Home Arts & Culture Tracing Islamicate Culture

Tracing Islamicate Culture

There has been, however, a culture, centred on a lettered tradition, which has been historically distinctive of Islamdom society, and which has been naturally shared in by both Muslims and non-Muslims who participate at all fully in the society of Islamdom. For this, I have used the adjective 'Islamicate'. I thus restrict the term 'Islam' to the religion of the Muslims, not using that term for the far more general phenomena, the society of Islamdom and its Islamicate cultural traditions.

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“When? InshaAllah?” asked the then US presidential candidate Joe Biden in a first debate with Donald Trump in regards to his tax returns declaration. It set the social media especially muslim social media in a frenzy of memes. Some conservatives among the netizens took offence to his casual misuse of the religious phrase.

But the most important thing to acknowledge here is the cultural influence of Islam among the top men of US however minor it is. Such influence, cultural, of Islam is called as Islamicate, a term first coined by Marshall Hodgen who authored three volumes of books titled “The Venture of Islam: The conscience and a history in world civilization” proposing a new outlook to the history.

In his own words “On the other hand, if the analogy with ‘Christendom’ is held to, ‘Islamdon’ does not designate in itself a ‘civilization’, a specific culture, but only the society that carries that culture”.

There has been, however, a culture, centred on a lettered tradition, which has been historically distinctive of Islamdom society, and which has been naturally shared in by both Muslims and non-Muslims who participate at all fully in the society of Islamdom. For this, I have used the adjective ‘Islamicate’. I thus restrict the term ‘Islam’ to the religion of the Muslims, not using that term for the far more general phenomena, the society of Islamdom and its Islamicate cultural traditions.

Islamic Vs Islamicate

Now that the definition of Islamicate is clear, distinction blurs when Islamic ethos is juxtaposed with islamicate phenomenon, “restrict the term ‘Islam’ to the religion of the Muslims” is easier said than done. Needless to say, there will always be one side claiming wide arrays of cultural norms and practices under the direct influence of Islam (as religion) itself, and another side that will try to anthropoligize religious practices under their cultural context. I do not dare to settle this amorphous partition of definitions; however, I have tried to count some of the instances of Islamicate influences under various fields.

GEOMETRY, ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Perhaps the most common indication of Islamicate culture would be geometric designs in architecture and arts which are used all over the world with localized aesthetic interpretations. Mathematical innovations of Muslim scientist in the “Golden age of Islam” gave them a superiority on art form over their contemporaries from outside the Islamic world.

The architectural style of Andalusia influenced the western European architecture even after their own cultural decline. The Royal Alcazar of Seville, built by the Christian king Peter of Castile, displays prominent features of Mudejar and Andalusi architecture, including decorative calligraphy and garden orchards with irrigation channels, jets, pools and fountains. Gothic architecture also had influence of Islamic architecture from Spain. 

MUSIC

Whether a Muslim likes music or not, he/she can’t deny the rich musical heritage of Muslim history. Muslim world was center for manufacturing musical instruments, the English words lute, rebec, guitar, and naker derive from the Arabic oud, rabab, qithara and naqareh, although some Arabic terms (qithara, for example) had been derived in their turn from Vulgar Latin, Greek and other languages like Persian. Mass resettlements of Muslims and Sephardi Jews from Cordoba, Sevilla, Valencia, and Granada, fleeing the Reconquista, further expanded the reach of Andalusian music, though not without changes.

In North Africa, the Andalusian music traditions all feature a suite known as a nūba (colloquial Arabic from the formal Arabic nawba: a “turn” or opportunity to perform), an idea which may have originated in Islamic Iberia, but took on many different forms in the new environments. Moreover, these migrants from the 13th century on encountered ethnic Andalusian communities that had migrated earlier to North Africa, which helped this elite music to take root and spread among wider audiences.

The ninth and tenth centuries saw a flowering of Arabic music. Philosopher and esthete Al-Farabi, at the end of the ninth century, established the foundations of modern Arabic music theory, based on the maqamat, or musical modes. His work was based on the music of Ziryab, the court musician of Andalusia. Ziryab was a renowned polymath, whose contributions to western civilization included formal dining, haircuts, chess, and more, in addition to his dominance of the world musical scene of the ninth century.

A musical instrument called Oud

LITERATURE

One Thousand and one nights is perhaps the best-known literature work to come out of Muslim world. Another immensely popular folk lore which spawned hundreds of theatrical and musical adaptations, hundreds of retellings and number of Hollywood blockbuster giants, Aladdin, is widely believed to have originated from the Middle east.

Philosophus Autodidactus (The Self-taught philosopher) a novel written by Ibn Tufail in the 12th century was translated to Latin, German, english and dutch among various other languages. These translations later went to inspire Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, which is regarded as the first novel in English language. This particular story arc, of a young abandoned child learning the world by itself has dozen other inspirations, well known being Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan. Another popular fiction to come out of Islamic world is Layla Majnu, this particular folk tale has numerous adaptations and retells among medieval and modern culture.

BOLLYWOOD

Bollywood, more specifically the early age of Bollywood had strong influence of indo-islamicate culture. They manifested in different forms, the motifs used in the set design inspired from Mughal or Persianate style, to idioms used in dialogues borrowed from Indo-Islamic culture. Most visible influence of Islamicate culture in early Bollywood can be found in the mannerism and language of the characters, tehzeeb and adab of nawab, lakhnawi and Mughal court culture were a common theme.

Characters speaking in chaste urdu heavily laden with poetic references from Farsi and Urdu was the norm. Even the villains were not spared from tehzeeb, a film called Villain featured a (well,) villain saying “Badal kar faqiron ka hum bhes Ghalib Tamashai-i-abl-i-karam dekhte hain,” as he was kidnapping a woman.

Still from the movie ‘Ghalib’

Other forms of influence were use of qawallis (sufic and non-sufic), ghazals as songs in the drama. It must be noted that these lyrics were heavily influenced from the sub-continent culture of muslims. Muslim historical figures such as Ghalib, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Raziya Sultana and etc were popular features for the storytelling. “Islamicate culture of Bombay Cinema” a book by Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen examines the phenomena in great detail.

Manmohan Desai, a director who was largely responsible for curating the angry young man phase of Amitabh Bachan noted that “If Muslims do not like a film, it flops”. Not to mention the withholding of major releases in the month of Ramzan when the faithful stay away from theatres.

Even some contemporary movies like Gully Boy, Rockstar etc shows influence of islamicate culture whether it were featuring Muslim characters or even Muslim-influenced story arc.

SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS

Most people are well aware of “The Golden Age of Islam”, Ibn Sina, Ibn Haytham and other such names are revered by Muslims proud of their glorious past. While their inventions, works and discoveries are credited as inspiration for later-on western scientific achievements, what is missed is the scientific methods that were developed by the polymaths to do their works. Methods of documentation, experimentation, development of social sciences, and cross-cultural studies were the greatest exports of the Islamic world to other civilizations.

The cultural hegemony of the Islamic world can be discerned from the fact the current numerals are called Arabic numerals even though they weren’t invented in Arabia or non-arabia of Islamic world (they were invented in India), they are called so because Muslims popularized their use throughout the world.

There are many other examples of the cultural exports from Muslim land to the world, which if described in its entirety would take volumes of book. However, through the brief accounts, I hope I have intrigued you enough to ask some questions whose answers may hold the key to our future. What explains the cultural hegemony of Muslim world from 10th to 16th century? How can the Muslim communities across the globe today claim their place as cultural leaders?

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