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The biggest problem with teleological history is that it leads to sloppy thinking. It causes the historian to torture the facts as he has them so that they will fit into the Procrustean bed of the March of History that he is thinking of. From the WWII until very recently, the story of anti-Semitism was often looked to be a teleological narrative culminating in the Holocaust. This approach is changing, especially among medievalists/early modern historians who are now working to make the distinction between religiously motivated anti-Judaism and racially motivated anti-Semitism. Such a distinction may seem like a trifling point, but it is in fact quite significant. To the anti-Semite, the Jew is the “eternal Jew” forever an alien parasite that can never be assimilated. The religiously motivated anti-Jewish polemic, though, allows the Jew to convert and be accepted into the Church/ummah.

The two modes of thought came into direct contact in several parts of Europe during WWII, moste especially when the extreme right wing Catholic government of Slovakia forced its Jews to accept Baptism, but then reacted in horror when the Nazi government ordered them killed anyway. Religious anti-Judaism was dominant prior to the Enlightenment, while racial anti-Judaism didn’t pick up steam until the 19th century.

I should of course point out that, the further down from the intelligentsia that the two ideas percolate, the less daylight one sees in between positions. Even so, the distinction is still fairly significant, and even when Catholic Spain went after Jewish converts, it did so because the converts were suspected of not having fully converted.

For this reason, it sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear about “anti-Semitism in the Islamic world.” The feelings that the Islamic world has towards the Jewish state, while to some degree nationalistic have, for at least a generation, been primarily religious. Indeed, over the course of the religious revival underway in the Islamic world, the Palestinian issue has become more and more a religious issue, so that one can watch the ideology of the anti-Israel terrorist groups gradually change over the decades.

My point? Well, it is primarily that even a HAMAS or Hizbollah member would accept Ariel Sharon as a fellow believer if he were to acknowledge his error and convert to Islam, though they might of course be suspicion that his conversion was not sincere. It is fairly important that Westerners understand what they are dealing with, since attempting to treat religious anti-Judaism as racist anti-Semitism leads to the wrong approach being taken. Moreover, sloppy terminology regarding such an issue also leads to sloppy thinking.

I have a tendency to harp on this point, but it is an important one. When irreligious people are trying to understand religious people, they ought to at least make an effort to understand the religious people on their own terms rather than trying to cram them into our pre-held templates.

Much of the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America are strongly religious. And while it is often true that religious and secular concerns overlap, they very often do not. If the secular west is going to have any hope in dealing with those parts of the rest of the world that are strongly religious, its intelligentsia is going to have to actually have a clue as to what is going on.

Posted by schizmatic at 09:59 AM

• Category: Science 
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When the irreligious attempt to understand the religious, they usually get it wrong. For example, in 2002, Mother Jones wrote an article about a movement of Evangelical Christians with the sinister goal of “wiping out Islam”. My spot reaction to the sensationalist headline was, “Well, of course that’s their goal. It is also the goal of Islam to wipe out Christianity.” Both faiths have a pretty specific mission, viz., to spread their respective creeds across the entire planet. It is the mission of Christianity to wipe out Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. etc. Likewise, it is the mission of Islam to wipe out Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. etc.

The fine folks at Mother Jones, though, appear to have been attempting to squeeze the story into the writers’ and readers’ pre-held meta-narrative of oppressed people of color against whitey. Which would make a tiny bit of sense if either Christianity or Islam had anything to do with race.

Islam, though, is not an ethnicity; it is a belief system that makes some pretty specific truth claims. Ditto Christianity. Strangely, though, people who choose to comment on these faiths generally seem to forget that they are religious faiths and instead react by trying to understand them as having only to do with the early 21st century westerner.

Pat Robertson believes that the First Cause happens to be the Holy Trinity and that the second person of this Holy Trinity became a human being in the person of a street preacher about 2k years ago in Judea. This aspect of his belief is much more central and of much more lasting importance than whom his belief says one can and cannot sleep with. One may flow from the other, but the core really ought to be engaged before the periphery.

