x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Why is enlightenment still 700 years behind Ibn Battuta?

Seven hundred years after Ibn Battuta, the spirit of inquiry and exploration is in eclipse in the Arab world. How much longer will this go on?

Google, you think you're so clever, don't you? When you're not finishing our sentences, you're telling us what we did or did not exactly mean.

But no one can accuse the search engine of being narrow-minded.

Did you know that Saturday marked the 706th birthday of Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta? Yes, that Ibn Battuta.

Google did, celebrating the explorer's birthday with a "doodle" that depicted his travels through six slides, starting in Morocco and leading to Egypt, Turkey, India, China and other countries. The last slide shows Ibn Battuta back home in Morocco recounting tales from what would become his book Rihla, or "The Journey".

And what a journey it was. Covering 30 years and what would now be 40 countries, it took the explorer as far as West Africa, India, Turkey and southern Europe.

Ibn Battuta was from the Maliki Madhab, a school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, and his first journey was a pilgrimage to perform Haj in Mecca. Indeed, Rihla consistently refers to the Quran. In those days, religion opened doors to a world of endless possibilities.

Above all, Ibn Battuta represents the golden age of Islamic exploration and scientific advancement. He documented 120,000 kilometres of travel, more than did Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan or Marco Polo, to whom he is most often compared.

But Ibn Battuta would prove one of the last of his kind, not a trailblazer. As the western world emerged from its Dark Ages, the Islamic world plunged into its decline.

In the recent column How the decline of Muslim scientific thought still haunts, this newspaper's columnist Hassan Hassan questioned whether it was Nizam Al Mulk, the grand vizier of the Seljuq dynasty, rather than the Islamic theologian Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, who steered Islam towards fundamentalism. What is beyond debate is that the consequences remain relevant today.

"Pinpointing the exact reason for the decline of Islamic culture is important for today's Middle East," Hassan noted, "where the role of Islam is yet again under scrutiny after the Arab revolts and religious intolerance rising to the surface."

Science was not the only victim of fundamentalism. Philosophy, art and the spirit of exploration have arguably never recovered either. Just how many, or rather few, have followed in Ibn Battuta's footsteps?

The last year has seen this debate resurrected. But those who expected, or hoped, that the Arab uprisings would bring about a cultural awakening have had to lower their expectations significantly.

From Tunisia to Yemen, the countries that have seen regime change have to varying degrees moved towards more religiously strict forms of government. Condemning Islamist political parties or governments simply because they are religious is nonsense. Egyptians, for example, are generally pious. If they favour a religious form of government, they are perfectly entitled to do so.

But the danger of fundamentalism is real. And across the region, there is a risk of intolerance seeping back into societies.

The Salafis are increasingly influential in Egypt, and seem intent on settling old scores. "Honour" crimes continue to be wrongly associated with Islam in the Middle East and beyond. In Saudi Arabia recently, there have been calls to execute an activist for Twitter posts (prompting criticism from Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa).

How incongruent are all these developments with the political and cultural "spring" we expected? Just how many gifted Muslim intellectuals, male or female, will be lost to the worlds of science and the arts?

In Rihla, Ibn Battuta said of the art of travel: "It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." But today, many Muslims at every level of society are simply speechless.



Follow on Twitter: @AliKhaled_