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Theories on medieval Islamic cultures debunked

Dr Muhsin Al Musawi says the period since the fall of Baghdad wasn’t one of decadence, as is commonly thought, but it was a time when knowledge flourished

By Shakir Noori, Special to Weekend Review
13:15 July 8, 2015
muhsin almusawi 1

Think Arabic literature and cultural studies, and Dr Muhsin Al Musawi’s name comes to mind as one of the leading lights in this field. Associated with the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University in New York at present, Dr Al Musawi is also a reputed critic and writer. His new book, “The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction”, refutes the old premise that the period since the fall of Baghdad in 1258 was one of decadence and stagnation.

Weekend Review spoke to Dr Al Musawi about his book and the notions it debunks. Excerpts: 

What is your book about?

The book argues that the large-scale cultural production in Arabic in the post-classical era (12th-18th centuries) wasn’t mere passive yield. It was the outcome of an active sphere of discussion and disputation across the Muslim World. Although explored over a relatively long period and across cultures in Islamic territories, this project focuses on modular, thematic and genealogical constructions of significance to the accumulation of cultural capital of a medieval Islamic “republic of letters”.

The focus is only on human agency, sites and methods of conversation, discussion, compilation and writing of relevance to a communicative sphere. While the conspicuity of Arabic as the language of the Quran entails its prioritisation in the struggle for dominance and the battle to ensure a place for vernacular literature, the project redirects this discussion towards writers, grammarians and lexicographers as active players in a large Islamic cultural pursuit. 

How did the idea for the book come about?

The book is a new theoretical approach to knowledge construction. The idea was in my mind for long. I started researching it when I was in Tunisia in the 1990s, but I began publishing articles about it in 2002, once in a chapter to the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature and then in an article to “The Mamluk Studies Review”, before embarking on the topic in full.

There was so much production between the 12th and 18th centuries which was used by orientalists and their followers among Arab scholars that it could have been seen as an asset, or a diversification of assets.

The abundance in production could not be seen as reproduction: it could have been analysed and classified first to see how this cultural production varied and diversified. It includes dictionaries, compendiums, monographs, commentaries, glosses, interpretations, new criticism, poetry, narrative, philosophy, debates and a significant number of satires and shadow plays.

Dictionaries grew into that period and provided the Arab and Muslim world with basic knowledge of the language of Quran. Despite the fall of Baghdad and the domination of other empires, production in Arabic not only continued but began to appear in Khorassan, Shiraz, Samarqand, Jurjan, Merv and almost everywhere in the Islamic region. In India, prominent writers and poets wrote in Arabic as well as their own languages. Ali Azad Bilgrami (1704-86) wrote in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. He was not only a poet and critic in Arabic, but his knowledge was also versatile. 

Why did you engage the medieval and not the classical? Why the emphasis on Arabic?

There are a number of reasons: the classical, meaning the pre-Islamic and the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, have been the focus of orientalist scholarship. Their followers in Arabic and Islamic cultures have been doing the same for ages.

University as well as secondary school education focus on the classical as the golden period in literature, when Baghdad was the most cosmopolitan city in the known world, as attested to in Abu Al Faraj Al Isfahani’s “Book of Songs” and histories by Ibn Tayfur, Al Khatib Al Baghdadi and others. Baghdad was the metropolis then and attracted notable scholars and poets.

But the political failure of the Abbasid empire did not mean the ultimate decline of culture. Research tells us that the culture industry was larger, spread over Asia and Africa.

New centres emerge, but instead of one, we have many. These in turn appear and disappear as the histories of Samarqand, Jurjan, Shiraz and Merv, or Aleppo and Damascus tell us. When Yaqut Al Hamawi wrote his dictionaries of the nations and biographies of littérateurs, he collected his material in Merv before it was destroyed. He says he used to “pasture” there, enjoying the wealth of its libraries.

That was the time of upheaval, under the Mongol invasions, but that didn’t stop the perpetration of knowledge. If we think of these ages as periods of decadence, it was only because we are taught to collapse the political and the cultural while we know that the two are not necessarily compatible or overlapping. 

Why did Arab and Muslim scholars, since the encounter with Europe, refer to this period as one of decadence?

As I argued in a number of recent articles in the “Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry”, and in my next book titled “Arab Modernists’ Struggle with the Past”, the encounter with Europe, especially after the Napoleonic invasion, led intellectuals to interact with post-medieval European thought — particularly the thought of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

In that age, reason was proclaimed as the highest authority in analysis and inquiry, and whatever that came before was debunked as regressive, dark, menacing or surreptitious.

Goethe treated the European Middle Ages as Dark Ages. Almost every thinker thought so. Arab scholars applied the same yardstick that orientalists did when they read Arab or Islamic history. They also periodised that history into Classical, Medieval and Modern. Hence the use of the phrase “Middle Ages” as “Ages of Darkness” and “Decadence” or “inhitat”. 

How relevant is this topic to the modern Arab or Muslim society?

The book is very relevant to Muslim and Arab societies: it leads them not only to their actual histories, but also puts them in dialogue with themselves as integrated societies and individuals, and not as divided souls. It persuades them neatly and knowledgeably through the networks that were the active dynamics of connection, circulation, and promotion of knowledge.

It shows them how a traveller like Ibn Battuta was able to traverse lands and regions as far as China, and settle in many places, making the land his domain. Knowledge was like that traveller, but it worked according to a number of dynamics and parameters.

The modern Arab and Muslim psyche is torn up, simply because there was a disconnect that shows as one continuous wound over six centuries. The book aims to redeem that gap. 

Do you think the book also speaks to the present and to non-Arab but Islamic societies?

The book deals with knowledge in the Islamic regions throughout the period under consideration. It is not a historical survey but a study of intellectual prisms, networks and culture industry. Its scope is larger than any because it uses these lenses of inquiry to understand how a book makes such an impression and incites responses over a long period and how a poem addressed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) with an apparatus of rhetoric becomes so phenomenal over the same period.

It shows how a book in grammar, theology, philosophy, history and rhetoric can become the focus of attention and discussion all over these lands for long periods. It shows how Arabic continued to be used among scholars in lands where other languages were in use. 

What theories did you apply to justify your controversial argument?

This is not a simple survey or historical account, it is, first of all, a theoretical book that argues the structures of knowledge as epistemic shifts that cannot be discerned unless we are aware of this large production that still speaks to us in this age. In the end, the reader comes across hundreds of names, books, commentaries, dialogues, debates and reflections that make him or her proud of a heritage that invites further analysis. 

How did you conclude the argument in this book?

The argument presented here for a medieval Islamic republic of letters implies an umbrella term that subsumes multiple coexisting and successive communities of literary world systems that existed across Asia and Africa.

Literary and broad cultural networks took as their main venues the haj, other travels, assemblies, projects requiring teamwork, and numerous compendiums and successive commentaries. Taking the Arabic language as the pervasive medium and space for this proliferation in knowledge, my argument gathers these outcomes under a number of categories.

This approach may prompt a counterargument, one that takes the Western model or models as its example. In the West, writers and philosophers had a say in the make-up of Enlightenment and, to a certain extent, in the rise of empires and colonial systems. Many became architects of and theorists for territorial and cultural domination.

They also brought with them the institutionalisation of literature as a specific pursuit aimed at the canonisation of certain names and texts, which would serve in the long run as landmarks in literary nationalism and the discreet legitimisation of imperial power and acumen.

Colonised societies witnessed this valorisation through colleges of higher education in arts and sciences, institutions where people learned more of Shakespeare than of their own cultures.

Moreover, Western intellectuals were able to have an impact on public opinion, since they were living in a largely free society that had the upper hand in running world affairs. That offered them an advantage that Afro-Asian intellectuals could only partially achieve, usually with difficulty and under duress.

Such considerations should not stop us from raising other questions with respect to prototypical formations that predate the European Enlightenment model, questions relating to the Islamic constellation of knowledge as a movement with its own identifiable features and regenerative processes that could have nourished the present and led it safely out of wars, disasters and colonial incursions.

A question that may recur relates to the seeming failure of that constellation of knowledge to survive in a sustainable manner, involving growth and order. One can also offer examples, and there are many, of scientists and intellectuals in this republic of letters who served as effective mediators with emperors and ruthless rulers.

Even so, we must conclude that such constellations falter and fail to furnish sustainable world-systems in the Islamic regions, ones that would have been capable of averting the doom we usually associate with colonialism.

Apart from wars and their destructive consequences, there must be other reasons that halt sustainability and divert attention from the enhancement of scientific discovery or the continuity of rationalist thought within its Islamic framework. I tried to answer these queries, but I also hope to come up with further work and research to answer other questions.

Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based journalist and author.