Monday, 24 May 2010

Islam’s military, militancy, culture and the clash of civilizations

Generalizations, though often incorrect, help humans understand an otherwise chaotic and incoherent world. Within the Islamic world, it is sometimes said, 'the Turks for the military, the Arabs for the religion and the Persians for the culture.'
Persian style miniature painting of Mogul Emperor Humayun being greeted by Persian Emperor Tahmasp

It's true that historically Turkic speakers like the Ottomans and Moguls have been at the forefront of defining Islam's territories in Europe and South Asia. Yet, Islam's initial expansion came squarely from the Arabs themselves. The famous Muslim soldier-statesman Saladin was born in Tikrit, Iraq. The same city was later to be Saddam Hussein's hometown.
As for religion, it makes sense that the Arabs are themselves most associated with Islamic theology. After all, the Koran is in the Arabic language and the Arabs have tended to discount any serious Islamic scholarship unless done in Arabic. Kind of like a scholar researching Turkish history without understanding the Turkish language. Surely, the scholar will be at some disadvantage in pursuing her academic work.
The Persians certainly have a large dose of culture in their history, with a good part of it stemming from pre-Islamic Persian traditions. Persian literary traditions have influenced poetry and mystics from all over the Islamic world. The Mogul miniature paintings came to South Asia via Mogul Emperor Humayun's entourage which attracted many Persian artists employed during his exile in Persia.
In the final analysis, generalizations are a dangerous prism for viewing the world. Huntington's clash of civilizations is not inevitable. All Muslims are not terrorists. All Americans are not bloodthirsty Christian Crusaders. And, all Singaporean Muslims are not Malay!
Similarly, there is a rich Arabic poetic tradition which is not well known outside the Arabic world. I, too, am guilty as charged. I cannot name any Arab poets with whose writings I am familiar.
Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani as a young law student in Damascus in 1944

By chance, a few days ago I came across the following poem by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923 -1998). There is nothing more to add to the poem's message. Qabbani speaks self-evident truths with eloquence that resounds even more sharply following the events of 9/11.
        Would you permit me?
In a country where thinkers are assassinated, and writers are considered infidels and books are burnt, in societies that refuse the other, and force silence on mouths and thoughts forbidden, and to question is a sin, I must beg your pardon, would you permit me?
Would you permit me to bring up my children as I want, and not to dictate on me your whims and orders?
Would you permit me to teach my children that the religion is first to God, and not for religious leaders or scholars or people?
Would you permit me to teach my little one that religion is about good manners, good behavior, good conduct, honesty and truthfulness, before I teach her with which foot to enter the bathroom or with which hand she should eat?
Would you permit me to teach my daughter that God is about love, and she can talk to Him and ask Him anything she wants, far away from the teachings of anyone?
Would you permit me not to mention the torture of the grave to my children, who do not know about death yet
Would you permit me to teach my daughter the tenets of the religion and its culture and manners, before I force on her the Hijab (the veil)?
Would you permit me to tell my young son that hurting people and degrading them because of their nationality, colour or religion, is considered a big sin by God?
Would you permit me to tell my daughter that revising her homework and paying attention to her learning is considered by God as more useful and important than learning by heart Ayahs from the Quran without knowing their meaning?
Would you permit me to teach my son that following the footsteps of the Honorable Prophet begins with his honesty, loyalty and truthfulness, before his beard or how short his dress [thob] is?
Would you permit me to tell my daughter that her Christian friend is not an infidel, and ask her not to cry fearing her friend will go to Hell?
Would you permit me to argue, that God did not authorize anyone on earth after the Prophet to speak in his name nor did he vest any powers in anyone to issue 'deeds of forgiveness' to people?
Would you permit me to say, that God has forbidden killing the human spirit, and who kills wrongly a human being is as if he killed all human kind, and no Moslem has the right to frighten another Moslem?
Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that his standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion, and that his accountability is kinder and more merciful
Would you permit me? by Nizar Qabbani
Translated from the original composed in Arabic.


  1. John Kirkham25 May, 2010 17:24

    Excellent piece. Qabbani needs more exposure. Well done for publicising him Imran.

  2. Hi John,

    Great to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

    I am glad you enjoyed the poem. Qabbani and other like minded artists definitely need more exposure in these intolerant times. You may note that Qabbani lived the last fifteen years of his life in London, although he is buried in his birthplace of Damascus.

    Kind regards,


  3. Dear Imran,

    Thanks for sharing this fine piece from Mr. Nizar Qabbani. I am so deeply touched by it that I feel as though I’m going to cry soon. Might I say he is an enlightened man, and he gave me hope about Islam again (I’m agnostic) at a time when only negative news of Islam flood the world, and I admittedly is losing confidence in the religion bit by bit each time I read them, even when I tried hard to fight the prejudice.

    I will post his wise poem to my Facebook to share with my friends. It deserves more attention.

  4. Hi Jezebella,

    Great to hear from you again - thanks for your visits.

    I am really happy to note that you found the poem moving. I, too, am deeply touched by Qibbani's words and return to the poem often. During these turbulent times, such poetry reminds us of the many positives in the world.

    Islam is in the midst of an internal, intellectual battle. Unfortunately, much of it is being played out not in the halls of academia but on the streets through violence. It is shameful and embarassing.

    However, as individuals we must withstand the pressures of prejudice and the unruly mob and try and make a difference in the world around us. No matter how small a difference.

    If one can touch the lives of a few that is enough to have made the efforts worthwhile.

    Enjoy your weekend and I look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kind regards,


    PS - I am happy that you are posting the poem on your Facebook page. Hopefully, the poem will also provide comfort and hope to your friends.