Sunday, November 14, 2010

The House of Wisdom (1)

Contemporary Western writing about Islam and Islamic history comes in various identifiable streams. One stream is writing that seeks to encourage a positive, even rosy, view of Islam: Karen Armstrong is an example of this. One motive for such writing is to encourage positive interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Another is to assert a sense of moral superiority over those fellow Westerners who have a more angst-ridden or hostile view of Islam. (These motives are not mutually exclusive.) Then there are those who worry that if the more hostile views of Islam become received wisdom, many Muslims (particularly young Muslims) will simply “buy” that picture of Islam, and adopt it for themselves.

The latter stream of thought merges into those with a nuanced view of Islam. Who are aware of its complexities and varieties, even though they may be quite hostile to its more radical versions. Writers such as Daniel Pipes and Michael Totten fall into this category.

Then there are the writers who take a hostile view of Islam: who see it as fundamentally an intolerant, violent, persecutory religion; or, at least, as having inherent tendencies in that direction. Mark Durie, Andrew Bostom and Robert Spencer are examples of various forms of this approach. Precisely because they are arguing against received wisdom, such writers are often excellent at locating information and sources the mainstream ignores or glosses over.

Complicating all this is that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers. Someone may identify as a member of a religion without accepting the entire package, or any particular version of the package. This is not necessarily clear to outsiders, however. The most important single reason why the C16th and C17th debates over torture have suddenly been reopened is because we live in the return of the C16th—both in the sense of Islam is going through the same text-based “purification” of faith that the Christian Reformation represented and because we confront the same issue with Muslims that Elizabethan and Stuart England faced with Catholics: how can we tell the “good” law-abiding believers from the “will kill us in our beds” believers? The destructive possibilities of modern technology add further fear to the mix.

One pattern in the “rosy” presentation of Islam is for Muslim conquests to be treated as events that “just happened”, while Christian crusades are (noxious) moral events: this despite the fact that the former both pre- and post-date the latter, as well as being hugely more extensive.

Jonathan Lyons’ history of the impact of Arab-Muslim civilisation on the West, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation, is of the rosy view. Starting with the time line at the front of the book. The first surge of Muslim conquest is entirely glossed over apart from:
732 An Arab raiding party is defeated near Tours, in southern France, effectively ending Muslim penetration of Western Europe from Spain (p.xi).
This is a fairly elliptical treatment of the largest surge in religious conquest in history; one in stark contrast to the much more extensive treatment in the opening timeline of the (much smaller) Western crusades.

Lyons starts with crusade-era Antioch and Adelard of Bath, an enthusiast for Arabic-language learning, a conduit for that learning’s spread to Latin Christendom and a key figure in the book. Lyons informs us that
This great struggle between faith and reason was about to crash down on an unsuspecting Europe (p.4).
This is a very modern secular-humanist take on what was happening at the time. The actual debate was in terms of focusing on God’s Will or God’s Rationality: all the participants were monotheist believers and all sides used the tools of logic and reasoning. All three Abrahamic monotheisms—Latin Christendom, Judaism and Islam—went through this debate in overlapping centuries. In Latin Christendom and Judaism, focusing on God’s Rationality won. It was Islam where focusing on God’s Will carried the day: this creates a certain difficulty in seeing Islam as the purveyor of the light of reason to a benighted Latin Christendom. Or, as Lyons puts it:
The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a technological and scientific superpower (p.4).
But, strangely, failed to come to fruition in the Islam that was the source of all this intellectual ferment.

There is the further difficulty that this ‘Arab science and philosophy’ was the heritage of Greek thought, Indian mathematics and other achievements of various cultures that Arab-language thinkers and scholars utilised—and extended in certain areas. But, as Mark Durie points out in The Third Choice, conquering and supplanting a culture is a somewhat strange basis to get credit for preserving it.
Though there are cases of such. The British in India, for example, revitalised interest in Hindu culture and history: but that was in contrast to Muslim rulers who had often despoiled and suppressed that culture. As V. S. Naipaul points out, Muslim conquest tends to be a particularly thorough form of colonisation, involving the conquered and converted people rejecting their own history. The first (and possibly greatest) of historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun expressed this rejection well:
(The Muslims) desired to learn the sciences of the (foreign) nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mold of their own views. They peeled off these strange tongues [and made them pass] into their [own] idiom, and surpassed the achievements of (the non-Arabs) in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic languages were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered. All the sciences came to exist in Arabic. The systematic works on them were written in (Arabic) writing. Thus, students of the sciences needed a knowledge of the meaning of (Arabic) words and (Arabic) writing. They could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them.
In the West, the legacy of the pagan past was not treated that dismissively.

