My Say: Don’t take the insular path

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I RECEIVED a short message via email recently from a contact, H K Yong, a Chinese Malaysian who is based in London, commenting on my article, Islam’s greatness depends on the Muslim community itself (Issue 1038, Oct 27).

“Good article. I just ordered that book to be sent to my London flat,” the email said. Then, he posed a question: What was the enabling environment that allowed the greatness of Islam to shine?

My short reply: “Open-mindedness, they are encouraged to think and willing to learn and accept from other cultures and ethnicities … ”

Yong was referring to the book I highlighted in the article, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of the Muslim Civilization, published by the National Geographic Society.

The book, edited by Professor Salim al-Hassani, chief editor and chairman of the UK-based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, basically reminds the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that many aspects of modern life that we enjoy today are linked to inventions from the Muslim civilisation, notably in the fields of science, engineering, architecture, technology, medicine and mathematics.

Algebra, surgical instruments that would not look out of place in today’s hospitals, coffee, camera, the building of great castles and mosques, and a water-raising machine were among these innovations. So is a drawing of a  map that indicated the world is round and not flat as most initially thought, the process of distillation, geometry, astronomy, carpets, shampoos and the art of fine dining.

Like Yong, many non-Muslims wonder why is that the religion and the Muslim community seem to be perpetually in chaos if Islam once had a great civilisation. There is a lot of fighting in Muslim countries and sectarian violence, a few are prime examples of failed states, while in others, dictators rule, democracy does not flourish and corruption is rampant.

 Yes, civilisations go through a cycle of rise and fall, like empires do, but Muslims like to blame the 100 years of colonial rule — by the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and the Spanish conquistadors — for their plight today. In an oppressed environment, they lost their civilisation and have not fully recovered, even though most have gained independence for many years.

While there could be many other reasons, the one I feel will most strongly continue to stifle the community’s advancement is if they opt to be insular. One dictionary defines “insular” as ignorant of, or uninterested in, cultures, ideas or peoples outside one’s own experience. Add to this other factors like wanting to be an exclusive community and promoting an environment that does not encourage debate, especially on religious matters, or that cultivates a culture of thinking, and the Muslims’ path towards reclaiming their lost civilisation will be a slow and arduous one.

Because of their own narrow-mindedness, and dominated by a feeling of insecurity, growing numbers within the Muslim community view everyone as the enemy of Islam — Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and so on. They view every word that ends with “ism” with contempt and categorise those who accept pluralism and liberalism — whatever that means — as deviant.

This growing group is not only intolerant of contrarian views of fellow Muslims but also sees the views of non-Muslims on Islam as antagonistic. They are moving dangerously into a compartmentalised mode of, “I am always right” and “you are wrong”, with no room for a third view or discussion. And we are seeing more of this type in Malaysia.

From the issue of hudud to the different schools of thought in Islam, which give various interpretations of handling a dog, and the declaration of Sisters in Islam as a deviant group, the majority of Muslims want their right to be heard on issues that affect them.

It is not about challenging the religious authorities, ulama or fatwa, but having a discussion that will pave the way for a better understanding of issues in a non-confrontational manner.

It’s the same thing for non-Muslims living in a Muslim-majority country — they also want to be heard on issues that affect them. Why shouldn’t they be given the right to be heard when throughout the history of Muslim civilisation — from the time of the caliphs in Baghdad to those in Cordoba, Spain — there was a lot of evidence of tolerance, fairness and accommodation, with the Muslim community living side by side with their non-Muslim brethren.        

On their way to becoming inventors, conquerors and rulers, the Muslims of the past did not isolate themselves, but voraciously learnt from the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians and others. They were accommodative and not intolerant of other cultures.

Take Al-Jazari’s mechanical marvel, which 1001 Inventions highlighted, for example. An engineer from Turkey, his greatest legacy is the application crank and connecting rod, which is crucial to the pump and engine system of today.

He was also the inventor of the Elephant Clock, an elaborate timepiece that celebrates the diversity of mankind. Its moving parts were automated, using an Indian-inspired water-power timer. Combined with this were an Egyptian phoenix, Greek hydraulic technology, Chinese-designed dragons, an Indian elephant and mechanical figurines in Arabian dress. The clock reflected cultural and technological influences from across the world, from Spain to China.

And for 200 years, beginning from the ninth century, Baghdad, which was then one of the biggest and richest cities in the world, was the home of the House of Wisdom — an academy of knowledge that attracted scholars from various races and faiths — both men and women — from all over the world.

From mathematics and astronomy to zoology, the academy, according to the book, was a major centre of research, thought and debate in Muslim civilisation — the intellectual powerhouse of its day. The ruling caliphs, including Harun al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mum, built a world-class library, and a wide range of languages, including Arabic, Persian, Aramaic and Greek, were spoken and read in the House of Wisdom — acting as a sort of current knowledge and technology transfer centre.

The House of Wisdom paved the way for the creation of other knowledge centres. In 12th century Spain, where Muslims ruled over the Christians for about 800 years, Toledo became the centre of learning. Here, a huge translation effort began, from Arabic to Latin, and Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars came to the city. Together, they worked to translate the writings of ancient Greek and Arab treatises into Latin and other European languages — indirectly readying the “software” needed to pave the way for the European Renaissance.

The Muslim world of that civilisation must have been dominated by voices of reason, which showed the rest of the world what Islam is all about — a religion and way of life that encourages debate and creates a conducive modern environment in which inventors can excel and where people from various cultures and religions can be treated fairly and live in harmony.

Today, even here in Malaysia, more and more Muslims are encouraged to lead an insular life. If there is one “ism” Muslims should fear, it is insularism, for it will not take the Muslims as a community anywhere near what they achieved in the past and they could sadly remain a mere shadow of a once great civilisation.
Azam Aris is senior managing editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 10 - 16, 2014.