The other day, I was wandering around the British Museum, and I happened across the Islamic Art exhibition, which is tucked into one of the building’s many discreet corners.
I happen to have a fondness for Islamic art; as a rule, it tends to stay away from visual representations of individuals, and rather, goes towards “glorification of the Holy Word”, namely the text of the Qu’ran. This can take many spectacular forms, particularly in terms of calligraphy and in beautifully ornate mosaics which decorate mosques from London all the way to Indonesia.
In the middle of the exhibition, there is a small Persian drinking vessel from the 13th century, which has a poem painted in gold letters on its side. My memory of the poem is not complete, but the jist of it goes: “I am writing these words while in the desert, separated from my love. I write this so that as she drinks of this vessel, she will take pity on me and remember me.”
This gentle, if somewhat maudlin, sentiment harks back to an Islam which was noted for public lighting and great libraries, the spread of algebra, and the investigation of medicine, science and philosophy. It echoes broadly with the refined thoughts of Shah Wali Allah, an Indian Muslim thinker in the 18th century, who once advised kings, “the bonds of love are stronger than the bonds of iron”.
Move forward by about three hundred years and here we are, the day after Iran’s military tested a missile that could hit Israel. Hossein Salami, the head of the air force wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said, “Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch.”
How did we get from there to here? We can dismiss Islam as being at the root of the problem. After all, the closer in history one gets to Muhammad, the more we gravitate towards the civilising impulses of Islam being at the fore. Yes, there have always been extremists, much the same as in any other religion; but it’s clear that the likes of Salami are not approaching genuine Islam, nor replicating its features from earlier eras.
What is it then? Where does did the impulse to destroy on a mass scale originate? The likely answer has more to do with modern Europe than it does with Islam.
The idea that whole groups of people need to be systemically destroyed is a bastard child of the twentieth century, and in particular, Europe. It was not Muslims who built the first concentration camps. It was not Muslims who came up with the idea of “liquidating the kulaks (rich peasants) as a class”. When Saladin recaptured Jerusalem, he did not kill the Christians and Jews, rather, he came to an agreement with them in order to maintain normal life as closely as possible. Going further back, Umar, one of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”, politely refused an invitation from the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem to pray with his flock, lest Muslims think they had a right to use their church.
In reality, destroying groups of people for who they are arose from the fever swamps of radical European politics, both on the far right or far left. The likes of Osama bin Laden are merely the Middle Eastern offspring of this ideology, twisted and reinterpreted to fit into their individual context in order to seem authentic. This ideology is no more Islam than Communism or Fascism is Christian.
The underlying structure upon which it is based contains a great deal of intellectual laziness: if we kill the Jews, kulaks or infidels, the world will be perfect, the philosophy states. This totally contravenes the original idea of jihad, namely that it was the “struggle to be human”, and that fight began with oneself. Externalising the struggle to people one doesn’t even know is symptomatic of being unable or unwilling to accept the harder task of internal change, which remains at the critical root of change in the world around us. It is a cop out, rather, a symptom of psychological dissonance: one’s lack of virtue justified by the presence of a particular group, and thus brutality towards that group is justified to create the conditions of virtue.
It’s difficult to tell what the individual Iranians are thinking, which is much more interesting than what the headbangers in their government has to say: opinion polls tend to be a scarce commodity there. Iranians, generally speaking, tend to be proud of their heritage and to the contributions to world civilisation that have come from the Persian Empire and its successors; the rhetoric from the Revolutionary Guard should be discordant to those who are mindful of this past. Regardless, they are not the enemy, and the faith they represent is not the enemy; the enemy, as ever, are the stupid and the violent, who believe the world’s salvation comes from its continued bathing in both stupidity and violence. We’ve had the nightmare of the twentieth century to prove this wrong; it would be a terrible shame if the lesson had to be repeated.