Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History

Demise Of A Halcyon Era:

Let’s review: The Mutazilites contended that the Koran was created, not eternal.  The implication was that god’s plan must be surmised through the employment of Reason.  They espoused a process whereby our rational faculties were brought to bear on “received wisdom”–making sense of it in light of new insights as they arose.  One might say that they though of their holy book as a living document–perpetually subject to new interpretation.

By stark contrast, the Asharites believed the Koran to be co-eternal with the Abrahamic deity, and thus unimpeachable.  After all, it was seen as a verbatim transcript of the series of missives delivered via angelic emissary to the Last Prophet, from an omniscient super-being.  It was THE FINAL word; and so had to be taken literally.  Believing this precluded the need for any and all critical reflection.  (“We already have the speech of god at our disposal; so what more could we mere mortals possibly add to it?”)

And so, in place of the rationalist Mutazili school, the anti-rationalist Ashari school rose to preeminence–and along with it: the demise of erudition in Dar al-Islam.  Philosophical / scientific inquiry was thereafter curtailed–and in many cases, downright forbidden.  Soon, the most ardent traditionalists in the Muslim world at the time (the Hanbalis) had made Baghdad their stronghold.

From that juncture on, the deterioration in the caliber of scholarship–not to mention of civility–became quite apparent.  In “The Formation of Islam”, Jonathan Berkey noted: “It was Hanbali preachers and others who were most active in mobilizing crowds to oppose–vociferously and sometimes violently–the public expression of religious ideas that ran counter to the strict traditionalism which [had become] popular with the Baghdadi populace… [In Baghdad] some Shafi’i scholars and preachers were also active in the traditionalist movement and in stirring up protest against exponents of the rationalist Ash’ari theology [as well as against Shiites]” (p. 218).  Impartial historians concur that by the 11th century, the common understanding was that the so-called “bab al-ijtihad” [gates of Reason qua independent thinking] had closed.  Genuine “ijtihad” would thereafter be a thing of the past.  Thereafter, only “taqlid” (deference to precedent) would be acceptable. {46}

Baghdad was not an isolated case.  During the 11th century, the decline of Islam’s “Golden Age” seems to have occurred elsewhere as well–most notably: in Islamic Andalusia. {49}  In other words, the repercussions of those new (vehemently anti-intellectual) policies were soon felt on the Iberian peninsula, where cosmopolitan centers like Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, and Granada were located.  Activity in that region seems to have reached its apotheosis under the ruthless Al-Mansur [ibn Abi Amir] (a.k.a. “Almanzor”), who died in 1002.  By 1031, the Caliphate of Cordoba had disintegrated.

It eventually became de rigeuer for Islamic apologists to place the blame for the dissolution of the “House of Wisdom” on Genghis Kahn’s grandson, Hulagu Kahn.  But to attribute the demise of intellectual activity in Baghdad to the Mongol conquest is to MASSIVELY misread history.  Jafar al-Mutasim (the man largely responsible for the precedents that accounted for the subsequent wane of the “Golden Age”) reigned in the 9th century.  The Mongols did not arrive in Baghdad until 1258–four centuries later. (!)

So one can’t help but wonder: Insofar as intellectual activity existed, what transpired in Baghdad during that intervening four centuries?  In a nutshell: not much.  It should be noted that Al-Ghazali had spread his anti-intellectualism in the late 11th / early 12th century: well over a century before a Mongol set foot in Mesopotamia. {3}

The process of deterioration was clearly widespread.  When it came to Persia / Mesopotamia, this was a period historians sometimes refer to as the “Iranian Intermezzo”.  For it was a time when the Abbasid heyday had passed, and the Empire was on the wane…whilst the Buyyids, Fatimids, and finally Seljuks squabbled over the Mesopotamia and the Levant.  The storied Seljuk “beg”, Tughril, finally took control of the Baghdad in 1055.  Under Seljuk rule, Baghdad was left in languor, as the Seljuks were severely encumbered by the (seven) taxing Crusades waged in the Levant between 1095 and 1254 (with still more to come).  By the time the Mongols arrived, the beleaguered city was hardly the fount of intellectual vibrancy it had once been.

That…and, as we’ll see, the Mongols PRIZED intellectual activity, and eagerly embraced new (exogenous) knowledge; in stark contrast to those they conquered.  Far from wanting to stifle scholarship, they went out of their way to support it.

Let’s look at some other indications of this (deleterious) sea change.  It is worth noting that during Baghdad’s heyday, all of the most renown Muslim scholars did their work IN BAGHDAD.  In the late 8th century it was Al-Farazi.  In the 9th century it was Al-Khwarizmi and Al-Kindi.  In the 10th century it was Al-Razi and Al-Farabi.

Starting in the 11th century, however, the most prominent intellectual figures were no longer working out of Baghdad.  Rather they tended to be found in:

  • Eastern Persia (as with Avicenna, Al-Biruni, and Omar Khayyam)
  • Basra (as with Alboacen)
  • Damascus (as with Ibn al-Nafis)
  • Cairo (as with Ibn al-Haytham)

During this time, the most profound concentration of intellectual activity was in the faltering Andalusia.  Behold: Ibn Hazm, Albucasis, Arzachel, Avenzoar, Jabir ibn Aflah, Al-Jayyani, Ibn Tufail, and–most famously of all–Averroës.  Even so, Muslim dominance on the Iberian peninsula started to wane in the 11th century; and the thinkers in that area were only able to flourish until the late 12th century.

It might even be said that Andalusia was the last bastion of the Islamic epoch of cosmopolitanism; as the last vestiges of intellectual vibrancy could only be found THERE.  Granted, minor religious works like the “Tarikh Baghdad” by Al-Khatib (11th century) and the “Manaqib Baghdad” by Ibn al-Jawzi (12th century) were composed by Hanbalis in Baghdad.  Yet…being as they were hyper-traditionalists, their patriarch (Ahmed ibn Hanbal) was an ADVERSARY of those who made any effort to revitalize the “Bayt al-Hikma”.

In other words: Islamic zealots had only contempt for the (more intellectually liberal, if politically illiberal) Mutazila.  As such, prominent figures during this time were primarily concerned with proselytization; not with scholarship. {9}

Hence there is a certain hypocrisy (or ignorance) when it comes to fundamentalists of the Hanbali strain NOW boasting about the glory days of the “House of Wisdom”…as if their legacy had anything to do with it.  Their progenitors were responsible for ENDING the “Bayt al-Hikma”.

In the 11th century, Seljuk vizier, Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali of Tus (a.k.a. “Nizam al-Mulk”) opted to set up a network of theological schools known as “Nizamiyyahs”.  This was primarily done to provide a bulwark against the promulgation of (Shia) Isma’ilism.  It should be no surprise, then, that Nizam al-Mulk appointed the notorious Salafi proselyte, Al-Ghazali (doyen of anti-intellectualism) to a high post in the Baghdad branch.  Nizam al-Mulk was eventually assassinated.  (There are different theories as to why; but the most plausible is that he converted to Shiism, thereby displeasing his patrons.)

By the time Al-Ghazali came to in Baghdad c. 1092, the climate of open inquiry and intellectual curiosity had already been deteriorating.  Whatever intellectual activity may have lingered, Al-Ghazali decisively vanquished.  For the three years Al-Ghazali was in the city, he taught at the “Nizamiyyah” (read: at a madrasah, NOT at the House of Wisdom); and used his prodigious clout to ensure his puritanical strain of Islam prevailed. {3}  And–tragically–prevail it did.

By the early 13th century (i.e. two generations before the Mongols arrived in Mesopotamia), the dissolution of intellectual activity was also apparent in Egypt and Syria.  The Ayyubid sultan, Al-Malik al-Kamil (a.k.a. “Meledin”) prohibited the ulema in both Cairo and Damascus from studying / teaching ANYTHING but the sunnah, fiqh, and approved Koranic exegesis.  He even went so far as to expel students of philosophy and the natural sciences–which were derided as the heretical “sciences of the Ancients”.

But what about the Mongols?

It helps to look at the timeline of Bayt al-Hikma’s demise: The LATEST major figures to be associated with intellectual activity in Baghdad did their work in the late 10th century.  The Mongols seized the city in the latter half of the 13th century.

To recapitulate the timeline: Long before the Mongols arrived in Baghdad in 1258, the open, intellectual climate that had enabled the “Golden Age” in Dar al-Islam was no more.  There was only room left for hidebound ideologues.  Jonathan Berkey notes that “Baghdad in the early 11th century was the scene of repeated communal violence, as partisan crowds of Sunnis and Shiites traded attacks on people and institutions associated with the different religious communities, in part as a result of a more strident Sunni traditionalism promoted by the Abbasid caliph Al-Qadir and others.”

