|British Association of Islamic Studies (BRAIS)
Plenary Address – 10 April 2014
Rethinking Muslim Cosmopolitanism:
Civilizational Moorings/Cosmopolitan Options
Muslim Cosmopolitanism between South Asia and North Africa
Today I would like to accent the synergy of two key social forces – civilizational formation and cosmopolitan creativity. I will make two arguments and advance one thesis.
First, I argue that there is a notion of Muslim subjective longing that can, and should, be identified as cosmopolitan. More than simply remembering the past, Muslim cosmopolitan also projects traces of the past with new accents in the future.
Second, I argue that this cosmopolitan longing builds on a related activity, one that requires a collective belonging. Embedded in history, it is often heralded as Islamic or Islamicate civilization. Cosmopolitan and civilization become complimentary qualifiers. They function in tandem. Two sides of a single coin, each illumines the other.
Yet neither Islamic(ate) civilization nor Muslim cosmopolitanism is an abstract generality. Both must be dated and located, grounded and specified, articulated and defended, not once and for all but again, and again, and again, from the 7th to the 21st century, from North Africa to Central, South and Southeast Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to the Phil-Indo Archipelago.
How do we locate the Muslim nature of cosmopolitan longing? To be Muslim in society is no different than any other social identity; it is the same as being Jewish or Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, secular or atheist in society. Whatever you believe, you have to believe from somewhere, and in the Muslim case, you have to be Muslim from somewhere.
While both qualifiers - the universal arc of religion and the local mark of geography - are consequential, to be Muslim and also cosmopolitan, that is, to be a Muslim cosmopolitan, requires a further qualifier.
And this brings me to my thesis: To be Muslim and cosmopolitan, you have to be Muslim from somewhere in between. Specifically, you have to be from some place marked by fluid boundaries, multiple ways of being and seeing, living and feeling the world. While not all aspects of Islamic(ate) civilization are cosmopolitan, all Muslim cosmopolitans come from specific sites within Islamic(ate) civilization. They are nodes in the inhabited world, places with fungible markers mirroring, but also modifying, a religion with fixed boundaries.
Why is in-between-ness so important? Because not only are Muslim cosmopolitans from interstitial places, places accented by their in-between-ness, but also, and most importantly, they are on the peripheries of empire. Not one but several empires marked the expanding scope of Muslim rule – from the 7th to the 17th centuries. They crisscrossed Africa and Asia, and it is two of those places – North Africa and South Asia – that I want to visit today, in order to showcase the genesis and persistence of Muslim cosmopolitanism. Though there are other regions and epochs to consider, I argue that the nature of Muslim cosmopolitan identity cannot be understood without these interstitial places and the remarkable individuals they produced.
Slide # 2 – 11th century Hindustan
First. South Asia, aka Hind or Hindustan. My pivotal argument is that South Asia – the large arc of the Indian subcontinent, from Afghanistan to Bengal, from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean – is the crucial cradle, the birthplace and nurturer, of all that can be, and later becomes, Muslim cosmopolitanism.
Slide # 3 – 12th century Maghrib
And second to it is the Maghrib, where interaction with Northern as well as Southern Mediterranean cultures was as intense as the admixture of Central Asian/South Asian, Turk and Indic cultures, in the subcontinent. Today’s map, separating northern from southern Mediterranean nations, belies the long history that saw a Muslim presence as integral to both Mediterranean islands and southern Spain. The resulting admixture is at once civilizational and cosmopolitan. It is in these two peripheries of Islamic empire building, I argue, that we find the most notable exemplars of both civilizational formation and cosmopolitan identity. The former is a contextual, structural belonging, while the latter is a textual, subjective longing. Both intertwine, at once forming, and reforming, what is meant by Islamic civilization and Muslim cosmopolitanism. There has been a lot of scholarship on Islamic(ate) civilization, relatively little on Muslim cosmopolitanism. My goal today is to conjoin them.
Put in its starkest form, I am arguing that civilization and cosmopolitanism combine spatial, historical belongings with spiritual, contemporary longings. The former are horizontal: they connect across huge distances that demarcate cultural zones. The latter are vertical; they connect across temporal divides that link this world and the next, but also prior generations with current family members. Both – territorial belonging and spiritual longing - combine in someone deemed to be Muslim cosmopolitan.
