"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Abbasids: Taking Islam From Arabia to Diversity

Notes and reflections on Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence by Zachary Karabell

Chapter 2 mostly dealt with the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad, a created city which took Islam from a more Arab-centric place towards Persia and a more diverse Islam and a "culture that celebrated the divine right of kings and sybaritic [luxurious or sensual] pleasures....Creativity, reason, and openness to new ideas were embedded in early Abbasid culture."  Indeed the author gave examples of how the Muslim caliphs would invite theologians from other faiths to debate them. One ruler studied the art of debating by reading Greek literature before inviting a Christian theologian to his court.  The author states, "From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, what is most striking about these debates is not just that they took place, but that such a premium was placed on logic rather than faith.  An elite group of Muslims and Christians in the Abbasid ninth century relied on reason and philosophy, not personal piety or the strength of belief, in order to demonstrate the truth of their religions." (pg. 49)

He had been talking about a debate between the caliph Al-Ma'mun and a Greek Orthodox bishop, Theodore Abu Qurra, and Muslim scholars "analyzing the Torah and the gospel to find errors of logic."  The ideas of the virgin birth and the Trinity were illogical - the author gave these examples, but I know Muslims nowadays believe in the virgin birth of Jesus so I don't understand why this was given as proof of Christianity's "not true religion" status. Unless back then they had a different interpretation for those Quranic stories about Jesus being the son of Mary, a virgin.  *shrug*

Karabell (the author) told how during this time so many books and pamphlets were translated to Arabic and how this proliferation of knowledge contributed to the empire's golden age.  He wrote, "Al-Ma'mun understood that only in an atmosphere where divergent views were welcome could knowledge advance, and that such advancement was to the greater glory of God. The Abbasids in their prime reaped the rewards of this openness."

The author noted how Muslims were divided between rationalists and traditionalists. The former held most of the power during this time and while they were generally tolerant of the People of the Book, they tended to persecute Muslims who held to the traditional point of view. Traditionalists believed the Quran was uncreated. Rationalists argued that this was almost being like the Christians in holding a book up to the same eternal quality of God. 

Just as people tend to do today, the Abbasids were tolerant and open during times of security, but began discriminating when they felt insecure or that their rule was shaky. An example given was in 806 during Harun al-Rashid's power when violence "erupted between Christians, Jews, and Muslims" possibly due to a Byzantine attack on an Abbasid outpost.  However this conflict wasn't against all Christians. In fact while Harun was fighting the Byzantines and persecuting Iraqi Christians under his rule, he was wooing "very Christian" Charlemagne who had been crowned as pope in Rome and set himself up as "the Western alternative to the Byzantines."  Charlemagne was also a "sworn enemy" of the remaining (Muslim) Umayyads in Spain. So, in a sense,  you have Muslim Abbasids wooing Western Christianity as allies against Muslim Umayyads and Eastern Christianity.

The Byzantine emperor did not believe in separation of church and state and he was both a political and religious leader. Thus when the Byzantine and Abbasids fought it truly was a religious war...yet it was also political. As the author notes, war during that time was seldom seen apart from God. He reminds us of the Israelites in the Old Testament who were either urged to war or admonished by God concerning fighting with others.  Byzantine emperors "viewed war as a holy errand" and victory a sign of "God's pleasure, defeat indicative of moral weakness." While Muslims were fine ruling over nonMuslims and did not, in fact, seek to convert people by sword, they had no problem using their concept of jihad "as a source of strength and justification" when fighting did occur.  (pg. 58)

The author mentions the Turks and how these incohesive tribes contributed to the ultimate downfall of the Abbasids. Eventually their rule didn't extend much beyond Iraq yet for a time Baghdad remained a "center for inquiry" and a "cultural hub where philosophy, science, and art survived."

While the author admits that the Abbasids were people of their times and thus didn't have all the "moral and legal niceties that the modern world demands," he is honest in saying that during their rule "there was an eruption of intellectual and philosophical creativity that has rarely been exceeded."  Wealth and "simple curiosity" were factors, however, the author credits "this flowering of inquiry, this preservation of the knowledge of ancient Greece and the advancement of math, science, and philosophy took place in an environment where Muslim rulers welcomed and invited interaction with the People of the Book. They used Christian scholars and administrators as foils to hone their own arguments about Islam, and the interaction between the faiths -- sometimes friendly, often competitive, occasionally contemptuous, and now and then violent -- ignited a cultural renaissance."  (pg. 62)

I didn't know much about this period of Muslim history so I enjoyed learning some new things in this chapter.



Wafa' said...

The Abbasids turn from being the best thing that happened to the Islamic civilazation to the worst.
Something went wrong with their ruling or as usual greed and power corrupt them !!

observant observer said...

"They used Christian scholars and administrators as foils to hone their own arguments about Islam, and the interaction between the faiths -- sometimes friendly, often competitive, occasionally contemptuous, and now and then violent -- ignited a cultural renaissance"

I wonder whether the opposite would also hold true, did the cultural renaissance in the west happened this way too? as a result of interactions of different faiths? Hmmmmmmmm

Suroor said...

I see wisdom in Wafa's comment.

Lat said...

I'm happy to see that we were reading about the same topics at the same time but by different authors! That's interesting! :)

Susanne said...

Wafa', the book doesn't give an extensive history of any one period although the author gives a general "they eventually fell" type of summary of their decline. So your commentary was certainly appreciated for my own understanding! Yeah, power and greed...the two corrupting characteristics then and now.

Thanks for your reply!

Susanne said...

Observant Observer, I don't know. So far it seems the Westerners were more bent on fighting and crusading. We are the world's barbarians! :D

Susanne said...

Suroor, agreed.

Lat, yeah, that's pretty neat! :)