The Connectivity and Cross Fertilization of Civilizations
by Sadek Jawad Sulaiman
Presentation made at:
March 20, 2007
In recent years, the thesis has been advanced, most notably by Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington since his seminal 1993 article in the Foreign Affairs magazine, that globally the nature of conflict in the post-cold war era would change from conflict between nation-states to conflict between civilizations. In other words, civilizations, whether comprising unitary or multiple nation-states, rather than nation-states per se, would be the belligerents in future global conflicts. Since then, many people have been led to read current political tensions between the West and the Arab/Islamic world as a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations.
a contrary context to this notion of the “Clash of Civilizations”, I would
submit that historically it has not been observed to be in the nature of
civilizations to clash. Historically, civilizations are known to have taken
note of, and thereby benefited from, the achievements of one another. In every
civilization we find distinct traces of knowledge and innovations received from
other civilizations. For example, in Europe’s progress leading up to the
Enlightenment, we see foundational knowledge received from the Islamic
Civilization which in turn had received knowledge from several other
civilizations, notably the Greek, Indian, and Persian ones, before developing
then offering its own intellectual product to
On the other hand, historically again, clashes have occurred between empires, between nation-states, between religions, and, beyond that, even more frequently, within each of these entities, along ideological, political, economic, ethnical, and sectarian fault lines. As a rule, clashes have occurred whenever morality sank and greed surged, or a plunge was rashly taken into unbridled adventurism, false national pride, or fanatic self-righteousness. Antagonists then banished reason, defied wisdom, fed on raw emotion, and took to violence. By that, they not only grievously hurt themselves, but also caused much collateral harm to humankind.
That being my persuasion, this presentation is not premised on the clash of civilizations, but rather the opposite: the positive effect of the connectivity and cross fertilization of civilizations. More particularly, it is about the historical leap in the progress of human knowledge that was catalyzed by Islam coming in contact with the civilizations of or preceding its time, as a result of which the proverbial Golden Age of Islam unfolded, paving the way eventually for the rise of the West from a prolonged stagnation to its present prominence.
that age, Muslims went all out seeking knowledge worldwide, gathered it,
absorbed it, enhanced it, pioneered new studies, and eventually presented the
fruits of their enterprise to the rest of the world. That enterprise, carried
on for five centuries, enhanced Islam, making it, beyond being a religion, a
civilization as well. From
literary and scientific knowledge, a good number of remarkable innovations went
around as well. After adopting from
The equity and scope of the scholarship that launched the Islamic Civilization come across vividly in reviews by several historians. Among them, let me cite two American authorities, Will Durant and George Sarton.
Will Durant, in the chapter on Islamic Civilization in his thirteen-volume The Story of Civilization notes that Mohammad Ibn Nadim, a noted chronicler of knowledge in his time, produced in 987 his Index of the sciences, a bibliography of all books in Arabic, original or translated, on any branch of knowledge, with a bibliographical mention of each author. Historian Durant then observes: “We may estimate the wealth of the Muslim literature in Ibn Nadim’s time (10th century) by noting that not one in a thousand of the volumes that he named is known to exist today”. In another notation, Durant predicts: “When scholarship has surveyed more thoroughly this half-forgotten legacy, we shall probably rank the tenth century in Eastern Islam as one of the golden ages in the history of the mind.”
George Sarton, Harvard historian of science, in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science, writes: “From the second half of the eighth to the end of the eleventh century, Arabic was the scientific, the progressive language of humankind. When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need for deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all, not to the Greek sources, but to the Arab ones.”
