Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Common Era - Toward Western Europe

A little timeline just to get things in perspective. I know I have been covering the Islamic empire quite a bit, so a little review of the Christians is in order. The Roman Empire did not begin as a Christian one, so it has a different flavor than the Islamic empire. Both had considerable fighting within their boundaries, but the Christians had more trouble over who was actually the King and what brand of Christianity they were worshipping.

475 – Rome falls. Or at least that is the most common date used. At the time, it was just one more piece of bad news. The Western Emperor had been deposed by the Barbarians. Many Romans still felt that there was an Empire and that it would return to its former glory.

Dec 25, 800 Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This was the beginning of a somewhat reunited Europe, although fighting continued. The tradition of the Pope crowning the King would last for 1,000 years.

Nov 27, 1095 – The First Crusade. Pope Urban combines the ideas of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with that of waging war. He says, “The West must march to the defense of the East.” By 1099 they had captured Jerusalem, killing many Jews along the way and brutally murdering Muslims in the battle.

1088 – Establishment of the University of Bologna, Italy. This and other universities grew out of the Christian cathedral and monastic schools. With the wars of conquest going on both in the East as well as in Spain, Western Europe was increasingly exposed to the ancient writings of Plato and Aristotle and the advances in math and science coming out of Baghdad.

1210 – Teachings of Aristotle were condemned. This was only effective in the University of Paris.

1277 – Broader condemnations were made. Some specific works of Thomas Aquinas were included; particularly those that were attempting to reconcile the pantheistic ideas of the Islamic philosopher Averroes with the dogmas of Christianity.

1323 – Pope John XXII pronounces Thomas Aquinas a saint. The Church continues to claim the final word on God’s powers and the truth of miracles, but methods of analyzing cause and effect in nature are taking hold throughout Christendom. Depending on whom you read, this was an era of oppression of knowledge by the church, or the inspiration for the beginnings of science in the West.

The Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were gaining power and consolidating in Spain at this time, but I’m going to skip those details for now and catch up with Ferdinand and Isabella later. The histories of the crusades and inquisitions that were prevalent at this time are well documented elsewhere, so I don’t think it is necessary to rehash those.

Two major figures that were instrumental in transferring the knowledge that had accumulated across the Islamic empire were Maimonides and Averroes. Maimonides is a well known Jewish scholar throughout the west and east today. Averroes was a Muslim scholar and is not so well known. But he was acknowledged by Thomas Aquinas who is famous for attempting to reconcile Christianity with rationalism.


Maimonides, was a Jewish philosopher, born in Cordoba in 1135. He died in Egypt 12/12/1204. He is one of the foremost rabbinical philosophers in Jewish history. He wrote the14 volume Mishneh Torah, still an authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He was well read in the Greek philosophies (in the Arabic language) and in Islamic science.

In 1148, the Almohads abolished the dhimma status that protected the life and wealth of Jews within Islamic rule. Under the new laws Jews now had to wear identifying clothing. Given the choices of conversion, death or exile, he chose exile. He moved around southern Spain for ten years then settled in Fes, Morocco. He studied in University of Al-Karaouine then went to Fostat, Egypt in 1168. Although exiled from Muslim Al-Andalus, staying within the Islamic empire was still preferable to Christianized Europe.

In fact Maimonides was working against the forces of European expansion. Christians were taking Jews captive and Maimonides took part in rescuing them from King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. After the unfortunate loss of his brother, along with the family fortune, he became court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, and later to Sultan Saladin.

One of his better known works is The Guide to the Perplexed; supposedly a long answer to a young man who was having difficulty holding on to his faith in the miracles of the Bible while also learning about the laws of nature and how unlikely it was that those miracles could have actually happened. I began reading it when I was myself perplexed and did not find it to be much of a guide at all.

In the guide, Maimonides grants that parts of the Bible are allegorical. He does not allow for God being anything but real and presents arguments for its existence. These are somewhat complex arguments, similar to the cosmological argument or teleological argument, both can be easily googled, and both can be shown to be logically unsound. He goes on to analyze some Biblical stories, leaving much open to interpretation. In fact philosophers, Jews and even Kabballists have claimed he supports them.

Of course at the time his arguments were new and the Internet was quite a ways off, so it is easy for me to sit here and be critical of his work. I include him here to acknowledge his contribution to furthering the conversation of modernization and note that we have progressed quite a bit since then.


It was not just Judaism that was under attack by the Moors, philosophy itself, even from a Muslim perspective was ridiculed. The Ash’ari theology had spread rapidly. It looked only to Allah as the source of wisdom. To look to knowledge for the sake of knowledge was considered arrogant and counter to Islamic teaching. Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers and in response, Averroes wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, excelled in medicine and law and one day, his mentor handed him many of the works of Aristotle, telling him that the Commander of the Faithful (as the ruler was called at the time) was complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle’s expressions, or perhaps the trouble was with the translations that they had. He felt that if anyone could summarize and clarify those works, Averroes could. He devoted 30 years of his life to doing just that.

His rationalist line of thinking did not always play well with the increasingly fundamentalist rulers. Although the reasons are unclear, we know his political career ended abruptly with criticisms from Islamic jurists. After his death, a contemporary, Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi wrote that the secret reason for his ordeal was that he wrote, “And I saw the Giraffe at the garden of the king of the Berbers.”

Seemingly innocent, and possibly not intentional, this reference was to a king and it was not done with proper protocols. Jealous, competing enemies took it out of context and brought it to the attention of the Caliph Yaqub al-Manur. Averroes was exiled and many of his books were burned. We know of him mostly today through the translations that survived in Europe. He was allowed to return shortly before his death in 1198.

His philosophy ranged from Plato’s paternalistic and authoritarian ideas of absolute monarchy supported by coercion and indoctrination of the young, to the acceptance of women’s equality. He defended philosophy and said it could exist alongside religion.


If you were to read their actual philosophies, you might not find them impressive. Their arguments would probably seem elementary. They wouldn’t seem like anything new. That could be because they are almost 1,000 years old. At the time however, people were still struggling with the earth being round. They might not have thought that the sun was carried across the sky in a golden chariot, but they still didn’t have any idea what it actually was. They were being told by a powerful tradition that God was responsible for everything, but they could see people taking command of how crops grew and where water went and the health and well being of their loved ones. These things needed to be reconciled.

I highlight these two men, but there were many who had their same ideas. We know of these two because they were literate and eloquent. Also, they worked well within the confines of their traditions, enough to gain respect, but challenged that tradition just enough to be considered great thinkers of the ages. I’m sure there were many others that challenged tradition considerably more but we don’t know of them because they were marginalized, not given an education, or their writings were destroyed, or perhaps their heads removed.

No comments:

Post a Comment