Likewise, Joe Muslim believes that the First Cause, Allah, is one and indivisible, and that God sent an angel who choke-slammed a camel merchant in a cave and demanded that this merchant recite God’s uncreated word. This belief has zero to do with any sort of fight against white oppressors.

It would probably take a few weeks for your average writer and reader of Mother Jones to sit down and actually figure out some of the key tenets of Islam and Christianity and what it means for a religion to be a proselytizing one. Knee-jerk reactions about race and sex only obscure the issue. If it turns out that Allah is the creator of Heaven and earth and that I need to be in submission to him as preached by His final messanger, it is this fact that means much, much more than whether or not there is a coalition of oppressed around the world. Likewise, if it turns out that Jesus Christ is the incarnate second person of the Holy Trinity, then that is much, much more important than any peripheral concerns. And if they’re both wrong, well then someone should have the sack to say that as well.

Posted by schizmatic at 09:58 PM

• Category: Science 
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In the early fifth century, the neo-Platonist Macrobius wrote a commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. Oddly enough, this commentary wound up taking on a life of its own, and, whereas the Somnium Scipionis survives only in a single palimpsest, the commentary survives in thirty five manuscripts. The commentary is something of a philosophical miscellany, writing about numerology, the solar system, the state of the soul, and of course dreams and their interpretation. In writing of dream interpretation, he wrote that certain dreams had powers of divination, either predicting events that would happen, showing something to the dreamer through a god or dead statesman, or concealing “with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity the true meaning of the information being offered, and requires an interpretation for its understanding” (III.10).

This third divinatory dream, the enigmatic dream, contained a truth, but it was a truth covered in an integumentum, a veiling that needed to be interpreted in order for the true meaning to be discovered. Macrobius’s writings on dream interpretation fit in with the larger tenor of his commentary, which is strongly based on the neo-Platonic nostrum “Scito te ipsum,” “Know yourself.” In the neo-Platonic framework, to know onesself meant for one to realize that he was a celestial being, a god imprisoned in the flesh whose true home was the heavens. Knowing yourself in the end yielded a positive result.

Fifteen hundred years later, Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams. Reading Freud, we might be stricken to notice that he shares a good deal of similarity with Macrobius. For Freud too tells us that dreams contain a truth that is nonetheless covered in an integumentum that needs to be interpreted, and the interpretation too comes from the principle of “Know thyself.”

There, though, the similarity ends. For while Macrobius held that dreams may have divinatory powers, he believed that they came because man was a spiritual creature and during sleep the soul was at its most seperate from the physical body. Freud, of course, was materialist in his outlook and thus told of dreams that told of the dreamer whose integumentum came not from a god, but from the repressive forces of the ego.

The most significant difference, though, is that when the Macrobian dreamer worked to know himself, he did so in order to understand that he was a creature of the heavens who belonged in a starry abode. The Freudian dreamer, though, when knowing himself, usually discovered repression, guilt, fantasies of murder and adultery, and various other unsavory desires. What brought this change?

I have until now neglected to note that Macrobius wrote in what was essentially the last generation in which the intelligentsia of Europe was not wholly Christian. Freud wrote in one of the first generations in fifteen hundred years in which the intelligentsia was no longer Christian. The two, then, can be seen as bookends as it were, bracketing the Christian experience of Western Civilization. St. Paul had written that he looked within himself and found only sin, and this sentiment, this introspection in the search not for neo-Platonic divinity but for the perceived filth of sin characterized a large part of what we know about the way people examined their own consciousnesses.

The attempt to ruthlessly shine a light on the dark and seamy underside of the human consciousness whose contents we may not even fully know is the product of fifteen centuries of Christianity. Much as Siggy himself may have disliked to be told so, the intellectual foundations of the need to look within, to know onesself, and discover the subconscious were laid by people like St. Paul, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Guibert of Nogent.

Addendum: This most is mostly the mental detritus from some papers that I was working on last semester dealing with medieval subjectivity. If you are interested in reading further on this fascinating subject, I would highly recommend the following two books: The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 by Colin Morris and The Invention of Literary Subjectivity by Michel Zink. The former was re-printed in 1987 and the latter has recently been translated.

Posted by schizmatic at 03:32 PM

• Category: Science 
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It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

…Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Who wrote the above?

Was it written by a young undergraduate who is proud of his newly-found atheism? An internet “freethinker” who lets his readers know that He is Smart because of his clever refutation of Christianity? A Southern Baptist who hates his parents?

The above two objections were written by St. Thomas Aquinas, and in fact come very close to the beginning of his Summa Theologica. The good doctor is, of course, setting up two classical objections to the existence of God as a proposition against which he can argue in the spirit of the medieval disputatio. The disputatio itself was the chief tool of investigation in the medieval university and came out of the belief that truth emerged through debate.

When reading the web-sites of overly enthusiastic atheists, though, one usually reads one of these two objections laid out with breathless triumphalism as the young teenager writes, “Ha ha! I have successfully disproven the existence of God because I am so smart. In two thousand years no one has ever thought of this objection, or if they did, they were suppressed by The Church.”1 Oddly enough, though, here we see such an objection to the existence of God being raised by a good son of the Church. Funny that.

Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong has made it his life’s purpose to preach to all who will listen that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead. His friend Carl Sagan, who should have known better, explains to us that perhaps if one lived in a cosmos as small as that believed in by pre-modern people, then you might be able to believe in a God looking down on and overseeing human affairs. But of course now, goes the thinking, that we know how vast the universe is and how insignificant we are in comparison to the rest of it, it is obvious that there is not a God who cares about what goes on in a tiny little speck of the cosmos that is, in comparison to the big picture, infinitessimally small.

Strangely, though, in the early 500’s, Boethius wrote that

As you have heard from the demonstrations of the astronomers, in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, it is agreed that the whole extent of the earth has the value of a mere point; that is to say, were the earth to be compared to the vastness of the heavenly sphere, it would be judged to have no volume at all. Further…only about one-fourth of this so miniscule spot in the universe is the portion inhabited by animate creatures known to us…So–do all of you who are hemmed in and bounded by this infinitesimal point as it were on a point make calculations about publicizing your reputations…that your glory may be abundant and monumental when it is compressed within such miniscule and circumscribed limits?

This is not an obscure work either. The selection comes from 7.3-7 in The Consolation of Philosophy, which was one of the most copied, read, and translated texts of the Middle Ages. What can it mean that medieval clerics knew of the vast size of the universe and yet believed in a personal God?

What about the origin of the universe itself? In the late thirteenth century, cutting edge (Aristotelian) physics demostrated that the universe was without beginning or end. Of course, the Bible stated that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning. This caused no small amount of consternation to the Christian faithful, and Boethius of Dacia (not the previously mentioned Boethius) came under a great deal of suspicion for allegedly teaching that there was a “dual truth,” i.e., the truth of things shown by scientific investigation, and the truth shown in the revelation of the holy scriptures. As it happens, he did not exactly believe in a double truth, but it is easy to understand how his On the Eternity of the World could be misunderstood as such.

The burning question of the day was how to reconcile the truths apparent from the natural world with those revealed in scripture. No satisfactory conclusion was ever reached, and the problem was, when discussed, discussed in rather hypothetical terms (“If it is given that the world is eternal, then…” and the like). Indeed, it is rather peculiar that, in an age in which the science of the time seemed to demonstrate the eternity of the world, people believed that it nevertheless had a creator, while in our age, in which a much more advanced science shows that the universe had a beginning, fewer people (proportionally to population of course) believe in a creator. Why is this the case?

I submit that unbelief has very little to do with scientific/intellectual progress and a great deal to do with fashion. The traditional arguments against a good God’s existence did not suddenly become stronger with the Enlightenment; such arguments did, though, become more fashionable. “Reason” did not suddenly come into existence in the late eighteenth century (Will Durant to the contrary), and any medieval student whose undergraduate education began with the Posterior Analytics would take a great deal of offense if he were told such.

