Join 3,441 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Rethinking the Idea of 'Christian Europe'
December 19, 2011 10:20 PM   Subscribe

Rethinking the Idea of 'Christian Europe'. Kenan Malik's essay is awarded 3 Quarks Daily's Top Quark for politics & social science by judge Stephen M. Walt: "Soldiers in today’s culture wars believe 'European civilization' rests on a set of unchanging principles that are perennially under siege—from godless communism, secular humanism, and most recently, radical Islam. For many of these zealots, what makes the 'West' unique are its Judeo-Christian roots. In this calm and elegantly-written reflection on the past two millenia, Malik shows that Christianity is only one of the many sources of 'Western' culture, and that many of the ideas we now think of as 'bedrock' values were in fact borrowed from other cultures. This essay is a potent antidote to those who believe a 'clash of civilizations' is inevitable—if not already underway—and the moral in Malik’s account could not be clearer. Openness to outside influences has been the true source of European prominence; erecting ramparts against others will impoverish and endanger us all."
posted by homunculus (87 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
No no, when Christians buy Christmas trees it's meant as an ironic statement that subtly derides the godless heathens of yore. In fact Christians are the original hipsters.

great post, no culture exists in a vacuum
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 10:27 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this post. In fact many of the ideals which led directly to the Rennaisence were transmitted by Arab scholars. The West would nit even BE the West without that influence.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:59 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


It is a bigoted perspective that believes that any culture is "pure", or should attempt to be so. Cultural diversity is exactly the same as ecological or genetic diversity: greater variation supplies both richness and a supple, distributed strength.

As Katjusa and the article itself points out, the Europe we have today would not have existed without Islam. Aristotle? Socrates? Galen? All swept away in the Dark Ages - pages of Archimedes literally written over by pious Christian monks - were it not for the fact that they were preserved in the centers of Islamic learning, and only began to circle back to Europe as the continent began to emerge from the Dark Ages. Three-quarters of the named stars visible to the unaided human eye are Arabic, given by astronomers in the courts of Baghdad and Cordoba. Not to mention algebra, alcohol, and the roots of chemistry.

Islam as a whole may be going through a regressive period (as difficult as it is to make any statement about a religious culture with more than 1.5 billion adherents and multiple sects). But there is still wealth there: culturally, economically, intellectually. That is not to say that integration does not have its fault lines and discontents - of course it does. But for Europe to spurn it entirely - or worse, to attack it - is to ignore its own past.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:00 PM on December 19, 2011 [14 favorites]


It's so outrageously bad that it's exhausting to even try to think of where to start in responding to it.

Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed.

So did it forge a distinct ethical tradition or not? If it did than the source material isn't really the point. If not then just say that. Those people banging on about Christian Europe get that it's a fusion of Athens and Jerusalem already.

Hierocles and Epictetus lived at a time when Christianity was tearing itself apart in doctrinal conflict, when heretics were put to death and non-Christians often treated with contempt.

Epictetus lived in the 1st and 2nd century A.D. And Hierocles the stoic in the 2nd century. The Edict of Milan, ending the religious persecution of Christians by the pagan state won't be signed until the 4th century. That's the period of "non-Christians often treated with contempt"? The first Christian heretic won't be put to death until 385 AD and even then the charge won't be "heresy" per se.
posted by Jahaza at 11:03 PM on December 19, 2011 [14 favorites]


As Katjusa and the article itself points out, the Europe we have today would not have existed without Islam. Aristotle? Socrates? Galen? All swept away in the Dark Ages - pages of Archimedes literally written over by pious Christian monks - were it not for the fact that they were preserved in the centers of Islamic learning, and only began to circle back to Europe as the continent began to emerge from the Dark Ages.

You'll want to look again at how much of Aristotle ending up getting lost. The problems begin before the first century A.D.

Galen? Without Islam, there's no reason to think the Greek Christians and Syrian Christians (who first translated his work into Arabic) would have lost it.

The whole thing that's exciting about the Archimedes palimpest is that the text wasn't preserved in Arabic or anywhere else and that the texts are previously unknown.
posted by Jahaza at 11:11 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cultural diversity is exactly the same as ecological or genetic diversity: greater variation supplies both richness and a supple, distributed strength.

But evolutionary progress requires the exact opposite of this: isolation from outside influences. Without the physical separation of certain gene pools "speciation" can't take place and development of human species stagnates.
posted by three blind mice at 11:23 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting read.

My gut feeling as far as Christian chronology goes would be - like Jahaza said - that the picture he paints of Christianity in the 2nd century AD is misleading (having read about Christianity vs. the Roman Empire). Then again, I'm not the most well-read person out there. Would love a cite proving me wrong, though.

I do agree that most chest thumping about the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of Western Civilization is of the "GO TEAM!!1" variety and fails to take a necessarily long, nuanced view at our cultural development.

An interesting counterpoint would be to argue that the current fears about Islamification stem from a fear of the relatively recent - extremely visible - radicalisation of Islam.

Most people are not extremists, but painting them as such - or slyly insinuating to that effect - thereby insulting their identities, will force them to band together in groups that are accepting of them. Insularity does not foster tolerance.
posted by flippant at 11:27 PM on December 19, 2011


But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole, nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God.

It's almost always dangerous to say generically what "Jews" believe about something. (That's also true for Christians, the Latin and Byzantine theologies of the fall are very different too.)

Look here at the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia on the Fall of Man to see that the picture is substantially more nuanced than Malik suggests.

The presentation of the Christian view of the fall is a caricature as well. I mentioned above the complete disregard for the differences between Latin and Eastern theologies of the fall. But just as the view of the fall of man in Judaism as positive is overly simplistic, the view of the fall as entirely negative in Christianity is overly simplistic. This is the "felix culpa" the happy or fortunate fault. Aquinas writes of the fall, "For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): 'Where sin abounded, grace did more abound." Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: "O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!'"

This text quoted by Aquinas, still used in Roman Catholic Churches, is sung in the blessing of the Easter candle at the Vigil of Easter, the liturgical high point of the Christian year.
posted by Jahaza at 11:33 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


But evolutionary progress requires the exact opposite of this: isolation from outside influences. Without the physical separation of certain gene pools "speciation" can't take place and development of human species stagnates.

Or it enters a new phase once a species evolves the ability to genetically engineer. Who would have thought intelligent design was the end point and not the starting point?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:40 PM on December 19, 2011


Yeah, somewhat misleading with its poorly-supported timeline and vague (& unsupported) statements. The heart may be in the right place, but it's not well-connected to the brain…

But what got my back up immediately on reading the linked review/award (& the fpp) is the very first phrase: "Soldiers in today’s culture wars …"

Stop that! The militant fundie fsckwits already see themselves as warriors for what's right (at least, the "right" they carry in the hollow of their heads). Don't legitimise their self-perception just because you want to use a trite phrase…

(Same goes for radical fsckwits, btw. Or for fsckwits of any stripe, really…)
posted by Pinback at 11:47 PM on December 19, 2011


Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. One of Raphael’s most famous paintings, The School of Athens, is a fresco on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicting the world’s great philosophers. Among the pantheon of celebrated Greek philosophers including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes stands Ibn Rushd.

Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. There is a tendency to think of Islam as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking. Much of the Islamic world came to be that way. But the fact remains that the scholarship of the golden age of Islamic thinking helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, it is possible that neither may have happened.


Ibn Rushd, a product of the Islamic world, is placed among the philosophers and this is an argument to show that the Islamic world was not "walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking." But we've left out the end of the story:
Abu al-Walid [Ibn Rushd] then denied and the king said "May God curse the one who wrote this" and ordered that Abu al-Walid be exiled and all the philosophy books to be gathered and burned...And I saw, when I was in Fes, these books being carried on horses in great quantities and burned
The largest edition of his works that survives is in Latin and many of the works are known to us only in Latin and Hebrew translations.

It is, furthermore, hardly the case that "Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten." There's been a huge expansion in the study of Arabic philosophers over the past 50 years. Yes, most people don't know about Ibn Rushd et al. to whom Aquinas owes a great debt, but most people don't know about Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to whom he is also indebted and who was not a Muslim philosopher. Heck, most people probably can't tell you what Aquinas's central theological/philosophical project was at all.
posted by Jahaza at 12:10 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


When reading about the history of marriage during my state's battle for equal marriage, one of the things that surprised me is how completely non-Judeo-Christian monogamous marriage originally was: it was entirely a pagan Roman tradition and the one place in the Roman empire where polygamy was frequently practiced was in Palestine. So, "marriage is between one man and one woman" is another one of those heathen customs that became a bedrock of Christian tradition.

In retrospect, it makes sense, since of the major branches of Abrahamic religion Islam and Judaism and Mormonism in their original forms all had polygamy and Christianity is the odd one out.
posted by XMLicious at 12:23 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Define "western."

Historically, it was once used to distinguish between western (Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. That is not the definition in play here.

Most commonly, the word is used for othering. Western countries are the ones considered civilized, decent and noble, unlike those savages beyond the pale. It's telling that when WWI began, Germany was immediately reclassified as an eastern country (the Hun).

I blame Tolkien for keeping the word alive. I think many of our culture warriors fancy themselves Men of the West, Númenóreans, defending the fading glory of elves and men against the influx of Southrons and orcs.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The emphasis of the origins of the various individual aspects of Christianity seems to me like something of a red herring. A key feature of the history of human intellectual development is that some ideas are enormously more influential in combination than in isolation. I'm no expert on the subject, but I've seen it argued that the notions that

1) you must follow the 'golden rule',
2) that this explicitly applies to your relationship towards everyone and not just your tribe or sect and that,
3) you also have a duty to spread these ideas

were first put together as a core set of ideas in Christianity, and have had the most influence in its descendants. If that's actually the case then it ought to be recognized, and the implications (or plausibility) of the alleged decline of this set of ideas should be considered. At least in this essay I don't really see a counterargument.
The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other ‘ists’ that such defenders so loathe.
It doesn't have to be merely an identity-political issue -- the ideas can be defended on their own merits, even if that is done as a part of a discussion that also involves the question of who actually shares these ideas.
posted by Anything at 12:37 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This misses because (a) it's not Christianity that most Europeans are worried about, it's the values of the Enlightenment, and (b) nobody cares whether those values are inherently European or Christian, only whether they're essentially right.

In the US Christianity may perhaps be more salient.
posted by Segundus at 1:04 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


It is pretty clear these days that the clash is not between civilizations but within and that the root cause of almost all the conflicts is economic with religion and culture-wars as convenient smokescreens to obscure the underlying motives. It is almost as if the collapse of communism is giving capitalism the free reign needed to prove Marx correct. History hasn't ended. It has changed chapters and this one might be a little more exciting than I would like to sign up for.
posted by srboisvert at 1:38 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is, furthermore, hardly the case that "Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten." There's been a huge expansion in the study of Arabic philosophers over the past 50 years. Yes, most people don't know about Ibn Rushd et al. to whom Aquinas owes a great debt, but most people don't know about Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to whom he is also indebted and who was not a Muslim philosopher. Heck, most people probably can't tell you what Aquinas's central theological/philosophical project was at all.

So, your response to the claim that people in the west have largely forgotten the Islamic influence on their culture is "But there were nonmuslims too!" and "People don't know details about Aquinas!"?

A: "I like food with peanuts."
B: "Here, try this. It contains peanuts."
A: "Irrelevant! It also contains lots of nonpeanut material! And do you know exactly how much cinnamon it contains? No? I'm not eating that!"
B: "eh..."
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:27 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


it's not Christianity that most Europeans are worried about, it's the values of the Enlightenment

I wish most Europeans cared about the values of the Enlightenment. We wouldn't even be having this discussion in that case.

Instead, "Enlightenment" has been used as a dog whistle to attack the "unenlightened" Muslims living in Europe, forgetting the fact that the main value of the Enlightenment was that of defending freedom of conscience for everybody, regardless of the validity of his views.

Enlightenment thinkers defended Catholic Emancipation in Protestant countries, Protestant Emancipation in Catholic countries and Jewish Emancipation, well, everywhere, even though most Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clerics and preachers at the time weren't necessarily very enlightened themselves.

To purportedly defend "freedom" and "Enlightenment values" by calling for a ban of the Koran, like Geert Wilders, is to spit on the graves of Voltaire and Jefferson.
posted by Skeptic at 2:43 AM on December 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


We aren't nearly so great at genetic engineering as one might desire, furiousxgeorge. In particular, we must preserve the diversity of life throughout this world, even at significant economic costs, because we mine that gene pool for our medications, biotechnology, etc.

I don't know if speciation gives much insight into culture, behavior, memes, ideas, etc., but some preservation nevertheless makes sense, especially with foreign companies seeking to transform local economies. I applauded when German culture, and labor unions, finally drove Walmart out of Germany. I'd cheer if France taxed late night take away restaurants like McDonalds. A fancy Ethiopian restaurant otoh mostly just provides cultural tourism, they aren't impacting how most locals work, eat, etc.