Berkey adds that “chronicles describing Baghdadi life in the 11th century reveal instances in which Hanbali crowds reacted violently to, say, the preaching of a sermon rife with rationalist theology.  [Pressure from such traditionalists] convinced the Hanbali scholar, Ibn Aqil in 1072 to renounce publicly the Mutazili principles with which he had earlier toyed” (ibid.; p. 190, 195).

It makes sense, then, that the migration of Persian scholars FROM Iraq and al-Sham TO Anatolia primarily occurred in the 12th century.  In other words, the exodus of intellect OUT OF Bagdad occurred a century before the Mongol invasion.  (It is also telling that in the 12th century, the Seljuks chose Hamadan rather than Baghdad as their Western capital.)

What may have incensed the fundamentalists the most was the rationalists’ attempt to offer naturalistic (worldly) explanations to why things happen.  For those who subscribed to the Ashari creed, such inquiries were verboten.  All occurred due to god’s will (“hukm” in Classical Arabic).  Period.  There was no need to grasp any more than that singular fact.  The ascension of this Reactionary mindset ensured that Asharism (read: Salafism) became the prevalent creed.  (I explore this in my essays on the history of Salafism.)

And so it went: Any need for one to try to figure things out for oneself was rendered obsolete.  “God has already figured everything out.  Anything that happens is god’s bidding, so what more is there to say?”  To square this stance with reality, the Asharites posited “occasionalism”–whereby natural causality was denied (as it undermined the infinite freedom attributed to god).  Since only god can be the cause of anything, the physical world must be seen as a sequence of events–every one of which was explicitly willed by god.  No need for science to explain things.  “It’s god’s will” is all anyone needs to know.

Divine ordinance explains EVERYTHING.  All you’ll ever need to know is in the Koran (and Sunnah).

The most famous promulgator of this regressive ideology was al-Ghazali.  Al-Ghazali was adamant on the point that any/all critical inquiry (derided as “innovation”) was the enemy.  His message was quite simple: All the work has already been done for us by an omnipotent super-being.  After the Final Revelation, there’s nothing left to question.

Thus: If one is looking for a singular figure to blame for the dissolution of Islam’s “Golden Age”, one should look to Al-Ghazali, not to Ghengis Khan. {3}  

Alas, Islamic apologists seek an excuse for the demise of Islam’s heyday that enables Dar al-Islam to save face; and so they use the Mongols as a scape-goat.  Indeed, they would much rather countenance such farce than place the blame squarely where it belongs: at the feet of Muslim Reactionaries.  If it were acknowledged that a regression to Islamic fundamentalism had been responsible for the deterioration of Muslim society, then those disposed to Salafism would lose one of their greatest rationalizations for their cause: a return to the glory days. {47}

And so it goes: The “just blame the Mongol invasions” trope is an evasive maneuver–a way to elide the actual explanation for the demise of Islam’s “Golden Age”…and thus to save face.  Hair-razing tales about hordes of grotesque half-men-half-horse savages soon proliferated.  (This vulgar portrayal persisted to the present era, as attested by the derogatory term, “Mongoloid”.)

The perfidy here is jaw-dropping.  For the atrocities of Islamic Turko-Mongol tyrants (such as Tamerlane) are blithely projected back onto their Tengri-ist forebears.  In fact, it was only MUSLIMS who were razing libraries and burning manuscripts before, during, and after Islam’s Pyrite Age.  The Seljuk Turks burned over 10,000 priceless ancient manuscripts at the Armenian “matenadaran” (storehouse) at Baghaberd in 1170; and thereafter pillaged the great “matenadaran” at Etchmiadzin.  This was for explicitly religious reasons.  It was not about fighting people; it was about eradicating IDEAS.

As we’ve seen: By the late 12th century, the intellectual vibrancy of Baghdad had already begun to peter out.  And it should come as little surprise, then, that there is little record of much intellectual activity flowing out of Baghdad during its Seljuk period. {9}  By the time the Mongols seized the city, it had already degenerated to a state of intellectual desolation.  The reasons that it had degenerated were plain to see: religious fundamentalism from WITHIN Dar al-Islam.

To suppose that Baghdad was thriving right up until the day Hulagu Khan arrived at its gates is to engage in flights of fancy.  Far from an efflorescence abruptly ending the day the Mongols sacked the city, Baghdad’s heyday had already come and gone.  Using Mongols as a scape-goat for Muslim dereliction (before the Mongols even arrived) is–at best–tremendously disingenuous.  It is only a wonton historical ignorance that allows this bromide to persist.

In any case, it is clear that Hulagu had no problem with people of other Faiths; nor with scholarly pursuits.  Heck: His wife, Dokuz was a (Syriac) Nestorian Christian. Hulagu’s Faith was a syncretism of Syriac Christianity and residual elements of Tengri-ism.  In addition to his wife, his general (Kitbuqa), and his mother were all Nestorian; something with which he had no qualms.  His successor, Abaqa Khan allied with the Crusaders in the 9th Crusade (spec. with King Edward of England in 1271), besieging Krak des Chevaliers in February 1281 with the Hospitallers of Margat.  Clearly, Tengri-ism had nothing to do with the RELIGIOUS antagonism at play; as–being Tengri-ist–he was unconcerned with holy crusades of ANY kind.

The Mongols damaged much of the city during their take-over; but this was NOT because they were looking to destroy libraries.  Many of the books lost during the Mongol attack on Baghdad were destroyed due to fires resulting from the fighting.  To wit: The loss was a matter of collateral damage; not of some concerted attempt to eliminate heretical material.  As it happened, the extent of destruction was attributable to the on-going, staunch resistance of the Abbasids.

In other words, the devastation in Baghdad in 1258 was not gratuitous; it was the unfortunate result of violent warfare.

In an effort to lay the dissolution of Bayt al-Hikma at the feet of the Mongols (and thus blame the demise of Islam’s Golden Age on Dar al-Kufr), many Muslim historiographers exaggerate the number of civilians killed during the seizure of 1258.  Some say as many as TWO MILLION civilians were slaughtered, more than TEN TIMES the most probable number.  Moreover, Muslim historiographers like to say that it was during this siege that Bayt al-Hikma was destroyed.

There is no evidence for this.

While the damage to Baghdad was (tragically) extensive during the Mongol take-over, obviously not everything was destroyed.  After all, we STILL HAVE the fruits of the scribes’ efforts from Bayt al-Hikma!  Eliminating such material was not on the Mongols’ agenda.  This is attested by the NON-destruction of the storied the “Mustansiriya[h]” madrasah.  Even as the Il-khanate damaged much of the city in 1258 in the course of their assault, this institution of higher learning was not damaged.  In fact, not a single book was lost.  We know this because when the Ottomans captured Baghdad in 1534, THEY seized all the books in the Mustansiriya; and it was THEN that the hallowed institution was shut down.  In other words: A that point, an institution still existed TO BE shut down.

In fact, immediately upon establishing control over the city, Hulagu commissioned the famous observatory at Maragheh in northwestern Persia: the “Rasad Khaneh”…where he had a giant library built to house all of the books from Bayt al-Hikma. (!)

Just over a year prior to arriving at Baghdad, Hulagu had overtaken the city of Alamut (in northern Persia), where he left the great library fully intact.  Shall we presume, then, that in the following year-plus (leading up to the siege of Baghdad), Hulagu decided that he suddenly had something against books?

When Hulagu DID arrive at Baghdad, it is very telling what he did NOT opt to do. He left fully intact the “Nizamiyya” network of Seljuk pedagogic institutions–which were allowed to continue operation after the Mongols seized the city.  And it bears worth repeating: He left fully intact the renown Mustansiriya–replete with its grand library.  (We might note that the Nur al-Din “bimaristan” [medical school] in Damascus was also undamaged, and continued to operate.)  Clearly, eradicating scholarship was not something he deigned to do.

One would not know ANY of this by reading most Islamic accounts of the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu.  The lurid portrayal of the siege is as overwrought as it is cockamamie.  Indeed, story-tellers couldn’t even decide wether they wanted to say that the Tigris River was running red with the blood of the slaughtered inhabitants OR was turned black with the ink from all the manuscripts that were (supposedly) thrown into the water. One is invited to speculate as to whether the Mongol fighters opted to carry innumerable butchered corpses all the way to the water (to submerge them for some unspecified reason) OR opted instead to carry stacks of manuscripts all the way to the water (in order to destroy them by mass water-logging instead of–well–by simply burning them).  Either way, we are told that the river became so full of bodies and/or books that one could ride a horse from one bank to the other.

