Narratives of Islamic Civilisation: Questioning the Model of Golden Age and Decline

This one-day seminar, organised by the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, took place at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge on February 25, 2017. The seminar brought together a group of scholars and other experts, some of whom hailed from backgrounds representing both Western academic and traditional Islamic study, to discuss the possible benefits of a shift away from a ‘Golden Age’ narrative, and the extent to which the concept of mīzān or balance can contribute to our understanding of Islamic cultural and intellectual history. The seminar was attended by students and academics from the Unversities of Cambridge, Oxford and London.

The principal theme of the seminar was developed by Ahmed Paul Keeler, who proposes that not only does the Golden Age narrative overlook the vitality of the Islamic sciences right up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it also tends to evaluate Islam’s contribution to the world and humanity solely in terms of the priorities of a modern Western ideology that is centred on progress and technological advancement. Such an evaluation, Keeler argues, obscures what is actually the remarkable achievment of Islamic civilisation: that it developed and maintained a holistic, sustainable way of life that was manifested in diverse cultures and ethnicities across the Afro-Eurasian world, and survived the rise and fall of empires and dynasties to last for over a thousand years. He proposes that what made this possible was a manifestation of the Qurʾanic principle of mīzān, which demanded the maintaining of a balance between the spiritual, social and material needs of humanity; a balance which guaranteed a harmonious relationship with the natural world.

In this seminar, the principle of mīzān was explored in terms of its manifestations in multifarious areas, especially in so far as it has historically informed education and social and intellectual life in Islamic civilisation. The seminar opened with a welcoming address by Dr Paul Anderson, Deputy Director the Centre, followed by an introduction by Ahmed Paul Keeler. The morning was then taken up with two lectures, the first entitled ‘Adab and the Education of the Whole Person’, was given by Dr Talal Al Azem, Mohammed Noah Fellow at the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies. The second lecture, entitled ‘The Prophet’s Way of Mīzān: Manifestations in the Realm of Knowledge’, was given by Hasan Spiker, a researcher in Islamic philosophy and logic at the Tabah Foundation. The afternoon comprised two panel sessions which assembled sholars and specialists, including Dr Karim Lahham, Senior Research Fellow a the Tabah Foundation, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Keeper of Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library (retired), award-winning architect ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Wakil and Dr Mohamad Hammour, economist and professor at the Ibn Khaldoun University of Istanbul. The panels allowed for a broadening of the discussion to other aspects of mīzān, and responses to questions posed by the audience.

Overall, it was felt that the seminar was a first step in opening up a fresh and potentially rich approach to studying the history of Islamic thought and culture.