A very unfortunate reality is that we go through school learning about Leonardo Da Vinci, impressionism, and great architectural masterpieces like the Roman Colosseum. What we never learn about is Sinan, Munamnamat, and Maqamat Al Hariri, although they really should be taught in schools as an essential part of our collective heritage in the Arab and Islamic world.
A turning point in my way of thought took place during my first lecture with the previous dean of our faculty, Wijdan. Her first question to us was, “What is your identity?” After a few random answers from the students, including “Arab”, “female” and “Jordanian”, she told us that no, our identity falls under that of the Muslim civilisation, whether Christian or non-religious, male or female, Arab or Turkish.
In that instance, I couldn’t comprehend what she meant. I didn’t know anything about the Muslim Civilization aside from what they taught in history classes, and I found it really hard to relate to the Seljuks, the Persians, and the Fatimids. I can barely relate to my neighbors who live upstairs. The Arab world in its current state is so vast and so diverse, with different languages, gene-pools, and geographic settings. How was I supposed to relate to the 1,500 year history of Islamic civilization, which once reached all known corners of the earth?
That class was called “Introduction to Islamic Art”, and as we went along with the course, I started to understand what she meant. Islamic history is beautifully complicated and diverse, and brought a lot of amazing things to this world. Our contributions to science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and art are numerous.
I really enjoyed that class, although I still do not agree to identity myself as “a person under the Muslim civilization”. I am, after all, secular, and I do believe that the top contributions that people living in the Muslim civilization gave to the world where all given in times when religious fanaticism wasn’t all the rage, but vice-versa.
It came out when Muslims were open minded: when the West would burn Greek philosophy in the Middle Ages because it was “pagan” while Muslims would translate it to Arabic so as to save it.
Maybe that’s why we are never taught about our heritage in ways other than “Ibn Khaldoun was a great historian who was born in Tunisia”. It’s because they were all formulated in the Islamic Golden Age, which we love to boast about, but never really discuss in depth. If we were to discuss it, after all, we’ll all realize that it is heretical by today’s standards, and that would probably get more people to think, and thinking is never good.
Ijtihad is the willingness to both accept and challenge authority within the same process, especially in ethical matters. The early Abbassid state was secular, there was separation of theology and law. Muslims used to draw the prophet. Early Muslim scientists and philosophers developed some of the first theories on evolution, and the transmutation of species, which were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools.
But that aside, did I ever mention that Islamic art is really underappreciated, and really beautiful?
Some of my favorite pieces:
Ummayyad Art (frescos in Qusayr Amra, one of Jordan’s Ummayyad desert castles)
That’s it for now. I’ll share the rest later.
Do you have any favorites? If you have any favorite pieces of Islamic art, link them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next post.