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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 13   01-15 January 2012

Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Islamic Culture and Art

Professor A. R. Momin
Former Head, Department of Sociology
University of Mumbai

Islam represents not just a set of beliefs, doctrines and rituals but a distinctive and richly textured cultural ethos, a comprehensive code of moral values and a cohesive system of social institutions. The Islamic faith spawned a magnificent civilization, which enriched humanity through the advancement of knowledge and learning, science and medicine, law and philosophy, technology and engineering, and art and architecture.

Islam takes sufficient cognizance of cultural diversities, which are a pervasive and conspicuous feature of human societies around the world. Islam eschews racism and xenophobia and emphasizes intercultural openness and exchanges and the creation of a shared culture based on equality, social justice, non-discrimination, kindness and compassion. The Islamic faith promoted a culture of interactive openness and inclusiveness, tolerance and peaceful coexistence and the recognition and accommodation of human rights, including minority rights and identities.

The onward march of human civilization has been made possible by the accumulation, sharing and transmission of observations, experiences, skills and technology over the past several thousand years. The progress of human civilization has been the cumulative outcome of wide-ranging contributions made by different peoples, cultures and communities. The distinguished economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has spoken about inclusive, interactive openness as one of the key factors in the advancement of knowledge and culture. The Islamic faith steers clear of epistemological and cultural xenophobia and espouses an inclusive, accommodative approach towards knowledge, material culture and technology. Over the past fourteen centuries, Islamic civilization has drawn, albeit selectively and creatively, on the epistemological and cultural resources and legacies of diverse cultures.

Globalisation of Islamic Culture

There is much hype these days about globalization. The protagonists and cheerleaders of globalization hail it as the promised messiah of mankind and wax eloquent about the end of geography, a borderless world, deterritorialization and the emergence of the global village. However, there is now a growing realization of the fact that globalization represents a mixed bag of the good and the bad, the indispensable and the avoidable.

Most commentators trace the beginnings of globalization to the second half of the 20th century. However, globalization is neither such a recent nor an absolutely unprecedented phenomenon. In fact the history of globalization spans several centuries, involving processes of global dimensions, such as explorations and navigation, trade, conquests, migrations, inventions and innovations, and the spread of technology as well as cultural artefacts and ideas. Some historians have used the term proto-globalisation or incipient globalization to describe the phase of increasing trade links and cultural exchanges that characterized the pre-modern period. Around 1000 AD, some of the most important technological inventions and innovations such as the clock, magnetic compass, paper, printing, gunpowder and the wheelbarrow were invented by the Chinese and subsequently spead across large parts of the world, including Europe. Proto-globalisation or incipient globalization should be looked upon not merely as an earlier or pre-modern phase of globalization but as an important precursor or forerunner of globalization, which significantly impacted processes and linkages that have become the hallmark of globalization in recent years.

Proto-globalisation or incipient globalization encompasses those historical events and processes that covered a vast expanse of territory and large, variegated masses of people and involved the transcending of geographical barriers and state borders. These include the Silk Road (a vast network of trade and cultural linkages and transmission routes that linked East and West for nearly two millennia), the worldwide sweep of global religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, the global diffusion of technology, world empires such as the one created by the Mongol ruler Genghiz Khan and his son and successor Ogodei, and the Ottoman Empire, and the Renaissance.

A distinctive feature of globalization is what some scholars have described as time-space compression, or the shrinking of distances and the shortening of time, made possible by unprecedented advances in exploration, discoveries and scientific and technological inventions and innovations. Muslim astronomers, scientists, mathematicians, geographers, cartographers, navigators and seafarers in the medieval period made an outstanding and wide-ranging contribution to the processes involving the shrinking of distances and the reduction of time.

There is a close, inseparable linkage between globalization and modernity. The term modernity encompasses the complex and dynamic economic, technological, social and political processes that were unleashed in western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries and that rapidly accelerated during the 20th century. The process of globalization has greatly facilitated the worldwide diffusion of modernity. The foundations of modernity were laid during the Renaissance. Italy is generally regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, but as the eminent biologist and historian of science Jacob Bronowski has pointed out, the Renaissance was originally conceived in Islamic Spain in the 12th century.

From the time of its inception, the Islamic faith was designed to have a universalist, global scope and reach. The universalist character of Islam is clearly seen in its conception of the divine and of prophecy, in the principles of equality and human brotherhood, in its view of knowledge, and in its attitude towards other faiths. The global reach and impact of Islamic civilization is reflected is what Amartya Sen has aptly described as the globalization of science and technology, and in the worldwide influence of Islamic culture and art. Sen has remarked that “as leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalisers of science and mathematics.”