One may as well suppose that, meanwhile, the Euphrates ran white with Tahini.

This is, of course, all zany nonsense; but it makes for an enthralling account–and certainly paints the Mongols as demons.  Surely tens of thousands of residents perished in the onslaught (rather than MILLIONS, as some accounts claim).  But this loss of life was a result of the caliph, Mustasim’s obduracy.  The casualties were not only a consequence of his stubborn refusal to surrender in the face of certain defeat, but almost certainly due to his continual taunts and threats to the Mongolian army that was patiently waiting for his surrender outside his gates for several days–as was Mongolian precedent.  Technically, not a SINGLE PERSON needed to die in Baghdad due the Mongol take-over. {48}

Tengri-ist / Buddhist Mongolian culture was perfectly fine with embracing the incipient wisdom–and even the traditions–of conquered territories.  The Mongols only slaughtered civilians when the civilians ACTIVELY RESISTED.  The reason was never racial or religious alterity. {18}

It should also be noted that the Mongol army was not even comprised entirely of Mongols; it consisted of Turks, Armenians, Georgians, Persians, and Chinese.  Immediately after taking control of the city, Hulagu even appointed a MUSLIM Persian to lead it: Ata-Malek of Juvayn.  Ata-Malek’s father had been a minister in the (Islamic) Khwarezmian Empire prior to it being conquered by the Mongols; and was then promptly hired by the new Mongolian rulers to serve in the government–as was Mongol custom.

Another interesting point: Very soon after Hulagu’s seizure of Baghdad, the city was under Islamic rule again (in 1295 at the hands of the aforementioned Ghazan), whereupon it was under the vassalage of the Il-khanate. {21}  Once this happened, there was no initiative to instigate any program of higher learning.

By stark contrast, when Tamerlane conquered Baghdad in 1401, he COMPLETELY destroyed the city…AND exterminated all its inhabitants.  Tamerlane, a devout Muslim, was more renown than anyone else in history for razing libraries.  If anyone was determined to destroy all the books in Baghdad (and everywhere else, for that matter), it would have been him.  And so he did.

It is also important to note what transpired during the period BETWEEN the twilight of Bayt al-Hikma and the arrival of the Mongols.  The Seljuks controlled Baghdad in the early 11th century–starting with the take-over by Tughril: an Oghuz Turk who had recently converted to Sunni Islam.  Tughril imposed an Islamic theocracy on the city, purging it of (Buyyid) Shiites…and eliminating anything that was deemed sacrilegious.  Then, in 1058, the Shiites managed to regain the upper hand when the (Isma’ili) Fatimids overtook the city.  By that time, intellectual activity in Baghdad was already noticeably on the wane.  The Mongols would not arrive until exactly 200 years after that.  By then, Bayt al-Hikma was long gone. {13}

Interestingly, it was around that time (in the 11th century; in the advent of Avicenna) that “falsafa” [philosophy] began to be incorporated into some Islamic discourse. {14}  In his “Al-Shifa” [the Healing], Avicenna strove in vain to reconcile Islam with Reason.  Averroës, who lived until just before 1200, made further headway on this front.  Over the subsequent centuries (that is: even after the Mongols arrived) the endeavor lingered on, mitigated only by SHARIA (political imposition of the Sunnah on the populace).  The Mongol presence was in no way a deterrent to scholarly activity.  If anything, they kept it alive for longer than it might have been sustained under Sunni rule.

The primary repercussion of the Mongol invasion of Baghdad was an end to the (tyrannical) Abbasid caliphate.  Ironically, it is thanks to the Mongols’ acceptance of foreign books that we are now aware of Bayt al-Hikma AT ALL. {10}  This irony is often lost on historical revisionists who are bent on demonizing the Mongols; and determined to mis-characterize Mongolian hegemony as an intellect-stifling phenomenon.

Had anyone said to someone in Bagdad at the end of the 13th century, “The Mongols are preventing everyone here form scholarly activity, eh?” he would have surely been met with befuddlement.  The likely response would have been something along the lines of “What the heck are you talking about?”

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