Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What happened to Baghdad - the once center of art, culture and science of the whole world??

I've been wondering for quite some time about a very disturbing trend throughout the Muslim World. Well, this very term Muslim World is also very unfortunate. Harry Belafonte very aptly had sung "This land is your land, This land is my land". There can't be anything called Muslim World. There can be off course a land where Muslims are a majority. What ever be it, the term Muslim World is very widely used everywhere. And it's also depressing to see the condition of most of the Muslim countries (or rather countries where Muslims are majority). In an article in Times of India columnist M J Akbar has referred to some very startling facts, mentioned to him by one of his Arab friends, about these countries: "there are only 500 odd universities in the Muslim world. The United States has 5,758 and India has nearly 8,500. Literacy in the developed world is 90% against 40% in the Muslim world. If you removed Turkey from the list, the comparison would look grimmer. High tech goods and services constitute only 0.9% of the exports from Pakistan, and 0.3% from Algeria. They add up to 68% of Singapore's exports".

Apart from this piece of information it's very apparent that throughout the world many of these Muslim states are among failed states. Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy, still doesn't show any sign of getting out of the vicious circle of decay. Iraq was ruled by a thug and brutal sadist and perpetrator of genocide, called Saddam, for some time till it finally fell into the hands of Bush. Iran is ruled by a type of fanatic dictator for the past thirty years. Palestine and the entire stretch of North African countries don't have any governance. On top of these there is so much money being pumped into several militant organizations round the world which is pulling many of the Muslim countries into war zones. Israel retaliates the militancy of Palestinian Hamas in a hundred times bigger way. US forces retaliates in Pakistan and Afghanistan. India retaliates in Kashmir and elsewhere. There are many more such retaliations throughout the world. And in all these thousands of innocent lives are lost. I have been wondering to find a reason behind all these. Who should be blamed for all these? Is Israel responsible for everything that's happening in middle east. Did India really violate human rights in Kashmir to such extent that some Kashmiris are justified to become terrorists. Is there any justified reason for some section of the Muslim World spreading the concept of an Islamic Jihad against non-Muslims? When did it all start and who is to be held responsible for all these? The present condition of Iran and Iraq saddens me most because of her glorious past.

Persian Culture and civilization has been one of the most influential cultures of the world. The Persian language is the mother of most all the languages spoken in the Middle Eastern and Central Asia. The Persian art, architecture, philosophy, science, literature, poems have been among the best in the world. The influence of Persian culture has transcended the boundaries or Iran and Iraq and have become homely names even in India. Rumi's Ghazal and Omar Khayaam's poetry have been equally popular in India ever since they came into existence. The Hindi/Urdu poetry and literature has derived many things from Persian literature. India had links with Persia and Persian people since very long time. We've read about the Darius the Great and his Achaemenid Empire, one of the largest and most prosperous empires of all time. We Indians never heard anything bad about the Persian people and culture. So why suddenly they have fallen back? It's really a matter of grave thought what would happen to Iran once the oil fields go dry.

Apart from the Persians, even the Arabs has such a great history of development and prosperity. Their contribution to mathematics, science, philosophy predates the European renaissance. Baghdad, the once capital of the Islamic Empire for several centuries used to be the seat of learning, discussions, arguments and above all apostle of tolerance. So what happened to Baghdad there after. Where did the learning go, where did the education vanish and why do they have only 500 universities?

A little bit of study of the history of the Arabs and Persian people since the birth of Islam throws a great deal of light into everything.

The establishment of Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in 762 AD on the banks of Tigris river heralded the beginning of the Golden Age of Islam or the Islamic Renaissance. The simplest definition of any renaissance or golden age in any civilization is perhaps provided by Tagore - "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free, Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, Where words come out from the depth of truth, Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit, Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought". Whenever any civilization deviates from this path of free flowing knowledge, unbroken world, strife for perfection and regards for reasoning and truth, it starts decaying. The several centuries of supremacy of Baghdad was an age of Islamic Golden age where every form of art, culture, science and administration prospered to the highest levels. That was the age when people from all over the world were welcome, all faiths and religions were respected, reasoning and arguments were always the foundations of any ideas rather than baseless dogmas. The result was miracle. Almost in every field of science, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, music, art, architecture tremendous amount of original work was done during this period. The creativity in every sphere reached its zenith at a time when the surrounding Europe was still dogged up with it's clumsy ideas of dogmatic religion. In fact many scientists and philosophers had fled the Roman Empire and taken refuge in Baghdad to carry out with their work. There were many Greeks and Indians too. Great efforts were taken in translating valuable works of science, art, philosophy from Greek, Sanskrit and Latin to Arabic and Persian. The best part is that Baghdad gave proper recognition to everyone. They didn't plagiarize anything from anyone. Jawaharlal Nehru mentions in Discovery of India that during the eighth century "the knowledge of Indian mathematics in their Arabic translations spread all over this vast area. The numerals were called by the Arabs 'figures of Hind (of India), and the Arabic word for a number is 'Hindash', meaning 'from Hind'". The Arabs have recognized the contribution from 'Hind' at numerous places. It's during this period that Aryabhat's works in decimal system and trigonometry became widely popular beyond India. Though the concept of 'shunya' was known to Indians for quite long, but still the origin of 'zero' is still not clear. It's often attributed to Aryabhat which can't be either proved or disproved. But there's no doubt that Aryabhat, along with the decimal system gave a proper form to the modern mathematics. Without Baghdad's role it won't have reached the rest of the world. Amartya Sen mentioned in 'Argumentative Indian' that "Aryabhat's Sanskrit term jya for what we now call sine ... was translated, through proximity of sound, into Arabic jiba (a meaningless word in Arabic) and later transformed to jaib (meaning a bay or cove), and ultimately into Latin word sinus (meaning a bay or cove), from which the modern 'sine' is derived". Such instances of assimilating knowledge from across the world is the perfect example of a renaissance which continued even after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate. It's noteworthy to mention here that the conversion of Persians to Muslim didn't happen overnight through force during this period. People converted Islam gradually out of their own without any pressure from the rulers. During this period both Shia and Sunni scholars prospered without any conflict between them. After the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate the Samanid Persian Empire emerged in the northern part of modern day Iran and Afghanistan and Central Asia. Though they had spread Islam deep into Central Asia but they were deep rooted into their Zorastrian roots. They were also very tolerant to the minority Zorastrian population. The result was the establishment of wonderful cities like Samarkand, Heerut and Bukhara. It's no wonder that the greatest Persian poet after the arrival of Islam, Rudaki, flourished during this period. Also Shahname, the epic poem about Persian kings, was written by Firdawsi during the period. It speaks about the unique cultural values of Persia and also the pre-Islamic Zorastrian religion.

The rise of the Ghaznavid Empire sowed the seeds of decline to the Golden Age of Islam. Mahmud, their ruler created an empire with destruction and ruthlessness. He used to ravage the places he conquered. Such instances of killing and destruction was never seen before. His empire didn't last for long and very soon Baghdad became the center for learning again under the Seljuk Turks, the cultural ancestors of the Western Turks, the present day residents of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. The expansion of the Seljuks was never accompanied with destruction of cities and genocides. It was during the reign of Seljuk Malik Shah that Omar Khayyam did most of his experimentations in Baghdad. Malik Shah also created a large number of institutes for higher education. The famous Sufi poet Rumi belonged to a later Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. That was the beginning of the 13th century, by the end of which Persia and the whole world was witness to the worst form of destruction and genocide under the Mongol Genghiz Khan. Though Genghiz Khan was not a Muslim, but his western descendants who ruled Persia and other other middle eastern places in Asia converted to Islam. That was the end of age of tolerance and all-inclusiveness. The Safavids converted the majority Sunni Iran into Shia by force. The Timurids released another realm of atrocities and destruction where ever they went. Every sign of the pre-Islamic culture and religion was gradually removed. The Zorastrians fled Iran totally. The grand traditions of multi cultural and multi ethnic discussions, arguments, discourses - which are the main aspects of growth of ideas - never returned back to the Muslim lands. Rigidity increased and external ideas and ideologies became more and more alien. Eventually the Ottoman Empire emerged to the west of Iran in Turkey and surrounding areas. But the Golden Age of Baghdad never came back. Though paintings and art flourished to some extent even under the Mongols, Safavids and Timurids, but nothing notable happened in the areas of science and philosophy. Persian art, architecture and literature flourished much more in India under the Mughals, who were much more inclusive than the later Persians. It's notable that despite Muslim rulers ruling major part of India for close to 600 years, still the majority Hindu population was never converted into Muslims. India also never saw the sort of devastation or destruction that the Mongols and their successors caused in middle east and Asia minor. Perhaps due to the all inclusive culture of India, which the Mughals also embraced to some extent, Golden Ages kept on returning to India.

It's notable to refer to the World Heritage Sites in the Arab and Persian Empires, in present day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, across the entire Islamic period. With the exception of Soltaniyeh, built in 14th century by the Ikhanids and Meidan Emam built in 17th Century by Safavids in Iran almost all other Islamic sites belong to the Islamic Golden Age, when Baghdad was the center of learning and education of the entire world. On the contrary there much more sites from Mughal era in the World Heritage List.

The point I want to make here is that the growth and prosperity of any nation has a very strong relation to its all inclusive culture, tolerance and arguments. Whenever a nation shuts its doors to outsiders stagnation comes in and the nation can't do well in any area, be it art and culture or economy. It's no wonder that the Islamic India continued to prosper in the same way as the pre-Islamic Hindu India did. The Hindu India constituted almost 30% of world's GDP in 1000AD. The partial Islamic India constituted almost 25% of world GDP in 1500AD. The Mughals continued to constitute 23% in 1600 AD and 24% in 1700 AD. Compared to this even during the Golden Age the Islamic Caliphate in 1000 AD constituted only 18% of world GDP, though it occupied much bigger area than India. Never ever in the next 1000 years the entire Muslim World prospered so well.

Though the rigidity and intolerance increased considerably in the Islamic world since the decline of the Golden Age, with an exception perhaps only in India, still there was no concept of a world wide Islamic Jihad. Perhaps with money coming in so easily from the ground in the form of oil since the beginning of the 20th century, the Islamic countries suddenly became financially quite strong and a section of its people, including some in leading roles, thought it wise to wage a war against the fictitious wrongs done to them by the non-Muslims. Instead of spending money and energy into education, health care and other developmental work quite a good amount of resources were wasted in terrorism.

I'm sure Israel won't have the face or even indirect support from the US or UK to strike into Palestine if the Hamas end their insurgency. I'm sure things will really improve if the rich Arabs stop funding the terror camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan and help the governments of these countries to setup schools and hospitals.

The Golden Age of Islam can again return, if they revert back to what the Abbasids did 1000 years back - open the doors to the world and embrace everything that is good!!

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