The wide-ranging and enduring contribution of Islamic civilization to the West, especially in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and architecture and arts, has been amply documented and acknowledged by Western historians. The eminent British historian J. M. Roberts describes Western civilization’s debt to Islam in the following words: “…..to no other civilization did Europe owe so much in the Middle Ages as to Islam”.

A significant feature of the contribution of Islamic civilization to the West in particular and to the onward march of humanity in general is the role of Muslims as intermediaries and interlocutors between different cultures and traditions and as synthesizers, catalysts and disseminators. When Muslims came in contact with the legacy of the ancients, they critically sifted it, imbibed its spirit and added to it their own reflections, researches and innovations, and raised the level of knowledge in wide-ranging fields to unprecedented heights. They acted as global carriers of ideas, innovations, technology and material culture. I may illustrate this point with reference to the global diffusion of the technology of papermaking. Muslims learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese, who had invented paper around the second century AD, in the eighth century, added significant innovations to it and disseminated it across large parts of Europe and Asia. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Spanish city of Jativa in 1150, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and subsequently into other parts of Europe. Before the 13th century paper was brought to European cities from Andalusia, Sicily and Morocco. Interestingly, the oldest extant European document written on paper is a deed of King Roger of Sicily, inscribed in Arabic and Greek in 1102.

Islamic civilization has left a pervasive and enduring imprint on a wide range of societies and cultures from the Atlantic to South Asia and from Africa to China. I would like to present a few snapshots to indicate how the legacy of Islamic civilization and the grandeur of Islamic culture and art continue to reverberate in contemporary times. International law, including international treaties, covenants and conventions, constitute an important dimension of globalization. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (d. 1645) is generally regarded as the father of international law. But the fact of the matter is that the foundations of international law were laid, eight centuries before Grotius, by Muslim jurists such as Imam Zayd ibn Ali, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani and Imam Sarakhsi. When a German orientalist Joseph von Purgstall read al-Shaybani’s monumental work Kitab al-Siyar al-Kabir, he was amazed by the author’s profound erudition and foresight and described him as the Hugo Grotius of the Islamic world. Another German orientalist, Hans Kruse, has written, “If we compare the views of Shaybani and Hugo Grotius, it becomes obvious at the first glance that even after eight centuries, European law had not reached the lofty level of humanism that we find in Islamic law.”

Islamic international law influenced the development of European international law through various routes, including the Crusades, the Norman conquest of Sicily and the Reconquista of Spain. The earliest European writers on international law, such as Francesco de Vitoria, Ayala, Albericus Gentitlis and Pierre Belo, hailed from Spain and Italy and were significantly influenced by the intellectual ferment set in motion by Muslim scientists, philosophers and jurists. Hugo Grotius himself was influenced by a 13th century Spanish treatise Siete Partidas, written by Alphonso X, which drew on Islamic legal treatises written in Andalusia. Grotius appreciated the contributions of Muslim jurists to international law.

A significant component of international law deals with the status and treatment of refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sponsored a comparative study of Islamic influences on international refugee law in 2009. The study noted that the Islamic tradition of providing protection and generosity towards people fleeing persecution has had a far greater influence on international refugee law than any other historical source.

Islamic endowment law, which deals with charitable foundations (Awqaf) had a significant and enduring influence on European common law. The endowments created under the aegis of Islamic civilization supported a wide range of charitable institutions, including madrasas, universities, medical schools, hospitals and caravanserais. The Islamic institution of endowments provided an important source of inspiration for the establishment of colleges and universities in Europe. It is interesting to note that the first college in Europe, which was established by John of London in Paris in 1180, was modeled after colleges that existed in the Islamic world and was maintained through endowments. Similarly, the medical school of Montpellier in southern France, which was established in the 12th century under the supervision of Jewish doctors, was founded on the pattern of the famed Islamic medical schools at Cordoba and Sicily. The media of instruction in this college were Arabic and Hebrew. These early colleges, inspired as they were by the endowment-supported institutions in the Muslim world, provided the model on which the famed universities of Oxford and Cambridge were later established.