My argument is novel: you won’t find this logic or its iteration anywhere on Google or Wikipedia. Because it is novel, I want to make it in nuce, using summary examples. They are four. First, are four exemplars, two from South Asia aka Hind/Hindustan and two others from North Africa aka the Maghrib. Second, are four scholars, two focusing on Istanbul, two others on Cairo, with a side glance at Alexandria. Together these eight voices tell a double story, the formation of a new civilization, Islamic(ate) from the 7th to the 17st century, and then the emergence of a new form of cosmopolitanism, Muslim cosmopolitanism, from the 11th to the 21st century. In the interest of time, I will give more space, and attention, to the four exemplars, and provide only an addendum to describe the four scholars.
Slide # 4 – Al-Jabiri
The contemporary Moroccan philosopher Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri (d. 2010)has specified three forms of knowledge in Islamic scholarship – bayan, ‘irfan and burhan.1The first privileges literacy and textual knowledge, the second introspection and mystical insight, while the third extols experimental testing, and the need for empirical observation.
Though all three can be found in other civilizations and other epochs of world history, it is their interactive synergy that has made Islamic(ate) civilization distinctive, Muslim cosmopolitanism possible.
The background question which all of you may be asking is one that I have often asked, or should I say: it has often been asked of me whenever I address the topic of Islam, and link it to civilization or cosmopolitanism. Must not Islamic civilization always be mimetic? And must not Muslim cosmopolitanism always nostalgic? The common assumption is that Western civilization, going back to Greek/Roman antecedents, is the model for all civilizations; China, India and Islam are all copy cats of its strongest features even while providing their own regional accents. The parallel critique is made of Muslim cosmopolitanism. To be cosmopolitan is to be European or American, if not by birth at least in taste, travel, lifestyle preference. For Eurocentric and American triumphalists, it is the modern West that has created what is known as cosmopolitan thought, its ideal and practice, its vision as also its limits. All other brands are either branches or copies of the original.
Two Early Exemplars of Muslim Cosmopolitanism:
One South Asian, One North African
In the examples that follow I may not dispel the myth of Western superiority but let me try to complicate it.
I – Al-Biruni
Slides # 5 & 6- Biruni in Tehran Park, on Moroccan Stamp
Indisputably Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (d. 1048)
was one of the great polymaths of the premodern Muslim world. A scholar trained in multiple disciplines, Biruni benefited from royal patronage to pursue his research and writing. He was a contemporary of the well known Ibn Sina or Avicenna, with whom he corresponded about the nature and goals of scientific research. But unlike Avicenna, Biruni synthesized a wide swath of disciplines with an accent on observation and experimentation in all that he undertook to study, describe and publish. He is said to have written nearly 150 books. They range from astrology and astronomy to biology, geology, paleontology, optics, cartography, geodesy, mineralogy, psychology, linguistics and mathematics. He further engaged history, religion and philosophy, with remarkable command of languages.
In other words, both culturally and linguistically Biruni was an exemplar of inbetweenness. He was an interstitial Muslim subject. Though his first language was a Central Asian precursor of Uzbek, he also wrote in both Persian and Arabic, and translated from Greek, Sanskrit and Syriac into Arabic. And so through his scientific production, Biruni secured for himself a prominent place in the pantheon of those who produced Islamic(ate) civilization as distinctive within, but also contributing, to the oecumene, the advancement of the civilized world as it was known from the 11th century on.
It is in his contribution to ‘the discovery of India’, however, that Biruni becomes an exemplar of Muslim cosmopolitanism. Other Muslims had preceded him to India. Since the late 7th century there had been a thriving community of settlers, traders, and soldiers in Sind,2 for instance, but no one before Biruni was intent to understand the cultural depth, as also the scientific advances, of Hindustan.
It can even be argued that Biruni was the pioneer of comparative studies in religion. His approach to the study of religious traditions presupposes, first of all, a genuine willingness to see truth and value in other cultures, without being forced to insist that there are universal truths in all religious traditions or, like a radical pluralist, that all cultures are equally valid in their religious and social expressions. Rather, what Biruni seems to be arguing is that there is a common human element in every culture that makes all cultures distant relatives, however foreign they might seem one to another. This is the main premise underlying his whole project. Neither a textual inference nor a mystical insight, it is one based on observation and empirical data collection (burhan). This theme is discernible in the passages on India where Biruni compares and contrasts the views and customs of different cultures.
In order to demonstrate that there is a common human element that makes all cultures distant relatives, and India central to their connection over time, Biruni starts with a critique of the available Muslim literature on Hindu culture. According to Biruni, not only was the available literature on Hinduism insufficient, it was also misleading. "Everything which exists on this subject in our literature,” he complains, “is second hand information which one copied from the other, a farrago of materials never sifted by the sieve of critical examination."3 This, according to Biruni, was inconsistent with the ethical framework provided by the Scriptures of both Christianity and Islam. He illustrates his argument by referring to the Qur’an and the Bible respectively. The Qur’an reads, "Speak the truth, even if it were against yourselves." (Qur’an: 4, 134); in a similar vein it is stated in the Bible that "Do not mind the fury of kings in speaking the truth before them. They only possess your body, but they have no power over your soul" (Cf. Matt.x.18, 19, 28; Luke xii. 4).4 In short, it was religious and ethical concerns, more than anything else that led Biruni to study other cultures from a comparative perspective.
And what makes him notable as a cosmopolitan Muslim, is his self-conscious advance of a method for comparative inquiry and analysis. Biruni was not just a research scientist but also a self-conscious and self-critical comparativist.
Slide # 7 – Al-Biruni’s India
For Biruni, comparison provided a distinctive heuristic purpose: to eradicate common misconceptions, in this case, misconceptions about Hinduism among Muslims, and in its place to promote a better acquaintanceship between two religious traditions, Islam and Hinduism.
Yet Biruni was not proposing a sort of perennial philosophical view that presupposes the transcendental unity of all religions. Rather, as a believing Muslim, he simply welcomed certain differences among different peoples. In other words, he believed, as he himself stated, that "God has created the world as containing many differences in itself,"5 and these differences should be welcomed. In order to prove his argument, he attempted to explore some of the most disputed issues, such as God, polytheism, creation, and hierarchy or the caste system in different cultures.
What justifies Biruni’s stature as a pioneer Muslim cosmopolitan is his theological inbetweenness. Biruni treats the concept of God as a shared resource for all cultures. Even when he critiques idol worshipping in the Indian context, he limits that critique to the reflexes and practices of the uneducated class. At the same that he finds them abominable, he does not claim that they are unique to the Indian religion. What Biruni emphasizes, however, is that similar practices can be observed in even higher cultures where the division between educated and uneducated class is also evident.
Above all, Biruni could not and did not tolerate those who rejected something – whether an idea or an experiment – out of hand before seeing whether it could be useful. His intolerance of the fool or bigot is illustrated in the following anecdote. "Once, when he showed an instrument for setting the times of prayer to a certain jurist, the latter objected that it had engraved upon it the names of the Byzantine months; this constituted an imitation of the infidels. ‘The Byzantines also eat food’. retorted Biruni, ‘so do not imitate them in this’. After that he refrained from further discussion with this man.6
In his study of other religions, as in his approach to the galaxy of planets, Biruni argues that understanding is not only possible but also necessary. In religion, as in science, one must begin with a phenomenological approach, looking at things as they are (burhan). Then, and only then, can one also dialogue with others and pursue comparative analysis in order to see the wonders of creation, whether in the circuit of the sky or the ambit of society.
II – IBN KHALDUN
Slides # 8 & 9 – Ibn Khaldun in Tunis Park & on Postage Stamp
The second exemplar of Islamicate civilization, who also signals a new direction for Muslim cosmopolitanism, was the Maghribi juridical philosopher turned historian, Abdur Rahman Ibn Khaldun (d.1406). Ibn Khaldun came from a family that had migrated from Andalusia to the Maghrib. He accepted the patronage system as readily as did his precursor Biruni. But unlike Biruni, Ibn Khaldun strove to use his political wisdom to benefit one of the actual rulers of his day. Moving from one court to another, he became disillusioned and retired to Mamluk Cairo as a judge. His life, like al-Biruni’s, demonstrated the importance and the constraints of royal patronage as a stimulant to intellectual creativity, while in The Muqaddimah (an introduction to his multivolume world history) he used his double training in philosophy and law to discern patterns in history. His outlook, like Biruni’s, was pragmatic, governed by the laws of burhan: how to refine and theorize what you observe in actual human exchange. Whereas Muslim historians conventionally subscribed to the view that God passed sovereignty and hegemony (dawlah) from one dynasty to another through His divine wisdom, Ibn Khaldun explained how it appeared in terms of a cycle of natural stages that followed an almost inevitable pattern. He ascribed the success of tribally organized migratory peoples to their stronger sense of consensus or group solidarity. It allowed them to acquire military superiority over settled peoples but their superiority, in turn, was diminished once the founding figures or early generations ceased to control the fissiparous instincts of their kinship group. As the family disperses itself among sedentary peoples and ceases to live the hard life of migration, it becomes soft from the prosperity it has brought and begins to degenerate. Internal rivalries, often fueled by personal jealousies, force one member of the family to become a king who must rely on mercenary troops and undermine his own prosperity by paying for them. In the end, the ruling dynasty falls prey to a new tribal group with fresh group feeling. The problem was circular: civilization could not survive without military prowess, yet military prowess in itself was unstable.
While there are others who contributed to both Islamicate civilization and Muslim cosmopolitanism, Ibn Khaldun stands out for his interstitial logic, his rigorous pursuit of in-between-ness. To offer a thumbnail definition, civilization equals culture writ large over space and time. Space predominates. The geographical lens of pre-modern civilization focuses on the Afro-Eurasian oikumene (Hodgson). Civilization presupposes cities, commerce, travel and trade, warfare and alliances, and so by its very nature civilization in general but Islamic(ate) civilization in particular should be cosmopolitan. And it is Ibn Khaldun who makes the strongest case for the durably cosmopolitan nature of Islamic(ate) civilization.
Crucially Ibn Khaldun was a product of the 14th century Mediterranean world. What distinguished him was neither his Arab lineage nor his linkage to Berbers via marriage but his Mediterranean location. At the intersection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim influences, heir to Greek science and Arabic poetry, connected by trade and history to Asia, the Mediterranean Sea had become the nexus of Muslim cosmopolitanism by the 14th century. Social mobility as well as physical travel animated Mediterranean Muslims, especially those, like Ibn Khaldun, who rose to high posts in government, law and education. But this background only identifies the opportunities that Ibn Khaldun either inherited or developed due to his socio-economic background and the political circumstances of his era. The extra element, the defining difference, in his cosmopolitan outlook was his quest to find the points of convergence between seemingly distinct, and often competitive, disciplines of elite urban Muslims in Al-Andalus, the Maghrib, and Egypt.
Indeed, the biggest difference between Ibn Khaldun and other elites of his generation was his orientation to adab.7 Though trained as a faqih or jurist and familiar with all the ancillary sciences of fiqh (jurisprudence), Ibn Khaldun was also an adib or litterateur. A litterateur is attentive to words, to their expression in both speech and writing but especially, to their polyvalence. Words can mean many things in different times, places and contexts. Though this may seem a truism today, it was far from accepted knowledge or the dominant outlook, even among the notables whom Ibn Khaldun knew and whom he engaged in discussion or debate.
Slide # 10 – The Muqaddimah Abridged
And so Ibn Khaldun is first marked as a Muslim cosmopolitan by his use of the same words with different connotations, in different contexts, for different audiences in his classic work, The Muqaddimah. He is not ambiguous but ambivalent in his use of key terms such as badawah, ‘umran and ‘asabiyah. He also coins new terms such as ‘asabiyah or ‘umran or badawah with a specific range of meanings, one of which may be to amplify the notion of a known word, as ‘asabiyah deftly does with the juridical concept of consensus.
Reliance on metaphor allows Ibn Khaldun to demonstrate how the same word, like the same event or person, can be viewed differently over time, and also from different places in the same time frame. Perhaps the most crucial argument that Ibn Khaldun makes on behalf of history as an Islamic science is that historians alone among Muslim scientists can explain how Islam arose out of a context of orality and nomadism/primitivism (badawah) to become a proponent of both writing and civilization (hadarah). What had been speech and a habit became writing and a craft.8 Yet the very lifeline of Islam depended on maintaining the connection between literacy and orality, between writing and speech, as also between civilized and nomad. In short, analogy, while it had its most immediate application in law, could, and should, also be applied to the understanding of the laws of history, above all, the history of Islamicate civilization.
And the nature of networked knowledge is also a second, decisive difference between Ibn Khaldun and other cosmopolitan elites of his day. In all aspects of his labor, Ibn Khaldun accepted, and often applauded, the achievements of his predecessors, the vast network of a knowledge class (the ‘ulama) who undergirded Muslim society, but at the same time he introduced a difference.
In order to establish his new science, Ibn Khaldun the jurist had to both affirm his own practice of Tradition criticism (based on bayan)9 while allowing for an empirical approach human social organization (based on burhan), the cornerstone, in his view, of a global civilization that encompassed the known world (al-ma‘mura min al-‘ard).10 In effect, he used his talent as an adib to further his project as a faqih, invoking the law while opening it up to a new arena of thought. It was his forensic skill as a litterateur that allowed him to cite Event (khabar), itself an ancillary part of Tradition (hadith) scholarship, as an independent term conveying the surplus of meaning that he wanted to impart to the study of human social organization or the history of world civilization. Demarcating Tradition from Event, while affirming both, became the pathway to his new science.
Many have described Ibn Khaldun’s new science as critical history, comparative sociology or even supply side economics.11 I think that another descriptor is necessary. It is not only fitting but also overdue to acknowledge Ibn Khaldun as a Muslim cosmopolitan. The proof? The proof is what we have just described: his subtle, consistent use of language to further empirical observation as the cornerstone for networked knowledge.
The Interlude of Euro-American Ascent
From the 11th century Ghaznavid courts of Biruni to the 14th century Hafsid courts of Ibn Khaldun is a leap of time and space but all within the continuum of a Muslim imperium that had its benefits as well as constraints. The notion of parity that had existed in the premodern oecumene changed with the advent of European exploration, expansion, overseas conquest, and then colonization of vast parts of Asia and Africa. The impact on Islam and Islamic civilization from the 16th to the 21st century resulted in a deficit for Muslim cosmopolitanism. Bereft of either parity or competitive rivalry with European counterparts, almost all Islamic reformers, despite their universalist rhetoric, almost all the Islamic reformers were shaped by the influences of the colonial period. Especially keen is the emphasis on science, technology in education, constitution and parliamentary democracy in politics, and the revised role of women in social life. If Muslim nationalism became mimetic, it is due to the fact that movements that claimed a loyalty to Islam were also mimetic, picking up elements of the West that they hoped could be transformed into an Islamic system. But the Islamic system was an effortto accommodate to an emergent, if asymmetric, world system. There is no independent Muslim movement after the colonial period; all are reacting to some force, or series of forces, that emanate from the Western world, which is to say Northern Europe and USA.
Slides # 11, 12, & 13 – 1920’s British Empire, Europe in the Middle East and Southeast Asia
Muslim reformers recognized the power of the institutions that were propelling European maritime nations to a unique position of global prestige. The reformers came from those countries whose Muslim elites were most engaged by the spectre of European commercial and military penetration - Egypt and India, Iran and Turkey before World War I, but then following the war, also Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The North African reformers coalesced into a movement known as Salafiya, or Islamic traditionalism. Criticized for their unwitting promotion of historical retardation, its leaders seemed to hark back to a golden age that never existed, or at least could never be reconstructed, and so their passionate pleas merely drained energies away from the task at hand, to accommodate to the new reality of a European world order. Yet most of the reformers did act in good faith, as committed Muslims conflicted by the gap between Europe's pragmatic success and what seemed to be its spiritual vapidity. It was as though they were witnesses to a novel and 'unholy' revelation. For them, in the words of Yousef Choueiri, "the arbiter of truth and knowledge suddenly ceased to be enclosed in the revealed word of God. Another text, with no specific author or format, had made a permanent intrusion. It was the West in its political systems, military presence and economic domination which now appeared in the background as an authoritative code of practice."12
But the authoritative code was not uniform. The intervening European powers quarreled with one another. Some Muslim polities, such as the Sharifian Kingdom of Morocco, benefited from these quarrels, able to resist direct rule because no Mediterranean power wanted its rivals to control the seat of the Arab/Muslim West. But all polities were affected by the great wars, sometimes known as the Christian wars, which were waged by these self-same powers twice in the twentieth century. It was only due to the enormous expenditures and consequent destruction of these wars that protest movements among Muslims and others were able to mobilize into national liberation movements. Gradually, as the smoke cleared from the second of these horrific Christian wars, most Muslim ruling elites were able to grasp the laurel of independence. Even so, not all were marked by the same political order.
Even countries that were not colonized directly, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, still experienced the effects of colonial economic penetration into the eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, and the structures that arose after Independence reflect this influence, above all in the sphere of politics and law. It was because the nature of self-rule was shaped as much by European as by indigenous models that one must speak of 'mimetic nationalism'. Though Arab, as by non-Arab, Muslim leaders embraced nationalism to chart the path to independence, the models of governance were derived from the departing colonials. Whether one looks to constitutional charters or to the adoption of separate executive and legislative bodies, the impress of European precedents is evident. At the same time the boundaries of new nations reflected a patchwork of compromise that was worked out by the European powers not by their Muslim subjects. Saddam Hussein's outburst in Fall 1990 over the manipulation of Iraq's borders with Kuwait was at once justified and spurious. It was justified because the borders of all African and Asian countries were set in the colonial period or its immediate aftermath. It was spurious because many countries benefited as well as lost from such manipulation: without the addition of parts of Kurdistan, especially the oil-rich region around Mosul, Iraq, for instance, would not have had the geopolitical resources that make it potentially the economic giant among all Arab states.
The truth about the process by which post-colonial borders were decided may be simpler, though no prettier, than conspiracy theories allow: disparate communities of Asia and Africa had been welded together as parts of the British or French or Dutch empires. They could not be dissolved and reconstituted in their pre-colonial form with independence. Often the very conditions of self-rule had to be set by colonial authorities and imperial administration because consent could not have been secured on any other basis. Yet the end result was to make the entire process of Arab/Muslim nationalism seem imitative or mimetic. It appealed only to a limited stratum of elites. The mechanisms to curb military control and to spur the emergence of a middle class were never set in place. Structural violence took on a new face, but it was still violent and its tensions, contradictions and excesses continue till the present day, making it more difficult to reconstruct what is the legacy of Islamic(ate) civilization and the options for Muslim cosmopolitanism.
Throughout the Muslim world the state functions as an obedience context, and the rulers of the Muslim state demand total compliance with the state’s vision of Islam. Tacitly it recognizes that the norms it imposes, are not universally shared by all Muslims, yet publicly it arrogates to itself and to its custodians the right to decide which elements of Islamic belief and practice are to be supported. The memory of other Islams is too strong, however, to be erased. In each instance Muslims have to decide how to preserve their symbolic identity within a public order that is anti-religious at worst, as in Russia and China, (but formerly also in Indonesia and Turkey), or pseudo-religious at best, as in most Arab states, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
While the legacy of colonialism reshaped the Muslim world into truncated territories and contested borders, capitalism left it with economies that could only function on the margins, benefiting the major powers of the High Tech era. These powers were the technologically advanced, professionally differentiated, and economically privileged societies of Western Europe, North America and now East Asia. Even before the rubric of First, Second, and Third Worlds was invented in the 1950s, there existed a Third World. It embraced all Muslim societies, even those benefiting from the petrodollar infusion that began in the 50s and 60s but did not accelerate till the 70s and 80s.