Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Monk, the Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun - Saeed Akhtar Mirza

I bought this book entirely on the basis of what I heard at Saaed Mirza's talk with Mohana Krishna Indraganti and Vijay Kumar at the Hyderabad Literary Festival. Impressed by Saeed Mirza's views on many things I wanted to see what this book was all about, bought one, got it signed and got down to reading it.

'The Monk, The Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun' (Harper Collins, Rs.450, 247 p) is a novel, thinly veiled as one, which deals with the western world's gradual cover up, and at times downright plagiarisation, of the original work done by the Islamic civilisation in the periods 800 to 1300 A.D. or thereabouts on practcially everything - astronomy, medicine, mathematics, music, art, literature, science, chemistry, alchemy, architecture and what not. The novel starts with four students of English Literature in a University in the USA - an Indian, an African, an American and an Arab - who are studying Dante's 'Divine Comedy' in their class. Omar puts forward some material that he has found in the 'Book of Ascent' which shows similarities between what Dante wrote and what has been written much earlier in the Islamic civilisation, a hint of plagiarisation. Though the Professor does not take him seriously, the four friends decide to follow up the thought and get together to make up a 'House of Wisdom', a weekly meeting place for the four, where these issues are researched and presented.

The basis for Omar's theory of the Islamic civilisation's contribution comes from a small document in his possession, a diary of one of his ancestors who lived in the 12th century. The diary has details of conversations between a Christian monk, a well-read Islamic Moor and the Arab, Omar's ancestor, as they get together to translate some important documents. The four students read from these diaries and understand what went on on those times, through the recorded conversations.A third string is fitted in, of the Islamic scholar Abu Rehan in the 900 A.D.'s and his student Rehana. Abu Rehan's work in Mathematics, Astronomy, Science and many other subjects, his contemporaries, Ibn al-Haythan, Ibn Sina, Musa al-Khwarizmi, and their work in medicine, surgery, fractions, laws and a host of other subjects are an astounding body of work.

Using all three strings (and a fourth, a soliloquy) to propel the story forward, Saeed Mirza, with amazing research that is condensed brilliantly and fictionalised for the average non-academic reader, tells the story of how the West has over the years taken credit for much of what has been already discovered by the Islamic civilisation, the Hindi civilisation, the Sumerian civilisation. He talks of how Persia and other Islamic states were hubs of these 'Houses of Wisdom' where scholars from Hind and many other places congregated. He convincingly tells the story of how Islamic scholars had a wonderful period of creativity where they polished and fine tuned many theories and subjects already being propounded in the East. A period which somehow faded later on.

It is a fantastic tale. Saeed Mirza's research is amazing and the devices he uses to tell his tale are wonderful. He tells these three parallel stories from different periods of times, and gets the main message across clearly - that the Islamic civilisation is not one of barbarians, is not one that needs to be civilised, but actually was way ahead of other civilisations, particularly the West, which systematically destroyed, plagiarised and covered up its contribution. In many ways it is a tale of how the Orient and the Middle East has always focussed on creating, on knowledge, while the West has been actively involved in marketing them, something which it still does.

I had no problem with the fact that Saeed Mirza spoke through the characters, his research coming across in long paras of dialogue because it was interesting and was all contained in 247 pages. Would it have been better as a non-fiction book? It might have needed more research, more seriousness, would have entered far more needless debates, and would have reached far fewer people, which would not have served the purpose of instigating a thought - which I suspect is the purpose behind this book. With an intriguing title like 'The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun' the book is certain to have a great readership, of serious readers. There is tons of content, of intelligent thought and I loved the idea of a 'House of Wisdom'.

Saeed Mirza once delves half-heartedly into making the characters come alive as people, with a love affair between Linda and Omar, which for all reasons could have been avoided as well, but what the hell, it does no harm to have some romance. More so since the message gets across crystal clear, and this could very well be the start of a debate, a questioning, a start of many such works on the contribution of the Indian civilisation as well, and a setting right of what the world has been led to believe. Great job Saeed Mirza, for bringing out such a deviously woven novel to tell the story of an advanced civilisation that did not get its due. 


Vinod Ekbote said...

Great review, Hari. I would like to read it so please lend me the book.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Vinod. Will certainly lend it to you.

Rajendra said...

My list of week if possible. Sounds very interesting.

Anonymous said...

A sympathetic review. Needs to seen in context of 'Orientalism' and the vast literature it produced since 1970's (Edward Said, et el.). Orientalism attracted students in 80's and 90's, and must say that Saeed only presents stuff that is academically stale, weak with research.
As for the narrative- reminded of Enid Blyton. Would recommend this to 8-10th std students.