Creativity and innovative thought have been essential tools for the flourishing of human culture and civilisation. But originality, imagination and pioneering cultural products require serious effort and hard work. So why not simply copy others or just buy the signs of sophistication. Have you noticed, when you travel East to West and North to South, that several elements appear to have an unsettling amount of similarity. Perhaps this is simply a coincidence. Or maybe it is an unimaginative copy. Or (deep) fake, or even a virtual representation. We’ll let you be the judge.
1. Mock Islands
Before China had co-opted the art of island-making to subdue international sea treaties and resolve neighbourly territory disputes, Dubai had created the Palm Islands. Beginning in 2001, the three islands – Palm Jumeirah, Deira Island, and Palm Jebel Ali – were constructed for much more lucrative and peace-time purposes. Financed largely by access oil revenues, the Palm Islands give the small nation a unique (bordering on absurd) aesthetic and a new luxury territory for private hotels and residences, a bit distanced from the painfully normal Arabian Peninsula. But the islands have been faced with numerous unintended consequences. These creations face great risks from increase wave height, storm frequency, soil weakness due to sea level rising, and coincide with an increase in water pollution. Erosion will be the biggest challenge for these fake islands but beneath their coastal waters looms threats to marine ecology and natural sediment distribution along Dubai’s coast.
2. Big Ben Duplicate
The most sacred city in Islam is not exempt from a horrid example of architecture copying. The Makkah Royal Clock Tower looms high, casting a shadow over the Haram, the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. The Clock Tower is the centre piece of the Abraj Al-Bait (Towers of the House) consisting of a seven-skyscraper complex of hotels. It has been reported to resemble a similarly famous clock in London. But the clock face on the Makkah Royal Clock Tower is the largest clock face in the world and its tower is the third-tallest building in the world and the fifth-tallest free-standing structure in the world. The Abraj Al-Bait complex is part of the King Abdulaziz Endowment Project, centred on modernising the city in service to its pilgrims. One complaint from a hotel patron noted that it provides a perfect, birds-eye view of the Kabba but he wished he stayed a few floors lower as the Kabba looked miniscule from the forty-second floor. The Abraj Al-Bait project cost approximately £12 billion. The whole project earned considerable controversy, especially from the Turks who were irked by the demolition of a eighteenth century Ottoman fortress to make way for the complex. But in the rapid artificialisation of our world one can’t be too sentimental about such things.
3. Borrowed Culture
No one in the Muslim world seems to do artificial like the United Arab Emirates. While the French will, without hesitation, claim the responsibility for inventing art, culture, cuisine, civilisation, and nearly everything else, nobody mentioned that it couldn’t be sold or bought. The term priceless is not so easily tagged to works of art, at least not since $525 million bought Abu Dhabi the name ‘Louvre’ for their art museum in 2007. An additional $747 million price tag would be placed on top of the name for art loans, special exhibitions, and management advice. The ‘selling’ of French art was vehemently opposed by the various artist circles of France, but in 2017, its doors were officially opened. Designed by a French architect, Jean Nouvel, the museum is said to be inspired by the way sunlight hits a palm tree in a mythical oasis. While the project is designed to be an artistic collaboration between East and West, such high price exhibitions, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi reveal a bias in what drives ticket sales. Controversy surrounded the condition of workers who built the museum: reports of forced labour and massive human rights violations could not be suppressed despite earnest efforts. Jean Nouvel defended the practice by declaring that the working conditions were no worse than those found in Europe! So now we can all feel better, right?
4. The Simulated City
Imaginative skyscrapers and terraforming are the tip of the iceberg for the developers behind Neom, the ‘mega-city’ of the future. Saudi Arabia has pledged at least $500 billion to develop the project which, Covid-19 and global economic crisis aside, is planned to be fully functioning by 2025. As the first city to span multiple Middle Eastern State borders, Neom will spread into Jordan and Egypt (which shows high ambition as Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not share any land borders). Inspired by the wonderfully esoteric Garden by the Bay of Singapore, Neom will cover 26,500 square kilometres, thirty-three times the size of New York City. A state-of-the-art smart airport will accompany flying cars, robot maids, holographic teachers, artificial rain, animatronic dinosaurs, and a giant artificial moon. This will be truly remarkable as developers have pointed out that the technology for such wonders has not yet been created. Following the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has admitted finding investors for the city has been problematic. Numerous advisors and architects have distanced themselves from what appears to be a troublesome climate in Saudi Arabia. But fear not! An estimated 20,000 Saudi citizens will be forcefully relocated to the dream city. Isn’t the future so bright and shiny.
5. Manufactured Dark Ages
By Western reckoning, the period from the fifth to fifteenth century (or from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance) is referred to in Europe as the Medieval Period. This period was characterised by loss of centralised dominance, mass migrations, constant war and invasion, pestilence and disease, deurbanisation, population decline, abandonment of reason, and overall depressing times. So it was dubbed the Dark Ages. But the Dark Ages were not limited to Europe – Western history universalised it and the history of the entire world for this period came to be seen as the Dark Ages! Somehow the Muslim world really mucked up this neat consignment of the rest of the world to the dustbin of history. While it was doom and gloom for Europe, the Islamic world was thriving and revolutionising thought and culture, science and learning, industry and society. Religion motivated thought in both Medieval Europe and the classical Muslim world, but while Christian thought sought to snuff out any non-Christian thought as well as rationalist, Islamic thought championed reason and embraced thought and learning of other cultures. Despite extensive recent historical research, the Dark Ages moniker still persists.
