Skip to comments.Where Thought Flowered (The West Owes a Great Debt to the Intellectual Scholarship of Arabs)
Posted on 04/13/2009 8:59:52 AM PDT by nickcarraway
The House of Wisdom
By Jonathan Lyons
Bloomsbury / 272 pages / $26
Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons' lively new book of medieval history - the opening page of his The House of Wisdom cites a cleric scandalized by the Crusader ladies of Antioch and their penchant for the plunging neckline and the bejeweled merkin. If this is the Middle Ages, thinks the reader, bring it on! But this pleasure gradually gives way to another beguilement, to be found in Lyons' subtitle: "How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization." That phrase suggests a brave viewpoint for a historian nowadays, one at odds with the us-vs.-them mentality copied from the Cold War and pasted on to any consideration of things Islamic.
Whether it's the ecstatic Lt. Gen. William Boykin claiming his Christian God is "bigger" than the Muslim God, or the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington peddling, like some harebrained imam, an inevitable "clash of civilizations," the twain of East and West has seldom seemed less likely to meet than in the past few years.
For Lyons, a former Reuters reporter who roved the Middle East for two decades, the task is much greater than reminding the general reader of the splendors of Umayyad Cordoba. He is out to reverse a long-standing prejudice regarding the stupendous flowering of scholarship in medieval Islam.
Even when that flowering is recognized - but does anyone really remember learning about it in school? - it is usually brushed off as an unfortunate hiccup in the transmission of classical Greek thought to the Renaissance. In this view, the translators and scholars of Baghdad,Cairo andToledo were mere copyists or, at best, librarians, unwittingly preserving the genius of antiquity's philosophy and science in their dimly lit mosques - until the West recovered its brilliance.
(Excerpt) Read more at baltimoresun.com ...
And the Arabs’ intellectual prowess since Islam?
In the immortal words of Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?”
As I understand it, the “intellectual scholarship” of Islam was merely permitting the intellectuals of the subjugated nations to continue to practice their professions. It had nothing to do with anything Islam brought to the equation. Much like “Islamic architecture” and “Islamic engineering” and “Islamic art” were merely coopted from the conquered peoples.
Hey, muslims have given us great advances in propaganda and the use of human shields.
They can make evil look good and good look evil.
That’s hard stuff.
Much of the perceived Arab scholarship was the dying light of Roman, Greek and Persian culture. Once the last vestiges of those civilizations died, middle eastern culture stagnated.
All very well, but that was then, and this is now. And now they are barbarians at best, savages at worst.
The denigration of the superior scholar Samuel Huntington is reprehensible. Anyone who has not read The Clash of Civilizations really is missing a major historical landmark.
I asked one of the staff what happened to send Persian Art and Culture into a nosedive about that time and why there was so little after that time. She was evasive as any good government bureaucrat but finally admitted that time was a time of great warfare. I knew not to ask what brought on that warfare because I knew it was a time of forced conversion to Islam and replacement of the tolerant Zorastian religion with a religion of intolerance and political oppression.
The flourishing of Persian culture after that time coincided with periods when secularization forced relaxation of the iron grip of Islam, the most recent example being from the early 1930's until 1979.
But Islam contributed little on its own. And it turned a blind eye to outside influences centuries ago. The Silk Road ended, and European sailors began sailing around Africa to trade with the East, because the Arabs were inhospitable. Coincidentally (or not!) Arab civilization stopped shining so brightly. After perhaps 1500, the Arabs stayed the way the were, as Europe continued to progress.
I believe one could make a strong case that Arabs did little on their own, but made some good use of the work of others. When the Arabs stopped dealing with outsiders, and were left to their own devices, their progress came to a grinding halt.
Doersn't speak well of them, IMO.
You are absolutely correct, and the reporter of this piece from the Baltimore Sun is as ignorant of history as that lady who was head of HP before being fired, who gave a major speech about this very same subject. Why don’t the Christians of the United States know about the evil and the destructive power of Islam, instead of hearing it praised for the actual achievements of those whom it had enslaved?
There was a little more to it than that: because the Muslims conquered both provinces of the (Eastern) Roman Empire where classical Greek and Roman learning was preserved, and India, intellectuals in the Caliphate(s) could combine the fruits of those intellectual traditions.
There was a resulting brief attempt at a birth of empirical science in Muslim lands during the Middle Ages, but it was cut short.
