The connection between Baku and Zagreb says much about the challenges and opportunities that we face in an increasingly violent and polarizing world.
As we traveled between these two cities, I thought of the timeless wisdom of Khoja Akhmed Yassawi (d. 1166), Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240) Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), Sarı Saltıq (d. 1298) and Yunus Emre (d. 1320) whose ideas of spiritual wayfaring, peace and compassion transformed an entire landscape from Central Asia to the Balkans and Southern Europe. These spiritual luminaries lived at times of war, violence and destruction. They witnessed the horrors of the crusading armies as well as the Mongol invasions. They experienced the tribulations of life like any other mortal. But they rose over the petty concerns and banalities of earthly existence to search for the meaning of life and left something perennially valuable for generations to come. Despite the destructive tendencies of the present times, their teachings continue to light the path of millions of people around the world.
In Baku we attended the Alliance of Civilizations Forum, initiated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan together with the then Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero in 2004, and renewed our commitment to working for peace, tolerance and inclusiveness against racism, discrimination and violence. Samuel P. Hungtington’s thesis of a clash of civilizations has lost much of its theoretical appeal. But unfortunately it has many believers and practitioners around the world from Syria and Myanmar to Europe and some in U.S. elections. War, violence and extremism bring nothing but destruction and leave nothing to speak of civilization as we have seen in the destruction of the historical heritage of Iraq and Syria.
Flying from Baku to Zagreb, one cannot think of the diversity of geography and people but also what unites them at a higher level of meaning. Ibn Khaldun once said that “geography is destiny” and one cannot run away from it. It could be a curse or a blessing. It all depends on what one makes of it. We bring our own blessings and carry our own curses.
In addition to paying an official visit to Zagreb, we also participated in an extremely meaningful event hosted by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic to celebrate the first centennial of the recognition of Islam as a religion in Croatia. The event carried all the flavors of what one might call European-Balkan Islam. It began with the recitation of the Quran, continued with a philharmonic orchestra and attended by people of different faiths and ethnicities. The speakers emphasized the importance of living together as people of different faith traditions. The ethics of co-existence, which was once called “La Convivencia” in Andalusia in medieval Spain, does not stipulate giving up one’s identity, religion or culture to live with others in peace and harmony. On the contrary, authenticity and one’s commitment to one’s own identity is key to maintaining peaceful relations between different communities.
Ibn al-Arabi, the great Andalusian Sufi and sage, describes this as “unity in diversity.” With his usual precision and wit, he offers a perspective of unity and inclusiveness on the remarkable diversity of the world. But he also warns against monolithic and “purist” interpretations because unity is not uniformity and diversity does not necessarily involve chaos and disharmony. The beauty of this outlook is reflected in Islamic tiles, arabesque designs and Turkish carpets – while each line and color maintains its integrity, they create a feast of color and design and give us an experience of unity in diversity in action.
The Muslim world needs to reclaim this outlook more than ever. The remarkable diversity and richness of Islamic intellectual, cultural and artistic traditions cannot be sacrificed to the whims of a materialistic and egotistic culture or the violence and destruction of a handful of extremists and terrorists.
Here we need to remember one of the key teachings of Khoja Akhmed Yassawi, who said that without wisdom’ (hikmah), all judgment (hukm) is a soulless directive and a cold legal order. We need wisdom to understand the meaning behind religious commands and prohibitions. In today’s world there is much judgment in our lives, but so little wisdom.
Wisdom teaches us to see beyond appearances and act with a state of mind that takes care of the mind, soul and heart all at once. It shows how reason, love, intelligence, compassion, justice and peace can foster a life of reason and virtue without giving up on what we believe.
Whether in the steppes of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Africa, the Balkans or the rest of Europe, we have to recover this wisdom to live a life worthy of the dignity of our humanity.