When Charles Darwin and his successors pinpointed the best possible model for the origin and formation of life, the intelligentsia had already by and large given up on the Christian faith. Those who already disbelieved used evolution as proof that there was no creator; some of those who still believed decided that God made the world and the evidence be damned–they would believe what was in the Bible; and still others came to the conclusion that an almighty God could very well use the means of evolution to bring life about.

Why, though, am I bringing all of this up? To make a bold new argument for the truth of the Christian faith? No.2 Rather, my point is that I often see it confidently asserted that a decline in religious faith is a necessary component of religious progress and that the march of this progress will eventually lead to a godless world. I think that, in light of the fact that unbelief is usually more a product of fashion than anything else, we ought not to look forward to a world in which the “God problem” seen in different parts of the world suddenly resolves itself. Indeed, the religious revival underway in a certain monotheistic religion and the fact that folks with a scientific and engineering background are often drawn to the most fundamentalist interpretation of this religion would both seem to indicate that we are in for a religious world for a long time to come.

1This is something of a strawman, but not by much.

2Though it would be most interesting indeed to see some theologians who actually do physics, cosmology, or Organic Chemistry examine the implications of what is now known and work from such to theological conclusions.

Posted by schizmatic at 01:22 PM

• Category: Science 
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Decades ago, academics in the humanities refered to Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell wrote of a “monomyth” underlying the world’s mythology. Levi-Strauss (no, not the pants maker) advanced the notion of structuralism, i.e. that certain key structures underly all cultures, into the domain of cultural anthropology. Though a lot of this came from Freud and Jung, who really had little if any basis in reality, there is nonetheless some profit into seeking commonality in the human race. Sadly, this trend was soon swept away by post-structuralism, and today only the foolhardy or extremely secure in the humanities speak of cultural universals.

Let me go against the grain for a bit, though, and suggest that those who deny commonality in the human race usually have something of an agenda. I would be a bit more willing to accept that the institutions that make up various cultures that we know have no basis in the structures of the human brain and its evolution were it not for the fact that the evidence screams otherwise.

When people first arrived in North America, humanity generally existed at a tribal and village level. Jericho and Catal Hüyük lay millenia in the future. Nonetheless, when, close to ten thousand years later, the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they found kings, priests, cities, books, and writing. With no contact between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, the structures of urban civilization had nonetheless evolved parallel to each other. Were the bases of culture less rooted in the wiring of the human brain, the Spaniards would have found a society that was totally alien.

My main point, though, lies not in social institutions, but in language and grammar. Many years ago, everyone’s favorite anarcho-syndicalist lay out the notion of a “deep structure,” a universal grammar that carried the basic substance of human language that was generally the same despite the accidents of different languages. When we look at people throughout the earth, we see a strong tendency to poetry, a tendency to employ turns of sound, rhythm, and the like to entertain, to recall great deeds of the past, to magnify or humiliate a person, etc.

The various particulars of poetry differ by language. Modern English rhymes, while Old English and Old Norse used a highly formal system of alliteration. Greek and Latin used meter, and I am not familiar enough with other languages to write about other peoples.

“But what is your point, Andrew?” you might be asking. Look at the Norse skald. The skald was, I think I can safely say, nothing like the current idea of a poet (a mincing pansy sitting in a coffee shop smoking unfiltered cigarettes); rather, he lived in a rough and tumble world of warriors who could break into fights at a moment’s notice, spend a great deal of time drunkenly magnifying their own physical prowess, and who in general could kick a modern poet’s ass without breaking a sweat.

You might, gentle reader, at this point say, “Aha! Does not the example you cited prove that most of the trappings of culture are nothing more than constructs?” I would reply that we ought to look deeper. The skald could spontaneously compose poetry that followed elaborate metrical patterns, poetry that more often than not magnified the might in battle of a man or conversely, in what is known as a “flyting,” heap abuse and scorn upon someone. What was praised? Martial virtue, wealth and generosity with that wealth, and comradeship.

The most apt comparison to the skald, then, is not the poet, but the rapper. The good rapper can, after all, spontaneously compose using elaborate turns of rhym, and these compositions usually involve martial virtue, the loyalty of one to his group, an excess of wealth that would be quite at home in any Eddic or Skaldic poetry, etc. Moreover, when performed competitively, it also takes on the form of a flyting, right down to the imagery of words as weapons. Finally, we ought to note that, liner notes aside, rap is still largely an oral, as opposed to a written genre.

So it is, then, that the poetry of martial valor manifests itself in different forms, but with a structure that is generally the same in two very different cultures. Now then, if we did not believe that people have, in general, the same brains, such manifestations would not make much sense. But if you are willing to grant that people are generally the same, then it is perfectly logical that poetry, stripped of many cultural accretions, finds itself returning to its true form.

Posted by schizmatic at 05:57 PM

• Category: Science 
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It is a given that any term used to describe those whose cognitive ability falls below the norm will, no matter what the original intent of the apellation, eventually be turned into an term of abuse by schoolyard children. In the late nineteenth and early 20th century, children whose learning progress lagged behind that of their peers were said to be, “of ‘retarded mental development’–terms corresponding to the ‘Enfants arriérés’ of French writers…and the ‘Tardivi’ of the Italians.”[1] The word eventually came to be applied to anyone whose I.Q. fell below the mean. Of course, the combination of two liquids and three dental stops rather lent itself to becoming a term of abuse, as the very sounding out of the word suggested the ill-formed stuttering of one who had trouble grasping basic speech.

We now try to cover up the nature of the retarded by saying that they are “special.” Sadly, though, all that this misplaced sensitivity will do is ruin the use of the word special throughout the English language until it comes to be applied solely to the feeble-minded. There is, after all, precedent for such. In old English, the word “sæl” originally meant “time,” “season,” “occasion,” or “prosperity.” Thus, if someone or something was “sælig,” it was timely or fortuitous. Eventually, “sælig” came to signify more than simple good fortune and came to take on the meaning of “blessed.” It is not much of a jump then, to see that, eventually, the term “sælig” was eventually applied to children who were less than bright. In the same way that we hear “Timmy is the ‘special’ child,” and immediately understand without the need to resort to terms that hurt the feelings, so too would English people refer to a child with intellectual impairments as “blessed.”[2] From there, it was not much further until “saelig” came to mean “simple minded” exclusively, and, as you have probably figured out, “sælig” shifted to “sely” in Middle English, which then, in modern English became “silly.” That “silly” has its roots in “blessed” should indicate to us that no matter what term we will apply to the low-IQ, it will always be a term meaning, to be blunt, stupid. There’s a lesson in here about deep structure [3], but I really haven’t the time to go into it.

On another etymological note, for thousands of years, the accepted etymology of “Cyclops” was that it came from “wheel-eye,” i.e. from the Greek words “kyklos” (from which we get “cycle”) and from the root “op–“. It has lately, though, been suggested that the original etymology may have been closer to “cattle rustler,” coming from a combination of the Indo-European word that eventually came to be “Kuh” in German and “cow” in English. The second half of the word came from the root “klep–” from which Greek “kleptes” meaning “thief” come. [4] This of course would seem to make more sense, since the “wheel eye” etymologies have a sense of back-constructed etymologies of the pre-modern world which find their best expression in the wild and zany writings of Isidore of Seville. Moreoever, if one looks at the lifestyle of the Cyclopses, one notes that they are pastoralists, “having neither laws nor assemblies,” and who “do not raise plants nor plow.” (Homer’s Odyssey, Book IX, lines 108-112) Such imagery comes from the dark times of the Greek “Age of Heroes,” and indicates the cyclopses seem to be more of a representation of the barbaric pastoralist outsiders than Star Trek monster which it rather later became. Thus it is that your Greek in the ninth-millenium B.C. would more be thinking of a cattle rustling nomad that raids your crops than an exotic monster.

[1]”Retarded.” The Oxford English Dictionary.

[2]As a brief digression, there was more to the apellation of “blessed” for simple-minded than desire to offend. There were also theological implications, as St. Paul says in the 1st Chapter of Corinthians that the wisdom of the World is foolishness before God and the foolishness of the world is wisdom before God. Such thinking eventually leads to the idea of the holy fool, which IMHO survives in disguised form in most cinematic representations of the retarded, who are portrayed as simple, and yet somehow more saintly and blessed. Such nonsense eventually results in things like the Supreme Court ruling that the retarded cannot be executed.

[3]Noam Chomsky was a brilliant linguist back before the brain eater got him, and we would do well to remember the words of Frodo concerning the fallen Sauraman: “Even now I will not wish him harmed, for he was once of so great an order that none of us would have dared raise a hand against him.” (quoted from memory)

[4] I do not have a cite on this, though, as it merely came up in a conversation with a friend of mine who is an Indo-Europeanist and I really don’t feel like doing a journal crawl to find the cites, so sorry.

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Howdy all. First off, I am quite flattered that I have been offered the privelege of posting here on Gene Expression while my own blog is down. That having been said I’m a grad student working towards an M.A. in Medieval Studies, and I should probably be studying for my Latin exam right now. Here, then, are my thoughts on how we understand (or rather do not understand) the Islamic world.

The modern west has always had a hard time understanding the Islamic world on its own terms. The Orientalists regaled their readers with tales of the dark-eyed Musselmen, hot-blooded and quick to anger, a people that were inherently sensuous and accustomed to ease, luxury, and fatalism. In our own day, the right wing polemicist (who probably knows less of Arabic and of history than the Orientalist before him) denounces Muslims as backward savages who understand only force and must ruthlessly be crushed lest they overwhelm our civilization in a brown tide. The left-wing polemicist, on the other hand, sees the Muslims as oppressed people of color, allies in the war against whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and Zionism. None of the above pictures are fully accurate, and all instead serve as a projection of our own fantasies and fears.

I bring up the image of Islam as serving as a projection of what we would like Islam to be to bring up the question of Medieval Islam. When debate emerges about the nature of the current religious revival underway in the Islamic world, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable, “Islam was an advanced civilization in 800 when westerners were still living in thatched huts! So there!” crops up. Strangely enough, while the trope of “Advanced Islam/Backward Christendom” often comes from the perspective of the left, it is nonetheless a product of the same sort of projection and misrepresentation that Edward Said and his disciples disparage.

Before going into detail, I need to back up a bit. Americans, sadly, have little acquaintance with history. Even amongst those Americans with a College or University education, most contact with history comes from introductory survey courses. Now then, survey courses are excellent in their own way, especially in that they will introduce people to subject matter with which they were earlier unfamiliar. They do, though, have a key weakness—a survey course, due to the breadth of the subject matter covered in a single course must by necessity deal in generalizations. Unfortunately, generalizations are much easier than the particulars of history to shoe-horn into pre-held conceptions.

Now then, over the last few centuries Jacobin and Protestant historiography have combined to, more often than not, make the Roman Catholic church the Big Bad Villain of western history, to the extent that neither secularists nor protestants realizing that they are borrowing one another’s myths [1]. As such, the Church is often presented in High School history classes and histories for popular consumption as an oppressor of totalitarian dimensions, one that smothered all free thought, all inquiry, all science, and all knowledge until the bright light of the Reformation brought tolerance and pluralism. Of course, when you set up a villain, you need likewise to set up someone good and upright to counteract him (or, since I am speaking of the Church, her). So it is that we see the brave young rebel Martin Luther serve as the early modern voice of tolerance facing down the almighty Church.

The wrong-headedness of such a view of the Protestant Reformers is a topic for another essay; when we go back before Luther, though, we see people like the Cathars presented as the heroes standing against Rome, people practicing a pure and virtuous faith that are crushed by the corrupt and power mad Roman Church. Both Protestants and freethinkers (I shall avoid the sneer quotes around the latter since I am being allowed to post on a blog run by atheists) wind up making doomed heroes out of folks who believe that since matter is evil, you shouldn’t have sex, but if you just can’t control yourself, then you need to have oral or anal sex so that no babies get made. While the Albigensian Crusade was a great horror, I must say that I would think that Cathar beliefs would be bothersome to Protestants and freethinkers alike. I bring such advocacy up merely as a case study of the tendency when writing history to idealize Rome’s enemies. Such a tendency finds its full flowering in the western portrayal of Umayad Spain.

The Umayads appeal to different people for different reasons: the Orientalist dreaming of Arabian Nights-style splendor is wowed by their opulence, the freethinker sees tolerance, and the bookworm sees a love of learning. So it is, then, that Umayad Spain is presented in general histories as the Platonic ideal of Islam. See? we are told. Islam is urbane, enlightened, and tolerant. Much, though, is left out of this picture. We are rarely told that one of the reasons that the Umayads were driven out of Syria was this very splendor and moral laxity that the Orientalist finds so appealing. We are not told that in this haven of tolerance of all faiths, pogroms against Jews did, in fact, occasionally break out, and that the penalty for converting to Judaism or Christianity from Islam was death.

Am I writing these things to smear Islam? Far from it. If you want a smear of Islam, you can easily go to Little Green Footballs. Indeed, in spite of its weaknesses, Umayad Spain was a center of immense learning, brilliant culture, thriving commerce, and astoundingly beautiful architecture. I must also say that if you are trying to run a state on the principle that there is but one God and that His perfect revelation must be obeyed, and that to do otherwise is an affront to the sovereign of the universe, then the system of dhimmi status and like civil disabilities for Jews and Christians that at the same time fall short of outright persecution is the best way to handle recalcitrant unbelievers without forcing obedience to Allah that is a mere sham, having come under fear of death. Indeed, the Muslim system of dealing with non-believers who nonetheless came credally close to Islam was much better organized than anything Christendom had. Christendom’s system of dealing with unbelieving monotheists was always fairly ad hoc, and could range from the urbane tolerance of the Norman kings of Sicily to the fanatic persecution of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Why then am I writing this? I merely write to make the point that Islam is a monotheistic religion that differs by time and place depending on the historical contexts, and must be understood as such. The book Europe and the People Without History makes the excellent point that Europeans, when looking at the Other [2], have a disturbing tendency to view them as existing in some sort of timeless never-never land like insects trapped in amber and existing apart from the vicissitudes of history. So it is that the character of the Muslim was often portrayed as fixed and unchanging by the Orientalists, and so the people and religion of Islam were seen to exist in something of a timeless past/present, in which Islam and Muslims are always the same. It is exactly such thinking, though, that causes people to say that Muslims cannot possibly be intolerant based on a Spain that was, to be honest, a geographically small part of Islam that existed for two hundred of Islam’s fourteen hundred years of existence.

Such discussion brings me to Saladin. Ever since the Third Crusade, the man has captured the western imagination. Even chroniclers hostile to Islam saw the man (a Kurd, incidentally) as the exemplification of the courtly ideals of chivalry and honor. Here was a man who showed magnanimity towards his defeated enemies, respect for an opponent who fought bravely, and, in general, and urbane and diplomatic demeanor in all things. He was certainly a better character than Richard the Butcher of Acre.

His taking of Jerusalem is often presented in stunning contrast to Godfrey de Boullion’s close to a century earlier. Godfrey left no unbelievers alive, Saladin allowed the Christians to remain and worship as they pleased. Saladin took prisoners and ransomed them, Godfrey showed no quarter. This glaring contrast must demonstrate that Islam is superior to Christianity, right?

