Akbar Ahmed explores Europe anew; gives call for peaceful togetherness

Mohammed Wajihuddin

Scholars around the globe responded to the death of 3000 Americans in 9/11 attacks differently. A surfeit of essays, books, films, documentaries—all aimed at understanding the reasons behind the rage—accumulated.

In this context one remembers India-born, US-based journalist and political thinker Fareed Zakaria’s famous essay in Newsweek—Politics of rage: Why do they hate us—that had generated animated debates among concerned and discerning readers everywhere. I remember Freed’s scholar-politician father late Dr Rafiq Zakaria discussing it with me with great interest over cups of tea one afternoon at his Cuffe Parade, Mumbai home.

Provocative and prescient, Fareed’s essay was penned in the heat of the moment and therefore had limited scope in its dimensions. Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland, one of the world’s outstanding scholars of Islam and currently Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University at Washington. D.C., reacted to the 9/11 attacks differently.

He took upon himself the gargantuan task to understand the rage and anger, current conflicts and future flashpoints through journeys into countries and conversations with different players.

Unlike armchair scholars who pontificate on global issues cocooned at their ivory towers, Ahmed decided to dirty hands and sweat it out with diligence and determination. The anthropologist in him helped him do the fieldwork that didn’t depend on dry data or familiar history. He conceived a quartet of studies to explore and examine the relationship between Islam and the West from four different perspectives. The result is four critically-acclaimed books based on massive fieldwork in different countries—Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalisation (2007), Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), The Thistle and the Dome: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013) and Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity (2018). One of Akbar’s earlier reports had popularized the word ‘Islamophobia’, the fear of Islam and Muslims.

I approached the last in the quartet Journey into Europe with great expectations. Part-autobiography, part-anthropology and part-travelogue, the book takes us to territories characterized by conflict and confluence, war and peace, prosperity and grinding poverty. Born in British India, Akbar received his PhD from School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has lived in the West after a stint as a civil servant in Pakistan. It is a revelation to me, through this book, that Akbar, scholar, author, poet, filmmaker, is related to my hero Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817—1898), founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). His understanding of Islam is not in the mould of the madrassa-trained clerics. He doesn’t quote the Quran and the Hadiths (saying of the Prophet) at the drop of a hat but is aware of the kind, civilizing nature of the faith. He has read Rumi and Iqbal, Keats and Shakespeare. He says that reading in English opened vast, new and fascinating worlds to his young imagination. Something that was not at my disposal while I grew up in Hindi heartland, but who says age is a bar when it comes to learning? Akbar’s worldview has been shaped by the best in East and West.

Working on this project, Akbar and his four field assistants—Frankie Martin, Harrison Akins, Amineh Hoti (daughter) and Zeenat Ahmed (wife)—crisscrossed Europe, visiting 50 cities and towns, 50 mosques, several synagogues and cathedrals and met imams, rabbis, priests, presidents, prime ministers and commoners. From Bradford to Berlin, Cordoba to Sicily, Athens to Italy, Akbar takes us on a fascinating tour of places with rich history of Islam taking roots and witnessing hatred and also persecution.

He studies the primordial tribal identity in Europe in detail and says that the influx of Muslim immigrants into Europe from Middle East and elsewhere threatens rise in the assertion of the same primordial tribal identity that had put in Nazi Germany on the path of annihilation of the Jews. Before Hitler and his SS brigade executed their devilish designs through gas chambers at Dachau, concentration camps at Auschwitz there were writers, poets, playwrights who propagated anti-Semitic views in Europe.

But what was the source of unfathomable hate against the Jews in Christian Europe? “For more than a millennium in Gemanic lands, and indeed in larger Christian Europe, Jews were seen as a small, alien, powerless and marginal minority in society….their separateness was heightened by customs that appeared strange and foreign, such as strict dietary laws about not eating swine. They were also often compelled to wear distinctive dress or badges that identified them as Jews,” writes Akbar.

He adds that the religious notion that somehow the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ was drummed up which earned them the label of “Christ killer.” The Nazis appropriated the slogans of “Blood and Soil” and considered Jews outsiders to the notion of Germanic primordial identity of Volk and Heimat. The writer also details how, apart from suffering the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jews faced confiscation of their properties and expulsion from European kingdoms.

While reading these details, I was often reminded of the menacing threat of badla (revenge) a chief minister of a state in India uttered against Muslims who participated in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and allegedly destroyed government properties. To be clubbed with National Register for Citizens (NRC) though PM Narendra Modi has said there is no NRC in sight and Indian Muslims need not fear the new law, CAA threatens to render those Muslims stateless who will fail the citizenship test. Critics say it is a step towards “othering” Muslims. Killings by lynch mobs, arrest of activists involved in anti-CAA protests in Delhi and elsewhere, demonization of the minorities by a section of media—all point to building up of a culture of hatred against a particular community. Muslims who have been part of a syncretic ethos and equal participants in India’s freedom struggle and building of modern India must be made to feel that they belong here as much as other communities do.

