A star of the atheist Left has spent two decades crafting a series of historical novels about Islam. Robyn Creswell reads his attempt to undermine the orthodoxies of both the West and the Muslim world.
The heretic and the holy: Tariq Ali's histories of Islam
After years as a star of the atheist Left, Tariq Ali has spent two decades crafting a series of historical novels about Islam. Robyn Creswell reads his attempt to undermine the orthodoxies of both the West and the Muslim world. "I've let my pen run away with me and preached my heresies for too long," Tariq Ali once wrote, in an essay called Letter to a Young Muslim. "I doubt that I will change, but I hope you will." Ali is indeed a kind of professional, or inveterate heretic, a writer who has made a career of dissenting from every kind of orthodoxy. But to call it a career suggests a rather solemn enterprise, whereas Ali's writings are chiefly characterised by their wit - note the impish paradox of "preaching" heresies - and their swaggering combativeness. For Ali, dissent is an essentially heroic activity and he never seems so happy as when he has an opponent, be he neoliberal, Islamist, or ex-Leftist, to pummel into submission.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1943, Ali began organising street protests as a teenager. He soon became a university firebrand and caused enough trouble for the military regime of Ayub Khan that Ali's family encouraged him to continue his studies elsewhere. In Britain, Ali joined the Oxford University Humanist Group (whose slogan was "Down with God!" and which held debates on motions such as "Jesus Christ Should Have Been Crucified") and played an active part in student politics. Over the next decade, he edited and wrote for a number of memorably-named magazines (The Black Dwarf, The Red Mole) and became a Leftist celebrity, debating Vietnam with Henry Kissinger and interviewing John Lennon. The Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man ("my name is called Disturbance / I'll shout and scream, I'll kill the King") was supposedly written in his honour.
Given Ali's commitment to heterodoxy and heresy, it is somewhat surprising to learn that his chief intellectual project of the past two decades has been a series of five historical novels he calls the Islam Quintet, whose final volume, Night of the Golden Butterfly, has now been published by Verso. But in fact, Ali's sudden interest in Islamic history was itself an act of dissent. In 1990, the First Gulf War led to a surge of western media coverage of the Middle East. Most of this coverage was, to Ali's mind, ill-informed. "The 1990 war was accompanied by a wave of crude anti-Arab propaganda," he wrote in 2002 in his book
The Quintet is actually a kind of double-bladed heresy, cutting against Western ignorance on the one hand, and Muslim pieties on the other. In the face of those pundits and politicians who trade in stereotypes of Islam as a religion of puritanical violence and backwardness, Ali evokes the most cosmopolitan eras of its history. The first volume of the series, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (Ali has a weakness for florid titles), begins in 1499 with a book burning in Granada, the auto-da-fé of Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts ordered by the Archbishop of Toledo, later Grand Inquisitor, Ximénes de Cisneros. Ali's novel - in fact, his entire Quintet - is an impassioned protest against such attempts at enforced amnesia. The second and best volume, The Book of Saladin, recounts the famous general's capture of Jerusalem in 1187 (a reconquest, one might say, to answer the reconquista). The Stone Woman is a family drama set outside Istanbul in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, and The Sultan of Palermo is the tale of Muhammad al Idrisi, a Muslim geographer at the court of Roger II, the Norman king who ruled Sicily during the 12th century, when Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity all enjoyed a brief period of convivencia. Taken together, these stories serve as so many reminders that Islam is not and never has been a monolithic culture, that it has spread by the book as well as by the sword, and that our current conflicts have deeper historical resonances than we might have imagined.
But if Ali's novels are meant as a corrective to the ever shorter memory span of the West, they are also meant as a challenge to the orthodox narrative of Islam itself, the sort of potted history that schoolchildren in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad are still subjected to. In that rather inward-looking version of events, the main theatre of Muslim historical experience is the so-called Arab heartland. Its major dramas - the conquests of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors, the Sunni-Shia schism, the rise and fall of dynasties in Damascus and Baghdad - are played by generals and caliphs, who are also the heroes of the story. Ali's history takes place, for the most part, in the wings of this theatre. But in such apparently marginal settings as Palermo, Granada, or Lahore (which, in Ali's account, seems closer to China than to Arabia), Islam is shown to be in touch with the wider world. Its interactions with western Christendom are a source of intellectual creativity as well as conflict. And while it is true that Ali's portrait of Saladin is a generous one, the real heroes of his novels are the dissenters.
The history of Islam is, of course, rife with heterodoxies, from the rationalist philosophers of Andalucia to the Sufi Dervishes of Anatolia. Ali imagines the geographer al Idrisi to be a connoisseur of Greek mythology and pagan poetry. And Ali himself is very fond of the poets. Their erotic and occasionally obscene verses flavour the conversations of all his favourite characters, who relish heretical ideas as much as their author. In this way, Ali's Quintet is, like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, or Adonis's The Fixed and the Transformative, an attempt to write a counter-history of Islam, to erect an alternative tradition with its own historical emphases and pantheon of heroes.
