One of the joys of being in London is the easy access to its magnificent free museums and their fabulous treasures. Here one can wander about leisurely and gently allow your spirit to soar as you marvel at the historical artefacts that have been collected assiduously from all parts of the world.
In the British Library, there is a Qur’an dating back to the early 8th century and it always gives me goose bumps when I compare it to a modern Qur’an and can identify the very same passage there.
A few years back, the Director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, published a glorious book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects” in which he selected 100 pieces from the Museum’s unrivalled collection of artefacts to help tell the story of humanity. It also featured as a major BBC Radio 4 series (which can still be heard at the link provided).
So, what are we to make of the news over the past couple of weeks that followers of the self-styled Islamic State have been proudly showing off video footage of their destruction of pre-Islamic objects and monuments in Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud?
The actions of these cultural vandals raises so many questions.
The early Islamic civilisation was renowned for its patronage for learning and science. In his landmark 1973 book and BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, Dr Jacob Bronowski, commented that those early Muslims had built:
“…an empire of spectacular strength and grace, while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages. In this proselytising religion, the science of the conquered nations was gathered with a kleptomaniac zest…The Masjid-I-Jami (The Friday Mosque) in Isfahan is one of the statuesque monuments of early Islam. In centres like these, the knowledge of Greece and of the East was treasured, absorbed and diversified…It may be a quality in Islam as a religion, which, although it strove to convert people, did not despise their knowledge.”
The contrast with what is happening today in parts of Iraq and Syria is quite depressing. Whereas those early Muslims were builders and gathered and expanded existing knowledge and in the process left a legacy that has benefited humanity as a whole, these modern followers are enthusiastically seeking to destroy the knowledge of our past.
And it is to this “Islamic state” that so many young British Muslims are travelling to give their allegiance. Sometimes there just are no words.