Wrath of God?

Holy Warriors and Asiatics Extinguishing the Light of Islam

Jesus Never Existed The Challenge of Islam

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Kenneth Humphreys

 


07.10.11

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Ship Shape

In the ancient world the square sail was universal – on Roman galleys, Viking longships, Chinese junks. But square sails made sea-faring entirely dependent on a fair wind.

Arab Dhow


About the 9th century, in the constantly variable winds and narrow waterways of the Red Sea, Arab sailors and pirates developed a triangular or 'lateen' sail which gave them better manoeuvrability and a speed advantage.

 

Portuguese Caravel, the type of vessel used by Henry the Navigator to edge his way down the west coast of Africa. It was fitted with an Arab 'lateen' sail.

 


In the late in Middle Ages, as a result of contact with the Arabs, European ships started incorpo-rating triangular sails on their ships, together with a mizzen mast (derived from the Arab word 'miizaan', meaning balance).

These three masted ships made the ocean voyages of Columbus, Diaz, and Vasco da Gama possible.

 

 

 

 

 

Bath Time

Umayyad baths, Jaen, Spain. Echoes of Rome.

 

Smelling Good

A form of soap appeared in Moorish Spain in the 8th century where it was made with goat fat and ashes. A 'luxury' version developed in Castile with the addition of olive oil.

A crude attempt at soap making began in 17th century Europe using pork fat and lye (caustic soda)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food & Drink

Coffee derives its name from the original source of the tree, the Ethiopian highlands of Kaffa – and was transmitted to other languages via the Arabic 'qahwah' and the Turkish 'kahveh.'

Around the 10th century Sufis in the Yemen began using the drink as a stimulus to stay awake for all-night prayer.

In the mid-17th century Venetian traders brought the beans to Europe and the first coffee houses opened Paris and London.

The crescent shaped croissant was a pastry made to celebrate a victory over the Ottomans.

 

 

 

Sherbet and syrup derive from Arabic 'sharbah' – a drink made from melted snow. Entered English from French sorbet.

Both 'lemons' and 'limes' have Arab/ Persian origin and the fruits were introduced to Europe by Arabs.

Other Arab imports included oranges, apricots, mulberries, bananas, watermelons and eggplants.

 

Sugar (from Arabic 'sukhar'/Persian 'shakar'). The Arabs planted sugar cane extensively.

Rice cultivation, native to India, followed, in regions hot enough to support the crop – Spain and Sicily.

Artichoke (from Arabic 'al-kharshuf')

 

Instead of the soft summer emmer wheat cultivated by the Romans the Arabs introduced hard durum wheat. Its higher gluten content allowed longer storage and various uses – such as pasta and couscous.

In contrast, northern Europe ate barley and rye bread.

 

 

 

 

Love & Romance

Troubadour (from Arabic 'tarrab', to sing)

Poet-musicians of 12th/ 13th century France, notably Provence, got their ideas from Mozarabic Spain.

The wandering minstrels propagated the notion of a 'courtly love', which struck a contrast with the loveless, dynastic marriages of Europe.

The influence of the troubadours was reinforced by tales from returning pilgrims and crusaders, titillated by the perceived delights of the harem.

 

 

 

No, Not the Comfy Chair!

Sofa (from Arabic 'suffah') – comfort for the quieter moments

 

 

 

 

 

1001 Nights

The anonymous Arabian Nights, a huge corpus of stories of which the best known are those of Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and Aladdin, was collated in Arabic about the 10th century, from Persian, Indian and Arab originals.


The classic stories first reached Europe in an 18th century French translation.

 

 

 

 

 

Printing

In 1454, Gutenberg developed the most sophisticated printing press of the Middle Ages. However, movable brass type was in use in Islamic Spain 100 years prior, and that is where the West's first printing devices were made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Warriors

The Arabs conquered almost the whole of Spain within three years. Many towns capitulating in return for the promise of religious tolerance. Those who had suffered from the harsh intolerance of the Visigothic Catholic Kings – Arians, heretics, Jews – welcomed and assisted the new rulers. Even some Visigothic princes (for example, Theodemir of Murcia) submitted to Arab overlords and kept their thrones.

But others retreated to the mountains of the Asturias. From these small enclaves, after witnessing several centuries of Muslim brilliance, stagnation and decline, Christian knights were able to mount the "reconquest" of Spain. In this they were helped by the rise of fanaticism within Islam.

 

The First Crusaders

Charles Martel's son Pepin the Short (751-768), in return for regal legitimacy bestowed by Pope Stephen II, in 754 defeated the Arian/Pagan Lombards and handed conquered territories to the papacy. He then reduced Arab possessions north of the Pyrenees.

Charlemagne, grandson of Charles Martel, followed in the family tradition of sacred butchery. In 774 he re-invaded Lombardy and at Worms in 775 he declared holy war on the Saxons. Three years later, satisfied that the pagans had been suitably chastised (he was wrong: the war continued for thirty years), he turned his attention towards the Arab empire in the south.

Assembling a massive army of Franks, Lombards, Burgundians, Bavarians and Goths, he crossed the Pyrenees at both ends. He immediately ran into difficulties. The Christians of Navarre resisted his advance:

"The Christian subjects of the Moslem emirate appeared to be quite content with their tolerant Saracen overlords." (R. Winston, Charlemagne, p46)

Unable to prevail against the Arab stronghold of Saragossa, and in hostile territory, a dejected Charles turned north again, venting his spite on the Christian city of Pamplona.

Walls Fall Down – Big Charles at Pamplona in 778. The Basques had driven out the Arab garrison forty years earlier.

But as Charlemagne passed through the defile of Roncesvalles the Basques took their revenge and ambushed his column. Among the Frankish commanders who fell was a certain Roland.

In the hands of 'romantic poets' the whole sorry episode would be immortalised as an edifying tale of Christian heroism – 'Chanson de Roland' ('The Song of Roland') – with the Basques, necessarily, transformed into deceitful Saracens!

After this first defeat in 10 years of warfare Charles never returned to Spain – but frequently sent his generals over the Pyrenees to nibble away a Spanish 'March' – a desolated border zone.

 

Like Father, Like Son

When the Visigoths capitulated to the Arab invaders in 711 their kingdom included Septimania and an area of southwest France.

In 717 the Arabs crossed the Pyrenees to take possession. But whilst rival emirs squabbled during 725-30, the kingdom of Aquitaine forged an alliance with the Berber commander in the north who had raided as far as Autun.

Alarmed by the independent action of nominal subordinates, the Franks invaded Aquitaine while Emir al-Rahman crossed the Pyrenees in force.

The two armies met somewhere between Poitiers and Tours. After several days of skirmishes, the Arab army withdrew under cover of darkness, not least because of a Berber uprising in North Africa.

The Frankish commander Charles 'Martel' gained the epithet ('The Hammer') for his 'great victory.'

According to the Christian fantasy 'Chronicle of St Denis' 300,000 'Saracens' had fallen and Christian civilization had been saved by this soldier of the cross.

But an ungrateful Church synod later cursed his memory – he had had the audacity to use Church income to pay for his troops and parcelled out Church land to reward his generals!

 

Wrath of God

During the 10th and 11th centuries what the Islamic world had preserved – and developed – of ancient wisdom began to flow back into Europe, together with precious spices, fabulous cloth and a vast emporium of both rich and practical goods.

Having done so, the states of Europe, animated by pious avarice for the 'riches of the east', launched two centuries of warfare – the Crusades and in the 12th and 13th centuries established enclaves in the Levant.

The savagery of the 'armed monks' coincided with the blitzkrieg from the east mounted by the Mongols from central Asia (with whom the Christians attempted to form an alliance and not unrealistically – at least one Mongol general was a Nestorian Christian). The Islamic world was sent reeling.

 

Losing the Light

Military reversals did not bode well for enlightened Islam. In a manner not unlike the beleaguered Roman Caesars centuries earlier, Muslim regimes turned to mounted nomads and barbarians to fight for them – and reaped a similar fate.

Seljuk Turks from central Asia, initially hired as mercenaries in the 10th century, took power in Baghdad in 1055. The Berbers of North Africa, used in the original 8th century conquest of Spain, mutinied and sacked Cordoba.

To the delight of the Christians waiting in the mountains, first Almoravids from the Moroccan Sahara wrecked Andalus. Then, in the 13th century, Almohads from the Maghreb repeated the assault. In each case the new barbarians acted in God's name and fought for a 'purity of faith.' The price of religious purity, as ever, was civilization.

 

The Light of Reason?

