Islam and a Fragmented Civilization

An anthropologist considers the pain and melancholy of a culture with many tangents

Islam and a Fragmented Civilization
The Cathedral and former Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain. (iStock/Getty Images Plus)

A little over 10 years ago, a sublime corner of New York City went through an ontological shift. The “Islamic Art” wing of the Metropolitan Museum became the “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” While museums face acute pressures in a world in which naming practices and semantic choices are increasingly politicized, this and similar renamings may reflect larger fragmentation well beyond the bounds of a single museum’s operations. The museum’s shift from a single, elegant category to a host of geographic and temporal entities may not be mere nomenclature, either. Indeed, it might reveal a deeper fragmenting of a cultural order that is perhaps worth lamenting: Islam, or something Islamic.

“Islam” is not only a religion; it is also a cultural ethos and disposition — even a “civilization,” of which Islam the religion is only one part. People don’t necessarily need to be Muslim — devout, practicing or otherwise — to have adopted aspects of “Islamic” culture: dietary habits, such as a lack of or aversion to pork in their diets; male circumcision, which has reflected identitarian impulses in certain times and places; ethical understandings of the cosmos drawing from Islamic theology; practice and policy influenced by Islamic law, jurisprudence or scholarship; and more.

Of course, Islam the religion and Islam the civilization or cultural sphere are related and connected. The latter could not exist without the former and, in any event, has emerged and evolved within parameters tied to Islam as a religion practiced by people: the Quran, the Arabic script, poetic traditions and even aesthetic sensibilities inspired by a Quranic worldview. Yet Islam the civilization has also emerged in parts of the world that are not — and were rarely or never — mostly Muslim in demographic terms. Egypt and the Levant, for instance, did not become majority-Muslim until centuries after Arab-Muslim armies conquered lands outside the Arabian Peninsula. (Indeed, Egypt may not have been Muslim-majority until as recently as the 14th century.) Lebanon and Palestine have each had Christian majorities at various points in their histories, even under Islamic rule. South Asia, which is now home to the world’s largest Muslim population and has been the birthplace of important Muslim movements, has never had a Muslim majority.

Culture is not demography. Islam once reigned supreme, regardless of variations and exceptions in particular places, across territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, and occupied a complex kaleidoscope of positions from India to Indonesia. Islam is still the leading religion in much of this area. But how “Islamic” is such a world, really? For decades, people have lived under military dictatorships and in bombed-out sectarian states, struggling with repressive regimes and the consequences of poor policies at home and economic sanctions in distant capitals. The world of Islam, “dar al-Islam,” today resembles more closely what classical Islamic scholars imagined as the counterpart beyond its bounds: the world of war (“dar al-harb”).

Arabic is not a language of learning on the world stage. Nor are other tongues of the erstwhile Islamic civilization, such as Persian. English, and sometimes French, are the scholarly languages of our time — even in regions of the Islamic and Arabic-speaking worlds. Restrictions, including on movement, hinder most possibilities of encounter across borders. In other places, like Spain and parts of the Balkans, a once-flourishing Islamic civilization has mostly vanished. Almost everywhere, state projects and national identities tend to take precedence over larger configurations — as we see, to repeat the example, when a museum refers to a fragmented chain of territories like “Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.”

“Civilization” is a grandiose concept, a proposition that sometimes collapses all kinds of nuances. It should not be abused. However, it seems necessary to distinguish a category such as “civilization” from the category of religious community — the Muslim ummah, a thriving transnational network that has in some areas adapted to the connectivity of the internet.

Muslim-targeted advertising and algorithmic recommendations, for instance, reflect this specificity and universality: Muslim matrimony websites of all kinds; “halal” dating advice, dished out by Pakistani-Canadian teenagers; current events curated by Malaysian clerics; narcissistic influencer couples, perhaps Arab or Turkish, living in Europe; and English-speaking imams who model their sermons on evangelical Christian television preachers. All this exists and is expressed in English — not Arabic or Persian, onetime lingua francas of the Islamic and even somewhat broader worlds. Moreover, the ummah has little — perhaps nothing — to offer non-Muslims, including those who are no less implicated in Islam as a civilization than Muslims are.

