A conundrum occupies many a Muslim thinker today: what steps must we take to reinstate the glorious supremacy of Islam as witnessed in its Golden Age a thousand years ago. For some, the answer is the resurrection of a caliphate to rule over the Muslim world with justice; thus do they yearn to confer the title of Sultan on their favourite authoritarian politician, in whom they have invested all hope. For others, the answer lies in the purification of hearts, in the masses reforming themselves to become an obedient population, charitable, kind, forgiving, fair and tolerant, that shun all immoralities, living upright lives, inspired by the light of faith.
Alas, neither group is ever willing to entertain the hardest question of all: was there really ever a Golden Age at all? A generation of young men and women today now hunger for the chivalry of a bygone age, inspired by a long-running costume soap-opera streamed on Netflix in multiple languages; some people, apparently, even clothe themselves in period dress to watch each episode, wielding a sword or axe as they cheer on the pious protagonists on their latest mission to show modern man just how far he has fallen.
It never seems to occur to the optimistic idealists that their vision of the past might be unhinged. They are not alone, of course, for every civilisation maintains a nostalgic memory of a Golden Age, way back when, before it slipped into degeneracy or stagnation. Such utopias are imagined by the left and right, religious and sectarian, industrialist and environmentalist with near equal enthusiasm.
We all dream of the good old days we think we remember from our childhood, recalling everything that seemed to be so positive, forgetting anything that might have been negative. As our children reach for Google to help them with their homework, we find ourselves muttering: ‘In our day, we had textbooks, encyclopaedias, libraries and, er, Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM.’ When they beg us for a smartphone, like all their friends have, we find ourselves reminiscing about that era before the internet, when life was boring and slow. That was our own Golden Age, so glorious and true, devoid of the imagined decadence of today.
Naturally now and then are different, for the world is constantly changing. Perhaps another time was a better period for mankind. Perhaps a time before we pumped millions of tonnes of carbon monoxide into the earth’s atmosphere was better for humanity… ah yes, the Green Golden Age of subsistence farming, when everything was natural and pure, even if millions of people did die of starvation, preventable disease and exposure to extreme cold. It is not necessarily wrong to maintain a positive appraisal of the past, but we must nevertheless recognise that the past like the present was complex, inconsistent and varied, depending on who you were, where you lived and what your status was.
In the era known as the Islamic Golden Age, there were indeed brilliant thinkers who developed amazing inventions and contributed to the intellectual annals of the world, setting in motion ideas that would last millennia, sometimes forming the foundation for all that we call progress today. Whether their efforts can be attributed to civilisation as a whole is another matter, for in the same periods that they lived and worked we also encounter political turmoil, religious intolerance, war, slavery and persecution. Indeed, many of the great figures celebrated today as the backbone of our glorious intellectual ascent were themselves executed by the political establishment on the grounds of heresy.
Just as we myth-make for the personalities of the present, so we fabricate memories of the past. In our circles, we celebrate the legend of the great and chivalrous warrior who liberated the Holy Land from brutal Crusaders, often holding him up as an impeccable model of tolerance and piety. Few care to remember his execution of unarmed men or his enslavement of the Christian inhabitants of the liberated city. Still fewer recall the execution of supposed heretics during his reign or the destruction of the libraries of Cairo and the hundreds of thousands of works they contained. So too do we lionise the rulers of Islamic Spain, imagining an awesome paradise, unmatched in the ancient world. In reality, in some periods there were great examples of coexistence and tolerance, and in others, of intolerance, oppression and persecution.
It is easy to appreciate how such myth-making occurs. In our own times we see it happening before our eyes, as devout populations idolise talented politicians and religious sages, conferring on them unrealistic expectations, choosing to believe in them as an act of communion, instead of seeing them as fellow men and women, not much different from ourselves. This new-fangled orthodoxy of ours is grounded in opposition: opposition to our presumed opponents; opposition to the state we find ourselves in; opposition to prevailing conditions. Our yearning for our Golden Age is founded on much the same mentality: a vision of a better time, when we were not afflicted as we are now.
What does the Muslim thinker do if he looks into history and discovers that the civil wars that trouble him today were there too, and from the earliest times? What does he do when he discovers that the decline of his people did not start with European colonialism? Perhaps the response is not to invest so much in an imagined Golden Age, and instead recognise that every period of history — our own time included — is complex and uneven. Perhaps he will find in ancient times some great men and women who achieved great things; perhaps he will equally find them in his own time.
Perhaps pining after an unachievable ideal of a forgotten age is unhelpful to his spiritual growth; perhaps he has to find where he fits into the present. Perhaps he has to make peace with the world around him, and try to understand the world with the tools at his disposal, realising that he was born into this time and not another for a reason. Perhaps now could be his own Golden Age, if only he could find contentment in the blessings he has been showered with.