An eye for an eye; a head for a tweet. Judgement awaits Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi journalist who mused on Twitter about meeting the Prophet Muhammad. A total of three lines—fewer than 420 Arabic characters—may earn him a death sentence in his home country. In recent weeks, the Islamic world’s intolerance for writers and its hair-trigger for accusations of blasphemy have been on full display.
Less widely known is that medieval Muslims invented Twitter. Or, if not Twitter itself, then the original Twittersphere: The idea of a public arena in which the merit of pensées such as Kashgari’s is debated and their claims adjudicated. The seeds of the European Enlightenment were thus sown by Arab Aristotelians who preserved the spirit of rational inquiry, as they elaborated its philosophical foundations, through Europe’s Dark Ages.
So claim Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow in a scintillating new work, Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West. Confluences is not a book about Islam. Nor is it an abstruse work of high theory, though its title, Homi Bhabha epigraph and indeterminate blurb risk turning off jargon-allergic readers. Its synthesis of narrative and historical detail is as accessible as it is far-reaching. Vaulting millennia, continents and tongues and spilling over with erudition, Confluences examines the commerce of ideas at the geographical, economic and intellectual intersections of societies. It formulates a definition of culture as a kind of conversation.
Cultural convergence: US President Barack Obama in Egypt in 2009. Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images
Hoskote and Trojanow find their models in the tolerant polities of Al-Andalus, the Muslim kingdom that controlled southern Iberia from 711 to 1492, and the Kushan Empire, which straddled the Indian subcontinent and West Asia from the first through fourth centuries. These civilizations, situated at ethnic and commercial crossroads, are lauded as vessels for the transmission of culture rather than the containment of it.
Confluences leads us through millennia of intellectual history without breaking stride. New settings and significant figures are introduced through brief forays into narrative, the better to immerse us in the atmosphere of extraordinary eras of tolerance and cultural flourishing (one inspired passage relates the misadventures of a Vishva Hindu Parishad time traveller). The result is an engrossing journey strewn with unexpected gems, like the Arabic root of the word “Baroque”: burga, meaning unevenly shaped, as the irregular pearls traded Westward.
The greater part of Confluences recounts the cultural developments that underpin two of the West’s most significant institutions: the rationalist Enlightenment and Christianity. Al-Andalus extended, for the most part, full religious tolerance to Jews and Christians. Partly as a result, it witnessed a flourishing of culture, science and philosophy. Foremost among these developments was Arab Aristotelianism, embodied by Ibn Rushd (known to the Latin-speaking world as Averroes). When Ibn Rushd’s ideas reached Christendom, they were viewed as dangerous apostasy and their proponents persecuted, yet his Scholastic followers included in their ranks Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.
The Al-Andalus mosque in Malaga, Spain. Disenyo/Wikimedia Commons
Latter-day interpretations of religions have erased the traces of their syncretic influences. Hoskote and Trojanow quote, for example, Father Hugo Rahner: “Christianity is a thing that is wholly sui generis. It is something unique and not a derivative from any cult or other human institution, nor has its essential character been changed or touched by any such influence.” They calmly proceed to dismantle Rahner’s assertion. Nearly all the world’s major religions come in for similar treatment. If Islam is left uninterrogated, perhaps the authors see the task as trivial: Islam’s canonization of Moses and Jesus explicitly mark its foundations as hybrid. The pervasive traces of outsiders in Western religions register not only Muslim but Zoroastrian, Mithraic and, yes, even Hindu influences.
The West has returned the favour in kind. Most recently, the authoritarian movements of the 20th century inspired militant offshoots of Islam and Hinduism. Witness, for instance, the malignant cult of Hitler still alive in India. Hoskote and Trojanow identify, from M.S. Golwalkar to Godhra, the reflection of tactics and principles of Nazism in the ideology of Hindutva.
Islamists, meanwhile, have brought their experience as subalterns under colonial powers to bear on their views of the West. Their contempt for Western values is diagnosed as an “equal and opposite Occidentalism” that narrows their understanding of Europe and America’s diversity.
But Hoskote and Trojanow have reserved some of their most pointed criticism for the West’s recent anti-Muslim backlash, for which they have coined the term “Islamoclasm”. They observe that it mirrors Islamism in its erasure of internal distinctions, its willful ignorance of culture and, of course, its use of war as a tool of policy (the portrait is something of a caricature. US President Barack Obama, speaking in Cairo in 2009, cited the significant contributions of Al-Andalus to the West even while waging two simultaneous wars in Muslim countries). They inveigh against leaders who would “instrumentalize differences” according to the age-old principle of “divide and rule”. They take issue with the often asserted claim that, unchecked, Islam will supplant tolerant Western democracies, calling it “no more than a projection of the aims and methods of European colonialism”: a false analogy.
Fighting all these ideologies at once, Hoskote and Trojanow seek to propagate the view that cultures cannot be “purified” because each is, at its origin, a hybrid. That view undermines the thesis, put forth by Orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis and popularized by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, that the West and the Islamic world are engaged in a “clash of civilizations”.
Lewis would presumably be among the first to acknowledge the formative contributions of pre-Enlightenment Islamic scholars to Western discourse, but differs in his emphasis. Lewis notes, for instance, in The Crisis of Islam, that in issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Khomeini spurred a significant “deviation” from the tradition of law and justice embodied in Muslim jurisprudence. He is, however, alarmed that these deviations, as in the “sanctification” of suicide bombing, have come to increasingly define the norm from the mid-20th century onwards.
Confluences—Forgotten Histories from East and West: Yoda Press, 219 pages, Rs 295.
For all their erudition, Hoskote and Trojanow lack the killer instinct of the ideologues they critique. Polemics occupy a relatively small section of the book, but in its final part, Confluences’ broad-mindedness begins to curdle. Declining to assert an unassailable high ground for liberalism, the authors instead resort to sarcasm. Their equivocal tactics issue not from faint-heartedness but rather a flaw (some might say a feature) endemic to left world views, or to open epistemologies, of systematic doubt—a concept they owe to Rushd.
Confluences succeeds in demonstrating that the antagonism of Islam and the West originates in a specious distinction. “Culture,” write Hoskote and Trojanow, “is that part of human experience and expression which cannot be co-opted into the banality of polar confrontation.”
If only the knot could be cut so easily. Do societies bend, in the long arc of history, towards tolerance? How, then, do they evolve violent, absolutist ideological movements? Through their assiduous scholarship Hoskote and Trojanow have arrived at a paradox with which they decline to wrestle.
IN SIX WORDS
An engrossing journey through shared histories
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org