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

Coexistence was the hallmark of Muslim civilisations, from China to the Philippines, from Malaysia to Africa and the Middle East. It was not isolated to Muslim Spain. Jewish, Christian and Muslim bread stamps, a practice from Roman times, thrived in Muslim-controlled Egypt.

The gallery has a sample of remarkable stone stamps from between 1000 and 1200. Paintings and tile works, engravings on flasks, works by Sephardi Jews and Armenian Christians, but also perfume carriers from 11th-century Ismailis and 19th-century paintings from Bahais, show the diversity that thrived within Islamic civilisations.

Not coexistence, but brutal conquest, was the “hallmark of Muslim civilisations.” Ed Husain carefully refrains from mentioning the conquest of Hindu India, by far the most significant Muslim conquest beyond the Middle East. It’s understandable. That Muslim subjugation of the Hindus extended over many centuries, and caused the deaths, over several centuries of Mughal rule, of between 70-80 million Hindus, and resulted in the conversion of tens of millions more who, by becoming Muslims, could escape the difficult conditions imposed on dhimmis. That hardly qualifies as “coexistence.” Husain says such “coexistence” was “not isolated in Muslim Spain.” It turns out that modern scholars have definitely put paid to the myth of that famed “convivencia” — coexistence — in Islamic Spain. Ed Husain might take time to read Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Muslims in Spain massacred Christians and Jews. Sometimes those doing the massacring were soldiers, and sometimes they were ordinary Muslims, their rage sparked by some supposed affront to Muslims, causing them to go on a killing spree against Unbelievers. In 807, 700 Christian notables — civilians — were killed by a Muslim army in Toledo. In 1066 in Granada, the Muslims turned on their Jewish neighbors overnight, killing 4,000, or almost all of those living in the city, because the Muslim emir had appointed a Jew, Joseph ibn Naghrela, to be his vizier. A Jew helping an emir to govern Muslims? That was intolerable. No one ordered the Muslims to kill the Jews; they were just doing what came naturally. Jews were also the victims of Christians. In 1391, a Christian mob in Seville killed 4,000 Jews, and in the same year another Christian mob killed 2,000 Jews in Cordoba. These were only the big massacres; there were many other smaller atrocities committed, by Muslims against Jews and Christians, and by Christians against Jews and Muslims. None, apparently, were committed by Jews, who were always on the receiving end. Some convivencia.

Ed Husain’s mention of the inclusion, in the British Museum exhibit of Islamic art, of artworks by Sephardi Jews, Armenian Christians, and Bahais — none of whom were Muslim, and all of whom were persecuted, and even murdered, by Muslims — is at least bizarre. These minorities created as they lived, defying the unfavorable conditions created by their Muslim overlords. Their achievements were attained in spite of, not because of, Muslim rule.

A powerful corrective awaits schools and teachers from across the country who visit the museum. Today’s insular Muslim community leaders may reject science and Darwin, oppose music as a tool of the devil, and cover their women for fear of love and lust. But from the 700s onwards, scientists and thinkers built on pre-Islamic advances in the study of astronomy and other sciences. Astrolabes, the name derived from the Greek astro labos or ‘star-taker’, were the computers of the time. A magnificent 13th-century astrolabe reminds us of the patronage of innovation in science and free thought by medieval Muslim rulers.

It’s not “today’s insular Muslim community leaders” who “reject science and Darwin.” It’s the Islamic clerics, and many ordinary Believers, too, who insist that “evolution” is merely a “theory.” Muslim views on evolution vary, but those who refuse to accept evolution are hardly limited to a handful of “insular community leaders.” For many Muslims, “evolution” contradicts Qur’anic creationism and cannot be accepted. As for “music as a tool of the devil,” it is not “music” in general, not, for example, a cappella singing, but musical instruments that are haram, having been condemned by Mohammed in a hadith that Ed Husain fails to mention. He ought to have explained that the ban on “musical instruments” is not something that arose with “today’s insular Muslim community leaders,” but began 1,400 years ago.

The question of Muslims who “reject science” brings up two matters. First, many Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains all of knowledge, and that the advances of modern science can be located and teased out, by careful study, of the verses in the Qur’an. An absurdity, but tens of millions of Muslims believe that absurdity. Second, Islam itself encourages the habit of mental submission, and discourages the habit of free and skeptical inquiry, so necessary for the advancement of science. There seems to be a fear that once Muslims start exhibiting doubts in other areas, they might begin to question aspects of Islam itself. Two Western historians of science have studied at great length why science continued to evolve in the West but not in the Islamic world. Ed Husain might profitably consult Stanley Jaki and Professor Toby Huff to discover what it was about Islam that discouraged the advancement of science.

In mentioning the astrolabe, Husain obliquely suggests that it was invented by Muslims: “A magnificent 13th-century astrolabe reminds us of the patronage of innovation in science and free thought by medieval Muslim rulers.” But the first astrolabe dates back to Hellenistic civilization, between 220 and 150 B.C., that is at least eight hundred years before Islam even appeared.

Musical instruments from various Muslim civilisations are evidence that music, with its diverse regional styles, was significant in religious and secular settings. Theatre, dance performances, divine remembrance or dhikr using music were all popular in mosques, town squares and at Sufi gatherings. Yet Islamic State, the Taleban, and other hardliners ban music today.

The mere fact that musical instruments from “various Muslim” peoples are on display does not tell us how “significant” instrumental music was “in religious and secular settings” among Muslims. We simply have no way of knowing how often such music was played, or where it was favored, and where deplored. We do know, however, that most church services have a musical component, and that there has never been an equivalent “mosque music” since the beginning of Islam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *