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Book Review
Past Perfect, Present Tense


Prof. Momin’s latest book describes a 1000 years of brilliant achievements of Islam, leaving a gaping vacuum of the last 400 years to account for itself

Name of the Book: Islam and the promotion of knowledge
by A R Momin
IOS Price not stated /273 pp. h/b

This is one of those feel-good books that restore one’s sense of worth as part of an Ummah which over the centuries contributed handsomely to human civilisation.

Prof. Momin talks of Muslim achievements in arts and letters, crafts and architecture, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, historiography, oceanography, and almost everything else that was worthwhile.

There are quite a few illustrations—colour pictures of pages from Hazrat Osman Ghani’s copy of the holy Quran to al Razi’s Kitabul- Hawari Fit Tib, specimens of calligraphy, pictures of artefacts, interiors of beautiful mosques and specimens of Muslim architecture.

The 273-page book (minus illustrations, bibliography and index, it is less than 200 pages) contains information that is familiar, readily accessible to average readers in standard encyclopaedias, history texts and assorted writings, old and new. The argument is familiar, the standard argument found in much of the Muslim writing on the subject.

The argument goes something like this: even while London, Paris and Rome were dark, without any social life, intellectual, cultural or spiritual activity, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Cordoba were bathed in street light. As wolves howled in London’s dark nights and people cowered in fear and superstition, Muslim cities of the Middle Ages were beehives of fruitful activity, churning out the best in sciences and arts, scaling new heights of moral, intellectual and spiritual attainment.

Not only that, Muslims acted as a bridge between the ancient Greece and Rome on one hand and the Renaissance Europe on the other. They, in a way, acted as the mid-wife for the birth of modernity. The argument is correct, the facts are true. But there is a barely discernible ring of triumphalism in the narrative. And triumphalism has a certain quality of unsustainability about it.

When you look closely at the colour plates, a worrisome, nagging feeling of abruptness makes you squirm with discomfort. Everything begins to taper off by the 17th century. What happened? Was the project of “promotion of knowledge” abandoned by Muslims by the 17th century? What did we do to our search for excellence? The triumphalism gives way to the mourning contemplation of a dear departed friend’s great qualities of heart and mind. The narrative takes on the tenor of an obituary. 

Did all the scholars, men of medicine, art and letters go on a collective sabbatical of four centuries? No authentic, definitive reply is attempted by Prof. Momin. All that he offers is an extremely problematic, highly debatable and cursory “explanation”, which again is the stock Islamist explanation of a far more complex phenomenon than can be articulated in mere 18 pages.

Prof. Momin points to the usual suspects, which by now are the staple of all Muslim scholarship of the Islamist stripe. The reasons (or alibis) for the vanishing act performed by the Muslim project of promotion of knowledge some 400 years ago are, in Prof. Momin’s words: “(a) the failure of the religious elite or ulama (b) the Mongol invasion (c) the Western impact (d) lack of concern and responsibility on the part of the ruling elite (e) endemic sloth and indolence on the part of Muslim masses.”

Sounds familiar? Yes. As I stated earlier, this is the staple of Islamist scholarship on what went wrong, but the malaise is far deeper and insidious. This diagnosis is too simplistic, betraying intellectual laziness. This review may not be the right forum for a critique of what went wrong with the project of promotion of knowledge, but a brief examination of Prof. Momin’s premises can be attempted nonetheless.

To begin with the “failure of the ulama”, it may be said that the much-maligned, extinction-bound species deserves a more charitable treatment. The onus of the monumental failure of a massive civilisational project is too much of a burden for any class to carry, much less the enfeebled ulama.

If you look closely at the situation all over the Muslim world, you will notice that everywhere, without exception, madrasah graduates have been sidelined from positions of authority, be it civil services, army, health services or other senior positions in government. The process began in the 19th century, and was completed by early 20th century. Today, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, or the more Westernised Turkey, Algeria and Pakistan, the situation is the same.

Though there is a very small scientific technological base in Muslim countries, and there is virtually no independent scientific-technological establishment worth the name, ulama by the very nature of their education stand excluded from it. In the final analysis, it was not “the failure of ulama” that led to the collapse of the project of knowledge; this came about in the wake of much larger historical processes. One of these was the reorganisation of knowledge in the West on entirely different lines, with radically different methodologies and epistemology. The Muslims as a whole failed to keep pace and adapt to new realities. They have still to come to terms with it. 

Blaming ulama would not be fair, and a far deeper study is required to really come to terms with a turn in history which has an apt analogy in sudden shift in earth’s temperature and extinction of the lumbering giants called dinosaurs and their myriad cousins. 

The second alibi, the Mongol invasion, is yet another favourite of Islamist writing. This too is problematic, because it presupposes that the invasion depleted Islamic intellectual energies. That is not the case at all—the best and the brightest flourished in Spain after the Mongol invasion of Middle East. The same happened in Iran under the Safavids, in India under the Mughals, in the Middle East, Central Asia, Balkans and Eastern Europe under the Ottomans. All after the invasion.