There are valid concerns about Islam harboring ideas that repress women and homosexuals. We should address Islam's backwardness by promoting academics, organizations, media, etc. that champion women's rights and gay rights in an Islamic context. Add more sympathetic gay muslim television personalities, for example.

Ideally, European countries that sponsor religious institutions using tax money should restrict that money to denominations that admit female clergy and perform gay weddings, obviously making the Catholic church rather uncomfortable too.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:30 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the article: Such values are, of course, not ‘Western’ in any essential sense but are universal; they are ‘Western’ only through an accident of geography and history.

I think this basically concedes the whole game. It doesn't necessarily matter why "Christian Europe" got to certain values first. The fact is that it did. Or, at least, it synthesized values from a variety of competing and disparate sources into the "distinct ethical tradition" that he recognizes Christianity to be, and it was the first and possibly the only cultural tradition to do so.

Yes, the relationship between Enlightenment and Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, is interesting and complicated. But no one else had the Enlightenment. Regardless of what Christians thought and think of Enlightenment concepts--I, for one, and less than thrilled--there's no debate that the major Enlightenment thinkers were explicitly and self-consciously conversing with and responding to the Christian tradition.

And another thing: Aquinas is still incredibly influential in Catholic and even some Protestant thought, and thus the culture at large. For example, most contemporary Westerners have the principle of double effect as almost a basic axiom of their ethical thought, to the point that they can't even express it. That's straight up Aquinas. But, as others have pointed out, not only is his "debt" to Islamic thinkers pretty explicitly remembered, but that Rationalist stream in Islamic thought? With Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and those other guys? The ones from whom Aquinas is said to have been influenced by? Tenth and eleventh centuries? For whatever reason, it never did produce a scientific revolution. But within a century of rationalistic traits showing up in European salons, modern science is off to the races.

Accidental, essential, whatever. The point is that for whatever reason, "Christian Europe" is the source of the modern period, and without Christianity, the secularism that the author seems to want so badly would never have occurred.
posted by valkyryn at 4:01 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, your response to the claim that people in the west have largely forgotten the Islamic influence on their culture is "But there were nonmuslims too!" and "People don't know details about Aquinas!"?

I thought it was that people who know about this sort of thing are very much aware of the influence Islam has had on European culture, and that people who are ignorant about that influence aren't ignorant of Islam especially, but of the history of culture and philosophy more generally. My apologies if this is not correct.

Your peanut analogy was feeble. Seriously.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:05 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Put it this way: I'd say that Europeans mainly worry about Islamic nutters because they fear, in rough order of priority:

1. being killed by insane Islamic terrorists,
2. having their freedom of expression curtailed in deference to someone else's religion,
3. the importation of unacceptable practices such as forced marriage and honour killing, and
4. a new growth of anti-semitism and other prejudices.

Just about no-one, I submit, is worried about Islam replacing Christianity: pretty much everyone, including Christians, is happy for everyone to make their own minds up about their religion so long as they get a genuine choice.

So talk of 'Christian Europe' misses the point: those Christian soldiers are straw men.
posted by Segundus at 4:08 AM on December 20, 2011


Western Snivelization, as a mentor used to call it, has always been a front for stealing other people's stuff. And killing them. The claim of a superior or distinctive ethical basis is so much propaganda.
posted by spitbull at 4:18 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Okay, 'European' culture borrows. That's because it's flexible, not rigid, which is a good trait allowing it to adapt over time.

Whereas, Islamic culture is RIGID. When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it. They kill enough 'infidels' to terrorize a population and then convert the rest to Islam. You can see recent examples of this in Sudan, northern Nigeria, parts of the Philippines . . .

About the only thing we need to borrow from today's Islamic culture is recipes. Maybe also some of their pop music, although that gets annoying after awhile.

Beyond that, countries dominated by today's Islam, led by the RIGID ideologies of the Wahabists and Salafists, don't have much to offer in terms of what it takes to support human life, humanely:

They don't create new technology. Where are the recent innovations in any technical field that came from an Islam-dominated culture? Where are the Nobel prize winners in science from any Islamic dominated country? Where do rich Arabs go when they need complex surgery? West. The only Islamic science going on seems to be happening in Iran: trying to make a bomb. (And they're not doing that well at the task.)

They don't manufacture. Show me an Arab nation that produces a significant amount of steel, or cars or pharmaceuticals or anything 'high tech'. By and large, they just import stuff from the 'West', in exchange for oil, or in the case of non oil producing nations in exchange for their citizens' guest labor in the oil fields. Look at Iraq. Despite its crude oil wealth, it doesn't even have enough oil refining capacity to produce its own gasoline.

They abuse minorities. Islamist governments KILL Christians, Zoroastrians and other minorities around the globe, or at best force them to pay extra taxes, or force them into exile. Iraq in recent years has forced out hundreds of thousands of Christians. By contrast, the 'West' tolerates minorities and under multiculturalism, caters to their needs.

They abuse women. Under sharia law, now creeping into Egypt & the other nations 'liberated' under the 'Arab spring', women do not have the rights they have in the 'West' and may suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands with no avenue of redress. Under sharia, a woman who is raped is at fault for 'adultery', and may be executed.

They kill gays. Under sharia law, homosexuality gets the death penalty.

They have tyrannical governments. The only Middle Eastern Muslims living in a constitutional democracy are those in Israel.

Clearly, these are trends we in the 'West' don't want to borrow.

I'm not disrespecting those of the Muslim faith personally. Many of them living in the 'West' (or even in Israel) earn advanced degrees and contribute in a positive way to society. I just don't want our society to become more like theirs . . . except in terms of food. Love tabbouli.
posted by tennismom2 at 4:20 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought it was that people who know about this sort of thing are very much aware of the influence Islam has had on European culture, and that people who are ignorant about that influence aren't ignorant of Islam especially, but of the history of culture and philosophy more generally. My apologies if this is not correct.

If that was the claim (I'm not sure; it was unclear), then it misses the point of the article. The context was the political dialog in the west, which ignores Islamic influence. We aren't talking about the tiny percentage of historians in the population. The fact that normally educated (like politicians and pundits) are only vaguely aware of the details of various nonMuslim philosophies does not mean that they are unaware of the influence of those philosophies. And that doesn't threaten the claim that they are unaware of the influence of Islamic science and philosophy in Western culture.


Put another way: I don't need to understand Newtonian mechanics to understand that Newton had a huge influence on science. If I were to say "People interested in science have largely forgotten Islamic influence on science," and then someone were to point to Newton as an example of a nonMuslim scientist, also pointing out that most people don't even know how Newtonian mechanics works! that would be completely missing the point. And it would continue to miss the point to notice that some specialists do, indeed, know about Islamic influence in science. Specialists aren't the point here.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not disrespecting those of the Muslim faith personally. Many of them living in the 'West' (or even in Israel) earn advanced degrees and contribute in a positive way to society. I just don't want our society to become more like theirs . . . except in terms of food. Love tabbouli.

