An interview with authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs: A meticulous book about an extraordinary Fatimid manuscript illustrating the heavens and the earth as was known in 11th century Cairo

Book of Curiosities. Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Fatimid manuscript 11th century
There are 17 maps in the Fatimid manuscript Book of Curiosities, 14 of which are completely unique to this manuscript. Perhaps the most remarkable is this rectangular map of the world. This the only such map to be dated before the renaissance that we know to have survived.

“The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization….It is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams” — Emilie Savage-Smith and Yossef Rapoport, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs.

About a millennium ago, in Fatimid Cairo, an unknown author completed a large and richly illustrated book. In the course of thirty-five chapters, this book guided the reader on a journey from the outermost cosmos and planets to Earth and its lands, islands, features, and inhabitants. This treatise, known as The Book of Curiosities, was unknown to modern scholars until a remarkable manuscript copy surfaced in 2000. Christie’s auction house in London, who had put up the manuscript for sale, wanted to know more about it and invited Professor Emilie Savage-Smith of Oxford University to examine the manuscript. As it turned out the manuscript was one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades, and was eventually acquired by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. With Yossef Rapoport, then a young research assistant, Professor Savage-Smith, set out to critically study the manuscript and together they co-authored “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” with the aim of providing the first general overview of The Book of Curiosities and the unique insight it offers into medieval Islamic thought.

“As tales of scholarly finds go, this is up there with the best….Lost Maps of the Caliphs is a testament both to the scholarship of its authors and to the spirit of inquiry fostered by the Fatimids.” — The Daily Telegraph, London.

The article that follows below was originally published on Jadaliyya on April 8, 2019. We are deeply indebted to Bodleian Library Publishing, publishers of the UK edition of “Lost Maps of the Caliphs,” for facilitating the publication of the complete interview as well as an excerpt from the book on Simerg.

“Lost Maps of the Caliphs” has been acclaimed world wide in numerous reviews. In addition to the very brief excerpt that has been quoted here from London’s Daily Telegraph, the following quote from Imago Mundi goes on to validate the book’s outstanding content: “We are fortunate indeed that Rapoport and Savage-Smith have undertaken fifteen years of meticulous, collaborative research on the Book of Curiosities. The culmination, Lost Maps of the Caliphs, is an exceptional tribute to an exceptional object of study.”

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Interview with Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, authors of Lost Maps of the Caliphs

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith (YR and ESS): This book started with a discovery. In September 2000, a specialist in Islamic manuscripts at Christie’s auction house in London called Emilie—who specializes in the history of Islamic science—and asked her if she could come into London from Oxford and look at a puzzling Arabic manuscript that was up for sale a couple of weeks later. It was entitled Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, which loosely translates as “The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eye.” Christie’s didn’t know what to make of it, and wanted to seek Emilie’s advice about its importance.

Emilie was shown a rather scruffy manuscript, bound in ill-fitting covers, with a bird-dropping visible on the cover. But inside the covers was a medieval Arabic treatise on the skies and the Earth, accompanied by a series of strange images and maps unparalleled in any other medieval work. Above all, it had a map of the world with a scale of degrees of longitude at the top, in what seemed to be the earliest surviving example of mathematical plotting on any world map known to us.

The manuscript turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades. With the support of Oxford colleagues, Emilie began a campaign to ensure the work would be available to the public rather then be kept by private collector. In June of 2002, it was acquired by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, with the help of the National Lottery Fund. Yossi then joined as (then) a young research assistant. We first established that the treatise was written in the first half of the eleventh century, in Cairo, the newly-founded capital of the Fatimid Shi’a Empire. We then spent the following decade carefully preparing a critical edition and annotated translation of the maps and text, published by Brill in 2014.

Our critical edition made the treatise and its maps available for scholars, but it did not explain what they mean or why they are so important. We strongly felt that merely translating the text and presenting the images—beautiful and striking as they are—was not enough. The treatise had to be understood as a whole, because the maps of the sky and of the Earth, of the Indian Ocean and of the Nile, of Sicily, of Mahdia, and of southern Anatolia, all made sense only when read together in the context of the society and culture in which they were produced. Lost Maps of the Caliphs tells the story of this exceptional manuscript—how it was discovered and why it is so significant.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YR and ESS: Because the treatise is so wide-ranging, we use it to reconsider the development of astronomy, astrology, geography, and cartography in the first four centuries of Islam. In the Lost Maps we outline the medieval Islamic understanding of the structure of the cosmos and celestial phenomena. The amalgamation of Hellenistic, Coptic, Hindu and other star lore was all channeled towards an astrological mind-set. The Earth together with the Heavens formed the universe of eleventh-century Cairo. To a medieval person, whose night skies were not blanked-out by city lights and pollution, the contents of the night sky—the ‘Raised-Up Roof’ as our author, following the Qur’an, called it—revealed the workings of the universe and, if properly understood, heralded events on Earth.

Our book is also a contribution to the history of global communication networks at the turn of the previous millennium. We use the geographical materials of the Book of Curiosities to depict the Fatimid Empire as a global maritime power, with tentacles of military and religious authority in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indus Valley, and along the East African coast. The extent of Fatimid knowledge of Byzantine coasts demonstrates close ties between the Muslim and Christian empires. The material on East Asia sheds new light on Sino-Indian trade routes and is very surprising for a treatise written in Egypt. The treatise’s familiarity with the East African coasts contributes to recent debates on the Islamization of the Swahili coast.

Perhaps most importantly, we use the Book of Curiosities to re-consider the history of early Islamic map-making. The world map of the Book of Curiosities is a result of the dialogue of the Islamic world with Hellenistic, Late Antique geography. The extensive maritime material in the Book of Curiosities sheds new light on navigation in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean before the introduction of the compass in the thirteenth century, and presents an Islamic angle on debates concerning the origins of the European portolan chart.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YR and ESS: Emilie has been working on Islamic scientific manuscripts for several decades, and published books on Islamic celestial globes, medieval Islamic magic and divination, and a catalogue of the medical manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. She also co-authored the volume on Medieval Islamic Medicine that won the 2008 Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. It was Emilie’s vast experience with Islamic scientific manuscripts that enabled her to appreciate how special this treatise was. In Lost Maps of the Caliphs, Emilie also wrote the chapters that deal with astronomy and astrology, as well as providing a very personal chapter about her campaign to make this gem available for the public.

Yossi came to this project with training in the history of Arabic-speaking medieval Islamic societies, shortly after competing a PhD on the history of marriage and divorce in late medieval Egypt. But, like so many, he was always fascinated with maps, and the deciphering of the maps of the Book of Curiosities was as close as one gets to deciphering a fairy-tale treasure map. Through this project, he became an expert on Islamic maps, navigation, medieval trade routes between India and China, and Hellenistic collections of strange animals.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YR and ESS: We hope that this book will be widely read as a window onto medieval Islamic views of the world, a perspective on Islamic science that is missing from current debates about the legacies of Islamic civilization. The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization. Too often, the achievements of Islamic science are divorced from the culture that produced them and are only brought to light as a trophy in a sterile competition with West. Islamic maps in particular get almost no attention in surveys of Islamic history, and even when they are shown they are rarely explained. Because we tend to view Islamic civilization through the prism of religion and faith, we find no use for these abstract diagrams that tell us nothing about God.

What could be more foundational to any culture than the manner in which it conceived of the sky and the Earth? We hope to show that the discovery of the Book of Curiosities is also a timely rediscovery of those aspects of Islamic history which are too often neglected in academic and non-academic visions of Islam. It is a rediscovery of the sea as an integral part of a civilization that supposedly originated in the desert, of an outward looking scientific enquiry that was built on the foundation of the classical Greek legacy, and of the power of the image in a culture that is too often reduced to texts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YR and ESS: It is about time to put the Book of Curiosities behind—it is nearly twenty years since we started working on it. Emilie came back to the history of Islamic medicine and is now completing a mutli-volume translation of a thirteenth-century Syrian biographical dictionary of doctors, to be published by Brill, with selections in the Oxford World Classics series published by Oxford University Press.

Yossi has been working over the past few years on the history of the medieval Islamic countryside. He recently published a monograph, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt, whichis a detailed micro-study of the economy and society of the villages of the Egyptian province of the Fayyum as described in a unique thirteenth-century tax register. This book, too, has a lot of maps, mostly modern GIS ones but also a copy of one that was originally made in the tenth century.

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Excerpt from Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith

Who, then, was the author of the Book of Curiosities? His apparent access to naval military records suggests a direct connection to the Fatimid state. His personal acquaintance with an Ismaʿili missionary who had been to Nubia, and his unique information on itineraries in the world of the Indian Ocean, all suggest he was close to the Ismaʿili missionary network. The map of Palermo with its suburbs, the diagram of Tinnīs, and in particular the map of Mahdia, which is drawn from the perspective of someone looking at the city from a vantage point just outside of its walls, suggest that he had visited these port cities in person. In some ways, he is a successor to the geographer Ibn Ḥawqal and a predecessor of the poet Nāser-e Khosraw—both Ismaʿili missionaries, travelers and keen observers of human societies. Unlike them, however, his interest in trade is minimal, and he is more likely to have been a military man than a merchant. Nor was he a scholar of the caliber of his Egyptian contemporaries, the physician Ibn Riḍwān or Ibn Haytham, the founder of the science of optics. His grasp of mathematical concepts appears to have been quite poor, and he generally avoided technical discussions.

Rather than a scholar our author was, primarily, a mapmaker. It is the maps that make the Book of Curiosities such a distinct work of medieval scholarship and such an appealing manuscript for modern audiences. The author has unprecedented confidence in the ability of maps and diagrams to convey information. Unlike any other geographical treatise before this, the maps are stand-alone artifacts, unsupported by any accompanying text. This is true for some of the maps of the sky, but especially for the rectangular map of the world, the maps of the three great seas, and the maps of the rivers. Even when the maps are related to a text, such as those of the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, or the city of Mahdia, the information they contain goes well beyond that of the preceding prose sections. We do not have the original treatise, only a later copy, so we do not know how lavish it might have been when first penned. But the second part of the title literally translates as “that which is pleasant to the eyes” (mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn), indicating that this treatise was about the images as much as it was about the text.

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Lost Map of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith
A photo of the UK edition of Lost Maps of the Caliphs by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, published by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Please click on image to see book details.

Maps are at the center of this Book of Curiosities, and this anonymous mapmaker offers us his reflections on the craft of cartography. His chapter on mapmaking techniques introduces the maps of seas and islands, the most original maps in the treatise. He opens with a formulation of the purpose of his maps: “Although it is impossible for created beings to know the extent of God’s creation, the knowledgeable and qualified among them are entrusted with witnessing or imparting a small part of it.” The maps that will follow will convey knowledge, albeit imperfect, of God’s creation. He then continues to explain why his maps are intentionally “not accurate representations” of reality: the contours of coastlines change over time, the mapmaking instruments are not fine enough to reproduce reality on a small scale, and labels need to be legible. Here is a mapmaker explaining his choices and reflecting on the purposes and functionality of his maps. The results of his labor are unique medieval versions of “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding,” to use the definition of “map” by the leading modern historian of cartography. There is no parallel for this passage in any other medieval treatise known to us.

The Book of Curiosities is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams, and from the curses flung at the rebels who sought to overthrow them. The treatise also reflects some immediate political ambitions of the Fatimid state, especially in the Mediterranean. It depicts visually and in text the defenses of the strategic Fatimid holdings in Tinnīs, Mahdia, and Sicily. There are historical references to the early Islamic conquests of Cyprus, Crete, and Bari, with the inference that they may be ripe targets for Fatimid re-conquest. The mapping of anchorages, ports, and bays deep in Byzantine territory, some of them as far north as the Dardanelles, also reflect a military context. It is likely that much of the material here was actually drawn from the records of the Fatimid navy. And beyond the immediate political objectives, the maritime focus of the Book of Curiosities is also distinctly Fatimid. The unusual categories for organizing the geographical material, from seas to islands, and then to lakes and rivers, reflect the unique maritime orientation of the Fatimids, who, alone among the great medieval Muslim empires, preferred networks of ports, rivers, and islands over horses and land routes.

The treatise can be viewed as part of a westward shift in the geographical tradition and in the center of gravity in the Islamic world in general. Most ninth-century works, such as those by Ibn Khurradādhbih and the Relation of China and India, focused on Asia and the Indian Ocean. By the middle of tenth century, however, the gaze shifts to the Mediterranean, North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Masʿūdī spent much of his later life in Egypt and Syria, and Ibn Ḥawqal provided an unprecedented account of the Maghreb. The eleventh-century Book of Curiosities focuses on the eastern Mediterranean. Later works of the Andalusian author Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī (d. 1094) and, of course, the Sicilian based al-Idrīsī (fl. 1154) have their focal point even farther to the west. The heavy reliance of the Book of Curiosities on the work of Ibn Ḥawqal is also suggestive, because the latter was, most likely, also a missionary. The focus on islands in the Book of Curiosities may have had special resonance against the backdrop of the Ismaʿili nomenclature of regional “islands.”

The Ismaʿili context of the Book of Curiosities invites comparisons with the influential Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, an encyclopedic corpus of science and Neoplatonic philosophy, composed in Iraq sometime before the middle of the tenth century. The Epistles are not cited in the Book of Curiosities, nor is there evidence for their circulation in Fatimid Egypt, despite their affinity with Ismaʿili teachings. Yet the Epistles seem to approach the subject matter of the sky and the Earth in a similar manner. Following the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, geography is seen in the Epistles as an appendix to the study of the stars. But the Epistles also have a higher purpose: the reader is invoked to contemplate the design of the creator, “to ponder wonders (ʿajāʾib) of his creation and reflect on the curiosities (gharāʾib) of what he fashioned.” This desire to observe God’s work explains some of the interest in marvels and wonders exhibited by the Book of Curiosities, as its title suggests.

Like the Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, the Book of Curiosities draws heavily and without compunction on the heritage of Greek science. Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen provide our author with much of the material on the general structure of the heavens and the Earth, and on the way the former influence the latter. Muslim scholars like al-Masʿūdī correct and add information, especially when one zooms in on the Earth’s size and layout, but the general framework inherited from the Greeks is not questioned. And while God is omnipresent, the Qur’an is cited sparingly, only to invite reflection on creation or to buttress moral points about God’s punishment meted out to the unbelievers. There is only one Tradition from the Prophet in the entire treatise, on the intrinsic purity of water. Such reliance on a Hellenistic heritage was not uncommon in eleventh-century Cairo. Mubashshir ibn Fātik, a wealthy and influential scholar, left us a remarkable collection of ethical sayings from the Greek sages, with special focus on the Late Antique and legendary Hermes.

The author of the Book of Curiosities does not limit himself to Greek authorities, but is also acquainted with Persian, Indian, and Coptic knowledge. He cites an account of the birth of astrology in India, and Persian authorities on the ominous bābānīyah stars. He is also keen to show command of multiple languages. For example, the names of each planet are given in Persian, Classical Greek, “Indian,” and Byzantine Greek; the names of each day of the week are given in Persian, Byzantine Greek, “Indian,” Hebrew, and Coptic. The use of Coptic is of special significance. There is here a deep influence of Egyptian Coptic traditions, an influence which has been overlooked in modern scholarship on Islamic science. Coptic lore was already reworked by al-Masʿūdī, and the Coptic calendar seems to have been used very early when predicting the risings of the lunar mansions. There is even more Coptic material in the Book of Curiosities, including accounts of the moray eel and the foundation of Tinnīs. Most importantly, the explanations related by Copts regarding the flooding of the Nile—that the Nile floods are a result of the summer melting of the snow on equatorial mountains—are as close to the present understanding of the Nile system as was ever achieved by medieval Islamic scholarship.

Date posted: January 26, 2020.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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“Muslim Link” profiles 12 Muslims who won in the 2019 Canadian Federal Election; Two Ismailis won their Ridings for the Liberal Party

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

In his piece dated October 23, 2019, the Editor-in-Chief of “The Muslim Link” published a comprehensive list of Muslims who were elected in the Canadian Federal Election that was held on October 21, 2019. In compiling the names and their profiles with some interesting facts as well as links to their social-media pages, the editor notes that “As the Editor in Chief, I always enjoy compiling these lists as I get to know more about quite interesting people and I get to learn more about what is happening in Canadian cities other than my own, which is the Nation’s Capital, Ottawa.”

Simerg is pleased to provide a link to Muslim Link’s fine on-line piece about the 12 Muslims who were elected in the Federal election. Ismailis Yasmin Ratansi and Arif Virani were re-elected in their ridings. They represented the Liberal Party, which fell short of forming a majority government during the 2019 elections.

Please click on image to read article in The Muslim Link

Date posted: November 21, 2019.

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The lonely death of 20th century Qur’an translator A. Yusuf Ali; assessing Qur’an translations; and interview with music artist Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens)

Yusuf Ali, Quran translator
Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Photo: Wikipedia.

“On a frigid December morning in 1953, a policeman found a half-conscious old man slumped on a street bench in the Westminster area of London. That man was Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the famous 20th-century translator of the Quran. He died alone, homeless, and with no one by his side…Generations of Muslims in English-speaking countries have grown up reading Yusuf Ali’s interpretation of the Quran…Read Saad Hasan’s piece in TRTWORLD. 

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Assessing Qur'an translations
Please click on image for article.

Multiple translations of the Qur’an line shelves at book stores. Because of the growing Muslim communities in English-speaking countries, as well as greater academic interest in Islam, there has been a blossoming in recent years of English translation. Since fewer than 20 percent of Muslims speak Arabic, this means that most Muslims study the text only in translation. So how accurate are the Qur’an’s renderings into English? The record is mixed…Read more of this informative piece in Simerg (includes a note on Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation).

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TRT World Showcase Special with Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens – Why he picked up the guitar again.

“…When the people have nothing, that’s the moment when you have to sing…” — Yusuf Islam

Video: Yusuf Islam

Considered a legend in the music world, Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens opens up to TRT World about his spiritual journey, and shares his thoughts about the world. Please watch the interview, above.

Date posted: October 5, 2019.

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Imam Hussein (A.S.) was martyred 1339 years ago

Imam Hussein Mosque Karbala, Library of Congress Photo
General view of the Imam Hussein Mosque in Karbala, Iraq. The photo was taken between September 26 and October 12, 1932. Photo: Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection / Library of Congress, Washingon D.C.

Imam Hussein (A.S.)

Introduced by Malik Merchant
(Publisher-Editor, Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos)

Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, is the 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, and directly descended from Hazrat Ali (A.S.) and Imam Hussein (A.S.).

Imam Hussein began his reign as the 2nd Ismaili Imam* on the death of his father, Hazrat Ali (A.S.), on January 27, 661 CE who, 29 years earlier in 632 CE, had been publicly proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.) to be his successor at the famous event that took place at Ghadir Khumm.

The succession ended the cycle of the Divine Institution of Nubuwwah and ushered the world into a new era of the Divine Institution of Imamat. Thus, the Imams directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad, from Hazrat Ali to Mawlana Shah Karim, have continued to guide their murids (followers) in the ta’wil (interpretation) and talim (teaching) of the Holy Qur’an for the last 1387 years.

Imam Hussein was martyred in the Battle of Karbala on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, or October 10, 680, at the age of 54, and was succeeded to the Hereditary throne of Imamat by Imam Zainul Abideen (A.S.).

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and thus shorter than the 365 day solar calendar by roughly 11 days. This year (2019), the 10th day of Muharram falls on or around September 9/10, almost 1339 years since the Imam’s tragic death at the hands of Yazid’s army. Please click to read more about Imam Hussein and Karbala from Muslim and non-Muslim historians and scholars.

Date posted: September 9, 2019.

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*Note: In the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili tradition Imam Hussein’s brother, Hazrat Hassan (A.S.), is not counted as an Imam, whereas in other Shia Muslims he is considered as the second Imam which then makes Imam Hussein the 3rd Imam.

Kaba textile fragment at Aga Khan Museum Toronto

Outstanding 100 year old Ka’ba textile on display at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum until September 9, 2019

The following piece has been compiled and adapted from material supplied by the Aga Khan Museum; it incorporates notes by Dr. Ulrike al-Khamis, the Museum’s Director of Collections and Public Programs.

From Mecca to Toronto

Ka’ba in Mecca. Photo: Aga Khan Museum; Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum. Photo: Rian Dewji.

On display for the first time in Toronto is a 100-year-old silk fragment from a hizam — part of a ceremonial draping that covers the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest site to which millions of Muslims made the annual pilgrimage on Friday August 9, 2019.

The Ka’ba is draped in a black ceremonial covering known as the kiswa, and around the upper part of the kiswa runs the hizam — an ornamented belt embroidered  in silver and silver-gilt thread with Qur’anic verses relating to the pilgrimage.

This hizam is one of the Aga Khan Museum’s most significant textiles and is on special display until September 9, 2019. Measuring eight metres long and nearly one metre tall, it once belonged to a kiswa that measured 47 meters and was made in Cairo around the early 20th century.

Aga Khan Museum Textile from the Kaba
This textile from the Ka’ba is on display at the Aga Khan Museum until September 9, 2019. Free viewing was available during celebrations marking the Hajj and Eid al-Adha from August 10-14. Photo: The Aga Khan Museum.

As one of the most prominent kiswa ornaments, the hizam traditionally runs the length of the Ka‘ba’s upper perimeter. The inscription here contains verses 27-29 from chapter 22 (Al-Hajj) of the Qur’an:

“And proclaim to mankind the hajj. They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, they will come from every deep and distant mountain highway. That they may witness things that are of benefit to them, and mention the name of Allah on appointed days, over the beast of cattle that He has provided for them. Then eat thereof and feed therewith the poor who have a very hard time. Then let them complete their prescribed duties and perform their vows, and circumambulate the Ancient House.”

The roundels contain further Qur’anic references that mention ‘God the Eternal’ as well as the Prophet Muhammad.

The Ka‘ba receives a new drape every year during the pilgrimage season. After it ends, the kiswa is taken down, divided and either gifted to dignitaries or sold to raise money for charity.

Note: The museum is open everyday from 10 am to 6 pm (8 pm on Wednesdays). It is closed on Mondays, except holiday Mondays.

19th/20th Century Views of Ka’ba

A bird’s eye view of the Ka’ba as photographed in 1889. Note the hizam that runs around the upper part of the Ka’ba. Photo: US Library of Congress.
ca. 1910. A close-up photo of the Ka’ba with the hizam running around the upper part of the black cloth (the kiswa). Photo: US Library of Congress.

Date posted: August 7, 2019.
Last updated: August 15, 2019.

[Before leaving this page, please take a moment to visit Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to a vast and rich collection of articles and photographs published on this blog as well as its two sister blogs Barakah and Simergphotos.]

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We, the Servants and Tenants of EARTH

To meet the challenge that the global ecological crisis presents today, there is an urgent need to draw on humanity’s philosophical and spiritual repertoire – because it teaches us valuable lessons on the importance of taking care of life in all its forms. Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne draws on this source here, by blending the philosophical novel of a twelfth-century Andalusian Muslim scholar, African words of wisdom and thoughts from Western philosophers. We are not nature’s masters and owners, the Senegalese philosopher warns us.

By SOULEYMANE BACHIR DIAGNE

My intention is to think about a major crisis – the ecological crisis, which we agree, defines the era we are living in − by showing how the history of philosophy can shed light on it and give us guidance on the actions we must take to deal with it. More precisely, I would like to show how there is continuity between the way philosophy helps us to consider a policy of humanity and the way it illuminates a policy of the “humanization of the Earth”, in the words of the French philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

I use this expression as signifying the duty and the responsibility that the human has to act accordingly, from the moment he understands that nature is entrusted to him and to humanity in the future. It forbids me to consider myself as “nature’s master and owner”, to cite the well-known phrase by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, René Descartes. On this point, regarding a philosophy that is simultaneously spiritual and ecological, I would like to evoke the ideas of the Andalusian scholar Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185). They are masterfully expressed in his magnum opus, the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzān.

He presents the idea that humans realize their humanity fully only when they reach ecological consciousness − which allows them to simultaneously understand the evolution of their own becoming and the responsibility which is incumbent on them to protect life on earth.

Homo perfectus

The Arabic philosophical fable, after its translation into Latin in 1671, under the title Philosophus autodidactus, and later into English, was a source of inspiration for many writers, including the English writer, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe.

Indeed, the Andalusian philosopher’s novel is the story of the survival of Hayy, a child abandoned on an island that has never known a human presence, and who is rescued, protected and fed by a doe. When the animal dies, Hayy learns to use his hands, his practical and then theoretical intelligence, in an ontogeny (the origin and development of the individual organism, from conception to death) that recapitulates phylogeny (evolution of the species over the ages): the child develops into homo perfectus, the insān kāmil of Islamic mysticism. In other words, he becomes an accomplished human who rediscovers not only the essence of civilization (and especially fire), but also the sense of transcendence that leads him to the idea, and then to the experience of the divine. We find an echo of the Philosophus autodidactus in the philosophical debate about the tabula rasa, the clean slate that represents our ability to know before experience begins to record our knowledge on it.

Thus we have underlined the continuity between the idea illustrated by the novel about Hayy and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. We should note, in passing, that the teaching of the history of philosophy as it is presented in most textbooks leaves little room for a work as important as Ibn Tufayl’s, or for the intellectual tradition to which it belongs − this calls for another way of teaching the history of philosophy, which does not make it a purely European matter.

The caliph of God on Earth

The first shock that sets in motion the practical and theoretical intelligence of the child is the question that confronts him, plunging him into suffering and incomprehension, at the moment his mother, the doe, dies − what is this thing, life, which has left the body of the mother and made her forever deaf to her child’s calls? To answer this question, Hayy devotes himself to the practice of dissecting dead animals, and then attempts to surprise the vital principle in living animals by performing vivisections on them − not seeing, in his ignorance and his innocence, the cruelty of his actions. He abandons this research, again because of failure. Later, when he attains full awareness of self, God, Creation and his own place within it and responsibility for it, Hayy will understand his responsibility to be the guardian of life, in all its forms. He will take from nature only what is necessary for his sustenance, ensuring that the capacity for renewal of life is perfectly preserved, and that nature reconstitutes what it gives him.

Ibn Tufayl’s insistence on Hayy’s ecological consciousness is a philosophical illustration of Koranic anthropology that defines the human as “the caliph of God on Earth”. The word caliph, which means substitute, and the best translation for which is no doubt lieutenant – or more precisely lieu-tenant, place-holder, in French etymology – teaches humans what they have to be and defines their responsibility to watch over their environment, namely the Earth. Moreover, this word caliph, inspite of what we hear today, has in the Koran only this meaning, denoting the destination of the human. An important message from Ibn Tufayl’s book is, therefore, that the human is guardian of the Earth for itself and for the generations to come, because the human is originally the depository of what makes him the placeholder of God on Earth. Today, we need more than ever to heed this responsibility, without it being necessarily linked to a religious meaning.

Making humanity together

I’ll sum up my point in one word: ubuntu. This Bantu word gained worldwide fame when it was used by South Africans Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. It literally means “to make humanity together” − to create, thanks to other people, the human that I have to become, and at the same time, create “one humanity” with others.

To be the receptacle of what makes me a placeholder of God on Earth makes me understand that “making humanity together” is the opposite of depredation. It gives me the duty to look after life in general − to think that although animals, for instance, do not themselves formulate rights that must be recognized as declared, these are not any less real to me, because my humanity obligates me to them.

In my opinion, I am not one of those people who go overboard in their efforts to bring down anthropocentrism – and for whom the different kingdoms should be self-represented in a sort of “natural contract” replacing the social contract. It is not necessary to dissolve humanity to forbid it to behave, as another seventeenth-century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, wrote, “like an empire in an empire” − to make humans understand that they are not free nor separate from natural necessities. On the contrary, we must affirm our humanity, but affirm it as ubuntu. Ubuntu is a philosophical concept with universal scope and it seems to me that it encompasses the meaning and the role of the humanities − in particular, the philosophical humanities. By showing how these can enlighten us, I want to emphasize their contribution, even their “utility”. But it is not a matter of exaggerating what philosophy can do, nor of giving in to the imperative of the profitability of knowledge, considered solely from the point of view of its technical implementation – by insisting on the use to be made of it.

Instead, when it comes to the thought and action required by the major crises of our time, I want to show that we can, we must, rely just as much on a philosophical novel written in the twelfth century in Muslim Spain as on Western philosophical thought, or African words of wisdom. To meet the challenges of changing times, we need to revitalize ourselves by delving into what humans have thought all around the world and at different times.

In other words, I want to recall that philosophy, and the humanities in general, are what give meaning to an education aimed towards the total, complete human − the homo perfectus – who is able to use the knowledge of history to invent a future we must build all together.

Date posted: July 29, 2019.

[The article is reproduced from The UNESCO Courier, April-June 2018, under IGO Creative Commons Licence type: CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, that has been adopted by UNESCO to  give the public the right to re-use a work as freely as possible – Ed.]

Before departing this website, please take a moment to visit the Table of Contents for links to a vast collection of articles published on this blog as well as its two sister blogs Barakah and Simergphotos.

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About the author: Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, currently Chair in the Department of French & Romance Philology at Columbia University (New York), was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal. He received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature. Author of numerous books, his work, Bergson postcolonial: L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2011) is forthcoming in an English version to be published by Fordham University Press. That book was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and on that same year professor Diagne received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work. Professor Diagne’s current teaching interests include history of early modern philosophy, philosophy and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, and twentieth century French philosophy.

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Eid ul-Fitr Should Foster Brotherhood in the Muslim Umma and Provide Spark of Hope For the Less Privileged

“A Muslim must play an active role in helping his family and the brotherhood of believers. The object is not to achieve status, wealth and power, but to contribute to society’s overall development. This implies moral responsibility to help the weaker, less fortunate members.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, Toronto, May 14, 1987. [1]

EID MUBARAK

ISS028-E-20073-NASA Photo

A new Moon occurs when all of the Sun’s light is reflected away from Earth, and the side of the Moon facing Earth is barely visible, as illustrated in the above photo. Sometimes the dark face of the Moon catches Earth’s reflected glow and returns that light. The phenomenon is called earthshine. This Astronaut Photograph was taken on July 31, 2011, on board the International Space Station and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center.

The festival of Eid, also known as Bairam or Eid Ramadan is one of the most joyous days in the Islamic calendar. It is an occasion for celebration and rejoicing for Allah’s Bounty upon mankind for His revelation of the Holy Qur’an during the month of Ramadan. It is also a time for individuals to express their gratitude to Allah for having given them the strength, courage and resilience to complete the fast, and thus fulfilling the duty enjoined upon them by Allah.

On this joyous occasion, we convey our heartiest felicitations and Eid Mubarak to all our readers as well as Muslims around the world, with the fervent hope and prayer that peace and harmony should prevail over many areas of the Muslim world afflicted by horrible conflicts, which are resulting in the loss of lives and contributing to unbearable hardships and struggles. The Islamic ethic of forgiveness, generosity, and peaceful co-existence and unity through dialogue are keys by which conflicts can be resolved, whereby every Muslim can aspire for a life of material and spiritual well-being and happiness.

The excerpts produced in this post from the Holy Qur’an and the hadith as well as from the farmans, writings and speeches of Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and Mawlana Hazar Imam (His Highness the Aga Khan) are foundation blocks for building harmonious societies around the world. The acts of charity and generosity mentioned in the quotes will facilitate those who are underprivileged to manage their own destinies, thereby leading them to a life of dignity, befitting Allah’s greatest creation.

PROFOUND TEACHINGS OF ISLAM

Conceptual image for the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al Fitr.

Conceptual image for the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al Fitr. Photo: Istockphoto

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteous is the one who believes in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels and the Books and the prophets, and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and set slaves free.” — Holy Qur’an, 2:177

“And whatever good you may spend on others is for your own good, provided that you spend only out of a longing for God’s countenance.” — Holy Qur’an, 2:272

“You will not enter paradise till you believe, and you will not believe till you love one another. Let me guide you to something by doing which you will love one another: Salute and sundry among you.”  — Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.)

“A great river is not made turbid by a stone. A religious man who takes to heart an injury is as yet, but shallow water. If any misfortune befalls you, bear with it, that by forgiving others you may yourself obtain pardon. O my brother! seeing that we are at last to return to earth, let us humble ourselves in ashes before we are changed into dust.” — Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s.). [2]

“…As the world gets smaller, it is fundamental that people should work together and not against each other, and try to be a little more generous than you have been in the past. If people have made mistakes, forgive them their mistakes. If people have harmed you, forget and forgive. Do not hold grudges. Do not turn around and say, ‘he hurt me yesterday, so I will hurt him today’. This is not the spirit of Islam…” His Highness the Aga Khan, Farman Mubarak, Mumbai, 1969, Precious Gems.

“…when you are studying the Qur’an, when you are studying the history of Imams, when you are studying the history of pre-Islamic Arabia, I would like you to take from this history that which will help you to live within the spirit of Islam. This means to live honestly, to live purely, to know that you are brothers and sisters, to be available at all times when one or the other needs help, to be generous, to be honest. These are the qualities which you can trace throughout Qur’an-e Shariff, throughout the life of the Prophet, throughout the lives of the Imams. And this is something which I would like you to follow, not only in letter but also in spirit, because it is this spirit which cannot be changed, and which I would like my spiritual children to understand fully…” Farman Mubarak, His Highness the Aga Khan, Karachi, November 29, 1964. [3]

“There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunate ones can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.” —  His Highness the Aga Khan, speech, Housing and Development, Mumbai, January 17, 1983.

Date Re-posted: June 3, 2019.

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References:

[1] Quoted in Ilm, July 1986, page 17.

[2] Ilm, Volume 13, Number 1, July 1990, page 45-46.

[3] Farman Mubarak Pakistan Visit 1964, published by the Ismailia Association for Pakistan, quoted also in Ilm, Volume 13, Number 1, July 1990, page 38.

Lailat al-Qadr: The Night of Power

BY KARIMA MAGHRABY
(Additional material compiled by Simerg)

In his Khamsa, Shab-i Qadr (the Night of Power), the renowned Persian poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325 CE) tells the story of a saint who made a failed attempt to stay awake until the Laylat al-Qadr. This image is taken from a folio in the Aga Khan Museum collection; the Toronto museum is due to open in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum

In his Khamsa, Shab-i Qadr (the Night of Power), the renowned Persian poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325 CE) tells the story of a saint who made a failed attempt to stay awake until the Laylat al-Qadr. This image is taken from a folio in the Aga Khan Museum collection; the Toronto museum is due to open in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum

Laylat al-Qadr is the auspicious night when the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) first received the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, thereby conferring upon him the mantle of prophethood at the age of forty.

The Shia Ismaili Muslims observe Laylat al-Qadr on the 23rd night of Ramadan, in keeping with traditions received through Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and his wife Hazrat Bibi Fatimah (a.s.), and the Imams of the Fatimid dynasty. It is a night of special prayer, reflection and remembrance of Allah. In 2019, this falls on May 27, 2019.

When Prophet Muhammad was 40 years old, he received his first divine revelation from Allah through Angel Jibreel. When Angel Jibreel appeared to him, he said:

“Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created,
created, Man of a blood-clot.

Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous,
who taught by the Pen,
taught Man that he knew not” — Holy Qur’an, Al-Alaq, 96:1-5

The first revelation

Part of Al-Alaq (The Clot) – 96th sura of the Holy Qur’an – the first revelation received by Prophet Muhammad

The night of this first revelation is celebrated as Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power). The following verses from the Holy Qur’an describe the loftiness of this night and articulate the importance of the final revealed scripture to mankind:

“Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Power. What will convey unto you what the Night of Power is! The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. The angels and the spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees. Peace it is until the rising of the dawn.” — 94:5

Cave of Hira

A photo of Cave of Hira in the Mount of Light, near Mecca, where the Prophet would come for his devotions and meditations, and the sacred spot where the Holy Quran began to be revealed. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) had just stepped into the forty-first year of his life, when during the 23rd night in the month of Ramadan the first 5 verses of the Surah Al-Alaq (96) were revealed to him. The small cave is about 3.5 meters long and 2 meters wide. Hira was the Prophet Muhammad’s most adorable place for meditation.

“(This is) a Scripture which We have revealed unto you (Muhammad) that thereby you may bring forth mankind from darkness unto light, by the permission of their Lord, unto the path of the Mighty, the Owner of Praise.” — 14:01

“And celebrate the name of thy Lord morning and evening. And part of the night, prostrate thyself to Him; and glorify Him a long night through. As to these, they love the fleeting life, and put away behind them a Day (that will be) hard.” — 76:25-27

Mountain of LightProphet Muhammad (s.a.s) received his first revelation from Allah through Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in the Hira cave which is on Jabl al Nur (Mount of Light) shown in this photo. The peak is visible from a great distance. The Prophet used to climb this mountain often even before receiving his fist revelation from Allah.

“We sent it down during a Blessed Night” — 44:3

“Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong)” — 2:185

Hazrat Mawlana Murtaza Ali (a.s.) the successor of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) to the throne of Imamat is quoted as having said:

“Do not remember God absent-mindedly, nor forget Him in distraction; rather, remember Him with perfect remembrance (dhikran kamilan), a remembrance in which your heart and tongue are in harmony, and what you conceal conforms with what you reveal.” — quoted in Justice and Remembrance, Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali, by Reza Shah Kazemi, p. 162.

Date posted: July 18, 2014.
Last updated: June 24, 2019.

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Credits:
1. Wikipedia.org

2. Mecca.net
3. English Translation of the Qur’anic verses by Arthur John Arberry.

LINKS TO A SELECTION OF ADDITIONAL ARTICLES ON THE HOLY QUR’AN

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Muhammad: An Anticlerical Hero of the European Enlightenment

The inside title page of the Qur’an owned by 3rd US President Thomas Jefferson. It appears that Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an in 1765 from the office of the Virginia Gazette. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in his law studies at the College of William and Mary, so it is likely that he purchased the book as an example of Arabic law as his textbooks suggested. Jefferson cataloged the book in his section on “Religion,” where it shared the shelves with early Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible. Photo and caption: US Library of Congress.

By JOHN TOLAN
Professor of history, University of Nantes

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.

Sale’s translation of the Quran was widely read and appreciated in England: for many of his readers, Muhammad had become a symbol of anticlerical republicanism. It was influential outside England too. The US founding father Thomas Jefferson bought a copy from a bookseller in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, which helped him conceive of a philosophical deism that surpassed confessional boundaries. (Jefferson’s copy, now in the Library of Congress, has been used for the swearing in of Muslim representatives to Congress, starting with Keith Ellison in 2007.) And in Germany, the Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe read a translation of Sale’s version, which helped to colour his evolving notion of Muhammad as an inspired poet and archetypal prophet.

In France, Voltaire also cited Sale’s translation with admiration: in his world history Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he portrayed Muhammad as an inspired reformer who abolished superstitious practices and eradicated the power of corrupt clergy. By the end of the century, the English Whig Edward Gibbon (an avid reader of both Sale and Voltaire) presented the Prophet in glowing terms in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89):

The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection … A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties.

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the Prophet most keenly to heart, styling himself a ‘new Muhammad’ after reading the French translation of the Quran that Claude-Étienne Savary produced in 1783. Savary wrote his translation in Egypt: there, surrounded by the music of the Arabic language, he sought to render into French the beauty of the Arabic text. Like Sale, Savary wrote a long introduction presenting Muhammad as a ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary’ man, a ‘genius’ on the battlefield, a man who knew how to inspire loyalty among his followers. Napoleon read this translation on the ship that took him to Egypt in 1798. Inspired by Savary’s portrait of the Prophet as a brilliant general and sage lawgiver, Napoleon sought to become a new Muhammad, and hoped that Cairo’s ulama (scholars) would accept him and his French soldiers as friends of Islam, come to liberate Egyptians from Ottoman tyranny. He even claimed that his own arrival in Egypt had been announced in the Quran.

Napoleon had an idealised, bookish, Enlightenment vision of Islam as pure monotheism: indeed, the failure of his Egyptian expedition owed partly to his idea of Islam being quite different from the religion of Cairo’s ulama. Yet Napoleon was not alone in seeing himself as a new Muhammad: Goethe enthusiastically proclaimed that the emperor was the ‘Mahomet der Welt’ (Muhammad of the world), and the French author Victor Hugo portrayed him as a ‘Mahomet d’occident’ (Muhammad of the West). Napoleon himself, at the end of his life, exiled on Saint Helena and ruminating on his defeat, wrote about Muhammad and defended his legacy as a ‘great man who changed the course of history’. Napoleon’s Muhammad, conqueror and lawgiver, persuasive and charismatic, resembles Napoleon himself – but a Napoleon who was more successful, and certainly never exiled to a cold windswept island in the South Atlantic.

The idea of Muhammad as one of the world’s great legislators persisted into the 20th century. Adolph A Weinman, a German-born American sculptor, depicted Muhammad in his 1935 frieze in the main chamber of the US Supreme Court, where the Prophet takes his place among 18 lawgivers. Various European Christians called on their churches to recognise Muhammad’s special role as prophet of the Muslims. For Catholics scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon or Hans Küng, or for the Scottish Protestant scholar of Islam William Montgomery Watt, such recognition was the best way to promote peaceful, constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This kind of dialogue continues today, but it has been largely drowned out by the din of conflict, as extreme-Right politicians in Europe and elsewhere diabolise Muhammad to justify anti-Muslim policies. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls him a terrorist, paedophile and psychopath. The negative image of the Prophet is paradoxically promoted by fundamentalist Muslims who adulate him and reject all historical contextualisation of his life and teachings; meanwhile, violent extremists claim to defend Islam and its prophet from ‘insults’ through murder and terror. All the more reason, then, to step back and examine the diverse and often surprising Western portraits of the myriad faces of Muhammad.

Date posted: May 6, 2019.

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

About the writer: John Talon is Professor of history at the University of Nantes and author of  Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today published via Princeton University Press (2019). The book shows that Prophet Muhammad wears so many faces in the West because he has always acted as a mirror for its writers, their portrayals revealing more about their own concerns than the historical realities of the founder of Islam. Faces of Muhammad reveals a lengthy tradition of positive portrayals of Muhammad. Talon’s previous books include Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination and Saint Francis and the Sultan. Twitter @JohnVTolan

The Imam is Always Present and Obedience to Him Makes Our Faith Complete

Recognition of the Imam

By FIDAI KHURASANI

He is always present
a witness with his followers;
but who has seen his beauty
except the blessed?

He who is the cupbearer of
the fount of paradise
is aware altogether of
the hearts of his followers

He is the Imam of the Time
the guide and comforter
the protector of his followers
whether young or old

Like the sun in the sky
he is manifest in the world
but the blind bat cannot see
his luminous face

Source: Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poems, ed. Faquir M. Hunzai and Kutub Kassam, pub. I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1997. 

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Making Our Faith Complete

By IMAM MUSTANSIR BI’LLAH 

Pandiyat-i- Jawanmardi or Counsels of Chivalry is a compilation of the guidance of the 32nd Ismaili Imam, Mustansir bi’llah, who lived in the 15th century. The book contains exhortations to the faithful on the necessity of recognising and obeying the Imam of the Time and on how to live a truly ethical life. The circumstances that led to the compilation of the work are intriguing, and are alluded to in many of the manuscripts copies as follows:

When Pir Taj al-Din passed away, a number of people from the Sindhi Ismaili Community went to the Imam. Upon arrival they pleaded: “Our Pir Taj al-Din has passed away. Now we are in need of a Pir.” The Imam then had the Counsels of Chivalry compiled and gave it to them saying: “This is your Pir.  Act according to its dictates.”

In the following piece from one of the chapters, the Imam enumerates on how murids (those who have pledged their allegiance to the Imam) can make their faith complete. Says the Imam:

“O, believers, O, pious ones!

“Now is the time when you should strengthen religion (din), by helping each other, by trying to gain knowledge, by advancing the religious cause, and striving to make your faith complete.

“Gain safety by obeying the Imam of the time, and become completely obedient to his orders.

“Do unhesitatingly what you are told by the blessed word of the Imam, –- then you will attain (real) salvation.

“Follow the Imam of your time strictly, so that he may take you under his protection, helping you, granting you victory and relief.

“And obedience to the Imam, attention to his word, will bring about the healing of spiritual ailments and lead to soundness and clarity of the heart.”

Reading adapted from The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation by Shafique N. Virani, Hardcover – May 3, 2007

Date posted: May 2, 2019.

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