Not only that, the Mongol invasion is a conundrum like the Lindsay Vernon theory of emotion. In common parlance, the question whether an emotional state (fear, anger, anxiety etc.) comes as a result of a particular physiological, biochemical and electro-magnetic state of the human organism or is the cause of creating that state, is still not completely answered. Analogous to that, many people (including Prof. Momin’s favourite late Ali Mian) believe that the Mongol invasion not only debilitated the Ummah, but was caused by Muslim dissipation, drift and decadence. That means the decadence came not after but before the invasion. That sounds credible because weakness does invite aggression. The dissipation and drift is aptly described by Ali Mian: Once the citizens of Islamic seat of power offered their I’d prayers barely before sunset, instead of soon after sunrise, because they had no time to spare from their frivolities. That was before the invasion.

Paradoxically, the Mongol invasion not only levelled the seat of Islamic power, decimated the best and brightest, and brought a substantial part of the Islamic world to its knees (it had already done that to a part of Europe), but, probably by default, unleashed a powerful regeneration of Islamic culture, political, military, spiritual and cerebral power. Muslim scholars, intellectuals and divines, unhinged from Baghdad and Damascus spread all over the Muslim world, thus reinvigorating Muslim life worldwide. The invasion did not wither the world of Islam, but through cross-pollination revived it. Even the Mongol hordes, who were a terror for Europe, were beaten back and enslaved by a part of Islam, the Egyptians.

In short, this received wisdom on the Mongol invasion needs a sustained study and investigation by academics, rather than a dutiful parroting of a hackneyed line in book after Islamist book.

After the Mongol invasion, the third most important factor for Muslim decline, according to conventional wisdom, is the “impact of the West”. This piece of conventional wisdom, like the proverbial old wive’s tale, has to be taken with some caution. This may not be the right place for a thorough analysis of this well- entrenched hypothesis. The fourth and fifth culprits, in that order, are Muslim elite’s “lack of concern” and “indolence on the part of Muslim masses.”

Finally, according to Prof. Momin, everything and everybody is responsible for what went wrong—from the poor ulama to the despicable elite, to the faceless masses. With a villainous “West” thrown in for effect. So, what kind of a diagnosis is this?

That reminds one of the several million carcinogens (cancer-producing agents) that modern medicine has identified. In effect, everything is carcinogenic—from living to loving, from eating to shitting. There is no running away from carcinogens and carcinogenesis (the growth of cancer). Prof. Momin’s diagnosis, like most other pious Muslims’ diagnosis, is akin to the ever-burgeoning carcinogens.

The fact (it’s an extremely sad fact) is that Muslim scholarship is busy reinventing the wheel, re-narrating the triumphal march of Islam till mid-sixteenth century over and again. This scholarship has disowned the Islam and Muslim experience of the last 400 years as being of no consequence, the way Sanghi historiography has ignored India’s medieval achievements.

The most heart-warming news however, is that over the last 400 years Muslims have kept faith, lived the life of Islam, died as true Muslims, contributed richly to world civilisation, coped well with vicissitudes of history with the dignity that the Prophet (PBUH) would be pleased with on the Day of Judgement and show to Allah as a proof of his sincerity for the mission entrusted to him.

It is not Islam or Muslims who have failed over the last four centuries—it is the Muslim scholarship that has failed to come up with the grand narrative of Islam’s struggle for survival with dignity.

The faith itself has prospered beyond measure, beyond the imagination of friends and foes. While the entire Muslim world was lying prostrate under the boots of Western colonialism in the 19th century, the faith was spreading far and wide, covering much of Africa, even without a conquering army, even as Muslims themselves had been enslaved. The faith has spread with Muslim victory and in Muslim defeat, proving its God’s deen.

G H Jansen wonders at the way Islam conquered hearts—hundreds of millions of them —in South East Asia, without the help of a conquering army. Jansen says this amazing story of a faith’s great march needs a great story-teller to capture its nuancess, its nobility, its beauty, its grand scale. It has to be told not only in historical narratives, but in fictional narratives as well, because sometimes fiction has a way of reaching the heart of the matter, a way historical narratives do not generally have. Jansen, like many others, has been waiting for someone like, say, Tolstoy or Sholokhov, to narrate this epic of Islam’s spectacular march.

The story of Islam’s spread, without military or missionary backing, through Africa even in the days of Western colonialism is yet another wonder that is looking for an appropriate telling. It requires great academic rigour and literary imagination to do justice to the subject. Sadly, Islamist writing turns out to be the least capable of handling the task before it. Prof. Bernard Lewis has come closer to describing Islam’s difficulties vis-a-vis the West in a single article, "The West and the Middle East" (Foreign Affairs, Jan-Feb 1997) than some Muslim writers have done in half a dozen books.

That reminds one of Prof. Albert Hourani’s remark (among his students was GH Jansen and among his admirers Philip Hitti) that over the last 100 years, much of Muslim writing has not been carried out on the "current level of discourse". As if to vindicate Hourani by default, Prof. Momin begins the introduction to this book with descriptions from entomology (he talks about behaviour of honey bees), psychology (human brain areas like reticular formation, thalamus, hypothalamus, frontal lobe, brain stem etc.) and from other bio-sciences (like a single cell organism being coded with information greater in volume than the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica). That somehow does not easily gell with the larger discourse. He suddenly takes a U-turn and begins to attack Cartesian epistemology, the very basis of research from which this impressive body of scientific knowledge comes. This stance is not only problematic but morally untenable.

To sum up, it could be a useful book for graduate students and common readers, but more mature people, with access to a large body of writing on the subject, may not find it worthwhile.

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