Islam and the Case Against Cultural Amnesia

The firing of an art historian at Hamline University after dubious 'Islamophobia' claims further dislocates the religion from its history

Islam and the Case Against Cultural Amnesia
This painting is one of the images at the center of the discussion in the Hamline classroom. It is included in a historical text written by Rashid al-Din, a famous 14th-century Muslim vizier and historian. (Edinburgh University Library, Or. Ms. 20)

This story begins with an instructor of art history at Hamline University in Minnesota who was fired for alleged Islamophobia. The purported offense was showing two images of the Prophet Muhammad to a class of undergraduate students. One of the undergraduates, who was also president of the Muslim Students’ Association, complained. The administration branded the incident “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” and the instructor was accordingly terminated.

One of the images shown was a 16th-century illustration accompanying an Ottoman Turkish biography of the prophet. It depicted him veiled and surrounded by a halo, so it is difficult to understand what could have been deemed offensive about it, even by puritanical standards.

The other painting was a 14th-century portrayal of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad instructing him to “recite in the name of your Lord who has created” — the first revelation of the Quran (96:1). Here, the prophet’s face is clearly visible. The illustration was originally found in a work of history called “The Compendium of Chronicles” (or “Jami al-Tawarikh” in Arabic) by Rashid al-Din Hamadani (1247–1318), a Persian physician and bureaucrat who served the Mongol conquerors of Iran in the 13th and 14th centuries.

In the case of the second image, it is easier to imagine someone taking offense, albeit only from a contemporary puritanical perspective. As the art historian Christiane Gruber has recently argued in New Lines, the modern unwillingness to depict Muhammad has not always prevailed within Islam. A 700-year-old picture of him should be obvious proof of this. In effect, then, the university administration took a side in a doctrinal debate. The incident could be compared to a Calvinist taking offense at an image of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, and the university administration siding with the Calvinist while calling the incident “anti-Christian.” Most people would probably struggle to take that seriously.

Academics like Gruber have rightly asserted that academic freedom should have prevailed. The story could well end here. But it seems to me the incident offers a deeper lesson. To explain what I mean, we need to look closer at Rashid al-Din and his “Compendium of Chronicles” and the context in which the work was written.

“The Compendium of Chronicles” is an example of what is called “universal history.” This genre was already old when Rashid al-Din began his tome in the 14th century. Such works began at the creation of the world, blending the biblical, classical and other accounts of the remote past, and carrying the narrative down to the time of writing. The genre typified historiography in Late Antiquity after the ascendancy of Christianity, which encouraged a vision of history as something akin to the working out of a divine plan within human affairs, or a drama in which God is the main character. It was the duty of the Christian historian to extend the work of the biblical authors by adducing new demonstrations of divine grace in the world. Notable examples were written in Armenian by Movses Khorenatsi and in Greek by John Malalas in the fifth and sixth centuries, respectively.

After the coming of Islam, the genre was taken up and expanded by the Iranian historian and polymath Abu Hanifah Dinawari in the ninth century. The latter places his country at the centre of human history, weaving the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests into the larger tapestry of the biblical and pre-Islamic Iranian past. The result is, so to speak, a genealogy of Iranian and Islamic civilization going back to the Hebrew patriarchs all the way to Adam, as well as to the ancient heroes and kings of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian scripture. Subsequent Muslim historians followed Dinawari’s paradigm. Writers of the Islamic Golden Age including al-Yaqubi, Ibn Mutazz, Ibn Abd Rabbih, al-Tabari and al-Masudi also roamed widely through Byzantine, Iranian, Indian and Chinese literature and historiography, even as scientists and philosophers assimilated Greek and Indian science and mathematics.

Rashid al-Din’s “Compendium” is the most expansive and wide-ranging example of the Islamic universal history. It concludes and perfects the intellectual trend begun by Dinawari around 600 years earlier. It was an ambitious undertaking, requiring a large team of researchers, artists and book-makers at the so-called Rabe Rashidi, a pious foundation which Rashid al-Din had endowed at Tabriz. The institution was basically an amalgam of a school, an oratory and a publishing company. It was its employees who produced the offending illustration of Gabriel and Muhammad under Rashid al-Din’s direction.

Today, many portions of the “Compendium” have sadly been lost, but enough has survived to allow us to judge its contents fairly. It covered all the religious history familiar from the Old Testament, pre-Islamic Iran and the Greco-Roman past, including the rise of Christianity and Islam, as well as the histories of China, India, Frankish Europe and the Turkic tribes. The work culminates in the rise of the Mongols, their conquests, their destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate, their rule of Iran, and their conversion to Islam. Rashid al-Din was well-placed to trace this Mongol history, being the principal advisor to Ghazan Khan, a direct descendant of Genghis, with access to official Mongol records.

The context in which the “Compendium” was written is also significant. It appeared at the end of a long period of decline within the Abbasid Caliphate which had ruled the territories of the old Persian and Roman empires, and their hinterlands, since 750. From the mid-ninth century onward, local dynasties of Iranian and Turkic origin had begun to assert their independence from Baghdad. The caliphate waned, as the Tahirid, Saffarid, Samanid, Ziyarid and Buyid monarchies grew in power and prestige, until they in their turn were dismembered by the invading Ghaznavid and Seljuk Turks between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Yet nothing shook Muslim power and self-confidence more than the Mongol conquests. The carnage wrought by the Mongols is astounding even by the standards of the 20th century, though we cannot be absolutely certain of the death toll. Millions may not have been massacred in each of the cities of eastern Iran and Inner Asia, as contemporary chroniclers claimed (Rashid al-Din included), but the huge figures cited can be taken as evidence that the body count and destruction were quite unlike anything that anyone had experienced before. The Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 was especially humiliating, since it ended with the murder of the Caliph al-Mustasim. The direct link between the political and religious authority of the day and the ancient rule of the prophet was severed forever. After nearly four thousand years of continuity, Mesopotamia would never again be the center of a great civilization.

To get a sense of how these calamities affected ordinary people, we should look at Sufism. The Sufi emphasis on mystical, interior piety was for many the only consolation amid political and religious collapse and the devastation of warfare. Yet, despite the beauty of their poetry (one thinks of Sanai, Attar, Rumi and Jami, for instance), the Sufis ultimately represent a turning away from a troubled world, ignoring and forgetting it. Sadly, for many people, this meant private fantasy, passivity and pessimism.

By contrast, the “Compendium” is an effort to reconnect the present with the past after all the chaos and destruction brought about by the Mongol conquests. It directly confronts the whole scene of human history, including recent calamities, making them intelligible and worthy of memory rather than oblivion.

Rashid al-Din weaves the Mongol conquests into the larger tapestry of Muslim history. He is surprisingly objective about the Mongols and their destructive methods, but also celebrates their conversion to the true religion, just as he himself had converted from Judaism, probably when he was about 30. The Mongol rulers of Iran were treated respectfully as individual persons, not simply as impersonal forces of nature sent to chastise the Muslim world. The life and times of each khan were illustrated by portraits, as were those of former rulers both before and after Islam. The painters themselves took inspiration from Chinese techniques — a willingness to imitate other cultures in keeping with the best features of the Islamic Golden Age.

In such a context, the figure of Muhammad would have appeared both literally and figuratively at the center of history. For an illiterate Mongol lord leafing through the “Compendium,” this would have been a powerful representation of continuity, as well as a lesson in the tokens and symbols of divine and earthly authority. In Dinawari’s time, it was the ancient Iranian past that was in danger of oblivion, which is why Dinawari strove to keep its memory alive. In the 14th century, the defunct caliphate and vanished lineage of the prophet might in their turn have been consigned to oblivion or transformed into shadowy abstractions. In order to avoid such outcomes, it was important not only to tell the story but also to show that Muhammad was a real, living man anchored in space and time.

Contrast the spirit of Rashid al-Din with that of his contemporary Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328).

Ibn Taymiyya inveighed against the mystical doctrines of Sufism, representational art and the veneration of Muslim saints. He loathed the Mongols even after they had converted to Islam, deeming their conversion to have been feigned or half-hearted. Ibn Taymiyya saw the Mongols as akin to a storm or plague sent to punish a sinful world. He preached a doctrine of renewal through the literal word of the Quran, advocating jihad against what he saw as an illegitimate political authority. It was Ibn Taymiyya’s influence that later formed the philosophical foundation of Wahhabism, the puritanical doctrine named for a certain Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) who rejected the popular veneration of saints and pilgrimages to tombs and shrines, and tried to have the main sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina razed.

The dim view of Islamic patrimony cultivated by Ibn Taymiyya and Abd al-Wahhab came to prevail in many places. It is because of them that many Muslim shrines and mosques all over the world were whitewashed, and a large amount of Islamic art effaced. Comparisons with the Byzantine Iconoclasm (726–842) come to mind, as do the worst excesses of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Consider the looting of the National Museum of Afghanistan by the Taliban and al Qaeda, or the destruction of Muslim shrines and mausoleums by Ansar Dine at Timbuktu in Mali. These were UNESCO World Heritage sites, and Timbuktu had been a center of Islamic learning for much of its history, still home to thousands of medieval Arabic and African manuscripts which had never been edited, studied or translated. But they were destroyed in the 2010s.

Herein lies the deeper lesson of the Hamline incident. Ibn Taymiyya’s puritanical originalism has led to a far more radical break with the past than the destruction caused by the Mongols and the extinction of the caliphate. In contrast, an older, more traditional, more expansive vision of Islam is represented by Rashid al-Din. His “Compendium” symbolizes a triumph over the carnage and destruction of the 13th century, as well as all the earlier turmoil and dislocations within the Muslim world — a victory which should inspire us in our own time after the collapse of empires, the horror of two world wars, and all the destruction and displacements caused by jihadism and the so-called “War on Terror.” Suppressing the centrepiece of Rashid al-Din’s book is an effort to ignore and forget this victory. If it has not done so already, sooner or later, such forgetfulness will sever contemporary Islam from all its patrimony. It will leave behind a diminished future along with fear and contempt of the Muslim past. To paraphrase the administration at Hamline, what could be more inconsiderate, disrespectful — and Islamophobic?

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