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I was engaged in an intellectual dialogue with a professor in Paris. During the talk she suddenly realized that I am a Muslim, the entire framework of the dialogue changed for her with the draconian concept of what people know as Islam came smashing in, the face and body language changed. In the next few minutes she looked at me with great suspicion and hurriedly wrapping up the dialogue with me to my astonishment. This experience over the years has helped me in realizing the power of modern media and politics that caused the professor to stereotype my background, as a result feeling unsafe in my company. Stunned by this tacit Islam phobia in the western academic circles, I always enjoy reading text that attends to the challenge of Islam phobia in the west.
The book under review is an excellent addition to the already existing literature on making Islamic thought, if not adorable like it is to Madame Anne Marie Schimmel, at least acceptable. Divided in eleven chapters, the central theme of the book is the contribution of Islamic civilization towards human refinement and growth. The book will suit both students and scholars in their respective fields towards this understanding. A wide range of topics are discussed not only from traditional theological but also from a postmodern perspective by eleven experts in their respective fields.
The first essay is contributed by the editor of the book; it attempts to explore the roots and braches of the Islamic ethical theory. The discussion is expertly placed in the textual interpretation of the Holy Scripture and traditions in the forms of sayings of the Prophet. According to the author, Islamic ethical theory is not merely an abstract theology but a pragmatic attempt to realize an achievable polity and a civilized society, mostly communitarian in nature; its focus is the welfare of the Umma, the Islamic kingdom across nationalities and boundaries. Rich with quotes from the Islamic Holy Scripture, the attempted ethical doctrine is developed out of the theological and philosophical concepts of Taqwa (a sense of Divine presence), Ihsan (sense of kindness), Adl (sense of justice) and lastly a sense of reasoned intuitions. The word Ikhlaq (character) is widely used in the context of the Islamic scripture as the categorical imperative and as a fundamental part of the ethical doctrine. Pillars of faith as application of the mentioned concepts naturally results in order to cultivate such values that include daily prayer (meditation and enlightenment five times a day), fasting (food as source of self-discipline), organized charity called Zakat, a once in life time pilgrimage to Mecca called the Hajj are expected to help individual grow in the right direction. Lastly the author has gone deep into history and individual Philosophers like Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Denial Dafoe borrowing of Hay Bin Yaqzan concepts and the famous names and ideas we all know about Islamic intellectual history.
In the second essay Charles Butterworth discusses Ibn Khaldun's (c. 1332-1406) work Muqadima of political-sociology, Al Farabi close connection with the Platonic ideal state (Medina Fadila), Al Kindi work on the Socratic dialogues, Al Razi book on the life of Philosophers, especially the moral ideals of Socrates, Ibn Sina theory of reason and revelation is thoroughly discussed and Ibn Rushd Tahafat, response of the Philosophers in Aristotelian style criticisms of religious theology. Selected philosophers are discussed in details with shorts biographies and political background. Their sources and originalities along with most major works also cursorily mentioned. This essay can be great help for students of Islamic philosophy, who wish to find a new perspective in Oriental studies.
The third essay on Literature by Eric Ormsby starts with a king's story and attempts to draw a point about popular and publicly acceptable literature's role in ethical education. Bed time animal stories of wolves, foxes, lions according to author are rooted in Vishnu Sharma book of "Good Sense (originally called Tantra)". Poetic expression is also a widespread form of mass education as author discusses the proverbial books of Sheikh Sadi "Gulistan and Bostan" still part of the Taliban education in religious schools wherein saints and kings meet up and diverge. Resisting authority of the kings and emperors is an Islamic tradition among the Sufis and pious. French poet La Fontaine borrowed and used the idea to criticize medieval clergy in his own country thus learning the art of respectful criticism. In the famous book "Kalila and Dimna" it is believed that humans have hidden intellectual energy and can be ignited by a skilled educator with appropriate tools. There is Rousseau-like belief in the innocence and educatibility of humans in the Islamic didactic traditions according to author.
In his essay on Ecology Seyyed Hossein Nasr presents a neo-medievalist concept of deification of nature; to him environment is more of a metaphysical and ethical entity than a hyper-real of being-in-itself, indifferent and cruel to its inhabiting creatures. Natural processes have spiritual energy and there are ethical rules for its harmonious relationship with man. Ibn Arabi the great Sufi of the Muslim Spanish era's doctrine of indivisibility of the whole and his rich Sufi fables are widely quoted in the essay. The concept of killing animal for food in a Halal manner (less cruel) has also been discussed along with mass migration to urban centers, development and the concept of God as Al Muhit (all pervading, literally our environment).
The most interesting part of the book is by Fahmida Suleman on Islamic theory of art, especially the criticism of representational art. Islam has been associated with aniconism or its extreme with iconoclastic thinking of statues smashing (Large Buddha of Bamyan is quoted). In the Islamic world sculptures and pictures of human and animal figures are esthetically disapproved. Only vegetal, floral, geometrical shapes and calligraphy is found on buildings, potteries, garments. As I just finished a tour of China last month where the Leshan Buddha, large size statues in temples and exquisite decoration and animal figures are all over the country; it was a strange experience, in the Muslim world such scenes are not found at all. They can be even offensive to a large segment of the population where I live. According to one tradition of Hadith, it is said that murderers of Prophet, false imam and image or picture maker will be severely punished on the Day of Judgment. However, during the Umayyad, Abbasids, Fatmids and Mongols era arts flourished mostly in architecture and calligraphy. According to another Hadith the Prophet once saw a curtain with image of a winged horse on its surface in his house and asked his wife Aisha to remove it as it distracts him during prayer. Such traditions only discourage the worship of figural art and not its other uses according to author. The wife of the Prophet made a pillow out of the same curtain according to the Hadith.
Zayn Kassam in his essay has made an honest and tradition based attempt to clarify the misnomer of Islamic theology as essentially non-feminist while Abdullah Daar and Al Khitamy has elaborated the medical ethics of Islam beginning from the Oath of Hypocrites and to the great Muslim physicians during medieval age. Rodney Wilson in the eighth essay has given the fundamentals of Islamic economic system within the historical context and bird eye view of present day under development challenges mostly faced by the Muslim countries around the world.
The last three essays are on the subjects of Dispute Resolution by Mohammed Keshvajee, Tolerance by Reza Shah Kazemi and Non-Violence by Ramin Jahanbegloo. All these write-ups are an attempt to clear the image of Islam from all the violent acts perpetuated in its name in the Post 9/11 world. Islam is Salam meaning peace and the resolution of conflicts with positive win-win negotiations. Historically, it brought a message of tolerance to the fighting Arab tribes as a peace making detribalizing ideology. The Holy Scripture is quoted on numerous occasions to make a point by the authors but one wonders whether all these scholarly argumentations are enough to cure Islam phobia in the west, the one propagated by Fox-News? It baffles me more than anything!
© 2011 Samin Kahn
Samin Khan works as Assistant Director Higher Education, Pakistan. This review is dedicated to my son Hamza who is learning to write...