"I'm not racist because I like their food!"
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:31 AM on December 20, 2011 [17 favorites]


*backs out of thread slowly*
posted by dabitch at 4:33 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Look at Iraq. Despite its crude oil wealth, it doesn't even have enough oil refining capacity to produce its own gasoline.

Welcome back to the planet earth, I expect your decades long journey to the stars and back has left you somewhat unsure about recent historical developments.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 4:37 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


tennismom2: You paid $5 to sign up and spew that drivel?
posted by xqwzts at 4:41 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


[moderator here, tennismom2: on Metafilter, you are expected to back up extraordinary claims by citing actual factual information via links or other references, and making statements such as "When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it" is beyond extraordinary. You may want to settle in here a bit before coming in with guns blazing.]
posted by taz at 5:00 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whereas, Islamic culture is RIGID. When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it.

Indeed. That's why the Balkans -- under Ottoman control for centuries -- is now 100% Moslem.
posted by Slothrup at 5:04 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Western Snivelization, as a mentor used to call it, has always been a front for stealing other people's stuff. And killing them.

That's a pretty extraordinary claim too, Taz.
posted by the cuban at 5:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yes, it is. This is also not a great way to communicate information on touchy subjects, if communicating is the purpose. Making inflammatory statements doesn't do much to promote actual conversation.
posted by taz at 5:15 AM on December 20, 2011


Whereas, Islamic culture is RIGID. When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it.

Wow, I didn't know that Anders Breivik had gained access to the Internet again.

They don't manufacture. Show me an Arab nation that produces a significant amount of steel, or cars or pharmaceuticals or anything 'high tech'.

Suddenly you shift from "Muslim" to "Arab". Surely because you are wearing a shirt made in Bangladesh while typing on a computer made in Indonesia and listening to an MP3 made in Malaysia while your Turkish-made washing machine turns. Disingeneous, aren't we?

Look at Iraq. Despite its crude oil wealth, it doesn't even have enough oil refining capacity to produce its own gasoline.

Well, I guess that ramping up oil refining capacity after your refineries were blown to smithereens twice ain't exactly easy.
posted by Skeptic at 5:21 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Pseudo-Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite" is going to be my new nom-de-plume.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Philosopher Dirtbike, the author makes this comparison:

Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers. (Gives examples of highly cultured/learned people who recognized it.)

Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. (Doesn't give examples, people assume he's talking about politicians and pundits.)

I think that's a false comparison. Today's equivalent of Dante or Raphael does know about the Arabic influence on Christian medieval theology and they know more about it and place more influence on it than they did 50 years ago.
posted by Jahaza at 5:37 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Doesn't give examples, people assume he's talking about politicians and pundits.)

There are plenty of examples cited in the article of people who fail to credit the important role Islam had on the development of the West.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:45 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I'm dense this morning, but I'm not seeing them. Which ones did you have in mind?
posted by Jahaza at 6:14 AM on December 20, 2011


Can I back up a second and ask when Europeans started doing the whole "Judeo-Christian" thing? Because that takes a whole boatload of gall. And given that it sounds like some of the British commentators participating in the whole "Judeo-Christian Europe" bullshit are actually Jewish, it takes a whole lot of ignorance of history and of the way in which we spent a couple of thousand years playing the role into which Muslims have recently been slotted.
posted by craichead at 6:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Can I back up a second and ask when Europeans started doing the whole "Judeo-Christian" thing?

1945?
posted by atrazine at 6:20 AM on December 20, 2011


I'm perfectly open to outside influences. So long as they're open to outside influences.
posted by Decani at 6:44 AM on December 20, 2011


"Judeo-Christian" seems to be a post-civil rights bit of civility from the family values set. Always strikes me as disingenuous.
posted by bendybendy at 6:49 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


craichead: I've wondered if some people are using it as a stick to beat Islam with...aligning the West specifically with Judaism, and hence Israel v Muslim neighbours. I've certainly seen some comments on Muslim immigrants to London that compare them unfavourably with earlier waves of Jewish immigrants (heavily ironic considering that today's Muslims are spoken of in the same terms as those 19th century Jews were).

(As an aside, it always seems peculiar to me that the English every so often identify themselves with the Jews, see Blake's Jerusalem and Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, written in 1681 only a few decades after Cromwell agreed to readmit Jews to England, in which "The Jews" is used analogously for "The English").
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Perhaps I'm dense this morning, but I'm not seeing them. Which ones did you have in mind?

The main thrust of the article is that talking about a good, past "Christian" identity which is opposed to a dangerous "Islamic" identity is to fail to understand the interconnectedness of the Christian and Islamic identities, and the critical influence that Islamic culture had on the Western "Christian" identity. This means that when

"[Oriana Fallaci] insist[s] that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam,"

a journalist and pundit is failing to acknowledge the important positive role that Islam played in Western cultural development. The idea is that the "West" needs to be "protected" from the bad influence of Islam when, in fact, without our Islamic neighbours our "identity" would be different. There are other examples given in the article, making it clear that the context here is not professional historians. Most of the people named in the article as believing in a "Christian" identity that was and is opposed to a dangerous "Islamic" one are, in fact, not historians.

Today's equivalent of Dante or Raphael does know about the Arabic influence on Christian medieval theology and they know more about it and place more influence on it than they did 50 years ago.

That depends solely on what you think is "today's equivalent" of Dante or Raphael. In reality, there is no such thing; the world has changed substantially since then. But the point was not really about specific people, but rather about the ideas in the intellectual milieu, which is why he named so many people up front. The idea of a "Western/Christian" identity separate and opposed to an "Islamic" one is en vogue in the West right now. Even people in the Renaissance, which is often trotted out as evidence of the superiority of the West over Islam, would have disputed that idea. That's the point.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:01 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


And if any one of sound mind compare the age in which We live, so hostile to religion and to the Church of Christ, with those happy times when the Church was revered as a mother by the nations, beyond all question he will see that our epoch is rushing wildly along the straight road to destruction; while in those times which most abounded in excellent institutions, peaceful life, wealth, and prosperity the people showed themselves most obedient to the Church's rule and laws. Therefore, if the many blessings We have mentioned, due to the agency and saving help of the Church, are the true and worthy outcome of civilization, the Church of Christ, far from being alien to or neglectful of progress, has a just claim to all men's praise as its nurse, its mistress, and its mother.
- Inscrutabili Dei Concilio - 1878
posted by ServSci at 7:05 AM on December 20, 2011


I'm perfectly open to outside influences. So long as they're open to outside influences.

