Home / Articles / Multiculturalism in Classical Islamic Civilization
To talk of “Classical Islamic Civilization” is to make three huge leaps of faith: What do we mean by civilization? How do we qualify Islam as a single civilization? And why focus on just the “classical” phase of whatever we mean by a civilization?
To begin with, by civilization we mean something both larger than culture and different from religion. Civilization is an historical catchment of broad civil or urban developments. Within Islamic civilization are subsumed multiple cultures— Arab, Persian, Turkish, Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Maghribi (North African), West African, Central Asian, Southeast Asian, just to mention a few. Despite the Afro-Arabian accent of early Muslim history, Islamic civilization is predominantly Asian rather than Arab, and draws more on the experience of Mongols and Mughals than it does on the history of Maghribis and Middle Easterners.
In what follows I will speak to the need for a resilient and persistent Asian focus in the teaching of Islamic civilization. Most Muslims are Asian, and Islamic civilization, like Muslim demography, derives its central focus and determinative profile from Asia. The teaching of Islamic civilization, therefore, should highlight the world view of millions of Asians, from Central to South to Southeast Asia. Yet not all Asians, nor scholars of Asia, acknowledge Islam as a major civilization in their vast region. After all, there are two other preeminent Asian civilizations, the Indic in South and the Chinese in the East. Yet Islamic civilization exceeds subregional boundaries to a degree that the others do not: neither Indic nor Chinese norms span the breadth of Asia through its central and southern regions to the extent that Islamic or Islamicate norms do. Since the beginning of the second millennium of the common era, Islamic civilization has made as much a contribution to the complex nature of Asian cultural traditions as has any other world civilizational force.
It is crucial to remember that Islamic civilization as a rubric needs to be clearly distinguished from Islam itself, which is by no means its synonym. Islamic civilization relates to Islam but also differs from it. Islam as religion belongs to Muslims, who profess the beliefs, follow the cult, and live as observant Muslims. Islamic civilization, however, is about the whole complex of social relations that comprise the vast historical canvas of Muslim peoples. It does concern Islamic belief and ritual, doctrine and law, but above all Islamic civilization concerns the often taken-for-granted ways in which patterns of conduct emerge. It is as much about adab ( moral outlook and practice) as about shari’a (juridical values and norms). It is as much about difference as sameness. It is as much about discontinuity as continuity.
To put the case more starkly, Islamic civilization involves all parts of the world where Muslims have been dominant. It includes Andalusia and India, no longer under Muslim rule, as much as it does Arabia and Bengal, still under Muslim rule (though the fateful partition of Bengal under the British in 1905 produced a sea change in demography that left only East Bengal, later East Pakistan [post-1948] and finally Bangladesh [post-1971] as a majority Muslim sub- region of Bengal).
A recent example may clarify the difference. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 was the Bengali scholar, Amartya Sen. In a recent speech at Duke University, Dr. Sen gave a Bengali tip of the hat to an earlier Bengali Nobel laureate, the marvelous poet, Rabindranath Tagore, but he underscored as the key exemplars of multicultural and cosmopolitan thinking in South Asia, the 16th century Mughal dynast, Akbar, and the 11th century Ghaznavid polymath, al- Biruni. Both Akbar and al-Biruni made major contributions to the expansive force of Islamic civilization, but neither would rank high in any estimate of Islam as juridical or religious system.
And what do we mean by classical? That involves us in what Abdallah Laroui calls the ternary paradox, that is, the paradox of reckoning time in three separate, seemingly equivalent periods: classical, medieval, and modern. More frequent is the binary reference to modern and pre-modern as contrasting, though again “equivalent,” periods of historical time. The paradox is that neither the three nor the two have the power of the one. The one is the modern, and it is only through the modern that we can spy what is pre-modern, classical, or medieval. Indeed, while we need to examine what we call the classical and medieval periods on their own terms, we ourselves cannot cease to be modern. No matter how hard we try, we will view whatever is classical or medieval through the lens of modernity. In our case, we also have largely non-Islamic eyes, and so we modern non-Muslims, with a few exceptions, want to figure out what pre-modern, classical Islamic civilization has to tell us about the problems of multiculturalism which face us in our own society.
The place to begin is to note that there are not three but six discrete periods which need to be considered within the broadest view of Islamic civilization. Preceding these six periods is another big swath of time that we simply label as prehistory. It is the period from about 3000 to 500 BCE, during which agrarian-based settled societies arose. It is the period during which expendable wealth, due to the surplus of peasant labor, produced the market, court and temple as the tripod foundation for cities. It is the period during which absolute faith in the often divinized ruler also emerged.
An excellent source for this can be found in Britannica Online at https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/295765/Islamic-world/26891/The-emergent-Islamic-civilization. There you can access a masterful overview of Islamic civilization written over a decade ago by an accomplished historian of premodern Afro-Asian Islam, Marilyn Waldman. Professor Waldman, in turn, builds on the work of the most inventive world historian to write on Islamic civilization, Marshall G.S. Hodgson. Like Hodgson, she tries to make sense of the actual stages of shift within Islamic civilization, instead of accepting the ternary or binary categories cited above.
Waldman begins by noting that by the middle of the first millennium before the Common Era there already existed four cultural core areas: Mediterranean, Nile-to-Oxus (not Middle Eastern!), Indic, and East Asian. Two rivers, the Nile to the south and Oxus to the north, are a better way of talking about the core area of Islamic civilization because it was these two rivers that framed some of the major developments of the early three phases of Islamic civilization. They are, according to Waldman’s reckoning, best viewed in alliterative or assonant pairs: Formation and Orientation (500-634) is Phase One, and ends with the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Conversion and Crystallization (634-870) is Phase Two, during which Islamic rule comes to prevail, but there are not yet Muslim majorities in all regions under Islamic rule. Fragmentation and Florescence (870-1041) sees the splintering of Muslim polities but at the same time the emergence of Islam as a major civilizational force for the first time, and it is that period which coincides with the life and times of Ahmad Raihan al-Biruni (d. ca. 1050), arguably a pivotal figure in the emergence of Asian-style Islamic cosmopolitanism.
We should focus on al-Biruni as an exemplar of what Islamic civilization can tell us about the possibilities and limits of multiculturalism. Even today the accomplishments of this 11th century Ghaznavid scientist and polymath remain astonishing. His native tongue was a variant of present day Uzbeki. He also spoke and wrote in Persian. He was familiar enough with three “classical” languages to write in one and to translate from the other two: Arabic, Greek, and Sanskrit. Yet he was not a literary scholar, but a scientist extraordinaire. He is said to have produced some 138 books, treatises and translations. Only 22 are known to have survived, most of them written in Arabic, though some also exist in Persian renditions.
Among his translations from Sanskrit into Arabic were the yogasutras of Patanjali, titled the Book of Patanjali (Kitab Batanjal). The other, more famous, book dealing with Sanskrit texts was his wide ranging examination of Indic scientific sources, supplemented by conversations with Hindu pandits whom al-Biruni met while forced to accompany his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, on military campaigns in the Ganges region. Its full title was Kitab tahqiq ma lil- Hind min maqbulah lil-‘aql aw mardhulah (The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Despicable), but it is often simply known as the India, after the English rendition made by C.E. Sachau, entitled Alberuni’s India, it was first published from London in 1910, and has been often reprinted.
There is a significant overlap of categories, just as there is a continuum of methodological perspective, between Kitab Batanjal and al-Biruni’s magnum opus, the India. Composed around 1030 AD, while the Ghaznavid polymath was at the height of his analytical powers, the India represents both a distillation and an extension of what had been broached in Kitab Batanjal: to classify and evaluate the major categories of Hindu philosophy and religion. Nearly two- thirds of the India (48 of 70 chapters) reviews the achievement of Indian science in several fields. The initial 12 chapters provide a magisterial overview of Hindu notions of God, creation, metempsychosis, salvation, and idolatry. While idol worship is denigrated, it is also set forth as class-specific, being the indulgence of uneducated, superstitious masses and not the preference of those literate elites with whom al-Biruni was in frequent contact. Ten of the last 17 chapters in the India address ritual practices, principally initation and funerary cermonies but also obligatory sacrifices and dietary rules, together with fasting, pilgrimage and festival observances. In effect, al- Biruni wants to offer his readers a compendium of Hindu religious lore, as he read, heard about, and observed it. But above all, he wants to appropriate the “higher” truth of Indian philosophy, bracketing it with the Hellenistic corpus and integrating both into the world view of educated Muslims. He cares little for the uneducated— whether Muslim or Hindu— and so the final chapters of the India, devoted to Hindu rituals, appear as a kind of ethnographic afterthought. They lend an air of completeness to his massive tome without, however, aiding his primary goal: to pursue the Truth.
One might criticize al-Biruni’s presuppositions as elitist, and his methodology as overly reliant on literary data. Yet al-Biruni stands at the apex of Islamic scholarship on non- Muslim religious traditions. After him few followed his lead as a dispassionate enquirer into the subtleties of Hindu thought until the late medieval/early modern period of Indo- Muslim history. Numerous Sufi savants and latitudinarian Muslim princes followed a parallel quest to engage and to understand Indic traditions, but it remained for 19th century European scholars to spark an interest in further study along the lines al-Biruni had initiated, among both educated Muslms and also Western scholars of Islam. In sum, if one is seeking antecedents to multiculturalism within classical Islamic civilization, it is fitting to follow the lead of Bengali economist Amartya Sen and invoke the name of al-Biruni.
If we now return to the marvelous overview essay by Waldman, we find that Islamic civilization continues to adapt and change after the Ghaznavids and after the time of al-Biruni. It is the Turkish spirit that combines with the Persian, or Persianate, influence of the preceding period to produce still other giants, and new horizons for both Islamic scholarship and social exchange. This Fourth Phase, labeled Migration and Renewal (1041-1405), ends with the death of Timur or Tamerlane, who is himself a Chaghatai Turk but sympathetic to Mongol ideals. Above all, Timur embodied a form of Islamic absolutism that prevailed in the next phase, the era of the Gunpowder Empires (1405-1683). Ending with the Ottoman defeat at Vienna in 1683, it is followed by the latest, and still current phase, labeled Reform, Dependency (on European colonial powers), and Recovery (following independence) (1683-present).
There is not time to review the full course of Islamic civilization from its Classical Phase, which ended with al- Biruni in the mid-11th century or else with the death of Timur some 250 years later, but certainly did not persist beyond the mid-14th century. By either reckoning, there is no medieval period of Islamic(ate) civilization. What we have instead is a long prolegomenon to the advent of “modern” times, which also have tested the spirit and the resilience that were characteristic of Islamic civilization in its earlier phases. There remains the Persianate hope so well attested by Marshall Hodgson when he wrote:
“Islam as an identifiable institutional tradition may not last indefinitely [and the same may be said for Christianity and Judaism] … but Persian poetry will not die so soon as the disquisitions of fiqh or kalam. And Persian poetry may eventually prove to be as potent everywhere as among those who use language touched by the Persianate spirit, and so by Islam.” (The Venture of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1974)
As the 20th century draws to a close, Hodgson’s project, cut short by his untimely death in 1969, remains the clarion cry of hope not only for Persian speakers but also for all who seek to identify the vitality and so the future resilience of Islamicate norms. One does not stop with Persian poetry but engages it in order to understand the further subtleties of cultural diffusion that continue to mark the persistence and the expansion of Islamic civilization. To move beyond Arabic and to include Persian as a foundational marker is merely to draw both together into a larger idiom, labeled by Hodgson the Irano-Semitic. The accent is neither on Arabic or Persian alone, but on both together, as an interactive, dynamic construct that implies the variability, and also the creativity, of Islamic civilization, from its earliest historical chapters to the present. Beyond the cultural specifier of any language or culture looms the adaptable, permeable quality of Islamic civilization. The necessary lesson for undergraduates and for those who teach them, therefore, is that Islamic civilization need not “confront” multicultrualism or adapt to it, for it is, of its essence, multicultural.