Sunday, 25 January 2009

In Obama's week, a name to conjure with

When the prophet Mohammed died in 632, he left behind him not the warring tribes he’d found but an Arab nation bound together by a common religion and which had already shown its military might. Over the next century his successors took on and defeated both the great empires to their North, the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire and the Persians, and established Islam as the ruling religion over a region that extended from North-Western India to Morocco and most of Spain.

As Islam conquered peoples from the Byzantine Empire, it came into contact with Greek culture, the most sophisticated of Europe and the Mediterranean basin to that time. As it began to exercise great power, Islam developed a taste for that kind of subtlety and depth. As it became wealthy, it found it had the leisure and the means to indulge that taste. For two and a half centuries from about 800, the Baghdad Caliphate invested colossal sums of money in what has come to be known as the Translation Movement. Nearly all the great works of antiquity, of philosophers, mathematicians and physicians, were translated into Arabic and spread throughout the Islamic world, including Spain.

There Christians, who had lost these books, rediscovered them. They worked with Jewish and Moslem scholars, translating the classical Greek works out of Arabic or Hebrew into the language of Christian intellectuals, Latin. But the Translation Movement had done more than translate. A tradition had emerged of adding notes, particularly when dealing with difficult words or unfamiliar concepts. Notes turned into commentaries and then, inevitably, new ideas based on, or in opposition to, the old ones.

Probably the greatest of the commentators was Averroes, the outstanding Moslem scholar in Cordoba, then capital of Islamic Spain. His key idea was that rational thought and belief can be separated. They are not necessarily in conflict, but they are different. The former deals with things that can and need to be demonstrated or proved. The latter deals with the teachings of God which by their nature are beyond demonstration.

By separating rational enquiry from belief, Averroes made possible the study of science. Religion studies God, but Science studies only God’s creation and uses different tools.

Fundamentalists prevented such ideas gaining much ground in Islam. Among Christians, however, things were different. Christian Europe was undergoing fundamental change, with the emergence of a significant urban rather than agricultural population. Within the Church new orders appeared, Franciscans and Dominicans, to minister to the poor in their suburban slums, badly served by traditional parish priests or monasteries. They preached but they also taught, believing that education was key to combating heresy and backsliding.

The greatest of the Dominicans was Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle became his inspiration. And whose Aristotle did he use? Why, Averroes’s, with his commentaries. This is dynamite: still regarded by Catholics as one of the 33 ‘Doctors of the Church’, Thomas turned to a pagan writer, Aristotle, filtered by the thinking of a Moslem. Admittedly, Thomas also wrote against Aristotle and Averroes, in particular against their view that the world had always existed with no instant of creation. However, that didn’t stop critics accusing him of ‘Averroism’. And that didn’t stop the Church making him a Saint.

Thomas established the principle that ‘nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in the senses.’ This extends the separation that Averroes had drawn between belief and rationality. It says that the raw material of thought itself comes from our observation of what is outside us. Modern science anchors its theories in observation. St Thomas proclaimed it could be no other way.

A view of knowledge based on human observation makes man central, rather than Divine authority. It informs what we call humanism, the current that would inspire the Renaissance. Man stands at the centre of philosophy, alongside or even instead of God.

These ideas developed further in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Voltaire, in his Letters concerning the English Nation, gave political expression to the idea that belief and reason are separate: ‘An Englishman, in virtue of his liberty, goes to heaven his own way.’ It is not for the State to prescribe what I believe; politics is one thing, religion another. And the first amendment to the US Constitution proclaims ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. Similarly, Rousseau opened his Social Contract with the words ‘Man is born equal, but everywhere he is in chains’. When the American Colonists declared themselves independent of Britain, they wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution draw on a tradition of thought whose fundamental ideas matured down the ages. Their source was the rediscovery of the great Classical Greek works by the Translation Movement and they were transmitted by the major thinkers of the Islamic Empire. In a sense then, when Barack Obama pronounced, or at least stumbled through, the oath of office as prescribed by the Constitution, he was taking his place in a tradition which doesn’t just go back to the founding fathers of the US, but to Thomas Aquinas, Averroes and the Baghdad Caliphate.

No-one embodies that tradition so well as Averroes, who launched that other Declaration of Independence, asserting the autonomy of rational thought. So for a name to conjure with in the week of Obama, I choose his.


But perhaps I ought to choose ‘Cordoba’. At least we can still visit the city. There we can stand in the great Mosque with a Cathedral in its centre, and say to ourselves ‘so this is where peoples and ideas flowed together to inspire the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the founding of the United States. And to make Obama’s presidency possible.’

1 comment:

san Cassimally said...

I have obviously wondered when, if at all, the Muslim world will feel more at ease with the Western world. Clearly a satisfactory solution to the Palestine problem will be an important factor, but above all, it is my belief that a greater awareness of the achievements of people like Averroes, Avicenna and above all my own favourite, Reyhan al-Biruni would give us the confidence to accept, like those luminaries, that DOUBT, far from being an impediment, is the agent that enables you to go forward on the road to a better understanding of the world we live in.