Muslim rule over large parts of the Iberian Peninsula lasted for more than six centuries, which left an enduring imprint on its history, culture, language and literature, art and architecture, science and technology. Though the Catholic kings expelled Muslims from Spain in 1492, Islamic and Arabic influences continued—even to this day--to reverberate in Spanish society. The deep and pervasive influence of Islamic civilization on Spanish society continues to be reflected in the Spanish language, in agriculture and water harvesting systems, in architectural styles and ornamentation, in arts and crafts, and in everyday life. Castilian or modern Spanish language was literally born out of Arabic. A large number of words of Arabic origin—estimated at around 4,000—continue to be used in modern Spanish. These words include the names of fruits, vegetables, animals and musical instruments and the technical vocabulary in mathematics, astronomy, law, architecture and carpentry. The Spanish language was taken to the Americas as well as to Africa and Asia Pacific in the wake of Spanish colonial expansion. The speakers of Spanish language today are estimated to number around 500 million, making it the third most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and English. Even today most of the family names in Spain betray their Islamic origins. The regional division of the country into 17 communities, which is still followed, goes back to the Islamic period. One can notice Andalusia’s famous double arches, which adorn the Cordoba Mosque, on the doors and windows of public buildings as well as residential houses.

The water harvesting and irrigation systems introduced by the Muslim rulers in Valencia and other regions of Islamic Spain filled them with orchards and rice fields. These systems are still followed in Valencia, and several words of Arabic origin relating to irrigation and water harvesting are used even today. A celebration in commemoration of the ‘Millennium of the Waters’ was held in Valencia in 1960. The celebrations marked the public recognition of the establishment of the irrigation system, and especially the Tribunal of Waters (Tribunal de las AquasI), introduced during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century, for the purpose of regulating the irrigation infrastructure in the fields. The Tribunal of Waters continues to be in use for settling local disputes relating to irrigation. It meets every Thursday at noon outside the Valencia cathedral for the purpose. The Tribunal is perhaps Europe’s oldest democratic institution which has been continually functioning for the past one thousand years. It has been recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage. Islamic and Arabic influences left an enduring influence on Spanish cuisine, dress and daily life. Muslims introduced rice, saffron, almonds and spices in local cuisines, which are still widely used in Spanish cuisine. Paella, the most important dish of Valencia, had an Arabic origin.

Islamic culture and Arabic language had a pervasive and enduring influence on Sicily, Venice and Malta. As a result of prolonged commercial, diplomatic and cultural exchanges between Venice and the Islamic world, a number of Arabic words crept into the vocabulary of the Venetian dialect in particular and in Italian in general. Even today the names of many fabrics in the Venetian dialect reflect their Arabic origins. Muslim rule over Malta, an island country situated to the south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, lasted for a little over two centuries. Long after Muslim rule over the island came to an end, Islamic and Arabic influences on Maltese society and language continue to be in evidence. The Maltese language is a composite, hybrid language, composed of vocabulary drawn from Arabic, Romance and English. More than 40% of words in Maltese have been derived from Arabic.

In the 13th century, Arabic falconry techniques and terms reached Europe through Islamic Spain and through the court of the Norman king Frederick II of Sicily, who was a great connoisseur and patron of Islamic culture and Arabic language. Many falconry terms in European languages, which were derived from Arabic, are used even today. Many people in Sicily who pursue the traditional hobby of falconry still communicate with their hunting birds in Arabic.

Some scholars and commentators have spoken of globalisation of music, including the worldwide diffusion of musical traditions and musical instruments. Muslim scholars and scientists considered music not as a fine art but as a science. Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Al-Khwarizmi made outstanding contributions to the scientific study of music and their works exercised a significant influence on musical traditions in Europe. The poems and songs in the European vernaculars, which the German philosopher Nietzsche described as the very essence of European culture, and the musical instruments on which they were played were suffused with Arabic influences. Stringed musical instruments, which are characteristic of Arabic music, reached western and southern Europe via Andalusia during the Middle Ages. The names of several musical instruments, which continue to be used across the world, such as guitar, lute, rebec, tambourine, tabor, anafil and naker, have been derived from Arabic. Flamenco, a form of folk music popularized by Spanish Gypsies had a pervasive Arabic influence and still lives in the hilly regions of Andalusia in southern Spain. Modern information and communication technologies, especially MTV and YouTube are now playing an important role in popularizing and disseminating songs and indigenous musical traditions, including those which were influenced by Arab music, from across the world.

Tea and coffee are undoubtedly the most widely used beverages around the world. The word coffee entered English and other European languages in the 16th century via the Dutch word koffie, which was a corruption of the Turkish kahve, which in turn was derived from the Arabic qahwa. From Mocha in Yemen, coffee spread to Egypt, North Africa, the Middle East, Persia and Turkey. Coffee was first imported in Europe from Ottoman Turkey by Venetian merchants in the 17th century. The cultivation of coffee in southern India was introduced by a Sufi, Baba Budhan, who had brought the coffee shrub from Yemen and planted it in Mysore in the 17th century.