What happened to that rich and vast scholarship, you might ask?
as it so often has happened on the dark side of the human experience,
aggressive warfare destroyed the bulk of it, killed thousands of accomplished
and promising scholars, and virtually laid to waste a wealth of recorded
knowledge unprecedented until then. Jenghiz Khan and
his sons, on a wanton campaign for conquest, led their unruly Mongol armies
into the Muslim realm, wrecking everything along their march. A hundred teaming
and cultured cities in Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Caucasus, each with
great literary treasure, but ill-prepared to defend against external attack,
fell victims to the Mongol rampage. Finally, on February 13, 1258, Jenghiz Khan’s grandson Hulaku
and his troops entered
dynamic civilization that for centuries was the only bright light in an
otherwise culturally and intellectually stagnant world was thus brutally
maimed. A literary and scientific enterprise that was climbing to its zenith
Who were those ardent seekers of knowledge in the Golden Age of Islam that ushered in the Islamic Civilization, and what motivated them?
They were individuals of various ethnic backgrounds, come together under the universalism and rationalism of Islam. They sought all knowledge, not just religious knowledge. They were all members of an intelligentsia which was cosmopolitan in race, native tongue, and even religion. But they were all bound by a common view of the world and a common cultural language, Arabic, in which they held learned discourse and authored their books. Notwithstanding the environment in which they lived and labored, which was despotic and often turbulent, the intellectual and moral thrust of Islam and the richness of the Arabic language moved their souls and energized their pursuit of knowledge far beyond the social and political mores of their time.
To them, learning in itself was an act of religious significance. The Prophet Mohammad had urged the seeking of knowledge wherever it was to be found, declaring that endeavor a duty of every Muslim, male and female. And the Qur’an challenged pointedly and forthrightly: Say, Are those equal: those who know and those who do not know; And Say, Are the blind equal with those who see, or the depth of darkness with light? And it declared: Those who are blind in this world will be blind in the Hereafter, and most stray from the path. The Greeks had said knowledge was virtue; Muslim scholars now saw knowledge as light.
To shine that light, our scholars were prompted to observe the natural order, study the human condition, and examine the record of nations gone before them: that they might thereby enhance their awareness of their world, grow in wisdom and virtue, and improve their lives. Unverified knowledge was not sufficient as a basis for judgment or action, unfounded speculation could, indeed, in the Qur’anic phrase, be sinful. And in the Qur’an they read a glorification of knowledge the like of which no book, earthly or celestial, had expounded before.
very first communication of the Qur’an was an enjoinment to read (Iqra’), and reading, indeed, was what they took to with
remarkable relish. On the one hand, they developed the Arabic language,
collected the Prophet’s Hadith (sayings) and wrote Qur’anic
exegesis; on the other, they gathered and studied all they could the knowledge
that humanity had achieved before them. They collected works in virtually every
field of learning, and translated these into Arabic, making Arabic an efficient
and universal means of scientific and literary communication. They improved on
the knowledge they received, and then pioneered important studies in science and
humanities. They revered learning and the learned, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
By the third century of Higra, the 9th century A.D.,
universities and research laboratories flourished across the Muslim world, in Asia,
The learned of that Golden Age of Islam were citizens of the entire Muslim world, which, comprised most of the civilized world. Our scholars were mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicians, geographers, physicists, philosophers, historians, grammarians, poets, jurists -- the likes of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Khwarizmi, Farghani, Kindi, Mutanabbi, Ibn Younus, Battani, Razi, Farabi, Ibn Haitham, Ibn Sina, Bayruni, Ibn Rusd, Masoudi, Sibawaih, Farahidi, Khayyam, and thousands others of various disciplines who rightly saw in Islam a liberating influence on the intellect and its God-given propensity ever to explore and seek to understand.
How was this intellectual renaissance achieved?
