Prime Minister Imran Khan recently expressed two desires: Pakistanis should watch Turkish television series Dirilis: Ertugrul and read the book Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilization from the Past by Firas AlKhateeb under lockdown. He wants the nation to learn of the Islamic Golden Age. It is the kind of paternalistic guidance that he perhaps considers the duty of a head of state for his flock, especially the young sheep.
Fortunately, the prime minister hardly needed to plug these two cultural productions. Pakistanis are already addicted to Ertugrul and Lost Islamic History is a reasonably well-known book.
What is noteworthy, however, is the timing of the prime minister’s recommendation: under coronavirus lockdown and right before Ramadan. This kind of pious entertainment is deemed acceptable family viewing in the holy month. Kisses are chaste and limited to foreheads. Add to this, the fact that it is being broadcast and streamed at a time when a contagion is scouring the earth. This temporal overlap has had a peculiar outcome: It has tapped into a fear that we are living in the End of Times and the world is divided into the Believers and the non-Believers. This is, of course, for the already so inclined, a perfect recipe for xenophobic conspiracy theory-making.
Dirilis: Ertugrul seems to have revived the Pakistani Muslim identity discomfort. The series follows the story of Ertugrul, father of Osman I who established the Ottoman Caliphate. It has obscenely good-looking virile young men, stunning yet well-covered beauties in headdresses and lots of Muslim v. Crusader fighting.
An added bonus is that the series has been produced by supporters of the Erdogan-led regime in Turkey, who many Pakistanis tend to respect. For those who cannot watch it on Netflix with English subtitles, Urdu dubbing has been organised for it to run on state television PTV, which has been well-received, so much so that the channel tweeted it had acquired one million new subscribers in a month.
Are the people who watch this show, however, aware of some of the actual history and that this is a highly dramatised version they are watching? Consider the case of the central character of the philosopher-messiah who offers Ertugrul his counsel, one of the most important thinkers in the history of Islam: Ibn Arabi.
Muhiyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) was born in Andalusian Spain during the Islamic Golden Age traditionally dated from the mid-seventh to the mid-thirteenth centuries. It was during this time that Cordoba, one of the territories of Al-Andalus, went on to become Europe’s biggest city, a melting pot of religions and cultures, and a prominent center of learning and education in the world. It was in this context that Ibn Arabi wrote on inter-faith dialogue, inclusion, the inner journey, beauty, gender and spirituality. He commented on the wisdom of the holy prophets and on the Quran’s teachings. He wrote over 350 works that brought together reason and intuition and influenced the thinking of many influential Islamic scholars to come.
Who will tell these Pakistani viewers that while Ibn Arabi plays a powerful and inspiring character on screen, prompting many people to now become interested in his teachings, it is ironic that fatwa after fatwa has been issued for the last 700 years declaring the study of his ideas as unlawful.
What would Pakistanis think if they were reminded that Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of Wahadat-al-Wujood or Oneness of Being has been accused of being pantheistic/involving shirk. Many jurists have, however, also defended his ideas by explaining how they are perfectly in line with the Holy Quran and Sunnah. There is agreement among Ibn Arabi specialists that he himself never used the term, rather it was used by his critics. Influential ‘Ulama in Pakistan such as Dr Israr Ahmed have declared Ibn Arabi’s ideas as connoting shirk. Would it be possible to now debate such ideas, in the religious climate of today?
And what would these Pakistani viewers think if they were told about a fatwa issued by the Shaykh Al Islam Ibn Kemal during the reign of Selim I, the 9th Sultan of the Ottoman Caliphate. The title Shaykh Al Islam meant that he was the supreme head of all the ‘Ulama in the Ottoman Empire and held this post until his death. This is what he had to say about Ibn Arabi:
“Whoever refuses to recognize Ibn ‘Arabî is in error; if he insists he becomes a heretic. It is incumbent on the sultan to educate him and cause him to renounce his conviction. For the sultan is obliged to respect the good and forbid the bad. Ibn ‘Arabî has several works such as the Fusûs al-Hikam and the Futûhât. Amongst his writings there are some whose expression and sense are clear and appropriate to the Divine Order and the Prophetic Law, and there are others whose comprehension is hidden from the people of exoterism, although they are clear to the people of intuition and of esoterism. It is fitting for one who does not understand the intention of Ibn ‘Arabî to remain silent.”
To further understand the status attributed to Ibn Arabi by Ibn Kemal and the Ottoman Caliphate there are two points to be made: Selim I was especially devoted to Ibn Arabi’s tomb, and a text (disputedly) attributed to Ibn Arabi called al-Shajara al-Nu’mâniyya fî al-Dawla al-‘Uthmaniyya made a prediction about the birth of the Ottoman Caliphate. Although the authenticity of the text is doubted, it became a source of legitimacy for the Ottoman Caliphate and the Ottoman era produced several scholars who studied and taught Ibn Arabi’s works in great depth. Dirilis: Ertugrul’s Pakistani audience will find it considerably difficult to find forums where, or scholars with whom to debate such nuanced philosophical and historical issues.
