How the Sabians saved civilization?

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Reading The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey I stumbled upon this on page 939:

...In some places paganism survived the Arab conquest. in 830 the people of Carrhae [modern day Harran], a city always notorious for its devotion to the old gods, were threatened with massacre by the Caliph unless they abandoned their religion for Islam or one of the tolerated faiths and only saved themselves by profession themselves to be Sabians. To this day the heretical sect of the Nusairi in the mountains between the upper Ortones and the sea profess doctrines which clearly derive from the Neo-Platonic paganism of the later empire….

The “Nusairi” refers to the Alawites, a heterodox marginally Islamic sect whose claim to fame lay in its control of the modern day state of Syria. I had long known of the late paganism of Carrhae. In other cities where paganism was vital and dominated civic life during the 6th century the Byzantine Emperors employed the force of arms to destroy the temples and crush public sponsorship of non-Christian piety (Gaza, Heliopolis, etc.); the religious life of Carrhae was protected in part by its closeness to the Persian Empire. Some of the philosophers scattered after the closing of the Academy eventually settled in Carrhae, which in some ways resembled a time capsule that had preserved the sensibilities of pagan late antiquity, where the astral cults reigned supreme over a latitudinarian religious culture.

In any case, reading up on the Sabians I am not convinced of a direct connection between this group and the Alawites. Though we must classify and demarcate religious sentiments as if they stand alone, we intuitively understand that a system of beliefs are affected by the Zeitgeist. Carrhae was dominated by Sabians until 1050, when Muslims took over the city (the Sabians were found in nearby areas for several centuries until the Mongol invasions, their folkways are attested by Maimonides). This is approximately the period when many of heterodox Islamic and post-Islamic sects arose, the various Ismaili groups, the Druze and the Alawites & Yezidis. It stands to reason that the Sabians might have influenced the thinking of many of their neighbors because they were a prominent community. Similarly, the Sabians themselves emerged out of the substrate of the northern Levant and upper Mesopotamia, so the similarities between modern groups like the Alawites and the medieval Sabians might simply be due to the fact that they share the same mix of cultural preconditions.1

But my interest in the possibility that the Alawites descend from the last pagan remnants of antiquity in the east disappeared when I read about Thabit ibn Qurra, the most prominent of the Sabians. He was an “Arab” astronomer and mathematician, and one of the heads of the famous House of Wisdom. Some cursory searching on Google Books implies that he was not an anomaly, the Sabians were well represented amongst the translators who mediated aspects of Greek learning and made it accessible to the Arab Islamic world.

Why is this relevant? One of the historical myths of our era is that the Arab Muslim saved the Greek achievement for Western civilization. The argument is that there runs a line of tradition starting during the Greek Classical period down to the modern post-Enlightenment era which was preserved by the efforts of the House of Wisdom. This is false insofar as the Byzantines also transmitted Greek works to the West, and the refugees who washed up on the shores of Italy during the late medieval period as Constantinople fell before the Turks helped spark the Italian Renaissance. But the Byzantine role is not sexy because it doesn’t serve a multicultural narrative (before the contemporary period the emphasis placed upon Islamic civilization’s role in preserving Greek learning was used as a cudgel against Western Christianity). And yet an important fact about the House of Wisdom is that it was a multicultural affair, and that during the early phases most of the work was in the hands of multilingual dhimmis, who were after all in a position to know Greek and Arabic. Though I had known of the role of Nestorian Christians, the Sabians’ part was somewhat of a surprise (I was to understand that some of the translators were pagans, but I had not known that that was a synonym for Sabians from Carrhae). Now, unlike Christians or Muslims, I think one might contend that the Sabians of Carrhae had less ambivalence toward the Greek pagan heritage, after all, their culture was a descendant of one that had sheltered the last of the Neo-Platonic philosophers. I am therefore inclined to wonder if the Sabians in particular were a vector for preserving and promoting the rich intellectual tradition which stretched back to the pre-Socratics? I will have to look into this hypothesis (I’m skeptical actually).

On a broader theoretical level I am curious about the role that small cultures like the Sabians play in the dynamics of cultural and civilizational change. Carrhae remained a pagan stronghold because of an accident of geography, its strategic position near the border with Persia and the protection offered by the Shah resulted in the preservations of its peculiar civic paganism in the face of an aggressively Christianizing empire. Though a man of Carrhae could never hope to be great in imperial service without baptism, if one wanted to be a man of standing and influence within one’s own community then pagan profession was necessary so that one could partake of the communal sacraments. The forcible destruction of these sacraments in other pagan cities destabilized this social equilibrium and the result was inevitable Christianization as local elites defected from a religious cult which no longer accrued prestige but was a universal liability.

But though this was the proximate dynamic which led to Carrhae preserving its pagan character, I am offering here the possibility that this might have had a long term ultimate impact of serving as a major conduit for the thought of late antiquity down to the Islamic period. If Carrhae had not preserved its unique culture no doubt the Nestorian scholars of the House of Wisdom would have done their fair bit of translation, but one wonders what the Muslims might have overlooked? This is not to say that Carrhae was a font of rationality and wisdom, many would characterize late Neo-Platonism as a debased supernatural cult with only the faintest philosophical touches. But, just as Hinduism has under its broad umbrella primitive devotionalisms and rarified Avaita Vedanta, so late classical paganism spanned the gamut. In contrast, one might contend that the rise of Christianity and Islam resulted in a constraining of the avowed beliefs of the elite, a homogenization of the complexities of the late antique intellectual landscape. During the centuries after the rise of Islam perhaps Carrhae served as a reservoir of intellectual diversity? Do microcultures play the same role within the matrix of other homogenizing macrocultures?

1 – This region was the meeting place of Greek, Arab, non-Arab Semite, Armenian, Persian and Kurd, to name a few. There were also variations within this region, Syria had a far stronger Greek presence than northern Mesopotamia, which had an elite Syraic speaking culture. In any case, the presence of deep rooted Astral cults seems universal. I once read that the Ottoman sultan once made progress through a Kurdish town where the residents worshiped the sun. The sultan was angered by this paganism, and eventually the residents were taken under the wing of the local Jacobite bishop. This is very similar to the story of caliph Al-Ma’mum forcing the residents of Carrhae to choose a protected religion, so I am not sure if these incidents are necessarily true, as opposed to repeating a common motif.



  1. I’m currently working on a manuscript, “How the Papuans Saved Civilization.”

  2. …..and ate them.

  3. Carrhae was also the site of a major battle demarking Persia and Rome. 
    I think that microcultures are extremely important, especially because they’re often mediating cultures acceptable on both side of the line. 
    The Middle East is studded with weird religions. The Mandaeans (also called Sabaeans) in the Persian Gulf delta are sometimes thought to be heirs of the Gnostics, though some say Babylonian pagans, and I’d be interested in knowing if they’re connected in any way to the Yezedi or Alawi. (There’s so much tendentious stuff up that Google isn’t too helpful, I’d have to go to a library to be sure about more than what I just said. As you said in a different context, new religions can arise without external contact just by tweaking the existing religion.) 
    The Muslim transmission of Greek and the Byzantine were two different bodies of work during two different periods. Aristotle and a few other things were transmitted from Islam about 900 AD on, and then a flood of stuff came from Byzantium after 1400 or so. This new stuff helped shake Aristotelian orthodoxy.  
    It’s true that the first generation of translators were Christians and other non-Muslims, but later Muslim thinkers made their own original contributions and they weren’t just mediators. Furthermore, it is to the credit of Islam that the encouragement of scholarship, even by non-Muslims, was essentially an article of faith. (“Seek wisdom, even in China…. the ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of martyrs.) 
    Between about 550 AD and about 900 AD Western Europe was intellectually completely sterile, with a very few authors producing chronicles and encyclopedias of only historical interest. There was nothing worth reading after Boethius. (Charlemagne’s great thinkers were Alcuin, Dicieul (sp.), and Hrabanus Maurus. Who?) So I’d say your skepticism / revisionism is excessive. 
    At my link I’ve put something somewhat relevant.

  4. It’s peculiar that the article on Harran says that the “beehive hut” is characteristic of this area and goes back 3,000 years, when in Ireland the first monks – which I’ve always though must have been influenced by Anchorites from Egypt – lived in beehive huts too. The coastal areas of Kerry – the extreme South West of the country – are strewn with them. Interestingly, legend states that St Patrick – although he spend 40 years preaching in Ireland – never ventured into Kerry. Why? I suspect because they were already Christian, by way of the Eastern Med area. 
    I’d be interested in knowing the connection between the Sabians Gnostics/Sufis. I believe the word Sufi is derived from the Aribic root Suf which means wool – a reference to the long white woolen robes worn by early Sufis. Interestingly, the Irish diaspora monks – the Peregrini – also wore exactly the same garb.

  5. So I’d say your skepticism / revisionism is excessive. 
    i would hold that the islamic world was sufficient, but not necessary, for the eventual revitalization of the west, assuming that byzantium’s progress is as we know it (i believe that many greek works were preserved because of one particular encyclopediast in the 10th century, so the redundancy was good in hindsight).  
    the question to answer is this: were there any works found in the arabic corpus from the ancient times not found in the byzantine, and vice versa?

  6. In regards to Emerson’s comment regarding the sterility of Western Christendom during the period 550 to 900, one should make due allowances for the low level of economic/political devlopment at the time. Also, you seem to be rather overvaluing Boethius (A rather derivitive thinker) and completly overlooking Johannes Scotus Erigena (Circa 815-877), a thinker who adumbrates the great thinkers of the high middle ages.

  7. Devaluing Boethius just lengthens the period of sterility. As for Erigina, I guessed wrong about his dates. As far as I know, except for Beowulf from a quit different traditions, Erigina was the first author of any real interest in W. Europe after Boethius. 
    Razib, I still disagree. The Byzantine tradition was heavily infested with neo-Platonism and tended toward religious obscurantism. (Look at Russia, which developed in a Byzantine framework). The Muslims not only passed on texts, they developed an intellectual culture which did original work. Averroes is the most pertinent name; his work was contributory to the most progressive Western work (Abelard, Ockham, etc.) and was by no means just derivative from the classical tradition. I do not hear of any Byzantine thinkers with the importance of Avicenna, Averroes, Al-Farabi, and a number of other lesser thinkers.

  8. The Byzantine tradition was heavily infested with neo-Platonism and tended toward religious obscurantism 
    religious obscurantism only won a final victory in the 13th-14th centuries from what i know. 
    I do not hear of any Byzantine thinkers with the importance of Avicenna, Averroes, Al-Farabi, and a number of other lesser thinkers. 
    bessarion and plethon. but yes, i won’t deny that it wasn’t a particularly original culture overall, but, part of its dimness set against islam can be normalized due to small size and long periods of duress (only in the decades around 1000 did th byzantines have a real advantage over the muslims).

  9. Let me go at it again: after about 900 AD the philosophy of the (enemy) Muslim world was much more influential in Europe than the philosophy of the (nominally friendly) Byzantine world. It seems to me that if Byzantium had much to offer they would have been the dominant influence (in fact, before about 900 AD they probably were, but this was a relativel unfruitful age).  
    In other words, it wasn’t the case that W. Europe happened for some contingent reason to be more influenced by Islam than by Byzantium. What happened was that, given simultaneous access to both, W. Europe found the Muslim body of work (produced under Muslim auspices, not always by Muslims) to be more valuable — for good reason, I think.  
    I would date the Muslim decadence from the death of Ibn Khaldun (1406). I don’t think that you should try to push it back any earler. Many think that the Turco-Mongol influence was decisive, but even some of the Turco-Persian Timurids (Ulugh Beg, d. 1449, an astronomer-king who updated Ptolemy and was honored by Tycho and others).

  10. W. Europe happened for some contingent reason to be more influenced by Islam than by Byzantium. What happened was that, given simultaneous access to both, W. Europe found the Muslim body of work (produced under Muslim auspices, not always by Muslims) to be more valuable — for good reason, I think. 
    i think you need to decompose “western europe.” italy was far more directly influenced by byzantine scholars than france, where a group of neo-aristotelians came to the fore in the 13th century, and so were directly indebted to averroes. as for why the french were so influenced by averrores, well, one reason might have been that there was a bilingual mozarab population fluent in both latinate and arabic (the mozarab elite would probably have known some latin for religious reasons). obviously translations from arabic to latin made works particular accessible. in contrast, my understanding is that the simultaneous period was one where the greeks turned away from the west (in part because of the sack of constantinople). i think the ‘andalusian’ focus is in part geographically biased, we, as anglophones are part of the anglo-french cultural heritage which arose under the norman dominion. if we were italian speakers i suspect we would be more cognizant of the influence of men like bessarion in the reclamation of greek learning in the original. also, here is an important point: i am to understand that muslim preservation of greek learning tended to focus on scientific and philosophical texts. would we have the ancient greek plays & histories were it not for the byzantines? i think perhaps not.