Book review: "The Islam Quintet" by Tariq Ali

A wonderful reminder of Islam's contribution to world culture

Nearly 20 years in the writing, Tariq Ali's "The Islam Quintet" has just been reissued, redesigned and made available as a complete set by Verso Books. Written in response to a comment heard by the author during the first Gulf War suggesting Muslim's have no culture, the five books dip in and out of history disproving this proposition. Not only does the quintet successfully display the depth and variety of Islamic culture, it provides readers with a perspective on world events we rarely experience. By Richard Marcus

Unlike the Eurocentric view of the world provided by most historical novels or history texts, the five books of Tariq Ali's "The Islam Quintet" take us through events from the Crusades to modern times from a non-Western view. The books don't follow a chronological order, leaping from Spain in 1492 ("Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree") to the Crusades ("The Book of Saladin"), forward to the end of nineteenth century Turkey and the Ottoman Empire ("The Stone Woman"), back to twelfth-century Sicily and the island's Arabic population ("A Sultan in Palermo") with the journey finally ending in the modern world ("Night of the Golden Butterfly").

While the narratives of the books aren't interconnected thematically, they work together to form a picture of the history of Islam and the contributions it has made to the growth and evolution of culture throughout Europe and Asia. However, we also see how in so many instances throughout history, the infighting that still plagues the religion to this day has been its own worst enemy. From the time of Saladin, Ali makes it clear how the ambitions of rulers, both secular and religious, have conspired to undermine attempts at nation-building and run contrary to the wishes of the people.

The glories and beauty of Islamic culture

Cover of "A Sultan in Palermo" (source: verso books)
According to Richard Marcus, "Individually, each of the books tells an entrancing story. Collectively, the five books make up a tapestry that gives readers a glimpse of the true depth and glory of Islamic history and culture"

Each book deals with a very specific epoch in the course of Islam detailing the glories and beauty of the culture and the heart-rending losses it has endured. Unfortunately, the majority of the latter came at the hands of Christians – whether Knights Templar slaughtering men, women and children during their sacking of Jerusalem or Spanish soldiers carrying out the orders of Queen Isabella to rid the country of all non-believers.

However, as we learn in "Night of the Golden Butterfly", the slaughter of Muslims wasn't limited to the West. In nineteenth-century China, the Emperor ordered his troops to destroy the Muslim province of Yunnan and wipe out the Sultanate of Suleiman. In this case, while religion was part of the motivation, the reasons were more political and had much to do with a fear of a minority gaining too much autonomy and international respect. After losing the Opium Wars to Great Britain and other Western powers, the Empire was afraid of the amount of trade being carried out between the Chinese Muslims of Hui province and the West, and decided to wipe them out before they could become a challenge to their authority.

It's not just the history lesson these books provide that makes them so fascinating to read, Ali's abilities as a story-teller bring both the eras described and the people living through them alive. Using historical figures in fictional books can be a precarious business, but Ali has done a remarkable job of giving them life without either unduly idealising or demonising them. We see Saladin through the eyes of the Jewish scribe commissioned to record the Sultan's life and his plans to recapture Jerusalem as a complete human being. Beset by doubts and insecurities like anyone else, what distinguishes him is how he is able to rise above them to achieve his goals.

In "A Sultan In Palermo", readers are introduced to the cartographer Muhammed al-Idrisi. His position in the court of Sultan Rujari (Arabic name for the Norman, Roger) gives him a unique perspective on the delicate balancing act his Sultan undertakes to keep his Christian barons and bishops happy while preserving the rights of his Muslim populace. In each of the five books, the fictional and non-fictional characters are created with equal care and respect.

History unfolding

Cover of "The Book of Saladin" (source: verso books)
"The Book of Saladin" is set in twelfth-century Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem. "From the time of Saladin, Ali makes it clear how the ambitions of rulers, both secular and religious, have conspired to undermine attempts at nation-building and run contrary to the wishes of the people," writes Richard Marcus

It is through each of these observer's eyes that Ali shows us history unfolding. Some of it is exhilarating, some of it sickening, but it never fails to be enthralling. Ali is also a master at bringing a place and time to life. As he takes us on his tour through the ages, we can't help but marvel at the beautiful minarets of Damascus, the history and beauty of Jerusalem and the fading wonders of Muslim Spain just before the expulsions. Even modern Lahore, London and Paris are presented in such a way that we can visualise the neighbourhoods described and almost taste the smells of the streets.

Individually, each of the books tells an entrancing story. Collectively, the five books make up a tapestry that gives readers a glimpse of the true depth and glory of Islamic history and culture. What's even more amazing is how Ali manages to do this without ever once sounding like he's preaching or lecturing to readers. He even manages to keep his anger in check against those who would either tar all Muslims with the same brush and those who have perverted the religion to their own ends until "Night of the Golden Butterfly". Here, he has characters let loose at the horrors committed by the fanatics in the name of Allah and those on the opposite side who provide the West with the one dimensional depictions of Islam pervasive in the media. 

Tariq Ali is probably best known for his works of non-fiction. However, with "The Islamic Quintet", he proves he is equally adroit at writing fiction. With his deft touch, he not only shows how vital and alive Muslim culture is, but shows how much influence it has had on European culture. It is always good to be reminded that the knowledge of the ancients, which birthed the so-called Renaissance, had been preserved in the libraries of Arab scholars in al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, and that without Islam, the majority of Europe's great artistic and scientific achievements would never have been accomplished. The fact that this reminder comes in this wonderful form makes it all the more special.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2015 

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