10

MOHAMMEDAN CULTURE AND PHILOSOPHY

The attacks upon the Eastern Empire, Africa, and Spain, differed from those of Northern barbarians on the West in two respects: first, the Eastern Empire survived till 1453, nearly a thousand years longer than the Western; second, the main attacks upon the Eastern Empire were made by Mohammedans, who did not become Christians after conquest, but developed an important civilization of their own.

The Hegira,1 with which the Mohammedan era begins, took place in A.D. 622; Mohammed died ten years later. Immediately after his death the Arab conquests began, and they proceeded with extraordinary rapidity. In the East, Syria was invaded in 634, and completely subdued within two years. In 637 Persia was invaded; in 650 its conquest was completed. India was invaded in 664; Constantinople was besieged in 669 (and again in 716–17). The westward movement was not quite so sudden. Egypt was conquered in 642, Carthage not till 697. Spain, except for a small corner in the north-west, was acquired in 711–12. Westward expansion (except in Sicily and Southern Italy) was brought to a standstill by the defeat of the Mohammedans at the battle of Tours in 732, just one hundred years after the death of the prophet. (The Ottoman Turks, who finally conquered Constantinople, belong to a later period than that with which we are now concerned.)

Various circumstances facilitated this expansion. Persia and the Eastern Empire were exhausted by their long wars. The Syrians, who were largely Nestorian, suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholics, whereas

Mohammedans tolerated all sects of Christians in return for the payment of tribute. Similarly in Egypt the Monophysites, who were the bulk of the population, welcomed the invaders. In Africa, the Arabs allied themselves with the Berbers, whom the Romans had never thoroughly subdued. Arabs and Berbers together invaded Spain, where they were helped by the Jews, whom the Visigoths had severely persecuted.

The religion of the Prophet was a simple monotheism, uncomplicated by the elaborate theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Prophet made no claim to be divine, nor did his followers make such a claim on his behalf. He revived the Jewish prohibition of graven images, and forbade the use of wine. It was the duty of the faithful to conquer as much of the world as possible for Islam, but there was to be no persecution of Christians, Jews, or Zoroastrians—the 'people of the Book', as the Koran calls them, i.e. those who followed the teaching of a Scripture.

Arabia was largely desert, and was growing less and less capable of supporting its population. The first conquests of the Arabs began as mere raids for plunder, and only turned into permanent occupation after experience had shown the weakness of the enemy. Suddenly, in the course of some twenty years, men accustomed to all the hardships of a meagre existence on the fringe of the desert found themselves masters of some of the richest regions of the world, able to enjoy every luxury and to acquire all the refinements of an ancient civilization. They withstood the temptations of this transformation better than most of the Northern barbarians had done. As they had acquired their empire without much severe fighting, there had been little destruction, and the civil administration was kept on almost unchanged. Both in Persia and in the Byzantine Empire, the civil government had been highly organized. The Arab tribesmen, at first, understood nothing of its complications, and perforce accepted the services of the trained men whom they found in charge. These men, for the most part, showed no reluctance to serve under their new masters. Indeed, the change made their work easier, since taxation was lightened very considerably. The populations, moreover, in order to escape the tribute, very largely abandoned Christianity for Islam.

The Arab Empire was an absolute monarchy, under the caliph, who was the successor of the Prophet, and inherited much of his holiness. The caliphate was nominally elective, but soon became hereditary. The first dynasty, that of the Umayyads, who lasted till 750, was founded by men whose acceptance of Mohammed was purely political, and it remained always opposed to the more fanatical among the faithful. The Arabs, although they conquered a great part of the world in the name of a new religion, were not a very religious race; the motive of their conquests was plunder and wealth rather than religion. It was only in virtue of their lack of fanaticism that a handful of warriors were able to govern, without much difficulty, vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion.

The Persians, on the contrary, have been, from the earliest times, deeply religious and highly speculative. After their conversion, they made out of Islam something much more interesting, more religious, and more philosophical, than had been imagined by the Prophet and his kinsmen. Ever since the death of Mohammed's son-in-law Ali in 661, Mohammedans have been divided into two sects, the Sunni and the Shiah. The former is the larger; the latter follows Ali, and considers the Umayyad dynasty to have been usurpers. The Persians have long belonged to the Shiah sect. Largely by Persian influence, the Umayyads were at last overthrown, and succeeded by the Abbasids, who represented Persian interests. The change was marked by the removal of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad.

The Abbasids were, politically, more in favour of the fanatics than the Umayyads had been. They did not, however, acquire the whole of the empire. One member of the Umayyad family escaped the general massacre, fled to Spain, and was there acknowledged as the legitimate ruler. From that time on, Spain was independent of the rest of the Mohammedan world.

Under the early Abbasids the caliphate attained its greatest splendour. The best known of them is Harun-al-Rashid (d. 809), who was a contemporary of Charlemagne and the Empress Irene, and is known to every one in legendary form through the Arabian Nights. His court was a brilliant centre of luxury, poetry, and learning; his revenue was enormous; his empire stretched from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Indus. His will was absolute; he was habitually accompanied by the executioner, who performed his office at a nod from the caliph. This splendour, however, was short-lived. His successor made the mistake of composing his army mainly of Turks, who were insubordinate, and soon reduced the caliph to a cipher to be blinded or murdered whenever the soldiery grew tired of him. Nevertheless, the caliphate lingered on; the last caliph of the Abbasid dynasty was put to death by the Mongols in 1256, along with 800,000 of the inhabitants of Baghdad.

The political and social system of the Arabs had defects similar to those of the Roman Empire, together with some others. Absolute monarchy combined with polygamy led, as it usually does, to dynastic wars whenever a ruler died, ending with the victory of one of the ruler's sons and the death of all the rest. There were immense numbers of slaves, largely as a result of successful wars; at times there were dangerous servile insurrections. Com-merce was greatly developed, the more so as the caliphate occupied a central position between East and West. 'Not only did the possession of enormous wealth create a demand for costly articles, such as silks from China, and furs from Northern Europe, but trade was promoted by certain special conditions, such as the vast extent of the Muslim Empire, the spread of Arabic as a world language, and the exalted status assigned to the merchant in the Muslim system of ethics; it was remembered that the Prophet himself had been a merchant and had commended trading during the pilgrimage to Mecca.'2 This commerce, like military cohesion, depended on the great roads which the Arabs inherited from the Romans and Persians, and which they, unlike the Northern conquerors, did not allow to fall into disrepair. Gradually, however, the empire broke up into fractions—Spain, Persia, North Africa, and Egypt successively split off and acquired complete or almost complete independence.

One of the best features of the Arab economy was agriculture, particularly the skilful use of irrigation, which they learnt from living where water is scarce. To this day Spanish agriculture profits by Arab irrigation works.

The distinctive culture of the Muslim world, though it began in Syria, soon came to flourish most in the Eastern and Western extremities, Persia and Spain. The Syrians, at the time of the conquest, were admirers of Aristotle, whom Nestorians preferred to Plato, the philosopher favoured by Catholics. The Arabs first acquired their knowledge of Greek philosophy from the Syrians, and thus, from the beginning, they thought Aristotle more important than Plato. Nevertheless, their Aristotle wore a Neoplatonic dress. Kindi (d. ca. 873), the first to write philosophy in Arabic, and the only philosopher of note who was himself an Arab, translated parts of the Enneads of Plotinus, and published his translation under the title The Theology of Aristotle. This introduced great confusion into Arabic ideas of Aristotle, from which it took centuries to recover.

Meanwhile, in Persia, Muslims came in contact with India. It was from Sanskrit writings that they acquired, during the eighth century, their first knowledge of astronomy. About 830, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, a translator of mathematical and astronomical books from the Sanskrit, published a book which was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, under the title Algoritmi de numero Indrum. It was from this book that the West first learnt of what we call 'Arabic' numerals, which ought to be called 'Indian'. The same author wrote a book on algebra which was used in the West as a text-book until the sixteenth century.

Persian civilization remained both intellectually and artistically admirable, though it was seriously damaged by the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Omar Khayyám, the only man known to me who was both a poet and a mathematician, reformed the calendar in 1079. His best friend, oddly enough, was the founder of the sect of the Assassins, the 'Old Man of the Mountain', of legendary fame. The Persians were great poets: Firdousi (ca. 941), author of the Shahnama, is said by those who have read him

to be comparable to Homer. They were also remarkable as mystics, which other Mohammedans were not. The Sufi sect, which still exists, allowed itself great latitude in the mystical and allegorical interpretation of orthodox dogma; it was more or less Neoplatonic.

The Nestorians, through whom, at first, Greek influences came into the Muslim world, were by no means purely Greek in their outlook. Their school at Edessa had been closed by the Emperor Zeno in 481; its learned men thereupon migrated to Persia, where they continued their work, but not without suffering Persian influences. The Nestorians valued Aristotle only for his logic, and it was above all his logic that the Arabic philosophers thought important at first. Later, however, they studied also his Metaphysics and his De Anima. Arabic philosophers, in general, are encyclopedic: they are interested in alchemy, astrology, astronomy, and zoology, as much as in what we should call philosophy. They were looked upon with suspicion by the populace, which was fanatical and bigoted; they owed their safety (when they were safe) to the protection of comparatively free-thinking princes.

Two Mohammedan philosophers, one of Persia, one of Spain, demand special notice; they are Avicenna and Averroes. Of these the former is the more famous among Mohammedans, the latter among Christians.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980–1037) spent his life in the sort of places that one used to think only exist in poetry. He was born in the province of Bokhara; at the age of twenty-four he went to Khiva—'lone Khiva in the waste'—then to Khorassan—'the lone Chorasmian shore'. For a while he taught medicine and philosophy at Ispahan; then he settled at Teheran. He was even more famous in medicine than in philosophy, though he added little to Galen. From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, he was used in Europe as a guide to medicine. He was not a saintly character, in fact he had a passion for wine and women. He was suspect to the orthodox, but was befriended by princes on account of his medical skill. At times he got into trouble owing to the hostility of Turkish mercenaries; sometimes he was in hiding, sometimes in prison. He was the author of an encyclopedia, almost unknown to the East because of the hostility of theologians, but influential in the West through Latin translations. His psychology has an empirical tendency.

His philosophy is nearer to Aristotle, and less Neoplatonic, than that of his Muslim predecessors. Like the Christian scholastics later, he is occupied with the problem of universals. Plato said they were anterior to things. Aristotle has two views, one when he is thinking, the other when he is combating Plato. This makes him ideal material for the commentator.

Avicenna invented a formula, which was repeated by Averroes and Albertus Magnus: 'Thought brings about the generality in forms.' From this it might be supposed that he did not believe in universals apart from thought. This, however, would be an unduly simple view. Genera—that is, universals—are, he says, at once before things, in things, and after things. He explains this as follows. They are before things in God's understanding. (God decides, for instance, to create cats. This requires that He should have the idea 'cat', which is thus, in this respect, anterior to particular cats.) Genera are in things in natural objects. (When cats have been created, felinity is in each of them.) Genera are after things in our thought. (When we have seen many cats, we notice their likeness to each other, and arrive at the general idea 'cat'.) This view is obviously intended to reconcile different theories.

Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126–98) lived at the opposite end of the Muslim world from Avicenna. He was born at Cordova, where his father and grandfather had been cadis; he himself was a cadi, first in Seville, then in Cordova. He studied, first, theology and jurisprudence, then medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. He was recommended to the 'Caliph' Abu Yaqub Yusuf as a man capable of making an analysis of the works of Aristotle. (It seems, however, that he did not know Greek.) This ruler took him into favour; in 1184 he made him his physician, but unfortunately the patient died two years later. His successor, Yaqub Al-Mansur, for eleven years continued his father's patronage; then, alarmed by the opposition of the orthodox to the philosopher, he deprived him of his position, and exiled him, first to a small place near Cordova, and then to Morocco. He was accused of cultivating the philosophy of the ancients at the expense of the true faith. Al-Mansur published an edict to the effect that God had decreed hell-fire for those who thought that truth could be found by the unaided reason. All the books that could be found on logic and metaphysics were given to the flames.3

Shortly after this time the Moorish territory in Spain was greatly diminished by Christian conquests. Muslim philosophy in Spain ended with Averroes; and in the rest of the Mohammedan world a rigid orthodoxy put an end to speculation.

Ueberweg, rather amusingly, undertakes to defend Averroes against the charge of unorthodoxy—a matter, one would say, for Muslims to decide. Ueberweg points out that, according to the mystics, every text of the Koran had 7 or 70 or 700 layers of interpretation, the literal meaning being only for the ignorant vulgar. It would seem to follow that a philosopher's teaching could not possibly conflict with the Koran; for among 700 interpretations there would surely be at least one that would fit what the philosopher had to say. In the Mohammedan world, however, the ignorant seem to have objected to all learning that went beyond a knowledge of the Holy Book; it was dangerous, even if no specific heresy could be demonstrated. The view of the mystics, that the populace should take the Koran literally but wise people need not do so, was hardly likely to win wide popular acceptance.

Averroes was concerned to improve the Arabic interpretation of Aristotle, which had been unduly influenced by Neoplatonism. He gave to Aristotle the sort of reverence that is given to the founder of a religion—much more than was given even by Avicenna. He holds that the existence of God can be proved by reason independently of revelation, a view also held by Thomas Aquinas. As regards immortality, he seems to have adhered closely to Aristotle, maintaining that the soul is not immortal, but intellect (nous) is. This, however, does not secure personal immortality, since intellect is one and the same when manifested in different persons. This view, naturally, was combated by Christian philosophers.

Averroes, like most of the later Mohammedan philosophers, though a believer, was not rigidly orthodox. There was a sect of completely orthodox theologians, who objected to all philosophy as deleterious to the faith. One of these, named Algazel, wrote a book called Destruction of the Philosophers, pointing out that, since all necessary truth is in the Koran, there is no need of speculation independent of revelation. Averroes replied by a book called Destruction of the Destruction. The religious dogmas that Algazel specially upheld against the philosophers were the creation of the world in time out of nothing, the reality of the divine attributes, and the resurrection of the body. Averroes regards religion as containing philosophic truth in allegorical form. This applies in particular to creation, which he, in his philosophic capacity, interprets in an Aristotelian fashion.

Averroes is more important in Christian than in Mohammedan philosophy. In the latter he was a dead end; in the former, a beginning. He was translated into Latin early in the thirteenth century by Michael Scott; as his works belong to the latter half of the twelfth century, this is surprising. His influence in Europe was very great, not only on the scholastics, but also on a large body of unprofessional free-thinkers, who denied immortality and were called Averroists. Among professional philosophers, his admirers were at first especially among the Franciscans and at the University of Paris. But this is a topic which will be dealt with in a later chapter.

Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators. Speaking generally, the views of the more scientific philosophers come from Aristotle and the Neoplatonists in logic and metaphysics, from Galen in medicine, from Greek and Indian sources in mathematics and astronomy, and among mystics religious philosophy has also an admixture of old Persian beliefs. Writers in Arabic showed some originality in mathematics and in chemistry—in the latter case, as an incidental result of alchemical researches. Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be under-rated, is as a transmitter. Between ancient and modern European civilization, the dark ages intervened. The Mohammedans and the Byzantines, while lacking the intellectual energy required for innovation, preserved the apparatus of civilization—education, books, and learned leisure. Both stimulated the West when it emerged from barbarism—the Mohammedans chiefly in the thirteenth century, the Byzantines chiefly in the fifteenth. In each case the stimulus produced new thought better than any produced by the transmitters—in the one case scholasticism, in the other the Renaissance (which however had other causes also).

Between the Spanish Moors and the Christians, the Jews formed a useful link. There were many Jews in Spain, who remained when the country was reconquered by the Christians. Since they knew Arabic, and perforce acquired the language of the Christians, they were able to supply translations. Another means of transfusion arose through Mohammedan persecution of Aristotelians in the thirteenth century, which led Moorish philosophers to take refuge with Jews, especially in Provence.

The Spanish Jews produced one philosopher of importance, Maimonides. He was born in Cordova in 1135, but went to Cairo at the age of thirty, and stayed there for the rest of his life. He wrote in Arabic, but was immediately translated into Hebrew. A few decades after his death, he was translated into Latin, probably at the request of the Emperor Frederick II. He wrote a book called Guide to Wanderers, addressed to philosophers who have lost their faith. Its purpose is to reconcile Aristotle with Jewish theology. Aristotle is the authority on the sublunary world, revelation on the heavenly. But philosophy and revelation come together in the knowledge of God. The pursuit of truth is a religious duty. Astrology is rejected. The Pentateuch is not always to be taken literally; when the literal sense conflicts with reason, we must seek an allegorical interpretation. As against Aristotle, he maintains that God created not only form, but matter, out of nothing. He gives a summary of the Timaeus (which he knew in Arabic), preferring it on some points to Aristotle. The essence of God is unknowable, being above all predicated perfections. The Jews considered him heretical, and went so far as to invoke the Christian ecclesiastical authorities against him. Some think that he influenced Spinoza, but this is very questionable.

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