Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History

It is important to dispel misconceptions about a “Golden Age” propounded in ANY sacred history.  This must be done with the understanding that upsetting a sacred apple cart will not sit well with those who’s existential ballast rests on those apple carts.

Romanticizing the so-called “Golden Age” of Islam has become somewhat of a cottage industry for Islamic apologists.  Much of this involves the bromide that the Muslim world preserved the wisdom of the ancient world–and that we should be thankful for the gesture.  Indeed, we ARE thankful for the gesture…which was tragically necessary due to the virulently anti-intellectual policies of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe for so long.

The preservation of ancient materials was a laudable enterprise so far as it goes.  The “catch” is that it only goes so far.  After all, curation is not creation.

As we’ll see, for every work preserved, there was an untold number destroyed; and, typically, destroyed for explicitly religious reasons (see my two-part series: “The History Of Salafism”).  So the refurbishing of extant material within Dar al-Islam was not as estimable an endeavor as it might seem at first blush.

The fact is: A handful of scribes outside of Christendom (read: beyond the reach of the Vatican’s intellect-stifling dominion) managed to preserve selected Greco-Roman, Persian, and Indian works from Ancient Antiquity.  Much of that occurred in the Muslim world.  Be that as it may, we mustn’t pretend that keeping records of others’ accomplishments was itself a towering accomplishment.  In medieval Dar al-Islam, the project was more a salutary service–for posterity–than it was emblematic of widespread intellectual flourishing.

There are, of course, some notable examples of such headway–which I will explore forthwith.  For now, it suffices to say that there emerged some preliminary astronomy, some rudimentary optics, some crude medical treatments, and some elementary algebra / trigonometry.  In terms of inventions during this era, the Chinese invented far more than anyone else in the world–most notably: anesthesia, gun-powder, paper, reusable print, and movable type.

The fact that there were sporadic felicitous occurrences in Dar al-Islam (primarily: scriveners tasked with preserving documents from the Axial-Age) attested to the virtue of the occasional stalwart, not to the (imagined) virtues of the ambient religiosity.  In terms of inventions from the Muslim world that WERE used, much of it was improvement on pre-existing inventions–as with the astrolabe (a matter that will be discussed forthwith).

Today, those smitten with romanticized Islamic historiography are glibly ignorant of the actual history.  In order to cultivate an accurate understanding of Islam’s “Golden Age”, it is necessary to disabuse ourselves of popular myths about its oft-touted achievements.  My thesis here is as follows: What is often dubbed Islam’s “Golden Age” would more accurately be called its “Pyrite Age”.  In support of this proposition, we might begin with an inquiry into the fabled “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad: “Bayt al-Hikma”.

The use of “house” to name a special place goes back to the 3rd millennium B.C., when the Sumerians (and early Assyrians) dubbed their temples, “E-x” [House of x; where x was the name of the deity].  Thus the sanctuary of Enlil / Ishtar was dubbed “E-nam-tila” [House of Life].  In the 2nd millennium B.C., the court scribes of Ancient Egypt worked out of the “Per Ankh” [House of Life].  Thus “Per x” denoted “House of x”.  Thus the primary temple to Ra-Atum in the Egyptian city of Aw[a]nu (Ptolemic: “Helio-polis”; City of the Sun) was “Per Aat” [Great House] or “Per Atum” [House of Atum].  And in ancient Greek tradition, a temple was sometimes referred to as an “oikos” [house].

Such nomenclature could indicate the architecture of the celestial realm as well.  In Persian mythology (i.e. Zoroastrianism), the hereafter was divided into two places: one for the saved (the House of Song) and one for the damned (the House of Lies).  In Norse mythology, each of the nine other-worldly realms are referred to as “x-heim[r]” [House of x].  In ancient Chinese astrology, each star system is dubbed a “Xiu” [mansion].  In ancient Indian astrology, each star system is dubbed a “Nakshatra” [lunar mansion], as attested in the “Vedanga-Jyotisha” from the late 2nd millennium B.C.

Unsurprisingly, the oldest Semitic languages (Eblaite and Ugaritic) likely derived their terms for “palace” from the Sumarian “E-gal” [Big House]; itself a variation on “E-Lugal” [House of the King].  This explains the ancient Semitic term was “heikhal”…which was later rendered “haykal” in Arabic.  (Meanwhile, “bayt” comes from “be[i]t”, which comes from the early Semitic “bit”.  Classical / Masoretic Hebrew renders this “bet[h]”.) {1}

The abode of the highest Sumerian gods was made of cedar wood.  It is no coincidence that, after being merely a tent (tabernacle), the earliest Shasu (proto-Hebrew) temple, “Bet[h]-El” (the LITERAL abode for the Canaanite deity, Yahweh) was ALSO made of cedar wood.  For cedar was seen as an exalted material imbued with divine properties.

In Classical Arabic, “Dar” allows for a more metaphorical use of “abode” (even as both “bayt” and “dar” can be translated as “house”).  Hence “Dar al-Islam” vis a vis “Dar al-Kufr” are used as ways to divvy up mankind.  This is analogous to the broader usage of “oikos” in Greek–as found in the Gospel of Luke: “Go into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (14:23).  This is, of course, not a literal house.  Here, “oikos” is a metaphor for a global religious community.  The same goes for Classical Hebrew–as when Isaiah states: “For my house will be called a house of prayer [beit tepilah] for all people” (56:7).  Hence the moniker “Beit Yisra-El” [alt. “Beth Israel”], whereby the global Jewish community (“Israel”) is referred to as a house. {2}

As already mentioned, Baghdad’s medieval “Bayt al-Hikma” [House of Wisdom] was not a place of “higher learning” in the modern sense.  Its mission was more akin to information-poaching; as it primarily involved a process of acquisition and collation.  The enterprise was rendered more a business (a lucrative operation, in service to the State) than anything resembling a scholarly endeavor.  The caliphate paid exorbitant amounts of money to those who could find material to add to its cache of materials.

Thus the incentives for the accumulation of documents were largely financial, not intellectual.  In other words, the massive project was primarily motivated by money rather than by some newfound love of (genuine) scholarship.  After all, scholars don’t merely collect pre-existing knowledge; they seek to QUESTION–then MODIFY and/or ADD TO–whatever knowledge already exists.  It is therefore safe to assume that rarely did anything resembling symposia occur in the fabled “Bayt al-Hikma”–as would have been found at the many scholarly institutions listed later in this essay.

The over-riding concern of Baghdad’s grand operation, then, was curation, not edification…at least, not outside the bounds of piety (which were strictly demarcated by the Sunnah).  Consequently, the venue would be most accurately described as a “Khizanat Kutub al-Hikma” [Warehouse for Books of Wisdom]. {2}

This point is important: Rather than being produced, knowledge was being appropriated–with, perhaps, minor modifications as the need arose.  In this sense, the venue-in-question could be more accurately characterized as a dogma-emporium than as a lyceum.

Regarding the curation that DID occur, we might note that the most notable scrivener was not even a Muslim; it was a Nestorian Christian: the Syriac writer, Hunayn ibn Ishaq.  In fact, many of the scholars working in Baghdad during this period were dhimmis (non-Muslims).  Also note the “Sabian”, Thabit ibn Qurra of Harran; and his grandson, Thabit ibn Sinan.  These dhimmis were not ghettoized as were, say, Jewish communities in medieval Europe; so such “others” enjoyed more freedom in Baghdad than non-Catholics would have within the orbit of the (theocratic) Holy Roman Empire.  In medieval Baghdad, “dhimmi” scholars intermingled with the Muslim scholars: men who recognized–at least, for the time being–the value of knowledge brought from outside Dar al-Islam.

A crucial point: We often pay attention to what ACTUALLY WAS preserved; because that–and only that–is what is now available to us.  Yet we often neglect to note what was NOT preserved; and is consequently no longer available in the archeological record.  Obviously, what we can now see is only what was retained; not what was eliminated.  It is safe to assume that not everything was kept during this curation project.  Invariably, an untold amount was destroyed.

As is plain to see, the ONLY material that was kept was that which did not overtly trespass upon the Sunnah, and thus threaten established dogmas.  What we find, then, is material that had utility for the empire: medicine, geography, mathematics, etc.  For it was soon discovered that the Koran was worse than useless when it came to such matters.  Considering this, running a information-harvesting operation WITHIN THOSE BOUNDS was an eminently pragmatic thing to do.

And so it went: The desperation to find solutions to pressing problems that could only be found outside of their own (embarrassingly limited) scriptures lead the Muslim scribes of “Bayt al-Hikma” to focus on whatever was available at the time…no matter how spurious it turned out to be.  Hence the emphasis on the errant disquisitions of, say, Claudius Galenus (of the four humors fame) and Claudius Ptolemy (of geo-centricity fame). {4}  Meanwhile, an obsession with alchemy drove an effort to decipher a potpourri of Coptic mystical texts.  (As it happens, “alchemy” is an Arabic word.)