Centuries before Aquinas and the 'Schoolmen', Islam made an attempt to reconcile 'revelation' with reason, knowledge with faith, and religion with philosophy.

In the Islamic view each field of science was merely a branch of philosophy. Thus the Islamic 'philosophers' tended to be polymaths, intermingled their metaphysical theorising with practical study of biology, chemistry, botany, astronomy,music and medicine (it was as doctors that many earned a living.) Free thought even had a name – 'ijtihad'.


The Mutazilites

In 748 Wasil ibn Ata founded the Mutazilite ('Separatist') school in Syria, building on Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle in particular, and urging the use of 'ijtihad' to ask open questions about science and society. The Mutazilites argued that God's actions were dictated by justice and freedom, and that reason alone was sufficient to understand the nature of existence– a courageous challenge to the strictures of emerging Islamic theology (the 'kalam'). In the 830/840s, perhaps because free science had the potential to develop better weapons, the Mutazilites were backed by the Abbasid caliph.


Sufism

780s Sufism: Islamic mysticism – Sufism – first arose in Syria and Iraq soon after the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century. The Levant already had a long tradition of asceticism. Eastern Christianity had for some centuries populated the desert with stylites, anchorites, and swarms of unwashed monks. The Sufis continued the religious madness, seeking the divine through a contempt for worldly pleasure and a life of austere poverty. 'Otherworldliness' – a form of freely interpreted metaphysics – was theirs.


Philosophers: The 'falsafah' movement

800 - 873 Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (aka 'Alkindus', an Iraqi) – philosopher, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, physician, geographer and musicologist. He made original contributions in all of these fields and Gerard of Cremona translated some of his work into Latin. The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation by al-Kindi describes many essential oils, including imported Chinese camphor.

870 - 950 The Turkic-Persian Abu Nasr al Farabi (aka 'Alfarabius'), scholar of Baghdad and Aleppo, was a philosopher and Neoplatonist, as well as a Qadi (judge) for his 'protector' Amir Saif al-Daula. Farabi advanced logical thinking by separating 'takhayyul' (the idea) from 'thubut' (the proof) and worked towards a synthesis of philosophy and Sufism, paving the way for Ibn Sina's work.

979-1037 Ibn Sina, a disciple of Aristotle, identified 'Allah' with Plato's 'Prime Mover'.

1095 -1138 Ibn Bajja (aka 'Avempace'), philosopher of Saragossa, Spain, in 'The Hermit's Guide', developed the tradition of Islamic Neoplatonism begun by al-Farabi. Man ('the hermit') may develop his mind (will and reason) to attain union with the 'Active Intellect' and ultimately, perfection.


"Brotherhood of Purity"

In the 10th century Ikhwan al-Safa founded a secret 'Brotherhood of Purity' in Basra, Iraq. The beliefs of the group diverged sharply from orthodox Islam and incorporated elements of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, astrology, and the occult sciences.

The brotherhood is best known for having produced a philosophical and religious encyclopedia, Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and Loyal Friends, whose purpose was to provide enlightenment that would 'purify the soul and provide happiness in the next life.' Ikhwan al-Safa wrote:

'The beginning of philosophy (falsafah) is the love of the sciences, its middle is knowledge of the realities of existence to the measure of human ability, and its end words and deeds in accordance with knowledge.'


This was perhaps the closest that the modern Western idea of philosophy developed within the Islamic world – but it was centuries before the European Enlightenment.

 

 

Re-assertion of Orthodoxy – The Closing Mind

The Iranian Hamid Al Ghazzali (1058-1128) reasserted the cause of religion.

In his famous work 'Tuhafut al-Falasifa' ('The Incoherence of the Philosophers') al-Ghazzali held that the approach of logic and the mathematical sciences was essentially correct but he opposed what he regarded as 'excessive rationalism'. Logic should merely be used to elucidate 'God's reality'.

Al-Ghazali argued that it was impossible to comprehend the 'absolute and the infinite' and questioned the reliability of the senses. In effect, he formulated a 'Cartesian doubt' centuries ahead of Descartes! Towards the end of his life, al-Ghazzali renounced the world and became a Sufi mystic.

Al-Ghazali's work influenced both Jewish and Christian Scholasticism and several of his arguments passed into the theology of Thomas Aquinas who similarly sought to reestablish the authority of orthodox religion.

