Global History from an Islamic Angle

July 2, 2014

Talks & Interviews

Francis Robinson

Dr. Francis Robinson, Sultan of Oman Fellow, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford was invited to the Centre for Public Policy and Governance to deliver a talk on “Global History from an Islamic Angle“ on February 25, 2013.

Robinson began by asserting that there were important lessons to be learned from the study of Muslim world system, which preceded the Western system, and parts of which still continued to operate and expand beneath the sway of Western supremacy. The expansion of the Muslim world from the 8th to the 18th century was a global phenomenon that emerged in Arabia in the mid 7th century after the defeat of the Byzantine Empire, within a decade of the Prophet’s death. Following Arabia, it expanded from North Africa to South Asia within 100 years and made cities of West Asia great trade and technology hubs. From 13th century onwards, the Muslim world continued to expand into West Africa, South and South East Asia, and till the 17th century, Muslim society was the most expansive and influential in the Afro-Asian region. It occupied the geographical pivot of history with China and Japan in the northeast and Europe in the northwest.

An outstanding feature of the Muslim world was its connectedness through long distance trade across land and sea. While China exported important innovations such as paper and gunpowder, it received a host of influences ranging from cartography, astronomy, medicine and new crops. Another powerful dimension of this connectedness was the teacher-pupil relationship of the Ulema and the master-disciple relationship of Sufis. As they studied the central message of Islam and needed skills to make this message socially useful, a key requirement was travel in search of knowledge. Respect for Islamic learning till late 17th century was evident in the fact that the British Royal Society founded in 1661 had several cells of books in Arabic, which were collected in the first 10 years of its existence, and early fellows of the society made a point of learning Arabic. While Muslim world’s influence decreased, Western dominance also had profound implications on the spread of the Muslim world. First was the continuing process of Islamization through deepening presence in Indonesia, and in East and West Africa. Second was the expansion as the Ahmadiya and the Nizari Ismaili sects took advantage of the British Empire to spread under its umbrella. Further, Muslims utilized the economic opportunities offered by the West to establish themselves in Western Europe, North and West America, the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia.

“As they studied the central message of Islam and needed skills to make this message socially useful, a key requirement was travel in search of knowledge.”

He stated that old forms of connectedness continued as Ulema and Sufis came to represent their societies against their elites who were being co-opted by the West, and these religiously based systems of connected-ness were an important global story. Sufis came to have notable international followers, while the teacher-pupil relationship underpinned the spread of reformist activism. The India’s Deoband School spread through-out Pakistan, particularly Western Pakistan. In the Northwest, it informed the early development of the Tali-ban, and in Iran and Baluchistan, it provided intellectual leadership to the Muslims from Central Asia. The same teacher-pupil relationship also underpinned the growing activism of the Shia of West Asia. Over time, new forms of connectedness overlaid older ones and trans-nationalist Islamic organizations emerged. Tableeghi Jamaat spread throughout the world; Muslims Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami and the like challenged Western elites for power, and many Muslim NGOs like International Institute of Islamic Thought and the Fethullah Gülen educational movement made a base in over 50 countries. Further, development of the press in the 19th century helped Muslims conceive of themselves in pan-Islamic terms, as a civilization, and this civilizational (Ummah) consciousness of the ordinary Muslim has only enhanced with later technologies such as TV and internet. He claimed that Osama bin Laden was brilliantly successful in using these tools to reach out to the ordinary Muslim and to help turn the community of believers into a community of conscience.

