dangerous and chancy, but his message of love will undoubtedly shape the foundation of an innovative and charitable version of thinking in the forthcoming Islamic societies.The future belongs to the great Ibn 'Arabi and heretics like him; they were well ahead of their times, but today the time of orthodoxy is dead, and in this new day and age, their message of love and hope is the only hope. No 'Golden Age' is possible without free minds and no renaissance shall ever materialise without the daVincis and Bachs. Let us rediscover our Kindis and Ibn Arabis.

O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Kaa'ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.

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