Thought and Art in Eastern Islam



IF we may believe the traditions, Mohammed, unlike most religious reformers, admired and urged the pursuit of knowledge: “He who leaves his home in search of knowledge walks in the path of God … and the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr”;1 but these traditions have the ring of pedagogic narcissism. In any case the contact of the Arabs with Greek culture in Syria awoke in them an eager emulation; and soon the scholar as well as the poet was honored in Islam.

Education began as soon as the child could speak; it was at once taught to say, “I testify that there is no God but Allah, and I testify that Mohammed is His prophet.” At the age of six some slave children, some girls, and nearly all boys except the rich (who had private tutors) entered an elementary school, usually in a mosque, sometimes near a public fountain in the open air. Tuition was normally free, or so low as to be within general reach; the teacher received from the parent some two cents per pupil per week;2 the remaining cost was borne by philanthropists. The curriculum was simple: the necessary prayers of Moslem worship, enough reading to decipher the Koran, and, for the rest, the Koran itself as theology, history, ethics, and law. Writing and arithmetic were left to higher education, perhaps because writing, in the Orient, was an art that required specific training; besides, said the Moslem, scribes would be available for those who insisted on writing.3 Each day a part of the Koran was memorized and recited aloud; the goal set before every pupil was to learn the entire book by heart. He who succeeded was called hafiz, “holder,” and was publicly celebrated. He who also learned writing, archery, and swimming was called al-kamil, “the perfect one.” The method was memory, the discipline was the rod; the usual punishment was a beating with a palm stick on the soles of the feet. Said Harun to the tutor of his son Amin: “Be not strict to the extent of stifling his faculties, nor lenient to the point of … accustoming him to idleness. Straighten him as much as thou canst through kindness and gentleness, but fail not to resort to force and severity should he not respond.”4

Elementary education aimed to form character, secondary education to transmit knowledge. Squatting against a mosque pillar or wall, scholars offered instruction in Koranic interpretation, Hadith, theology, and law. At an unknown date many of these informal secondary schools were brought under governmental regulation and subsidy as madrasas or colleges. To the basic theological curriculum they added grammar, philology, rhetoric, literature, logic, mathematics, and astronomy. Grammar was emphasized, for Arabic was considered the most nearly perfect of all languages, and its correct use was the chief mark of a gentleman. Tuition in these colleges was free, and in some cases government or philanthropy paid both the salaries of the professors and the expenses of the students.5The teacher counted for more than the text, except in the case of the Koran; boys studied men rather than books; and students would travel from one end of the Moslem world to another to meet the mind of a famous teacher. Every scholar who desired a high standing at home had to hear the master scholars of Mecca, Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. This international of letters was made easier by the fact that throughout Islam—through whatever diversity of peoples—the language of learning and literature was Arabic; Latin had no wider realm. When a visitor entered a Moslem city he took it for granted that he could hear a scholarly lecture at the principal mosque at almost any hour of the day. In many cases the wandering scholar received not only free instruction at the madrasa, but, for a time, free lodging and food.6 No degrees were given; what the student sought was a certificate of approval from the individual teacher. The final accolade was the acquirement of adab—the manners and tastes, the verbal wit and grace, the lightly carried knowledge, of a gentleman.

When the Moslems captured Samarkand (712) they learned from the Chinese the technique of beating flax and other fibrous plants into a pulp, and drying the pulp in thin sheets. Introduced to the Near East as a substitute for parchment and leather at a time when papyrus was not yet forgotten, the product received the name papyros—paper. The first paper-manufacturing plant in Islam was opened at Baghdad in 794 by al-Fadl, son of Harun’s vizier. The craft was brought by the Arabs to Sicily and Spain, and thence passed into Italy and France. We find paper in use in China as early as A.D. 105, in Mecca in 707, in Egypt in 800, in Spain in 950, in Constantinople in 1100, in Sicily in 1102, in Italy in 1154, in Germany in 1228, in England in 1309.7 The invention facilitated the making of books wherever it went. Yaqubi tells us that in his time (891) Baghdad had over a hundred booksellers. Their shops were also centers of copying, calligraphy, and literary gatherings. Many students made a living by copying manuscripts and selling the copies to book dealers. In the tenth century we hear of autograph hunters, and of book collectors who paid great sums for rare manuscripts.8 Authors received nothing from the sale of their books; they depended on some less speculative mode of subsistence, or upon the patronage of princes or rich men. Literature was written, and art was designed, in Islam, to meet the taste of an aristocracy of money or of blood.

Most mosques had libraries, and some cities had public libraries of considerable content and generous accessibility. About 950 Mosul had a library, established by private philanthropy, where students were supplied with paper as well as books. Ten large catalogues were required to list the volumes in the public library at Rayy. Basra’s library gave stipends to scholars working in it. The geographer Yaqut spent three years in the libraries of Merv and Khwarizm, gathering data for his geographical dictionary. When Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols it had thirty-six public libraries.9 Private libraries were numberless; it was a fashion among the rich to have an ample collection of books. A physician refused the invitation of the sultan of Bokhara to come and live at his court, on the ground that he would need 400 camels to transport his library.10 Al-Waqidi, dying, left 600 boxes of books, each box so heavy that two men were needed to carry it;11 “princes like Sahib ibn Abbas in the tenth century might own as many books as could then be found in all the libraries of Europe combined.”12 Nowhere else in those eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries of our era was there so great a passion for books, unless it was in the China of Ming Huang. Islam reached then the summit of its cultural life. In a thousand mosques from Cordova to Samarkand scholars were as numerous as pillars, and made the cloisters tremble with their eloquence; the roads of the realm were disturbed by innumerable geographers, historians, and theologians seeking knowledge and wisdom; the courts of a hundred princes resounded with poetry and philosophical debate; and no man dared be a millionaire without supporting literature or art. The old cultures of the conquered were eagerly absorbed by the quick-witted Arabs; and the conquerors showed such tolerance that of the poets, scientists, and philosophers who now made Arabic the most learned and literary tongue in the world only a small minority were of Arab blood.

The scholars of Islam in this period strengthened the foundations of a distinguished literature by their labors in grammar, which gave the Arabic tongue logic and standards; by their dictionaries, which gathered the word wealth of that language into precision and order; by their anthologies, encyclopedias, and epitomes, which preserved much that was otherwise lost; and by their work in textual, literary, and historical criticism. We gratefully omit their names, and salute their achievement.

Those whom we remember best among the scholars are the historians, for to them we owe our knowledge of a civilization that without them would be as unknown to us as Pharaonic Egypt before Champollion. Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767) wrote a classicalLife of Mohammed; as revised and enlarged by Ibn Hisham (763) it is—barring the Koran—the oldest significant Arabic prose work that has reached us. Curious and tireless scholars composed biographical dictionaries of saints, or philosophers, or viziers, or jurists, or physicians, or calligraphers, or mandarins, or lovers, or scholars. Ibn Qutaiba (828–89) was one of many Moslems who attempted to write a history of the world; and unlike most historians he had the courage to set his own religion in that modest perspective which every nation or faith must bear in time’s immensity. Muhammad al-Nadim produced in 987 an Index of the Sciences (Fihrist al-’ulum), a bibliography of all books in Arabic, original or translated, on any branch of knowledge, with a biographical and critical notice of each author, including a list of his virtues and vices; we may estimate the wealth of Moslem literature in his time by noting that not one in a thousand of the volumes that he named is known to exist today.13

The Livy of Islam14 was Abu Jafar Muhammad al-Tabari (838–923). Like so many Moslem writers, he was a Persian, born in Tabaristan, south of the Caspian Sea. After several years spent as a poor wandering scholar in Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, he settled down as a jurist in Baghdad. For forty years he devoted himself to composing an enormous universal chronicle—Annals of the Apostles and Kings (Kitab akhbar al-Rusul wal-Muluk)—from the creation to 913. What survives fills fifteen large volumes; we are told that the original was ten times as long. Like Bossuet, al-Tabari saw the hand of God in every event, and filled his early chapters with pious nonsense: God “created men to test them”;15 God dropped upon the earth a house built of rubies for Adam’s dwelling, but when Adam sinned God drew it up again.16 Al-Tabari followed the Bible in giving the history of the Jews; accepted the Virgin Birth of Christ (Mary conceived Jesus because Gabriel blew into her sleeve),17 and ended Part One with Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Part Two is a far more creditable performance, and gives a sober, occasionally vivid, history of Sasanian Persia. The method is chronological, describing events year by year, and usually traditional—tracing the narratives through one or more chains of Hadith to an eyewitness or contemporary of the incident. The method has the virtue of stating sources carefully; but as al-Tabari makes no attempt to co-ordinate the diverse traditions into a sustained and united narrative his history remains a mountain of industry rather than a work of art.

Al-Masudi, al-Tabari’s greatest successor, ranked him as al-Masudi’s greatest predecessor. Abu-l-Hasan Ali al-Masudi, an Arab of Baghdad, traveled through Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Zanzibar, Persia, Central Asia, India, and Ceylon; he claims even to have reached the China Sea. He gathered his gleanings into a thirty-volume encyclopedia, which proved too long for even the spacious scholars of Islam; he published a compendium, also gigantic; finally (947)—perhaps realizing that his readers had less time to read than he had to write—he reduced his work to the form in which it survives, and gave it the fancy title, Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Stones. Al-Masudi surveyed omnivorously the geography, biology, history, customs, religion, science, philosophy, and literature of all lands from China to France; he was the Pliny as well as the Herodotus of the Moslem world. He did not compress his material to aridity, but wrote at times with a genial leisureliness that did not shun, now and then, an amusing tale. He was a bit skeptical in religion, but never forced his doubts upon his audience. In the last year of his life he summarized his views on science, history, and philosophy in a Book of Information, in which he suggested an evolution “from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, and from animal to man.”18 Perhaps these views embroiled him with the conservatives of Baghdad; he was forced, he says, “to leave the city where I was born and grew up.” He moved to Cairo, but mourned the separation. “It is the character of our time,” he wrote, “to separate and disperse all…. God makes a nation prosper through love of the hearth; it is a sign of moral uprightness to be attached to the place of one’s birth; it is a mark of noble lineage to dislike separation from the ancestral hearth and home.”19 He died at Cairo in 956, after ten years of exile.

At their best these historians excel in the scope of their enterprise and their interests; they properly combine geography and history, and nothing human is alien to them; and they are far superior to the contemporary historians in Christendom. Even so they lose themselves too long in politics and war and wordy rhetoric; they seldom seek the economic, social, and psychological causes of events; we miss in their vast volumes a sense of orderly synthesis, and find merely a congeries of unco-ordinated parts—nations, episodes, and personalities. They rarely rise to a conscientious scrutiny of sources, and rely too piously upon chains of tradition in which every link is a possible error or deceit; in consequence their narratives sometimes degenerate into childish tales of portent, miracle, and myth. As many Christian historians (always excepting Gibbon) can write medieval histories in which all Islamic civilization is a brief appendage to the Crusades, so many Moslem historians reduced world history before Islam to a halting preparation for Mohammed. But how can a Western mind ever judge an Oriental justly? The beauty of the Arab language fades in translation like a flower cut from its roots; and the topics that fill the pages of Moslem historians, fascinating to their countrymen, seem aridly remote from the natural interests of Occidental readers, who have not realized how the economic interdependence of peoples ominously demands a mutual study and understanding of East and West.

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