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Destruction in Afghanistan, elsewhere: Terrible consequences of Islam's age of ignorance

By Bhaskar Sur 

Islam, which rose among the desert Bedouins, sought a revolutionary break with the past. Like most revolutions, it wanted to erase the past -- one of continuous tribal feuds, ignorance, animosity and bloodshed and begin with a clean slate to be filled with a glorious narrative. Mohammad, who was formally unlettered, had travelled north -- to Mesopotamia and Syria on business and was exposed to new cultures and influence. His monotheism was certainly influenced by the Jews whose religion was spreading very fast in the Arabian peninsula and would emerge as a main rival to the new religion he was to preach. Mohammad denounced and outright rejected much of the Bedouin tradition as it belonged to the Age of Jahiliyya or one of ignorance.
The Enlightenment came with the advent of Islam in 610AD. While this periodization was more or less applicable to the Bedouin land, it was to prove disastrous to the lands of ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Iran, Analotia, Bactria, Sogdiana or later, India. They had rich ancient cultures, art philosophy and science. To call their past as one of darkness and wage a war against it would be a terrible blunder which Islam committed and, tragically enough continuing with it. It doesn't however mean Islam didn't learn or preserve anything from their culture but it was treated as a raw material to be fitted into the grand Islamic pattern much like the stones of the Zoroastrian shrines Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples to be reused triumphantly into new mosques and mausoleums.
For most Muslims history begins with 610 AD in the deserts of Arabia. The history of his land and much of its culture becomes a useless burden to be rejected and better destroyed without any hesitation. Arab colonization helped the revolutionary project. Now we know the conquest of Iran was more gradual than previously thought. Zoroastrian Iranians offered armed resistance for years before they were finally overcome. The victorious Arabs settled in large numbers in eastern Iran. Though Iranians were far more civilized than their conquerors, they nevertheless were looked down upon as inferiors even the newly converted ones. The Iranian cultural resistance began in 10th century by authors like Firdousi who revived Persian language, ruthlessly excising most Arabic words and replacing them with the Persian. For the theme of his epic he didn't have Islam or its glories but the heroic past of pre Islamic Iran and the great heroes such as Sorab and Rustam. If Iran has been culturally more vibrant than most Islamic countries, it is probably because it retained its language and through it, the memory of its past. Indian Islam particularly in the peripheries as in Bengal showed cultural impoverishment. Humayun Kabir, the forgotten Intellectual stalwart, observed with rare insight and regret, "Indian Muslims in particular have suffered from this failure to achieve an intellectual synthesis between Hindu thought and Islam. One immediate consequence was that they were not able to accommodate in their intellectual world the contribution of their own history... Failure to accept this earlier history of India has meant not only an impoverishment of their heritage, but what is worse, it introduced a schism and tension in their minds. " This schism, alas, still continues as also the conflict.
Islam in this respect can be compared with Christianity in Europe which had its origin in the Middle East and was at odds with Greco Roman civilization. The conversation was often followed by much destruction of the classical heritage but Christian Byzantines lovingly treasured classical Greek and Latin texts which the scholars brought with them to Italy after the fall of Constantinople. Even Dante, a medieval Christian poet did not hesitate to acknowledge Virgil as almost divine figure. The Renaissance Christian artists and thinkers drew heavily on the classical authors. They came to see themselves as belonging to that great tradition that began with the Greeks. Not certainly Islam. It is stil so deeply under the influence of Arab cultural imperialism that it accepts the past as jahiliyya. The great epics and astonishing richness of Sanskrit literature, the Upanishads, the Buddhist literature and philosophy, the wonderful architecture, not to speak of the folk cultures - are all jahiliya to him. He does not belong to this tradition but to the Middle East. His sacred language is still Arabic and also his name. If the first name is of Indian origin, it would be regarded ' unislamic'. He is a cultural alien in his own land. A too literal acceptance of anti idolatry has led to wanton destruction of invaluable cultural heritage, not only in the subcontinent but almost everywhere in the Muslim world except in Indonesia which, till very recently, followed a syncretic tradition accommodating Hindu-Buddhist tradition.
The destruction was appalling in Central Asia and the present day Afganistan, once a seat of Buddhist- Hellenistic civilization. Islam fought a long drawn war with ' Buddparasts or Buddhists and the victory over the latter was marked by tidal waves of destruction which with the rise of Wahabi fundamentalism has returned. The destruction of Bamian Buddha will remain a puzzle until one is familiar with the concept of jahiliyya, This ancient tradition is not only an object of destructive fury but shame as well. There is a beautiful museum with a rich collection of Gandhara art in Peshawar which draws very few visitors. The descendants of the great Gandhara artists are now Muslims who disown their kafir, idolatrous forefathers. They feel ashamed to visit the galleries showing the wonderful exhibits.It is to be noted that the word jahiliyya is derived from the word ' jahela' meaning 'to be ignorant or stupid. Ironically, it is the faithful who have been both ignorant stupid. Islam has given much to world civilization but in so many places it has also led to cultural regression, if not as in Swat and Afganistan, rebarbarization. Fortunately there have always been Muslims who have gleefully been disobedient: they have loved, feasted, fornicated, painted sculpted, sang and like Ghalib became incorrigible hedonic aesthetes. With their wonderful contribution to Indian culture they have more than balanced the loss incurred by the faithful.
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