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Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit: A Call for Action

Book Title: Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit (Manifesto) 
Author: Bruce B. Lawrence  
Publisher: Wiley Blackwell, 2021 
Pages: 192 
Book Review by RAJEEV KUMAR 

 Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit is a groundbreaking book by Bruce B. Lawrence that provides a fresh perspective on Islamic history and culture. The author examines the cosmopolitan spirit of Islam, which has allowed for a diverse range of influences to be incorporated into the religion throughout history. Lawrence argues that this spirit has led to the creation of a unique Islamic civilization that has been shaped by the encounter with different cultures and traditions. 

Bruce B Lawrence has divided his book into six chapters, each exploring a different aspect of the concept of Islamicate Cosmopolitanism. The three main terms he focuses on are “Islamicate,” “cosmopolitanism,” and “spirit.” 

The term “Islamicate” refers to the cultural and intellectual traditions of the Islamic world, including those of non-Muslims who were part of Islamic societies. This includes the cultural, scientific, and artistic achievements of the Islamic world that have been transmitted to other cultures. 

“Cosmopolitanism” is the idea that people can live together in a world that is diverse and pluralistic. It emphasizes the importance of mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding between different cultures and communities. 

The term “spirit” refers to the intangible, inner qualities that make up the essence of Islamicate Cosmopolitanism. This includes qualities like openness, curiosity, empathy, and a desire to learn from other cultures. 

In each chapter, Lawrence examines different aspects of Islamicate Cosmopolitanism, such as the importance of language, travel, and translation in fostering cross-cultural exchange. He also explores the role of literature, art, and music in creating a shared cultural heritage, as well as the challenges and opportunities of living in a pluralistic world. 

Lawrence refers to his book as a manifesto because he sees it as a call to action. He argues that in the face of growing intolerance and division in the world, we need to embrace the values of Islamicate Cosmopolitanism in order to create a more just and peaceful world. By highlighting the contributions of historical figures like al-Biruni and contemporary artists like MF Hussain, he hopes to inspire readers to become ICS exemplars themselves and contribute to a more cosmopolitan world.  

The Interplay of Longing and Belonging in the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit and its Connection to the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam Idea 

Lawrence delves into the themes of ‘longing’ and ‘belonging’ and expresses how they pertain to the Islamicate cosmopolitan spirit. He says longing, in this context, refers to the desire for a connection to a larger cosmopolitan community, one that transcends borders and boundaries. It is a sense of yearning for a world in which cultural, linguistic, and religious differences are celebrated rather than feared. This longing is driven by a recognition of the interconnectedness of humanity and the importance of embracing diversity.  

Belonging, on the other hand, refers to the sense of attachment and rootedness in a particular place or culture. It is the feeling of being part of a community that shares common values, traditions, and language. This sense of belonging is crucial for individuals to have a stable sense of identity and a sense of home. 

Lawrence argues that the Islamicate cosmopolitan spirit combines both of these concepts, allowing individuals to simultaneously long for a larger, more inclusive community while also belonging to their specific cultural or religious traditions. He suggests that this cosmopolitan spirit is not a rejection of tradition, but rather an expansion of it. It allows individuals to hold onto their cultural and religious roots while also engaging with the broader world in a spirit of curiosity and openness. 

This expression of longing and belonging is akin to the Vedic phrase ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means “The World Is One Family”. Thus, Lawrence’s emphasis on the concepts of “longing” and “belonging” can be seen as an expression of the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam idea.  

 Exploring the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit through a Philosophical Lens 

Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit can be understood from a philosophical perspective as a form of cosmopolitanism that is rooted in Islamic civilization. Cosmopolitanism is a philosophical concept that refers to a worldview that values the diversity of human cultures and promotes the idea of a shared human identity. It is grounded in the belief that all human beings belong to a common moral community and that they should interact with each other in a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance, and empathy. 

Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit, as Lawrence describes it, is a distinct form of cosmopolitanism that emerged within the Islamic world, which is characterized by the fusion of Islamic and Hellenic thought, as well as the influences of Persian, Indian, and other cultures. This cosmopolitan spirit, according to Lawrence, is embodied in the various fields of Islamicate knowledge, including literature, science, art, and philosophy, as well as in the social and political practices of Islamic societies. 

From a philosophical perspective, Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit can be seen as a manifestation of the ethical principles of Islam, which emphasize the values of unity, justice, compassion, and tolerance. These values are reflected in Islamicate thought and culture, which have historically been characterized by a respect for diversity and a spirit of intellectual curiosity and inquiry. This is evidenced by the works of Islamicate scholars such as Al-Biruni and Ibn Khaldun, who engaged with non-Islamic cultures and ideas and sought to integrate them into Islamic thought. 

The Barzakh Logic of Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit: Exploring the Exemplars of Al-Biruni and MF Hussain 

Bruce B. Lawrence explores the concept of barzakh logic as a key element in the formation and evolution of the Islamicate cosmopolitan spirit. Barzakh is a Persian word, which appears in surah Rahaman in Quran that refers to a space or interval between two entities, such as the barrier and bridge between the world of the living and the dead. 

According to Lawrence, barzakh logic allows for the creation of new forms of knowledge and understanding that emerge from the intersection of different cultural and intellectual traditions. This logic allows individuals to move beyond traditional boundaries and to explore new ways of thinking and being. The Islamicate cosmopolitan spirit, therefore, is not just about the coexistence of different cultures and religions but about the creation of new possibilities and opportunities through the merging and blending of different traditions. 

Lawrence argues that Muslims have long been adept at navigating the Barzakh and that this has been a key factor in the development of Islamic civilization. Lawrence identifies al-Biruni, a medieval Muslim scholar, as a prime exemplar of someone who embodied the ICS and was able to navigate the Barzakh between Islamic and Indian cultures. 

Lawrence also highlights the work of contemporary artist MF Hussain as an exemplar of the ICS in action. Hussain, who was a Muslim but also drew inspiration from Hindu and other non-Muslim traditions, created art that blurred the boundaries between different cultures and challenged narrow-minded thinking. Hussain’s work serves as an example of the potential of the ICS to bridge cultural divides and create new possibilities.  

The Longing for Belonging: Exploring the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit from a Psychological Perspective 

Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit can be analyzed from a psychological perspective as well. The concept of belonging is an essential part of human psychology, and it plays a significant role in the development of personal and collective identities. Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit emphasizes the importance of belonging to a wider community, a civilization that spans beyond national, ethnic, and religious boundaries. 

Lawrence suggests that the Islamicate civilization is characterized by a “culture of overlapping identities,” where individuals may identify with multiple communities and traditions simultaneously. This culture of overlapping identities can create a sense of longing for something beyond one’s immediate surroundings, a desire to connect with a broader civilization that shares common values and ideas. This longing for belonging can lead to a sense of openness to diversity and a willingness to engage with different cultures and traditions. 

Additionally, Lawrence highlights the psychological impact of travel and mobility in shaping the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit. Travelling to different parts of the world, encountering diverse cultures and peoples, and experiencing different ways of life can expand one’s horizons and increase their sense of empathy towards others. This exposure to diversity can also foster a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn more about the world and the people who inhabit it. 

The Role of Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit in the Development of Islamic History and Civilization 

The ICS as a concept is an attempt to understand the cultural and intellectual history of Islam as a civilizational force that transcends geographic boundaries and is shaped by cultural encounters with other civilizations. 

Lawrence argues that Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit emerged in the Islamic world during the Medieval period, particularly in the Abbasid Caliphate, which was known for its intellectual and cultural vibrancy. The Abbasid period witnessed the translation of Greek, Persian, and Indian texts into Arabic, which had a profound impact on Islamic culture and intellectual history. These translations led to the emergence of new fields of knowledge, including astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and medicine. 

Lawrence contends that the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit was characterized by an openness to cultural and intellectual diversity, a willingness to engage with other civilizations, and a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. He argues that this spirit was driven by a sense of cosmopolitanism, which allowed Muslims to transcend their particularistic identities and engage with the wider world. 

In Lawrence’s view, Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit represents a unique and valuable contribution to world civilization. He argues that it offers a model for how different civilizations can engage with each other in a spirit of mutual respect and intellectual curiosity. He also suggests that the concept has relevance for contemporary debates about multiculturalism and globalization, as it offers a way of thinking about cultural exchange that is neither homogenizing nor exclusionary. 

 The Legacy of Bhakti-Sufi Movement Reflected in Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit 

Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit by Bruce Lawrence is a call for a movement that is cultural, spiritual, and religious, emphasizing the importance of bridging gaps between diverse cultures and religions. This movement is characterized by a fusion of ideas, a recognition of diversity and plurality, and an openness to dialogue and exchange. The book also highlights the significance of the Bhakti-Sufi tradition in shaping the Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit. 

The Bhakti-Sufi movement emerged in the Indian subcontinent in the medieval period and is characterized by the convergence of Hindu and Muslim mystical traditions. The movement emphasized the importance of love, devotion, and inner spirituality rather than religious dogma and rituals. It also promoted interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. 

Marginalizing Non-Islamic Cultures in “Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit”: A Critique

In my critique of the book Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit, I contend that Bruce Lawrence’s emphasis on Islam appears to overshadow the significance of other cultures and their central role in world history. Instead, he positions Islam as the preeminent and driving force. Additionally, Lawrence’s focus primarily on elite history overlooks the role of common people in the barzakh, and he fails to acknowledge the contributions of notable South Asian thinkers and figures who can be considered Barzakh or ICS exemplars, such as Guru Nanak, Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, and others. Although Lawrence does not mention these names in his book ICS, I believe that he also included them and they can be considered as ICS exemplars according to his theory. 

To clarify, while Bruce Lawrence does emphasize the importance of Islam, I believe that he does so within the broader Islamicate context and as a transactional phase in world history. However, his concentration on Islam does lead to the marginalization of other cultures and their influence in shaping world history, which could be a limitation of his analysis.

Conclusion  

Lawrence’s book presents a compelling vision of Islamic civilization as a dynamic, diverse, and open-minded tradition that has much to offer the world today. His emphasis on the ICS and the Barzakh exemplars, including al-Biruni and MF Hussain, provides a useful framework for understanding the historical and contemporary significance of this tradition. 

One of the strengths of the book is Lawrence’s ability to synthesize a vast amount of material from diverse fields, including history, philosophy, literature, and cultural studies. He also draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, as well as personal experiences and anecdotes, to provide a nuanced and engaging analysis of the topic. 

Lawrence’s concept of Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit is a valuable contribution to the study of Islamic culture and intellectual history. By highlighting the ways in which Muslims have engaged with other civilizations and embraced diversity, Lawrence challenges narrow and essentialized views of Islam and offers a more nuanced and complex understanding of the Islamic world as a civilizational force. 

Overall, Islamicate Cosmopolitan Spirit is a highly informative and thought-provoking book that offers a fresh perspective on Islam and its role in shaping the world. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the history and culture of the Islamic world, as well as those seeking to understand the challenges and opportunities of globalisation in the 21st century. 

 

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