“… development of the press in the 19th century helped Muslims conceive of themselves in pan-Islamic terms, as a civilization”

Robinson then stressed on the importance of studying connectedness of the Muslim world for a global historian and explored the three important features of connectedness and shared knowledge. The first was storytelling and sharing of fables, which was a feature of all world religions and still had wide ranging influence in both Muslim and Hindu societies. The great Muslim epics, epic of Prophet’s relatives and friends, stories of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and of Muslims conquests had an impact on Islamic history, reaching its zenith with One Thousand and One Nights, whose full manuscript form first came to light in 13th century Syria. This extraordinary source of folk tales had been a stimulus of imagination both for the West and the East, and indicated how Arabs drew on the storytelling traditions of the people whose lands they conquered including the Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Persians etc. Although the global significance of folk literature was lost once it was co-opted for the nationalist purpose from the 19th century onwards, still the powerful impact it had on connectivity across the region and beyond could not be overstated.

The second feature was Astrology, an area of shared knowledge and experience which was significant for understanding Muslim societies up till the 19th century, and which it had common with other world societies like Central America, India, China and the Greeks. Muslims had preserved and developed classical learning of the subject, which penetrated deeply into the intellectual and political life of European Renaissance and remained a powerful influence until the 17th century Copernican revolution. Since then it had continued to exist and flourish in the Muslim lands while its significance reduced in Europe. The third feature was the impact of production and consumption of major commodities. The great commodi-ties of global history were those which had a substantial impact on societies that produced or consumed them including cotton, sugar, tobacco, coffee, opium and oil. Cotton had a deep-rooted connection with early Islamic world as the prophet Muhammad opposed luxurious apparel. Thus a distinct preference for cotton cloth over silk developed among the Muslims, which led to cotton cultivation in the Iranian plateau after its conquest by the Arabs and transformed Iran into a prosperous and culturally rich region. But 100 years of climate change that hit cotton crop brought rapid decline in prosperity leading the cultivating classes, rich merchants, poets and historians to leave Iran for other parts of the Muslim world. By the 16th century, cotton cloth was highly sought after in European markets and with Britain’s trading empire in the 17th century, became a commodity of global importance. Britain first stimulated Indian production to provide cotton goods but by 19th century, production had shifted from handloom weavers of India to the machines of Britain while India remained a producer of raw cotton. Such was the centrality of cotton to the relationship between Britain and India that Gandhi made hand woven cotton cloth the symbol of Indian nationalist resistance to the British.

Discussing other major commodities, he stated that like cotton, sugar had also changed the face of human history. From its early mass production in 11th century Jordan valley, it was to influence the formation of colonies, the development of slavery and the composition of peoples. Coffee, which had emerged in 15th century Yemen became the top agricultural export of 12 countries. Tobacco had emerged as a major health hazard and was not accepted in either the Western or the Muslim world without challenge. Its consumption was falling in the developed and rising in developing world, a large proportion of which was Muslim. Opium was cultivated for medicinal purposes, drank for pleasure, and used for recreation in China. Chinese consumption had led to a massive increase in opium production in India, and became the cause of Anglo-Chinese wars. Its current refined form, heroine had also influenced wars in South East Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But nothing matched the production and consumption of oil and its impact on the world in general and the Islamic world in particular. Oil had dictated the drawing of territorial boundaries, of lopsided economic development, of invasions and war and tended to favor dictatorial rule.

“… insistence on personal engagement with the scriptures, translation into vernacular languages and increased literacy had led to widespread self-interpretation such that no-one now knew who spoke for Islam.”

Lastly, Robinson discussed the process of worldwide religious change terming it as the ‘Protestant turn’ in human piety. He suggested that though the tension between revelation and magical practices of mysticism lay deep in the Islamic past, the new Protestant understanding of Islam began with Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab and Shah Waliullah’s teachings in the 18th century and spread throughout the Muslim world in the 19th and 20th century as it became subject to Western power. Key features of this Protestant turn were a new focus on the Quran and Hadith; translation of these texts from Arabic to the languages to allow a meaningful engagement with them; attack on all forms of magic, particularly the idea that there could be intercession of man on earth; and a stronger emphasis than before on the horrors of the Day of Judgment. The aim was for Muslims to function religiously in a world where they no longer held political power such that individual human conscience became the basis of and an active force in creating a Muslim society.