Curiously, conservative audiences who watched the series appropriated its message to their own understanding of tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India, a Pakistan-Turkey friendship that would save the Muslim Ummah and reestablish the Islamic Caliphate through Jihad. Take for example, the crossed Pakistani and Turkish flags on the cover of a Twitter account with the handle @TeamErtugrul which attempted to make a trend out of the hashtag #ModiNeedsErtugrul.
— bilalhamid (@bilalhamid228) May 9, 2020
Notice how this imaginary Ertugrul Bey is triggered by “Indian atrocities” and expresses a yearning for Muslims to take back their “lost” status in the world. This problematically propagated eschatology begins with the Ghazwa-e-Hind and ends with the Muslims decorating Jerusalem in the treasures of Hind, where they will also defeat the Jews, meet Jesus, and join his army.
If indian atrocities continued over muslims, somewhere around a Ertugrul Bey will come up & get back muslims to their lost status in the world. InshaAllah #IndiaOnBlacklist @TheTeamPatriots pic.twitter.com/zta6Avka9v— Malik Fazal Abbas Samtiah (@AbbasSamtiah) May 3, 2020
Consider this tweet: To protest the violence being committed against Muslims in India, Team Ertugrul wants the hashtag #ModiNeedsErtugrul trending. The purpose of this trend is that we desperately need an Ertugrul Ghazi to counter Modi’s actions.”
مسلمانوں کے خلاف بھارت میں مودی سرکار کے بڑھتے مظالم کے خلاف ٹیم ارطغرل ایک ٹرینڈ کرنے جا رہی ہے #ModiNeedsErtugrul— @TeamErtugrul Bey 🇵🇰 🇹🇷 (@TeamErtugrul1) May 8, 2020
اس ٹرینڈ کا مقصد یہ بتانا ہے کہ ہمیں مودی کے مقابلے کے لئے ایک ارطغرل غازی کی اشد ضرورت ہے جو اسکا خاتمہ کرے۔
سب یہ ٹویٹ ریٹویٹ کریں pic.twitter.com/5vgVap4NxG
And yet another tweet: “Turkish dramas are awakening the spirit of Jihad within the new generations whereas Pakistani dramas are teaching them how to seduce girls and have them run away from their homes.”
It is widely agreed by the audience of the series that its popularity is owed to how it reminds Muslims of their true values as compared to the values taught by Western media, Indian media, Pakistani media, and a Western education system.
This dovetails with Imran Khan’s desire for the youth of Pakistan to read Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilization from the Past as lockdown reading in order to learn about the “past glory” of Muslims.
Nostalgia for an imagined past glory tends to be limited to name-dropping. Al Khwarizmi is credited with establishing the basis for Algebra, Al Razi is known as the greatest physician of the Medieval Age (he identified smallpox and measles). Ibn Sina wrote the ‘Canon of Medicine’ which became the most authoritative work consulted by doctors for six centuries once it was translated into Latin. Al-Farabi was a polymath who became known as the Second Teacher i.e the most revered philosopher after Aristotle who authored works on Platonic and Aristotelian Philosophy, physics, psychology, alchemy, cosmology, and music. Al-Biruni was another polymath who almost accurately calculated the earth’s circumference and wrote a study on Hindus. Ibn Al Haytham contributed to the theory of optics, and Ibn Rushd/Averroes was a polymath who was a philosopher and jurist best known for his commentaries on Aristotle. He also wrote works on biology, physics, medicine, and astronomy. The discussion rarely deepens beyond these mentions.
How was it possible that many of the scientists and philosophers from the Islamic Golden Age were also jurists and how did this Golden Age fade? Perhaps it can be argued that it was something about the way Islam was understood back then which encouraged the pursuit of scientific and worldly knowledge as opposed to how Islamic scholars today claim that the kind of knowledge Islam encourages us to pursue is only religious knowledge and not worldly knowledge. Perhaps it was an Islam that did not see itself as being separate from rational thought in which whatever had been spelled out by the Holy Quran and Sunnah could be understood through the use of reason instead of being literally accepted.
Consider the Mu’tazilite movement under the 7th Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun, son of the widely revered 5th Abbasid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid who ruled during the peak of the Islamic Golden Age and is credited with establishing the Bayt Al-Hikmah or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a prominent library and center of learning destroyed by the Mongols.
Caliph Al-Ma’mun actively sponsored a Mu’tazilite aqeedah which was based in Greek Rationalism, particularly Aristotelianism. Many of the prominent thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age accepted a Mu’tazilite theology and while Caliph Al-Ma’mun punished those who refused to adopt Mu’tazilite views, his successors criminalized the “copying books of philosophy”. This was because of the “rise of an opposing school of theology” or aqeedah known as Ash’arism. Ash’arite thought denied “natural causality” and thus discouraged the study of the natural and the social sciences. One could also argue that the Mu’tazilite aqeedah venerated debate, critical inquiry, was open to hearing opposing views, and was comfortable seeking people from other lands, religions, languages for the benefit of their knowledge.
This was a long and important debate in the history of Islam eventually won by the Ash’arite aqeedah which most of the Islamic world today follows. It is in the kind of thinking encouraged by this theology that scientific explanations of natural phenomena are looked down upon and their occurrences are credited exclusively to the ‘wonder of God’ instead. It is also in extreme cases of this kind of theology (of which many schools are to be found in the Muslim world) to attribute natural disasters such as the Coronavirus to causes like “immodestly dressed women on television” as was recently done by Maulana Tariq Jameel (He subsequently apologised). One can argue that Ash’arite thinking has also shaped an ‘unscientific’ understanding of international affairs according to which geopolitical events are read as the nearing of the End of Times.
The End of Times is being discussed in conjunction with coronavirus at the feverish speed it takes to forward a meme. Certain documentaries have been aired as part of Ramadan transmissions on national television with rather convenient timing. They are about the return of Christ, the arrival of the Mahdi, the arrival of the anti-Christ, and Holy Wars such as the Ghazwa-e-Hind and the Armageddon to be fought near the end of time. They are having an effect on certain viewers who wish to reach the conclusion that the coronavirus is a sign of the End of Times. Patriotism and eschatology collide on ARY at 4am. Look at the Kashmiris under lock down, WhatsApp messages said. We didn’t speak up for them or defend them. The Muslim world was silent. Now we are getting a taste of it.
Pakistani xenophobia seems to have been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. There is evidence of this in the viral memes. Some of them fixate on tensions between Indian-Occupied Kashmir and the mujahideen, the return of pilgrims from Iran to Pakistan, and supposed Bill Gates plan to take over the world in partnership with Zionists and the WHO. Self-styled religious experts and defense analysts have been employing xenophobic and conspiratorial language (Balochi failure, Shia virus, American virus, Chinese virus, Jewish Conspiracy, The Plannedemic) to hold forth. As these theories spread, many Pakistani began relying on them to explain the arrival of the pandemic but at the cost of crucial government and public health decisions. Conspiracy theories gave people cause to refuse to follow lockdown measures.
This kind of thinking and xenophobia, which is linked to the identity crisis being experienced by Muslims, can perhaps not be ever resolved. That would require people to revisit debates that have shaped Islamic history and the Islamic world today. Ibn Arabi and the Mu’tazilites are just two examples of scholars who gave opposing fatwas and of Caliphs who sponsored certain ways of thinking and punished others. Conservative circles are not always ready to make these investigations or have these debates.
Pakistani Muslims may proudly declare that the Islamic Golden Age was responsible for much European progress, but there is collective amnesia that this was only possible because philosophers such al-Farabi, Ibn Sina/Avicenna, and Ibn Rushd/Averroes adhered to a theology that made this possible.
It could be argued perhaps that Imran Khan failed to drive home this point, that the great thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age should be emulated for the generosity of their intellect. Had they been xenophobic, none of their glorious learning and fertile exchange of knowledge would have happened. Had they been WhatsApp uncles they would have endorsed and written about the conspiracy theories that we find so easy to cling to today.
As this was being written, PM Imran Khan recommended yet another Turkish drama to the Pakistani nation: Yunus Emre. This drama follows the life of a 14th Century Turkish poet who started out as a judge but became a Sufi mystic.
Pakistanis now have three options: either become holy warriors, philosopher-scientists, or wandering mystics. If we can get around to having a serious debate on these recommendations offered by our PM, we could perhaps credit his period in office with being one of the most important periods for the intellectual development of Islam in Pakistan’s history.
Hamza Arif is a graduate of Habib University in Social Development and Policy
Material in this essay has been drawn from:
Tahrali, M. (2020, January 17). Ibn Arabi and the Ottoman Era. Retrieved from https://ibnarabisociety.org/influence-of-ibn-arabi-on-the-ottoman-era-mustafa-tahrali/
Introduction to Ibn Arabi. (2020, January 17). Retrieved from https://ibnarabisociety.org/introduction-muhyiddin-ibn-arabi/
Hillel Ofek, “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” The New Atlantis, Number 30, Winter 2011, pp. 3-23.