Given Ali’s commitment to heterodoxy and heresy, it is somewhat surprising to learn that his chief intellectual project of the past two decades has been a series of five historical novels he calls the Islam Quintet, whose final volume, Night of the Golden Butterfly, has now been published by Verso. But in fact, Ali’s sudden interest in Islamic history was itself an act of dissent. In 1990, the First Gulf War led to a surge of western media coverage of the Middle East. Most of this coverage was, to Ali’s mind, ill-informed. “The 1990 war was accompanied by a wave of crude anti-Arab propaganda,” he wrote in 2002 in his book . “The level of ignorance displayed by most pundits and politicians was distressing. I began to ask myself questions which, till then, had barely seemed relevant. Why had Islam not undergone a Reformation? Why had the Ottoman Empire been left untouched by the Enlightenment?” Such questions led Ali, a lifelong atheist, to immerse himself in the sources and controversies of Islamic history.
The Quintet is actually a kind of double-bladed heresy, cutting against Western ignorance on the one hand, and Muslim pieties on the other. In the face of those pundits and politicians who trade in stereotypes of Islam as a religion of puritanical violence and backwardness, Ali evokes the most cosmopolitan eras of its history.
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