In India there is much discussion and controversy these days about the Lokpal Bill, which is aimed at creating an effective and viable watchdog institution which could ensure that government officials and agencies function without the taint of corruption or misuse of office. A pioneering initiative in creating the institution of ombudsman was taken in Sweden, which goes back to the reign of King Charles the 12th in the 18th century. It is interesting to note that King Charles, who had spent sometime in the Ottoman Empire, was highly impressed by an institution there, where people could bring complaints relating to administration to the highest authorities.

The Grandeur of Islamic Art

One of the most striking dimensions of the legacy of Islamic civilization relates to art and architecture. Aesthetic elegance, harmony, technical sophistication, ornamentation, the richness of colours and the extensive use of stylized calligraphy are among the defining features of Islamic art. Muslim artists, craftsmen and architects made an ingenious use of a variety of materials, including stone, wood, marble, glass, leather, bronze, brass, ceramics, mother-of-pearl, silver and gold, and adapted them to specific forms and functions. They innovated new techniques of decoration in brick work, tile work, wood carving, enameling, stucco work and painting. They had no hesitation in drawing on foreign sources in respect of materials, patterns, designs and motifs. What is note-worthy is that they adapted existing designs, synthesized them with their creative imagination and devised new ones. All this gave Islamic art a rich diversity of design, style and patterns. More importantly, an overarching configuration was imposed on this diversity, which was marked by large spaces, elegant and intricate geometrical patterns, a pervasive sense of harmony, functional significance and ornamentation.

European artists, painters and architects during the Italian Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci, were greatly influenced by Islamic art. Many of them made extensive use of arabesque, a term that connotes intricate geometrical designs associated with Islamic art. The enduring influence of Islamic art is still discernible in many parts of Europe, especially in Spain, Venice and Sicily.

There is a steadily growing recognition and appreciation of the grandeur of Islamic art around the world. This is reflected in scientific researches and in the increasing popularity of exhibitions on Islamic art. In modern mathematics, the principle of non-repeating patterns on a flat surface—known as quasicrystal geometry—was discovered by the eminent Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose in 1974. Quasicrystals are a material in which atoms are packed together in a well-defined pattern that never repeats. In 2007, two American mathematicians, Peter Lu of Harvard University and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, made a close study of the intricate geometrical patterns on tiles and mosaics used in mosques, madrasas and palaces in Isfahan, Central Asia and Islamic Spain and discovered to their astonishment that Muslim artists and artisans had discovered and used quasicrystal geometry 500 years before it was discovered in the West. They suggested that quasicrystals resemble medieval aperiodic mosaics present in Islamic buildings in Iran, Central Asia and Andalusia in that they share regular patterns that follow mathematical rules, yet they never repeat themselves as traditional crystals do. This finding was identified among the top 100 scientific discoveries of 2007.

In October 2011 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to an Israeli scientist, Daniel Shechtman, for his discovery of the chemical structure of quasicrystals in 1982. Many Western commentators have noted that the discovery of the structure of quasicrystals was foreshadowed in medieval Islamic art more than five centuries ago.

Museums, international exhibitions and global auction houses are playing an important role in the growing worldwide recognition and appreciation of Islamic art. All the world’s major museums have Islamic art galleries, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world. The famed Louvre museum in Paris has one of the finest and largest collections of Islamic art in the world. In 2004 the museum announced plans for a $60 million glass expansion to house its Islamic collection, consisting of more than 10,000 art objects, previously exhibited in underground corridors. Most of these objects once belonged to the French kings or came from European churches, cathedrals and monasteries where they were used to contain the relics of Christian saints. In July 2005 Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire, donated $20 million to the museum to fund the construction of a wing for its vast collection of Islamic art.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a magnificent collection of more than 10,000 Islamic artefacts. The museum opened the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, built with a donation of £5.4 million by a Saudi business family, in July 2006. The gallery has a collection of more than 4,000 rare Islamic artefacts. Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian-born Jewish billionaire and collector of art objects settled in Britain, has the largest and one of the most priceless private collections of Islamic art objects from around the world. The collection has more than 25,000 Islamic artefacts valued at more than $1.6 billion. Selected Islamic art objects from the Khalili collection have been exhibited in several countries, including Switzerland, Spain, Israel, Abu Dhabi, Britain, USA and Australia.