Still, as Lyons’ points out, English is full of terms—admiral, algebra, zero, zenith—which are Arabic in origin. He clearly sees his mission as being to overturn the West’s “wilful forgetting” of this Arab legacy (Pp4-5)

Crusading brutality
Having framed the issues and concerns, Lyons starts with Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade, noting that (Christian) religious thinkers had been moving towards the permissibility of violence and that the Crusades were in part a reaction to the defeat at Manzikert (Pp10-11). There is no entry for ‘jihad’ in the book’s index, however: Lyons’ concern for “wilful forgetting” seems a touch selective.

Lyons takes us through the grim passage of the First Crusade, including the slaughter of the scholar class in Jerusalem, along with the rest of its inhabitants, when the Crusaders took it. The violence and ignorant barbarism of the Christian crusaders is displayed for the reader: the brutal violence being characterised as the product of ignorant, Christian anti-Muslim propaganda (Pp22ff). In fact, the slaughter of resisting city populations was a sad feature of warfare for millennia: particularly when the besieging forces themselves were short of supplies and under imminent threat, as was the case in the siege of Jerusalem. The Muslims had done the same to the inhabitants of Syracuse when they conquered the city in 878, for example.

Lyons sets out the sad state of the preservation of the Classical intellectual in Dark Age Europe—the loss of original sources, the reliance on patchy compilations: particularly Bishop Isidore’s Etymologies (Pp34ff). Preferring easily accessed secondary sources is a human perennial, apparently.

Medieval civilisation is presented as clinging to a few patchy bits of Plato, a society deeply fearful of change (Pp48-9). In fact, medieval Europe was a society full of technological and institutional innovation. Every time that things settled down enough to start generating a sufficient economic surplus, there was a renaissance, a cultural resurgence—the Carolingian renaissance when Big Karl and his son Louis the Pius briefly established a stable political order; the renaissance of the C12th, when the knightly order was sufficiently established for trade to revive; the Renaissance itself, when the post-Black Death labour scarcity encouraged capital investment, generating increased literacy, culminating in printing. (Thanks to the invention of which, we live in the Renaissance-that-never-ended, since literacy and books became so widespread that the preservation of knowledge became dramatically cheaper and more robust: meanwhile, Islam showed little interest in printing technology—it took over three centuries for printing to move from the Christian north of the Mediterranean to the Islamic south.)

Lyons notes that Saracen raids in the C8th and C9th:
failed to generate the sort of aggressive anti-Muslim hysteria that began to take shape in the eleventh century (p.49).
Possibly because Dark Age Europe had more pressing issues, such as Norse, Avar and Magyar raids and invasions and establishing basic political order.

Lyons, drawing explicit parallels with the contemporary “war on terror”, sees the “anti-Muslim hysteria” of the Crusades as a tool of centralising Papal power (p.50). Diverting the martial energies of the emerging knightly warrior class to more Godly pursuits was a likely motive: an extension of the Peace of God efforts. With Norman advances in Sicily providing an example of what was possible in retaking lands for Christendom after centuries of retreat under Muslim advances, advances that had recently taken most of Anatolia and prompted a plea for help from the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Emperor.

Abbasid inquisitiveness
We then move to the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyads. Muslim armies “had successfully retraced the path of Alexander the Great”, with Iran, Western China and parts of India having been taken into the lands of the Caliphate. This left Arab Muslims as a ruling minority over diverse cultures, with a lot of new converts much more impressed with the hereditary claims of the Abbasids over those of the Umayyads (p.56). (That the Abbasids supported overturning Umayyad insistence on Arab superiority no doubt also helped their cause.)

The religious persecutions of the Eastern Romans against non-Orthodox Christians made Muslim rule more attractive in land seized from the Eastern Romans, encouraging use of diverse talents by the Abbasid Caliphate, though non-Muslims were subject to the jizya tax (p.56). (That Muslims were still a relatively small minority also meant that the costs of intolerance were high: as the Muslim percentage of the population increased over time, the costs of intolerance fell and Muslim rule became more oppressive—a similar pattern can be seen in Norman-Hohenstaufen Sicily, Reconquista Spain and, indeed, the Christian Roman Empire.)

Muslim rule united a huge area under the same legal system. Islam also became the “crossroads” civilisation of Eurasia, both transmitting and mixing ideas and techniques—notably the Chinese invention of paper, which had obvious benefits for scholarship and contrasted with Christendom’s reliance on far more expensive parchment (Pp57-8).

Caliph al-Mansur’s new capital of Baghdad became the focus of cross-cultural influences, from trade with India and China to self-conscious adoption of Iranian heritages. To the extent of propagating the claim that Greek science had come from Iranian sources after Alexander’s conquests—a myth that then persisted for several centuries (Pp60ff).

The Caliph’s interest in learning and scholarly endeavour from both conquered and foreign cultures led to the creation of the House of Wisdom, a translation centre and intellectual clearing house. Official delegations sought copies of Greek texts from the Eastern Romans, scholars searched for texts to bring back and copy. Supporting scholarship and intellectual endeavour became an enduring enthusiasm of the new elite:
Over the course of 150 years, the Arabs translated all available Greek books of science and philosophy. Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific enquiry (p.64).
In fact, Arabic-speakers translated, not necessarily Arabs: Lyons labels as ‘Arab’ and ‘Arabs’ when it was in fact Arabic speakers—of whatever background—who were intellectually active. Aristotle’s dialectics in his Topics helped, Lyons claims, religious law to become the basis of Muslim society. It also saw the beginning of the conflict between God’s omnipotence and the human desire to control the environment (Pp65-6). A conflict I prefer to characterise as between emphasizing God’s Will or God’s Rationality: how it looked from their, rather than our, perspective. As Adelard himelf put it:
I will detract nothing from God, for whatever is, is from Him … We must listen to the very limits of human knowledge, and only when this utterly breaks down should we refer things to God (p.124).
Indeed, a longer version of Adelard's statement, from p.131 of Ibn Warraq's Defending the West, shows the outlook even more clearly:
I do not detract from the power of God, for all that exists does so from him and by means of His power. However, this is not to say that nature itself is chaotic, irrational or made up of discrete elements. Therefore it is possible for men to achieve an understanding of this rational order inherent in nature, an understanding as complete as the extent that human knowledge [scientia] progresses. ... Consequently, since we do not turn pale before our present state of ignorance about nature, let us return then, to the method of reason.
But the Augustinian concept of the role of scripture—as the indirect creation of God, when the world is His direction creation—made this easier. Islam was to adopt a very different epistemic and metaphysical understanding of scripture—as the timeless, uncreated, direct Word of God.

The scientific endeavours of the period included astrology as an area of legitimate—indeed useful—enquiry. But it was, as Lyons point out, an avenue for wider intellectual and scientific activities: particularly astronomy and mathematics. Including interest in Hindu astronomy and mathematics: as this was published in Sanskrit verse, struggling with the material meant grappling with the fundamental ideas of the mathematics involved. This was the path whereby “Arabic” numerals and the concept of zero passed to Christendom. It also led to Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi—probably of Iranian/Zoroastrian origins—developing algebra and quadratic equations; work that reflected the mixing of Indian, Iranian and Greek influences (Pp67ff).

Just as Islam claimed to be the true path of Allah—restored by the Prophet after Jews and Christians had corrupted it—so now Caliph al-Mamum claimed that Islam was restoring the true glories of Greek learning that the Christianised Romans (“Byzantines”) had forsaken and corrupted (Pp 76-7).