Why only? It's only their loss, not mine. Being open to outside influences does not mean accepting wholesale everything that they propose.
posted by Skeptic at 7:05 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, THIS has been an interesting read....I'm going to tread carefully and comment on one point way upthread:

the Europe we have today would not have existed without Islam. Aristotle? Socrates? Galen? All swept away in the Dark Ages - pages of Archimedes literally written over by pious Christian monks - were it not for the fact that they were preserved in the centers of Islamic learning, and only began to circle back to Europe as the continent began to emerge from the Dark Ages.

7th and 8th-Century Irish monks also helped preserve some classic texts too. The early Irish church was kind of...independent and quirky (so much so that when a Welsh monk was asked to make a tour of Ireland in the 1100's and check up on things, he was totally freaked out at how unlike the rest of the church Irish practices were and thought they all needed RE-Conversion). So some Irish monks were quietly copying and preserving classic texts they got, rather than writing over them.

Not disputing that Muslim scholars did much to advance knowledge at this time. Only stating "hey, Ireland was there too!". However, am agreeing with the main point that this is still no reason to attribute any rah-rah sentiment towards Europe, the Church, etc.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


craichead: I've wondered if some people are using it as a stick to beat Islam with...aligning the West specifically with Judaism, and hence Israel v Muslim neighbours.
I suppose, but I actually think it's a little simpler than that. If you're going to posit a unified Europe which is being threatened by invaders, then you can't really acknowledge that there has always been diversity in Europe. It's not possible to write Jews out of the "Western intellectual tradition," because that means ignoring some pretty towering 19th and 20th century thinkers, so instead Jews have to be co-opted, no matter how bizarre and disingenuous that might be.
posted by craichead at 7:05 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whereas, Islamic culture is RIGID. When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it. They kill enough 'infidels' to terrorize a population and then convert the rest to Islam. You can see recent examples of this in Sudan, northern Nigeria, parts of the Philippines . . .

yes, Europeans would never kill and conquer other people, or force them to convert to their religion...

except for the whole of the Americas, Australia and the Pacific, and the other half of Africa and the Phillippines (named after King Phillip of Spain). Oh, and large parts of Asia and North Africa too, including the middle east, though there they seemed to let the conversion project drop and just went for the complete economic control.

Nor are these old examples - Native Canadians were forced into Christian residential schools as recently as 1996.

Your comments show a shocking ignorance of world history - including of Western and European history.
posted by jb at 7:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


But evolutionary progress requires the exact opposite of this: isolation from outside influences. Without the physical separation of certain gene pools "speciation" can't take place and development of human species stagnates.

This isn't really correct. In order to fork off a new species, generally you would need some kind of reproductive isolation, as you mentioned; this is actually sort of circular since the definitions of a species mainly have to do with reproduction. But evolutionary progress -- i.e., increasing fitness of the average individual in a given environment -- only requires selective pressure and genetic diversity.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:10 AM on December 20, 2011


If we want to get picky about it, the Islamic flourishing of arts and sciences was pretty much built upon its conquest of Christian learning centers, such as Alexandria in Egypt. The first scribes of the Islamic courts were Christian, as they were the most educated. This is not to say that Islam did not have great minds and philosphers, but for as much as the author wants to claim that Christianity benefited from them, so did they from Christianity.

Likewise, arguing that Judaism had a role in Christianity is kind of like arguing that the sky is blue or in a very Geek sense, that Star Trek: TNG doesn't owe anything to Star Trek: TOS.

Christianity played a very important role in the development of what we consider modern Europe, but it did so supported by various foundations. The fact that Christianity was able to absorb such things reveals its success as a religion, which one could say was reflected in the people of Europe, who were open to absorbing new ideas and philosophies. That one might say is the source of it's greatest strengths and it seems, stupidly ignored by reactionary fools.
posted by Atreides at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2011


(And I suppose that also, talking about "Christian Europe" is uncomfortable, because it raises the question of where Jews stand in Europe and causes people to make the connection between modern anti-Muslim bigotry and historical antisemitism, which I think that most people now acknowledge is a shameful aspect of European history. "Judeo-Christian Europe" is a verbal hand-waive that allows polemicists to avoid that issue, but I don't think it really settles the question. How is a Europe organized around its "Judeo-Christian" identity really different from a Europe defined by its Christian identity? And what makes anyone think that it's not going to be oppressive and reactionary in the same ways that "Christian Europe" once was towards its internal outsiders?)
posted by craichead at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't get all the hoo-har over Europe and Judo-Christian ideology. Really: "I throw you with a koshi guruma, then forgive you," wherever you do it, it's...

Oh, wait.

Gotta stop skimming so fast...[headdesk]
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:23 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If we want to get picky about it, the Islamic flourishing of arts and sciences was pretty much built upon its conquest of Christian learning centers, such as Alexandria in Egypt.

Of course, if that's true, then you could have said this as well:

The fact that [Islamic culture] was able to absorb such things reveals its success as a religion, which one could say was reflected in the people of [North Africa and the Middle East], who were open to absorbing new ideas and philosophies. That one might say is the source of it's greatest strengths and it seems, stupidly ignored by reactionary fools.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


What I really like about this is how important we think it is to get the right history before we can deal with the future.
posted by ServSci at 7:27 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main thrust of the article is that talking about a good, past "Christian" identity which is opposed to a dangerous "Islamic" identity is to fail to understand the interconnectedness of the Christian and Islamic identities, and the critical influence that Islamic culture had on the Western "Christian" identity. This means that when

"[Oriana Fallaci] insist[s] that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam,"

a journalist and pundit is failing to acknowledge the important positive role that Islam played in Western cultural development.
You (and he) can't just allege it. You have to back it up with facts. Citations. The best would be one where she says e.g. "Arabic culture has never contributed anything to the west."

Insisting that "only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam" isn't contradicted by Christianity being influenced by Arabic philosophy.

Oriana Fallaci, to take the example you give hasn't missed this fact. She's aware of Ibn Rushd... he gets a mention in her infamous essay, "The Rage and the Pride,"
And now the fatal question: what is behind the other culture? Damned if I know. I search and search and find only Mohammed with his Koran and Averroe with his scholarly merits (The Commentaries on Aristotle, et cetera.)
(My emphasis. Arabic philosophers names are confusing, but Ibn Rushd and Averroe are the same man.)
posted by Jahaza at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Western Snivelization, as a mentor used to call it, has always been a front for stealing other people's stuff. And killing them.

