The Silk Road has long caught the imagination of travelers and has hence been the subject of interest by many writers, the majority of whom at least in English have hailed from the West. Iftikhar Malik, a professor of modern history at Bath Spa University, in his 2020 book, The Silk Road and Beyond, offers a personal perspective on contemporary travels as a Muslim scholar to Central Asia and beyond. Malik draws on four decades of travel and writes from the lived experiences of a curious academic.
For avid collectors during the gilded age Gentile Bellini’s portrait of a seated Turkish scribe came as a revelation, opening a window onto heretofore unfamiliar elegance, hinting at a connection between their beloved Italian Renaissance and the magnificence of contemporary Ottoman court. This same generation read and swooned over Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam. They traveled to Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus, collecting repoussé brass works, calligraphic tombstones, Iznik tiles and Tabriz carpets. In this rarefied milieu of Calouste Gulbenkian, J Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stuart Gardner (who swooped up the Bellini), no one was more enthusiastic about the arts of Islam than Bernard Berenson, the high priest of the Italian Renaissance.
“To this day the monument remains nearly unscathed—a meager consolation in the face of such suffering.” The monument in question is the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, erected in about 705 by the young and energetic Umayyad (the dynasty began in 661) caliph al-Walid I (705-15) on the site of a Christian church which he had ordered razed to the ground.
Few families have had as much success shaping history as the Abbasids. Descended from one of the Prophet Muhammad’s four uncles, they used their reputation for probity and piety to take over and rule the Arab Empire for 37 reigns. Deftly managing family feuds, they enjoyed a century of unimaginable splendor, followed by four centuries of highs and lows. They survived by pitting powerful external forces against one another: Arabs versus Persians, Northern Arabs versus the Southerners, Muslims versus non-Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’a. They allied with Charlemagne to put pressure on the Byzantines, with the Tang Dynasty to contain the Turks. They were the ultimate dynasty of fixers.
The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.
Syed Masood’s The Bad Muslim Discount is named after the rationale the capricious landlord gives for allowing one of the main characters to live there; they meet in that run-down building nearly halfway through the novel, after they are propelled to life in the US. Surprisingly, it is not a love story, but rather gathers more and more interconnections as it proceeds. Anvar Faris is a clever Pakistani boy (the “bad Muslim”) who struggles against the expectations of his religious mother, and Safwa is a girl left to contend with her abusive father after her mother and brother die in Afghanistan.
Khalil, a young Belgian, is set to blow himself up near France’s national stadium, in the outskirts of Paris, along with his best friend. Khalil reaches for the detonator of his explosive vest in a packed suburban train. There is a twist: he survives, and he wasn’t meant to.