What, then, is Islam the “civilization”? It may just be a trace, today, of what it once was.

As scholars have written, one man may have revealed the extent of that civilization in his travels. Ibn Battuta, a famed pilgrim, traveler and chronicler from Tangier, spent his life moving with (relative) ease from Spain to Indonesia, from Egypt to India and beyond. He belonged in many of the places he went, via knowledge of Islamic laws, signs, aesthetic practices and scholarship — all connected to Arabic, at least among rulers, elites, jurists and the like. (Marco Polo, by comparison, wrote more about radical alterity. In much of his travels, the Venetian described worlds that amazed, shocked and compelled him and others who did not belong there — and, perhaps, could never belong.) Wherever he went, Ibn Battuta found someone who knew Arabic. He also met people who prayed. Indeed, the Islamic prayer — a five-times daily ritual, structuring everyday life — was a constant across otherwise different geographies, thus rendered cohesive in another sense. Though Islam was not monolithic, Ibn Battuta was also able to navigate its realm because of shared Islamic practice, ethical vocabulary and material culture. The Islamic world, then, has at times been indifferent to geographies and state borders. Islam has had a civilizational capacity, which at other times has persisted in traces.

Today, such traces carry with them pain and melancholy, feelings that connect the Islamic past and this fragmented present. Pain, in a sense, preserves continuity of Islam as a civilization — even as it emerges only with that civilization’s broader loss. It is also evident, for instance, in a discursive device about the legacy of medieval al-Andalus — Islamic Spain and Portugal — that recurs in various disciplines, from political science to political and Islamist rhetoric and secular literature in all of Islam’s languages. In the famous poem “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” for instance, Mahmoud Darwish drew a parallel between the fall of al-Andalus and the loss of his native Palestine. Others, such as the Egyptian Ahmad Shawqi and the South Asian Muhammad Iqbal, also penned notable romantic tributes to al-Andalus. In these romances, al-Andalus signifies a high point of cultural achievement in science, literature and philosophy. Under the banner of Islam the civilization, even non-Muslims made significant contributions to the achievements of al-Andalus. The renowned Jewish philosopher Maimonides, for instance, wrote his most important work in Arabic transliterated into Hebrew script. Ramon Llull, a Christian mystic who wrote in Arabic and Catalan, drew from Sufi attachments to the 99 names of God while developing his understanding of the nature of Christ. Reductive though the romance of al-Andalus may be in these works, the pain is real, and it secures a place for itself in the imaginary of Islamic civilization through its persistence.

In a wonderful essay, the religious scholar Gil Anidjar asks whether the area Arabs and others called al-Andalus might be an “unfinished project” and a “figure of … in-finity.” It is tempting to interpret this question as one evoking a liberal multiculturalism, as the tone often does when al-Andalus appears in contemporary discourse. Often reduced to an idyllic but historically dubious monolith, al-Andalus was rather a geographic term for the Iberian Peninsula: a set of polities ruled by several often-competing Muslim leaders, and Christian rivals who overtook much of this territory by the 12th century and then finally captured Granada — the last bastion of Muslim rulers on the peninsula — in 1492.

While historians are familiar with politics and war in al-Andalus, they know or write less about its sociocultural composition. For instance, editors and writers of a major compendium on the literature of al-Andalus were unable to include an entry on religious life. In turn, historians and others have struggled to write about “religion” in the region because they lack knowledge of demographics (in the eight centuries covered by relevant literature). Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in Iberia. How many Christians lived under Muslim rule? How many Muslims lived under Christian rule? How did Jews affect the social, commercial, political and other tapestries of al-Andalus? Have contemporary scholars and writers exaggerated the centrality of non-Muslims for reasons to do with their (or our) own political considerations?