Originating Islam
Lyons then takes a back-step to the origins of Islam, a very rosy view of its origins:
Al-Mamun’s great Abbasid Empire owed much of its enormous vitality to the spiritual and intellectual energies unleashed two hundred years earlier in a remote corner of the Arabian Peninsula (p.78).
That would be the beginning of Islam and of a thousand years of aggressing against every culture and civilisation it came up against. We are treated to a picture of Muhammad as social justice activist opposed by greedy plutocrats:
Muhammad’s message of social justice, the need for good works, and the oneness of God attracted some members of Mecca’s elite … And it resonated with members of the lesser Arab tribes and the urban poor in his native city of Mecca. But it also drew the anger of many among Mecca’s powerful merchant class, grown fat on their command of valuable trade routes and their monopoly over lucrative religious tourism to the city’s cube-shaped Kaaba shrine, then a center of traditional idol worship (p.78).
Lyons places Muhammad’s Meccan revelations in the “age-old Near Eastern tradition of spiritual warning” and goes through Muhammad’s attempts to woo the local Jews. Faced with the refusal of the local Jewish tribes to recognise him as a prophet, Muhammad shifted to a more hostile stance to Judaism (Pp79-80).

Lyons discusses the importance of the direction of prayers in fostering Islamic concern with direction and geographical enquiry, how early Islam encouraged intellectual enquiry more generally and did not fulfil modern notions of antimony between science and religion (Pp80ff). We are spared the Medinan revelations, the denouement of Muhammad’s interaction with the Jewish tribes (their defeat in war, the beheading of their men, selling their women and children into slavery), Muhammad on artistic freedom (beheading a poet who wrote verses against him) or the suppression of paganism. Islamic conquest of vast tracts of territory and people is a mere “spreading”:
The rapid spread of Islam across much of the known world that followed in the years following began to put the accurate determination of time, date and direction out of the reach of basic folk astronomy (p.83).
With happy implications for intellectual enquiry, as the vastness of the Arab empire gave science something to do in the service of faith (find the direction of Mecca for prayer). As did the injunctions to heal the sick did for medicine, the need for ritual cleaning for water delivery and controversy over graven images did for the development of the geometry of complex mosaic patterns. The Caliph’s wish to know about the vast empire he ruled encouraged interest in geography and the size and shape of the earth (Pp83ff).

There is then a shift of gears to discussing the glories of Roger II’s Norman kingdom—based, of course, on his wise adoption of Muslim patterns of religious toleration and patronage of Muslim learning. This leads into a discussion of Muslim contributions to Latin Christendom’s slow development of cartographical skills and geographical understanding and the importance of al-Idrisi's Book of Roger in providing Latin Christendom a window into Muslim knowledge and science. Based on contemporary sources, Lyons suggests that Vasco da Gama may have used a Muslim map and possibly a Muslim pilot (Pp91ff).

This review will be concluded in my next post.


  1. The bit on emphasising the direction of prayer while brushing over other facts reminds me of one of the more amusing absurdities in any religion. How coincidental that just as he was falling out with authorities in Medina, Mohammed would suddenly get a revelation that Mecca was the new holy place to pray to

  2. More precisely, it was the Jews refusing to acknowledge him as a prophet, but indeed. His Medinan revelations are notably convenient.

  3. The marriage of politics, sentiment and academics is frustrating. History is used to create an image that serves political ends or at best a kind of image that has more to do more with creative writing. Somebody has to be the villains and somebody else the heroes.

    The people who sell of a rosy picture of Islam (or of other things) or the people who sell a dark picture of Islam (or of other things) sell of an untrustworthy picture, which then creates a backlash, sending people to the equally untrustworthy opposite picture.

    Well, at least the European Middle Ages is a neutral time period for the most part.

  4. History is full of patterns and nuance, you have to have a sense of both to "get it".

    Medieval history has its own persistent bugbears, but usually about wider views than narrow political point scoring. (One of my frustrations is with academic medievalists who just don't get the centrality of the problem of public order to medieval life and concerns.)

  5. The thing is that it seems nowadays you can find the experts you need for whatever politics you might hold to -- the right news channel, the right paper, the right historians, sociologists, climatologists, economists, strategists, feminists, columnists etc. (I'm starting to sound like a Bob Dylan song).