The dawn of 21st century brought along new hopes as well as challenges for the humankind. The hopes included end of the long drawn Cold War, globalization, and information revolution duly supported by technological revolution. Particularly these three above phenomena promised spread of liberal values, peace and prosperity for human beings. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama predicted end of ideological wars and acceptance of a liberal democratic order by the world. However, it did not take long to appreciate the emergence of new theses and anti-theses. From September 11, 2001 onwards, the world on the face of it is busy tackling issues of violence, terrorism and extremism, but the deep-rooted challenges of injustice, hate, identity and human equality seem neglected.
Since the age of Renaissance, the collective human civilization is mostly influenced by the Western civilization and the European nations have been in the lead role. The rise of U.S. in 20th century is viewed as an extension of Western or European civilization. Whereas pre-Renaissance period bears the expression of primordial tribal identity in one form or the other, the post-Renaissance period after (passing through Enlightenment to Modernity) gradually epitomised pluralism. The world seemed moving away from Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyyah that emphasised on tribal codes of affinity, prejudices, honour and revenge, to the Weberian model of a modern state that is based on equality of all citizens before law – irrespective of any distinction – and a merit-based bureaucracy. The liberal order preached equality and freedom of mankind and the European nation-states championed the cause. However, in post-September 2001 world, new theses and anti-theses hinging around religious identities are presenting challenges to the peace and prosperity of individuals, groups and communities. Ironically, like the previous two World Wars, once again the European nations and communities espousing peoples of all faiths appear to be one of the main conflict zones; in the present and the future. The phenomenon of terrorism in post-2001 world was mostly linked to Muslims and Islamic world, therefore, the European communities are living through the ills of terminologies like militant Islam and Islamophobia. This new anti-thesis expressing itself in many forms needed a comprehensive study, analysis and solutions to rid the world of hate, distrust and division. To understand the nature and magnitude of challenges, the key players, contributing factors, and possible solutions, world renowned anthropologist Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed and his four member team (comprising Frankie Martin, Harrison Akins, Dr. Amineh Hoti, and Zeenat Ahmed) embarked upon a journey to find synthesis (read: peace) for the modern civilization. This time his study areas were the European nations and communities with a focus on coexistence of Muslims, Christian and Jews in a modern European state that is undergoing a new transformation from liberal order to primordial tribal ethos. Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, being a thorough humanist, and also a great admirer of European Humanism, is pained by this inverse journey of European civilization whose direct sufferers can be people of all faiths, ethnicities and genders. This study – basing on interactions, observations and interviews – also resulted in the form of a book that has recently been published by Oxford University Press. Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity is not merely another book, or a research project, but reflection of a cause by a sage who is an ardent proponent of inter-faith peace and harmony. The book comprises the toil of heart and mind that is aimed at only one objective: developing a new synthesis for the peace and harmony among people of all faiths. It is indeed, A Journey into Peace.
The key question for Dr. Akbar Ahmed and his team remained the assertions of new European Far Right who maintains that Islam is incompatible with modern civilization, it has contributed nothing to it, and all Muslims are decadent and violent by nature. These growing narratives have caused increased Islamophobia, particularly among native Christians, and is fast breeding hatred and violence in the so far peaceful modern European communities. Europe is reverting to old notions of tribal identity basing on blood, culture and land. The direct and immediate sufferers are Muslims living in Europe who are either immigrants, born in Europe or newly converts. They are not only suffering from an identity crisis but their conditions of living are fast deteriorating. They are subjected to hate, prejudice and lack of opportunity. There seems a permanent gloom on the European horizon under these prevailing narratives. Dr. Akbar and his team rediscovered a model that is based on mutual peaceful coexistence, la convivencia. As a corollary, Dr. Akbar also discovers answers to European Far Right’s assertions that Islam has not contributed to modern Western civilization. Dr. Akbar rejects the notion of Dark Age for Europe, as these were the times when Europe was learning from the world of Islam about philosophy, art, literature, architecture, astronomy, surgery, laws of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and much more, that gave birth to Renaissance period and subsequently led to Enlightenment and Modernity.