In recent years exhibitions of Islamic art have become immensely popular across Europe and North America. A fabulous exhibition on “Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797” was organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York at Pallazo Ducale in Venice between July 28 and November 28, 2007. The exhibition was aimed at highlighting the positive outcome of Venice’s extensive interaction and exchange with the Islamic world over nearly a millennium from the 9th to the 18th century. Thousands of Islamic art objects, which are found in museums and in private collections in Europe and the US, had initially passed through Venice. Nearly 200 Islamic artefacts and art objects from public and private collections from many parts of Europe and the US were on display at the exhibition. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris organised an exhibition on “The Golden Age of Arab Sciences” in March 2006. More than 200,000 visitors from across the country feasted their eyes on illustrations and objects that focused on the amazing and wide-ranging contributions made by Muslim scientists, physicians, engineers and architects from the 8th to the 14th century. International auction houses now play an important role in the growing global salience of Islamic art. A 1000-year old ewer, carved from flawless rock crystal and decorated with cheetahs and link chains, was sold by Christie’s in London for more than £3 million on October 7, 2008. Christie’s described the ewer as “one of the rarest and most desirable works of art from the Islamic world”.

Islam and India’s Composite Cultural Legacy

During the past fourteen centuries, Islamic civilization has interacted with scores of cultures across the world and has played a highly important role in fostering inter-cultural understanding, harmonious coexistence and cross-fertilization of ideas and cultural patterns. This is borne out by the history of Spain, Sicily, Venice, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

India is one of the most culturally diverse countries of the world. The fabric of Indian civilization has been woven from strands of different textures and hues drawn from a variety of sources. There is a wide range of diversity not only at the pan-Indian level but also within the fold of Hinduism. This is reflected in the philosophical and metaphysical discourses, in variations in the textual narratives, in ascetic traditions and orders, in the multiplicity of deities, cults and rituals, in sectarian distinctions, and in social organization, especially in the caste system. Romila Thapar has perceptively remarked that, from very early times, Hinduism has been a “mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas.”

A long drawn-out process of cultural interaction and exchange among various groups and communities gave rise to extensive linkages and networks and the evolution of a composite, syncretic legacy. There is ample historical, archaeological and epigraphic evidence to show that Hinduism has borrowed elements and features from the Indus civilization, from Dravidian cultures and languages, from tribal cultural traditions, from Buddhism and Jainism, from Persia and Central Asia, from Islamic civilization and from Western culture. India’s composite legacy is reflected in languages and literary traditions, in arts and crafts, in architecture, in social organization, in fairs and festivals and in regional ethos. Rabindranath Tagore, who is widely regarded as an authentic representative of Indian civilization, once observed that his family was the product of a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Muslim and British. Jawaharlal Nehru has perceptively observed that the idea of unity-in-diversity represents the essence of Indian civilization and the defining feature of Indian identity.

Muslims have played a highly important role in the evolution of India’s composite civilizational ethos. The role of Sufis in building bridges of inter-cultural understanding and harmonious coexistence in the Indian subcontinent is particularly note-worthy. The Sufis established their hospices (khanqahs) in the midst of common people, communicated with them in their own language, shared their joys and sorrows, drew on indigenous cultural and literary traditions to communicate their teachings and won people’s hearts with their sincerity, generosity and compassion.

India’s composite civilizational ethos, which has been nurtured by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, tribals, Zoroastrians and other communities, has proved to be remarkably dynamic and resilient and has withstood the vicissitudes and challenges of recent history, including the trauma of the Partition and the growing communal polarization around the country. Extensive social, economic and cultural linkages and networks have existed in Indian society over the past several centuries and have knit the various segments of Indian society together. These linkages and networks continue to exist in contemporary Indian society, especially in the villages and small towns where more than two-thirds of the country’s population live. This fact has been highlighted by the People of India project, which has shown that, by and large, social groups and communities in the country are located within specific cultural-linguistic regions, where they share material culture, social and cultural spaces, kinship organization, languages and dialects, customs and festivals, and regional identities. Regional identity or village identity, for example, often transcends religious, sectarian and caste-based distinctions.

The evolution of India’s composite, hybridic cultural ethos did not lead to a collapse or dilution of the distinctive identities of social groups and communities. By and large, social groups and religious and cultural communities have maintained their distinctive identities and, at the same time, created and participated in shared social, cultural, civic, political and economic spaces, which often criss-crossed and transcended primordial identifications.

India’s centuries-old composite civilizational ethos is now under threat from extremist, far-right organizations and political parties, which espouse a monolithic, homogeneous national culture and which are inimical to minority identities and sensibilities. This ideology presents a grossly distorted picture of India’s pluralistic civilization, harbours a totalitarian and exclusionary outlook and undermines the country’s constitutional and democratic ethos. It needs to be emphasized that there is no necessary correlation between cultural homogeneity and political unity. The edifice of national unity and cohesiveness has be raised on the foundations of India’s pluralistic and composite legacy and on the cherished principles of equality, democracy, social justice and human rights that are enshrined in the constitution.

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