by Tam Hussain
On 4th of December, a rainy Friday evening, I visited Al-Khair school in Croydon. The school together with the Muslim Writers Awards were hosting a talk entitled ‘Creativity within Multi-Cultural Britain’. It had attracted me because of its absurdly ambitious vision: To jump start the creative processes which produced the likes of Iqbal, Ghalib and Al-Mutanabbi. The event was opened by Ms. Aisha Choudhry, head of Al-Khair, followed by Irfan Akram, Project Coordinator for Muslim Writers Award, Sufiya Ahmed, author of the Khadijah Academy series, Moazzam Begg, author and spokesperson for Cageprisoners, Zahid Hussain, author of The Curry Mile and Andrew Pelling, MP. The event was chaired by Abdul Fattah Hussain, organiser of the event.
Irfan Akram set the tone by pointing out that whilst Muslims in Britain are facing immense challenges, the positives outweighed the negatives. He brushed aside suggestions that publishers didn’t want to hear the voice of the Muslims; rather he suggested that Muslims should not expect automatic publication just because they have penned something. “If it is good enough it will get published and MWA is here to help.”
Moazzam Begg’s contribution was inspiring. He admitted that he had only realised the importance of writing once he was inside his four by four cell and given a two inch pencil to write with. He noticed that inmates from all over the world tried in their own little way to impart their legacies to posterity. It was after reading and memorising large portions of the Quran, reading Dune, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter that he realised this great need to be part of the creative process. The author appealed to budding writers to persevere in their craft and not be discouraged by the challenges Muslims face in the West; reminding us all that it is the scarlet blood of the martyr and the black ink of the scholar that have changed the world.
Zahid Hussain’s contribution was also very moving. He urged Muslims to write down their stories because writing is memory. If the Muslim voice is not written down, then the Muslim experience in Britain will become a mere whisper. Future generations will look back and won’t know that Muslim gravestones were desecrated in Manchester, November 2009. No one will know that an old Bengali man, Shamsul-Haque, set up a mosque in the old Brick lane. And what’s even worse is that the media will still plonk an ‘expert’ on Islam who will speak in our name. And it will come to pass that Nick Griffin and his racists will flourish. The best way, he said, to know a people is to read their literature, read their stories.
I left the event with the urgent feeling that Muslims in Britain must take part in the creative process. The Golden Age of Islam has had a cultural impact on the world which is undeniable and resonates still in the modern world. Whether it is in Shakespeare’s Othello or Voltaire’s Zadig; Othello would not have come about had Shakespeare not been struck by the dignified bearing of Abdul Wahid, the Moorish Ambassador to London in 1600 and with the Andalusian stories current all over Europe. And Zadig would not have come about had Voltaire not read Arabic tales translated into French. Similarly when Defoe wrote his Robinson Crusoe, he based his novel on a 12th century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl, who wrote ‘Awake son of Awake’. Some academics have even gone as far as identifying Islamic literary tropes in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
I was surprised to discover that Al-Ghazzali not only played a part in Thomas Aquinas’ theology and Dante’s inferno but his Autobiography contributed to Cartesian philosophy. But perhaps the most intriguing discovery of all was that of Professor Hamidullah who suggested that Charles Darwin, a keen student of Arabic, is said to have read Ibn Mishkawayh’s writings. This historian, administrator and philosopher who lived in the 11th century had proposed a theory where by everything evolved in to something higher which ended in an apex whereby the Saints and the Prophets were the perfect manifestations of this evolutionary process. To think that Ibn Mishkawayh had a small part to play in the birth of modern materialism: the creative process can have unexpected results!
The fear of getting unexpected results however, should not mean that Muslim parents prevent their children from reading. This fear of intellectual indoctrination, more specifically fear of Western ideas, has resulted in Muslim communities in the North of England underperforming at school. Whilst it is true that the creative process can be a ‘terrible beauty born’ and can have an unexpected impact on the individuals; one cannot ignore its power. After all was it not Marx’s indignation at working class oppression that lead to him penning a short tract entitled The Communist Manifesto which resulted in several revolutions still reverberating in our world? Was it not an un-annotated accessible copy of The Origin of the Species, which gave birth to several dozen isms and ideologies? Should one not engage with these ideas rather than bury one’s head in the sand?
Al-Ghazzali or Ibn Mishkawayh probably never imagined that their ideas would be modified, changed or appropriated but one gets a feeling that they would have engaged their opponents with the word. Al-Ghazzali himself confessed that he had to master philosophy in order to write On the Incoherence of the Philosophers; so well did he engage with his material that some complained that his opponents were using his works to understand their own positions better! Al-Ghazzali clearly did not ignore ideas.
Rather he challenged them; and through his writings changed the world.
Let the one who belittles the power of the word beware: For it was neither the lawyer nor the accountant who inspired the Land of the Pure or the anti-colonialist movement in Bengal but rather the poetry of Iqbal and Nazrul Islam. And lest one forget, isn’t the Quran a magnificent testimony to what the creative process can inspire?