Muslims have a bad press. Jews used to have a bad press, then they got savvy. Hindus? Hindus have a terrible press, among, often, their own co-religionists. The last is what we call primary research. The first two are secondary research. This is only about the first.
In a talk yesterday, the speaker from the Yuval Ron ensemble narrated stories of the high classical period in Spain, produced by the influence of Muslims from the Middle East, when the rest of Europe was in darkness. Andalusia in Southern Spain was introduced to libraries, knowledge, philosophy, music and the arts. The Muslims had reached heights in these fields. In one of the stories he told how a certain musician (Zreyd?) had travelled “to the furthest corner of the world”—that is, as then known, southern Spain. There he had taught and performed music and brought light to Christians and Europeans.
The speaker’s tale was after my heart. It was emancipatory. He gently chided the West for not recognising the parts of its legacy that came from the Middle East. He made the strong point that Christianity had been intolerant and Islam enlightened. He was also a natural story teller who kept the audience enthralled. There was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” asked the Sheikh. It was the spy. Who else would come knocking like that at night? “Your majesty,” said the spy. “You have been tricked.” I want to tell stories like that! To talk slowly, and not be afraid of repetition.
Then there was the q&a. My hand went up. I was genuinely curious. “Why did the great musician, if he had to be banished “to the furthest corner of the world,” chosen to go west and not east? By the 8th and 9th centuries, there was already Islamic culture in northwest India and Arabs coming and going for trade, building mosques and learning and teaching?”
I should have known. When someone tells a good story your defences come down and you want to think, “Ah yes. YES.” Then some detail in it clicks home and you know you have to ask a question. And that reveals that the great storyteller does not know. And while fictionalizing is perfectly fine, he should not presume to lecture an adult audience—maybe even children—on supposedly historical facts.
He went as far as to say that the heights of Islamic civilisation came down when the Muslims were banished from Spain. Oh, there were the Ottomans….he hesitated. …They were pretty advanced in culture….He moved on quickly and reiterated the point that after the fifteenth century, Muslim civilization was in decline. He was emphatic. The storytelling magic was gone and he was pedantic, and now, stubborn.
I asked, “What about the Mughals? It was precisely in the 16th and 17th centuries that Islamic culture was at its peak in another part of the world, South Asia.”
He had apparently never given it a thought. Not to be unkind, but he may have seen some Bollywood movies. I hear they are popular in the Middle East. He smiled charmingly at me, this obviously Indian woman in an Indian garb, asking obviously personal questions about the only part of the world she knew and cared about. “Yes, there was an Indian King who was Muslim I think. He was great, very liberal….tell me who I am talking about…?” I did not answer. He said a few more things. “Akbar,” I said briefly to forestall him saying “Taj Mahal.” “Yes, yes, Akbar Khan! Akbar Khan!”
The day before I had given a mid-term exam to my class with a simple question, “What was the difference between the Turks and Afghans?” Meanwhile, Jalaluddin Akbar sighed and shifted and turned over in his grave as the speaker bounced out a few more Akbar Khan! Akbar Kahn!-s
I really don’t know what lesson to draw from all this. I will follow Irfana’s lead, who is potentially more radical than me. She says that finally, everyone wants to be oriented to the West. Everyone wants, even if they were left out in history, to be finally only accepted back by the West, to be given their rightful place, to be acknowledged and respected again.
They don’t really have an idea of themselves and their place, and certainly not of any solidarity between the different kinds of groups and people left out of history. In the great “Muslim, Jewish and Christian Harmony in the Golden Age of Spain,” as the talk advertised itself, the three parts were not equal. The story was one of poor, underestimated Muslims and how their past should be acknowledged by the great Christians and now Jews of the West.