Étiquette : British
By Karel Vereycken
(texte original en français)
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave.”
“Seek knowledge even as far as China.”
We live in a time of cruel stupidity. While the history of civilization is characterized by multiple cultural contributions allowing an infinite and magnificent mutual enrichment, everything is done to dehumanize us.
By dint of media coverage of the most extreme crimes, notably by claiming that such and such an abject or barbaric act has been committed « in the name » of such and such a belief or religion, everything is done to set us against each other. If we do not react, the famous thesis of a « Clash of Civilizations », concocted by the British Islamologist Bernard Lewis (Henry Kissinger’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and Samuel Huntington’s mentor) as an evil tool of geopolitical manipulation, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to combat prejudices and dangerous misunderstandings about “Islam” (with 1.6 billion believers a non-negligible part of the world’s population), here follows a brief overview of the major contributions of the Arab-Muslim civilization.
By recalling two major contributions of the “Golden Age” of Islam, notably Arab astronomy and mutazilism, what is at stake here is the recognition that –just like Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, Athens and Rome– Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were major crucibles of a universal civilization which is ours today.
While Europe has come to recognize that the invention of printing took place in China long before Gutenberg, and that America was visited way before Christopher Columbus, consensus and group think keeps repeating that the Arabs contributed nothing to the progress of science.
In the 1300 years separating the Greek astronomer from Alexandria, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-178 AD) from the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), they pretend, nothing but “a black hole”.
In 1958, in his book The Sleepwalkers, British Hungarian writer Alfred Koestler, who helped Sydney Hook to co-found the CIA’s cultural cold war front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, epitomized western arrogance, writing:
the Arabs had merely been the go-betweens, preservers and transmitters of the heritage. They had little scientific originality and creativeness of their own. During the centuries when they were the sole keepers of the treasure, they did little to put it to use. (…) and by the fifteenth century, the scientific heritage of Islam had largely been taken over by the Portuguese Jews. But the Jews, too, were no more than go-betweens, a branch of the devious Gulf-stream which brought back to Europe its Greek and Alexandrine heritage, enriched by Indian and Persian additions.
Nothing is more false. Definitely, one must be born on the right spot to be allowed to have a seat in the train of history…
Copernicus himself, unlike Koestler, was perfectly familiar with Arab astronomy. In 1543, in his De Revolutionibus, he quotes several Arab scientists, more precisely Al-Battani, al-Bitruji, al-Zarqallu, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thabit ibn Qurra. Copernicus also refers to al-Battani in his Commentariolus, a manuscript published posthumously. Later, the great Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) would also refer to Ibn Al-Haytam in his work on optics.
In reality, Copernicus and even more Kepler, whose creative genius cannot be overrated, came up with answers to questions raised by several generations of Arab astronomers preceding them and whose contribution remains largely ignored and even worse, unexplored. To this day, with about 10,000 manuscripts preserved throughout the world, a large part of which has still not been the subject of a bibliographic inventory, the Arab astronomical corpus constitutes one of the best preserved components of medieval scientific literature waiting to be rediscovered.
Science and religion versus slavery
Before examining the contributions of Arab astronomy, a few words about the intimate link between Islam and the development of science.
According to tradition, it was in 622 AD that the Prophet Muhammad and his companions left Mecca and set out for a simple oasis that would become the city of Medina.
If this event is known as the “Hegira”, an Arabic word for emigration, break-up or exile, it is also because Mohammad broke with a societal model based on blood ties (clan organization), in favor of a model of a shared destiny based on belief. In this new religious and societal model, where each person is supposed to be a “brother,” it is no longer permissible to abandon the poor or the weak as was the case before.
The powerful clans in Mecca did everything they could to eliminate this new form of society, which diminished their influence.
The “Medina Constitution” allegedly proclaimed equality among all believers, whether they were free men or slaves, Arabs or non-Arabs.
The Koran advocates strict equality between Arabs and non-Arabs in accordance with the Prophet, who said, in his farewell address:
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”(Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and authenticated by Shaykh Albani in Silsila Sahiha no. 2700).
Hence, if after the Prophet’s passing away, slavery and slave trade became a common practice in close to all Muslim countries, he cannot be held accountable. Zayd Ibn Harithah, according to tradition, after having been the slave of Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, was freed and even adopted by Muhammad as his own son.
For his part, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion and successor as the first Caliph (Arab word for “successor”), also freed Bilal ibn-Raba, the son of a former Abyssinian princess who had been enslaved. Bilal, who had a magnificent voice, was even appointed the first muezzin, that is to say the one who calls for prayer five times a day from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets.
Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :
“Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,(Surat 96).
Who taught by the pen — Taught man that which he knew not.”
The Prophet also states,
“The best among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Koran and teach it.”
Other sayings, often attributed to the Prophet, clearly invite Muslims to seek knowledge and cherish science :
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave”.
“Seek knowledge even as far as China”.
The mosque is therefore much more than a place of worship, it is a school of all sciences, where scholars are trained. It serves as a social and educational institution: it may be completed with a madrassa (Koranic school), a library, a training center, or even a university.
As in most religions, in Islam, practices and rituals are punctuated by astronomical events (years, seasons, months, days, hours). Every worshipper must pray five times a day at times that vary depending on where he or she is on Earth: at sunrise (Ajr), when the sun is at its zenith (Dhohr), in the afternoon (Asr), at sunset (Magrib) and at the beginning of the night (Icha). Astronomy, as a spiritual occasion to fine-tune one’s earthly existence according to the harmony of the Heavens, is omnipresent.
As an example, to underscore its importance, July 16, 622 AD, the first day of the lunar year, was declared the first day of the Hegira calendar. And during the eclipse of the sun, mosques host a special prayer.
Islam encourages Muslims to guide themselves by the stars. The Koran states :
“And He is the One who made the stars for you
to guide you with them in darkness of the land and the sea”.
With such an incentive, early Muslims could not but feel compelled to perfect astronomical and navigational instruments. As a result, today more than half of the stars used for navigation bear Arabic names. It was only natural that the faithful constantly tried to improve astronomical calculations and observations.
The first reason to do so is that during the Muslim prayer, the worshipper has to prostrate himself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, so he has to know how to find this direction wherever he is on Earth. And the construction of a mosque will be decided according to the same data.
The second reason is the Muslim calendar. The Koran states :
“The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)-
so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth;
of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage.”
Clearly, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar months, which are approximately 29.5 days long. But 12 times 29.5 days is only 345 days in the year. This is far from the 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds that measure the duration of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun…
Finally, a last challenge was posed by the interpretation of the lunar movement. The months, in the Muslim religion, do not begin with the astronomical new moon, defined as the moment when the moon has the same ecliptic longitude as the sun (it is therefore invisible, drowned in the solar albedo); the months begin when the lunar crescent starts to appear at dusk.
The Koran says: “(Muhammad), they ask you about the different phases of the moon. Tell them that they are there to indicate to people the phases of time and the pilgrimage season.”
For all these reasons, the Muslims could not be satisfied with either the Christian or the Hebrew calendar, and had to create a new one.
In order to forecast the phases of the moon, new methods of calculation and new instruments capable of observing them were required. The calculation of the day when the crescent moon starts to become visible again was a formidable challenge for the Arab scholars. To predict this day, it was necessary to be able to describe its movement in relation to the horizon, a problem whose resolution belongs to a rather sophisticated spherical geometry.
It was the determination of the direction of Mecca from a given location and the time of prayers that led the Muslims to develop such geometry. To solve these problems, it is necessary to know how to calculate the side of a spherical triangle of the celestial sphere from its three angles and the other two sides; to find the exact time, for example, it is necessary to know how to construct the triangle whose vertices are the zenith, the north pole, and the position of the Sun.
The field of astronomy has strongly stimulated the birth of other sciences, in particular geometry, mathematics, geography and cartography. Some people like to recall that Platonists and Aristotelians were arguing about rather abstract concepts, each of them believing that reason was sufficient to understand nature. Arab astronomy, on the other hand, played a decisive role in the emergence of a true scientific method by verifying the various hypotheses, by building measuring instruments and astronomical observatories and by rigorously recording observations over many years.
The question then arises as to where this infatuation with science and astronomy could have come from, in a culture essentially centered on religion?
A first answer comes from the fact that in the 8th century, shortly after the birth of Sunnism (656), Kharidjism (657) and Shi’ism (660), but independently of these currents, a school of Muslim theological and philosophical thought appeared, founded by the revolutionary theologian Wasil ibn Ata (700-748), a current known as “mutazilism” (or motazilism), branded in the West as “the rationalists” of Islam. One explanation of its name came from the fact that the mutazili refused to take part in the internal strife inside factions using theological interpretations for earthly power, the arab word iʿtazala meaning “to withdraw”.
Wasil was born in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and moved to Basra, now in Iraq. From there he formed an intellectual movement that spread all over the Arab-Muslim world. Many of his followers were merchants and non-Arabs (mawâlî) from Iranian or Aramaic “converted” families, victims of the Omayyad dynasty’s discriminating policies between Arabs and non-Arabs. This hypothesis is sufficient to back the claim of a Mutazilite participation in the overthrow of the Omayyad and that dynasty’s replacement with the Abbasid.
In a clear break with dualistic cosmology (Mazdeism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, etc.), Mutazilism insists on the absolute unity of God, conceived as an entity outside time and space. For them, there is a close relationship between the unity of the Muslim community (Ummah) and the worship of the Lord. The Mutazilites are closely inspired by the Koran, and it is quite wrong to present them as the “free thinkers” of Islam.
However, “we reject faith as the only way to religion if it rejects reason,” the Mutazilite saying goes. Relying on reason (the logos dear to the Greek thinkers Socrates and Plato), which it considers compatible with Islamic doctrines, Mutazilism affirms that man can, outside of any divine revelation, access knowledge.
Just as Augustine, a christian, emphasized man can advance on the path of truth, not only through the Gospel (revelation), but by reading “the Book of Nature”, a reflection and foretaste of divine wisdom. One book of the Bible, The Book of Wisdom, recognizes that
For from the greatness and the beauty of created things(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.
The Mutazilites differed from their opponents in their teaching that God has endowed man with reason specifically so that he can come to know the moral order in creation and its Creator; that is what reason is for. Reason is central to man’s relationship to God.
In the Fundamentals, the great Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025), whose texts were discovered only in the 1950’s by Egyptian scholars in a mosque in Yemen, begins by positing the primary duty to reason: « If it is asked: What is the first duty that God imposes you? Say to him: Speculative reasoning which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known intuitively or by the senses. Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation ».
Therefore, Reason logically precedes revelation. Reason first needs to establish the existence of God before undertaking the question as to whether God has spoken to man. Natural theology mus be antecedent to theology.
Al Jabbar says: « The stipulates of revelation concerning what we should say and do are no good until after there is knowledge of God, » which knowledge comes from reason. « Therefore, » he concludes, « it is incumbent on me to establish His existence and to know Him so that I can worship Him, give Him thanks and do what satisfies Him and avoid disobedience toward Him ».
How does Reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existance? It is through the observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says Al Jabbar. As he sees hat nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause.
The concept of an inherent nature in things (tab’) means that God, though he is the First Cause, acts indirectly through secondary causes, such as the physical law of gravity. In other words, God does not immediately or directly do everything. He does not make a rock fall; gravity does. God allows some autonomy in his creation, which has its own set of rules, according to how it was made.
As Mutazilite writer and theologian Uthman al-Jahiz (765-869) stated, every material element has it own nature. God created each thing with a nature according to which it consistently behaves. The unsupported rock will always fall where there is gravitational pull. These laws of nature, then, are not an imposition of order from without by a commander-in-chief, but an expression of it from within the very essence of things, which have their own integrity. Creation is possessed of an intrinsic rationality from the Creator. That is why and how man is able to understand God’s Reason as manifested in his creation (This does not discount God’s ability to supercede natural laws in the case of a miracle). From that standpoint, the act of discovery of the nature and beauty of things, by each human individual, brings him closer to God.
Hence, Muzatilism gives human reason (the faculty of thinking) and freedom (the faculty of acting) a place and importance not only unknown in other trends of Islam but even in most philosophical and religious currents of the time. Against fatalism (“mektoub!” = it was written!), which was the dominant tendency in Islam, mutazilism affirms that the human being is responsible for his acts.