Despite uncertainty, we may establish two important points. First, whatever the demographic makeup of the peninsula may have been, parochial sectarianism dissolved into a mostly homogenous regional identity by the 13th century. Adherents of different religious groups tended to identify as “Andalusian.” Arabic was the lingua franca for generic Andalusians, as it was for urban elites or in literature and public life. Andalusian architecture existed; its shapers drew from North Africa and the Levant. Andalusian culture was inherently “Islamic,” though not only Islamic, and thus had a great deal in common with other cultures across the medieval Islamic world. Second, the Arabic name of the territory itself constituted a reorientation of the peninsula toward a wider Islamic world. Emerging from Arabia in the seventh and eighth centuries, Arab Muslims conquering other lands often adopted a version of existing place names: “Filastin” and “Ifriqiya,” respectively “Palestine” and “Africa,” were two examples. They did not do so in al-Andalus, a curious break from the Roman “Hispania.” Al-Andalus thus marked the dawn of a new era — the legacy of which today is uncertain, or unfinished, and perhaps lost. Changing names indicate a break, even a radical shift in ontology. Saul of Tarsus becomes the Apostle Paul when he is struck by divine light on the road to Damascus, the moment he effectively founded Christianity. Jacob becomes Israel, in what may be the most consequential name change in history.

In the same way, the renaming of Hispania to al-Andalus marked a new opening to inaugurate a new ontology; a new world that drew a continuity between Iberia, North Africa and the territories of the Islamic East — the Islamic world — in which sectarian particularities were not the primary mode of identification. In the contemporary era, writers, curators and others may reflect a reverse process with acts such as renaming the “Islamic Art” wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In a recent book on the legacy of al-Andalus in contemporary Spain, the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind discusses what he calls “andalucismo,” a term for what has at times been a cohesive movement advocating for a regional Andalusian identity based on its Islamic past or a sensibility of that past in shaping contemporary Spain.

Spain has suffered a lot. It was established through the Catholic reconquest of Iberia, then evolved through a series of subsequent brutalities: the de-Islamicization of the Iberian Peninsula, forced conversions and expulsions (of Muslims and Jews) and the conquest of the Americas. In subsequent centuries, a new mythology of a primordial Spanish essence was invented, drawing on pre-Islamic peoples who inhabited Iberia: Visigoths, Romans, Phoenicians and so on. Notably, and absurdly, mythmakers reduced the Andalusian period to a footnote in Spain’s historical evolution. Centuries later, half a million people died in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The authoritarian regime of Gen. Francisco Franco, which emerged from this brutality, was never overthrown. Franco not only survived World War II but also most of the Cold War, during which his regime was in many ways closer politically to North Africa (hence, the Islamic world) than to liberal Europe. Between these two historical markers, there was no bourgeois revolution, the kind that makes a secular reflection of a given society possible. Nor has there been at any point a conscious effort to collectively assess the traumas of such horrific violence. Instead, Spain erased its own classical past, much of it Islamic, including philosophy, language, poetry and more. Today, in an instance of this corrupted inheritance, Madrid has fewer streets named after Andalusian writers, philosophers and mystics than does Tel Aviv. “Andalucismo,” as the anthropologist Stefania Pandolfo notes, is a “trained capacity” to feel the pain of this history. And, yet, this history may not make much sense in isolation, focused on a territory separated from the remainder of the Islamic world. The pain of al-Andalus, then, has a certain circularity to it: It is felt both by those who have lost it, and those who dwell in its absence.