When Islamic expositors attempted to add their own insights, they were oftentimes comically wrong–as when the cure for epilepsy (a condition with which the Seal of the Prophets himself may well have been afflicted) was said to be the exorcism of “djinn” [evil demons]. {5}

Lord only knows the number of invaluable documents that were inspected then discarded.  It is safe to assume that anything that dealt with unsanctioned inquiries (anything that may have undermined the sacrosanctity of Islamic doctrine) was eliminated from the curriculum.  

Hence a worthwhile query NOT is not merely concerned with what can be found in the collected materials in Baghdad, Damascus, Samarkand, etc., but what sorts of things CANNOT be found.  Conspicuously absent in the Bayt al-Himka’s collection is the work of such icons of Classical Antiquity as Autolycus of Pitane, Pyrrho of Elis, Zeno of Elea, Zeno of Citium, Zeno of Sidon, Diogenes of Sinope, and Philodemus of Gadara.  From Ancient Athens, we find that the writings of Plato and Aristotle were (largely) kept; but what about Apollodorus…and Arcesilaus…and Philo of Larissa?  And what of Athenian philosopher, Epicurus of Samos? His magnum opus, “On Nature” championed “ataraxia”: equanimity, dispassionate thinking.  That wasn’t included either.

And the Pythagorean philosopher, Philolaus of Magna Graecia?  Where is he?  And what of the great Anatolian (stoic) philosopher, Epictetus of Hierapolis [Phrygia], who’s landmark book on ethics, the “Enchiridion”, is nowhere to be found in the House of Wisdom’s collection of preserved works?  Why not?  Also conspicuously absent in the collections is the work of such luminaries as Plotinus of Lykopolis, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and John Philoponus of Alexandria.  Seneca “the Younger” of Cordoba was an Andalusian; so why weren’t HIS writings included? {6}

We could go on and on.  From these Arab records, we can find Euclid of Alexandria (who dealt primarily with mathematics in his “Elements”) as well as Hero of Alexandria (who designed very useful devices).  But what about the famed Thracian thinker, Democritus (who’s focus was political philosophy)?  Nope.  We can find Archimedes of Syracuse (who also dealt primarily with physics).  But what about the great geometer, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (who postulated that the Earth was spherical, and revolved around the sun)?  Nope.

The explanation for all this is plain to see: The Abbasid authorities were primarily concerned with appropriating material that seemed to have immediate utility (helping to solve eminently practical problems, thus making life easier; and perhaps even help bolster the power of the Caliphate)…yet did not threaten to upend the incumbent order.  For instance, trigonometry and astronomy were especially useful for determining the direction of the qibla; as well as the proper timing for “salat” [daily prayers] and Ramadan.

And so it went: The curation project limited itself to materials that were seen as not blasphemous–most notably: material having to do with medicine, mathematics, optics, and engineering.  In other words: technology, not philosophy.  Much was done; yet unfettered CRITICAL inquiry had nothing to do with it.  Anything that may have brought into question the sanctified dogmatic system was jettisoned.

Another primary utility was sophistry–a rhetorical craft that was extremely useful for proselytization (“dawa”).  It comes as no surprise, then, that we find a prevalence of Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” and “Topics”, which would be tentatively embraced by such Islamic fundamentalists as Al-Ghazali.  (I discuss this matter at length in part one of “The History Of Salafism”.)

It is clear, then, that “Bayt al-Hikma” was hardly a bona fide university–as was, say, Plato’s academy at Athens (Greece)…or the magisterial Maha-vihara at Nalanda (India)…or the Mouseion at Alexandria (Ptolemaic; then Roman Neoplatonist).  (I enumerate all such examples below.) Nor did it even come close to resembling the medieval universities at Bologna (Italy) and at Oxford (England), founded–via grass-roots efforts–in the 11th century.  These last two served as quasi-secular bastions for critical inquiry in an otherwise theocratic milieu.

The juxtaposition between “Bayt al-Hikma” and said institutions (GENUINE institutions of higher learning) is stark.  One might even note that the universities of Bologna and Oxford have survived for the past millennium…while the days of “Bayt al-Hikma” were numbered. {20}

Happily, translation activity went into overdrive under Abbasid caliph Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mamun [ibn Harun al-Rashid] in the 9th century: a man who–felicitously–was smitten with Hellenic culture.  In fact, it was during Al-Mamun’s caliphate that the Greek word, “philo-sophie” entered the Arabic vernacular, as “falsafa”.  Indeed, he actively encouraged Peripatetic (Aristotelian) thinking in Baghdad–a policy that was famously exemplified by Al-Kindi…who would be a primary inspiration for Al-Farabi…who, in turn, influenced the likes of Avicenna.

