Tariq Ali: The Islam Quintet

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree: There is something so consuming about how this first novel of The Islam Quintet commenced: The cinematic intensity of a man crying out, “What is the point of life without our books of learning?” then jumping to his death into a wall of flames fueled by two million manuscripts and the collective knowledge and culture of an entire peninsula!

Eight years after the book-burning, after the confiscation of everything written in Arabic, after 1492, after the War of Granada, after the fall of the last Muslim state in Iberia, this period, this place with its beguiling names — Al-Andalus (Andalusia), Ishbiliya (Seville), Gharnata (Granada), and the Banu Hudayl family come alive through Tariq Ali’s storytelling.

Under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella seven hundred years of Muslim rule in Spain ended, and so did the coexistence of Jews and Muslims in the region as they were given a choice between conversion to Christianity, slavery, or exile.

“Did I not tell you when they burnt the books that it would not stop at that?”

Expecting the story to be mainly about the clash between religions, I was surprised to find that most of the characters have a secular and progressive worldview. Tariq Ali’s reputation as one of today’s leading intellectuals shines through as the story also becomes an accessible introduction to Islamic philosophers and philosophy. Moreover, the novel does not predictably dwell on praising the former glories of Islam but even remarks on its defeats and self-destruction. 

The straightforward prose that is not without its poetry deceived me into thinking that I would be safe from tears, but this rare and affecting glimpse into the death throes of the Islamic Golden Age left me heartbroken.

I suspect that this was written not out of nostalgia for an age gone by, but as an admonition for the present; and once again, a sobering reminder that throughout history, those who destroyed books never stopped there.

The Book of Saladin: Saladin has long been among the most intriguing historical figures on my list. How he is esteemed in both western and eastern accounts is quite telling of this character.  What’s not to admire in a dignified man who resolved to take Jerusalem from the Crusaders without bloodshed?

I do not think that this second volume of the Islam Quintet was ever intended to be the definitive portrayal of Saladin, however. Humor and wit is not absent here, and I enjoyed the author’s light-hearted approach especially that life has been heavy lately. Through this fictional memoir recounted through a Jewish scribe, Tariq Ali humanizes the legend.

This will not be to the taste of conservative Muslims and Catholics. There is a flavor of heresy against both faiths. The erotic aspect is also unanticipated from a book about the “Righteousness of the Faith”, but I reminded myself that a significant part of classical Arabic literature and the sexual practices of that period are, in fact, not too different from what is revealed here.

But the former should not distract readers from the following:

How this book is a criticism on how women are seen and treated in society. “Her father had given her a manuscript by the Andalusian Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and she talked of him in a reverential tone. She told us of how Ibn Rushd had criticized the failure of our states to discover and utilize the ability of women.”

How this is an exploration on religious hypocrisy, skepticism, and faith. “If heresy is another way of expressing the struggle for the real God, then I am a heretic and proud of the fact.”

How there was peace and respect between Jews and Muslims in Saladin’s court, as seen through the fictional scribe, Ibn Yakub and the nonfictional physician, Ibn Maymun (Maimonides).

How even the greatest men in history are only human.

How truth remains elusive, and yet there are men and women who dedicate their lives pursuing it.

“The service of great kings may carry its own rewards, but the service of truth goes unrewarded and is, for that very reason, worth far more.”

The Stone Woman: It was only halfway through the book when I began warming up to it — when the attention turned more towards matters of state and away from matters of the heart.

I have the highest regard for Tariq Ali and his non-fiction, but there was something unconvincing about the way this book was written in female first person. The first two volumes of The Islam Quintet are remarkable for being among the few books that delve into those particular situations in history; but for this third volume, I have to admit that there are better books written about the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Set in Istanbul, The Stone Woman is a statue of a pagan goddess at the palace of the descendants of the nonfictional Ottoman admiral, Yusuf Pasha. Throughout the centuries, she has been a mute confidant to members of the family, and it is around her that the stories of their lives unfold. And so does the story of the last days of the “Sick Man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire.

There are harsh political truths tucked away in this book but I wonder if the love affairs of the characters deflect attention from what is important.

But was this book another way of saying that whether it concerns affairs of the heart or empires, nothing is eternal?

A Sultan in Palermo

“Isn’t the search for knowledge always dangerous?”

Al-Idrisi is one of the illustrious names associated with the Islamic Golden Age. He is known for capturing the interest of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily who commissioned this learned man from Muslim Spain to produce a large-scale geographic work that would become the most accurate map of the known world for almost three centuries, the Kitab Rudjdjar or Tabula Rogeriana, also known as “The Book of Roger”.

Al-Idrisi’s own writings say little of himself and more about his patron. A Sultan in Palermo takes advantage of this and weaves an imagined narrative about al-Idrisi’s life in Sicily. Romantic and political intrigue mingle in this book, but I enjoyed how it is a none too serious pondering on science and religion, and how grains of wisdom can be found in the dialogue. It also revived Palermo in my mind as a prominent trade center between east and west in medieval times and stirred travel lust in me. 

However, I have to admit that I thought this volume could have been so much more! But it also made me realize that the books in this series should not be expected as consummate works but treated as pointers to historical periods and characters that we rarely think about, and considered as cues to ponder on timeless issues that concern our past, present, and future.

These books are not perfect, but in their own way, they light the way.

Night of the Golden Butterfly: Well, that was a strong finale! I am glad that I did not allow the third volume and the expletives at the beginning of this one to discourage me from pressing on. I would recommended this to those who would like a clearer glimpse of the political temperature in Pakistan sans the Rushdie-an literary caricatures and magic realism.

No longer set in the past, the reader is brought to twenty-first century New York, London, Paris, and Islamabad.

There is an interesting mix of characters, a generation still experiencing the traumatic aftermath of the Indian Partition and living long enough to witness the Islamophobia wrought by 9/11. One is an artist who expresses the pains of the Partition through his art, and who claims that without the Partition, there wouldn’t have been a need to paint. Another is a descendant of the Chinese Muslim, Du Wenxiu, who led the Panthay Rebellion in Yunnan, and subsequent sultan of the Dali Sultanate for a decade during the Qing Dynasty; thus continuing the vein of the previous volumes by calling attention to history’s forgotten corners of Islamic ascent into glory but also their decline.

A sensitive reader will perceive that the truths here are not merely well-researched but that they are truths the author has lived through. The narrator, after all, is a writer from Lahore.

Unfortunately, these are also truths that this reader is living through. Here is a nation suffering from cancer. Cancer being corruption and its rulers with their ill-gotten gain. A nation supposedly under intensive chemotherapy but there are already signs that the drugs being administered are producing new cancers. Who cannot relate? 

Only the blind. And I can only return to a particular quote from this Quintet’s first volume that, through all five books, through different historical eras, and in different parts of the world, has proved true: “Blind faith would not get us anywhere.”