The key thinker in Ali's roll call of Muslim dissenters is the 14th century historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun is not a character in the series, but the influence of his ideas is paramount and helps to explain the most ambitious aim of Ali's project, as well as its peculiar shortcomings. Of all the chroniclers and annalists of classical Islam, Ibn Khaldun was the only one to insist that history was a man-made phenomenon, that explanations for historical events should be looked for in the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. He was, as Edward Said has written, a "worldly" historian, who sought to understand "the dynamics of secular events" (the shadow of Said, a personal friend of Ali, looms over all of his books). Ali's Quintet can also be read as an attempt, in his words, to "strengthen the case for advancing a secular view of Islamic history," and so it is fitting that he should try to recruit the philosophy of Ibn Khaldun to his cause.
More specifically, what Ali takes from Ibn Khaldun is his theory of civilisational decline. Each of Ali's novels recounts a turning point in Muslim history, when a cosmopolitan but predominantly Islamic culture is on the verge of collapse or defeat (this is not quite true in the case of The Book of Saladin, but even there it is suggested that the Muslim conquests will soon be reversed). And in each novel the characters ask themselves how they have reached the present impasse. "Why did we go into decline?" a Moorish matron asks her family in 1499, with the Inquisition knocking at the gates. Four hundred years later, at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the narrator of The Stone Woman is still baffled by the fact that "we have been regressing now for nearly 250 years."
Ali's own answer to this question is clear. The decline is due to a persistent spirit of factionalism, a lack of what Ibn Khaldun famously called 'asabiyya, typically translated as "group solidarity". In Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, a man whose nickname is "the Heretic," and who serves as a kind of porte-parole for many of Ali's own ideas, explains to his fellow Moors that the setbacks experienced in Andalucia are not due to the impiety of their rulers: "No amount of religion can succeed in changing the ways of our kings," he says, "unless it is based on something more, on something which our great teacher Ibn Khaldun called solidarity. Our defeats are a result of the failure to preserve the unity of al Andalus. We let the Caliphate collapse and in its place we let poisonous weeds grow." This diagnosis of terminal sectarianism is made over and over. Whether the setting is Granada, Jerusalem, or Palermo, Ali's characters are confronted with what Muhammad al Idrisi thinks of as "the eternal fact: the followers of the Prophet were divided."
One can't help wondering if Ali's diagnosis of factionalism has less to do with the deep structures of Islamic history than with his experience as a modern Leftist - where it was indeed the spirit of factionalism that eventually persuaded Ali, and many others like him, to move away from party politics - but a more pressing problem is that he has not succeeded in linking the grand narrative of decline to the individual adventures of his protagonists. The fourth volume of his series, A Sultan in Palermo, concerns the case of Philip of Mahdia, an admiral in the court of Roger II who was accused of falsely converting to Christianity while secretly remaining a Muslim. The early portions of the novel seem to be leading up to a moment of decision: will the Muslim community of Sicily rise up against their Anglo-Norman rulers, or will they acquiesce in Philip's execution and bide their time? But while this drama is basically accomplished in just two chapters - a secret meeting in which Philip advises his comrades not to rise up, and then the set piece of the court case itself - the vast majority of the novel is about the love life of Muhammad al Idrissi. The geographer is conveniently aware of what goes on at court, but not directly involved; and while his bedroom escapades are mildly diverting, they have little to do with the story of Sicily's sectarian conflicts.
To account for this gap between character and context, it may help to compare Ali's historical novels with some canonical examples of the genre. The historical novel, from Walter Scott and Balzac to Lampedusa, has traditionally been about the rise and fall of classes or groups - in most cases, the fall of an aristocracy founded on myths of honour and blood, and the rise of a middle class whose only standard is money (sometimes, as in Scott and Fennimore Cooper, the aristocratic group is actually a clan or a tribe). In these works, the drama of individual characters is woven into a wider social tapestry, and the protagonists are in some sense typical of their society and class. They are neither kings, nor beggars, nor eccentrics; their actions are at once representative and constrained. Indeed, it is precisely their constraints, the finite horizon of their thoughts and ambitions, that make them seem historically real. When one of Lampedusa's young Sicilian nobleman famously says, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change," we feel he is both a witty individual and someone who speaks from the experience of his particular class - a class that he knows to be doomed.
The protagonists of Ali's Quintet, so many of them heretics and free thinkers, cannot be representative or tragic in this way. With few exceptions, they are remarkably "modern" individuals, seemingly unconstrained by social conventions. Or, if they are constrained by such conventions in public, they feel free to mock them in private. But such freedoms end up suggesting that these characters do not really belong to history. Their actions seem wilful rather than inevitable. So the history of Islam's repeated rise and fall, which Ibn Khaldun tells as a story of impersonal forces, gets translated by Ali into a story of individuals and their more or less eccentric trajectories (at the end of The Sultan of Palermo, al-Idrisi contemplates a voyage to Baghdad). The deeper problem seems to be that Ali is so fascinated by his heretics that he has no curiosity left over for the orthodoxies arrayed against them. The villains of his Quintet - Archbishop Cisneros, the Crusader Raynald of Châtillon, the barons of Palermo - are savagely lampooned for their hypocrisies and personal failings. This can be amusing, but its effect is to suggest that the edifice of orthodoxy, whether religious, feudal, or neoliberal, is founded on the vices of stupidity and intolerance, rather than complex structures of power and interest. (A tendency to personalise his criticism is also evident in Ali's political writings, which are frequently ad hominem and peppered with personal anecdotes, as if he was settling scores rather than providing analyses.) This makes it difficult for Ali to stage meaningful conflicts in his fiction, whether these conflicts are between social groups, or within the consciousness of individual characters. Freed from the tutelage of history - what Marx called "the realm of necessity" - his novels often unravel into melodrama or an exchange of debating points and bon mots.
Such an unravelling begins about midway through the last volume of Ali's Quintet, Night of the Golden Butterfly, the only novel of the series to be set in the present. The narrator, a character à clef, is a Pakistani novelist named Dara (he likes to think he is named after Dara Shikoh, a seventeenth century poet and sceptical philosopher, who happens to be the namesake of another recent Pakistani protagonist, that of Mohsin's Hamid's Moth Smoke). The early and best portions of Ali's novel are set in the bohemia of 1960s Lahore, a cafe culture where art and politics are mixed with obscene jokes and where Ali himself obviously feels at home. The conversations between Leftists, aesthetes, poets, and nascent Islamists are well observed, and the satire cuts in all directions.
It is at the cafe that Dara meets two other loftily-named characters: a painter called Muhammad Aflatun ("Aflatun" is the Arabic word for Plato), and a Chinese immigrant whom the native Lahoris call Confucius. Aflatun is a generation older than Dara and his experience of the 1947 Partition - an event the younger characters have no memory of - lends his character an authentic and enigmatic sadness. It is Aflatun who supplies the premise for the novel, when he asks Dara, now an older man, to write his biography. And Dara feels obliged to fulfil this request, since the painter once did him the favour of facilitating a rendezvous with the beautiful sister of Confucius, a girl named Jindié. The stories of Aflatun and Jindié take up the rest of the novel, with Dara tracking down and then falling in love with a pair of Aflatun's former mistresses, although it turns out that the older man is impotent (his love affairs are "Platonic"), apparently as a result of the trauma of Partition. Interspersed with these adventures are a series of missives, sent to Dara by his one-time lover Jindié. These letters are in fact a family memoir, with which Jindié seeks to persuade Dara that Chinese history means more than just Maoism (early on the novel Dara apologises to Jindié's father for his ignorance: "China is a mystery. All we know about is the revolution.") We learn that Jindié's family is linked to a Hui rebel, Sultan Suleiman, who ruled over an independent kingdom in Yunnan during the mid-19th century, and whose fall resulted in an emigration of Chinese Muslims into Burma, South-East Asia, and Pakistan itself.
The history of the Panthay rebellion is fascinating - and, as Ali suggests, often elided in conventional history books - but its relevance to the rest of novel is unclear. How is Dara changed by Jindié's story? How does it affect his political thinking, or his relationship to Pakistan? Not at all, as far as we can tell. And it is puzzlingly difficult to know, in the most general sense, what is really at stake in Ali's novel. His characters travel from Lahore to Paris, from London to Beijing, they fall in love and their lives take some rather crazy, hairpin turns, but there is no actual conflict, no mystery to be solved, no political or moral dilemma they need to face. Instead, the action seems primarily designed to give his characters a chance to talk politics and air their various heresies. In the final scene, after the death of Aflatun, many of the characters gather at the unveiling of his last painting, a massive allegory of Pakistani history. Ali's 10-page description is extraordinarily vivid, and quite savage, but it reveals nothing new about either Dara or Aflatun, or they way they think about the country they call home. In an essay called Literature and Market Realism, first published in 1993, just as he began to write his Quintet, Ali relates a childhood memory of attending mushairas, or public poetry readings, in Pakistan. The audience, he recalls, were mostly illiterate and sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands. They cheered the poets they liked and heckled those who displeased them. "Writing a novel is a lonely task," Ali says, "yet when I write, I must confess, the image I usually have in front of me is that of the audience in Lahore of which I was once a member." This memory of the mushaira crops up more than once in Ali's writings, and it provides a nice explanation for his sense of himself as a writer. For Ali, the novelist's role is to entertain and instruct, preferably with a full quiver of one-liners. It is a populist and heroic self-conception, one that demands an orator's fluency rather than the writer's quieter agonies of composition and revision. To this cast of mind, there is nothing so satisfying as a neatly phrased heresy - a sure crowd-pleaser. And yet, for all their verbal brilliance, it is not clear that the books of Ali's Quintet are quite successful as novels, where dramatic structure, the patient accumulation of details (rather than witticisms), and a realist's respect for the constraints of history, are all orthodoxies that have yet to be dethroned. Robyn Creswell, a regular contributor to The Review, is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University