That's a pretty extraordinary claim too, Taz.


I can at least follow Taz's demand and provide a link to an excellent book on this topic - if "stealing" refers to ideas only. And no killing. The book's first paragraph:

"The ‘theft of history’ of the title refers to the take-over of history by the west. That is, the past is conceptualized and presented according to what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often western Europe, and then imposed upon the rest of the world. That continent makes many claims to having invented a range of value-laden institutions such as ‘democracy’, mercantile ‘capitalism’, freedom, individualism. However, these institutions are found over amuchmorewidespread range of human societies."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:00 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd like to put in a plug for Erasmus and George Sarton. In particular, Sarton's essay, The New Humanism.

If you want to discuss the history of science, you're able to do it because (in large part) of George Sarton's work. And his plan for that work is spelled out in The New Humanism.

Two important points that Sarton makes are the unity of knowledge and the unity of mankind.

I will offer the observation that secularism is far less important than humanism and point to these two towering dudes as object lessons.
posted by warbaby at 8:03 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In support of my prior viciously attacked points:

This list of Nobel prize winners by country shows Islam-dominated countries very thinly represented. Saudia Arabia has zero Nobelists. The Pakistani one helped developed their bomb, although he also worked on peaceful applications of nuclear science.

The 'West' is better at science & technology. It may not be pc to say so but it's true.
posted by tennismom2 at 8:10 AM on December 20, 2011


I think the question of influence is inflected by the shift we've seen in precisely what practices and ideas are being brought into the West by Islam now, compared with back in the Middle Ages. Yes, they contributed much of Aristotle's work, the number zero, and a host of other innovations then. Islamic culture today has become radically different than it was during the Caliphate, though, and that in turn alters how that culture communicates with surrounding cultures and the values it transmits to them, where able.

To offer a parallel: if someone were to be discussing the systematic brutalization and colonization of much of the Muslim world - from Morocco to Indonesia - by Western colonial powers in recent centuries, we'd probably think it a bit beside the point if someone stood up and noted the powerful influence that Western Greek philosophy and Roman legal norms had (via Byzantium) on the construction of Umayyad and Abbasid judicial and philosophical systems after the Arab conquest, or the peaceful trading relationships between Fatimid Egypt and the Medieval Italian city states. Factually correct, perhaps - but still beside the point.

Because the West changed, in the intervening centuries - in power, ideological orientation, cultural values - in ways that made a once positive/neutral relationship toward the Islamic (and non-Western world more generally) far more toxic and destructive than it was even at the height of the Crusades, when there was still two-way cultural and mercantile intercourse between battles and sieges.

In the same way, Islam has changed considerably since its Golden Age - and in a variety of ways, certainly not uniformly or even mostly negative. But the cultural elements that are being cited as worrisome are, in many ways, tied to some of the more negative cultural mutations - not just marginal forms of militantly hostile extremism but also rigid and punitive relationships between the sexes, a distrust of constitutional and democratic society, etc.

I personally think that the answer is greater dialogue and a stronger effort to integrate incoming immigrants in ways that depend less on denigrating their cultures than showing them the variety of options (moderate forms of Islam, thinkers like the Moslem philosophers cited through this thread and in the OP, as well as Enlightenment values). But to simply handwave these problems as the fantasies of the Right is horseshit, frankly.

Cultures - all cultures - change and mutate. Medieval Christianity - the same that so many "pro-Christian" theorists seem to love - managed to produce colonialist and crusading cultures, the darker edges of the Enlightenment's rationalizing control and Romanticism's irrational exuberism (both generally positive) helped feed into nationalism, fascism and communism later on. Islam, too, has and is facing the emergence of its own darker side.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:12 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


tennismom2 - Niall Ferguson is that you?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:13 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is this discussion about what Christianity supplied to Western Civilization, or about what people-who-happened-to-be-Christian did?
posted by gimonca at 8:14 AM on December 20, 2011


M. Arnold had it right. The ideas of Christianity and the Classical world (greece and rome) created our Western tradition. Sure you can see other influences and additives...but the idea that we are all one big happy mix of everything is an attempt to be politically nice and liberal.
posted by Postroad at 8:22 AM on December 20, 2011


Don't all these examples pretty much support that when a dominant culture in an area is tolerant and accepting of diversity there is greater progress and scholarship. Likewise don't they show that when orthodoxy and adherence to specific views are required the overall culture produces much less innovation?

None of this seems to be based on fundamental religious values, but rather on how they are interpreted when dealing with the "other". Arguing the particulars of when to apply which term to each culture, and who influenced who, only seems to muddy this fact.
posted by meinvt at 8:22 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


If "Western Enlightenment" could survive the perpetration of the Holocaustin in its bosom with its reputation for openness, tolerance, and intellectual integrity, in tact, (and of course the various other post-enlightenment atrocities including global slave trade and local (Yugoslavia) and foreign (indigenous peoples) genocides, then either the Islamic world has every chance of achieving a positive narrative in the long-(or even short)sweeping arc of time, or it's just a question of who does better PR, winners writing the history books, etc.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:29 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


The fact that [Islamic culture] was able to absorb such things reveals its success as a religion, which one could say was reflected in the people of [North Africa and the Middle East], who were open to absorbing new ideas and philosophies. That one might say is the source of it's greatest strengths and it seems, stupidly ignored by reactionary fools.- Philosopher Dirtbike

That is exactly on the mark. One point that was raised in the article, Ancient Greek Philosophy's impact on Christianity didn't quite provide as good an idea of the breadth of the relationship. Christianity, as it emerged and spread from the Roman province of Judea, entered a world that was very much Hellenistic, based in part on the legacy of Alexander the Great's conquests. Greek thought was considered one of the prime means to convey an argument, and as such, is why Paul adopted much of it in his evangelizing. Prior to this adoption, Christianity was primarily one sect of Judaism essentially trying to convert more mainstream members of the religion. Paul's adoption and application of Athens helped Christianity spread much farther than just the Jewish communities dispersed about the Mediterranean.

Thus, essentially from the beginning, a kernel of Greek Philosophy was integrated into Christianity. When Christian scholars turned back to it in the early days of the Renaissance, there was already a somewhat fertile bed for it to be planted within the religion.

I suppose this is a long about way of saying that the relationships described in the article are in themselves more expansive than provided by the author.

And on preview...

Don't all these examples pretty much support that when a dominant culture in an area is tolerant and accepting of diversity there is greater progress and scholarship. Likewise don't they show that when orthodoxy and adherence to specific views are required the overall culture produces much less innovation?

There's telling example of this in the history of Christianity, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Right as the Catholic European countries were entering the Renaissance, the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople was entering a period of increasing orthodoxy/conservatism. Artists and scholars emigrated from the Byzantine Empire to Europe, helping the Renaissance to flourish. All the while, as the Empire grew more rigid, it also became more vulnerable and eventually fell to the Fourth Crusade and not much longer, to the Ottoman Empire.
posted by Atreides at 8:32 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In support of my prior viciously attacked points:

This list of Nobel prize winners by country shows Islam-dominated countries very thinly represented. Saudia Arabia has zero Nobelists. The Pakistani one helped developed their bomb, although he also worked on peaceful applications of nuclear science.

The 'West' is better at science & technology. It may not be pc to say so but it's true.
posted by tennismom2 at 11:10 AM on 12/20
[+] [!]


there are also very few women on that list. That means that men are clearly better at science and technology.

Or there have been systemic barriers which have historically privileged white men in the sciences. But that's much too far-fetched to be true.
posted by jb at 8:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Islam is not the Other. It is, like a Europe, a product of the fusion of Greek and Jewish culture. It is essentially a Nestorian version of Christianity.
posted by No Robots at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I understand this article is responding to some stupid islamophobic comments I haven't read, but trying to summarize the history of 2,000 years of this many cultures in 3,000 words is never going to have good results. For a start, trying to weigh the contributions of Christianity and Islam to 'Western thought' and 'enlightenment' as if they are things that people can claim authorship of or inheritance to isn't going to do anyone justice. A 'fully fleshed thesis' on this topic would be Casaubonistic. Sweeping generalizations aren't well answered by sweeping generalizations (generally).
posted by Gomoryhu at 9:03 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


This list of Nobel prize winners by country shows .....

The 'West' is better at science & technology.


We're using Nobel prize winners to judge who's better than who? I don't really like the type of talk that claims that Jews are better than Christians, but since you've got the data to back you up.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:28 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jahaza: Oriana Fallaci, to take the example you give hasn't missed this fact. She's aware of Ibn Rushd... he gets a mention in her infamous essay, "The Rage and the Pride,"

You are citing THAT ESSAY to refute the claim that "Today, however, that debt [that the West owes to Islamic culture] has been almost entirely forgotten"? Seriously? Have you read it? The whole point of the first paragraph is to trivialize the history of Islamic thought! Clearly, the person she is talking to is overselling a lot because he is ignorant ("invented numbers"?) but that is not license to trivialize the intellectual achievements of Muslims. When she says:

"Damned if I know. I search and search and find only Mohammed with his Koran and Averroe with his scholarly merits..."

She is saying that she doesn't understand why anyone makes a big deal about the "other culture," because of the dearth of intellectual achievements. That essay supports my point quite well. Just because she mentions an Islamic scholar, in an insulting manner sentence, doesn't mean she's acknowledging the debt. Quite the opposite, in this case.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2011


In support of my prior viciously attacked points:

This list of Nobel prize winners by country shows Islam-dominated countries very thinly represented. Saudia Arabia has zero Nobelists.


Oh, yeah, that totally supports your claim that "When its adherents confront another culture, they destroy it." Totally.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:31 AM on December 20, 2011


She is saying that she doesn't understand why anyone makes a big deal about the "other culture," because of the dearth of intellectual achievements. That essay supports my point quite well. Just because she mentions an Islamic scholar, in an insulting manner sentence, doesn't mean she's acknowledging the debt. Quite the opposite, in this case.

Yes, she clearly underappreciates the achievements of Islamic civilization (though the exaggerated manner of the discourse of the article is such that it may underdemonstrate her appreciation), but Kenan Malik's point wasn't "These people underappreciate the acheivements of Islamic civilization" it was (in part and paraphrasing) "these people are ignorant of the contribution of Islamic civilizaton to Western/Christian European civilization." and he provided the example of Ibn Rushd as one specific example.

My citation demonstrates that she's not ignorant of it. She knows Malik's example of Ibn Rushd's philosophy. That she's not ignorant of "that debt" and that it hasn't been "entirely forgotten."

So again, who fails to credit this? He just *asserts* that there's a failure to credit which is somehow worse than the previous failure to credit, but he doesn't provide any evidence.
posted by Jahaza at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2011


In response to:

The best would be one where she says e.g. "Arabic culture has never contributed anything to the west."

and:

Yes, she clearly underappreciates the achievements of Islamic civilization...

That is the whole point. If someone owes me a thousand dollars, and they pay me only five and think that's all they owe, that means "that debt has been almost entirely forgotten." That's an exact quote from the article which you cut and pasted above, so I know you read it.

The claim is not that people in the West say that "Arabic culture has never contributed anything to the west." In drastically under-appreciating the debt, and going out of her way to make light of it, she is doing exactly what was claimed in the original article.

You are beating up on straw men.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2011


what makes the 'West' unique are its Judeo-Christian roots.

The many tree-worshippers and other pagan cultures that inhabited Europe before they were "rooted out" by JC'ers would no doubt have something to say about that.
posted by Twang at 10:02 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


There's telling example of this in the history of Christianity, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Right as the Catholic European countries were entering the Renaissance, the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople was entering a period of increasing orthodoxy/conservatism. Artists and scholars emigrated from the Byzantine Empire to Europe, helping the Renaissance to flourish. All the while, as the Empire grew more rigid, it also became more vulnerable and eventually fell to the Fourth Crusade and not much longer, to the Ottoman Empire.

Just a minor quibble on this point: the emigration of Greek-speaking scholars to Italy didn't start until after the Fourth Crusade, and had much more to do with the encroachment of the Ottomans and collapse of the Byzantine government than with doctrinal conservatism. In fact, a major controversy in Byzantine culture of that time was over the rise of hesychasm, which was a mystical practice that was considered heretical by the Orthodox establishment. Hesychasm won out by the mid-14th century, though, and is now an established doctrine of Orthodoxy. In other words, Byzantine society wasn't monolithically becoming more rigid from 1204 on. Some elements were, some weren't, but the whole culture was in crisis and was divided geographically, politcally, and, by the end, religiously.

