The 7th Session of Liangxiang Forum | The Golden Age of Islam and Lessons for a Post-COVID World

On the morning of July 9th, 2021, the seventh session of Liangxiang Forum organized by the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU) in Spring 2021 was held at Conference Room 205 of the Central Main Building, with the theme of “The Golden Age of Islam and Lessons for a Post-COVID World”. The lecture was presented by Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and hosted by Wang Tingyi, Assistant Professor at IIAS. The guest speakers included Louis W. Goodman, Professor at American University’s School of International Service, Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor at American University’s School of International Service, and Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed from the Senate of Pakistan. Teachers and students at IIAS as well as external participants attended the lecture online and offline.

Prof. Akbar Ahmed started his lecture by defining the time span and geographic range concerning the period in question. The period began during the reign of Harun al-Rashid and ended in 1258 with the Mongolian Sack of Baghdad. The geographic range in discussion of the lecture covered an area across Asia, Africa and Europe, with Andalusia in the westernmost, North Africa to the southernmost and present-day Uzbekistan at the easternmost.

Prof. Ahmed appreciated the major contributions the philosophers from the Golden Age of Islam made to human civilizations. They may be religious philosophers or political scientists, who widely read and learnt and laid foundations for medical science, mathematics, physics, astronomy and other modern sciences. Thanks to their translations of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, knowledge of Ancient Greece was introduced to Europe. Prof. Ahmed introduced in details Ibn Rushd, “the Islamic scholar who gave us modern philosophy” as one American philosopher called him. Ibn Rushd authored over one hundred books, and the world has benefited from the intellectual legacy he left behind.
According Prof. Ahmed, the Islamic Golden Age was an era of inclusiveness, humanities and respect for knowledge when diverse elements were allowed to exist and grow in harmony. Consequently, people back then enjoyed a stronger sense of identity, which in turn nourished the social harmony. The professor stressed that the inclusive Chinese civilization has been able to grow richer and more colorful by accepting other civilizations and learning from them, such as Buddhism and Islam.

Prof. Ahmed suggested taking inspirations from the Golden Age of Islam. Civilizations mustn’t get estranged or isolated from each other; instead, they need to sit in dialogs and draw on each other’s forte to make up one’s own shortcomings, for a common development. What’s more, inside a pluralistic society, communication should be encouraged and barrier of cognition broken up; it’s the best way to realize a harmonious development of society. Trapped in the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has no other choices but to draw on lessons from histories, and human beings as a whole have no other choices but to have more cross-cultural exchanges and dialogs, to triumph over the virus and see a sustainable development.

After the lecture, the guest speakers made brilliant comments. Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed saw something in common between the Forum’s title “Liangxiang” and the lecture’s theme. “Liangxiang”, literally means being at different places and comes from a Tang poem, reading “the cloud and rain is no different despite the mountains that stand in the between, and the moon shines over my hometown and the place where I am.” The poet expressed his longing for hometown when he was at a strange place. Similarly, Prof. Ahmed put emphasis on harmony of different cultures.

Prof. Amitav Acharya talked about Western-centrism in culture; that is, the world’s history of culture has been written by Western scholars and Western powers have dominated the interpretation of culture in the past centuries, even though their cultures had originated in other countries. Prof. Acharya stressed that many cultures and discoveries originated in Eastern countries, such as India and China, and were introduced to the West by Arabs; thus, Western countries have never been the origins of such cultures.
Prof. Loius W. Goodman made a sum-up speech. He appreciated the significance the lecture held to the reality and stated that China and the U.S. must avoid the Thucydides’s Trap by strengthening dialogs and communication and putting an end to misunderstanding and divergences.

At the end, Prof. Akbar Ahmed had heated discussions with audience and gave inspiring answers to the questions on comparative study of civilizations, Islam’s role as a founder and disseminator of philosophy, Islam’s role as a bridge between ancient and modern knowledge, and power transition in global economy and politics.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Highlights from Ahmed’s academic career include appointments such as: Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Baluchistan and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. His research focuses on the relationship between the West and Islamic world. He is the author of masterpieces in the field, including Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), and The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013).

Text by: Wang Zijing
Typesetting by: Wang Zijing
Reviewed by: Wang Tingyi & Zhang Yuan