More than five centuries before Erasmus, Mutazilite faith and philosophy offered already the foundations to solve most of the sterile theological disputes that would destroy the Renaissance and throw Europe in the abyss of self-destruction known as the “wars of religion”.
Here are the five Fundamentals (Principles), described by Abdel al Jabbar and summarized in 2015 by economist Nadim Michel Kalife:
—Monotheism (Al Tawhid) whose concept of God is beyond the simple intellect of the human mind. That is why the verses of the Koran describing God “sitting” on a throne should be interpreted only allegorically and not literally. Hence the Mutazilites called their opponents anthropomorphists who sought to reduce God who is unknowable to a human appearance. And they concluded that this one detail (!) of the Koran is sufficient to prove that the Koran is not “uncreated” but “created” by Allah, via man, to make it accessible to the believer, and therefore, that it can and should evolve and adapt according to the times and circumstances ;
—Divine justice (Adl) is about the origin of evil in our world where God is all-powerful. Mutazilism proclaims free will, where evil is man’s doing and not God’s will, because God is perfect and therefore cannot do evil or determine man to do it. And, if human wrongdoings were the will of God, punishment would lose all meaning since man would be doing nothing but respecting the divine will. This unquestionable logic allowed Mutazilism to refute predestination and the « mektoub » of the Sunni schools;
—Promise and threat (al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id): this principle concerns the judgment of man at his death and that of the last judgment where God will reward the obedient in the heavenly paradise, and punish those who disobeyed him by damning them eternally in the fires of hell;
—The intermediate degree (al-manzilatu bayn al-manzilatayn), the first principle opposing Mutazilism to the Sunni schools. A great sinner (murder, theft, fornication, false accusation of fornication, drinking alcohol, etc. ) should be judged neither as a Muslim (as Sunnism thinks) nor as a disbeliever or kâfir (as the Kharidjites think), but considered in an intermediate degree from which, when he dies, he will go to hell if he failed to be redeemed by God’s mercy ;
—To order the good and blame the blameworthy (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar): this principle authorizes even rebellion against authority when it is unjust and illegitimate, to prevent the victory of evil over all. This principle attracted the hatred of the ulama (theologians) and imams (predicators) who saw it as a manouver to weaken their own authority over the faithful. And the Seljuk Turks considered it a serious danger since it called into question their power… over the Arabs.
Mutazilism under the Abbasid
In Baghdad, it was with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749 that Mutazilism gained influence, first under the Caliph Hâroun al-Rachîd (765-809) (“Aaron the Well-Guided”) and then under his son, Al-Ma’mûn (786-833) (“The one to be trusted”). Shortly before his death in 833, the latter made Mutazilism the official doctrine of the Abbasid Empire.
This was too much for the conservative ulama and imams who rebelled against the Caliph’s enlightened vision that created a space for secular society and limited their grip over society. Faced with the revolt, the Abbasid administration (made up largely of Persians), which was won over to Mutazilism, carried out a ruthless crackdown on Sunni (Arab) clerics for fifteen years, from 833 to 848. This bloody persecution left an increasingly bitter taste in people’s minds, especially when the Abbasid power refused to release Muslim prisoners in the hands of the Byzantines if they did not renounce the dogma of the “uncreated” nature of the Koran…
Finally, in 848, Caliph Jafar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), changed course completely and asked the traditionalists to preach hadiths according to which Muhammad had condemned the Mutazilites and their supporters.
Dialectical theology (Kalâm) was banned and the Mutazilites were not any longer welcome at the Baghdad court. This was also the end of the spirit of tolerance and the return of persecution against Christians and Jews. If the craze for science continued, Mutazilism disappeared with the fall of the Abbasids and the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Mutazilism also influenced Judaism. The Kitab Al-Amanat Wa’l-I’tiqadat – that is, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions – by the tenth-century Jewish rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon (882-942), who lived in Baghdad, draws its inspiration from Christian theological literature as well as from Islamic models. The Kitab al-Tawhid, the Book of Divine Unity, by Saadia’s Karaite contemporary, Jacob Qirqisani (d. 930), is unfortunately lost.
This makes the German Islamologist Sabine Schmidtke say:
The new tradition of Jewish rational thought that emerged in the course of the ninth century was, in its initial phase, mainly informed by Christian theological literature, both in its content and methodology. Increasingly, specifically Mutazilite Islamic ideas, such as theodicy [*1] and human free will, as well as the emphasis on the oneness of God (tawhid), resonated among Jewish thinkers, many of whom eventually adopted the entire doctrinal system of the Mutazila. The now emerging ‘Jewish Mutazila’ dominated Jewish theological thought for centuries to come.
Brothers in Purity
Also worth mentioning in this context, are the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity (Ikwân al-Safâ), an encyclopedia of 52 epistles (dealing with mathematics, natural sciences, rational sciences and theological sciences), composed between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the tenth century and containing common knowledge. The text will be promoted by the Ismailis, an esoteric branch of shiite islam strongly contesting the ruling powers of that time. Produced in Basra, in present-day Iraq, the book, neo-platonic in character, is a collective work. As for the authors, designated under the mysterious name of Brothers of Purity, they belonged to a brotherhood of sages and intellectuals who met regularly to organize sessions of discussion, readings and recitation. Its followers considered that knowledge was an indispensable condition for any spiritual and mystical elevation. Its avant-garde character is apparent in its hymn to tolerance advocating a plurality of paths to salvation. Some experts believe that the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity are the work of a high-level Pythagorean philosopher, a disciple of the mutazilist platonic, al-Kindi.
Leaving aside, therefore, the errors that were very real, it has to be recognized and underscored that the optimistic philosophical vision of Mutazilism (reason, free will, responsibility, perfectibility of man) strongly contributed to the emergence of a true « golden age » of Arab culture and sciences.
Finally, it is not uninteresting to note that today, “neo-Mutazilite” currents are appearing in reaction to obscurantist doctrines and the barbaric acts they provoke. For the Egyptian reformist thinker Ahmad Amin, “the death of mutazilism was the greatest misfortune that befell Muslims; they committed a crime against themselves.”
In 762, the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (714-775) (“the victorious”) began construction of a new capital, Baghdad. Called Madinat-As-Salam (City of Peace), it houses the court palace, the mosque and the administrative buildings. Built on a circular plan, it is inspired by previous traditions, notably the one that gave birth to the Iranian city of Gur (current name: Firouzabad).
We are in the heart of fertile Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”, essentially the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which have their source in Turkey. It is here that the Sumerians invented irrigation, agriculture (cereals and livestock) [*3], and writing (3400 years BC), starting in the 10th millennium BC.
Baghdad, a powerful and refined city, reigned over the entire East and became the capital of the Arab world. Crossed by the Tigris River, populated today by some 10 million inhabitants, it remains the largest city in Iraq as well as the second most populated city in the Arab world (behind Cairo in Egypt).
The Abbasid cities were built on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra, the new capital from 836, stretch along the banks of the Tigris for 40 kilometers. To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the Abu Dulaf Mosque or the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no equivalent elsewhere. Its curious spiral minaret (52 meters high) inspired in the following centuries the Western representations of the Tower of Babel.
Moreover, by relying on an extremely disciplined and obedient army from Khorassan (a region in north-eastern Iran) [*2], as well as on an elaborate system of stagecoaches and mail distribution, the Abbasid rulers managed to increase their hold on the provincial governors. The latter, who in the time of the Omayyad caliphs paid little tax on the pretext that they had to spend locally for the defense of the caliphate’s borders, now had to pay the taxes imposed by the ruler.
The New “Paper” Road
After the military victory against the Chinese in the battle of Talas (a city in present-day Kyrgyzstan) in 751, the year that marked the most eastern advance of the Abbasid armies, Baghdad opened up to Chinese and Indian cultures.
The Abbasid quickly assimilated a number of Chinese techniques, in particular paper-making, an art developed in Samarkand (capital of Sogdiana, now in Uzbekistan), another stopover city on the Silk Roads. The craftsmen of this city smoothed the paper with an agate stone. The resulting extremely smooth and shiny surface absorbed less ink and as a result, both sides of the same sheet became usable. The Chinese, who had invented silk paper, did not need to smooth their paper because they wrote with brushes and not with pens.
Hâroun al-Rachîd was very interested in the industrial production of paper. He ordered the use of paper in all the administrations of the Empire: it is easier to manufacture, less expensive and more secure than silk, because one cannot easily erase what is written on it. He developed the paper factories of Samarkand and established similar ones in Baghdad, Damascus and Tiberias around 1046 – the paper of Tripoli or Damascus was then referred to, and its quality was considered better than that of Samarkand – in Cairo before 1199, where it was used as a packaging for goods, and in Yemen at the beginning of the 13th century. At the same time, several paper factories were established in North Africa. There were 104 paper factories in Fez, Morocco, before 1106, and 400 paper mills between 1221 and 1240. They will emerge in Andalusia, Spain, in Jativa near Valencia in 1054 and in Toledo in 1085.
The first Abbasid caliphs led the economic transition from the Umayyad model of tribute, booty or the sale of slaves to an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, trade and taxes. The introduction of more energy dense modes of technologies modes of energy (compared to the former ones), will revolutionize irrigation and agriculture:
–Construction of canals ensuring irrigation and limiting flooding;
–Construction of dams and the exploitation of the mechanical energy they produce;
–Construction of water mills;
–Use of tidal energy;
–Construction of windmills;
–Distillation of kerosene used as fuel for lamps and used since. [*4]
Industrial uses of water mills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century. During the time of the Crusades, all provinces of the Islamic world had operating mills, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.
These mills performed various agricultural and industrial tasks.
When Erasmus’ follower Cervantes’ Don Quichote starts attacking the windmills of La Mancha, a Spanish region where Arab influence was notable, he not only ironially mocks the cult of chivalry, but also the insane undertaking called the crusades.
Irrigation, inherited from the ancient world (floods of the Nile in Egypt, canals in Mesopotamia, pendulum wells (shadoof), water wheels used to raise water (noria), dams in Transoxiana, Khuzistan and Yemen, underground galleries at the foot of the mountains in Iran (qanat) or in the Maghreb (khettara), is organized thanks to a solid community organization and the intervention of the State.
Abbasid artisans and engineers will develop machines (such as pumps) incorporating crankshafts and use gears in mills and water-lifting machines. They will also use the dams to provide additional power to watermills and water-lifting machines. Such advances will allow the mechanization of many agricultural and industrial tasks and free up the workforce for more creative occupations.
Agricultural production gains in diversity : cereals (wheat, rice), fruits (apricots, citrus fruits), vegetables, olive oil (Syria and Palestine), sesame (Iraq), roe, rapeseed, flax or castor oil (Egypt), wine production (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), dates, bananas (Egypt), sugar cane.
Breeding remains important for food, for the supply of raw materials (wool, leather) and for transport (camels, dromedaries, horses). Sheep are present everywhere but buffalo farming is developing (marshes of lower Iraq or Orontes). Small poultry, pigeon and bee farms are in high demand. The people’s diet is predominantly vegetarian (rice cake, wheat porridge, vegetables and fruits).
A number of industries will emerge from this agro-industrial revolution, including the first textile factories, the production of ropes, silk and, as noted above, the manufacture of paper. Finally, metalworking, glassware, ceramics, tooling and crafts also experience high levels of growth during this period.
Charlemagne, Baghdad and China
Finally, in the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to counter the Omayyad and the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid and Carolingian Franks conclude several agreements and alliances.
Three diplomatic missions were sent by Charlemagne to the court of Hâroun al-Rachîd and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne. The caliph sent him many gifts, such as spices, fabrics, an elephant and an automatic clock, described in the Frankish Royal Annals of 807. It marked the 12 hours with copper balls falling on a plate at each hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at the same intervals.
The same caliph sent a diplomatic mission to Chang’an (now called Xi’an), capital of the Tang dynasty. Chang’an being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the western market of Chang’an became the center of world trade. According to the record of the Tang Six Authority, more than 300 nations and regions had trade relations with Chang’an.
Maritime Silk Road
These diplomatic relations with China were contemporary with the maritime expansion of the Muslim world into the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. The ships of the caliphate began to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia.
Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice or Genoa.
The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Abbasid caliphate between China and Europe. At that time, Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port of 200,000 people in southern China, had a large community of traders from Muslim countries. And when the Chinese Emperor Yongle decided to send his famous flotilla of ships to Africa, he chose Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), a court eunuch who was born a Muslim. And when in 1497 the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama reached the Kenyan city of Malindi, he was able to obtain an Arab pilot who took him directly to Kozhikode (Calicut) in India. In short, a sailor who knew how to navigate on the stars.
Scientific and cultural renaissance
Thus, it is under the caliphate of Hâroun al-Rachîd and his son Al-Ma’mûn, that Baghdad and the Abbasids will experience a real golden age, both in the sciences (philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc.) and in the arts (architecture, poetry, music, painting, etc.). For the British writer Jim Al-Khalili, “the fusion of Greek rationalism and Mutazilite Islam will give rise to a humanist movement of a type that will hardly be seen before 15th century Italy.”
In the field of sciences, an assimilation of Hellenistic, Indian and Persian astronomical doctrines took place very early. Several Sanskrit [*5] and Pehlevi [*6] writings were translated into Arabic.
Indian works by the astronomer Aryabhata (476-560), a prominent scientist of the Indian Gupta Renaissance, and the mathematician Brahmagupta (590-668) were cited early on by their Arabic counterparts. A famous translation into Arabic appeared around 777 under the title Zij al-Sindhind (or Indian Astronomical Tables). Sources indicate that this text was translated after the trip of an Indian astronomer invited to the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 770. The Arabs also adopted the sines (inherited from Indian mathematics) which they preferred to the chords used by Greek astronomers. From the same period, a collection of astronomical chronicles compiled over two centuries in Sassanid Persia and known in Arabic as the Zij al-Shah (or Royal Tables).
In the field of music, the Persian-born Arab musician Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), among others, can be mentioned. A composer of about two hundred songs, he was also a virtuoso on the oud (a kind of lute with a short neck but no frets). He is credited with the first system of codification of learned Arabic music.
Respecting the visual arts, let us first stress that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, the Koran does not prohibit figurative images. There is no explicitly stated and universally accepted “ban” on images of living figures in Islamic legal texts. On the other hand, Islam, like other major religions, condemns the worship of idols.
From the eighth to the fifteenth century, numerous historical and poetic texts, both Sunni and Shi’a, many of which appeared in Turkish and Persian contexts, include admirable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of these images was not only to praise and pay homage to the Prophet, but represent occasions and central elements for the practice of Muslim faith.
In this respect, the book by the German art historian Hans Belting with the catchy title Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science (2011) is not only misleading but downright outrageous. Belting presents “Islam” as an aniconic faith (banning all human and animal representations), while in reality, besides exquisite calligraphy and geometric patterns in search for the infinite, representations of men and animals are an essential part of Islamic artistic expression.
In addition, other religions have experienced strong outbreaks of iconoclasm. For example, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about ancient Greek painting, between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire ordered the systematic destruction of images representing Christ or the saints, whether they were mosaics adorning church walls, painted images or book illuminations.
From there on, Belting, for whom Islam is in essence an aniconic civilization, has great difficulty in demonstrating what he announces in the title: the influence of Arab science (notably Ibn al-Haytam work on human vision) on the Renaissance in Florence (in particular its definition of “geometric perspective”). In fact, presenting himself as an erudite, peaceful and “objective” scholar, Belting’s book feeds into the bellicose thesis of a supposed “Clash” of civilizations, while claiming the opposite.
The first manifestations of pictorial art in the Arab-Muslim world date back to the Omayyad period (660-750). It is from this period that date the famous “desert castles”, such as Qusayr ‘Amra, in Eastern Jordan. Covered with wall paintings, these palaces reflect a contribution of the Byzantine, but also Persian Sassanid modes of representation. Thus, in the palace of Qusayr ‘Amra, used as a resort by the Caliph or his princes for sport and pleasure, the frescoes depict constellations of the zodiac, hunting scenes, fruits and women in the bath.
In the field of literature, Al-Rashid built up a vast library including a collection of rare books as well as thousands of books that kings and princes of the ancient world offered him.
For example, Kalila and Dimna, also known as the Indian Fables of Bidpaï, one of the most popular works of world literature. Compiled in Sanskrit nearly two thousand years ago, these animal fables, from which Aesop and La Fontaine drew, were translated from China to Ethiopia. Translated into Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa, they were richly illustrated in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds. The oldest illustrated Arabic version was probably produced in Syria in the 1200s. The landscape is symbolized by a few elements: a strip of grass, shrubs with stylized leaves and flowers. Men and animals are represented with bright colors and simplified lines.
A true manual for the education for kings, one of the fables evokes the idea,
of creating a university dedicated to the study of languages, ancient and modern,
and to the preservation, in renewed forms, of the heritage of the human species…
And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:
“I must emphasize this last point: my stories require, at this stage, no extra commentary, wretched imaginings, or vapid guesswork by you, me, or anyone else. The very worst habit would be that of moralizing away the effective substance. Thus the urge to tag tidy little rationalizations, persuasive formulas, intellectual summaries, symbolical labels, or nay other convenient pigeon-holing device, mus be steadfastly resisted. Mental encapsulation perverts the medecine, rendering it impotent. It amount to a bypass around the story’s true destination; to explain away is to forget. It is also a type of hypocrisy – poisonous, an antidote to truth. Thus, let the stories which you can remember do their own work by their very diversity. Familiarize yourself with them, but fiddle with them not.”
Also noteworthy is The Sessions of the poet and man of letters Al-Hariri (1054-1122) [*7], written at the end of the tenth century and which had a tremendous diffusion throughout the Arab world. The text, which recounts the adventures of the brigand Abu Zayd, is particularly suitable for illustration.
Al-Ma’mûn and the Houses of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)
After a violent dispute with his brother who sought to remove him from power, Al-Ma’mûn, the youngest son of Al-Rashid, became the eighth Abbasid caliph in 813. He was particularly interested in the work of scholars, especially those who knew Greek. He gathered in Baghdad thinkers of all beliefs, whom he treated magnificently and with the greatest tolerance. They all wrote in Arabic, a language that allowed them to understand each other. He brought manuscripts from Byzantium to enrich the vast library of his father. Open to scholars, translators, poets, historians, physicians, astronomers, scientists and philosophers, this first public library became the basis of the Bayt Al-Hikma (the “Houses of Wisdom”) combining translation, teaching, research and even public health activities, long before the Western universities. It was here that all known scientific manuscripts of the time, especially Greek writings, were gathered for study.
In Baghdad, this cultural bubbling will not remain confined to the Court but will go down to the street as this description of Baghdad by Ibn Aqul (died in 1119) testifies:
“First there is the large space called the Bridge Square. Then the Birds’ Market, a market where one can find all kinds of flowers and on the sides of which are the elegant stores of the money changers. (…) Then the caterers’ market, the bakers’ market, the butchers’ market, the goldsmiths’ market, unrivaled for the beauty of its architecture: high buildings with teak beams, supporting corbelled rooms. Then there is the huge booksellers’ market, which is also the gathering place for scholars and poets, and the Rusafa market. In the markets of Karkh and the Gate of the Ark, the perfumers do not mix with the merchants of grease and products with unpleasant smells; in the same way the merchants of new objects do not mix with the merchants of used objects.”
Persia, the Nestorians and medicine
As a model for the Houses of Wisdom, the Persian influence and precedents are often mentioned. It is true that the Barmakids, a family of Persian origin [*8], had a great influence on the first Abbasid caliphs.
In fact, al-Ma’mûn’s tutor was Jafar ben Yahya Barmaki (767-803), a member of the family of the Armenians and the son of the Persian vizier of his father Al-Rashid. The Persian elite who advised the Abbasid caliphs took a keen interest in the works of the Greeks, whose translation had begun during the reign of the Sassanid king Khosro I Anushirvan (531-579).
The latter founded the Academy of Medicine in Gondichapur. Many Nestorian (Christian) scribes and scholars had taken refuge there after the Council of Ephesus in 431. [*9]
The liturgical language of the Nestorians was Syriac, a Semitic dialect [*10].
Like the Jews, these Nestorian Christians possessed a cosmopolitan culture and a knowledge of languages (Syriac and Persian) that enabled them to act as intermediaries between Iran and its neighbors. And thanks to their access to the wisdom of ancient Greece, they were often employed as physicians. [*11]
The Academy of Medicine of Gondichapur [*12] had reached its peak in the 5th century thanks to the Syriac scholars expelled from Edessa. In this school, medicine was taught based on the translations of the Greek scholar and physician Claudius Galen. These teachings were put into practice in a large hospital, a tradition taken up in the Muslim world. This school was a meeting place for Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian scholars, whose scientific influence was mutual. Heir to the Greek medical knowledge of Alexandria, the school of Gondichapur trained several generations of physicians at the court of the Sassanid and later at that of the Muslim Abbasid. As early as 765, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, consulted the head of the Gondichapur hospital, Georgios ben Bakhtichou, and invited him to Baghdad. His descendants will work and teach medicine there. Long after the establishment of Islam, the Arab elites sent their sons to this Nestorian Christian school.
Timothy I (727-823) was the Christian patriarch of the Church of the East (“Nestorian”) between 780 and 823. His first decision was to establish the seat of his church in Baghdad, where it was to remain until the end of the thirteenth century, thus forging privileged links between the Nestorians and the Abbasid caliphs. A man with a good command of Syriac, Arabic, Greek and eventually Pehlevi, Timothy enjoyed the consideration of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mahdi, Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mûn.
During his forty-three years of pontificate, the Eastern Church lived in peace. Moreover, the Nestorians played a major role in the spread of Christianity in Central Asia as far as China via the Silk Road. In Central Asia, before the arrival of Islam, it was Sogdian, (the Iranian language of Sogdia and its capital Samarkand) that served as the lingua franca on the Silk Road. [*13]
Translating, understanding, teaching, improving
In Baghdad and Basra, in the Houses of Wisdom, the histories and texts collected after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great were translated and made available to scholars, texts initially collated and translated from Syriac into Persian under the aegis of the Sassanid emperors.
The Arab historian and economist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who came from a large Andalusian family of Yemeni origin, paid tribute to this effort to preserve and disseminate the Greek heritage: “What happened to the sciences of the Persians whose writings, at the time of the conquest, were annihilated by order of Omar? Where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the inhabitants of Babylon? Where are the sciences that reigned among the Copts in the past? There is only one nation, that of the Greeks, whose scientific productions we possess exclusively, and that is thanks to the care that Al-Ma’mûn took in translating these works.”
These first translations into Arabic made available to the Arab-Muslim world hundreds of texts on philosophy, medicine, logic, mathematics, astronomy, music, etc., from Greek, Pehlevi, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc, including those of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Sushruta, Hippocrates, Euclid, Charaka, Ptolemy, Claudius Galen, Plotinus, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.
They were accompanied by reflections, commentaries, translations of commentaries, etc. and gave rise to a new form of literature. According to the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I, it was at the request of the Caliph Al-Mahdi that he translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He also wrote a treatise on astronomy entitled The Book of Stars, now lost.
An astrology and astronomy enthusiast, Al-Ma’mûn once made it a condition of peace with the Byzantine Empire to hand over a copy of the Almagest, Ptolemy’s main work, which was supposed to summarize all Greek astronomical knowledge. In 829, in the upper district of Baghdad, he built the first permanent observatory in the world, the Baghdad Observatory, allowing his astronomers, who had translated the Astronomical Treatise of the Greek Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), as well as his star register, to methodically monitor the movement of the planets.
Here is what Sâ’id al-Andalusî (1029-1070) tells us about Al-Ma’mûn’s interest in astronomy and his efforts to advance it:
“As soon as Al-Ma’mûn became caliph, his noble soul made every effort to attain wisdom, and to this end he was particularly concerned with philosophy; moreover, the scholars of his time studied in depth a book by Ptolemy and understood the diagrams of a telescope that was drawn therein. So Al-Ma’mûn gathered all the great scholars present throughout the regions of the caliphate, and he asked them to build the same kind of instrument so that they could observe the planets in the same way as Ptolemy had done and those who had preceded him. The object was built and the scholars brought it to the city of al-Shamâsiyya in the region of Damascus in the Sham in the year 214 AH (829 AD). Through their observations they determined the exact duration of a solar year as well as the inclination of the sun, the exit of its center and the situation of its various faces, which allowed them to know the state and positions of the other planets. Then the death of the caliph al-Ma’mûn in 218 A.H. (833) put an end to this project, but they nevertheless completed the astronomical telescope and named it ‘the Ma’mûn telescope’”
Now, let me present you a short list of the main astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers, scholars and translators who frequented the Houses of Wisdom:
—Al-Jahiz (776-867). The encyclopedic approach of this Mutazilite is conceived as « a necklace gathering pearls » or as a garden which, with its plants, its harmonious organization and its fountains, represents in miniature the whole universe. He sketches the principle of the evolution of species;
—Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), (in Latin Algorithmus). This Persian mathematician and astronomer, according to some a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, would have been a follower of mutazilism. He is best known for having invented the method of solving mathematical problems, which is still used today and which is called algorithm. He studied for some time in Baghdad but it is also reported that he made a trip to India. Al Khawarizmi invented the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r, meaning force, beat or multiply), introduced the Indian numerical system to the Muslim world, institutionalized the decimal system in mathematics, and formalized the testing of scientific hypotheses based on observations;
—Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (786-845), a Jewish astronomer and physician whose name means “The son of the rabbi of Tabaristan”. His son Ali was the tutor of al-Razi (865-925). An alchemist who became a physician, he is said to have isolated sulfuric acid and ethanol and was among the first to advocate their medical use. He greatly influenced the conception of hospital organization in connection with the training of future doctors. He was the object of much criticism for his opposition to Aristotelianism;
—Al-Hajjaj (786-823) made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements from Greek. He also translated Ptolemy’s Almagest;
—Al-Kindi (801-873) (known as Alkindus), considered the father of Arab philosophy, was a mutazilist. He was a prolific author (about 260 books) and explored all fields: geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, physics, arithmetic, logic, music and psychology. Along with his colleagues, Al-Kindi was entrusted with the translation of the manuscripts of Greek scholars. After the death of Al-Ma’mun in 833, he was considered too much of a mutazilist, fell into disgrace and his library was confiscated;
—The Banu Musa (“children of Moses”) brothers, three brilliant sons of a deceased astrologer, friend of the Caliph. Mohammed will work on astronomy; Ahmed and Hassan on the canals linking the Euphrates to the Tigris, a guarantee of the control and optimization of their respective floods. They published the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, an inventory of new techniques and machines [*14];
—Hunayn ibn Ishâk (808-873) (known as Iohannitius). This Nestorian Christian was entrusted by Al-Ma’mun with the task of overseeing the quality of translations; a physician, he translated some of the works of the Greek physician Claudius Galen;
—Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), a Syrian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and musicologist;
—Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Greek Byzantine physician, also a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, naturalist and translator. A Christian of the Melkite Church, he spoke both Greek (his mother tongue) and Arabic, as well as Syriac. Considered, along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as one of the key figures in the transmission of Greek knowledge from Antiquity to the Arab-Muslim world. He was the translator of Aristarchus of Samos for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun and the author of a treatise on the astrolabe;
—Ibn Sahl (940-1000), in the footsteps of Al-Kindi, wrote a treatise on burning mirrors and lenses around 984, explaining how they can focus light on a point. His work was perfected by Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1040) (Latin name: Alhazen), whose writings reached as far as Leonardo da Vinci, via the Commentaries of Ghiberti. In Ibn-Sahl, we find the first mention of the law of refraction, later rediscovered in Europe as the law of Snell-Descartes.
Drawn into Bagdad for the opportunities it offered, these scholars generally worked in teams in a totally interdisciplinary spirit. Al-Ma’mûn, monitoring the science projets and noting the contradictions that arose from the translations of Greek, Persian and Indian sources, fixed with the scholars the next great scientific challenges to be met:
–To obtain, thanks to more efficient astronomical observatories, tables of astronomical ephemerides [*15] of greater precision than those of Ptolemy;
–To calculate with precision the circumference of the Earth with more advanced methods than those of the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (3rd century BC);
–Produce a world map integrating the latest geographical knowledge concerning the distances between cities and the size of the continents;
–Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Al-Ma’mûn had discovered during his trip to Egypt.
Translations of Plato
By asserting that what had advanced science at this period was the rediscovery of Aristotle and his purely empiricist method, one forgets the rediscovery of Plato, whose dialectical and hypothetical method has often done more for science than blind empiricism.
Al-Kindi’s intense involvement in the Platonic tradition is reflected in his summaries of the Apology and the Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase the Phaedo or are inspired by the Meno and the Symposium. The Syrian scientist Ibn al-Bitriq, a member of Al-Kindi’s “circle” in Bagdad, translated the Timaeus.
Otherwise, the House of Wisdom’s top translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his circle translated the Greek physician Claudius Galen’s commentaries on the Timaeus, especially his On what Plato said in the Timaeus in a medical way and his On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. And from Hunayn’s own works, we know that some of his students translated Galen’s lost Greek summaries of Plato’s Cratylus, Sophist, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic and Laws. Finally, the physician al-Razi presented and commented on Plutarch’s treatise On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus.
possible for some, complicated for others
In the West, the name of Al-Kindi is best known in association with The Apology of Al-Kindi, an anonymous text of the time. It is probably a fictitious dialogue between two believers, one Muslim (Abdallah Al-Hashimi), the other Christian (Al-Kindi), both criticizing the other’s and praising one’s own religion and inviting the other to join him! This dialogue supposedly took place at the time of the caliph Al-Ma’mûn. What we know about the open-mindedness of the Caliph does not contradict this assertion. The earliest known mention of the existence of this Apology came to us from Al-Biruni (973-1048).
The manuscript of Al-Kindi’s Apology was translated into Latin in 1142 at the request of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), grand abbot of the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful and important in Latin Europe. That same year, after visiting Toledo, he conceived the idea of a systematic refutation of the Muslim religion, which he considered heretical and errant.
Here is how he explains the translation he has just ordered of the Koran (the Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) by a team of translators (including an Arab) brought together for the occasion:
“Whether one gives the Mohammedan error the shameful name of heresy or the infamous one of paganism, one must act against it, that is, write. But the Latins and especially the moderns, the ancient culture perishing, according to the word of the Jews who once admired the polyglot apostles, do not know any other language than that of their native land. So they could neither recognize the enormity of this error nor stop it. So my heart was inflamed and a fire burned in my meditation. I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such a perdition and their ignorance robbed them of the power to resist it; for no one answered, for no one knew. So I went to find specialists in the Arabic language which has allowed this deadly poison to infest more than half the globe. I persuaded them, by dint of prayers and money, to translate from Arabic into Latin the history and doctrine of this wretched man and his very law, which is called Koran”.
Accused hence “the Arabic language which allowed this deadly poison (Islam) to infest more than half of the globe”…
This declaration of war was undoubtedly required to motivate his troops. Let us recall that Eudes de Châtillon, the grand prior of the abbey of Cluny, who will become Pope Urban II in 1088, will be, in 1095, at the origin of the first crusade sending the bandits who ravaged France, to go and wage war elsewhere.
The decline and Al-Ghazali
Let us return to the Abbasids. As we have said, with the arrival in power of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, mutazilism was removed from power and the Houses of Wisdom were reduced to simple libraries. This did not prevent a traveller, describing his visit to Baghdad in 891, from reporting that the city contained more than one hundred public libraries. Following the Bayt Al-Hikma model, small libraries were founded on every street corner of the city…
Entangled in endless theological debates between experts and won by sectarianism, the mutazilist elite cut itself off from a people who were losing confidence and eventually welcomed with a sense of relief the obscurantist doctrine of Al-Ghâzalî (1058-1111) (Latin name: Algazel), the worst enemy of the mutazilites.
Al-Ghâzalî proposed a radical solution: philosophy is only right when it agrees with religion – which, according to Al-Ghâzalî, is rare. This leads him to radicalize his position, and to attack more and more the Greco-Arab philosophy, guilty, in his eyes, of blasphemy.
Where someone like the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) (Latin name: Avicenna), author of the Canons or Precepts of Medicine (around 1020), crossed Greek philosophy and Muslim religion, Al-Ghazali wanted to filter the first through the second.
Hence his most famous and important work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written in 1095. In it, he denounces the “pride” of the philosophers who claim to “rewrite the Koran” through Plato and Aristotle. Their error is above all a logical one, as the title of the book itself indicates, which underlines their “incoherence”: they want to complete the Koran with Greek philosophy, whereas the Koran comes later in history and therefore does not need to be completed. He therefore promotes a much more literal approach to the Koranic text, whereas Ibn Sina defended, cautiously it is true, a metaphorical approach. In truth, it is Aristotelianism and nominalism that triumph. The doctrine opposing Mutazilism became known as Ash’arism.
For Ascharites, to speak of God’s justice and rationality is a double blasphemy, because it amounts to limiting his omnipotence. If God were, as the Mutazilites say, compelled to will what is good, then he would be … compelled, which the Ascharites find theologically unacceptable. Therefore, believers should not admit the idea that God wills good, but submit to the principle that whatever he wills is good because he wills it.
Similarly, it is blasphemous to look for « second causes » in nature, i.e. scientific laws. The world exists because God, at every moment, wants it to exist. Any scientific research, any attempt to apply reason and analysis, is an offense to the divine omnipotence.
For Sébastien Castellion, the rejection of reason by the Ascharite school – and subsequently by much of Muslim civilization – was not an implicit and subterranean process, but an explicit decision based on theological principles. The great jurist Ibn Hanbal, whose school is predominant in Saudi Arabia today, said that « all those who indulge in reasoning by analogy and personal opinions are heretics (…). Accept only, without asking why and without making comparisons. »
The fall of Bagdad
From the eleventh century onward, the Abbasid, whose Empire was fragmenting, called upon the Turkish Seljuk princes to protect them against the Shiites, supported by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Gradually, the Turkish and Mongol troops, coming from Central Asia, ended up governing the security of the Abbasid caliph while letting him exercise his religious power.
Then, in 1258, they deposed the last caliph and confiscated his title of successor of the Prophet, which gave them religious power over the four schools of Sunnism. In order to subdue the Arab and Persian populations, the Seljuk Turks created the madrasa (Koranic school) where the conservative doctrine of Acharite Sunnism was taught to the exclusion of the dialectical Mutazilite theology, considered an ideological threat to Turkish authority over the Arabs.
The Abbasid Empire declined as a result of administrative negligence, abandonment of canal maintenance, flood-induced famine, social injustice, slave revolts, and religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the 9th century, the Zendj, black slaves (from Zanzibar) who worked in the marshes of the lower Iraq, revolted several times, even occupying Basra and threatening Baghdad. The Caliph restored order at the cost of an unprecedentedly violent repression. The rebels were only crushed in 883 at the cost of many victims. The empire did not recover.
In 1019, the Caliph forbade any new interpretation of the Koran, radically opposing the Mutazilite school. This is a brutal stop to the development of critical thinking and intellectual and scientific innovations in the Arab Empire, the consequences of which are still felt today.
Since the dawn of time (it is the case to say it), man has tried to understand the organization of the stars in the environment near the Earth.
Installations such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) in England allowed the first observers to identify the cycles that determine the place and the exact day when certain stars rise. All these observations posed paradoxes: around us, the earth appears relatively flat, but the Moon or the Sun that we perceive with the same eyes seem spherical. The Sun « rises » and « sets », our senses tell us, but where is the reality?
It seems that Thales of Miletus (625-547 BC) was the first to have really wondered about the shape of the Earth. He thought that the Earth was shaped like a flat disk on a vast expanse of water. Then Pythagoras and Plato imagined a spherical shape, which they considered more beautiful and rational. Finally Aristotle reported some observational evidence such as the rounded shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during eclipses.
The Greek scientist Eratosthenes (276 BC- 194 BC), chief librarian of the Alexandria library, then calculated the Earth’s circumference. He had noticed that at noon, on the day of the summer solstice, there was no shadow on the side of Aswan. By measuring the shadow of a stick planted in Alexandria at the same time and knowing the distance between the two cities, he deduced the circumference of the Earth with a rather astonishing accuracy: 39,375 kilometers against some 40,000 kilometers for current estimates.
Between Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, as we have said, Arabic astronomy constitutes “the missing link”.
The original title of Ptolemy’s work is The Mathematical Composition. The Arabs, very impressed by this work, called it “megiste”, from the Greek meaning “very great”, to which they added the Arabic article “al”, to give “al megiste” which became Almageste.
It is important to know that Ptolemy never had the opportunity to re-read his treatise as a whole. After writing the first of the thirteen books of his work, the one on “The Fundamental Postulates of Astronomy”, Ptolemy passed it on to copyists who reproduced it and distributed it widely without waiting for the completion of the other twelve books…
In the end, confronted with observations that called into question his own observations and in order to rectify his errors, Ptolemy wrote another work, after the Almagest, entitled Planetary Hypotheses. The author returned to the models presented in the Almagest while making modifications to the average motions (of the planets) to take into account the latest observations. However, his Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to calculate the dimensions of the universe. Finally, the Almagest also contains a description of 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations.
Ptolemy also presents stereographic projection invented by Hipparchus, the theoretical basis for the construction of the astrolabe by Arab astronomers.
In the ninth century, when the Arabs became interested in astronomy, knowledge was based on the following principles summarized in the work of Ptolemy:
–Ignoring the assertions of Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun, Ptolemy resumed in the second century AD the thesis of Eudoxus of Cnidus (approx. 400-355 BC) and especially Hipparchus (180 to 125 BC) to assert that the Earth is a motionless sphere placed at the center of the world (geocentrism);
–Ptolemy agreed with Plato, who was inspired by Pythagoras, that the circle was the only perfect form, and that the other bodies turning around the Earth did so according to circular and uniform trajectories (without acceleration or deceleration);
–Yet everyone knew that some planets do not follow these perfect rules. In the 6th century, the neo-Platonic philosopher Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, wrote: “Plato then poses this problem to the mathematicians: what are the uniform and perfectly regular circular motions that should be taken as hypotheses, so that we can save the appearances that the wandering stars present?” ;
–In order to account for the « apparent retrograde motion » of Mars, Hipparchus will introduce other secondary perfect figures, again circles. The articulation and interaction of these “epicycles” gave the appearance of sticking with the observed facts. Ptolemy took up this approach;
–However, the more the precision of astronomical measurements improved, the more anomalies were discovered and the more it was necessary to multiply these interlocking “epicycles”. It quickly became very complicated and inextricable;
–The universe is divided into a sub-lunar region where everything is created and therefore perishable, and the rest of the universe, supra-lunar, which is imperishable and eternal.
Hipparchus of Nicea
The Arab astronomers, for both religious and intellectual reasons that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, initially discovered and then, on the basis of increasingly detailed observations, challenged Hipparchus’ hypotheses, which were the basis of the Ptolemaic model.
Hipparchus imagined a system of coordinates for the stars based on longitudes and latitudes. We also owe him the use of parallels and meridians to locate the Earth as well as the division of the circumference into 360° inherited from the sexagesimal calculation (base 60) of the Babylonians.
In astronomy, his works on the rotation of the Earth and the planets are numerous. Hipparchus explains the mechanism of the seasons by noting the obliquity of the ecliptic: the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation. By comparing his observations with older ones, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes due to this tilt: the Earth’s axis of rotation makes a conical movement from East to West and of revolution 26,000 years. Thus in a few millennia, the North Pole will no longer be found with the North Star (Polaris) but with another star, Vega.
Based on Hipparchus, the Arabs perfected and fabricated an important instrument for measuring positions: the astrolabe. This “mathematical jewel” allows to measure the position of stars, planets, to know the time on Earth. Later, the astrolabe was replaced by more precise and easier to use instruments, such as the quadrant, the sextant or the octant.
With the manuscripts at their disposal in the Houses of Wisdom and the observatories of Baghdad and Damascus, the Arab astronomers had texts of an incredible richness but often in flagrant contradiction with their own observations of the movements of the Moon and the Sun. It is from this confrontation that later discoveries were born. The Arabs introduced a lot of mathematics to solve problems, especially trigonometry and algebra.
The Arab astronomers
In order to present the main Arab astronomers and their contributions, here is an excerpt from J. P. Maratray’s remarkable article L’astronomie arabe.
—Al-Khwarizmi (783-850) called Algorithmi.
A mathematician, geographer and astronomer of Persian origin, he was a member of the « House of Wisdom ». He is one of the founders of Arab mathematics, inspired by Indian knowledge, in particular the decimal system, fractions, square roots… He is credited with the term “algorithm”. Algorithms are known since antiquity, and the name of Al-Khwarizmi (Algorithmi in Latin) will be given to these sequences of repeated elementary operations. He is also the author of the term “algebra”, which is the title of one of his works on the subject. He was also the first to use the letter x to designate an unknown in an equation. He wrote the first book of algebra (al-jabr) in which he described a systematic method of solving second degree equations and proposed a classification of these equations. He introduced the use of numbers that we still use today. These “Arabic” numbers are in fact of Indian origin, but were used mathematically by Al-Khwarizmi. He adopted the use of the zero, invented by the Indians in the 5th century, and adopted by the Arabs through him. The Arabs will translate the Indian word “sunya” by “as-sifr”, which becomes “ziffer” and “zephiro”. Ziffer will give “number”, and zephiro, “zero”. Al-Khwarizmi established astronomical tables (position of the five planets, the Sun and the Moon) based on Hindu and Greek astronomy. He studied the position and visibility of the Moon and its eclipses, the Sun and the planets. It is the first completely Arabic astronomical work. A crater of the Moon bears his name.
—Al-Farghani (805-880) called Alfraganus (mentioned in Dante’s Commedia).
Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he wrote in 833 the Elements of Astronomy, based on the Greek knowledge of Ptolemy. He was one of the most remarkable astronomers in the service of Al-Ma’mûn, and a member of the House of Wisdom. He introduced new ideas, such as the fact that the precession of the equinoxes must affect the position of the planets, and not only that of the stars. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and had a great impact on the very closed circles of Western European astronomers. He determined the diameter of the Earth, which he estimated at 10500 km. We also owe him a work on sundials and another on the astrolabe.
—Al-Battani (850-929) called Albatenius.
He observed the sky from Syria. He is sometimes called “the Ptolemy of the Arabs”. His measurements are remarkably accurate. He determined the length of the solar year, the value of the precession of the equinoxes, the inclination of the ecliptic. He noted that the eccentricity of the Sun is variable, without going so far as to interpret this phenomenon as an elliptical trajectory. He wrote a catalog of 489 stars. We owe him the first use of trigonometry in the study of the sky. It is a much more powerful method than the geometrical one of Ptolemy. His main work is The Book of Tables. It is composed of 57 chapters. Translated into Latin in 1116 by Plato of Tivoli, it will greatly influence the European astronomers of the Renaissance.
—Al-Soufi (903-986) known as Azophi.
Persian astronomer, he translated Greek works including the Almagest and improved the estimates of the magnitudes of stars. In 964, he published « The Book of Fixed Stars », where he drew constellations. He seems to have been the first to report an observation of the large Magellanic cloud (a nebula), visible in Yemen, but not in Isfahan. Similarly, we owe him a first representation of the Andromeda galaxy, probably already observed before him. He described it as « a small cloud » in the mouth of the Arabian constellation of the Great Fish. Its name (Azophi) was given to a crater on the Moon.
—Al-Khujandi (circa 940- circa 1000).
He was a Persian astronomer and mathematician. He built an observatory in Ray, near Tehran, with a huge sextant, constructed in 994. It is the first instrument able to measure angles more precise than the minute of angle. He measures with this instrument the obliquity of the ecliptic, by observing the meridian passages of the Sun. He found 23° 32′ 19 ». Ptolemy found 23° 51′, and the Indians, much earlier, 24°. The idea of the natural variation of this angle never occurred to the Arabs. They discussed for a long time about the accuracy of the measurements, which made their science advance.
—Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1039) called Alhazen.
A mathematician and optician born in Basra in present-day Iraq, he was asked by the Egyptian authorities to solve the problem of the Nile floods. His solution was the construction of a dam towards Aswan. He gave up in front of the enormity of the task (the dam was finally built in 1970!). Faced with this “failure”, he feigned madness until the death of his boss. He made a critical assessment of Ptolemy’s theses and those of his predecessors, and wrote Doubts on Ptolemy. He draws up a catalog of the inconsistencies, without however proposing an alternative solution. Among the inconsistencies he noted were the variation in the apparent diameter of the Moon and the Sun, the non-uniformity of the allegedly circular motions, the variation in the position of the planets in latitude, the organization of the Greek spheres. Observing that the Milky Way has no parallax, he placed it very far from the Earth, in any case further away than Aristotle’s sub-lunar sphere. Despite his doubts, he maintains the central place of the Earth in the universe. Ibn Al-Haytam takes up the work of Greek scholars, from Euclid to Ptolemy, for whom the notion of light is closely linked to the notion of vision: the main question being whether the eye has a passive role in this process or whether it sends a kind of fluid to “interrogate” the object. Through his studies of the mechanism of vision, Ibn Al-Haytam showed that the two eyes were an optical instrument, and that they actually saw two separate images. If the eye sent this fluid, one could see at night, he speculated. He understood that the sunlight reflected off the objects and then entered the eye. But for him, the image is formed on the lens… He took up Ptolemy’s ideas on the rectilinear propagation of light, accepted the laws of reflection on a mirror, and sensed that light has a finite, but very great speed. He studied refraction, the deviation of a light ray as it passes from one medium to another, and predicted a change in the speed of light as it passes. But he could never calculate the angle of refraction. He found that the phenomenon of twilight is related to the refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, which he tried to measure the height, without success. Already known in antiquity, we owe him a very precise description and the use for experimental purposes of the dark room (camera obscura), a black room that projects an image on a wall through a small hole drilled in the opposite wall. The result of all this optical research is recorded in his Treatise on Optics, which took him six years to write and was translated into Latin in 1270. [*16] In mechanics, he asserted that an object in motion continues to move as long as no force stops it. This is the principle of inertia before the letter. An asteroid bears his name: 59239 Alhazen.
Certainly one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, originally from Persia, he was interested in astronomy, geography, history, medicine and mathematics, and philosophy in general. He wrote more than 100 works. He was also a tax collector and a great traveler, especially in India, where he studied language, religion and science. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his native town of Kath (in Persia, now in Uzbekistan). At the age of 22, he had already written several short works, including one on cartography. In astronomy, he observed the eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. He is one of the first to evaluate the errors on his measurements and those of his predecessors. He noticed a difference between the average speed and the apparent speed of a star. He measured the radius of the Earth at 6339.6 km (the correct figure is 6378 km), a result used in Europe in the 16th century. During his travels, he met Indian astronomers who supported heliocentrism and the rotation of the Earth on its axis. He will always be skeptical, because this theory implies the movement of the Earth. But he will ask himself the question: « Here is a problem difficult to solve and to refute ». He believes that this theory does not lead to any mathematical problems. He refuted astrology, arguing that this discipline is more conjectural than experimental. In mathematics, he developed the calculation of proportions (rule of three), demonstrated that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational (future number Pi), calculated trigonometric tables, and developed methods of geodesic triangulations.
—Ali Ibn Ridwan (988-1061).
Egyptian astronomer and astrologer, he wrote several astronomical and astrological works, including a commentary on another book of Claudius Ptolemy, the Tetrabible. He observed and commented on a supernova (SN 1006), probably the brightest in history. Its magnitude is estimated today, according to the testimonies that have come down to us, at -7.5! It remained visible for more than a year. He explains that this new star had two to three times the apparent diameter of Venus, a quarter of the brightness of the Moon, and that it was low on the southern horizon. Other western observations corroborate this description, and place it in the constellation of the Wolf.
—From the 11th to the 16th century.