Concerning the broader discussion in this thread, I feel like the standard narrative of European culture is rightly starting to recognize more and more contributions from Muslim-controlled and Arabic-speaking areas (especially Spain), but they're still largely ignoring the even more important contribution of the Byzantines. Averroes, Avicenna, and Al-Ghazali (just to name a few) were tremendously important philosophers in their own right, and the transmission of texts from Greek to Arabic to Latin through Spain was a major spur to Scholasticism. However, the Muslims only translated a relatively narrow range of material (just Aristotle, math, and science, basically) and by the time of the Renaissance, the major source of the recovery of ancient knowledge and culture was books and scholars coming out of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire.
posted by Copronymus at 10:14 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Philosopher Dirtbike, I actually did read the original article. But "that debt" is referring not to Islamic civilization in general, but to a specific example:
It was through Ibn Rushd that West European scholars rediscovered their Aristotle, and his commentaries shaped the thinking of a galaxy of philosophers from Maimonides to Aquinas.
I asked for some evidence that this debt had been "almost entirely forgotten". You provided Fallaci as an example of this. But in fact, as I pointed out, her most infamous essay explicitly refers to this debt. The same commentaries referred to by Malik.

This is the biggest problem with Malik's piece. It calls a (barely specified) group of people ignorant and then doesn't show it from their work.
posted by Jahaza at 10:23 AM on December 20, 2011


This list of Nobel prize winners by country shows Islam-dominated countries very thinly represented.

Actually, it shows solid under-representation of non-Western countries generally in technical fields, Islamic countries not faring particularly better or worse than a) African nations, whether Islamic, Christian, animist or some mixture of the above, b) traditionally majority Christian South/Central American nations, or c) (before the 1980s) Asian nations, most of which are not Islamic either. Central/South European nations are also under-represented in science and technology.

Looking at the numbers, I could point to a bunch of possible causative factors: generally low rates of literacy and educational achievement (in turn the result of lack of facilities and opportunity), dictatorial or anarchic sociopolitical environments, a history of economic and political subordination to other nations which purposefully directed their colonies' energies towards resource extraction and consumption of finished products rather than allowing them to build their own independent economic and (potentially independence-minded) educational infrastructure. Neither the absence of Islam from most of these societies nor the presence of "Judeo-Christian" values in some of them seems to have made much difference either way.

Islam is not the Other. It is, like a Europe, a product of the fusion of Greek and Jewish culture. It is essentially a Nestorian version of Christianity.

There's a lot of sweeping generalizations in this thread that would likely piss off Moslems, but this is the first which would, I think, enrage Nestorians as well. Nicely played.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Philosopher Dirtbike: Please note that Malik's essay and the commentary he responds to are part of an argument on whether or to what extent does present-day Christianity and Christian-descended culture differ from other present-day cultures, and Islam in particular, and that the histories of these cultures are part of the argument but are not the reason why the argument is being had in the first place.

How, in this discussion, is it any favor to present-day Islam to note that the culture gave Christians advances in science and free-thinking, but then lost them hundreds of years ago? How, when a huge talking point in the very argument is that Islam is in its own 'dark ages' and needs to get out?
posted by Anything at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2011


Philosopher Dirtbike, I actually did read the original article. But "that debt" is referring not to Islamic civilization in general, but to a specific example...

Except that in the paragraphs just before, Malik says:

"The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate."

"Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers" [note the plural]

So, no, Malik is not only referring to Ibn Rushd. Your interpretation of that sentence is refuted by sentences a mere five and three (respectively) sentences away from the one you quoted.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:35 AM on December 20, 2011


So your argument is "Fallaci is ignorant of the debt of Christianity to Arabic philosophers because she lists only one and not two of them"?

Come on. Fallaci's rhetorical style (if you've read the essay) here is not that of an academic paper. The point is that she's not ignorant of the TOPIC since she refers to it.

Malik's point is that people are ignorant of the topic, but he doesn't say WHO is ignorant or engage with their arguments, he just waves and points in their general direction, which is a lot easier, but doesn't demonstrate anything.
posted by Jahaza at 10:39 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let me try again:

The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West.

Fallaci, for one, explicitly refers to this tradition in her essay, through it's greatest representative. He needs to provide some evidence that it's "barely remembered" if even the most inflammatory and offensive critics of Islamic culture pause to note the enduring signifigance of the rationalist tradition in Islamic thought.

It's completely bogus to say that because Fallaci only refers to Ibn Rushd she'd forgotten the tradition. That'd be like saying someone who refered to Emerson and not Charles Timothy Brooks had forgotten the transcendentalists.
posted by Jahaza at 10:46 AM on December 20, 2011


The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West.

Honest question, to anyone familiar with present intellectual circles/public sphere discussion in the Middle East - how well are these guys actually remembered in the Islamic world?
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:06 AM on December 20, 2011


It's completely bogus to say that because Fallaci only refers to Ibn Rushd she'd forgotten the tradition. That'd be like saying someone who refered to Emerson and not Charles Timothy Brooks had forgotten the transcendentalists.

If I had said, as she did, that the only English-language authors of note that I could think of were Emerson and Chaucer (that's the equivalent of what she said; she was implying a dearth of intellectual achievement by Muslims), that would indeed be grounds to say that I have "forgotten the [influence of] transcendentalists."

What's in question here is not the existence of the tradition, but whether people remember the "debt" owed by the West to the tradition. That's what Malik says. Given how Fallaci makes light of Muslim intellectual achievements in the first place, and then doesn't even mention their influence on Western culture (which would be pretty important, right?), it is fairly safe, in my opinion, to say that as far as she's concerned, the "debt has been almost entirely forgotten." Honestly, I don't see how you can read her essay and think otherwise. You can just claim it is just rhetorical style, but given that the rhetorical style is employed in making light of Islamic achievements, that doesn't really help.

You keep misinterpreting what Malik is saying, and it is quite frustrating. First there's no evidence that he's not talking about professional historians (wrong). Then he's only talking about the debt to Ibn Rashd (really wrong). Then he's claiming that people are forgetting about the philosophers (wrong; it's about the value of their influence on the West). We can't have a good conversation like this. This is my last post in this thread, since there doesn't seem to be any resolution to what feels to me like whack-a-mole.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:23 AM on December 20, 2011


This is my last post in this thread, since there doesn't seem to be any resolution to what feels to me like whack-a-mole.

You nor others have not made any comment that touches on the rather big question I asked in my previous comment. I guess I shouldn't be holding my breath then.
posted by Anything at 11:52 AM on December 20, 2011


And to elaborate, the purpose of the historical argument is to inform us about present-day differences and similarities, and historical facts that don't thus inform us are extraneous to the discussion -- which, it looks like, is where Malik fails.
posted by Anything at 12:15 PM on December 20, 2011


Any serious historian of science, math, military tactics and the Classics are very well aware of Islamic culture's impact on our own. Any armchair dilletante is likewise aware. Only demagogues and those in their thrall believe otherwise. I'm having a tough time seeing P. dirtbike's point.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:07 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


« Older Dull rock and roll anecdotes...  |  The best kapla destruction eve... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments