By Roger Tagholm
SHARJAH, UAE: Heat everywhere. Heat swirling up the lagoon, where it flows over dhow and yacht; heat flooding the Corniche where it smothers sidewalk and palm. Heat slithering ashore among hotels and banks; heat nuzzling mall and mosque minaret…
Visiting Sharjah in July is to replace Dickens’ famous fog opening to Bleak House with its inverted temperature equivalent. With highs up around the 110-Fahrenheit mark, attending an Islamic book exhibition in the emirate at this time of year is both illuminating and enervating in equal measure. It is to experience life as a pizza. Anywhere outside is the oven; you are the pizza. After three minutes you begin to bubble. Ten, and you need to be discarded. No wonder the mynah birds flitting about have their beaks permanently open in a desperate attempt to reduce their body temperature. Thank Allah for air-con.
Before the giant towers of the UAE arose from the desert, before the oil was discovered and the west came running, the tribesmen of old would meet in the shade of palms and tents for majlis, a word that literally means “place of sitting.” Today, this word is used to describe meetings among common interest groups. Thus alongside the ongoing Islamic Book Exhibition has been a program of talks and discussions held in the blissfully cool rooms of the ExpoCentre, the modern equivalent of those desert tents.
Topics have ranged from the importance of original manuscripts and their influence on history and civilization, to the place of Islamic thought and culture in the history of the world. The UK’s Charles Burnett, Professor of the History of Islamic Influences at the University of London contrasted what Europe calls ‘the Dark Ages’ with what was happening in the Arab world at the same time. “During that period from the Fall of Constantinople until the end of the 12th century – what Europe calls the Dark Ages – the Arab world was very busy with the sciences. Yet when the Renaissance started, there was nothing about science in the libraries, there were no schools of science. Eventually, Europe took this knowledge from the Arabs. The early Renaissance started in Italy because of the closeness of the country to the Muslim world – there was a trade in manuscripts translated into Italian, and the Italians even tried to translate the Qu’ran in the early 16th century.”
Also among the speakers has been His Excellency Dr Ali Ibrahim Al-Namlah, former Minister of Social Affairs in Saudi Arabia and an author and academic who now lectures at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. He has some 40 books to his name and is particularly interested in East-West cultural relations.
“I think cultural dialogue is very important,” he said. “We need to understand each other more.” That could never be more important than now, with the rise of extremists groups like ISIS in Iraq and talk of caliphates. Yet he would not be drawn on specifics, would not name any particular group and preferred to focus on the factors leading to the rise of any extremist group.
“We need to know the reasons why people behave the way they do. These people are given the chance to have unacceptable ideas. Islam is not represented here. It is a misunderstanding of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims are not like this.”
Do books have a role in tackling such erroneous ways of thinking? “One of the ways is books, certainly. But the educated elite have a responsibility, too. The clergymen, the Imams are alerting people to the dangers of these movements. This is happening in Saudi too, with the government not instructing them what to say.
“But I don’t think there is enough East-West dialogue. The King [Saudi Arabia’s leader, King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud] wants it and has established a centre for such dialogue in Vienna. But he also thinks that we [Muslims] need to understand each other as well, before it can spread out. He believes the two things go in parallel. But some Muslim intellectuals are suspicious – they suspect a plot. We need to open up to others, but there is a suspicion among some Saudis. I think the way to counter this is through more cultural activities – conferences, workshops, symposia…”
Which is why these talks at Sharjah’s Islamic Book Exhibition – and other initiatives are so important. The world moves forward with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist.