As I walked through the ‘sacred relics’ chamber of the Topkapi Palace, I was mesmerised by the melodious recitation of the Qur’an. At first I thought it was a recording because of the consistency of the tone and pitch of the recitation, until I walked past the booth where the reciter set and continued reciting as if there was nothing around him that mattered. It was just him and his recitation of those beautiful verses. But as I walked through those chambers my attention was drawn to the common trend I noticed on so many artefacts. These artefacts comprised of various personal effects of the prophet (peace be upon him), his closest companions, and immediate family. It was a collection of impressively ornate pieces alongside some really rudimentary looking items.
The embellished ones had two dates indicated, whereas all the more simplistic items that included actual garments worn by some of the earliest luminaries of Islam had only a single date. The difference was painfully clear. In its original state, all those items were plain and practical. They weren’t embellished in gemstones, or silver mouldings, nor gold detail. For example, the drinking bowl of the prophet (pbuh) was a regular wooden drinking bowl that he used for water. The second date I noticed confirmed the period during which the silver embellishment on the outside was attached to the bowl. The differences between the two dates were generally 7th century for the original item, and 13th to 17th century for the embellishment.
The 7th Century was when the prophet (pbuh) lived, and the 13th Century was when many recognise the end of the Golden Age of Islam. Whether or not that was a coincidence, I don’t know. But what is striking for me is that it does coincide with a period that marks the eventual slide of the Muslims from being at the forefront of progress across almost every sphere of human development. While my views are largely conjecture (since I lack any inclination to conduct a formal study of the subject) the important point that stands out for me is that the embellished and ritualistic way of life that we see among Muslims today was not evidenced in these early artefacts of the greatest personalities of Islam.
At some point, being so accomplished, we lost our grounding and became obsessed with demonstrating to the world, internal and external to the Islamic empire, the extent of our success. The substance of what we knew or practiced was no longer sufficient. It’s almost blasphemous in my mind.
I find it difficult to process the arrogance that would go along with the decision to take a humble water bowl of the prophet of Islam and turn it into an ornate mantel piece presumably out of love for its owner? Surely such love should be the preservation of the way of life of the prophet himself, rather than to indulge in excess that he specifically and boldly opposed in everything that he did? But this was no longer the case. Even their swords we encrusted in jewels and gold. Why?
I found this disturbing to the point where I worked my way hurriedly through the chambers and left. My longest pause was at the display that contained two simple garments, one that belonged to the daughter of the prophet, and another that belonged to one of his companions (may peace be upon them all). These remained in their original humble states, with visible patchwork where it was mended, and a natural wear from its use. This resonated with me. This reflected the simplicity that epitomises the humility with which they lived, despite having the resources of an empire at their disposal.
Ostentatious displays of religiosity has become the hallmark of many Muslim communities. This is not an echo of the origins of Islam, but rather of its downfall. But this is not a flaw limited to Muslims. Every religion, and every culture I encounter these days has similar failings. The world is full of indulgence and selfish promotion. Even in charity we find ways of promoting ourselves or our businesses. Sincerity comes a distant second place to self-promotion.
The same is true for life in general. We’re so easily distracted by how we’re wanting to be perceived that we spend more time developing that appearance than investing in the substance that makes the real difference in our lives and the lives of those around us. Islam and Muslims are under attack because we’ve largely departed from this path of simplicity and sincerity in our application of Islamic principles and practices. The same is true for those that are more ostentatious than they are sincere. They are also despised by the people that don’t subscribe to such elitism, so it stands to reason that the same would be true for religious zealots. It’s just a pity that those zealots are the ones defining the perception of a way of life that offers immense peace and moderation for a world steeped in self-indulgence and excess.