Many of the vaunted Arab intellectuals were Christians, some were Muslims, but the latter ceased to provide any scientific contributions of any note when the occasionalist epistemology and ontology of Al Ghazali won out over the Aristotelian views of Avicennia and Averroes: If Allah is an arbitrary tyrant, and all things, even each instance of water boiling or ice freezing, happen by the direct will of Allah, then there is no basis for empirical science. And that, was the view of Al Ghazali, which is now the dominant view in all of Muslim thought.
Didn’t the mooselimbs give us Zero?
And you can take that either way you want.
I saw Persian reliefs at the British Museum that were the
equal of Greek and Roman ones.However,I agree with the posts
about the Arab Muslims co-opting other groups works.
As in... Since the 7th century or so.
never mind the Libary of Alexandria or how it came to be destroyed...
In his GREAT book “What Went Wrong?” by Bernard Lewis, he points out that a time frame from thirteenth to the 17th century sometime (I don’t remember exactly where) only one book was translated from the western world into Arabic.
It was a book on venereal diseases, and because that was considered to be a “Frankish” disease, it was acceptable for a muslim physician to own and use a Frankish book, or at least to translate it.
During that same time, tens of thousands of books were being tranlated from a multitude of languages into other languages, but only one was translated into Arabic.
I recall it was a period of more than 100 years with only one book translated from ANY language into Arabic.
That is what went wrong with Islam. They never thought infidels had anything constructive or worthwhile to offer, not much different from today.
Even more telling, when a european ship was beached after the crushing defeat of the Muslims at Lepanto in the 16th century, there was a debate amongst the muslims who were undecided on whether they could steal any features from the beached European ship and implement those changes into their own ships. Because it was an infidel contraption, they had to have a religious ruling on it.
THAT is why Islam is where it is today.
The heavy media saturation (and “art world conversion”) regarding the greatness of Islam came after the 9-11 attacks. It sickens me.
I don’t need institutional condemnation of all muslims but I don’t need to see lockstep celebration of a religion that converts by the sword and enslaved generations.
I looked at it once and it seemed to me that whatever great things came from the conquered nations ended after about 40 to a hundred years of Islamic rule.
Fr. Stanley Jaki has an interesting book called “Savior of Science” that talks about why science hit dead ends in most cultures, including Islam. Islam failed to put together many realizations received from other cultures and advance them to the next level. The Christian West flowered soon after it got access to much of that material putting ideas together that never occurred to Islamics or to the cultures to absorbed.
Islam failed to add much to the accumulated knowledge because their concept of Allah was not bound by internal consistency. Since Allah’s will was subject to change at anytime, so was the reality of the world and there was no philosophical foundation on which to build a systematic study of creation. Christianity had the foundation of an ex nihlo creation and an unchanging and loving God whose will was absolute but firm that allowed Western science to quickly outpace the rest of the world.
Post Ptolemaic Egypt and the largely Hellenic intellectual community at Alexandria is one example.
Much of that scholarship had been flowering under the Byzantine (or eastern Roman) empire until the Muslim conquerers took their libraries and best minds.
Sort of like us asking the Germans to thank us for the flowering of American rocketry under Werner von Braun.
There were some greats. I, who am no scholar, know of Ibn Rushd (aka Averroes) of Andalusia. But something happened that led to a long slow decline. And good arguments have been made that the "something" was the rise of an anti-intellectual strain of theology. I dunno, but it sure seems likely to me.
See my post at #17.
Yeah, but what HAPpened? We call Ptolemy’s astronomical work the Almagest because we got it from them, and many of the stars have Arabic names (”Alcor”,”Alkaid”, “Zubenelgenubi” and the like) . Alchemy? Of course it looks like algebra started in the Indies and only “passed through” Arabian culture. So it leads one to think that around the 13th century somebody slammed on the brakes.
Right. What happened is that they thought there was no culture that had anything to contribute to them, so they became completely insulated.
As the West went through the Renaissance, people in the West were learning and discovering all kinds of new things, taking the best of all the societies around them and so on, Islam was in a situation where someone had to make a ruling and issue a fatwa if an idea was proposed on how to make their ships better, but that idea came from an infidel vessel.
The right type of leadership in Iran could make the Arabs largely irrelavant despite their vast oil resources . . . and vice versa.
Good point. Thanks
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You’ll find Peter BetBasoo’s brilliant reply to that speech by Carly Fiorina on my home page.
The Muslims preserved much knowledge they got from conquered countries (is it ok to say conquered?), but real advances? Not so much.
Thought that was a goat stew.
Read the book “What Went Wrong” by Bernard Lewis. It takes about 7 hours and is very interesting. Then draw your own conclusions,
Constantinople alone managed to hang on as a civilized state while the Mohammedans in TYPICAL Muslim style bankrolled their “empire” by looting, plundering, slave dealing and warfare with one another and their Christian neighbors.
Islam is a piratical faith and a piratical culture.
This book is just so much pablum for politically correct imbeciles. If the Muslims had not turned the Mediterranean into no man's land for western Christians they could jolly well have gotten all the Roman and Greek Culture they needed from the Byzantines, without having it distilled through Islamic hands.
I get it. Kind of like Ivy Leaguers from the Northeast. They can't possibly learn from anybody else -- they know everything worth knowing.
We owe far more to Byzantium than we will ever owe the Islamic culture anything.
Mmmmmm. Goat stew! Mmmmmmmm.
The Islamic "Golden Age" occurred during their period of expansion, where there was a steady influx of loot and slaves who knew how to run a civilization. As soon as their expansion was stopped, and they had to survive on their own productivity, Islamic "civilization" went into steep decline. It was only resurrected when a new source of unearned wealth (oil discovered and drilled by Western companies) came along.
The Dark Ages of Western Europe began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around 400 AD. (Note, however, that the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, survived just fine well into the Middle Ages). Islam was not founded until the 7th Century.
There were lots of problems with barbarians, and the Islamic contribution definitely kept things bad for Western Europe for more centuries than would otherwise have been the case.
An interesting aspect to the fall of Rome was that it happened during a Global Cooling period, when dropping temperatures produced lower harvests (and thus less revenue to support the Legions), plus causing mass migrations of barbarian people looking for better farmland.
Man! Don’t say stuff like that w/o some details. I’m perfectly willing to believe it, and I know that the classics were preserved in the “East” and all. But I also know Ptolemy and Euclid and to some extent Aristotle came to us through the Muslims. And that ain’t hay.
Lots of that also came from Constantinople; I’m pretty sure
since Byzantine culture was Greek very early on that lots of classical works were passed on to us from them. Not to mention Roman law codified under Justinian I that passed into European law right down till modern times.
LOL...as someone who lives up here...I would say that is an entirely accurate analogy.
There are scholars who dispute that. Read Henri Prienne
“Mohammad and Charlemagne” an oldie but goodie.
The central government in Rome may have collapsed, but some of the “barbarian” successor states like the Ostrogoths in Italy and Visigoths in Iberia wished more to carry on in the Roman tradition than to destroy the culture and society. The spread of the Islamic menace through the Mediterranean, along with the kind of endmenic slave-rading and plundering naval actions so typical of Muslim bahavior towards all non-Muslims created a cultural break between western Europe and Byzanitum which was still a bastion of Greco-Roman culture.
“An interesting aspect to the fall of Rome was that it happened during a Global Cooling period, when dropping temperatures produced lower harvests (and thus less revenue to support the Legions), plus causing mass migrations of barbarian people looking for better farmland.”
It may have been a contributing factor in some cases, but the main reason for the initial Volkerwanderung was the conveyor belt of nomad warriors from Central Asia bringing the Huns westward.
The Roman Empire sort of self-destructed due to many factors like the lack of a clear order of secession, which drove a whirlwind of civil wars for imperial control. In the 200’s Roman civil wars pretty much devastated the military leadership of the legions as well as their manpower, driving them to recruit more and more barbarians en mass to fight against their own people under their own leaders rather than to gradually assimilate and Romanize them as they had done earlier. We SHOULD be taking notice of that. Currently, the influx of illegal aliens is so overwhelming our society that our ability to acculturate these people and assimilate them successfully has been seriously compromised, threatening the fabric of our society.
Well Euclid came to ‘the West’ because some monks snuck into Muslim Spain and copied it. Aristotle and Ptolemy MOSTLY came to us through Muslims. it’s not that Byzantium didn’t have this stuff. It just wasn’t reaching the West from there, or not a lot anyway.
Muslim “science” is mainly if not totally a ocpy or a plagiarism and extension of Greek science.
I agree. Rome was more a Mediterranean civilization rather than a European one, whose prosperity depended on free sea trade along the Med coastline. Islamic pirates cutting the sea lanes between Byzantium and the rest of the European Mediterranean devastated the Med economy. Plus Europe no longer had access to North African grain, and the overgrazing by Arab herders turned North Africa from the breadbasket of the Roman empire into the desert wasteland it is today.
“Plus Europe no longer had access to North African grain, and the overgrazing by Arab herders turned North Africa from the breadbasket of the Roman empire into the desert wasteland it is today. “
Good point!! I forgot about that.
The Romans had turned North Africa into a wealthy province with irrigation and farms. The Muslims in true arab style converted it back into a wasteland by neglect and damage.
Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?
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