Sunday, 15 April 2012

Book Review: The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun by Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Saeed Mirza’s latest offering, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, a work of fiction, I emphasise the word fiction, takes you on a voyage of discovery undertaken by four young undergrads at Berkeley, each of them from four corners of the globe. The voyage is set off, or rather, is provoked, when one of the undergrads, Omar, is upset after watching a US presidential election debate, where John McCain says something very insensitive about Arabs. An angry Omar then digs around and soon afterwards, drops a bombshell in their literature class where Dante’s Inferno (from his work, the Divine Comedy) is being discussed. According to Omar, Dante Alighieri plagiarised his work from the Book of Ascent or Kitab al-Miraj, which talks of Muhammad's ascension into Heaven (known as the Miraj), following his miraculous one-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (the Isra). Omar’s professor doesn’t agree, but the four good souls, Omar Jalloun from Morocco, Sandeep Bose from India, Steven Ntini from South Africa and Linda Mahon from Ohio, work together as a group, do a lot more research into translations of Arabic works (on astronomy, medicine, geography, mathematics and the like) into Latin and find out many more instances of plagiarism by western writers and scientists who had access to such translations in the post medieval period and during the renaissance.

We are told that Omar is a descendant of a Jewish scholar named Moses Ben Jalloun who had lived and worked in Toledo in the mid thirteenth century. Toledo in Moorish Spain was a centre for the translation of Arabic texts into Latin. The Jallouns lived in Al Andalus for many generations until the inquisition commenced, when some of the Jallouns fled to Morocco and converted to Islam. Multilingual Moses Ben Jalloun was one of the best translators around at that time and when the story begins, has just received his latest assignment, the translation of four fresh texts. For this assignment, Jalloun has with him a Cistercian monk and a young Moor from a prominent family in Granada. The Christian monk and the Moor don’t get along well at first and there are arguments. The arguments between the two men run parallel to the voyage being undertaken in Berkeley by Omar and his cohorts and in a way, they lead to almost the same conclusion – that many Arab ideas have been borrowed by westerners and passed off as originals. Towards the end, the Monk loses some of his arrogance and contempt for Islam and becomes a better human being. The arguments are recorded in a diary by Moses Ben Jalloun, which has somehow survived and is now with Omar who shares it with his friends.

Even as Omar and his cohorts dig around, and the Monk and the Moor argue, Mirza takes us on yet another parallel voyage, this one with the renowned Persian scholar Abu Rehan al-Biruni who lived from 973 A.D to around 1043 A.D. Known as Alberonius in Latin and Al-Biruni in English, Abu Rehan was an all-rounder who excelled in a number of disciplines including mathematics, science, history and languages. When Mahmud of Ghazni captured the emirate of Bukhara, he took all the scholars in that land to his capital Ghazni. Abu Rehan ended up living in Ghazna and serving Mahmud and later his son Mawdud, during which time he travelled to India and learnt some Sanskrit as well. Abu Rehan is tutor to his friend’s daughter, a sweet and pretty girl named Rehana who has been named after him. We get to see Rehana married off to one of Mahmud’s Pashtun commanders Dilawar Khan and she too ends up in Ghazna.

It is well accepted that the Arabs had reached the high point of civilization in the medieval period when Europe wallowed in darkness. The Arabs had borrowed many of their ideas from India (numbers) and China (papermaking and gunpowder) and even from the Greeks and Romans and built on them, taking them much further. When Europe started to blossom during the renaissance, Europeans too borrowed ideas and inventions from the Arabs and others. Many of the claims of plagiarism made by Mirza seem to be accepted truisms and are not so earth shattering as made out to be by Mirza. For example, the first claim in this book, that Dante Alighieri plagiarised his work from the Book of Ascent or Kitab al-Miraj, has been accepted by many western scholars such as Miguel Asin Palacios.

We are told of Pope Sylvester, born as Gerbert d’Aurillac, who travelled extensively in Moorish Spain before he became renowned as an authority back home in astronomy and mathematics. Constantine of Carthage was yet another Christian scholar who benefited from an education in Sicily, then ruled by Normans, but with a heavy Arab influence. None of this is problematic until Mirza claims that Constantine’s magnum opus, Liber Pantegni or the Book of the Complete Art of Medicine was plagiarised from the ninth century Persian physician Aby Ibn Abbas’s book Kitab al-Maleki.

Mohammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi who lived from 780 AD till 840 AD ‘looked at the Indian and Sumerian zero and studied it carefully. What did this dot stand for? Could it have a value? And bingo! He figured out how and where to place it and mathematics took a gigantic leap forward.’ Mirza tells us (rightly) that the word algebra is derived from the name of al-Khwarizmi’s book Al-Jabr wa-al Muqabilah. Algorithms are named after al-Khwarizmi, the man himself.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721 AD to 815 AD), known by his Latin name Gerber, was a master chemist who conducted many thousands of experiments and wrote around 3000 treatises. He also went on a hunt for a single element that is the basis of all life on this planet. Ibn Hayyan’s treatises were translated into Latin and read by many in Europe.

The movement of the Brethren of Purity was composed of philosophers and scholars and was founded in Syria and sought to cleanse and purify Islam. Mirza suggests that the crusaders encountered the Brethren of Purity and that the Order of the Knights Templar was modelled on the Brethren of Purity.

Medicine man Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, known to the Latin world as Abulcasis, wrote a treatise of 30 volumes, of which 27 volumes enumerated his experiences as a physician. The remaining three were on surgery and the techniques described there astounded European scholars so much that they were copied right up to the seventeenth century. Ibn Sina or Avicenna, called the Grand Master of medicine, lived from 926 to 1037 AD. He wrote a 5 volume treatise, the al-Kanun al-Tibb or the Canon of Medicine, which was a textbook in European medical schools till the seventeenth century.

Mirza quotes an English scholar Charles Burnett who has spent a long time studying the contributions of Islamic civilization to the West. According to Burnett, if one looked at the medical textbooks for the faculty of medicine in the fledging universities in medieval Europe, almost every author was an Arabic author. It was almost the same for the faculties of philosophy, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic.

Ibn al-Haytham who was born in Basra, but served the Caliph in Cairo, formulated a theorem now called Wilson’s Theorem. In the field of mechanics, he developed theories on inertia and momentum. His magnum opus Kitab al-Manesir on optics and the nature of light, refuted the theories of Euclid and Aristotle and was translated into Latin under the title Opticae Thesaurus Alhazeni. Al-Haytham’s works were read by many western scholars such as Roger Bacon, Pecham, Risner etc. ‘Hundreds of years later, Sir Isaac Newton would come up with his theory of optics which would vindicate most of what Ibn al-Haytham had written and so often proved.’

Leonardo Fibonaccci who was born around 1170 AD spent some time with his father at a trading post in North Africa. Impressed by the Arabic system of counting and accounting which was much more simple and effective than the Roman numerals Leonardo was used to, he wrote a book called the Liber Abaci or Book of Calculations, paying unabashed tribute to Indian and Arab mathematicians. He posed a hypothetical problem and solved it with a number sequence, later called the Fibonaccci sequence.

Al-Jazari was a mechanical engineer who lived from 1137 AD to 1206 AD and invented many mechanical devices and contraptions, such as water clocks, gears, pumps, pulleys, locks etc. His treatise, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices which apparently has miniature pictures of his devices was translated into Greek and Latin and astonished Europe. Apparently one of those impressed by the book was one Leonardo di Vinci. ‘Now, everyone has heard of da Vinci. How many know of Al-Jazari?’ Mirza asks us.

Nicholas Copernicus’s book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in AD 1543, broke off from Ptolemy’s vision of the known universe and was called the greatest discovery in the history of Western science. In reality, Copernicus’s work was based on two Arab astronomers, one Nasser al-Tusi and one Mu-ayyad al-Din al-Urdi who both lived many centuries earlier. Mirza doesn’t deny Copernicus’s genius for on seeing the correct explanation for planetary motion he accepted it, but suggests that he was most probably a plagiarist.

Arab influence of the West is not restricted to medicine or mathematics. Alphabetical notations of western musical notes have been attributed to an Italian - Guido of Arezzo. According to Mirza, the notations themselves are uncannily similar to the ones used by al-Kindi and al-Farabi around 200 years earlier. Mirza suggests that Pope Sylvester may have come into contact with al-Kindi’s and al-Farabi’s works and might have passed them to Guido. The troubadours of Europe were influenced by Andalusian and Arabic songs – their rhythms are similar and the word troubadour is derived from the Arabic word “tarrab”, which means to sing.

Even when Western experts acknowledged the Arab origin of ideas and inventions, it has been done so in a condescending manner. When Toynbee praised Ibn Khaldun (who wrote a magnum opus al-Muqaddimah, or the Universal History) as having conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place, he prefaced his comment with a condecending preamble, in which he likened Ibn Khaldun’s achievement to that of a shining light surrounded by a sea of ignorance and brutality.

The most serious of the claims made by Mirza in The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun pertain to Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton. Claims such as this would have been better served and more credible if they had set out in a work of non-fiction with appropriate citations, authorities and a good bibliography. Also Mirza paints Moorish Spain in such glowing colours that one gets the feeling everything was nice and rosy out there. It was, when compared with medieval Europe, but non-Muslims were always second class citizens and never had the same rights as the Muslims. After 1100 AD, there were a few mini-pogroms against the Jews, such as one in Cordoba in 1011 and in Granada in 1066. The situation was much worse in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc. where at times Jews were forced to convert to Islam or face death. In Moorish Spain, after the Almoravids were replaced by the more conservative Almohads, many Jews emigrated to more tolerant Muslim lands to the east while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms. For example, the great philosopher and scholar Moses Maimonides who was born in Cordoba fled to Egypt with his family.

Since all four undergrads stay together in an apartment just off the Berkeley campus, it is easy for them to dress in costumes while discussing the multiple plagiarisms perpetrated by Westerners. Omar wears a jalaba(sic), Steve wears African tribal markings, Sandeep draps a bed-sheet around himself, but later switches to a kurta and Linda wears a long dress that reaches her ankles. It is also rather easy for Omar and Linda to have an affair and start sharing a room. Linda comes across as a girl torn by guilt on account of the unacknowledged debt owned by the West to the Arab world. Her affair with Steve almost sounds like a form of atonement.

Ever since Islamic fundamentalism and related terrorism replaced communism as the number one enemy of western free market economy and its affiliated cultural mores and values, many westerners and other non-Muslims started to view all Muslims with scepticism. What little sympathy and empathy had existed in the west for middle-eastern and Islamic customs and traditions evaporated and the average Joe assumed all Arabs to be barbarians from the desert.

The crying need to show Islam in a more positive light has been sought to be addressed by many other writers. A few years ago, I read the first four books of a quintet by the famous secular/left wing writer cum activist Tariq Ali who is based in the UK. All four books are fictionalised history and seek to tell the story of how Islamic Empires rose and fell in a non-Eurocentric manner. The first one, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, is set in Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Book of Saladin is about, well, Saladdin, and is narrated by Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe retained by Saladin to pen his memoirs. The Stone Woman, the third book in Ali’s Islam Quintet, is set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out. Tariq Ali’s fourth novel The Sultan of Palermo revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. The fifth book in Tariq Ali’s quintet, “Night of the Golden Butterfly” was released in 2010 and I hope to read and review it one of these days.

In The Book of Saladin, we are introduced to two crusaders, who did exist. Ali tells us that one of them attacked Mecca and desecrated it, surely a very serious charge. At one point, crusaders did harass pilgrims travelling to Mecca, but to say any crusader attacked and desecrated Mecca is absurd. Why did Ali get carried away so much? I don’t know. Maybe he felt that making crusaders look more evil and ruthless than they were would help negate the bias against Muslims in today's West.

It has to be conceded that there is a great deal of merit in the argument many in the West are not aware of the Arab world’s past glory. However, it is not correct to say that the hatred toward Arabs and other Muslims is solely or even mainly on account of that. Many in the West are not aware of Japan’s past glory and yet, there is very little animosity towards Japan. In fact, the Japanese are part of the Western club! Why is this so? Mirza is not unaware of this issue. After one gets through two-thirds of the book, Linda sits up abruptly on the bed in Omar’s room. ‘What happened to Islam since those times? What has it done in the last 300-400 years?’ she asks Omar in the middle of the night. Omar doesn’t have a straight forward answer. He ducks the question a bit by asking ‘what has Christianity done at the same time? What did it do to the natives in the Americas?...... How can I explain Osama bin Laden? How can I explain the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?' Then Omar cuts to the chase. ‘I believe Islam lost the war of ideas….. Once it lost political dominance, it turned within itself, licked its wounds and slowly clammed up.’ I won’t say any more, but will leave it to you to read this book for yourself and understand what Omar is getting at.

On the whole, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, is a good read, though I feel that the answers to the crisis facing Islam have to come from within rather than from outside, as Mirza seems to suggest.

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