With al-Ghazzali, philosophy, as a discipline distinct from theology, came to an end in the Islamic world. Islam's university system began to emphasize the teaching of theology ('Kalam'), in some places almost exclusively, and attacks began on the philosophers by theologians.

In Muslim Spain, a last word came from Cordoba-born Ibn Rushd (aka 'Averroës,' 1126-1198). Ibn Rushd served as qadi (chief judge) for the enlightened amir Ibn Yaqub, for whom he translated Aristotle and Plato.

But this was a time of increasing conflict with Christian Spain and growing fanaticism throughout Europe and the Middle East. For his free-thinking Ibn Rushd was banished from Cordoba 1195.

Ibn Rushd was the last of the philosophers, his death a few years later coinciding with end of Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

 

Darkness Falls in Al Andalus

When the 'Mohammadans' were driven out of Spain by Christian knights from the north, Christian savagery turned on the Jews, who numerically had barely recovered from the previous Christian assault under the Catholic Visigothic kings. The most fortunate fled, some to Morocco with the Moors, many others to the Turkish empire. Wealthy, educated Jews who chose to stay and 'accept Christ' became the prime victims of the Inquisition.

And Spain, a land which once had led Europe in science, art and literature, a land of scholars, merchants and knights, became a place of beggars, friars, and bandits. In a typical example of pious vandalism the fine irrigation system that had made southern Spain a richly productive garden was all but reduced to desert in the interest of religious purity:

"Felipe III (1578-1621) later ordered the expulsion of half the total number of Moriscos in Spain – allowing only two families to remain in each Alpujarran village in order to maintain irrigation techniques." (Spain, Rough Guide, p622)

 

Storm from the East

By the end of the 13th century the Mongols had devastated the eastern lands of Islam and spread terror all the way from the Sinai desert to India. The Abbasid caliphate was finally destroyed when Hulagu, the Mongol ruler, captured Baghdad in 1258, destroying much of the city including its incomparable libraries.

“The city was systematically looted, destroyed and burnt. Eight hundred thousand persons are said to have been killed. The Khalif Mustasim was sewn up in a sack and trampled to death under the feet of Mongol horses.

For five hundred years, Baghdad had been a city of palaces, mosques, libraries and colleges. Its universities and hospitals were the most up-to-date in the world. Nothing now remained but heaps of rubble and a stench of decaying human flesh.”

– Sir John Bagot Glubb, On the Holocaust of Baghdad


In time, Islam recovered politically from the catastrophe but at a terrible cost. Confronted with inhumane brutality on a vast and sustained scale Islam reacted in kind, becoming as vicious and intolerant as the Christian knights and heathen horsemen that had destroyed its cities. The renaissance was dead.

Fragmentation of the Islamic empire was followed by a partial reunification under the leadership of various barbarous nomads from the steppe.

Like Christian Bishops working the tribesmen of northern Europe, the imams of Islam achieved by stealth what Arab horsemen could not achieve by the sword and the first of a series of dynasties of Asiatic Islam were installed in triumph.

 

In the 11th and 12th centuries the Seljuk Turks, as zealous recent converts to Islam, adopted a rigorous orthodox Asharite theology which completely supplanted the intellectual sciences which had gone before. Unlike the more tolerant Fatamids, the Seljuks refused Christian pilgrimage in the Holy Land, exacerbating the conflict there.

In the 13th century the Mongols adopted Islam and installed their own unenlightened and brutal regime, the Il-Khanate. One group alone was spared the wrath of the Mongols (such was their fear of 'demons'): 'holy men.'

The Mongols were succeeded by Timur, a zealous Muslim conqueror who wrecked much of India. He and his descendants ruled from their Asiatic capital of Samarqand from 1369 to 1500. And then, from humble origins another branch of the Turks, the 'Ottomans,' rose to dominance over the whole of Anatolia and parts of Europe.

 

Asiatic Islam – Extinguishing the Light

In 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople and put an end to the 'Christian Empire' of Byzantium.

Religious fanaticism ruled in the capitals of Islam. Though immensely powerful and rich compared to the puny states of western Europe little that was new would emerge from the realm of the Ottomans and it 'missed out' on the Industrial Revolution that Islam's early promise had made possible.

Islam had recovered politically but it had left behind forever its brief spring of liberality and innovation.

 

Sources:
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Allen Lane, 1994)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin, 1984)
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam, Arab Conquests
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)

 

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Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material herein is sold for profit.