Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cover Up

(Review of The Monk, The Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, by Saeed Mirza (Harper Collins, Fourth Estate, 2012)

This was published in the March 2012 edition of the Hindu Literary Review.

Saeed Mirza's second book is not easy to categorize. Although dressed in the garb of a novel, it is not in substance a novel. Although full of information, it is not a substantial work of scholarship. But it is a personal, emotional and yet controlled polemic, that serves a definite purpose.

Mirza's idea is to attack what he considers a deliberate and wrongful cover-up, wherein the immense contribution of Arab learning to almost every aspect of Western civilization has been either denied or sidelined. For many people, this central thesis will indeed be revelatory. That Europe only emerged from its dark ages on the shoulders of the Islamic world is not the conventional wisdom. More general, perhaps, even among those familiar with the subject, is the sort of view Betrand Russell takes in his magnum opus on the history of Western philosophy- namely, that while “admirable in the arts and in many technical ways”, “Mohammedan civilization.... showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters”, “is not important as original thought”, and was important to Europe only “as a transmitter”- of existing Greek and Latin learning.

In Mirza's eyes, this is a condescending and untruthful view- a consequence of the mind-set of superiority engendered by Western political dominance post the nineteenth century, and promoted relentlessly thereafter, unto the present day- when the casting of Obama as an 'Arab' during the 2008 election campaign, can be treated not just as an error of fact, but as an actual pejorative.

With this state of affairs as the spur to its anger, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun tells the story of four students at Berkeley College, who hold weekly meetings to investigate the true contributions of the Islamic Golden Age. This 'novelistic' framework is not particularly plausible on its own terms, but it doesn't need to be. Its purpose is to enable Mirza to make his points in a direct and personal way, without having to sift through arguments for and against, as a more academic approach would necessitate. As far as it goes, it is a successful method. The book is full of interesting content- historical figures and relationships not generally known. We are told of a host of Arab scientists, physicians, historians, musicians and poets whose works, translated into Latin and made accessible to Europe's renaissance and pre-renaissance men, might have influenced them far more deeply than is generally admitted. Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, Copernicus, William IX (the first of the troubadours) and many others, are all suggested to have benefited- and in some cases simply plagiarized- from Islamic pioneers.

Now, Mirza's aim is to assert and provoke, not to perform a thorough analysis of the facts. His book is, therefore, self-indulgent, but always candidly and more or less gently so. It is not a rant, and it knows its place. Mirza is aware that he personally is not putting forth the winning arguments, which is why one recurring and crucial theme in his book is an appeal to the scholars to do their job right. Via the imagined re-telling of episodes from the life of the 11th Century scholar, Abu Rehan al-Biruni, Mirza reminds us of certain ethics of scholarship: an openness to learning from anyone, even one's political or religious enemies, an acknowledgment of one's intellectual debts, and an acceptance of the facts, whether one likes them or not. These, he indicates, are values that the Arab world possessed during its Golden Age, but, for all the lip service it pays them, they are not the values of the modern West. It is an accusation that deserves pondering over, especially in light of the sheer clout of the Western intellectual establishment, to which we are all subject.

In closing, a deficiency in this book, which should be mentioned, is the absence of either an index or a bibliography. Since Mirza's stated desire is that the reader should undertake his own journey of inquiry, such assistance would have very useful.