Here, though, is the problem of looking at the story outside of its context. Yes, Saladin did allow Jersulam to surrender (though the fact that Jeruslam’s defenders threatened to kill every Muslim in the city if not allowed to surrender might have had something to do with that), and yes, Godfrey left blood flowing ankle deep in the streets. But suppose we look for more than two examples of the magnanimity of one faith and the bloody-handedness of another. Let us look, then, to Baibars. While most everyone who has had general history is familiar with Saladin, very few are familiar with Baibars. It ought to bear mentioning that when Baibars took Antioch in 1268, he slaughtered the Christians and sacked the city so thoroughly that it has not recovered to this day. Suppose we look to German Emperor Frederick II, who negotiated a peaceful return of Jerusalem in 1229 (though admittedly the fact that he did this peacefully infuriated the Pope and all of the Latin clergy in Outremere) and left the Muslims their holy places. I could then say (dishonestly) that the contrast of Frederick II and Baibars proves that Islam is more bloody and intolerant than Christianity.

I am bringing up this counter-example to make the point that it is foolishness to cherry-pick historical anecdotes to attack the Catholic Church, for one could just as easily cherry pick anecdotes to make Muslims seem bloody handed savages. History is complicated. Examining single historical vignettes outside of their larger context to prove some sort of eternal truths about one culture or another is foolishness. There have, after all, been three Romes (and there will not be a fourth!)—history and peoples change. Moreover, using Islam to make a point against the Catholic church does a great disservice to the actual history of Islamic civilization. Now the reader may say, “But really, Andrew, these are just introductory histories taken by semi-literate freshmen. The specialists know better.” Unfortunately, semi-literate stoned freshmen grow up to be semi-literate sober politicians and journalists, and so when encountering something like “Islam” (as if millions of people across a millennium and a half could be reduced to a single entity), all they will have to go on is what they picked up from Western Civ.

What if, though, we were to try to examine the Islamic world on its own terms? What might we find? We would find a religion, like Christianity, that believes itself to be the final revelation, and that the Koran is the sole repository of this revelation. As such, dar al-Islam will have most of the same quirks, peculiarities, and great accomplishments that that other monotheistic religion had. We will find a faith that believed that it had superceded all that had come before and yet needed to reach some sort of accommodation with the faiths it had replaced. As I have said above, system of dhimmitude was a perfect system if one accepted as a given that there was but one true religion, but that remnants of those who had almost gotten it right remained. Likewise, in states that believe Christianity is the Final Revelation, the Jews were allowed some sort of grudging tolerance.

In both cases as there was little tolerance for the believers in religions that came after, since, after all, if you have more than one final revelation, people will start to ask questions. So it is that Christian officials extended little tolerance to Islam, and Islamic officials extended little tolerance to groups like the Bahai. In both cases, the state sought to bring itself into line with what men assume that God wanted, as any man would do if he believed in God.

The two faiths went their separate ways after the seventeenth century. Christendom lost its faith and found pluralism, while today there is a religious revival underway in the House of Islam. Marxists and fools (though I repeat myself) attribute this revival to economic circumstances, colonial oppression, or any of the other bugbears that they believe actually caused what goes on in history. What if we look on the religious revival as a genuine religious revival? In such a case, understanding Muslims as religious men and women—the vast bulk of whom are decent people—would greatly facilitate our own understanding of what’s going on. After all, most of us know deeply religious people from work, school, or our own flirtations with religion.

Many have the deep conviction that they are absolutely right, and that God wants society to reflect His own wishes. Most probably believe that European and American women are unnecessarily wanton and want their daughters and wives to dress modestly. And while they usually make good neighbors, we would make damn sure that they are not allowed to threaten pluralism. In that way, then, we ought to deal with Muslims the same way we deal with Christians—“I respect your right to believe and practice (with obvious exceptions) as you see fit. Try to impose your religion on me, though, and we will have problems.”

I will come back with another entry on the nature of religious reformations what they mean for war, peace, and the like. Now, I suspect that I really ought to bet getting back to my Latin.

[1]My favorite example of this is in Cradle of Filth’s song “For Those Who Died.” Despite the Band’s Satanic motif, they nonetheless basically reproduce the Protestant mythology of the Inquisition.

[2]I’m a grad student in the humanities. I had to use the term at least once.

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