Many of us wrongly believe that it is only Muslims who face discrimination and threats of persecution in the growing Islamophobic Europe. Jews too are victims of frequent targets, physical and verbal. Many Jews have either emigrated or planning to migrate to their “promised land” Israel. Where will Muslims go? They fled war and war-caused deprivations, boarded leaky boats and crossed borders risking lives to reach shores of Europe. And what about those Muslims who have lived in Europe in harmony and peace for centuries and now face hostility post-9/11? Should they too search for a new home now that the dreaded Germanic primordial identity is showing its poisonous fangs again?

Masjid-e-Qurtaba, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba

But what I liked the most in this tome is the chapter on ‘European Pluralist Identity.’ Ever since I read poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal’s poem Masjid-e-Qurtaba, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, in high school decades ago, I have been curious to know more about al-Andalus–the Arabic name for Iberia in Spain. This chapter quenches my thirst substantially as we meet here Abdur Rahman, founder of the Muslim Andalusian dynasty, philosophers like Averroes or Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arabi and rediscover the architectural wonders of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, now officially called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and Alhambra—the palace and fortress that housed the Muslim rulers of Granada. Above all, the chapter throws light on ilm or knowledge ethos and covivencia or co-existence Andalusia practiced and fostered. The Andalusian model of convivencia, begun by Abdur Rahman, the sole survivor of the Umayad dynasty overthrown by the Abbasids in 750 AD, encouraged acceptance of others and pursuit of knowledge, art, literature.

The Grand Mosque of Cordoba was not only a place of worship but also of learning. Scholars from different parts of Europe and the Muslim world gathered here to discuss and debate before and after prayer. The ruler would also often participate in those sessions of learning.

Who stops Muslims across the world from reviving this tradition of opening the doors of the mosques for pursuit of ilm or knowledge? We may not have an Abdur Rahman amidst us but we can create a culture of knowledge. Unlike many Arab monarchs of today, Abdur Rahman didn’t believe that acquiring of ilm stopped at the doors of the mosque (I would have been more pleased had an Arab ruler given PM Narendra Modi a guided tour of a modern university instead of a magnificent mosque a couple of years ago).

The main library of Cordoba had 600,000 books at a time when the biggest library in Christian Europe housed in Switzerland had 400. There were 70 libraries in Cordoba alone, writes Akbar.

Akbar and his team members visited the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Abdur Rahman’s architectural triumph. While the monument’s magnificence—a thousand marble columns reaching up in arches to the high ceiling in a shape suggestive of palm fronds—has always fascinated Akbar, its pronounced problem of identity saddens him more. The author bares his heart when he observes: “Every time I visit this great house of worship I also drift into a mood of melancholia at the thought of its predicament: not quite dead as a mosque, nor fully alive as a cathedral.”

Statues and pictures inside the mosque depict slaying of Moors by the Spanish conquerors. And even king of Spain Charles V who ordered renovation inside the massive mosque to give it more the appearance of a cathedral later regretted: “You have built here what you, or anyone else, might have built anywhere; to do so you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”

Akbar first visited the Grand Mosque in the 1960s and says that he even “prayed in the arch of the mehrab, the designated place in the wall of a mosque that points towards Mecca, and no one seemed to care.” Allama Iqbal had bowed in prayer precisely at this spot before he penned his popular poem “The Mosque of Cordoba”, declaring: “You have elevated Andalusia to the eminence of the Haram (in Mecca).” Now an ugly iron grating five feet high, informs the book, has been constructed some twenty feet from the mehrab to seal it off from visitors. No one can come near the mehrab where the likes of Abdur Rahman, Allama Iqbal, Akbar Ahmed once prayed. While reading this, I went back to Allama Iqbal’s poem on the Grand Mosque of Cordoba and wept and cried. Not because I am a practicing Muslim but because, as a student of history, I think no king or emperor, had rights to disfigure and destroy monuments of great importance. Be that the ancient Nalanda University or so many temples, mosques, cathedrals, synagogues, gurdwaras.

Akbar informs that prince Turki al-Faisal, the son of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, told him in Oxford in 2015 that he had prayed at the same spot at the Grand Mosque in 1980s but with a special permission from his hosts. The prince recounted a story to Akbar about his father King Faisal’s visit to Spain as a guest of General Franco. Faisal had told Franco that he would pay for the construction of the most magnificent cathedral in Europe if the General would give him the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. The General said he had no objection as the building didn’t mean him anything but if he handed over the mosque to Faisal the people of Spain would lynch him. Franco offered Faisal a piece of land in Madrid, atop a hill overlooking the city. Faisal built there what is now called the Islamic Centre.

Three communities–Christians, Jews and Muslims–lived in convivencia, complete peace and the spirit of co-existence, in Andalusia. The author says it may not be possible to return to the age of convivencia of Andalusia but the world can try and emulate the fellowship that defined Andalusia and gave Europe its golden period.

An acclaimed bridge maker among communities through his lectures, books, articles and films, Ahmed has made singular contribution to understanding contemporary world. His Journey into Europe, last in the quartet series, is a tribute to his rigorous scholarship and fortitude. It also shows his burning desire to see the world communities live in peace and harmony despite their differences. His is a Clarion call for closing cleavages and imbibing shared experiences. This is a book that should be on the bedside reading table of all thinking humans.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.

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