Iberian Peninsula, commonly known as Andalusia among Muslims, under Muslim kings from 711 AD onwards till 1492 witnessed a period that enriched human civilization in all forms of learning and methods. All citizens of Andalusia without any distinction of faith and ethnicity, were honoured and supported by Muslim kings who greatly promoted learning. Ilm (learning) and compassion were the bedrock of the Andalusian society that made huge contributions to art, literature and architecture. Contributions by Muslim scholars, scientists and artists not only enriched Andalusia but also served as a beacon of light for Europe which was passing through a turbulent phase of finding balance between reason and faith. Muslim scholars introduced Greek philosophers to the Latin world and hence contributed significantly in laying down foundations of Renaissance. Significant among Muslims include: Ibn Firnas who lived in 9th century and is the first man to have achieved the dream of flying after strapping a contraption around himself and leaping off a mountaintop near Cordoba; Ibn Tufail, an Andalusian philosopher, physician, and astronomer who remained a key advisor to the Almohad caliph; Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji whose work on planetary orbits and his theory of planetary motion surged through Europe in 13th century and also helped Copernicus; Al-Zahrawi of Cordoba is considered as father of surgery and his thirty volume book Kitab al-Tasrif (The Method of Medicine) remained the textbook on surgery for five centuries in Europe; Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) work including Commentary on Plato’s Republic was taught in European universities for centuries; and so many more. The Grand Mosque of Cordoba was not only a place of worship but also of learning that attracted scholars of all faiths from different parts of Europe. The main library of Cordoba during the reign of King Abdul Rahman was said to hold 600,000 books and manuscripts at a time when the biggest library of Christian Europe, housed in Switzerland, had some 400 books. There were seventy libraries in Cordoba alone. The positive effects of Andalusian model of coexistence (la convivencia) basing on ethos of learning and compassion were not restricted to the Muslim world alone. There were Christian kings who treated people of all faiths equally and promoted scholarship. Dr. Akbar mentions in his book, “A remarkable example of ideals of the ilm ethos and convivencia comes to us from Toledo, the former capital of the Visigoths and thus of significance for Spanish Christian.” King Alfonso VI of León and Castile, was known as ‘Emperor of Three Religions’. Alfonso X, the ruler of Castile, known for his learning and wisdom, showed great respect and tolerance for Islam. “Under Alfonso’s rule, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived under their own laws.” Similarly, Frederick II of Holy Roman Empire, and Roger II of Sicily not only practiced la convivencia in their territories, but also introduced legal reforms deriving from Roman and Islamic law. Dr. Akbar observes, “There was in Christian Sicily, as in Muslim Andalusia, the constant urge to acquire knowledge and, while understanding the world as it is through reason and philosophy, to recognise and embrace the diversity of human life, religion and culture.”
Journey into Europe is the result of field work stretching over years and vast territories of European continent that is housing different communities and people of faiths in various countries. Dr. Akbar and his team visited nooks and corners from Spain to various nations in east, west and north like France to Bosnia to Greece to Denmark to Great Britain, and many more, to study the impact of new theses and anti-theses affecting lives of millions. While recommending the new synthesis, the New Andalusian model, Dr. Akbar cautions that “Europe must not forget its legacy of humanism and knowledge, nor should it forget the role played by the Greeks, Muslims, Jews, and Christians working together in the development of these ideals. This is also time for Europeans to remember the contributions made by Islam to European civilisation. Indeed, there would be no European civilisation as we know it without Islam. It is time for Europeans to recognise their own history and talk of not only Judeo-Christian but Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilisation.”
Today, the humankind is living in a post 9/11 world. The theses and anti-theses of 21st century are complex, grim and challenging. Although humans have suffered scars in all parts of the world; of those the Christchurch tragedy on March 15, 2019 is a fresh wound; yet there is light at the end of the tunnel. Humanity has seen a new hope in the empathy, compassion and courage of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She has emerged as the epitome of progress of human civilisation that breathes in the 21st century. Her words, vision and actions draw inspiration from common humanity that transcends all divisions of history, ideology, gender and geography. Her success is victory of human civilisation. It is the same spirit of humanity and humility that can be seen reflected in the concluding pages of Dr. Akbar’s book:
At the end of the long journey that took me through a quartet of studies, I did not make any earth-shattering discovery of how to live in perpetual spiritual bliss or become a billionaire; but there was the realisation that nothing is more precious than the preservation of human life, regardless of colour, race, or religion, and there is nothing more sacred than treating it with dignity and kindness. The noble concept is enshrined in European thought; it is also at the core of the Islamic vision of the universe and of the other great cultures of the planet. Its universal implementation is a challenge worthy of our common humanity.
The writer is a traveller and student of human history.
E-mail: [email protected]
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