Friday, 24 February 2017

An Inaccurate Assessment

I've no special affinity for Islam. But as a dispassionate student of comparative religions, it surprises me no end when people, especially 'educated' people, sometimes characterise Islam as an uncivilised or "desert" religion. This is an inaccurate assessment. Step back to the year 1000 and imagine yourself travelling across the Mediterranean world from east to west, beginning in Baghdad, and you'll find yourself treated to an array of splendid world-class cities you may never have dreamt existed. Though India and China, along with Central and South America, boasted many of the world's finest cities, virtually the only non-Muslim city in the greater Mediterranean worth a second look at the time was Constantinople. London and Paris were still little more than towns.
 
Baghdad was founded in 762 as the new capital of the Abbasid dynasty. The caliph designed it as a perfect circle with the palace and its mosque at the centre, its surrounding walls reserving places for representatives of virtually every segment of society within Islamdom. Obviously an idealised structure, the original design didn't last long because of rapid expansion. Still, in the mid-eleventh century, Baghdad was an important centre of learning and culture. By 1100, the city boasted some of the premier intellectual institutions in the world.
 
Further to the west was the city of Cairo, founded in 969 by a Sevener Shi'a dynasty called the Fatimids. A century into its history, Cairo was booming, a centre of trade, culture and learning. There in 972 the al-Azhar mosque was founded, the forerunner of what would become one of the world's oldest institutions of higher learning. Portions of the fortified wall of the old Fatimid city of Cairo still stand in testimony to its medieval glory.
 
Moving further west, one finds a number of important urban centers, from Qayrawan in present-day Tunisia, to Fez in Morocco. Founded as a garrison town in 670, Qayrawan grew into one of several important North African centres of learning. Fez originated about a century later and along with Marrakesh (founded 1070), was at or near the centre of several Moroccan Arab and Berber dynasties over the subsequent six centuries.
 
Arguably the most splendid city in Western Europe in the year 1000 was the Andalusian jewel called Cordoba. Founded in early Roman times, it passed from the Romans to the Vandals to the Byzantines and back to the Visigoths. With the Muslim occupation of Cordoba in 711, what had been a minor, lacklustre town began its steady four century rise to prominence. Some of the great monuments of Islamic Cordoba remain a major attraction to travellers today. As the scene of remarkable symbiosis of the three Abrahmic faiths for several hundred years, a "convivencia"  of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, two of Cordoba's most famous citizens were Ibn Rushd (a. k. a. Averroes, d. 1198) and Maimonides (d. 1204). 
 
People must read history before passing a judgment and commenting upon a civilization. But who has time as well as inclination?  
                           
                                          ------  Sumit Paul

   

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