Islam, Bulliets and Braille

One of the more important contributions to serious thinking about the deliberately misunderstood history of Muslims and Christians is a short, profound book by Richard Bulliet called The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (Columbia 2004). The book’s central observation is that the term ‘Judæo-Christian Civilisation,’ which trips so easily off the American and European tongue today as an uninterrogated orthodoxy, is itself actually rather surprising, a recent construct which would have seemed a bizarre hyphenation of opposites for much of the last two millennia. And he proposes that at least as (and perhaps much more) fruitful a hyphenated category for exploration is ‘Islamo-Christian,’ the pairing of great religious cultures that shared the Near East, the Mediterranean basin, parts of Africa and much of Middle East for well over a millennium, and now effectively embrace between them about half the world’s population. He writes of the “prolonged and fateful intertwining of sibling societies enjoying sovereignty in neighbouring geographical regions and following parallel historical trajectories.” It is, he argues, a clear and effective retort to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, that binary, pessimistic, determinist and essentialising account of the two cultures first published in 1993 – an account that is rendered by an Islamo-Christian analysis, as Bulliet puts it, “definitionally nonsensical.”

His 2004 book is an examination of the history of those two cultures, not just in terms of shared history, but in terms of different reactions to the same political, climatic, economic and social pressures. The book is invigorating and though-provoking in tracing how different cultural systems behave differently in what are broadly the same external circumstances – but also in suggesting how watching those paired trajectories of change together can add greatly to our deeper understanding of both.

For very good reasons, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization has become something of a classic. Bulliet is a fine writer of history, but his book is not simply a history, and indeed it is a smaller book for a broader public than others he has written: it had a purpose.  It was written after 9/11, as a response to an urge “to do something useful,” and starts with a clear statement of the idea that the title is intended to evoke. “Despite the enmity that has often divided them, Islam and the West have common roots and share much of their history. Their confrontation today arises not from essential differences, but from a long and wilful determination to deny their kinship.” This perception, at the same time counterintuitive and blindingly obvious, has seldom been more important than it is today.

The British Council in the USA and ISPU (the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding) have just jointly published a policy brief with the same title, by Richard Bulliet. Its scope is much narrower than the book from which it takes its title. It focuses on the history of the two faiths as religious traditions more exclusively than did the book, and is clearly addressed to an American audience that all too easily denies commonalities between them. In this paper he is more concerned with Islam and Christianity than with Islam and the West. But its purpose is made very clear at the end: “Islam and Christianity are now, as they always have been, closely – if not harmoniously – linked faith systems that are fully capable of developing peaceful and constructive interrelationships if given the opportunity.” Quite so.

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Ten days ago I was in Marrakech, and visited the OAPAM school for the blind, where the British Council is organizing a teacher training event for teachers of the blind, in January. We had a warm welcome and a fascinating tour, which ended in a classroom where half a dozen children in their first year of school were learning to read Braille. Encouraged by her teacher, a charming little girl called Miriam showed us how she reads. Her brow clenched in concentration, she moved her fingers slowly across the blue card punched with groups of little bumps. “Ba ..” she began, continuing “… alif … ba: Babun.” I listened in amazement. Braille, it appears, not only records fus7a, as I would expect, but records the nunation, the tanwin, at the end of the word, the tiny diacritical mark like a pair of tadpoles over the second ba which tells you that it is an indefinite nominative. This isn’t written in newspapers, or in any modern printing except the Qu’ran – and children’s reading primers. No reason to be surprised, I suppose, but it added another layer to my understanding of literacy in Morocco, to discover that (as is presumably the case in all countries where Arabic is the language of reading and writing), blind children learn to read not only the consonants and semi-vowels, but also the little diacriticals, fatha, damma and kasra, through the tips of their small fingers. It makes me both puzzled and humble.

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Two further notes about this blog: the first is that selections from Mercurius are being run on the OpenDemocracy website under the title Bliss Was it in That Dawn to Be Next-Door; and second, that the recent education lecture that I blogged about (and of which the text is at the blog’s masthead, under Arab Spring and Youth) has been canvassed in Al-Fanar, the excellent new journal of Arab higher education which I recommend.


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