Ed Husain on the British Museum and “The True Face of Islam"

While the real and brutal truths about Islam are buried in fantasies.

Ed Husain, a self-described former Muslim extremist who once headed the Quilliam Foundation, which is ostensibly dedicated to turning Muslims away from Jihadist activities, is ecstatic about the exhibit of artifacts of Islamic civilization at the British Museum that opened last November.

In Britain today, Islam in its original essence is not to be found in mosques or Muslim schools, but on the first floor of the British Museum. There, the Albukhary Islamic gallery, newly opened to the public, dazzles visitors and defies every certainty promoted by today’s hardline Muslim activists. This spectacular exhibition of objects from across continents and centuries shows us a history of continuity of civilisations, coexistence of communities. It offers a compelling corrective to current popular notions of Islam as an idea and a civilisation.

What “certainties” are those “promoted by today’s hardline Muslim activists”? That it is the duty of Muslims to follow the commandments, found in 109 verses in the Qur’an, to wage violent Jihad? That it is a Muslim’s duty to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Unbelievers? That Muslims should not take Christians and Jews as friends “for they are friends only with each other”? That non-Muslims are “the most vile of created beings”? How do exhibits of Iznik tiles, Persian miniatures, Qur’anic calligraphy, Islamic coinage, illustrations of epic romances, oriental carpets, astrolabes, do anything to undermine those Qur’anic commands to wage Jihad against Infidels, to strike terror in their hearts, to avoid being friends with Christians and Jews, and to despise the “vile” Unbelievers? None of these Qur’anic verses are the least bit softened by that display of astrolabes, carpets, ceramics, and Arabic calligraphy.

Too often, we assume that Islam’s arrival on the world stage involved some violent break with the past that brought forth a new Muslim civilisation. The artifacts, coins, pottery, and tiles on display here from the British Museum’s own collection from the 7th century onwards reveal a different and more accurate history. The Prophet Mohammed was born in 570 in a world dominated by the Sassanians and Byzantines. He and his followers broadly followed the art and architecture, empire and power structures, of this pre-existing world. The earliest Islamic coins were copies of the gold and silver drachms used by the Sassanians. Even the name of the Muslim gold coin, the dinar, was derived from the Roman denarius.

Did not the earliest Muslims themselves believe that Islam represented a complete break with the past, that pre-Islamic past that Muslims dismissed as the Jahiliyya, or Time of Ignorance? Nothing that came before Islam was of worth. The lightning conquests of the earliest Muslims within the span of a century tore up the political structures of the Middle East and North Africa. The Muslim warriors did not follow the “empire [sic] and power structures” of the pre-Islamic world, but rather smashed those political entities to bits and incorporated the conquered territories into the earliest caliphates. Islam was both a faith and a politics, and in both, it broke with the past.

In what way did Muhammad and his followers “broadly follow the art and architecture” of what came before? As for art, the Muslim prohibition on statuary and paintings of living creatures, which were central to both the art of classical antiquity and to Christian art, led to other forms of artistic expression being emphasized in the Islamic lands. These were chiefly Qur’anic calligraphy, ceramics (also with Arabic calligraphy), carpets with elaborate geometric designs, and mosque architecture. There was little connection with the previous art of the pre-Islamic East or of the West. In other words, far from “broadly following” the art of their predecessors, Muslims were prohibited from engaging in the same kind of sculpture and paintings because the depiction of living creatures was forbidden. In mosque architecture, the Muslims did borrow the architectural element known as the squinch, either from Sassanian Persia or from the Byzantines — scholars still argue over which —  in building the domes for their mosques, but there are no other obvious architectural borrowings by mosque architects from pre-Islamic buildings.

Euclid’s Elements taught Muslims the rules for the monumental mosques they built with their domes and perfect proportions. Gilded flasks from Syria from as late as the mid-1200s show designs with an eagle and dancer, popular motifs in the arts of the Mediterranean at the time. The Prophet’s shirt was ‘Made in Rome.’Medieval Muslim philosophers such as Averroes referred to Aristotle as ‘al-Shaikh al-Yunani’, the Greek sheikh. Islam did not kill the Greco-Roman past, but revived it. That spirit radiates through the British Museum’s exhibition.

The use by Muslim artists of an eagle-and-dancer motif found throughout the Mediterranean does not amount to a significant borrowing by them from non-Muslims. Given that both the “dancer” and the “eagle” were living creatures whose images would be forbidden in Islam, it is possible — unless both figures were not real images of either an eagle or a dancer but stylized abstractions —  that the “gilded flask” on display was the product of a Christian, not a Muslim, artisan in Syria. The Prophet’s shirt was “Made in Rome” — does that mean Muslims imported their clothes from the Christian West? And if it were true, so what? No one has claimed that there was no trade between the Islamic world and the West.

Averroes wrote a lengthy commentary on Aristotle, but that does not amount to “reviving…the Greco-Roman past.” Jewish and Christian translators, in Cordoba and Baghdad, did almost all of the translations of Greek and Latin works into Arabic. Should those translations be considered an achievement of Islam? Were they not, rather, the achievements of non-Muslim translators?

It was the Humanists of Europe who revived interest in the civilization of classical antiquity which, in turn, gave rise to the Renaissance. And that revival of European interest in classical antiquity does owe something to the Muslims, but not in the way Ed Husain thinks. The conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Turks — first the Seljuks, and then the Osmanlis — led many Greek scholars to flee to Italy, bringing with them many Greek (and Latin) manuscripts. In this purely negative way, the Muslims contributed to the West’s Revival of Learning, and thus to the Renaissance.

Coexistence was the hallmark of Muslim civilisations, from China to the Philippines, from Malaysia to Africa and the Middle East. It was not isolated to Muslim Spain. Jewish, Christian and Muslim bread stamps, a practice from Roman times, thrived in Muslim-controlled Egypt. The gallery has a sample of remarkable stone stamps from between 1000 and 1200. Paintings and tile works, engravings on flasks, works by Sephardi Jews and Armenian Christians, but also perfume carriers from 11th-century Ismailis and 19th-century paintings from Bahais, show the diversity that thrived within Islamic civilisations.

Not coexistence, but brutal conquest, was the “hallmark of Muslim civilisations.” Ed Husain carefully refrains from mentioning the conquest of Hindu India, by far the most significant Muslim conquest beyond the Middle East. It’s understandable. That Muslim subjugation of the Hindus extended over many centuries, and caused the deaths, over several centuries of Mughal rule, of between 70-80 million Hindus, and resulted in the conversion of tens of millions more who, by becoming Muslims, could escape the difficult conditions imposed on dhimmis. That hardly qualifies as “coexistence.” Husain says such “coexistence” was “not isolated in Muslim Spain.” It turns out that modern scholars have definitely put paid to the myth of that famed “convivencia” — coexistence — in Islamic Spain. Ed Husain might take time to read Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. Muslims in Spain massacred Christians and Jews. Sometimes those doing the massacring were soldiers, and sometimes they were ordinary Muslims, their rage sparked by some supposed affront to Muslims, causing them to go on a killing spree against Unbelievers. In 807, 700 Christian notables — civilians — were killed by a Muslim army in Toledo. In 1066 in Granada, the Muslims turned on their Jewish neighbors overnight, killing 4,000, or almost all of those living in the city, because the Muslim emir had appointed a Jew, Joseph ibn Naghrela, to be his vizier. A Jew helping an emir to govern Muslims? That was intolerable. No one ordered the Muslims to kill the Jews; they were just doing what came naturally. Jews were also the victims of Christians. In 1391, a Christian mob in Seville killed 4,000 Jews, and in the same year another Christian mob killed 2,000 Jews in Cordoba. These were only the big massacres; there were many other smaller atrocities committed, by Muslims against Jews and Christians, and by Christians against Jews and Muslims. None, apparently, were committed by Jews, who were always on the receiving end. Some convivencia.

