Sunday, January 20, 2008

Two Books on the Culture of Medieval Islam

Griffith, Sidney H. The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture : The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). London ; New York: Routledge, 1998.

I believe that, if the astrological community is to be viewed seriously on the outside, it has to collectively learn how to behave critically. This means thinking about thinking, among other things. And this means that we have to learn how to critically examine our own authors. Which is a short-hand way of saying that what we should not be doing is praising those works which “agree” with our personal viewpoints, while dismissing or trashing those that don't.

Until we can achieve this level of understanding, we look like a cluster of Christian heresies from the 4th or 5th century CE, each lovingly transmitting its own opinion of the nature of Christ and God, while condemning all other beliefs to Hell and damnation.

As an exercise in presenting this idea of the critical approach, I'd like to contrast two books that cover roughly the same historical period: one of interest to astrologers, as you will shortly see.

The period of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) marked the consolidation of Islamic power after the first political dynasty, the Umayyads, who had ruled since the Prophet's death. The first century and one half of the Abbasid period included the great period of translation of Hellenistic material into Arabic from Syriac, and then Greek. This material included virtually the entire corpus of Hellenistic astrology, as well as massive quantities of other Greek natural philosophy and medicine. This translation movement then sparked a highly creative and productive period of commentary, as Arabic-speaking philosophers (Muslim, Christian and Jewish, as well as some remnant Zoroastrians) digested the material, commented upon it, and then developed new ideas of their own. This period also significantly opened up transmission of Indian ideas to the West, as Muslims increasingly became involved in the wars and politics of the Indian subcontinent. From an astrological standpoint, the Abbasid period marks the transition from The Hellenistic and Sassanian forms of astrology into what is first called Arabic astrology, then Medieval astrology, the latter especially as the Arabic works in turn are translated into Latin primarily in Spain and Italy, especially from the time of the 12th century.

Gutas' work has taken barely ten years to become a classic. I am not saying this because I “like” it, but because it has become an extremely influential work to historians of this period. This means that any subsequent work about this period would be considered suspect if it did not refer to Gutas' work. I should add that Gutas covers the translation of astrological works quite overtly. As is typical of the period (of historians of science) , Gutas does not attempt to minimize the role of astrology in the society and natural philosophy of the time, although neither does he discuss the content of the works in the way that a practitioner would.

One of the things which is so intriguing about this particular time and place is that Muslims, Christians and Jews were able to work together so cooperatively. While politically, there was no question the Muslims were at the top of the heap, their fellow Monotheists were able to contribute substantially to the intellectual life of their shared culture.

Having said this, what is also intriguing is that the Muslim political policies made conversion to Islam desirable – but not compulsory. This was way more of a carrot approach than the stick employed by the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella and their successors in Spain. The net result is that, from the time of the Umayyad conquests through the next five centuries, the Muslims went from being a tiny minority in their conquered lands to a huge majority – and largely through the voluntary conversions of individual Christians.

Gutas did not cover that issue within his work: it simply wasn't the subject of his study. It was to address this political dimension that I wanted to read Griffith's book.

The contrast of writing styles could not be more extreme. Gutas has a clear, factual writing style that is easy to follow. By contrast, Griffith' writing is filled with run-on sentences and hyperactive footnotes that seriously mar the readability of the text.

Further, I cannot say I really know that much more about the transition of the Islamic Empire from a numerically Christian-dominated zone to a Muslim one. Griffith's major development is to emphasize the development of apologetic writing – an odd name to someone outside the field, but a technical term for the “defense of the faith” writing of the Christian hierarchy to defend the spiritual superiority of Christianity. These writings were meant to discourage conversions to Islam – which we know statistically they failed to do. He does present some evidence that the different Christian sects managed to cobble together an entente of mutual interest – and that is something worth noting. However, I came away from his work still wondering how significant these apologetic writings really were to the intellectual life of the time.

Will Griffith's work become a classic like Gutas'? I seriously doubt it. I think its major flaw – apart from stylistic – is that it actually represents a rather narrow study masquerading as a larger topic. Had the work been clearly labeled as a study of Arabic-language Christian apologies, it would have had the benefit of matching its title. But the implication of a broader river instead of a deeper, but smaller stream, leaves the reader unsatisfied.

No comments: