Why Are Interested in Islam?
2009, Mariusz Turowski

‘How is it that other people’s creations can be so utterly their own and so deeply part of us.’ These are the final words of the essay Found in Translation by Clifford Geertz, one of the greatest 20th-century ethnographers and social anthropologists. To the field of knowledge he represented we owe the most valuable and most far-reaching contribution to the development of the idea of multicultural dialogue.

Geertz himself is the author of a theory identifying conversation and deliberation as the primary instruments for understanding the essence of other cultures or societies. To understand the other, he argues, we need to interpret the networks of meaning amid which he lives. However, a cognitive effort of this kind is aimed not only at producing an analytical and descriptive ‘report’ about a certain set of social or cultural facts examined by the scholar. Ethnographic knowledge plays an hermeneutical, phenomenological and normative role at the same time: it is a message, an ethical appeal, aimed at an audience – the ‘readers of culture.’ The subtitle of the Geertz essay mentioned above is On the Social History of the Moral Imagination and the essay deals with recognising the conditions of the possibility and consequences of the presence of ‘the other in myself’ and ‘myself in the other.’ In one of his earlier texts, Geertz reflected on the meaning of the ethnographic descriptions of otherness, such as the Balinese ritual trances, full of surprising – and for the Western sensitivity sometimes disgusting – elements, such biting off the heads of living chickens. What do we need this kind of details for? What can we learn about the Balinese from them? Or perhaps the whole thing is not at all about learning about, or wondering about the peculiarity of, the ‘man of the Southern seas,’ whom as a result of such reports we treat as a Martian endowed with an impenetrable soul? Geertz’s answer to these questions reveals the complexity and unique critical/practical potential of his cultural theory. Dialogue, intercultural communication are not aimed at discovering any ‘basic unity of mankind.’ A conversation with the other, based on a sense that, in principle, he is the same as I am – differing from me only in terms of dress, customs and language – would be false and insincere: ‘Humanity is as various in its essence as it is in its expression,’ says Geertz. A homogenising vision of cultures, concerned solely with ‘superficial’ manifestations of difference between them, on the one hand ignores the fact of diversity, which constitutes an important element of the ‘human condition,’ while, on the other, failing to take into account that social orders and the practices they breed are a result of a neverending negotiation of meanings and values taking place at the intersection of various cultural traditions (a process referred to as hybridisation), rather than an effect of striving towards a single goal, shared by everyone and discovered by priests or philosophers. Differences and transgressing intercivilisational boundaries are an inherent aspect of human history. But again, relations with the other are not solely about interpreting historical or present facts, about arrangements and disarrangements. Intercultural deliberations are full of claims about norms. Seyla Benhabib, another contemporary advocate of the conception of culture as the most important narrative background within societies and between them, discerns three aspects connected with its normative function: moral, concerning the sphere of universal rights and principles; ethical, identifying obligations within specific traditions, shaped in the course of the actions and experiences of many generations; and indicative, defining scopes of values that different individuals wish to observe in their daily life. Each of those dimensions of the cultural and multicultural ethic has one more meaning – the fact that the norms and patterns of behaviour observed by the members of the given community depend on the political-institutional context and the local power structures. Cultural identity and difference can be a result of games played by the political elites trying to more effectively control the other citizens by using mechanisms aimed at instilling in them a sense of belonging to a single homogeneous group defined in nationalistic terms (the essentialisation and ‘naturalisation’ of the nation and its culture). On the other hand, it may represent a shelter – meaning genuine affiliation, not necessarily a hotbed of fanaticism – for the wronged, excluded, powerless and helpless, who have no one to represent them. It thus becomes part of the cultural ethic to consider the interests and welfare of individuals – and groups – suffering because of being deprived of subjectivity and ‘causativity’ (ability to shape their existence). Intercultural dialogue – talking to the other – thus represents an opportunity to ask questions about responsible government, gender relations, human rights, access to education or the consequences of technological progress and exploitation of natural resources – as well as to question dictatorial efforts, but also international and interpersonal orders based on relations of domination. Dialogue requires justice construed as a genuine, multilevel equality (Michael Walzer’s ‘complex equality’ or Eric Olin Wright’s ‘complex egalitarianism’) rather than as a strategic pact, deal or compromise. Justice is a promise – made to the other by us and to us by the other. We must keep it.

Why are we interested in Islam? For many reasons. It may be the object of our aesthetical fascinations, a holiday destination, an exotic land whose strangeness (language, climate, architecture, cuisine, customs, smells, sounds, costumes…) attracts us. We may try to gain and broaden our knowledge about it – both the common one, reported by the mass media and popular science literature, dealing with the everyday events and phenomena, as well as that practiced professionally, academically, on the basis of deeper studies and analyses. Finally, Islam may be the subject of our interest in the strict sense of the word, as the object of ‘strategic’ activities – mainly economic and political (diplomatic, related to intelligence gathering, homeland security, and so on).

Over the last 1,400 years, many breakthrough events, outstanding personalities and crucial phenomena defining Western history have been related in this or another way to the world of Islam: Marco Polo, Dante, Shakespeare, Cagliostro, Goethe, Napoleon, Walter Scott, Byron, Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Disraeli, Flaubert, Renan and many others. Travellers, scholars, poets, artists, politicians. They were all interested in Islam, or, more broadly, the Orient, trying to get to know it, to understand it and to communicate the truth about it to other Europeans, people of the West. They were supported in this by the representatives of a specialised field of academic knowledge – Oriental studies – brought to life specially for the purpose. How do we perceive their efforts today? How have they influenced our contemporary understanding of the ‘matters of the East and the South’?

Edward Said, the literary scholar and philosopher, offers a rather harsh judgement in his famous Orientalism, an analysis of how the West has perceived and represented the East,

In the depths of this Oriental stage stands a prodigious cultural repertoire whose individual items evoke a fabulously rich world: the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Eden, Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Astarte, Isis and Osiris, Sheba, Babylon, the Genii, the Magi, Nineveh, Prester John, Mahomet, and dozens more; settings, in some cases names only, half-imagined, half-known; monsters, devils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires.

Can we honestly say today that, with the development of science and critical consciousness, we have gotten rid of all these – imagination-produced – phantoms, half-truths and pure absurdities regarding the Orient? Is our knowledge about it better than that of our ancestors? Do we know now what Islam is and how we should treat its followers? Well, yes and no. We have tons of data, comparisons, statistics, analyses. We know many facts and know how to connect them.

And yet, watching news on the TV or reading weekly magazine features or newspaper headlines about Islam, we experience a sense of unease. On the one hand, we need quick, precise diagnoses formulated by experts. We trust that their authors are competent enough to speak on the subject. At the same time, we are often irritated by the tone of their comments and the conclusions they arrive at. We are angry at the picture offered to us (often surprisingly uniform and very much clear-cut) of Islam and the Moslems (ready, as we are often told, to ‘do everything’ to destroy – pick your choice – the West, Europe, Christianity, ‘our culture,’ and so on). Said demonstrated that broadening and deepening our knowledge is not enough, that truth is not identical with collecting new facts or uncovering new mysteries.

In order to know the other – in our case, a Moslem (a specific person – woman, man or child), we need to let them speak themselves. We must not impose our language on them, our theories or ways of understanding history. This is extremely difficult. The famous words spoken by Prophet Muhammad in one of the hadith, ‘Seek knowledge even in China’ indicate how arduous and time-consuming is the process of gathering knowledge. This toil can, however, prove the only way of making the world we live in free of dreadful phantoms and turning it into a place where representatives of various different communities, cultures and traditions can meet, talk and hold each other in mutual respect.

Contact, communication and exchange should make it possible for us to discover existing mutualities, ties – such as those connecting (despite the protests of all kinds of essentialist critics – Orientalists, on the one hand, Occidentalists, on the other) the cultures of the West and of Islam – usually forgotten, unappreciated or ignored.

Then there were the three Spaniards who were picked up in 1581 at Derbent, on the Caspian Sea, by the little English ship freighted every two or three years by the Muscovy Company, on its way back from Astrakhan. The Spaniards were no doubt renegades, deserters from the Turkish army, who had been taken prisoner at La Goletta seven years earlier…. In 1586, the English ship Hercules brought back to Turkey twenty Turks whom Drake had liberated in the West Indies, a detail mentioned briefly in the account of the voyage of this sailing ship to the Levant…. In 1608 there was still imprisoned in the Castle of S. Julião da Barra at Lisbon, a certain Francisco Julião who had received baptism and who had been in command of the Turkish galleys off Malindi when he was captured. Then, in 1611, the Persians captured from the ranks of the Turkish army led by the Grand Vizier Murād Pasha, three Frenchmen and a German (how they got there is anyone’s guess – through Constantinople in any case)…. Is it possible to say that Spanish mysticism of the sixteenth century can be traced back to Moslem Sufism through such intermediaries as the eclectic genius of Ramón Lull? Is it true that the use of rhyme in the West owed its origin to the Moslem poets of Spain? That the chansons de geste (as is quite probable) borrowed from Islam?

That is how Fernard Braudel, one of the greatest historians of the 20th century, wrote in his important study on the civilisation(s) of the Mediterranean (which include both the West and Islam, of course, but also Judaism). Yet he wasn’t trying to prove an identicalness, uniformity of the Mediterranean cultures (a supposed result of a neverending exchange of people and goods) or insisting on finding ties and connections between them. He warns,

We should be equally wary of those who are too positive in their identification of cultural phenomena … as of those who by reaction deny all borrowings between civilisation and civilisation …

Glossing over differences – historical, social, economic, political or value-related – between Europe and the Moslem world would be unjustified, unfair and simply untrue.

Multiplicity and diversity are one of the most difficult, most ‘challenging’ facts of the human condition. But it is precisely this ‘affliction’ that has been behind man’s greatest achievements. Many historians – in the first place those inspired by the work of Braudel (Susan Whitfield, Victor Lieberman, Geoffrey Gunn, John Hobson or Dirk Hoerder) – show that globalisation, ‘globality,’ is nothing extraordinary and that it has cyclically occurred in human history practically since Neolithic times. An ‘oriental globalisation’ can be traced back to the 5th millennium B.C. and its peak occurred around 500-600 A.D. when intense and far-reaching economic communication networks were created between the Western world (Africa, the Mediterranean, southern Europe) and the East (China and India). The centre of financial and logistics operations at the time was located in the Middle East, with Mecca playing the role of an international ‘bureau de change.’ Around 1100 A.D., China became the new leader in socio-economic development and did not surrender the position for the next eight hundred years. It was then that revolutions took place in the fields of industry (the production of iron and steel), agriculture (productivity gains and management improvements), finance (the birth of crediting and transaction-processing institutions), politics and society (the development of statehood and changes in the sphere of norms and customs), as well as travel (the travellers of the Afro-Asian era of great discoveries preceded Vasco da Gama by a thousand years). The oriental phase of the process of the evolution of a global oikumene (Andre Gunder Frank, Barry K. Gills) led to the arguably most important example of the positive results of multilevel intercultural cooperation and correlation – the Islamic-Christian-Jewish Al-Andalus. By the 14th century, the Alcazar library in Cordoba – one of the town’s seventy – had amassed 400,000 volumes, while the collection of the library of the St. Gallen abbey in Switzerland – one of Europe’s largest – counted a mere six hundred volumes. The Al-Andalus culture peaked in the 11th century, following the fall of the Umayyad dynasty and its being replaced by a number of local principalities known as the taifa. The different emirs competed among themselves for cultural prestige, trying to recruit as many famous poets, writers and artisans as they could. But both earlier and later Islamic Iberia saw cultural development on an almost incredible scale. A Saxon nun who visited Cordoba in the 10th century called the city the ‘ornament of the world.’ During the same time, Ziryab, a lute player from Baghdad, founded his famous musical school there as well as ‘civilising’ the local cuisine and table manners by introducing the custom of using cutlery and crystal vessels as well as toothpaste. According to recent research from historians such as Robert Hillenbrand or Luce López-Baralt, as early as in the 13th century Cordoba had paved streets (in Paris one could walk the streets on a rainy day without bogging down in the mud only several hundred years later) and streetlamps (which in London appeared only in early 19th century). But the greatest achievements of Al-Andalus took place in the fields of architecture, poetry and music. The first of those is relatively best known – even laypeople have heard about the magnificent mediaeval buildings of Cordoba, Toledo, Zaragoza or Malaga. Andalusian achievements in the field of poetry were no less impressive. Few know that in Islamic Iberia there were many women poets, enjoying an incredible degree of creative freedom and able to speak publicly about their feelings. The most famous of those was Wallada, author of love poems, the caliph’s daughter and patron of a literary hall in Cordoba. In the case of prosody, it is believed that the French mediaeval troubadours has their precursors precisely in the Spanish Arabs, whose lyric poetry contains numerous motifs and formal solutions used later by Western poets. In music, the Moorish influence was felt in, for instance, folk music, as evidenced by the sounds we find in the famous works of the genre’s ‘great systematician,’ Manuel de Falla, as well as in the work of the Southern and Northern American musicians he inspired (e.g. Gershwin’s Cuban Overture). As many scholars have shown, the famous cante hondo – the modulated, dramatic singing to rhythmic guitar accompaniment typical for flamenco music – as well as fandango, sevillana or seguidillas owe a lot to the culture of the Arab-Moslem world.

Thanks to the development of contemporary historical sciences – or, more broadly, social sciences and the humanities – we have increasingly often been able to learn not only that the Arabs and Moslems had created ‘an actual civilisation’ or that sometimes their achievements ‘may have even matched’ ours, but also, as the examples cited throughout this text demonstrate, that their achievements actually overshadow many aspects of our material and spiritual culture. This observation should not be construed as an attempt – subversive towards the dominant dogma – to prove that the ‘Orient’ is superior to the ‘Occident.’ After all – and despite the expectations, wishes and prophecies of certain intellectualists in both the East and West – culture is not a battleground. According to one of the most important Qur’an verses,

O you men! surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honourable of you with Allah is the one among you most careful (of his duty); surely Allah is Knowing, Aware (49, 13).

December 2009

Mariusz Turowski is Assistant Professor at the Social and Political Philosophy Unit, Institute of Philosophy, Wrocław University, and Director of Science, Islamic Studies Institute Association (Stowarzyszenie Instytut Studiów nad Islamem)