Ed Husain’s mention of the inclusion, in the British Museum exhibit of Islamic art, of artworks by Sephardi Jews, Armenian Christians, and Bahais — none of whom were Muslim, and all of whom were persecuted, and even murdered, by Muslims — is at least bizarre. These minorities created as they lived, defying the unfavorable conditions created by their Muslim overlords. Their achievements were attained in spite of, not because of, Muslim rule.

A powerful corrective awaits schools and teachers from across the country who visit the museum. Today’s insular Muslim community leaders may reject science and Darwin, oppose music as a tool of the devil, and cover their women for fear of love and lust. But from the 700s onwards, scientists and thinkers built on pre-Islamic advances in the study of astronomy and other sciences. Astrolabes, the name derived from the Greek astro labos or ‘star-taker’, were the computers of the time. A magnificent 13th-century astrolabe reminds us of the patronage of innovation in science and free thought by medieval Muslim rulers.

It’s not “today’s insular Muslim community leaders” who “reject science and Darwin.” It’s the Islamic clerics, and many ordinary Believers, too,  who insist that “evolution” is merely a “theory.” Muslim views on evolution vary, but those who refuse to accept evolution are hardly limited to a handful of “insular community leaders.” For many Muslims, “evolution” contradicts Qur’anic creationism and cannot be accepted. As for “music as a tool of the devil,” it is not “music” in general, not, for example, a cappella singing, but musical instruments that are haram, having been condemned by Mohammed in a hadith that Ed Husain fails to mention. He ought to have explained that the ban on “musical instruments” is not something that arose with “today’s insular Muslim community leaders,” but began 1,400 years ago.

The question of Muslims who “reject science” brings up two matters. First, many Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains all of knowledge, and that the advances of modern science can be located and teased out, by careful study, of the verses in the Qur’an. An absurdity, but tens of millions of Muslims believe that absurdity. Second, Islam itself encourages the habit of mental submission, and discourages the habit of free and skeptical inquiry, so necessary for the advancement of science. There seems to be a fear that once Muslims start exhibiting doubts in other areas, they might begin to question aspects of Islam itself. Two Western historians of science have studied at great length why science continued to evolve in the West but not in the Islamic world. Ed Husain might profitably consult Stanley Jaki and Professor Toby Huff to discover what it was about Islam that discouraged the advancement of science.

In mentioning the astrolabe, Husain obliquely suggests that it was  invented by Muslims: “A magnificent 13th-century astrolabe reminds us of the patronage of innovation in science and free thought by medieval Muslim rulers.” But the first astrolabe dates back to Hellenistic civilization, between 220 and 150 B.C., that is at least eight hundred years before Islam even appeared.

Musical instruments from various Muslim civilisations are evidence that music, with its diverse regional styles, was significant in religious and secular settings. Theatre, dance performances, divine remembrance or dhikr using music were all popular in mosques, town squares and at Sufi gatherings. Yet Islamic State, the Taleban, and other hardliners ban music today.

The mere fact that musical instruments from “various Muslim” peoples are on display does not tell us how “significant” instrumental music was “in religious and secular settings” among Muslims. We simply have no way of knowing how often such music was played, or where it was favored, and where deplored. We do know, however, that most church services have a musical component, and that there has never been an  equivalent “mosque music” since the beginning of Islam.

What Ed Husain wants his readers to believe is that Muslim opposition to music is only to be found among the “Islamic State, the Taliban, and other hardliners.” That’s not true. He leaves out any mention of the belief, among many Muslims, that Muhammad himself condemned musical instruments when he said: “There will be among my Ummah people who will regard as permissible adultery, silk, alcohol and musical instruments.” (Buhkhari, 5590). And all of these things he’s listed are, of course, prohibited. Many prominent Islamic scholars of the past who agreed that musical instruments were haram include Abu Hanifa, Al-Shafi’i, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Al-Tabari, Al-Hasan Al-Basri, Al-Bukhari, Al-Tirmidhi, Al-Nawawi, Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Tahawi, and Al-Qurtubi.

Not all Muslim scholars agree with this view. Some who argue that music is in some cases halal (permitted) claim that this hadith relates only to the use of instruments in the mosques. At the time when Muhammad spoke about the matter, the polytheists — Unbelievers, whether Christians or pagans — used music and musical instruments as part of their worship. These scholars claim that Muhammad’s prohibition was meant to apply only to music that might be similarly used in Muslim worship; it was another way to distinguish the new faith of Islam from the practice of the “polytheists.”

However, the Hadith from Bukhari 5590 unambiguously condemns “musical instruments” —  no matter where they are used — as being on the same level as ‘’adultery” and “alcohol.” It says nothing about allowing, in certain limited circumstances, the use of musical instruments. It is a flat prohibition.

The curators do a fantastic job of tackling modern shibboleths with intelligence and subtlety. The Taleban detonated the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas and Islamic State exploded parts of Palmyra because the statues and figurative art offended the sensitivities of today’s literalist monotheists. A centuries-long collection of tiles and jugs and other objects shows us that figurative art was normal in the Islamic world. Umayyad coins from the 7th century, decades after the passing of the Prophet, carry the image of the caliph Abd al-Malik (r.685–705). Verses of the Quran appeared on tiles with peacocks as late as 1308; Persian dishes from the 1600s, possibly from Muslim hunting lodges, were decorated with pheasants.

Ed Husain claims that the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the Islamic State blew up what it could of the Roman buildings in Palmyra “because the statues and figurative art offended the sensitivities of today’s literalist monotheists.” That claim misleads. It was not the sensitivities only of “today’s literalist monotheists” that were offended. Husain seems to think only the “extremists” — the Taliban and the Islamic State — are “literalist monotheists.” But devout Muslims have been “literalist monotheists” since Islam began. The Bamiyan Buddhas would have been blown up long ago, by mainstream Muslims, if only they had possessed the technical wherewithal. These Buddhas offended Muslim sensibilities in two ways. First, they were representations of living creatures, which are forbidden in Islam. Second, they belonged to another, non-Muslim religion, and consequently were especially offensive. Similarly, the Roman buildings in Palmyra were blown up because they were from the pre-Islamic Time of Ignorance, or Jahiliyya, and consequently worthless. Roman statuary would also have violated the Islamic proscription on images of living creatures.

Ed Husain wants you to think that the recent destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and of Roman statuary and buildings in Palmyra are a new phenomenon, the result of today’s brain-addled extremists (“literalist monotheists”), who do not represent the true Islam. But Muslims have been destroying artworks that showed living creatures — statues, frescoes, paintings — for 1,400 years. Ed Husain knows why, but he’s not about to mention the hadiths in which Muhammad makes clear that all “pictures” (of living creatures) are haram.

Here are just two of those hadith:

1. Narrated Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) I bought a cushion having on it pictures (of animals). When Allah’s Apostle saw it, he stood at the door and did not enter. I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I repent to Allah and His Apostle. What sin have I committed?’ Allah’s Apostle said. “What is this cushion?” I said, “I have bought it for you so that you may sit on it and recline on it.” Allah’s Apostle said, “The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, ‘Give life to what you have created (i.e., these pictures).’ ” The Prophet added, “The Angels of (Mercy) do not enter a house in which there are pictures (of animals).” — Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

2. Narrated Salim’s father: Once Gabriel promised to visit the Prophet but he delayed and the Prophet got worried about that. At last he came out and found Gabriel and complained to him of his grief (for his delay). Gabriel said to him, “We do not enter a place in which there is a picture or a dog.” — Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

Ed Husain ought to have admitted that there is strong textual authority for a ban on “pictures” of living creatures — figurative art, whether two or three dimensions, paintings or statues — and he ought to  have provided the supporting hadith. He might then have argued that the most fanatical enforcers of this ban — though hardly the only ones — have recently been the Taliban and the Islamic State. But leaving out these hadith altogether, and hoping you won’t find out about them, shows Ed Husain’s bad faith or rather, his taqiyya.

Then he mentions several examples of figurative art found on Islamic artifacts. First, a  “centuries-long collection of tiles and jugs and other objects shows us that figurative art was normal in the Islamic world.” How does he know that figurative art was “normal” in the Islamic world? Where are these tiles and jugs from? He does not claim they were from all over, which leads one to suspect that they may all have originated in one area — it could even have been a very small area — of the vast Islamic world. And from when do they date? Tell us exactly what “centuries-long” means. Were these tiles and jugs, with figurative art on them, produced over a span of 100 years, or 500, or 1,400? We need to know. All Husain can legitimately conclude from this particular exhibit is that some tiles and some jugs had figurative art on them. A convincing study would require many thousands of examples, from all over the Islamic world, since the beginning of Islam.

This collection of Umayyad coins from the 7th century, decades after the passing of the Prophet, carry the image of the caliph Abd al-Malik (r.685–705). Verses of the Quran appeared on tiles with peacocks as late as 1308; Persian dishes from the 1600s, possibly from Muslim hunting lodges, were decorated with pheasants.

Again, the image of the caliph Abd al-Malik on coins, toward the end of the 7th century, of peacocks (living creatures) painted on tiles in 1308, and pheasants painted on Persian dishes  from the 1600s — that is, exactly three examples of the use of “figurative art” — are hardly enough to contradict the claim that most Muslims, following Muhammad, refrained in their art and artifacts from depicting living creatures. Were there any other caliphs whose images appeared on coins? No, for otherwise such examples would have been on display and Ed Husain would have certainly mentioned them. How many tiles, of all the tiles produced in the Islamic world, were painted with peacocks or any other living beings? How many Persian dishes had pheasants painted on them, and when and where, exactly? We don’t know. Nor, of course, does Ed Husain.

The main point is this: Muhammad’s hadith that in essence prohibits images of living creatures remains valid, observed by almost all Muslims during the past 1,400 years, even if here and there examples of art by Muslims that violate the hadith can be found. These are the exceptions, not the rule. No doubt the curators of the British Museum exhibit went out of their way to find and display pieces that would call the application of that hadith into question. They wanted to put Islam’s best foot forward.

This love of beauty and divinity did not shy away from human desire. The British Museum has a copy of the Mughal’s Hamzanama (Book of Hamza), an epic romance inspired by the Prophet’s uncle Amir Hamza. Also on display is the other classic tale of deep yearning, the story of Layla and Majnun, lovers who met at school and have inspired generations of Muslims. That true love is remembered at the British Museum. Although Layla loves Majnun, the two are forbidden to marry — the eternal story.

Husain cites exactly two examples of what he thinks of as Islamic love stories. One is called  the Hamzanama, and is the story of Muhammad’s paternal uncle, Amir Hamza. But the Hamzanama is not really an “epic romance.” It’s a fictional tale of adventures, punctuated by interludes with different women, and much of this “epic romance” is about Hamza’s violent exploits in war, including smashing the heads of his enemies. Not exactly a love story as we in the West understand it. As for the tale of Layla and Majnun, it’s a story of star-crossed lovers. Ed Husain might have added that this story is hardly reflective of Islamic reality, with men having up to four wives and as many concubines as they could afford. The most prevalent “eternal story” of real life in Islam, then and now, is not that of a couple prevented from marrying, but that of the jealousies and jockeying for position among rival wives of the same man.

Where is that Islam of love, compassion and coexistence? Hasan al-Basri, an 8th-century Muslim thinker from Basra, was so frustrated with the Muslims of his day, compared with earlier believers, that he wrote: ‘The Muslims are all in their graves and Islam is only to be found in books.’ In Britain today, it seems that real Islam is only to be found in the British Museum.

Forget about 7/7/2005 attacks on buses and the London Underground. Forget about the other terrorist attacks in the U.K., at Woolwich, Westminster, Manchester Arena. Forget Anjem Choudary, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shebab, Boko Haram, Islamic Jihad, Al-Nusra Front, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah. None of those attacks, none of those groups, have anything to do with the real Islam. “The real Islam is only to be found in the British Museum.” Ed Husain said it. Now you have to believe it. But after all, why would he lie?


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