Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Saving civilisation

I was reminded today that it is now popularly believed that all the work of the Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists - if not all the 'civilised' knowledge of the west, would have been 'lost' if the Muslim invaders from Arabia had not preserved it. While it is certainly true that they carried it back into Spain and copiously copied every document they found in each of the major centres they overran between 800 and 1300 AD, it is false to claim that these documents had been 'lost' in the west.

In a fascinating book entitled "How the Irish saved civilisation," one is reminded, of the explosion in Irish literacy following Christianisation of that land between 429 and 500 AD. The Irish discovered writing, better, they discovered reading, copying and recording. Everything they got their hands on, they copied. And they shared it. We are often told how the Abbot of the Notre Dame community had a 'library' of only 16 books while the Caliph of Cordoba had hundreds, but what is ignored is how documents copied by the Irish were populating monastic libraries all over Northern Europe at this time. I was surprised to learn that one of the oldest extant copies of a work by Aristotle came from an Irish monastery and fetched up in a University collection in Germany.

Much is also made these days of the destruction, by one of the more ignorant 'Christian' governors of Egypt, of the library of Alexandria. What is forgotten though is that much of its content was shared between all the other great libraries, in Rome, Byzantium, Damascus and elsewhere. Nor was this 'Christian' the only destroyer of such libraries. A later Muslim governor would do it again, more thoroughly. We can only be thankful, I suppose, that copiests had already copied and distributed almost everything it contained.

We should not ignore the fact that the libraries of Byzantium contained all these works and much, much more. They were 'lost' the Christendom when the Arabic invaders finally conquered the city in 1453. But 'lost' is perhaps the wrong word. Many of the intellectuals who had found a home there fled to Italy, Austria, Romania, Hungary and other western lands - taking a great deal of the library content with them. Copies of these 'lost' documents have turned up in some rather remote places - like Poland and Russia.

It is popular to claim that "Christianity believed the world was flat" and "Islam taught it was a globe." Peasants in western Europe might have believed in a flat earth, seamen certainly didn't and neither did Christian intellectuals and monastics. They'd read Ptolemy's treatise on astronomy - or at least heard of it. Likewise the claims that "Christian doctrine dictated that the Earth was centre of the Universe, based on the Bible" are false. Christian teaching was based on Aristotle and Plato - until Copernicus (Polish monastic and priest) worked out that we moved around the sun. He, realising the implications, didn't make a big fuss about it - that fell to Galileo who had to "make a point" to prove his genius. In part this mythology is the product of both anti-Roman Catholic propaganda generated by the more rabid anti-catholics and the later Victorian "scientific" community's desire to take science out of the "Arts" in the universities.

I have always found it fascinating that this major conquest occured at a moment in time when Islam was already turning against intellectualism and in retreat elsewhere. Spanish Al-Andalus was less than 40 years from its demise (Granada surrendered in 1492 to the Spanish king) and the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1326 had led to the death of the last Caliph in the Middle East (They claimed direct descent from the family of the Prophet) and a rising tide of fundamentalist thinking. This seems to be forgotten by many of the promoters of the idea that Islam is the preserver of science and peace and Christianity the retarder to progress.

The Mongol conquest in 1326 traumatised Islam, turning it inward, but also making it more fundamentalist and martial in nature. The Ottomans didn't rest on their laurels after conquering Byzantium, they almost succeeded in subjugating Europe via the back door of the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. It was a long and bloody campaign, but it was turned back. The legacy, however, continues to this day. Almost all the problems in the Balkans can be traced to the attempt to forcibly impose Islam on the conquered lands. Nor does it end there, much of the fundamentalist nature of the more extreme forms of Islam which have emerged in the last sixty years also have their origins in the reverses suffered between 1326 and 1600.

Its a fascinating study, but, unfortunately, not a popular one with our current politically correct educationists and anti-religious propagandists.

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