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BOOK REVIEW: West’s debt to Islam

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Book: The Monk, the Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun
Author: Saeed Akhtar Mirza
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: Rs 450


Modernity, as we know it, is synonymous with the West. Mirza seeks to undo this notion, says Anuradha Dutt


The world today seems to be shaped largely by the West. The influence is evident in the primacy of technology, lifestyle choices, aspirations, education, ascendancy of the English language, medical science, policy-making, financial and administrative mechanisms and other aspects of existence. Modernity, as we know it, is synonymous with Westernisation. And the clash of civilisations is seen to occur when this dominant ethos is confronted by a supposedly regressive ethos such as the Islamic. The West-centric viewpoint is routinely deployed to justify every fresh assault by the US-led power axis on Muslim countries, and every attempt at subversion of traditional cultures. However, standing such a notion on its head, filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s second novel, The Monk, The Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, seeks to undo the wrong by delving into history.


He comes up with astonishing proof of the West’s crushing debt to Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, architects, physicians, musicians, bankers, thinkers and sages. Mirza postulates that contrary to the common projection of Muslims as repressive and backward, in the middle ages, Arabs and Iranians, in particular, set the line for path-breaking discoveries and research. Some of it was derived from the work of savants further east, Aryabhatt’s numerals and zero — the latter known also to the Sumerians — being frequently cited for laying the foundation of all mathematics, computing, accountancy and allied disciplines. But algebra and chemistry were entirely the Arabs’. While acknowledging the contribution of sages and savants in China and India to the pool of knowledge, the author pushes the case of the precedence of Islamic and pre-Islamic cultures over the Western in a period of time when Europe was just beginning to come into its own.


The sun clearly rises in the East, though it is still to set in the West. The East, in this case, largely occupies the landmass that embraced Islam. Its sphere of influence expanded rapidly into Europe via Andalusia, and downwards into India. Europeans flagrantly plagiarised from Islamic treatises in the fields of science and arts, and even music and literature. The fact unfolds through the stratagem of an intellectual voyage of discovery, undertaken by four friends in an American university, to unravel the evolution of Western culture. Omar, an Arab Muslim, Sandeep, a Bengali, Steven, a South African and Linda, a White American woman, join hands . The Internet, library and an ancient diary, kept by an ancestor of the Arab, provide the necessary material for the exercise. Indeed, so overwhelmed is Linda  by revelations of Western perfidy and Islamic genius that her journey to Omar’s bed seems logical.


Whether the West will so easily capitulate is a different matter altogether. Beginning with Dante in his Divine Comedy lifting from Prophet Mohammed’s The Book of the Ascent (Kitab al-Miraj) and other Arabic texts, to the genesis of early Christian hymns in Arabic or Moorish ‘zajal’, Mirza details the Islamic influence on the West. Even Copernicus was not original for he had sourced his notion of the solar system, with the sun replacing the earth at the centre, as postulated before, from a Damascene called Ibn al- Shatir, who himself had drawn from the work of the astronomers Nasser al-Tusi and Mu’yyad al Din al-Urdi.


Translations of scientific and literary works were freely available. The influence of the Indian astronomers Aryabhatt and Varahamihir, who preceded them all, could not be denied either. But while lifting, Western luminaries failed to acknowledge the sources. This subterfuge is detailed by means of numerous examples from diverse fields even as the plot thickens via the unfolding of a second story, set in the time of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. The illustrious Iranian historian Abu Rehan al-Biruni, who was forced by Mahmud to accompany him on his military expeditions, and wrote a classic, documenting India, is a central protagonist in the second story. It also revolves around a group of scholarly translators, including Omar’s forbear, and a favoured Iranian girl student of al-Biruni, her marriage to a Pashtun commander in Mahmud’s army, and al-Biruni’s death.


The narrative moves swiftly, alternating between the past and present. Mirza’s writing is fluid, avoiding the density that is the bane of Indo-Anglian literature. However, since this book has a point to prove, it really is not a novel in the true sense. Also, he fails to explain the causes of the decline of Islamic civilisation, merely hinting at it by way of alluding to the rise of the West. The Islamic milieus, as projected by him, are mainly liberal, given to refinement and open to enquiry. And this is not just because of the Sufi influence. How and why attitudes began to harden could provide the sequel to this narrative.


(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
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