Discussing the outcome of this change, he particularly concentrated on the idea of man as an active agent on earth because of an emphasis on conscience, personal responsibility and self-instrumentality. Same ideas were prominent in the thought of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of South Asia’s Islamic modernist thought; Muhammad Ilyas, founder of the Tableeghi Jamaat; as well as the most influential Muslim thinkers of the 20th century, Muhammad Iqbal of British India and Ali Shariati of Iran. He argued that this reform undermined the old system of religious authority opening the way to self-interpretation of scriptures. Previously, religious authority rested with religious specialists who monopolized interpretation and passed it down. But insistence on personal engagement with the scriptures, translation into vernacular languages and increased literacy had led to widespread self-interpretation such that no-one now knew who spoke for Islam.

Revolutionary economic and social change within Muslim societies had led to the formation of industrial, commercial and administrative classes. As Muslim elites had been co-opted to serve Western political and economic purposes, Ulema groups and Islamist parties had found support in these social formations. With support from middle and lower middle social strata, they were challenging the power in many Muslim societies today, as they had done successfully in Turkey and Indonesia, and were doing with increasing success amid the complexities of the Arab world.

In conclusion he said that in the 19th and 20th century, a similar shift and Protestant turn was also seen in other great religions of South Asia including Sikhism and Hinduism, a shift from social structure to the individual human being. This shift had mingled with worldwide social and economic change and was a global development. The protestant piety represented by the reform throughout the Muslim world was a profoundly modern phenomenon and now commonplace in modern scholarship. This widespread protestant turn of the 19th century had raised issues of origin and meaning.

The talk was followed by a question and answer session. A participant asked if there was a future possibly of liberal and democratic polity in the Muslim world? He replied by exemplifying Indonesia, Turkey and Egypt. In Indonesia, the religious parties led the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Turkey was effectively ruled by the military through controlled democracy. However, the religious party AKP was eventually victorious in holding an election, forming a government and facing up to the attempts of the military to dominate it. Turkey now operated as a liberal democracy. He observed that Egypt was more democratic now under Muslim Brotherhood than it was under Hosni Mubarak. This led him to assert that there was considerable progress towards democracy in many parts of the Muslim world.

In response to a query about a comparison between the Protestant turn in Islam with a similar trend in other religions, he responded that a move towards scriptural Islam and translation into vernacular for better understanding was similar to a shift witnessed in Christianity as well. The greater emphasis on the Day of Judgment, endeavoring to live life according to God’s commands and observing rituals, was a new religious temperament common to Deobandi Islam and 17th Century Protestants in England and America.

“… development of the press in the 19th century helped Muslims conceive of themselves in pan-Islamic terms, as a civilization,”

Replying to a question concerning the pupil-teacher relationship in Islam, he explained that the pupil needed to physically become the holder and transmitter of knowledge as knowledge became incarnate within him. Also the pupil had huge respect for the teacher whose knowledge was being passed. The Sufi murid had to turn into someone who was completely malleable at the hands of the pir. A pupil was given a whole series of tests for him to discover his humility and to become completely God focused.

In response to a question about the future of Islam compared to that of Christianity, he responded by saying that as a world faith, Islam and Muslim societies were in a much stronger position to move forward as a society of believers than Christianity. Christianity in Western Europe and North America was in a particularly weak state. It had institutional organizations that were both strength and a weakness, he remarked.

Replying to a question about why Muslim teaching was moving from being inclusive to exclusive, he articulated that it was the nature of almost all systems when they found themselves up against the wall; to exclude those who they felt weren’t true believers. He emphasized that the process of trying to interpret and find the right form of ijtehad for the present day was essential. Sufism was the answer to modern sectarian world. It was by nature inclusive, a system based on the fact that there was one pearl of truth but different ways towards that. He postulated a sharper focus on spiritual learning, practice and devotion rather than mere textual knowledge.