By Talat Ahmed
16 November 2006
'The history of the development
of Islamic civilisation is one of adaption and intermingling. It is
one of both influencing the non-Islamic world and being influenced by
it.' Tariq Ali challenges the myth that Islam is incompatible with the
West in his four novels about the Muslim world and Europe. He discussed
them with Talat Ahmed.
Since Jack Straw made his
comments on the veil, politicians have been falling over themselves
to demonise Muslims in Britain. Now university lecturers are expected
to spy on "Asian-looking" students in order to spot potential
terrorists, while parents are warned to be on the look out for "fundamentalist"
tendencies among their children. Britain seems to be in the grip of
an anti-Muslim hysteria that has been gathering pace for some time.
Tariq Ali's four novels on Islam and its relationship to Europe provide
not only welcome relief but also an antidote.
"The politicians and
media have created a dominant image of Islam that is one of bearded
terrorists," says Tariq. "Almost everywhere these days you
can read nutty right wing novelists like Martin Amis talking about Islam
as an 'evil religion'. To fight against that is an uphill struggle."
The attacks on Muslims perpetuate
the myth that Islamic culture is backward and its politics despotic.
This view is even shared by many liberals, and some on the left, who
use the language of "Islamic fascism" and see Islam as a religion
characterised by intolerance. For them, it is a creed that must reform
or perish. Among those from a Muslim background there are two main responses
- either an attempt to deny their Islamic heritage in an ever more desperate
attempt to avoid racial stereotyping and abuse, or a closer identification
with some aspect of Islamic culture. Both responses tend to perpetuate
a version of Islam that is uniform, set within definite parameters and
closed to any alternative forms of interpretation.
Tariq's novels lay down a
challenge to these notions. The first four novels from the Islam quintet
are set in Europe and cover Islamic civilisations in different periods
of European history. As you read Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The
Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman and A Sultan in Palermo the most striking
feature is a world of plurality, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and the
quest for knowledge.
When I asked Tariq why he
decided to write novels based on the contact between Christianity and
the Islamic civilisation in Europe, his response was telling. "In
1991 during the first Gulf War, I heard some professor on TV say something
that is now so common that nobody talks about it. He said, 'The Arabs
are a people without political culture.' This really angered me as I
knew instinctively that this was not true.
Secondly, it raised in my
own mind the question as to why, of all the three big universal religions
- Christianity, Judaism and Islam - only Islam had not had anything
which we could say is the equivalent of the Reformation that broke the
power of the Catholic hierarchy that dominated Europe until the 16th
century. It is well known that I am not a religious person, I grew up
and remain an atheist, but this question revived my interest in Islamic
culture and Islamic history. I wanted an answer to this question and
I thought the answer lay in Europe and not in the Arab world."
Tariq's quest took him to
Spain, to the great Islamic monuments of the Alhambra in Granada, and
the palaces and forts of Muslim kings in Seville and Cordoba. He went
to Sicily to see the city of Palermo, which used to be described by
travellers as the city of a hundred mosques, but today has none. "Then
I began to read and to think," he says. "I thought that the
best way to recover that lost world was to depict its last years, its
decline and fall. I could have just written an essay but I felt after
seeing those monuments, that I wanted to bring back the people who had
lived around there. At that time the story of Islam in southern Europe
was not very well known. In school history books it appears as just
a paragraph - the Muslims came to Spain; the Catholics threw them out.
"Shadows of the Pomegranate
Tree is set in Moorish Spain in the period after the city of Granada
was 'reconquered' from Muslim control - a time of Catholic restoration,
when Jews and Muslims were expelled from the country," Tariq explains.
The story begins with the infamous "bonfire of the books"
in Granada, when, under the orders of Archbishop Ximenes de Cisneros,
whole collections of books on mathematics, science, astronomy, philosophy,
medicine, and handcrafted copies of the Koran were burnt. The novel
manages to symbolise both the unique contribution of Arab culture and
learning to Europe as well as the destruction of that learning at the
hands of "civilised" Christendom. "The book has been
well received in Spain, not only by literary agents and publishers,
but also by migrant Arab workers who thanked me for telling the story,"
The second novel, The Book
of Saladin, is situated in the reign of the Kurdish leader Saladin at
the end of the 12th century. Saladin was the sultan of Egypt and Syria
who succeeded in uniting the Arabs against the marauding Christian Crusades.
The story of Saladin is narrated by his court - appointed scribe, Ibn
Yacub, who is Jewish. "The decision to make the chronicler a Jewish
character was significant as it raised a few eyebrows when it was published
in the Arab world," remembers Tariq.
But his reasoning is simple.
"The Jewish narrator reflects the history of that time," he
says. "There were large numbers of Jews in all the Arab courts
and according to one study 70 percent of Saladin's advisers were Jewish.
His own personal physician was a Jew. One reason for reviving this history
is to show that there wasn't any basic hostility between Islam and Judaism
at that time. The hostility only started in the 19th century with the
influx of Jewish settlers into Palestine." Tariq points out that
when Saladin took Jerusalem from the crusaders, he issued a proclamation
stipulating that the city had to remain open to people of all faiths,
and state subsidies were provided to rebuild synagogues. The Book of
Saladin is the only novel by Tariq that has been translated into Hebrew
and published in Israel.
"Both Shadows of the
Pomegranate Tree and The Book of Saladin depict a society that was characterised
by cultural diversity, an intermingling of religious and cultural practices
that were torn asunder by the impact of an intolerant western creed,"
explains Tariq. "This does not mean that these societies were tension
free or harmonious. In both the Arab world and Islamic Spain there were
clashes between different social groups, but they were not on the systematic
scale that some commentators believe."
Tariq's third novel, The
Stone Woman, is set at the end of the 19th century during the twilight
of the Ottoman Empire. This shifts the focus to a very different era
- one of decay and decadence, one of corrupt officials and courts. The
family of Iskandar Pasha are holidaying on the Mediterranean island
of Marmara, and here loves, petty intrigues and personal jealousies
are set against the backdrop of the political and social indifference
of the ruling dynasty. "My novel is set in one location and from
here you see the degeneration of this old ruling class Ottoman family.
In many ways it mirrors the disintegration of their empire," says
The reconquering of Spain
by the Catholic church forced thousands of Muslims to convert to Christianity,
and those who attempted to revert to Islam were threatened with death.
A popular sentiment among Muslims in Spain was that the navies of the
Ottoman Empire would come to their rescue, but no fleet ever set sail.
Tariq has no difficulty explaining why the longest lasting and largest
Muslim empire the world had seen did not seek to assist other Islamic
civilisations elsewhere in the world. "The Ottoman Empire acted
the way all empires do, in its own interests. It was not going to be
generous; it did not have any plans to save world Islam," he says.
The Ottoman Empire also failed
to adequately respond to the development of the new economic system
that would come to dominate the world. "The period of the Ottoman
Empire coincided with the growth of capitalism in western Europe,"
says Tariq, "but the Ottomans were completely sealed off from it."
The demise of the empire can be attributed to the social and economic
structure of the state, which, according to Tariq, "was totally
centralised. None of the regions or cities was allowed the autonomy
necessary for capitalism to grow and function.
"Merchant trade was
highly developed but the transition from merchant trade to capitalism
proper never took place in Ottoman lands because of the ways social,
economic, cultural, political and religious power were concentrated
in the hands of one family." The creation of such highly centralised
state structures resulted in economic priorities being determined by
a very small elite who were not in a position to expand production.
This caused the Ottoman Empire to stagnate and then crumble.
In all four of the novels,
women are portrayed as strong-willed and very determined individuals
who make demands on their men folk and children. It is particularly
true of the fourth book, Sultan of Palermo, which looks at the life
of Muhammad Al-Idrissi in the 12th century. He is the court cartographer
- a geographer and a man of medicine and learning. This is a world of
science, philosophy and rational thought.
The jealousies surrounding
him emanate from the social and political prestige that Al-Idrissi enjoys
as a Muslim in a Christian court where envious Catholic priests, who
are mistrustful of Muslims, fear for their own positions within the
court. Here women play a significant role, directing events through
the men that they control, while pursuing their own interests with a
single minded resilience.
"What has been written
about the periods that my novels are set in indicates that women in
Islamic societies were powerful individuals, even when they were being
prevented from governing the state," says Tariq. "We know
that in both the Abbasassides caliphate in Baghdad, and the Moghul Empire
in India there existed many extremely powerful queens and princesses.
In the Ottoman Empire women often ruled from behind the scenes. So in
the novels I wanted to break this racist myth of Muslim women exclusively
The women of the ruling class
were not just passive victims of the harem, but also active instigators
of sexual encounters. Nevertheless the novels do not present these societies
as enlightened to the point where women are liberated. Tariq is clear
that in all medieval societies, whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic,
women were treated as second class citizens with very few rights.
The Stone Woman takes up
the question of whether Islam is a particularly dogmatic religion by
looking at the question of idolatry. The stone woman of the title refers
to a statue that the Pasha family go to, not to worship but to speak
to as a "silent psychiatrist" that they can confess their
sins to. "You cannot tell the truth to each other as it is too
scandalous," explains Tariq, "so you speak to the statue as
it cannot respond."
He makes the point that Islam,
like Judaism, forbids the worship of graven images, but this is not
the same as forbidding the depiction of the prophet Mohammed. "In
the 13th, 14th and 15th century there were Muslim painters in Herat
in Afghanistan, in Persia and in parts of Turkey who painted the prophet.
So the notion that this is outside the Islamic tradition is absolute
rubbish, which is why I was very angry with the way that some people
responded to the Danish newspaper cartoons that attacked Islam. The
cartoons were racist - and should have been attacked on that basis.
They should not have been attacked on the basis of an Islamic theology
which outlaws depiction of Mohammed. That is nonsense."
"The history of Islam
is a history of breaking with past traditions," insists Tariq,
"including the Christian idolatry of the Madonna, and Jesus as
the son of god. Mohammed realised very early on that Islam had to build
against this whole current," he says. "So Mohammed built it
as something in which you have a complete break with anything that entails
a worship of any graven images, and of course that included the worship
of himself. A central fact of the Islamic religion is that the prophet
emphasised that he was a human being, not a divinity - he was a messenger
of god who had heard god's message. It was not Mohammed's message."
"The history of the
development of Islamic civilisation is one of adaptation and intermingling.
It is one of both influencing the non-Islamic world and being influenced
by it. This is a history that has not only been hidden and denied in
Europe, but one many radical Islamists are ignorant of. Though they
may use the language of liberation and fighting the 'Satan' of imperialism,
on religious questions the Islamists also attempt to present a timeless,
monolithic and homogenised set of doctrinaire beliefs that bear little
resemblance to how the religion developed."
Tariq argues that the early
medieval world of Europe, when Islam dominated much of the Mediterranean,
was the highest point of Islamic cultural development. And without contact
to the Islamic world, Europe could not have developed the way it did.
"Learning came with
Islamic civilisation. This was the civilisation that became a conduit,
a bridge between the ancient world and today's world. In Toledo the
Spanish Muslims set up a school of language that translated all the
main texts from ancient Greek and Latin into Arabic, thus making them
available in Europe. When you read the 12th century Spanish Muslim,
Ibn Rushd, on Aristotle you find that his writings are a great work
of political theory in their own right. No one disputes the fact that
it was Islamic and Arabic learning in mathematics, astronomy and medicine
that developed these disciplines. This should be taught as history in
school - it's a much better way of countering anti-Islamic racism than
Tariq's novels are an enjoyable
history lesson as well as a challenge to the wave of bigotry that surrounds
us at present but, more than that, they are great stories which are
beautifully told. The final novel in the quintet will be set in the
modern world post-9/11. It will take up the question of why it is that
at the dawn of the 21st century religion is still able dominate people's
lives, and why millions of individuals are drawn to it. One theme that
Tariq wants to tackle is the failure of secular nationalism in the Arab
world to offer solutions to problems of poverty, underdevelopment and
Western military and economic power. On the basis of the first four,
we eagerly await this final chapter.
The first four novels in
Tariq's quintet are published by Verso and are available from Bookmarks
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