6. Mock Human Rights
After she was revealed to the world at the 2016 South by Southwest Festival, Sophia, the AI robot, jumped to the world stage in 2017 by being granted citizenship by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Sophia also became the first robot to have a nationality. The great irony of course is that most women in Saudi Arabia do not have the same level of citizenship, especially if they were not born within the Kingdom. The laws of the time held women under the guardianship of their husbands, a legal identity equivalent to a minor in other countries. Restrictions on women included workplace limits, segregation from men, restrictions on public appearance and numerous other limits to freedom. While Sophia was modelled after the Egyptian Pharaoh Nefertiti, technically robots do not have a sex. In fact, at the time of her gaining citizenship she was little more than a torso, head and arm without discernible genitalia. Developer David Hanson, of the Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics, hoped Sophia would use her citizenship and nationality to fight for women’s rights in the Kingdom. How she might do this has not been suggested – yet!
7. Replica Capitalism
Islamic banking and finance have a distinguished, if somewhat controversial, history. The concept of sharia-compliant banking and finance picked up particular steam following the 1970 Conference of Finance Ministers of Muslim Countries held in Karachi. Since then banks and financial institutions have levied principles and regulations that provide for an economic system believed to be more beholden to the standards of the Qur’an. From the beginning, Islamic economics fell under the more dominant field of economics, which has itself been dominated, during the last fifty years, by neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, the project of Islamic economics has largely become the project of rediscovering capitalism through the Sharia. Greed, a history of exploitation, and the profit above all else – the main principles of Western capitalism – leaves much to be desired. We can legitimately ask: is that it, the end product of fifty years of research and development, setting up of numerous Islamic banks, university courses and academic journals? Can’t Islamic economics give us something better than neoliberal economics?
8. Counterfeit Alcohol
One Sharia complaint thing that has more success than Islamic economics is alcohol. The proclamation of alcohol as haram need not dissuade the pious from indulging in the delectable beverages that symbolise high class and leisure. Wine and beer can be made to follow the Sharia like anything else in the world. Numerous methods exist for making alcohol-free beer and wines, but generally the process remains the same, except a final step is added to remove the alcohol by-product. This can be done by heating the solution, but the process can alter the taste. So a vacuum filtration method has been adopted to preserve the taste while removing the intoxicating elements. Consumers of the ‘real’ thing have noted that Sharia-compliant wine or beer tastes like wine or beer, but without the alcohol!
9. Reclaimed Copies
Our apologies to the French. You did not invent civilisation; rather, you copied it from the Muslim civilisation. Both the twelfth and eighteenth century ‘European Renaissance’ emerged on the back of Muslim achievements in science, philosophy and art and ethics. Europe only discovered its ‘Greek heritage’ thanks to the Muslims, who not only translated the Greek philosophy and learning but also took it to new heights. Muslim philosophers made sure that Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and the rest made it out of ancient Greece. Numbering systems, algebra, and geometry too were copied by Europe. And, yes, this includes the Scientific Method, evolution, and key medical advancements and understandings that remained common practice through the nineteenth century. Mind you, hospitals and universities were novel concepts that also came from the Muslim world. Oh, and don’t forget freedom of religion and speech headlined the many achievements in the development of ethics and law. Notions of constitution and international law often taken for granted date back to the life of the Prophet. Poetry, arts, and crafts combine with advancements in engineering, plumbing, and public sanitation standards developed a style of society that were gladly copied by ungrateful Europe. Heck, we say to the French, you even copied how to sit and eat properly on a dinner table!
10. Spurious Ends
And finally prepare for your DOOM! Thanks to the evil Covid-19, for the first time in centuries, hajj has been cancelled. This is a clear indication of Qayamat, the End of Times, the arrival of the Day of Judgement! Of course, Mecca has seen a few epidemics in its history; for example, the cholera epidemics of 1821 and 1865, and more recent outbreaks of MERS and SARS. But Covid-19 is in a class of its own. For one thing, it is, as quite a few traditional scholars have pointed out, mentioned in the Qur’an. Yes, indeed: the time of the virus’s appearance, its global spread, and the reason why it has appeared are all mentioned in the Qur’an (allegedly in 74:8-13) – a bit like electricity, relativity and quantum mechanics which are also all clearly mentioned in the Qur’an. According to a hadith in Sahih Bukhari, we are told, the day of judgement won’t take place until the hajj is abandoned. QED: given that hajj 2020 had been cancelled (or, rather, limited to locals), thanks to a virus that is mentioned in the Qur’an, we should all prepare for the imminent arrival of the Day of Judgement – which, by the way, can be witnessed on YouTube.