Education began at home, with emphasis on character, and, as today, at age six children started elementary school. The mosque became the primary center for all stages of learning, bonding knowledge, ethics, and religious instruction all along. In the mosque, inter-spacing the five daily prayers, teachers sat apart against pillars and walls and taught various subjects at various levels, with students sitting around listening and taking notes. Women could attend, and some women taught classes as well, which men could attend (Ibn Khallikan – 1218-82). Teachers demanded earnest study and proper conduct in class, and rejected any intrusion of the influence of wealth or social status. Over time most mosques acquired libraries, and at the peak of this cultural renaissance, in thousands of mosques across the Muslim realm tens of thousands of scholars taught various branches of knowledge, studiously and virtually without fee.
early in the 9th Century, the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) was established in
969 the Al-Azhar (the most illumined) University was
Muslim astronomers studied the findings of Ptolemy, but unlike him, and long before Copernicus, they understood the sphericity of the earth, and estimated its circumference to approximate 20,000 miles, by an error approximating 5,000 miles. More specifically, Bayruni took the earth to be round, turning daily on its axis and annually around the sun, An astronomical text developed at this time by Farghani remained in authority in Europe until the sixteenth century, and may well have been consulted by Copernicus. And long before Darwin, two Muslim scholars, pre-eminent literary prose writer Al-Jahiz in mid-9th century, and historian/geographer/philosopher Mas’udi in mid-10th century, conceptualized evolution: life might have climbed from mineral to plant, plant to animal, animal to human. To which 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, favoring the theory, merely added that if this had been achieved in the past, then in the next stage humans will become angels, and finally God. To Rumi’s Sufist mind, evolution and pantheism were not entirely inconsistent.
geography, two scholars stood out: Idrisi and Yaqut. Idrisi, (born 1000), at
the behest of King Roger II of
the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as Muslim influence spread in
By the time of the European Renaissance a great deal of the Islamic Civilization’s knowledge was in European hands. It became the mainstay of European science, and not until Enlightenment in the 17th century was it significantly surpassed.
delve further in what was achieved in that Golden Age of Islam would not be
feasible in the limited time we have for this session; besides, we could
perhaps use the remaining time as gainfully in interactive discussion. With
that in mind, I have brought with me this small publication that was put
together by the
up, let me cite one more passage from Durant’s Story of Civilization, on which,
as you might have noted, I have drawn extensively in preparing this
presentation, and to do so in furtherance of the viewpoint I offered at the
outset: that, unlike empires, religions, nation-states, ethnical groups and
sects, civilizations are known to have taken note of and benefited from one
another rather than clashed. Noting this
essential connectivity of civilizations, Durant writes: "The continuity of
science and philosophy from
The skein of history, I might add, represents the sum total of humankind’s intellectual and moral experience as shaped and formed in the civilizations lived. As such, from a civilizational perspective, all human experience is a continuum: there is one underlying human condition producing the entire range and diversity of the human thought. Whether expressed in religious or philosophical terms, human thought is ultimately related to human experience, which, in essence, is homogeneous. In the positive mode of our thinking we peaceably coexist and positively cooperate. In the negative mode of our thinking, we recklessly fight and hurt one another. Civilizations act out of an inclusive mode of thinking: coming in contact, each looks for the best in the other to learn and emulate. Particularism, on the other hand, whether expressed through nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or sectarianism, acts out of an exclusive mode of thinking. Excessively expressed, it gives rise to clash.
As a man thinks, so he is, the Bible reminds us. The Quran likewise reminds: Everyone acts according to how one is (internally) formed. That, I submit, is as true of nations as of individuals. Let us then, individuals and nations, think ever more positively in order to enhance and elevate our life experience. And let us relate as civilizations, enriching one another until ultimately all of us sharing this beautiful and bountiful planet converge as one enlightened global civilization, surpassing anything realized until now. Not only our lives will thus be immeasurably augmented, but also our world will be transformed to a happier common home.
Sadek Jawad Sulaiman is the Chairman on the Advisory Board of Al-Hewar Center
* Sadek Jawad Sulaiman is the Chairman on the Advisory Board of Al-Hewar Center.
Webmaster’s note:The above lecture provides an excellent summary of Muslim contributions to the world’s civilizations. As long as Muslims continue to focus their energies on the minutiae regarding sectarian supremacy, gender segregation, medieval versus modern dress codes, and an untold number of other frivolities, they can expect to be stuck in a malaise for the foreseeable future.
March 24, 2007
Posted March 24, 2007