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CULTURAL ORIENTATION IN MIDDLE AGES - Christendom and Islam

Author: Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla

 

(Based on freely drawn excerpts from "MEDIEVAL ISLAM: A Study in Cultural Orientation" by Professor Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Chicago - 1947.  The excerpts are from Chapters I & II only)

    During the Middle Ages the "mood of the times" was such that religion remained man's primary interest and man's intellectual effort was mostly expository and interpretive. Islam, Greek Christendom, and Latin Christendom were the three political and cultural units set against one another.  But however much Baghdad and Byzantium might differ in etiquette and style of life, there was enough in common to make each party understand the means of impressing the other. Strong movements of thought and emotion not infrequently gripped both Constantinople and Baghdad. The mood that inspired the Mu'tazilites in Islam inspired the Iconoclasts across the border.  The same problems attracted and exercised the Byzantine and Arab minds. Riven asunder by conflicting revelations, uneasily hiding behind dangerous distances and puzzling tongues, East and West when contemplating each other in the medieval world concentrated on what set them apart.  Both Christendom and Islam allowed themselves to forget that they were lauding and damning in subservience to the same values and that their love and hate was born from the same mood.

     The political relationship of the three power blocs did as much as language barriers and religious hostility to conceal their essential kinship of thought and sentiment to the denizens of individual units. No single fact ever played a bigger part in moulding the international relations of the Middle Ages than the existence of a powerful, uncanny and unpredictable political body on the other side of what the Arabs were fond of calling the "Central Sea". Throughout  the Middle Ages armed intrusion from the West never touched the core of the Islamic territory. Nor did Islam, once the first rush of expansion had been halted, influence conspicuously the political development of the European West.  The loss to Islam of Spain and Sicily for the better part of the period did not influence too much the political growth of the western world, although it proved stimulating from a cultural point of view.  The disruption of the age-old unity of the Mediterranean world, owing to its passing under the dominion of never less than three antagonistic rulers, considerably accentuated and speeded the reorientation of Europe away from the Mediterranean  towards the North Sea and the Atlantic. This, with its weighty economic and cultural consequences, is one of the essential factors in the development of the Western Middle Ages.

     Both the medieval Muslim, and Christian, disregarding the similarities, emphasised the differences whenever either bethought himself of , the world beyond the pale. The main source of the Muslim's sense of superiority which at least in the early part of Middle Ages was not altogether unwarranted, was, to him, the incontrovertible knowledge that his was the final religion "the one and the only truth", and that no language can match the dignity of Arabic, the chosen vehicle of "God's ultimate message".  On the other hand the Christian too knew himself possessed of the "perfect and the whole truth".  The foreignness of the Muslim world was keenly felt and the enigma was never solved to satisfaction why so large a part of mankind "would cling so staunchly to the manifest error of its faith".  It is not surprising then that Christianity, Eastern and Western Alike, got off to a wrong start in their approach to Islam and its founder. The Crusades did much to advance a more correct picture of the Prophet, but it seems that, outside those who had personal experience of the Muslim world, only a comparatively small group of people were prepared to accept the revised portrait.  All the same, dislike, fear, and almost deliberate misunderstanding did not, on the part of the Byzantines, preclude respect and appreciation of their great antagonists, the Saracens of the East. Hatred fear, admiration and the attraction of the unknown seem to have coexisted in Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, events determining the paramount emotion of the moment.

     Meanwhile cultural exchanges were taking place.  In fact the rise of Muslim power gave a new impetus to Byzantine civilization and it is curious to observe how Arab prestige rose in Constantinople at the same time that the prestige of Greek science was reaching its peak in Baghdad.  The Caliph Mamun sent scholars to Constantinople to procure Greek manuscripts. Private individuals followed the Caliph's example. For example,  the three Banu Musa were extreme in their search for ancient sciences and expended fortunes on them. "They sent to the land of Greece people who would procure scientific works for them and brought translators from various countries at great expense, and so brought to light the marvels of wisdom". By about 800 A.D. Greek philosophy had sufficiently penetrated educated circles in Baghdad to enable the scholars to expound on a variety of classical theories.  Not very long after the Arab physicians had begun their training on Greek authorities, the Byzantine doctors fell back on Arab medicine.  Either civilization enjoyed prestige  in the territory of the other.

     Early in the Middle Ages the Latin West had come to accept the idea that civilization flows from East to West. History confirmed what speculation had predicted; at the end of the medieval period civilization had moved its focal points across the Mediterranean and into Western Europe. A thousand years of strife and toil had profoundly changed the political face of the world. The Turkish conquest of Constantinople (1455) had finally eliminated one of the three power blocks around the Mediterranean.  Western Europe was cleared of Muslim domination when Granada surrendered to the Castilian king (1492). Both in East and in West the unity of the power blocs had been shattered by internal developments.  Everywhere national states arose.

    By 1500, the cultural influence of the East had sunk to comparative insignificance.  Europe vaguely realised it had no longer anything essential to learn from its age-old opponent, and in the Muslim world political success engendered a deceptive feeling of cultural security and self sufficiency.  Slowly Russia grew to succeed the Byzantines.

    When, in the nineteenth century, Muslim lands were rudely awakened to reality, they found themselves faced once more by two power blocks infinitely stronger than their medieval predecessors had been.  At this moment the East is still struggling to get back on its feet.

 

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