SUMMER SNIPPETS: ‘When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World’
More interesting snippets I highlighted during my summer reading, this time from Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty.
“Historians of the period have preserved the text of a long [and influential] letter said to have been written by Tahir [ibn Husayn, the Abbasid caliph's governor of northeastern Persia in 821, and former power-broker in the caliph’s court], giving advice to his son about how to be a good ruler… The ruler is shown to be a benevolent despot. His authority is absolute and he is responsible, not to his subjects, but to God. There is no sense of popular limitations to his power, and no mention of any sanctions his subjects can make use of should he abuse it. The ruler should behave in a benign and conscientious way because he is responsible to God and will be held to account by Him if he fails. He should also look after the welfare of his subjects because it makes sense to do so: prosperous subjects pay more taxes and cause fewer problems. To an extent the advice is worldly and eve cynical—being a just ruler makes you richer and more powerful—but it is also about the virtuous circle, an idea Muslim political theorists were to return to time and time again: a strong but gently tyranny brings benefits to ruler and subjects alike…
“The emphasis on moderation in all things is also striking. It is possible that this idea comes directly from Greek philosophy, even perhaps from [Tahir’s own] reading of philosophy…
“There are noticeable omissions in the document. Apart from a brief mention of the use of taxation to humiliate unbelievers, nothing in Tahir’s work would give any indication that a large proportion, probably the majority, of the people over whom he ruled were Christians. He is only concerned with how a Muslim ruler should relate to his Muslim subjects. There is no mention of the need to convert non-Muslims to Islam. There is also no mention of the Jihad or holy war: the Muslim community is imagined as being at peace with itself and its neighbours.”
“Along with the measures [designed to appeal to a constituency of Islamist hard-liners, new Caliph Mutawwakil (847AD) brought] measures against the dhimmis (protected people), the Christians and Jews. These did not amount to active persecution or forced conversion to Islam but rather public shaming. In 850, the caliph issued a decree that aimed to enforce discrimination in dress in a way that is unpleasantly reminiscent of the anti-Jewish legislation of Nazi Germany. All dhimmis were required to wear yellow on their clothes… He also ordered that all renovated places of worship be confiscated, turned into mosques if big enough or demolished if not. Christians and Jews had certainly suffered discrimination before in an irregular and patchy way—Christians in areas along the Byzantine frontier had been threatened because the Muslim authorities were afraid they mighty ally with the Byzantines—but Mutawwakil’s decrees were the first time a caliph had adopted these measures against dhimmis wherever they were and whatever their jobs were.”
“The original Abbasid regime that came to power in 750…set about patronising and developing a court culture that would establish their identity as the elite, the khassa. This culture would demonstrate their refinement and sophistication: shared cultural values would provide cohesion for the new ruling class. The leading figures in the civil administration of the caliphate at this period … also appear as the most important patrons of literature and learning: court and culture were intimately bound together…
“The caliphs themselves were the most important patrons. The tone was set by Mahmun, and it is clear that patronage of science of the [movement to translate Greek science and philosophy] was his own very distinctive personal contribution to the culture of the period… His successor Muhtasim was known as a military man and creator of the city of Samarra, but he does seem to have continued something of his brother’s patronage of writers and scientists. His son and successor Wathiq was more interested in intellectual debate. Mahsudi speaks of him as loving research and those who undertook it, and hating those who blindly followed tradition…
“The caliph Mutawwakil did not encourage scientific enquiry in the same way… [and] none of the short-lived caliphs who succeeded after Mutawwakil’s assassination in 861AD had much time to develop intellectual interests… It was not until the accession of Muhtadid in 892 that the Abbasid court again became a focus of scholarship…
“Without institutions [or monasteries] to offer salaries and status, scholars were largely dependent on patrons to provide them with a livelihood, and it was in the salons of the great Baghdad families that intellectual life developed…
“One of the most astonishing and impressive products of this court society was the movement to translate ancient Greek scientific and philosophical texts into Arabic Interest in the Greek intellectual heritage and patronage of the translators became one of the most fashionable forms of elite cultural activity, perhaps all the more satisfying because of the suspicions it aroused in the more hidebound traditionalists. It was also one aspect of the culture of the Abbasid court that was to have a profound influence on the culture of the wider Islamic Europe and Latin Europe, long after the end of Abbasid power. [You ain’t kidding it had a profound influence! This is a major part of the Greatest Story Hardly Ever Told].
“Immediately after the great conquests of the seventh century, the Muslims had ruled over many Greek speakers and writers. Until the end of the seventh century, Greek had remained the administrative language of Syria and Egypt, so Greek culture was well known. There were also many Greek works that had been translated into Syriac (a written dialect of Aramaic which was the liturgical and literary language of the Eastern Christian, that is Jacobite and Nestorian churches) during the Byzantine period. Many of these works were now translated a second time from Syriac to Arabic. The Muslims were interested in those products of Greek learning which they believed to be useful. These included works on philosophy, especially logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and the use of plants. They were not concerned to translate poetry, history or drama. Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy and Dioscorides were all popular authors, translated and retranslated to make them accessible to the Arab reading public. Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho all remained entirely unknown.
“Translation of Greek texts into Arabic had begin as early as Umayyad times, and there had been sporadic examples under treh early Abbasids; Salam al-Abrash … was an early but individual example. It was the caliph Mahmun who made the translation movement fashionable in ruling circles.”
“The production of translations that were both reliable and elegant required considerable expertise, and men who proved they could deliver were well rewarded. The Banū Mūsā [brothers originally from Eastern Iran, “merchants” for whom the patronage of culture may have been a sort of money-laundering operation—shades of the Medici family’s patronage perhaps?], leading and discerning patrons of translations of scientific texts, were prepared to pay 500 dinars salary a month to top-quality workers (though it is not clear whether this was to each individual or to the group of translators who lived in their houses). This was equivalent to the salaries of senior members of the bureaucracy, and vastly more than those of an ordinary craftsman or soldier. [500 dinars represents about fifty ounces of gold!] As a result, clever and ambitious people flocked to Baghdad to offer their services… A biographer gives us an idea of the lifestyle of gentleman academic [Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873) a Christian from southern Iraq who worked as a translator for the Buna Musa]:
“He went to the bath every day after his ride and had water poured on him. He would then come out
wrapped in a dressing gown and, after taking a cup of wine with a biscuit, lie down until he had
stopped perspiring. Sometimes he would fall asleep. Then he would get up, burn perfumes to fumigate his
body and have dinner brought in. This consisted of a large fattened pullet stewed in gravy with a half kilo
loaf of bread. After drinking some of the gravy and eating the chicken and the bread he would fall
asleep. On waking he would drink 4 ratls [perhaps 2 litres] of old wine. If he felt like fresh fruit, he would
have some Syrian apples and quinces. This was his habit until the end of his life.”
“When he managed to find time for work amidst this agreeable regime is not entirely clear, but he obviously did for his output was enormous and his academic standards very high…”
“The ninth century was the great age of the study of sciences, with Thabit ibn Qurrra (d. 901) in mathematics and Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873) in medicine being the leading lights. The clearest example of their intellectual curiosity and practical application can be seen in their project to measure the circumference of the earth. This is described in some detail by Ibn Khallikan [d.1282]. It is perhaps worth recounting this in detail because the account seems to encapsulate the spirit of scientific enquiry typical of the age and, especially, of the circle of the Banū Mūsā.
‘Although astronomers in ancient times, before the coming of Islam, had done this, there is no evidence
that any Muslim apart from them had tried it. The caliph Mahmun took a deep interest in the sciences of
the ancients and was keen to test their accuracy. Having read in their works that the circumference of the
globe is around twenty-four thousand miles or eight-thousand farsakhs [in fact, the equatorial circumference
of the earth is 24,902 miles] … He wished to test the truth of this assertion and asked the Banū Mūsā what
they thought. They replied that this was certainly the case and the caliph then said, “I wish you to use
the methods described by the ancients so that we can see whether it is accurate or not.” They enquired
where a level plain could be found and were told that the desert of Sinjar [in north-western Iraq] was
completely flat, as was the country around Kufa. They took with them a number of people whose
opinion Ma’mun trusted and whose knowledge in this area he relied on. They set out for Sinjar and came
to the desert. They halted at a spot where they took the altitude of the Pole Star with certain instruments.
They drove a peg into the ground and attached a long cord to it. They walked due north, avoiding, as much
as possible, going off to left or right. When the cord ran out, they stuck another peg into the ground and
fastened a cord to it and carried on walking to the north as they had done before until they reached a spot
where the elevation of the pole star had risen by one degree. Then they measured the distance they had
travelled on the ground by means of the the rope. The distance was 66 2/3 miles. Then they knew that
every degree of the heavens was 66 2/3 miles on earth. Then they returned to the place where they had
stuck in the first peg, continued to teh south, just as they had previously to the north, sticking in pegs and
fastening ropes. When they had finished all the rope they had used when going north, they took the elevation
of the Pole Star and found it was one degree lower than the first observation. This proved that their
calculations were correct and that they had achieved what they had set out to do.
‘ ‘Anyone who knows astronomy will see that this is true… They then multiplied the number of degrees of
the heavens [i.e., 360] by 66 2/3, that is, the length of one degree, and the total was twenty-four thousand
miles or eight-thousand farsakhs. This is certain and there is no doubt about it.
‘Then the Banū Mūsā returned to al-Ma’mun and told him what they had done and that this agreed with
what he had seen in ancient books. He wished to confirm this in another location so he sent them to the
Kufa area where they repeated the experiment they had conducted in Sinjar. They found that the two
calculations agreed and Ma’mun acknowledged the truth of what the ancients had written on the subject.’
“The account is revealing of many aspects of eth intellectual environment of the time. The first is the respect shown for ancient science. People of this era were well aware they had much to learn from the achievements of the classical era (much more aware, of course, than their contemporaries in Byzantium or western Europe). But the story also shows that this respect for the ancients was not an uncritical acceptance of everything they said: Mahmun and the Banū Mūsā wished to test the figures for the circumference for themselves. Finally, we must be struck by the commitment to practical scientific experiment, the establishment of a hypothesis, the use of experimental evidence to prove it, and perhaps the most impressive, the care shown to make sure that the experiment could be replicated… All this demonstrates a truly scientific approach that has few parallels in the post-classical pre-modern age.”
“Like the Italy of the Italian Renaissance, the intellectual world of the ninth-century Baghdad was a world where private patrons [sometimes with wealth of dubious origins] funded intellectual life and, to an extent, competed against each other for intellectual prestige. This may account for something of the variety and originality of the scholarly life that was one of the great achievements of the Abbasid period. Much of this freshness and vitality was lost with the development of the more formal structures of the madrasa (theological school) from the eleventh century onwards [a direct consequence of the Closing of the Muslim Mind].