A reference work for our times
The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, Volumes 1–6, Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1977- 2016
We live at a time when Muslims and their religion, Islam, are misunderstood in many parts of the world. Muslims are generally perceived in the West as a homogeneous, monolithic group of people who are violent and oppress their women. In some Asian countries, where Muslims and non-Muslims have shared the same language and culture for centuries, Muslims are suddenly viewed as “different”.
Since the September 11, 2001 Twin Towers attacks in the United States, the rhetoric of “Us” against “Them” has been used to exclude Muslims from mainstream society. Some politicians have been calling for a ban or an end to all Muslim immigration.
It is important to acknowledge that a tiny minority of Muslims have resorted to terrorism. But it is equally important to note that Muslims are as much, if not more, the victims of terrorism as are non-Muslims.
Seeking to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding Muslims today, the UNESCO six-volume publication, The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture (1977 to 2016) is timely and informative. It informs readers about Islam, from its revelation to the beliefs and practices of Muslims. The book describes the diversity in Islam through its different schools of thought.
Launched in 1977, in the wake of a monumental work on general and regional histories, this collective work was completed in November 2016, with the publications of Volumes I and VI, which constitute an important contribution to the current debate on Islam.
The books explain the puritanical notions that have been generated from offshoots of Islam, and also describe how, over several centuries, many Muslim thinkers have rejected narrow, dogmatic interpretations of the Koran, and encouraged the use of reason.
On the question of women, the book offers interesting insights, notably on the advantaged status of women during the Abbasid and Ayyubid periods from the 8th to the 13th centuries. It also discusses the Islamic feminists from the early 20th century, who had their voices heard in the Arab world.
The book also reflects on the contribution of Islamic civilizations in the fields of science, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. To quote just one example, Muslims invented algebra!
The collection reminds readers of the glory of the Muslim Sultanate and how its legacy is still remembered through its art and architecture — for example, the Taj Mahal in India. It also discusses how the East, including the Islamic countries, were, in some periods of history, far more advanced than the (Christian) West, due to the trade of silk and spices through the Silk Route. However, as Muslim countries in Asia and Africa began to flourish through trade and commerce, the West commenced its territorial expansion and introduced its colonial system.
Reverting to the present, the book provides a balanced debate by highlighting tensions within and among Muslim countries — for example, the Iranian Revolution, tthe Iran-Iraq war, the rise of the Taliban, the Kashmir conflict, and the dynamics between secular and Islamic states. These conflicts are exacerbated by corruption, poor health services, economic inequality and illiteracy.
The question of minority Muslims in the world today — a subject which I have written about in the book — is particularly important. It is precisely these Muslims and their communities, and Muslim immigrants, who suffer the marginalization, Islamophobia and discrimination, as I emphasized at the beginning of this article.
The UNESCO collection also examines some positive aspects of the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, and offers suggestions to help develop a better understanding between them.