After a first phase, more important observatories were built. The first of them, model of the following ones, is that of Maragheh, in the current Iran. Their purpose was to establish planetary models and to understand the movement of the stars. (…) The school thus constituted will have its apogee with Ibn Al-Shâtir (1304-1375). Other observatories will follow, such as the one in Samarkand in the 15th century, Istanbul in the early 16th century, and, in the West, the one of Tycho Brahe in Uraniborg (Denmark at that time) at the end of the 16th century. The new models were no longer Ptolemaic inspired, but remained geocentric. The physics of the time still refused to put the Earth in motion and to remove it from the center of the world. These models were inspired by the Greek epicycles, keeping the circles, but simplifying them. For example, Al-Tûsî proposes a system comprising a circle rolling inside another circle of double radius. This system transforms two circular motions into an alternating rectilinear motion, and explains the variations of the latitude of the planets. Moreover, it accounts for the variations of the apparent diameters of the stars. But to go further, it will be necessary to change the reference system, which the Arabs refused to do. This change will occur with the Copernican revolution, during the Renaissance, in which the Earth loses its status as the center of the world.
—Al-Zarqali (1029-1087) said Arzachel.
Mathematician, astronomer and geographer born in Toledo, Spain, he discussed the possibility of the movement of the Earth. Like others, his writings will be known to Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He designed astrolabes, and established the Toledo Tables, which were used by the great Western navigators such as Christopher Columbus, and served as a basis for the Alphonsine Tables. He established that the eccentricity of the Sun varies, more precisely that the center of the circle on which the Sun rotates moves periodically away from or towards the Earth. A crater of the Moon bears his name, as well as a bridge of Toledo on the Tagus.
—Omar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131).
Known for his poetry, he was also interested in astronomy and mathematics. He became director of the Isfahan observatory in 1074. He created new astronomical tables even more precise, and determined the duration of the solar year with great accuracy, given the instruments used. It is more accurate than the Gregorian year, created five centuries later in Europe. He reformed the Persian calendar by introducing a leap year (Djelalean reform). In mathematics, he was interested in third degree equations by demonstrating that they can have several solutions (he found some of them geometrically). He wrote several texts on the extraction of the cubic roots, and a treaty of algebra.
Astronomer and mathematician, born in the city of Tus in present-day Iran, he built and directed the observatory of Maragheh. He studied the works of Al-Khayyam on proportions, and was interested in geometry. On the astronomical side, he commented on the Almagest and completed it, like several astronomers (Al-Battani…) before him. He estimates the obliquity of the ecliptic at 23°30′.
Persian mathematician and astronomer, he witnessed a lunar eclipse in 1406 and wrote several astronomical works afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in Samarkand, under the protection of Prince Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) who founded a university there. He became the first director of the new observatory of Samarkand. His astronomical tables propose values with 4 (5 according to the sources) digits in sexagesimal notation of the sine function. He gives the way to pass from a system of coordinates to another. His catalog contains 1018 stars. He improves the tables of eclipses and visibility of the Moon. In his treatise on the circle, he obtained an approximate value of Pi with 9 exact positions in sexagesimal notation, that is to say 16 exact decimals! A record, since the next improvement of the estimation of Pi dates from the 16th century with 20 decimals. He leaves his name to a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem to any triangles. This is the Al-Kashi theorem. He introduced the decimal fractions, and acquired a great reputation which made him the last great Arab mathematician astronomer, before the West took over.
—Ulugh Beg (1394-1449).
Grandson of Tamerlan, prince of the Timurid (descendants of Tamerlan). Viceroy from 1410, he acceded to the throne in 1447. He was a remarkable scholar and a poor politician, a position he delegated to devote himself to science. His teacher was Qadi Zada al-Rumi (1364-1436) who developed in him a taste for mathematics and astronomy. He built several schools, including one in Samarkand in 1420 where he taught, and an observatory in 1429. He worked there with some 70 mathematicians and astronomers (including Al-Kashi) to write the Sultanian Tables published in 1437 and improved by Ulugh Beg himself shortly before his death in 1449. The accuracy of these tables will remain unequaled for more than 200 years, and they were used in the West. They contain the positions of more than 1000 stars. Their first translation dates from around 1500, and was made in Venice.
—Taqi Al-Din (1526-1585).
After a period as a theologian, he became the official astronomer of the Sultan in Istanbul. He built an observatory there with the aim of competing with those of European countries, including that of Tycho Brahe. The observatory was opened in 1577. He drew up the Zij tables (“the unbroken pearl”). He was the first to use comma notation, rather than the traditional sexagesimal fractions in use. He observed and described a comet, and predicted that it was a sign of victory for the Ottoman army. This forecast turns out to be erronous, and the observatory is destroyed in 1580… He then devotes himself to mechanics, and describes the functioning of a rudimentary steam engine, invents a water pump, and is fascinated by clocks and optics.
The destruction of the observatory of Istanbul marks the end of the Arab astronomical activity of the Middle Ages. It was not until the Copernican revolution that new progress was made, and what progress! Copernicus and his successors were certainly strongly inspired by the results of the Arabs through their works. Travel and direct contact between scientists of the time were rare. Since Westerners did not understand Arabic, Latin translations probably influenced the West, along with the works of some Greek philosophers who had questioned the central position of the Earth, as Aristarchus of Samos had proposed around 280 BC.
The modern observatory, in its conception, is a worthy successor of the Arab observatories of the late Middle Ages. Unlike the private observatories of the Greek philosophers, the Islamic observatory is a specialized astronomical institution, with its own premises, scientific staff, teamwork with observers and theoreticians, a director and study programs. They have recourse, as today, to increasingly large instruments, in order to constantly improve the accuracy of measurements.
The first of these observatories was built during the reign of Al-Ma’mûn in Bagdad in the 9th century. We have already mentioned the observatory of Ray, near Tehran and second city of the Abbasid Empire after Baghdad, with its monumental wall sextant dating from 994. To these must be added the observatories of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, Baghdad and Isfahan.
Finally, the one in Maragheh in the north of present-day Iran, built in 1259 with funds collected to maintain hospitals and mosques. Al-Tusi worked there. Then came the era of the observatory of Samarkand, built in 1420 by the astronomer Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), whose remains were found in 1908 by a Russian team.
Much more than the crusades, it will be the Mongol offensives that will devastate entire sections of the Arab-Muslim civilization. Genghis Khan (1155-1227), to the great pleasure of some Westerners, will destroy the Muslim kingdoms of Khwarezm (1218) and Sogdia with Bukhara and Samarkand (1220). The great city of Merv in 1221. In 1238, his son will seize Moscow, then Kiev. In 1240, Poland and Hungary will be invaded. In 1241, Vienna was threatened.
Before bringing down the Song Dynasty in China in 1273, the Mongols turned against the Abbassid.
Hence, the Houses of Wisdom came to a brutal end on February 12, 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad led by Hulagu (Genghis Khan’s grandson), who killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tassim (despite his surrender) and destroyed the city of Baghdad and its cultural heritage. Hulagu also ordered the massacre of the caliph’s entire family and entourage.
Mutazilism was banned and the magnificent collection of books and manuscripts in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was thrown into the muddy water of the Tigris, which turned brown for a few days because of the inked papers of the books and manuscripts.
One report says that the Mongols exterminated twenty-four thousand scholars and an incalculable number of books were lost. Of Mutazilism, its doctrine was only known through the texts of the traditionalist theologians who had attacked it. It was only the discovery of the voluminous works of Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad in the 19th century that made it possible to understand the key role played my this current of thought in the Arab renaissance and the formation of current Muslim theology, whether Sunni or Shiite.
Closer to home, the Iraq war of 2003: until then, Iraq was the world’s largest publisher of scientific publications in Arabic. As a result of the chaos caused by a war waged in the name of “democracy” and “the war on terror”, both the National Library and the National Archives were looted and burned. The same happened to the Central Library of Pious Legacies, the Library of the Iraqi University of Sciences, as well as many public libraries in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The same was true for the archaeological treasures of the Iraqi Museum and its library. It seems that some people have declared war on civilization.
- A theodicy or « righteousness of God ») is an explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil and two characteristics peculiar to God: his omnipotence and his goodness.
- Sumer. The natural environment of the Sumerian country was not really favorable to the development of a productive agriculture: poor soils with a high content of salts harmful to the growth of plants, very high average temperatures, insignificant rainfall, and flooding of rivers coming in the spring, at harvest time, and not in the fall when the seeds need them to germinate, as is the case in Egypt. It was therefore the ingenuity and relentless labor of Mesopotamian farmers that enabled this country to become one of the granaries of the ancient Middle East. From the 6th millennium BC, the peasant communities developed an irrigation system which gradually branched out to cover a large area, thereby taking advantage of the advantage offered to them by the extremely flat relief of the Mesopotamian delta, where there was no no natural obstacle to the extension of the irrigation canals over tens of kilometers. By regulating the level of water derived from natural watercourses to adapt it to the needs of crops, and by developing techniques aimed at limiting soil salinization (leaching of fields, practice of fallow), it was possible to obtain very high cereal yields.
- Khorassan is a region located in northeastern Iran. The name comes from the Persian and means « where does the sun come from ». It was given to the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Khorassan is also considered the medieval name of Afghanistan by Afghans. Indeed, this territory included present-day Afghanistan, as well as southern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
- In the 10th century, the Persian medical scholar Mohammad Al-Razi describes the distillation of petroleum to obtain kerosene or « illuminating petroleum » in his Book of Secrets.
- Sanskrit is a language of India, among the oldest known Indo-European languages (older even than Latin and Greek). It is notably the language of Hindu religious texts and, as such, it continues to be used as a cultural language, like Latin in centuries past in the West.
- Peshlevi or Middle Persian is an Iranian language that was spoken during the Sassanid era. She descends from Old Persian. Middle Persian was usually written using the Pahlevi script. The language was also written using the Manichean script by the Manichaeans of Persia.
- Abu Muhammad al – Qasim ibn ’Ali al – Hariri (1054–1122), Arab man of letters, poet and philologist, was born near Basra, in present-day Iraq. He is known for his Oaths and his maqâmât (literally fashions, often translated as assemblies or sessions), a collection of 50 short stories combining social and moral commentary with the brilliant expressions of the Arabic language. If the genre of maqâma was created by Badi’al – Zaman al – Hamadhani (969–1008), it is the sessions of al – Hariri that best define it. Written in a rhyming prose style called saj ’and interwoven with exquisite verse, the stories are meant to be entertaining and educational. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city in the Muslim world during the time of al – Hariri. They tell of an encounter, usually at a gathering of townspeople, between two fictional characters: the narrator al – Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. Over the centuries, the work has been copied and commented on many times, but only 13 copies still in existence today have illuminations illustrating scenes from the stories. The manuscript presented here, executed in 1237, was both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often considered the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of exceptional quality. No other known copy contains so much. The miniatures, recognized for their striking depiction of Muslim life in the 13th century, are considered to be the earliest Arab paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al – Wasiti, founder of the Baghdad School of Illumination, was also a remarkable calligrapher, as evidenced by his fine Naskhi style. The almost immediate popularity of the maqâmât reached Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (1165-c. 1225) translated the sessions into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel and subsequently composed his own Tahkemoni, or Hebrew sessions. . The work was also translated into many modern languages.
- The Barmecids or Barmakids are members of a Persian nobility family originally from Balkh in Bactria (north of Afghanistan). This family of Buddhist religious (paramaka means in Sanskrit the superior of a Buddhist monastery) who became Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam provided many viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. The Barmakids had acquired a remarkable reputation as patrons and are regarded as the main instigators of the brilliant culture which then developed in Baghdad.
- The Christological thesis of Nestorius (born c. 381 – died 451), Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), was declared a heretic and condemned by the Council of Ephesus. For Nestorius, two hypostases, one divine, the other human, coexist in Jesus Christ. From the Eastern Church, Nestorianism was one of the historically most influential forms of Christianity in the world throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to India, China and Mongolia.
- Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ) is alongside Latin and Greek the third component of ancient Christianity, rooted in Hellenism but also descended from Near Eastern and Semitic antiquity. From the first centuries, in a movement symmetrical to that of the Greco-Latin Christian tradition towards the west, Syriac Christianity developed towards the east, as far as India and China. Syriac is still today the liturgical and classical language (a bit like Latin in Europe) of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite Churches in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and South India. Where is. Finally, it is the branch of Christianity most in contact with Islam in which he continued to live.
- In South-West Asia, the Greek influence remained alive in several cities under Christian influence: Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey), at the time capital of the county of Edessa, one of the first Eastern Latin states, the closest to the Islamic world; Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey); Nisibe (now Nusaybin in Turkey); Al-Mada’in (ie “The Cities”), an Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, between the royal cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and Gondichapour (now in Iran) whose ruins remain. To this must be added the cities of Latakia (in Syria) and Amed (today Diyarbakir in Turkey) where there were Jacobite centers (Christians of the East, but members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Nestorians).
- The Gondishapour Academy was located in present-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, near the Karoun River. It offered the teaching of medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was well versed not only in Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but also taught Greek and Indian languages. The Academy included a library, an observatory, and the oldest known teaching hospital. According to historians, the Cambridge of Iran was the most important medical center in the Old World (defined as the territory of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries .
- Sogdian is a middle Iranian language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Sogdians, a trading people who resided in Sogdiana, the historic region encompassing Samarkand and Bukhara and covering more or less present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Before the arrival of Arabic, Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Sogdian traders settled in China and Sogdian monks were among the first to spread Buddhism there. As early as the 6th century, Chinese rulers appealed to the Sogdian elite to resolve diplomatic, commercial, military and even cultural issues, prompting many Sogdians to migrate from Central Asia and China’s border regions to major Chinese political centers.
- The Book of Ingenious Machines contains a hundred machines or objects, most of them due to the Banou Moussa brothers or adapted by them: funnel, crankshaft, conical ball valves, float valve and other hydraulic regulation systems, mask gas and ventilation bellows for mines; dredge, variable jet fountains, hurricane lamp, auto-off light, auto-powered; automatic musical instruments including a programmable flute.
- Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
- Ibn Al-Haytam. In 2007, during a conference at the Sorbonne, I explored the use, by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (early 15th century), of a bifocal geometric perspective, wrongly qualified as « primitive », erroneous and intuitive, actually inspired by the work and binocular experiences of the Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen). The latter drew on the work of his predecessors Al-Kindi, Ibn Luca and Ibn Sahl. Alhazen was widely known in the West thanks to the translations of the Franciscans of the University of Oxford (Grosseteste, Bacon, etc.). See summary biography.
- 310-230 BC.: Life of the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos;
- 190-120 BC.: life of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea;
- v. 100-160 : life of Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy;
- 700-748: life of Wasil ibn Ata, intellectual founder of Mutazilism;
- 750: beginning of the Abbasid dynasty;
- 751: Abbasid victory against the Chinese at the battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan);
- 763: founding of Baghdad by Caliph Al-Mansur;
- 780: Timothy I, patriarch of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad;
- 780-850: life of the Arab mathematician al-Kwarizmi;
- 786 to 809: caliphate for 23 years of Haroun al-Rachîd, legendary hero of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Development of mutazilism;
- 801-873: life of the mutazilist and Platonic philosopher Al-Kindi;
- 805-880: life of Al-Farghani, treatise on the Astrolabe;
- 813-833: caliphate of Al-Ma’mûn (20 years);
- 829: creation of the first permanent astronomical observatory in Baghdad followed by that of Damascus;
- 832: creation of the public library and creation of the Maisons de la Sagesse;
- 833: shortly before his death, Al-Ma’mûn decrees the created Koran and has mutazilism adopted as the official doctrine of the Abbasids;
- 836: transfer from the capital to Samarra;
- 848: the mutazilites removed from the Baghdad court;
- 858-930: life of Al-Battani, known as Albatenius;
- 865-925: life of translator and doctor Sahl Rabban al-Tabari;
- 869-883: revolt of the Zanj (black slaves from Zanzibar);
- 892: return from the capital of the Abbasids to Baghdad;
- 965-1039: life of Ibn Al-Haytam, known as Alhazen;
- 973-1048: life of Al-Biruni;
- 1095: first crusade;
- 1258: Baghdad sacked by the Mongols;
- 1259: creation of the Maragheh Astronomical Observatory (Iran);
- 1304-1375: life of Ibn Al-Shâtir;
- 1422: creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Samarkand, capital of Sogdiana;
- 1543: Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus publishes his De Revolutionibus;
- 1917: British troops enter Baghdad;
- 2003: looting and destruction by systematic arson of libraries and museums during the Iraq war.
- Mutazilism, website of the Association for the Renaissance of Mutazilite Islam (ARIM);
- Antoine Le Bail, Who are the mutazilites, sometimes called the « rationalists » of Islam ?, website of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris;
- Richard C. Martin, Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam, Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, Oneworld, Oxford, 1997;
- Rober R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI, Wilmington, 2011;
- Nadim Michel Kalife, The Lights of the First Centuries of Islam, on financialafrik.com, 2019;
- Mahmoud Azab, A Vision of the Universality of Arab-Islamic Civilization, Oberta de Catalunya University, www.uoc.edu;
- Sabine Schmidke, The People of Monotheism and Justice: Mutazilism in Islam and Judaism, Institute for Advanced Study, 2017;
- Malek Chebel, Slavery in the Land of Islam, Fayard, Paris 2012;
- Jacques Cheminade, Sublime words and idiocy by Nasr Eddin Hodja;
- Jacques Cheminade, Proposals for an inter-religious dialogue;
- Hussein Askary: Baghdad 767-1258 A.D., Melting Pot for a Universal Renaissance, Executive Intelligence Review, 2013;
- Hussein Askary: The Beauty of the Islamic Renaissance, the Elephant Clock, S&P website;
- Dr Subhi Al-Azzawi, The House of Wisdom of the Abbasids in Baghdad or the beginnings of the University, pdf on the internet;
- Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture. The movement of Greco-Arabic translation in Baghdad and primitive Abbasid society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries), Aubier, Paris 2005;
- Jim Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom, How Arab Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Pinguin, London 2010;
- Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom, How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, Bloomsbury, London 2009;
- Pastor Georges Tartar, Islamo-Christian Dialogue under Caliph Al-Ma’mûn, Les épitres d’Al-Hashimi and d’Al-Kindî, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1985;
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The breathtaking beauty of the XIIth century bronze heads of Ife (Nigeria) challenge the colonial view that Africa was a virgin continent, populated by animals and a few primitive tribes which failed walking their first steps into « history ».
Today inhabited by a half million people, the city of Ife in southwest Nigeria, was formerly the religious center and former capital of the Yoruba people whose prosperity was essentially the fruit of their trade with the peoples of West Africa along the 4200 km long Niger River and beyond.
What some call today “Yorubu-land”, inhabited by some 55 million people, covered some 142,000 km2 comprising vast parts of countries such as today’s Nigeria (76%), Benin (18.9%) and Togo (6.5%).
Today, the Yoruba people live in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and, since the slave trade, in the United States. It is not surprising, therefore, that yoruba, also the name of one of the three major languages of Nigeria, is also spoken in parts of Benin and Togo, as well as in the West Indies and Latin America, including Cuba and other settlements populated by descendants of African slaves.
An extraordinary discovery
It was in January 1938, during excavation work for the construction of a house, that workers discovered an unusual treasure in the Wunmonije district of Ife. At a mere hundred meters distance away of the site of what once was the Royal Palace, they unearthed thirteen magnificent bronze heads dating from the XIIth century representing a king (an « Ooni« ), some women and courtiers. Others have since been unearthed.
Their faces, except for the lips, are covered with grooves. The hairstyle suggests a complex crown composed of several layers of tubular balls, topped by a crest with a rosette and an « egret ». The surface of this crown bears traces of red and black paint.
These large heads may have been used as effigies of the deceased in funeral ceremonies, which, among the Yoruba, sometimes took place a year after the rapid burial of the dead imposed by the tropical climate.
At the time of the discovery, the extremely naturalist rendering of the heads is considered anachronistic in the art of sub-Saharan Africa, and even more disturbing than the very “classical” i.e. realistic “mummy portraits” (Ist-IInd century) discovered as early as 1887 in the Faiyum depression of Egypt.
Yet a long tradition of figurative sculpture with similar characteristics as the bronze heads of Ife existed before, particularly among the Nok, a people of farmers who mastered iron metallurgy starting from 800 BC.
Since 1938, the « heads of Ife » have provoked reactions close to hysteria in Europe and the West in general.
On the one hand, the « modernists » and the « abstract » artists of the early XXth century, for whom the more abstract a sculpture is and the more distant it is from reality, the more it was considered as typically African. For those who were inspired by African « abstract » art to free themselves from what they considered as materialistic naturalism, the heads of Ife brutally challenged their self-deceiving “smart” narrative.
On the other hand, especially for the supporters of colonial imperialism, this art simply could not be. Frank Willett, at one point the head of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities and author of Ife, an African civilization (Editions Tallandier, 1967), reported that « Europeans visiting Ife frequently wonder how people living in houses of dried mud, with straw roofs, could have made such beautiful objects as the bronzes and terracotta in the museum ». Trying to answer that question, the publisher Sir Mortimer Wheeler replied: “The prejudice is alive and well that artistic creation and sensitivity cannot exist without domestic talent and sanitary comfort!”
The questions of the Europeans were numerous. How, in the XIIth century, could primitive peoples, who had never known an organized form of state, have made bronze heads of such refinement, using techniques that even Europe failed to master at that juncture? How could it have been possible, for tribes, subjected to superstition and irrational magic, could have observed the human anatomy so meticulously? How could savages have expressed such noble feelings towards both men and women? Faced with such an unbearable paradox, total denial was their only answer.
Hence, when the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius presented the bronze heads, western experts refused to believe in the existence of an African civilization capable of leaving artifacts of a quality they recognized as comparable to the best artistic achievements of ancient Rome or Greece. In a desperate attempt to explain what passed for an anomaly, Frobenius, without the slightest semblance of proof, came up with the theory that these heads had been cast by a Greek colony founded in the XIIIth century BC, and that the latter could be at the origin of the old legend of the lost civilization of Atlantis, a narrative immediately adopted in chorus by the mass media…
What first shocked Western experts was that these were not carved wood but sophisticated bronze heads (about 70 % copper, 16.5 % zinc and 11.3 % lead).
Given the extreme scarcity of copper ore in Nigeria, these objects demonstrate that the region had trade relations with distant countries. The ore is believed to have come from Central Europe, northwest Mauritania, the Byzantine Empire or, via the Niger River, from Timbuktu where the ore arrived by camel from southern Morocco.
If during the Neolithic period, copper, gold and silver nuggets were hammered cold or hot, it is only starting from the Bronze Age that man develops the science of real metallurgy. From ores, he was then able to extract metals thanks to a precise heat treatment, made possible by the experience of the ceramists of the time, great experts in the construction of high temperature ovens.
Copper only melts at 1083° Celsius, but by adding tin (which melts at 232°) and lead (which melts at 327°), it is possible to obtain bronze at 890° and brass at 900°. The terracotta is made at low temperature, around 600 to 800°. It should be underlined that in China, since the Shang Dynasty (1570-1045 BC), certain types of porcelain obtained much higher temperatures, between 1000 and 1300° Celsius, obtained thanks to the use of charcoal.
The oldest traces of ceramics in sub-Saharan Africa are thought to date back to more than 9000 BC, and perhaps earlier. Bu some fragmentary shards have been discovered in West Africa, in this case in Mali, and considered dating from 12000 BC. Ceramics also were produced further south, notably by the Nok culture in northern Nigeria at the beginning of the first millennium BC.
What also shocked the experts was that the technique used to make them was the quite sophisticated so-called « lost-wax casting » or “cire perdue” technique, a high precision molding process that is still used today to make church bells.
First, a model was made out of wax. This was covered with fine clay to form a mold, which was then heated so that the wax melted and ran away. Molten metal was poured into the clay mold which would be broken open to release the complete object.
Clearly, the foundries producing these artifacts required a highly skilled and well organized professional labor force.
The exceptional know-how and skills of the bronze founders of Ife was preceded by those of Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria where in 1939 a tomb filled with artifacts dating from the IXth century was discovered, revealing the existence of a powerful and refined kingdom mastering the famous lost-wax casting technique, but which so far could not be linked to any other culture in the region.
The oldest known example of the lost-wax technique comes from a 6,000-year-old wheel-shaped copper amulet found at Mehrgarh in today’s Pakistan. Although China, Greece and Rome mastered this technique, it was not until the Renaissance that it made its return to Europe.
Ife, an organized state
In reality, the art of Ife challenged the colonial theory that Africa was a virgin land, populated by animals and a few primitive tribes who had never taken their first steps in « history ».
Indeed, any evidence showing the existence of empires, kingdoms or great states on the African continent that allowed Africans to govern themselves peacefully for centuries could only de-legitimize the « civilizing mission » of colonialism.
However, according to oral traditions, Ife was founded in the 9th-10th centuries by Oduduwa, through the fusion of 13 villages into a single city becoming the hearth of Yoruba mythology, who considers Ife as the cradle of humanity and the center of the world.
Recognized as a minor god, Oduduwa became the first Ooni (King) and had an Aafin (palace) built. He ruled with the help of the isoro, former village chiefs who had recovered a religious title and were subject to royal political authority.
According to the same oral traditions, Oduduwa is said to have been an exiled Prince of a foreign people, who left his homeland and traveled south with his suite, settling among the Yoruba around the XIIth century. His religious faith, that he brought with him, was so important to him and his followers that it would have been the cause of their exodus in the first place.
Oduduwa’s land or country of origin remains a matter of debate. For some, he comes from Mecca, for others from Egypt, as the technical skills he brought with him are supposed to demonstrate.
So far, most historians have looked to influences arriving by sea and waterways. However, it is a very plausible hypothesis that travel routs through the savanna, could have connected the Niger Delta with the Nile, like a sort of great transcontinental land-bridge, passing notably via Chad, a region where thousands of early cave paintings testify the vivacity of pictorial creativity.
As our good friend Kotto Essomé repeatedly underlined, African states often prospered along the climatic zones, following “horizontally” the longitudes. Colonial borders were deliberately drawn (laterally or “vertically”) to break the natural boundaries of pre-colonial African states.
Now, as this map clearly indicates, a horizontal “ribbon” of habitable urban areas, on the borderline between the herbaceous and wooded savanna, stretches over the entire continent from the Atlantic till the Southern Nile. Unsurprisingly, this particular climatic and geographical area might have been optimally suited for both hunting, agriculture and cattle raising.
From their part, the Edo people of Benin City believed that Oduduwa was in fact a prince of their extraction, who would have fled Benin during a fight over royal succession. This is why one of his descendants, Prince Oramiyan, would have been allowed to return and found the dynasty ruling the Kingdom of Benin. Prince Oramiyan was thus the first oba of Benin, successfully replacing the Ogiso monarchical system that had reigned until then.
What deserves attention here is the fact that metallurgy occupies a central place in Ife. Oduduwa had a forge in his Royal palace (Ogun Laadin). Kings from different kingdoms installed their forges within the royal palace, showing the strong symbolic relationship between power and metallurgy.
Contrary to what happened on other continents, the Iron Age in Africa would have preceded the Copper Age in some regions. The oldest indications documenting the transformation of iron ore in Africa date back to the third millennium BC. They are the archaeological sites of Egaro in eastern Niger and Giza and Abydos in Egypt. While the site of Buhen in Egyptian Nubia (- 1991), after working iron, became a « copper factory », the sites of Oliga in Cameroon (-1300) and Nok in Nigeria (-925) testify clearly of a dynamic metallurgical activity.
As we have seen, bronze casting techniques demonstrate the existence of a very advanced technological know-how. Ife will also be a major center for glass production, especially glass beads. The waste material of this ancestral production, made up of parts of crucibles covered with molten glass, will be looked for in the XIXth century by the inhabitants of the region, although the origin of the glass beads was neglected.
Recent archaeological excavations have shown that the settlements of this area are very ancient. But as we have seen, it was only at the beginning of the 2nd millennium that developments in the field of metallurgy would have made it possible to improve agricultural tools and generate surplus food. Yam, cassava, maize and cotton are cultivated here, the latter giving birth to an important cloth weaving industry.
Hence, the city of Ife experienced a rapid demographic expansion thanks to this rise in agricultural productivity, itself the fruit of the mastery of an increased energy density allowing the transformation of « stones » (ores) into useful resources.
The medieval urbanization of Ife is today widely attested by the existence of numerous enclosures made of ditches and embankments, which seem to indicate the various spaces that have experienced a demographic concentration and the existence of a political body powerful enough to implement such great infrastructure programs.
Interesting, as a successful centralized state, Ife became increasingly a model for other states in the region and beyond. Several descendants and captains of Oduduwa founded their own kingdoms based on the same model and relying on the same legitimacy. The monarchical experience of Ife is exported with its cultural framework. The adé ilèkè, a crown of glass beads symbolizing royal power, is found in most monarchies in the region.
In total, depending on the sources, an estimated 7 to 20 kingdoms make up the Yoruba world in the first half of the second millennium AD.
- Oyo State in Nigeria was one of such powerful Yoruba city-states.
- Another example, the Kingdom of Ketou, currently in the southeast of Benin, is supposed to have been founded around the XIVth century by an alleged descendant of Oduduwa. He is said to have left Ife with his family and other members of his clan and moved westward, eventually settling in the city of Aro, northeast of the city of Ketou. Aro quickly became too small for the growing population, and the decision was made to settle in Ketou. King Ede therefore left Aro with 120 families and settled in this city.
- Another demonstration of Yoruba building science is the Sungbo Eredo Wall, near the Nigerian capital Lagos, a system of walls and ditches built in the XIVth century and located southwest of the town of Ijebu Ode, in Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. More than 160 km (100 miles) long, these fortifications, some as high as 20 meters (65 feet), consist of a smooth-walled ditch that forms an inner moat in relation to the walls that overhang it. The ditch forms an irregular ring (Map) around the lands of the ancient kingdom of Ijebu. This ring is about 40 km in the north-south direction and 35 km in the east-west direction, which is the equivalent of the Paris périphérique ! Invaded by vegetation, the construction today looks like a green tunnel.
From Ife to the Kingdom of Benin
In the XIVth century, Ife experienced a demographic collapse, characterized by the abandonment of certain enclosures and a strong advance of the forest into formerly residential areas. There was also a break in the transmission of know-how and artisan techniques.
This demographic collapse has been explained as the result of a Black Plague, according to some authors, who draw a parallel with the pandemic waves hitting Europe at the same period.
Part of the inhabitants of Ife were able to take refuge and bring their know-how in metallurgy to the Kingdom of Benin, which lasted for seven hundred years, from the XIIth century until its invasion by the British Empire at the end of the XIXth century. Benin was a coastal West African city-state dominated by the Edos, an ethnic group whose dynasty still survives today.
Its territory covers to present-day Benin, plus part of Togo and southwestern Nigeria, where today « Benin City », a historic port on the Benin River, is located. In the heart of the city, the royal residence with monumental proportions translated visually the importance given to political, spiritual and traditional power.
Benin City, a marvel
The social organization of the city impressed European visitors at the end of the XVth century. As a major regional economic trading pole, Benin was full of ivory, pepper and slaves. Benin offered the Europeans palm oil (the oil palm growing abundantly in the region). In exchange, they requested, and obtained guns, allowing the modernization of the Beninese armament.
Located in a plain, Benin City is surrounded by massive walls to the south and deep ditches to the north. Beyond the city walls, many other walls have been erected that organize the entire region of the capital into some 500 separate boroughs.
In 2016, an article published by The Guardian recounted the lost splendor of the city. The paper reported:
“The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.
Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.
Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fueled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.
When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle.
In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed:
“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”
In contrast, London at the same time is described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket”.
Benin City’s planning and design was done according to careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition now known as fractal design. The mathematician Ron Eglash, author of African Fractals – which examines the patterns underpinning architecture, art and design in many parts of Africa – notes that the city and its surrounding villages were purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with similar shapes repeated in the rooms of each house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village in mathematically predictable patterns.
As he puts it:
“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”
At the center of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.
“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the XVIIth-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”
Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper stores are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.
Family houses were divided into three sections: the central part was the husband’s quarters, looking towards the road; to the left the wives’ quarters (oderie), and to the right the young men’s quarters (yekogbe).
Daily street life in Benin City might have consisted of large crowds going though even larger streets, with people colorfully dressed – some in white, others in yellow, blue or green – and the city captains acting as judges to resolve lawsuits, moderating debates in the numerous galleries, and arbitrating petty conflicts in the markets.
The early foreign explorers’ descriptions of Benin City portrayed it as a place free of crime and hunger, with large streets and houses kept clean; a city filled with courteous, honest people, and run by a centralized and highly sophisticated bureaucracy.
The city was split into 11 divisions, each a smaller replication of the king’s court, comprising a sprawling series of compounds containing accommodation, workshops and public buildings – interconnected by innumerable doors and passageways, all richly decorated with the art that made Benin famous. The city was literally covered in it.
The exterior walls of the courts and compounds were decorated with horizontal ridge designs (agben) and clay carvings portraying animals, warriors and other symbols of power – the carvings would create contrasting patterns in the strong sunlight. Natural objects (pebbles or pieces of mica) were also pressed into the wet clay, while in the palaces, pillars were covered with bronze plaques illustrating the victories and deeds of former kings and nobles.
At the height of its greatness in the XIIth century – well before the start of the European Renaissance – the kings and nobles of Benin City patronized craftsmen and lavished them with gifts and wealth, in return for their depiction of the kings’ and dignitaries’ great exploits in intricate bronze sculptures.
“These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique,” wrote Professor Felix von Luschan, formerly of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. Italian Renaissance artist “Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement.”
The fatal encounter with « civilization »
Following the Berlin Conference of 1885, where the British, Portuguese, Belgian, German, French, Italian and other European colonial powers shared Africa like a big chocolate cake that they intended to devour, in the name of the immutable laws of the freshly invented science of “geopolitics”, European invasions multiplied and gained in brutality.
Thus, following the king of Benin’s refusal to cede to the British the national monopoly on the production of palm oil and other products, Benin City was looted, burned and reduced to ashes during a British punitive expedition in 1897. The king (the oba) is arrested and forced into exile and thousands of beautiful « bronzes of Benin », though less realistic than those of Ife, are stolen, sold and partly lost.
They end up on the art market and in museums, including the British Museum (700 objects) and the Berlin Museum of Ethnology (500 pieces). The British government itself sells some of them « to cover the cost of the expedition« .
So, while some clearly entered history with their beautiful art, others exited civilization with their barbarian crimes.
- Ifè, une civilisation africaine, Frank Willett, Jardin des Arts/Tallandier, Paris 1971;
- General History of Africa, Présence africaines/Edicef/Unesco, Paris 1987;
- Atlas historique de l’Afrique, Editions du Jaguar, Paris 1988;
- L’Afrique ancienne, de l’Acus au Zimbabwe, under the direction of François-Xavier Fauvelle, Belin/Humensis, Paris 2018.
La légende des corbeaux de la Tour de Londres
La présence des corbeaux est liée à une croyance selon laquelle tant que les corbeaux restent près de la Tour, l’Angleterre sera protégée de toute invasion.
Charles II, alors roi d’Angleterre au XVIIe siècle, décréta qu’au moins 6 corbeaux devaient être gardés à la Tour à tout moment, afin d’éviter les catastrophes. Une mauvaise idée selon son astrologue John Flamsteed. Incommodé par les corbeaux dans ses travaux d’observation du ciel, il se plaint au roi, qui décida de les abattre. Mais, le roi s’avisa lorsqu’on lui déclara que sans ces oiseaux dans la Tour, la Tour de Londres s’effondrerait avec son royaume. C’est alors qu’il décréta que les corbeaux devaient être protégés. Tradition qui perdure encore de nos jours.
Afin d’éviter que les corbeaux ne s’échappent de la Tour de Londres, leurs ailes ont été taillées, ce qui rend impossible toute fuite. On peut les apercevoir, en plein air, près de la tour Wakefield, car leurs appartements se trouvent à proximité. Vous rencontrerez, probablement aussi, le Ravenmaster, c’est à dire le maître des corbeaux, chargé de prendre soin de ses petits protégés, en les soignant et nourrissant.
Un rôle très sérieux puisque, une autre croyance veut que si les deux corbeaux de la Tour de Londres venaient à disparaître, cela annoncerait la fin de l’actuelle famille royale et la ruine de la Grande-Bretagne. C’est pourquoi, lorsque l’un d’eux meurt, on le remplace aussitôt.