Why a Return to Medieval Iraq Wouldn’t Be Such a Bad Thing
Islam, Higher Learning & Religious Violence
By Professor Peter Adamson (King’s College London)
This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine.
Often, one sees the word “medieval” being applied to the barbarity with which sectarian agendas are being pursued in modern-day Iraq. It would, perhaps, be pedantic to complain that it is inappropriate to apply the word “medieval” to Islamic history. It’s obviously a pejorative term, and conjures up an era of suffocating religious dogma, poverty, and cultural retreat, lying between the glorious periods of ancient Rome and the European Renaissance.
Quite a few scholars would be eager to challenge even the notion that this accurately describes medieval Europe, and it is certainly far off the mark when it comes to Islam in, say, the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. As even harsh critics of Islamic culture grudgingly admit, there was a great blossoming of science, philosophy, and literature during this age we call medieval.
But let’s not get hung up on words. What I want to question is the idea that interreligious conflict was distinctive of the “medieval” period of Islam, and in particular, of medieval Iraq. To the contrary, it turns out that the famous blossoming of Islamic culture was a strikingly ecumenical affair.
Let me begin with one small, but telling, episode. It concerns a man who was recognized in his day (the mid-tenth century AD) as the leading expert on Aristotle in Baghdad: Yaḥyā Ibn ʿAdī. You might expect a scholar in that position to be a Muslim, but he was in fact a Christian, the most influential member of a group of logicians and philosophers who spent their time commenting on Aristotle, teaching younger scholars to understand Aristotle, and also defending the Christian faith as they understood it.
Ibn ʿAdī, for instance, wrote polemical works about the Incarnation and the Trinity, and even penned a tract defending the Christian virtue of chastity (often criticized by Muslims). As a leading authority, at any rate, Ibn ʿAdī was an obvious person to ask for an elucidation of fine points in philosophy. He was duly approached by another scholar, by the name of Ibn Abī Saʿīd al-Mawṣilī, who wrote to him with a list of questions that were troubling him. A copy of the questions, along with Ibn ʿAdī’s terse but polite replies, still survives today.
The intellectual community of tenth century Baghdad was, in other words, a multi-religious one. Though Ibn ʿAdī’s group was largely Christian, another philosopher whose name is more famous today, al-Fārābī, was affiliated with their circle, having studied logic with Christian scholars. All of which was nothing new.
For a century and more, philosophy had been a collaborative enterprise between Muslims and Christians. The Greek scientific works lovingly studied by Ibn ʿAdī and his colleagues were first translated into Arabic by Christians who had been hired by wealthy Muslim patrons, including the caliphs themselves. The patrons turned to them for their competence in Greek, since there was a living tradition of knowledge of ancient Greek among the Syrian Christian community, where there had been an unbroken tradition of studying Aristotle and other philosophers in monasteries.
The greatest translator of all was Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, an Iraqi Christian of Syrian family background. His speciality was not philosophy, but medicine. In particular he rendered many works by the greatest ancient physician, Galen, into Syriac (these versions would typically then be rendered into Arabic by a colleague). His son Isḥāq was responsible for a large number of excellent Arabic translations, especially of Aristotle.
Another group of translators, also Christians, were gathered around the person of al-Kindī. He was a Muslim and is, indeed, usually recognized as the first Islamic philosopher (he died shortly after 870 AD). Yet many of his closest collaborators were Christians, whose translations he revised and used as inspiration in his own treatises – which were usually in the form of epistles written to the very patrons whose deep pockets were supporting the translation movement.
While Jewish scholars were less intimately involved with this movement, they were certainly attentive observers of intellectual developments among their Muslim contemporaries. A striking, albeit somewhat mysterious, example is one of the first Jewish philosophers to write in Arabic: Isaac Israeli, whose works borrow the title and much of the content of al-Kindī’s treatises, though we aren’t entirely sure how he came across them.
Other Jewish philosophers even drew on Islamic theology of the period (sometimes called kalām in Arabic). David Ibn Muqammas and the great Saadia Gaon, a leading religious scholar of Iraq, were both influenced by the Islamic theologians we group under the rubric of Muʿtazilism. Saadia was a learned scholar of the Jewish law, responsible for an Arabic translation of the Hebrew Bible, and a commentator on books of the Bible. He saw no contradiction between such activities and taking inspiration from Islamic theologians, on topics like human freedom and even the nature of God Himself. In fact both he and al-Kindī seem to reflect the “negative theology” of the Muʿtazilites, rejecting the application of human language to God.
None of which is to say that this was a period of total harmony and agreement across the faiths. It has been speculated that the logical works of Aristotle were in the first place translated in part to provide tools for use in interfaith dispute. The very figures we have been discussing, for all their collaborative spirit, wrote polemics in defense of their own religious beliefs and against the beliefs of others.
Al-Kindī and Saadia both argued that the Christians’ doctrine of the Trinity violated the simplicity of God. Al-Kindī made his point using terms drawn from Aristotelian logic, saying that this was for the benefit of his learned Christian readers who could be expected to know the relevant texts. In a nice twist, his anti-Trinitarian tract was then refuted by Ibn ʿAdī (in fact, we only know of al-Kindī’s arguments through the quotations given by Ibn ʿAdī). And there were other, more hostile critics.
Ibn ʿAdī’s teacher Abū Bishr Mattā, the founder of the Christian Aristotelian school, got into a public debate with a critic of the Greek logical tradition and was mocked by his opponent: expertise in logic had not prevented Abū Bishr from thinking that the same thing could be both one and three.
Of course, such encounters were in a sense exceptions that proved the rule: this was a time when religious tension took the form of refutation and mockery, rather than warfare. That is still too optimistic a picture, unfortunately.
The sunni-shiite conflict we see today does have its roots in violent confrontations from the formative period of Islam, and shiites were routinely suppressed by sunnis in the medieval age. Indeed, sunni authorities were apt to see shiites as political subversives who were far more dangerous than the Christians or Jews, groups acknowledged as fellow “peoples of the book.”
And this story can be extended past the ninth or tenth century. When the fabled period of “convivencia” (living together) of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain was finally ended with the expulsion of non-Christians from the Iberian penninsula by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, many Jews sought refuge in the Ottoman empire. In the thirteenth century, when a mongol warlord sponsored an astronomical observatory at the Persian city Maragha, it was headed by a Shiite Muslim whose students included a Christian.
The history of interfaith cooperation and harmony in the Islamic world is certainly not without its nuances and tragic exceptions, but the history is there nonetheless. In this respect, it would not be such a bad thing if today’s Iraq were a bit more medieval.