Pain in the Islamic world is often related to, and by, specific events: the Crusades, Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq — all of it pain. Following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Arab and Muslim intellectuals adopted an obvious trope, comparing the U.S. march into Baghdad to the brutal Mongol siege of the same city in 1258. Etched into the Islamic mnemonic ledger, the memory returned from repression while Arab news channels broadcast historical pain. This particular pain is not confined only to Muslims, at least in certain places. At the time, Jews felt the pain of the fall of al-Andalus no less than Muslims (or other “Andalusians”). Now, many Arab Christians feel the Palestinian tragedy no less than other Arabs. Yet Christians elsewhere are unlikely to feel that pain in the same way. Although the tragedy of Palestine, like all tragedies, should be apparent to all sentient beings, an Arab author once (paradoxically, perhaps) expressed its Islamic imprint by commenting on how Israelis did not know pre-Islamic, or “jahili,” poetry; one of the sources from which Islamic civilization sprang. If conquerors are sometimes ignorant of the depths of what they are doing or undoing, others — Muslim, or those who share from that spring — know the pain too well. To put it another way, identification — in the full, Freudian sense — with Palestine is only possible with a subjective consciousness of, and other familiarity with, Islamic civilization and its pain.

Alongside the intertwining of Arabic and its sensibilities into Islamic civilization, Islam has robust literary traditions in a handful of other languages. Of these “Islamic languages,” Persian, of course, has a literary legacy comparable to Arabic and is a clerical language for what is in many ways a parallel theological tradition in Shiite Islam. There is also Urdu, the language associated with the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, which is also widely appreciated by Indians of all faiths for its capacity — again — to express pain and melancholy, often in highly formalized artistic motifs. Indeed, if a museum in New York or the history of Iberia are indicators of a particular pain, then another is a movie inspired by literature in and on Urdu: “In Custody,” a 1993 film directed by Ismail Merchant, boasting an all-star cast from Indian art cinema, and based on a novel by Anita Desai.

The film tells the story of a Hindi teacher in a small-town college, ostensibly a Hindu, who is also an aficionado of Urdu poetry. Commissioned by a literary magazine, he sets out to interview a great Urdu poet. But when he arrives at the poet’s home, a crumbling palace in the nearby Mughal-era city of Bhopal, he finds the interview impossible to conduct. The poet’s household is collapsing, and he himself is an ailing alcoholic. Somehow, a friendship is forged. When the Urdu poet finds himself nearing death and determined to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, he passes on to the Hindi teacher his final diwan, his last collection of poems, telling his unlikely friend that he leaves it in his “custody.”

The backstory here of Hindi and Urdu each corresponding to a certain religion — Hindi to Hindus, and Urdu to Muslims — is closely tied to India’s turbulent recent history. Since the 18th century, India has transitioned from centuries of predominantly Islamic rule to British imperialism, and, later, to a secular and independent state that has not yet managed to come to terms with its Islamic past and present. If the state of India had a “traumatic birth,” as has often been said, the Muslims of postcolonial India have been disproportionately affected by the trauma of various partitions and riots that have plagued communal relations in the country and South Asia since the mid-20th century. All signs point to another major traumatic event coming. The affective thread that links the collapse of Islamic rule in the subcontinent and the subsequent fratricide and geographic fragmentation into the states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is contained here in the story of a dying Urdu poet and a non-Muslim spellbound by his language and verse. The political uncertainty of the future of this relation is a layer upon layers of pain.

Considering Islam as a civilization, as well as a religion, the inheritors of its legacy now grapple with its loss (or a sense that their legacy is loss). They live in a fragmented geography. They live without an evident larger, eclipsing sensibility. Experiencing a loss-of-empire melancholy, at one level, they attempt to make sense of a world of fragments and a civilizational ethos based on a shared pain.

Arguably, this pain was there at Islam’s advent — and in the Quran itself. Consider this hadith, or saying of the Prophet, as narrated by his companion Saad ibn Abi Waqqas: “Verily, this Quran has descended with sadness. If you recite it, then weep. If you cannot weep, then feign weeping. Recite in a melodious tone, for whoever does not use a pleasant voice is not one of us.”

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy