My father nearly died thirteen years before I was born. He was stabbed through the chest while out walking with a couple of friends in Port Said. They were attacked by a gang of Egyptians. In the ensuing brawl my father suffered a non-fatal wound that saw him hospitalised and, eventually, returned to England for further medical attention. Although it ended his military career, the damage did not result in any long-term physical effects.
While he never spoke fondly of his assailants, my father did not condemn their race for the incident. Nor did he blame the altercation on ethnic or religious factors. Nationalism no doubt played an important part. As a member of Her Britannic Majesty’s Armed Forces, my father’s presence in Egypt was largely unwelcome, representing, as it did, a foreign occupation.
Who was responsible for starting the fight we will never know. My father maintained it was the Egyptians, but then, what else would he say? His middle name was Ignatius, from the Latin for fiery, after Ignatius Loyola, the soldier-cum-saint who founded the Jesuits. If the gospel according to Matthew is a reliable source, Jesus was explicit in stating that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. My father’s creed came from some other source, at least with respect to cheek-turning. In that regard, one has in mind G. K. Chesterton, when he wrote, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried’.
In spite of being stabbed, my father had a fondness for Egypt and Egyptians that lasted until he died, forty years later. He taught me the occasional Arabic word or phrase even as I was acquiring my mother tongue. We often leafed through his photographs from that time. He was very proud of his Egyptian-made, leather wallet, large enough to hold old five-pound notes flat. He also delighted in his Egyptian friends, individuals who saw beyond his uniform.
‘I cannot do with any more education, Jeeves. I was full up years ago.’
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise. No more; where ignorance is bliss,
Some months after he died I travelled to Egypt for the first time. In the close to twenty years since, I have lived and travelled across the Greater Middle East, from Morocco’s Atlantic shores, across the ancient deserts and modern cities of North Africa and Arabia to the mountains of Afghanistan. Some routes were unmapped, desert crossings traversed solely with my camels; others were well trodden, even tedious, milling among the throng as I crossed Midan Tahrir en route to teach at the American University in Cairo. Occasionally one came across danger, or loneliness, but each journey mattered. Added together, they now constitute a body of knowledge about places and people – myself included – that was never going to be found at home. The weary may side with Bertie Wooster, but they know Jeeves is right:
‘Travel is highly educational, sir.’
When one considers the woeful level of ignorance in the West about Arabs and the Greater Middle East, the danger we face is not of finding ourselves ‘full up’ just yet. Native scholars from the Middle East and North Africa have, down the centuries, produced an enviable body of learning. That they are not household names in the West shows a gap in our learning, rather than reducing the importance and relevance of their work.
If ignorance is bliss, why are so many ignorant people angry? Perhaps because Thomas Grey continues to be misquoted. In his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ Grey puts forward an idea, posited centuries earlier by Sophocles, that a state of ignorance is incompatible with maturity:
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’Tis folly to be wise.
In Hobbes we read that ‘Knowledge is Power’, an idea that, like Grey, has ancient antecedents. The Book of Proverbs, a work conceived and born in the Middle East, says, ‘A wise man is strong; a man of knowledge increaseth strength’. The literary thread leads even further back, to the seventh century BC, and the Assyrian author, Ahiqar.
Power does not have to mean military might or occupation. Shared knowledge strengthens all partners engaged in the same endeavour. Domination need not be pejorative. When operating in an unfamiliar environment, knowledge of the local languages, culture and religions, as well as the commercial and political systems, inevitably provides a competitive edge for the diplomat, soldier and businessperson alike. Furthermore, if education provides a competitive edge, it is worth bearing in mind that in 2010 nearly nine thousand students came from Saudi Arabia (of a population of twenty-eight million) to study in the UK. If there were even nine hundred British students capable of studying in Arabic at the university level, it would be a great surprise.
The Arabic word for ignorance, jahil, can also mean, like its English equivalent, blindness, in the sense of being unaware, or stupidity. In Islamic theology, jahiliyya means the time of ignorance, a condition or state of being in which people lived without God’s guidance. As an historical period, jahiliyya, or the days of ignorance, covers all human history before Muhammad received his revelations and Islam was born.
This notion is easily grasped if one remembers that Christianity too divides all time into two blocks, BC and AD. (It was only in 525 AD that the concept of Anno Domini was invented by the Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus – Denis the Small, or Humble.) The purpose of the present essay, however, is not theological but rather to begin to address a general state of ignorance in the West of the Arab World.
Following the death of Muhammad in 632 accounts of his sayings and actions were collected and transmitted orally before eventually being written down. Known as the hadith, these are supplementary to the Quran – the revelations believed to have been delivered to Muhammad from God through the angel Gabriel. (Moses spoke with a burning bush. It is not for us to judge the medium.) The hadith hold a prominent position in Islamic jurisprudence, as well as providing a guide to life for Muslims in the same way a Christian might refer to The Imitation of Christ or, contemplating a course of action, might ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ Inevitably, since men were responsible for collecting and compiling these sayings, Islamic scholars place the hadith into various grades of reliability, from authentic, via uncertain and dubious, to fabricated.
The hadith are wide in variety. One example is Muhammad’s instruction to ‘Seek knowledge, even if it be in China’ – the farthest imaginable edge of the world. The prophet was clearly not narrow-minded or of a parochial bent. And there is clearly a sense of humour in the recommendation to ‘Trust in God, but tie up your camel’, which was offered to a man whose animal disappeared while he was praying.
The path from ignorance to understanding does not have to involve a journey to China, however, or take place on the back of a camel. It is as easy as reading a book. The first word that Gabriel uttered to Muhammad was iqra – read. It was sound advice at the start of the journey. A book is always the best means of transport.
The greatest traveller of all, Ibn Battuta, covered approximately seventy- five thousand miles in his lifetime – some three times as far as his near contemporary, Marco Polo, and more than anyone until the coming of the steam age over four centuries later. Born in the Moroccan entrepôt of Tangier, in February 1304, Ibn Battuta’s global journeys took place over more than thirty years. It was when he finally returned to Morocco that the Sultan Abu Inan Faris instructed Ibn Battuta to dictate an account of his travels to a scribe, Ibn Juzayy. The resultant work rejoices in the title, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. It is more commonly known as Travels.
Ibn Battuta left Tangier in June 1325 at the age of twenty-one, travelled across North Africa to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and carried on. He sometimes stopped for months at a time, on occasion to get married. After journeying up the Nile and down again, he went north to Jerusalem and Damascus, south to Mecca to complete his pilgrimage and further south to Aden, Mogadishu, Mombasa and Zanzibar. To the north and the east, he wandered the Byzantine Empire, Anatolia, Mongolian Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and China.
Open-minded as a traveller should be, Ibn Battuta was still surprised, even shocked, by some of the things he came across. One should approach Travels aware that Ibn Battuta’s audience expected good things to be said of Muslim rulers, to the detriment of others. It is by no means all blind favouritism, however. While a guest of Mansa Suleyman, Emperor of Mali, Ibn Battuta was affronted by the nudity of the Mansa’s female slaves, servants and daughters.
Intriguingly, the name Ibn Battuta means Son of a Duckling. One wonders if it was a nickname bestowed in infancy due to his apparent compulsion to keep moving. Having travelled through Muslim and non-Muslim lands, exhaustion and the order of the Sultan finally forced him back to Tangier, where he died fifteen years later, aged sixty-four or sixty-five.
After the Islamic conquest of Persia it was decided that the Caliphate needed a new capital. For one thing, the previous capital, Damascus, was now too far from the geographical centre of the growing empire. Founded in 762, it was the turn of Baghdad to develop into a world-class urban centre, and it quickly established a reputation for both grandeur and learning.
Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, owed its creation to the enlightened attitude towards learning of the Caliph al-Ma’mun, and attracted scholars from as far away as North Africa, India and China. One of these was the polymath, al-Khwarizmi, born in Persia around 780 AD.
It was at the Bayt al-Hikma that al-Khwarizmi produced most of his work on mathematics, astronomy, geography and cartography. Not only did he translate a mass of Greek scholarship, correcting Ptolemy’s calculations as he went, but he added so much to the existing body of literature that his scholarship changed the course of mathematical enquiry for centuries. His book, On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals – in Latin, Algoritmi de numero Indorum – was almost wholly responsible for the spread of Indian numbers, decimalisation and the concept of zero throughout the Middle East and Europe. It is a pity that it was not until three hundred years after his death, circa 850, that Western scholars caught up with his learning.
In The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, al-Khwarizmi virtually created the field of algebra. Indeed, we derive the word from al-jabr, an Arabic word simply meaning the restoring or completion, as in the title of his book. Even the word ‘algorithm’ is from the Latin transliteration of his name, Algorithmi. This genius for all time is rarely mentioned in Western maths lessons though, and the lunar crater that is named in honour of al-Khwarizmi today is, rather aptly, located on the dark side of the moon.
Like many writers before and since, Ibn Khaldun started one book only to complete another. In his case it turned out to be a masterpiece. Born in Tunis in 1332, he was a politically ambitious young man, working in various courts in Andalusia and North Africa, moving as his masters’ fortunes ebbed and flowed. He read as widely as he travelled. His journeys in search of influence and job security fed his views on history and the rise and fall of all civilisations.
When Ibn Khaldun started work on The Book of Lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the History of the Arabs and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries, he conceived the project as a history only of the Berbers. It is possible the Khaldun family were ethnically Berber, in spite of claiming a Yemeni-Arab bloodline from the time of Muhammad.
What started as a history of an important North African-based ethnic group grew into a multi-volume universal history of the world and all human life. The first, stand-alone, volume is Muqaddimah, or the Introduction, which became known in the West by its Greek title, Prolegomena. The Muqaddimah not only established historiography as a field of study but also introduced the scientific method to the study of social sciences. For this, Ibn Khaldun is seen as a pioneer in outlining such now commonplace disciplines as sociology, demography, cultural history, military history and economics.
Writing in the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun offered a definition of government that remains as good as any in the history of political theory. A government, he wrote, was ‘an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself’. Prefiguring free-market economics, he observed that, ‘Businesses owned by responsible and organised merchants shall eventually surpass those owned by wealthy rulers’. He also anticipated evolutionary theory, nearly five-hundred years before Darwin. In the first chapter of Muqaddimah, he writes, ‘The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking’.
Arnold Toynbee was right to describe Muqaddimah as ‘a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place’.
The first lessons learnt as a Theology undergraduate are the region-wide roots of Old Testament texts. It is next to impossible to find an idea or story that has not been borrowed from another, earlier source. Of course, all cultures, including religions, are born of their particular political and social milieu. As that context changes over time, so the culture – religious or otherwise – develops. As Franz Boas stated in 1887, ‘civilisation is not something absolute’; thus, ‘our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilisation goes’. In his wake, cultural relativists hold that, while it might be fun to compare the social norms of disparate environments, it is largely a pointless exercise. Apples are not oranges.
The practice of polygyny was established in the Arabian Peninsula before Muhammad was born. It was initially justified by the provision of legal protection and security to widows whose husbands had died in battle. In 633, the year after Muhammad died, the Fourth Council of Toledo decreed that lapsed Christians be separated from their children, with the latter sold into slavery. Paganism returned to the north of England in that same year. Naturally, both Christianity and Islam have changed over time and continue to exist in a wide variety of forms.
For an insight into the inspiration behind today’s Islamist doctrine it is worth reading Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. Born in Egypt in 1906 and hanged by that same state before his sixtieth birthday, Qutb is the doyen of Islamist extremists. Again, his ideas were a product of their time. Initially a secularist, Qutb only felt compelled to change direction and become an Islamist after a two-year visit to America from 1949 to 1951. In the article ‘The America I Have Seen’ Qutb writes: ‘The American’s intoxication in “jazz” music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself.’ (Qutb really did not like jazz.)
Yet Qutb does not represent all Muslims. While popular in certain circles, he and his followers hold a worldview that must be understood as existing on a religious fringe, like Orangemen, snake-handling preachers or those who would murder doctors in the name of Jesus.
Likewise, the best-known terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, remains a tiny minority movement. In spite of all its changes of strategic direction in the past twenty years, the group remains essentially nihilist, which will always limit its appeal. In light of the appalling atrocities perpetrated in its name, it is important to remind people that nowhere in the Middle East, or anywhere else, is al-Qaeda a majority interest. It is also worth remembering that more innocent Muslims have been murdered by these terrorists than have Westerners.
Having learned from their writings of the contribution to global civilisation made by great Muslim thinkers, the next step is to travel to the Middle East. St. Augustine of Hippo, a native North African, (who, in his youth, prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet’) wrote, ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’. My own Middle Eastern journeys started long before I left home. My father’s stories led to T. E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger, and from them to local authors. There was a direct route from the libraries of my childhood to the camel-powered explorations of my early adulthood. Acquiring the local languages was a
help. With travel, things once confusing are understood; the peculiar can feel commonplace, the odd familiar.
We are currently bearing witness to the most important moment in the history of the modern Middle East since the start of the Arab Revolt of 1916. For decades political stagnation appeared to be a permanent state in the region, yet people are now beginning to vote in elections that mark a step on the path to democracy. Many said this was impossible in the Middle East – that somehow, Islam and democracy were necessarily incompatible. Islamist political parties are participating in these elections and, in many cases, winning. After decades of illegality and repression, the Islamists are enjoying their moment, without necessarily being ready for power.
Rather than bemoan the fact that the people have not voted as they would have liked, those in the West would do better to listen to the new voices, to develop relationships and forge new alliances in order to support the flourishing of civil society and an open and inclusive political infrastructure. Anything less than a full effort in this direction, and any attempt to control the process, would be a grave strategic mistake. My grandmother used to say, ‘Judge as you find, not as you imagine’.
The West already has many vital interests and friends across the Greater Middle East – and the possibility of a bright future from Kabul to Casablanca – but hubris could easily see any good will squandered. A misplaced sense of cultural superiority does us no favours and wins us no friends.
Too often simple solutions turn out to be dogma sold as insight, and ambitious plans born in ignorance. Given the history of Western intervention in the region the relationship is fragile and sensitive. The Middle East is a mosaic rather than a monolith. These are complex societies – nuanced, rich and diverse: it is all too easy to drive them apart, make certain groups feel threatened and push people to the darker margins where compromise is seen as weakness instead of strength. An imposed solution can never work – for the locals or the foreigners, for them or for us. The Arab world is going through tumultuous times but do not say the Arabs are revolting. Ignorance is not bliss. Iqra.