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February 12, 2003

Islamic learning

John Jay Ray (fellow godless reactionary) issues a corrective toward the soft-tinted view of the Islamic "Golden Age". A minor quibble or two, many of the translators of Greek learning were in fact Christians fluent in the Hellenic tongue, but they might have spoken Aramaic at home, so let us give credit to the Syrian role in preserving the past. Additionally, the culture of the East Roman Empire was not necessarily "Greek" from its initial stages. I believe either Zeno or Anastatius in the late 5th century (150 years after the seeds of Byzantium were lain) were the first Greek speaking Emperors (as their native tongues). Even after them, Justinian in the early 6th century was a Latin speaker that ruled from Constantinople (and presided over the recompilation of Roman Law). The true Hellenization of the Empire began with Heraclius in the early 7th century, he introduced the organizational structure of themes to replace the provinces and diocese from more archaic times and became basilieus (king) as well as imperator (emperor) [1].

On a peripheral note, this brings up the concept of what an "Arab" is. Is a Christian who speaks Arabic an "Arab" or just an Arabic-speaking Christian? Remember that the Christians of Egypt, Syria and Iraq were originally speakers of other tongues, whether Coptic, Syriac or Greek. Eventually the Islamicization of society led to its Arabicization so that Arabic became the colloqiual and the previously dominant lingua francas became fossilized as liturgical shadows of their rich spoken pasts. The true Arabs are the people of northern Arabia, the Nefud, and the arid portions of Syria, Jordan and Iraq (the Byzantine Emperor Leo who repelled the Umayyad assault on Constantinople was of Arab descent, of the Ghassanid line of Syria). All other "Arabs" are Arabicized peoples, whether that be closely related ones such as the people of Yemen (Sabaeans) or the Levant (Armaeans), or more distant peoples such as Egyptians (Copts) or Maghrebis (Berbers). It seems clear to be a Muslim that speaks Arabic is a clear indication of ones' affiliation, but what about non-Muslims that speak Arabic? Though the Christians of Lebanon/Syria are traditionally termed "Arabs" I have read that some of them bristle at this assocation, and would like to associate more with the European Christian civilization of the Mediterranean. Certainly those of Maronite and Greek Orthodox religious orientation have other affinities besides the Arabic one despite the language of their birth [2]. Jews, whether Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian or Yemeni have always been excluded from the concept of "Arabness" despite their fluency with the language of the majority. A flexibility in the nature of Arabness is illustrated by the fact that four nations with very tenous claims to being Arab, the Comores, Djibouti, Somalia and Mauritania are members of the Arab League. Arab is I suppose a state of mind....

[1] Important point, remember that the Romans abhorred kings, so an emperor was preferable. Also, note that imperator was used as a common term for the princeps (first citizen) from the reign of Vespasian, circa 75 CE. Additionally, the 3rd century witnesses what some label a transition from the Principate (the high pagan civilian Empire) to the Dominate, the militarized late Empire that would become part of the forerunner of the Christian monarchies of the medieval period (the other root being of corse Germanic sacral royal traditions as well as decentralized tribal forms).
[2] The Jacobite Churches who reject both the Eastern Orthodox Chalcedonian communion and Rome have even a more ancient lineage, that of the Syrian/Aramaic traditions that reach back into the pre-Alexandrian age.

Posted by razib at 12:27 AM




Razib
You are right that the ruling class of Constantinople started out as Romans (though that was a very loose term by then) but the people of Byzantium were always Greek -- though the whole empire was not, of course. And not only Thrace but Magna Graeca was at the civilized core of the empire.

Posted by: John Ray at February 12, 2003 05:02 AM


Many Arabs in Spain (and elsewhere) during the
golden aga of "Arab" civilization, were actually
Persians. Apparently, it was a Persian who was
responsible for Algebra, but I don't hold that
against them.
BTW, it was a Persian who told me this, but it is
worth investigating. Persians initially rejected
Islam as a religion of infanticidal savages
who were reformed and enlightened by Mohammed.
It's all relative.

Posted by: MaryClaire at February 12, 2003 05:30 AM


The history of the Eastern Christian churches is fascinating but enormously messy. It all ultimately depends on abstruse arguments about the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, along with the relations between the persons of the trinity. An Armenian-American friend described Armenian (monophysite?) belief as "Unitarian" (Christ was a man, not a God), but then she was assimilated, middle class, and secular. As I understand, Ethiopian and Malabar Christian (of India) theology is the same, along with (I think) Syrian Orthodox.

But the Nestorians, as I recall, believed that there were two distinct natures of Christ.

All this is ripe for positivist critique, since neither belief is falsifiable or operationalizable and the terms "distinction-without-a-difference" and "angels dancing on the head of a pin" seem apropos.

Many of Chinggis Qan's troops were Nestorian Christian, including his daughter who had been married to a Christian named George. (Other Mongols of the time were named Mark and Cyriacus.) The Catholic monks who visited the Mongol ordos absolutely despised the Nestorian priests, probably for good reasons.

Pursuant to another theme of this site, south India and Ethiopia (and Yemen) apparently had a very ancient monsoon sea trade, and there is genetic evidence for intermarriage. The Christians of Kerala also follow the same monophysite (?) theology as the Ethiopians. Anecdotally, I had a co-worker a few years ago surnamed Solomon who I assumed was Ethiopian, but turned out to be from Kerala.

Posted by: john emerson at February 12, 2003 11:49 AM


short bio of the founder of algebra. the persians were mostly muslim by about the 10th century from what i've read (a slower islamicization than the central asian regions of "turan"). additionally, the arabs of spain would be the least persian influenced and the most greek influenced, as their ruling dynasty was for a long time the remnants of the umayyads of the first monarchial caliphal period in damascus. the "persianization" of the empire really happened during the abbassid period-and the abbassids did not have a great influence on spain, their center of gravity was further east.

the history of the eastern churches is messy-but you can think of it like this: first there is a arian, non-arian split. there are no arian churches left today, though the *unitarian* christians have affinities with ancient arianism, the emphasis on jesus being lesser than the father, perhaps non-divine. then you have the nestorian, non-nestorian split, the assyrian church of iraq is the only major nestorian church left. the christian churches of kerala were probably assyrian in origin, but none are affiliated with the nestorian tradition anymore. next you have the monophysite tradition, which is, as explained, armenian, ethiopian (via the coptic), jacobite (syrian) and the transferred loyalties of the kerala syrian orthodox christians (at some point in the middle ages the jacobite patriarch in syria took over spiritual leadership of this group from the assyrians).

but most of the christians of kerala today are not aligned with the jacobite leadership, but rather split between those who are uniate (affiliated with rome), protestanized (affiliated loosely with the anglican church) and conventional roman catholics.

as far as the nestorian influence on the mongols, this is well know. one of genghis khan's wives, sorkahntani was nestorian, the mother of hulegu (who also had a nestorian wife) and kubulai.

the theological arguments were mostly fronts for ethnic-historical tensions, as exemplified by the fact that the christians of sassanid persia tended to be nestorian because it was opposed with the chalcedonian theology of the byzantines....

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 12:10 PM


Well, another way to say it is that sects driven out of the Roman world (or destroyed) survived in the Persian world.

After your explanation it still sounds messy. I've been told that there are also Greek-Orthodox-affiliated Eastern churches.

From time to time you hear the terms "Syrian Orthodox" and "Ethiopian Orthodox", where "Orthodox" only means "Eastern", apparently. Because these churches are not orthodox by any Greek Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant standard.

Posted by: Zizka at February 12, 2003 03:07 PM


Re Persian influence in Spain--understood. Moslems in Spain were not influenced excessively by Persia as a country. Rather, many individuals from this land migrated to Spain and made contributions. Persia had a very ancient tradition of science; yet, whatever mystical bent Islam took, stemmed largely from them (they'd been Zoroastrians, and sometimes followers of Mithra after all,) a fact noted by certain British Arab-o-philes who disliked what they considered the flowery, indirect, even heretical approach, of the Persians, as compared to the spare bones of Bedouin desert folk.

Posted by: MaryClaire at February 12, 2003 07:29 PM


maryclair-you know the persian poet ferdowsi, though a muslim, had references to their resentment of the desert bedouin in his epic poem....

zizka-well, ethiopian "orthodox" is orthodox because it is the dominant and traditional faith of the country. you don't talk about coptic orthodox as much because it does not have the same role in that country. so what do you think about greek catholics? :)

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 07:40 PM


Hey, Razib, any bibliographical recommendations for further reading on the Eastern churches?

Posted by: Otto Kerner at February 12, 2003 08:46 PM


Well, to the Greek and Russian Orthodox, Orthodox means "orthodox", and the Ethiopians and Syrians just plain aren't -- much less so than the Catholics.

As late as the XIX century, Persian culture was important from Istanbul (and the rest of the Ottoman Empire) East to China and South far into India (the Mughals). There's a book called something like "Turko-Persia in a Historical Perspective" which details this.

And Persian influence did diffuse throughout Islam at all periods.

Posted by: zizka at February 12, 2003 08:53 PM


"Apparently, it was a Persian who was
responsible for Algebra, but I don't hold that
against them."

I always thought Indians 'invented' Algebra. My Mom told me this after I came home from Spanish and told her the teacher said the Mayans discovered the zero.

Posted by: -R at February 12, 2003 11:52 PM


Otto,

A history of the Byzantine state and society by Warren Treadgold, 1000+ pages on anything you need to know about byzantine society, academic, yet accessible.

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 11:55 PM


And very, very dry. I'm very interested int he area and the people and read mostly non-fiction, but I've already slogged to ahlat in the Treadgold twice, having to put it down for a while to read other things. And I'm not even halfway through it yet.

But I can vouch that it is comprehensive, although there are almost certainly better references if you're mainly interested in the religious aspects. You'll be reading 8 or 9 pages you're not interested in Treadgold to 1 that deals with religion, if the ratio is even that good.

Posted by: Doug Turnbull at February 13, 2003 09:36 AM


well-i didn't think it was that dry, but praps it says something about me? owen chadwick's histories of christianity or that of hans kung might be more accessible then....

Posted by: razib at February 13, 2003 11:45 AM


The history of the word algorithm is fascinating. First, the original form was algorism; the "th" came by analogy with "arithmetic", from the Greek. The Arabic original was something like "al-Khwarizm" meaning that the idea was named after a 9th century man from Khwarizm who wrote math books. Khwarizm is roughly Uzbekistan and was a Persian-speaking area during the medieval period (and still to this day, somewhat). It originally meant the arabic number system (which however did originate in the Indic world). Like the word "grammar", however, it also often meant "magic spells".

Source: Oxford English Dictionary.

Posted by: Zizka at February 13, 2003 01:04 PM


Yes, Ferdowsi expresses an Arab/Persian dichotomy, of which few outside the region are aware. Surfing to a Moslem holy web site did reveal that the inventers of algebra were Moslems, or at any rate they took it places it had never gone before. However, certain names they brag about are definitely Persian,(as the above post notes) but not indicated as such. If you go back far enough in time, there is a continuum of Greek, Persian and Hindu learning, isn't there? Still, it's interesting to note that the advances made by "Arab" civilization occurred after they became Moslems. There were even highly regarded women scholars in their world; Jews, being "people of the book," meaning believers in one of the several revealed religions, were prominent. Indeed, for a given time, Islam welcomed anyone's contribution if it shed light on the Universe. Then, after a point, it all slouched towards a dark tunnel....

Posted by: MaryClaire at February 13, 2003 04:21 PM


Many Muslims date the decline of Islam to the period of Mongol and Ottoman dominance. In what I've seen the decline was not evident during the brief Mongol period, though.

I think that it is just erroneous to consider the worst traits of Islam to be essential.

Posted by: Zizka at February 13, 2003 06:57 PM


I just read Ray's piece and the best word for it is "ignorant". Between about 700 AD and about 1000 AD Islam was almost the only center of Western civilization; after 1000 or so the rest of the West started to catch up. (You heard me right: how far east is Andalusia?) Yes, the Greeks in Byzantium still kept Greek culture alive, but before approximately 1500, for whatever reason, the Catholic world learned infiontely more from the Muslims than from the Greeks.

Anyone who wants to, incidentally, can tell me what the greatest literary and scholarly works of the Catholic world were between the death of Boethius (ca 525 AD) and 1000 AD. My list is: Beowulf; John Scotus Eregina; and God knows who else. Alcuin? Dicuil? Isidore of Seville? Gregory of Tours? Paul the Deacon?
It was a dry period, to say the least.

Posted by: Zizka at February 13, 2003 07:08 PM


Those who best expressed the essence of Christianity
perhaps did precede Mohammed. Augustine died in the
5th century. The influence of lesser known, later
thinkers of the "dark ages" should not be dismissed though.
They participated in the slow formation of Christian
Europe and it is a curious thing that while Islam
burgeoned, Europe was a slow study, but when Islamic
learning hit a brick wall, the Christians leaped
over it (and fell in the mud at times.) It seems that
the flower of Christian civilization and the flower
of Islamic civilization refuse to blossom in the
same garden. A new strain will emerge. It always
does.

Posted by: MaryClaire at February 14, 2003 06:24 AM


what exactly is a Nestorian priest. WHere they not Christian?

Posted by: Stephen at March 22, 2003 05:42 PM


Yup

The Eastern/Oriental Orthodox churches have imo as much right as the Byzantine Orthodox churches to cal themselves orthodox. They are some of the oldest Christian churches.

Oriental orthodox churches:

(Jakobite) Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
Coptic Orthodox Church (of Alexandria)
Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church
Malankara Orthodox (Syrian) Church
Ethopian Orthodox Church
Eritrean Orthodox Church

The situation is esepcially very messy and complicated in India (Malankara Church), the comunity is divided among as many as 10 main churches. It used to be a part of the (Assyrian) Church of the East. When the Portugese arrived, they more or less forced Latin rite and communion with Rome on them. Some didn't like that and they split, with the help of the Syriac Orthodox church. Some later split away from that group again to form the independant Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church was created in the 90's when Eritrea became independant.

There excist also Greek-Orthodox churches of Alexandria and Antiochia, these are the parts of the churches that accepted the council of Chalkedonia.

Posted by: Thomas at March 25, 2003 01:32 PM


Yup

The Eastern/Oriental Orthodox churches have imo as much right as the Byzantine Orthodox churches to cal themselves orthodox. They are some of the oldest Christian churches.

Oriental orthodox churches:

(Jakobite) Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
Coptic Orthodox Church (of Alexandria)
Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church
Malankara Orthodox (Syrian) Church
Ethopian Orthodox Church
Eritrean Orthodox Church

The situation is esepcially very messy and complicated in India (Malankara Church), the comunity is divided among as many as 10 main churches. It used to be a part of the (Assyrian) Church of the East. When the Portugese arrived, they more or less forced Latin rite and communion with Rome on them. Some didn't like that and they split, with the help of the Syriac Orthodox church. Some later split away from that group again to form the independant Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church was created in the 90's when Eritrea became independant.

There excist also Greek-Orthodox churches of Alexandria and Antiochia, these are the parts of the churches that accepted the council of Chalkedonia.

Posted by: Thomas at March 25, 2003 01:32 PM