Al-Mamun’s predecessor, the cosmopolitan Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786 – 809) had set the stage for Baghdad to become a major cultural center.  (Caliph Al-Mansur had recently established Baghdad as the new capital.)  Al-Rashid established the novel–and, alas, short-lived–precedent of allowing accomplished Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian scholars to be appointed to elevated posts.  In other words: Insofar as he took religion OUT of the equation, he was able to initiate the brief period of intellectual flourishing in Baghdad.  Headway was made despite ambient religiosity.  After all, one cannot move BEYOND a dogmatic system by recourse to the constraints OF that very dogmatic system.

Al-Rashid was a contemporary of Charlemagne, and corresponded with the Frankish Emperor on friendly terms.  By the time Al-Mamun sponsored the scribes of Bayt al-Hikma, it was well-established that if Dar al-Islam was to gain knowledge, it would need to undertake a major project of translating works from Greek, Latin, Syriac, Persian, Sanskrit, and Chinese.  That is: He recognized that he would need procure a familiarity with the achievements of other cultures.  And so it went that Al-Mamun was the primary figure responsible for instituting the knowledge-curation program for which Bayt al-Hikma became renown.

This policy had the added effect of (temporarily) encouraging cosmopolitanism in Baghdad.  As mentioned, participants were obliged to grapple with texts not only in Koine Greek, but in Vulgar Latin, Pahlavi, Syriac-based languages (like Sogdian), Prakrit, and Classical Chinese.  Initially, the primary language of Bayt al-Hikma would have been Syriac and Pahlavi, as–in its earliest days–Classical Arabic had only recently been developed.  It was not until the end of the 9th century that Classical Arabic would have become the primary language into which texts were translated.  (See my essay on “The Syriac Origins Of Koranic Text”.)

Al-Mamun’s forward-thinking policy was followed by his relatively open-minded successors: Al-Mutasim and Al-Wathiq.  But here’s the crucial point: Al-Mamun, Al-Mutasim, and Al-Wathiq were from the heterodox (quasi-rationalist) “Mutazila” sect of Islam–founded by the 8th-century Hijazi dissident, Wasil ibn Ata of Basra (who taught in Baghdad).  Inspired by Hellenic philosophy, the Mutazilites denied the status of the Koran as the uncreated, eternal word of god; and so had no qualms with attempts to reconcile piety with rationalism–and, in some cases, with natural philosophy.  Consequently, they actively encouraged the curation–and even advocated the co-optation–of extant knowledge from Dar al-Kufr.  This explains the renown of such Mutazili scholars as Al-Masudi (early 9th century).

However, the NEXT caliph, Ja’far ibn Muhammad al-Mutasim Bi’llah (of Samarra), was NOT a Mutazilite; he was a SALAFI.  So he was not interested in science / rationalism…or in ANYTHING that was from outside the Sunnah.  Hence Kafr material would no longer be tolerated. {45}

Known by the regnal name, “Mu-ta-wakkil ala Allah” [He Who Relies On God Alone], Jafar al-Mutasim took the Koran literally.  Consequently, he saw philosophy as heretical; and as a result brought the heyday of “Bayt al-Hikma” to an end.  The lesson here is quite clear; but let’s spell it out: Islam CAN be accommodating to intellectual activity, but only insofar as it unshackles itself from the diktats of its sacred scriptures; and eschews a revanchist doctrinal approach.

The repercussions of the (Reactionary) Salafi approach were entirely predictable.  Being as they were heterodox (stressing “ijtihad” [independent thinking] so prominently), many prominent Mutazilites were routinely executed for heresy.  From then on out, this intellectually-stifling precedent continued: for the remainder of Abbasid rule and thereafter.

Couple the stifling of rationalism with the spread of the (vehemently anti-intellectual) Ashari school of thought in the Muslim world–and the demise of Bayt al-Hikma was inevitable.  Asharism eschewed natural philosophy (i.e. science / reasoning) in favor of clerical authority and unconditional deference to the Sunnah.  Doctrinal fealty trumped everything.  Whatever residue of philosophical thought was allowed to persist was couched in mysticism and religious apologetics (that is: not philosophy).  Thus GENUINE “ijithad” was rendered verboten. {17}

As a result, figures like, say, Ibn Sina (a.k.a. “Avicenna”) became anathema; while figures like Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. “Averroës”) were banished for heresy (and their books burned).  In other words, the few remaining flickering lights of arete in the Ummah were snuffed out. {8}

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