“O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female and made you into races and tribes, so that you may identify one another.” A verse from Surah Al-Hujurat 49:13
A civilisation cannot exist without culture, and culture cannot exist without knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge is not just a right, but also an obligation on the part of the Muslim. The hunt for knowledge as a crucial concept - with no temporal or geographical limitations - has been established throughout history. Knowledge has always been an ubiquitous virtue in Islamic life, permeating all fields of learning, whether social, political, intellectual, artistic or spiritual. Indeed, the expansion of Islam's culture and values stems from the exchange of knowledge across Muslim civilisations. It is considered a charity to learn, act appropriately, and educate, according to Prophetic tradition, which breaks knowledge acquisition into three steps: learning, action, and sharing.
Throughout history, Muslim pioneers have shown respect for various civilisations and tolerance for other humans, regardless of their faith. The process of learning, absorbing and adapting is what has contributed to this wonderful synthesis and unification of different cultures: those of the conquered and that of the conqueror.
The most potent formative powers of a civilisation emanate from a religious underpinning. What people think and how they officially and behaviourally display it in their lives define the culture.
Culture encompasses a society's perception of knowledge, and what it perceives to be its true sources, as well as its belief system and shared vision of how the world works. Muslim civilisations entail core aspects that demonstrate a high degree of plurality and diversity. They have adapted many intellectual and cultural elements from other civilisations giving it a cosmopolitan quality, simultaneously making it a significant tributary to the Renaissance in Europe and a vital component of a universal civilisation.
One of the main ways in which this cultural manifestation of Muslim civilisations comes to life is through the Arabic language. This language, as an initial cultural vehicle, was the principal medium of expression in Arabia, the place where Islam and its culture lay its foundation, as the language of revelation. As years passed, and as different dynasties took over - the Ottoman Turks or the Mongols - they learned Arabic without forsaking their own tongues, but rather, influencing them. It was this striking blend of dialects, this cross-fertilisation, which inevitably led to the process of sharing knowledge.
Muslim history began with Prophet Muhamad (PBUH), during the 7th century in Arabia, which expanded into different geographical regions, beginning from the first four Caliphs (Rashiduns). This phase was followed by the rise of major caliphates including the Umayyads and the Abbasids.
As Muslim rule spread further, regional dynasties began to emerge, leading to shifts in power and the rise of new centres of culture and creativity.
Throughout each of its phases, until today, we have seen Muslim culture interact, exchange and engage with its environment and context, proving itself to be a catalyst for improving quality of life in its broadest sense. Today this culture is seen in the way seven billion Muslims, who live in different parts of the world, engage with their surroundings. Further, we see culture come alive in modern times, through the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), and the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.
Another important element of cultural manifestation is architecture. Islam adapted its architecture from Arabia. The first mosque in Islam, the Prophet's mosque, or Masjid-e-Nabwi - was built using palm trees and baked bricks and had a courtyard. It was used as a space for prayer, as well as a space for social gathering. It became a model for mosques built in the early period. Traditionally, Islamic architecture was developed to fulfil Islamic religious practices, such as the minaret to assist the muezzin.
As Islam expanded, there was a shift in the way mosques were built. Many architectural elements are adapted from the Roman Byzantine and Persian lands, such as Islamic calligraphy on the surfaces, gardens, a concept originated in Persia, and domes. Over time, these mosques also became architectural masterpieces, and survive to the present day. Some of these early mosques are the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Al Mansur Mosque in Baghdad, the Great Mosque of Qayrawan, Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo among many others.
In conclusion, Islamic history is the product of a conversation between various cultures, nations, and tribes, as well as the past, present, and future. The oral tradition of Islam is based upon the transmission of culture through poetry and narrative, and the written record, which has had the greatest impact on society. The value of education and knowledge derived from the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and history continues to be celebrated by Mawlana Hazar Imam through the the Aga Khan Development Network, in the areas of music, architecture and culture