My main thesis in this essay is that Christianity was a Greco-Roman religion in a way which Islam never was or could be. Islam was founded outside of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity was founded within this world, and gradually grew accustomed to Greco-Roman culture. This had a major long-term impact on how the adherents of these two religions treated the Greco-Roman legacy. Before I explain this, let me first say something about Roman civilization and why it was possible for Christianity to take over the Roman Empire.
Roman architectural achievements were impressive but purely functional, famously displayed in their bridges, aqueducts and above all their excellent roads, some of which remained in use for a thousand years or more. In their technical skill Roman architects far surpassed those of classical Greece: they introduced the arch, the dome, and the vault from the Near East, made use of a great variety of building material and erected structures of an extraordinary size and complexity. Yet Roman art and architecture had a mass-produced character and often lacked some of the genuine beauty that you could find in earlier Greek works. As Henry Bamford Parkes puts it in his insightful book Gods and Men - The Origins of Western Culture:
“Rome's aesthetic impulse was not strong enough for any wide diffusion, and the farther one went from the traditional centers of civilization, the coarser and cruder the arts and crafts were likely to become. To the western provinces Rome brought only a debased official style, vulgarly representational, which often marked a sharp deterioration from the standards achieved by the barbarian society before the Roman conquest. Judging from the evidence of artistic history, Roman rule meant the destruction of vital sensibility and the imposition of a vulgar and brutal uniformity. The Celtic tribes of Britain, for instance, had developed a flourishing tradition of abstract art. But ‘with the Roman conquest’ (declares a recent history of Roman Britain) ‘a rapid and disastrous change comes over the whole spirit of British craftsmanship. In taste, the standards of classical art in its degraded imperial form, and the commercialized provincial variety of that degradation, begin to dominate the minds of those who set the fashion. In manufacture, mass-products take the place of individual design and execution….By the late second century….On any Roman-British site the impression that constantly haunts the archaeologist…is that of an ugliness which pervades the place like a London fog.’”
There was a notable decline in the confidence of traditional agrarian religions in the urban Roman Empire already before the rise of Christianity. This religious vacuum was strengthened in the third century AD, when a political, military and economic crisis with rapid inflation caused great turbulence and the Empire almost broke apart. The political crisis and the spiritual vacuum accelerated the growth of alternative religions and philosophies such as Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and above all Christianity. It is not a coincidence that the worst persecutions of Christians took place at the turn of the fourth century, just prior to the official acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
As Bamford Parkes states, “A civilization is not to be condemned solely because it fails to produce any important art, but a lack of artistic creativity is likely to indicate some more general failure of vitality. It is the function of art to sharpen human perceptions and sensibilities, to communicate an awareness of the values and significances inherent in human experience, and thereby to enrich man's understanding and enhance his capacity for enjoyment. That a society has become incapable of original self-expression means that it is deficient both in the apprehension of reality and in the power of appreciation. A society without good art is likely to succumb to a pervasive ennui and sense of futility and oppression, and to turn for stimulation to violent and morally shocking forms of entertainment. Only a people devoid of aesthetic sensitivity could have developed such a passion for watching gladiators. The strongest impression conveyed by the art of the early empire is that it was the product of an immense boredom. This is the simplest explanation for the decline of Roman civilization and may also be the truest.”
The great city of Rome was founded in the eighth century BC, according to legend in 753 BC by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. At the heart of Rome is the giant amphitheater known as the Colosseum. Completed in AD 80 it could take 50,000 spectators. It remains visually impressive and resembles modern sports arenas of the twenty-first century, except that the ancient spectators didn’t watch football but deadly hand-to-hand combats between gladiators or contests between men and animals. The word gladiator for the professional combatants of ancient Rome comes from the Latin for “swordsman” (gladius means “sword”). While the origins of this tradition are not entirely clear, they may have roots dating back to rituals performed at the funerals of the Etruscans, the peoples who inhabited parts of the Italian Peninsula before the Romans and influenced Roman culture. Gladiator shows were given in many towns and cities in the Empire besides Rome. They fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity as the official Roman religion, but the decline was gradual.
Roman politics, too, were frequently brutal. Caesar died at a meeting of the Senate, killed by senators. Pompey and Cicero died violent deaths at the hands of their political rivals. After the Republic, the cruelties of the emperors Nero and Caligula became legend. There is undeniably something dark about a culture where families go to watch people get killed for enjoyment. In this case, as with the widespread Roman slavery, Christianity was definitely a force for good, although there are those who have blamed it for contributing to the downfall of the Empire. The English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) frequented the circles of people such as Voltaire and in all likelihood did not believe in organized religion. His critical remarks about Christianity in his monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, shocked many of his contemporaries.
According to Charles Murray, “The Roman republic was also a slave state on such a scale that Gibbon estimated that the number of slaves may have outnumbered the free inhabitants of the Roman world. A proposal that slaves should wear a distinctive garment was rejected, Gibbon notes dryly, because ‘it was justly apprehended that there might be some danger in acquainting [the slaves] with their own numbers.’ Nor was Roman slavery kindly. Roman masters might dispose of the lives of their slaves at will, and were not reluctant to use that power. We know, for example, that the size of the slave force in the palace of a Roman noble family could number about four hundred souls. The reason we know that number is that the Roman archives record an instance in which the master in such a palace was murdered, and the household slaves were executed for failing to prevent his murder – all four hundred of them.”
There were increasingly strong ties between the Roman state and the Christian religion during the fourth century until finally in 391 and 392 Theodosios, the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire before its division, forbade all pagan cults, in public and private. The law probably could not be strictly enforced and there was no such thing as a single “edict of Theodosios” that closed the pagan temples, but there can be no doubt that the rise of Christianity led to the abolishment of alternative religions. As a non-Christian I would like to compliment Christianity for having made numerous positive contributions to my civilization, from abolishing slavery to contributing greatly to Europe’s artistic and scientific culture. If I have to name one negative aspect of Christian teachings it would have to be the introduction of a type of doctrinal intolerance that was previously alien to Roman and European life.
Nevertheless, while Greco-Roman religions were suppressed, Christians were quite willing to use many Greek philosophical concepts and ideas. As Henry Bamford Parkes puts it:
“…although Christianity may have borrowed from the pagan heritage, it borrowed only what it could integrate with its own basic doctrines and could profitably absorb and make use of….Much more important in the early evolution of Christianity was the influence of the classical intellectual heritage. As men trained in Hellenic and Roman modes of thought became converted, they began to reinterpret the new doctrines in the terms to which they were accustomed. Thus, Christian theology was presented in the language of Greek philosophy and of Roman law. Much of the classical tradition was worthy of preservation and could be harmonized with the new religion. Especially significant was the assimilation by Christianity of the whole Greek concept of natural law, especially in its Stoic form. On the other hand, Christianity also became linked with the Platonic heritage, in spite of the sharp contrasts between the teaching of Jesus and that of Plato; and from this and other sources it gradually acquired a bias toward an ascetic denial of the world and the flesh which was not a part of the original gospel and which tended to obscure much of its original meaning.”
The fourth century also witnessed the development and institutionalization of Christian monasticism. The desire for the ascetic life is common to many religious traditions; Christian monasticism arguably had its roots in Jewish asceticism. There is evidence of Christian ascetics from an early age, individuals who sought to follow the example of John the Baptist or Jesus Christ himself, who had spent time in the solitude and wildness of desert places. By the third century there were significant numbers of such ascetics, especially in the deserts of Egypt, where they were called the Desert Fathers. Scholar Timothy Gregory elaborates:
“The best-known of the early ascetics is St. Antony (or St. Anthony, ca. 251-356), an Egyptian born to a prosperous family who gave away all his wealth to follow the monastic life. St. Athanasios' biography of St. Antony (written ca. 356-7) provides characteristic details about the ascetic life: Anthony's struggles with demons and miracles became the standard fare of all subsequent ascetic lives. Although Antony attracted a number of followers, all of them lived a strictly eremitic (solitary) life, with each monk living on his own, although they did occasionally come together for worship, group teaching, and admonition. Pachomios (ca. 290-346, and thus a contemporary of St. Antony) is generally regarded as one of the main influences in the development of cenobitic (communal) monasticism. He was an Egyptian born of pagan parents, who encountered Christians while serving in the Roman army, converted to Christianity, and then entered the ascetic life ca. AD 315. Perhaps because of his experience with the organization of the Roman army, Pachomios sought to provide more structure to the monastic life, and he organized his many followers into various communal monasteries, nine for men and two for women.”
The first Christian monasteries were created in Egypt before 320, but their number grew rapidly and spread to other regions of the Empire. According to legend, Pachomius was forced to join the Roman army against his will, but it is highly significant to see such an intimate connection between Roman military discipline and an institution that was to prove very influential in Christian and European history. In the post-Roman period, the most prominent Roman institution to survive in Western Europe was the Roman Church. The Church for centuries had a virtual monopoly over written communications and its network of monasteries was the sole educational outlet, instructing at least 90 percent of the literate men between 600 and 1100. Ronald J. Deibert writes in his Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia:
“As Cantor explains, ‘half-consciously the pope worked to make the Roman episcopate the successor to the Roman state in the West.’ Leo’s [Leo I, Pope AD 440-461] prominent ideological work was complemented by the growth of a literate monastic network that gradually spread through western Europe. Throughout the period of Imperial disintegration, many aristocrats converted to Christianity, carrying over to the Church their literary education and respect for the preservation of the written word characteristic of late antiquity….But the veneration and preservation of the word that was carried over by former Roman aristocrats gradually became fused with the practices of monasticism, making the Church an island of literacy in an otherwise oral culture. In Cantor's words: ‘The Latin church was preserved from extinction, and European civilization with it, by the two ecclesiastical institutions that alone had the strength and efficiency to withstand the impress of surrounding barbarism: the regular clergy (that is, the monks) and the papacy.’”
The fact that Christian monasticism was born in Egypt should remind us that in its early phases, Christianity was first and foremost a Roman religion, not a European one. It was well-established in North Africa and even, via contacts with Egyptian Christians, in Ethiopia in sub-Saharan Africa almost a thousand years before the last pagans of Lithuania and the Baltic states of northern Europe accepted the religion. It was only after the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, when the Middle East and North Africa came under Islamic rule, that the center of Christian civilization shifted decisively to the European continent as a whole.
Saint Augustine or Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) was born in Roman North Africa and died in what is now Algeria. He converted to Christianity in 386 after having read an influential biography of the life of Saint Anthony. Augustine wrote his most famous work, The City of God, in response to the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Visigoths in 410. This was the first time that Rome had been taken by outsiders since the Gauls had done so in 387 BC, and the sack of “the eternal city” obviously shocked the Roman world of the time.
Many Jews resisted Hellenization. According to Nicholas Ostler, “Aramaic remained the dominant language in Palestine, with Hebrew restricted to liturgical use, and Greek interestingly assigned a role in the more cosmopolitan aspect of Jewry, and such spin-offs as the Christians. But as Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, graphically accounts, every language still spoken in the Roman empire could be heard in the streets of Jerusalem at the time of the Passover festival. Greek texts of the Hebrew scriptures were in fact commissioned by Ptolemy II, the second in the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death. (He ruled 308-246 BC.) The process by which this was achieved is detailed, with some legendary accretions, in the Alexandrian ‘Letter of Aristeas’. Whatever the true details, the Greek Septuagint (named – in Latin – for the seventy-two scholars supposedly summoned from Jerusalem to work on it) became an authoritative text of the Bible, and was widely used by Jews outside Palestine, as well as the later Christian movement. Greek therefore became the vehicle for a major culture outside its own traditions, freed from associations with Athenian eleutheria (or by now Macedonian magnificence), and in a sense thereby secularised as a language.”
Philo Judaeus or Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 BC-ca. 50 AD) was a Hellenized Jew who wrote in Greek but knew little Hebrew, and arguably had a greater influence on Christians than on Jews. He is often considered the initiator of the handmaiden tradition, the idea that secular disciplines such as Greek natural philosophy could be utilized to understand and explicate Biblical theology. This attitude was adopted by Augustine and by many church fathers who made it respectable, even essential, for Christian authors to study Greek philosophy and science where these were thought to contribute to the advancement of Christianity. While they admittedly sometimes discouraged the study of Greek pagan thought for its own sake, they didn’t condemn all secular literature. This was to prove of great importance for the future.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was by his followers considered to constitute nothing less than the major turning point in human history, which is why the Christian calendar is based on his (alleged) year of birth. Anno Domini (Latin: In the year of (Our) Lord) is abbreviated as AD or A.D., whereas BC or B.C. means Before Christ in the Julian or Egyptian-inspired Roman calendar and later in the modified Gregorian version of this calendar. The Gregorian calendar has, after the European colonial expansion, been adopted on a global basis. Because it is deeply tied to a Christian world view, some scholars now prefer to use the supposedly more neutral terms Common Era or “CE” instead of “AD” and “BCE” or Before the Common Era instead of “BC,” but I have primarily used the traditional abbreviations when writing this.
The theologian and mathematician Dionysius Exiguus created the Christian chronology currently in use around 525 AD at the request of the pope, and its use spread through his Easter tables. Since the concept of zero was not known at this time (it was imported from India centuries later) there is no year zero in this scheme; the year 1 BC is directly followed by the year 1 AD. It is likely that Dionysius Exiguus incorrectly dated the birth of Christ.
We now believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born just before our current era, perhaps in the years 4 or 6 BC. Most critical scholars accept that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in or around AD 30 while still in his thirties, on the orders of the Roman Prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, on the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire. Pilate, who is known from other historical evidence to have been a ruthless man, probably viewed Jesus as a potential troublemaker and therefore ordered his execution. Nevertheless, he apparently didn’t consider Jesus’ followers to constitute a major military threat or he would no doubt have ordered their execution as well. After his death Jesus came to be called Jesus Christ, a title derived from the Greek word Christos, which translates the Hebrew term for Messiah, “the anointed one.”
Although apparently born in Bethlehem, Jesus was a Galilean from Nazareth and the son of Mary, to Christians who believe in Jesus’ divinity and virgin birth known as the Virgin Mary. His earthly father Joseph was a carpenter and according to Mark 6:3 Jesus, too, became a carpenter. The most important sources regarding his life are the Gospels of the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Old Testament being the Christian term for the Jewish scriptures and the Hebrew Bible, which are still considered valid. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke agree closely with one another and are called the Synoptic Gospels, whereas the Gospel of John is very different from the other three. From the post-Enlightenment period, especially with German scholars of the late nineteenth century, we have another tradition of critical scholarship looking into the Gospels from a historical and critical perspective.
Jesus is often portrayed as the founder of Christianity the way Muhammad was the founder of Islam. Both men came from humble origins and had a huge impact on world history, but this is also where the parallels end. Jesus is not the equivalent of Muhammad, who claimed to be a Messenger who brought the Koran, the word of his God Allah, to mankind. In Christianity, Jesus himself is the message, the Word become flesh, and the Gospels are inspired texts about Him. The concept of the Trinity, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three manifestations of the same God, is unthinkable in Islam, as is the idea that God had a Son, born of a human mother to die for the sins and salvation of mankind. While these theological differences are large, the different practical impact of the two religions primarily stems from the fact that the personalities and teachings of the founders were radically different, as were the political circumstances in which the faiths were historically formed.
According to Islamic sources, Muhammad and his followers pillaged their neighbors and killed some of their critics. Jesus and his apostles never did anything like this. While Islam became a major world religion because Muhammad and his successors conquered a vast empire by force, Christianity became a world religion by slowly conquering an already established empire, the Roman Empire, from within. It would no doubt have appeared laughable to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate had somebody told him when he ordered the execution of Jesus of Nazareth that this man’s followers would control the Roman Empire about three centuries later, yet that is exactly what happened. In many ways this constitutes an even more unlikely and fascinating event than the fact that the Arabs managed to conquer the Byzantine and Persian Empires after these had mutually exhausted each other through war.
That Christianity gradually formed within a Greco-Roman political and cultural context had a huge impact on its development. In some cases it was clearly an extension of Judaism; for instance the Christians adopted the entire Hebrew Bible as their own, including the Ten Commandments. While many Jewish ethical ideas with no Greco-Roman precedent were continued and spread though the vehicle of Christianity, either directly or in an altered form, Christians added some new ideas of their own and adopted others from their Greco-Roman environment. The Christian emphasis on pictorial arts and sculpture as a means of worship, for instance, clearly owed vastly more to the Greco-Roman than to the Jewish tradition.
The primary language of Palestinian Jews since the age of the Assyrian and Persian Empires was Aramaic; already in Jesus’ time Hebrew was restricted to religious uses. However, Jewish traders could probably speak some Greek, and since the conquests of Alexander the Great Koine Greek, too, had been widely used in the region. Greek remained an unofficial first or second language in the Roman Empire, especially in the eastern regions. Among the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, most are written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic and a few in Koine Greek.
As a young Jew, Jesus’ main language was probably Aramaic, but he may well have been familiar with Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew Bible and a Semitic tongue closely related to Aramaic. It is also possible that he was competent in Koine Greek, although the details of his linguistic skills are disputed among critical scholars. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the founder of Christianity spoke Greek. We can be virtually certain that Muhammad, if he did indeed exist, did not speak Greek, nor did any of his prominent followers, immediate successors or those who first formulated Islamic legal doctrines. In contrast, we know with absolute certainty that Paul, who shaped Christianity more than any other person other than Jesus himself, was proficient in Greek, as were many of the early Christian leaders.
Saint Paul or Paul the Apostle (died ca. AD 64), was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor and a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. Half of the New Testament stems from Paul and the people whom he influenced. His letters are written in Koine or “common” Greek rather than in the literary Greek of the wealthy Philo Judaeus of Alexandria. Paul was a tent maker and could have spread the gospel while he worked. Saint Peter (died ca AD 64) was a Galilean fisherman called to be a disciple of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Unlike Peter, Paul was not one of the Twelve Apostles and never met Jesus in person. According to himself Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus until he experienced a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He later went to Jerusalem to become acquainted with the leading apostles there. Peter became the principal apostle to Jews and Paul to Gentiles.
Paul’s Gentile converts did not have to undergo circumcision and did not become Jews, but something new. Paul spoke in positive terms of celibacy and insisted on the duty of obedience to secular rulers. In his letter to the Romans 13:2-7 he asserted that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” In later times this passage was used to support the doctrine of the divine right of kings, until this doctrine was finally questioned by Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke. According to Christian tradition, Paul and Peter were executed in Rome, perhaps as part of the executions of Christians ordered by the Roman Emperor Nero following the great fire in that city.
The relationship between the Roman state and the new religion was admittedly quite complex. A number of early Christians, starting with Jesus himself and possibly Paul and Peter, were executed by Roman authorities. Yet in the end, it could be claimed with some justification that Christianity was a Roman religion. Christianity may have been a Jewish child, but it was born into the Roman Empire and grew within a Greco-Roman environment, in the process assimilating many aspects of this heritage, from secular Roman law to a Greek philosophical vocabulary as well as the Greek artistic legacy. In fact, for those of us who live in the parts of Europe that never were a part of the Roman Empire, the Greco-Roman legacy came to us as a package deal together with Christianity, so closely had the two become intertwined.
I do not agree with everything scholar L. Carl. Brown writes in his book Religion and State as I believe that Islam with its doctrine of Jihad differs from Judaism and Christianity and indeed any other major religion. However, it is true that there are a few commonalities. Paul adopted secular Roman law instead of Jewish religious law that governs all aspects of life:
“Islam and Judaism both place great emphasis on the law. Both religious systems conceive of a comprehensive religio-legal system covering all aspects of the individual’s relations to others and of the individual’s relation to God. Everything is taken into account and set out in detail – times of prayer, foods that may be eaten and manner of ritual slaughter of animals, almsgiving, inheritance, and even such minor details as the use of a toothpick. The emphasis on the religious law in both Islam and Judaism is to be contrasted with the Christian concept of liberation from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13) and of justification through faith alone, all this being especially the theological contribution of Saint Paul.”
In his book The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton explains how Christianity from its beginning in the Roman Empire “internalized some of the ideas of imperial government,” above all a concept of law that was more Roman than Jewish. Roman law was secular, unconcerned with the individual's religious status and could change in response to changing circumstances; its validity derived purely from the fact that it was commanded by the sovereign power and enforced against every subject. “That conception of law is perhaps the most important force in the emergence of European forms of sovereignty.” Roman law was conceived as a universal jurisdiction, and Christianity was conceived as a universal church:
“St. Paul, who transformed the ascetic and self-denying religion of Christ into an organized form of worship, was a Roman citizen, versed in the law, who shaped the early church through the legal idea of the universitas or corporation. The Pauline church was designed, not as a sovereign body, but as a universal citizen, entitled to the protection of the secular and imperial powers but with no claim to displace those powers as the source of legal order. This corresponds to Christ's own vision; in his parable of the tribute money, Caesar's public jurisdiction is tacitly contrasted with the inner authority of religion, governing the person-to-person relationship between the individual and God: ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's’ (Matthew 22:21). And it contrasts radically with the vision set before us in the Koran, according to which sovereignty rests with God and his Prophet, and legal order is founded in divine command….This Christian approach was developed by St Augustine in The City of God and endorsed by the fifth-century Pastoral Rule of St Gregory, which imposed the duty of civil obedience on the clergy.”
Moreover, according to Roger Scruton, “Western civilization is composed of communities held together by a political process, and by the rights and duties of the citizen as defined by that process. Paradoxically, it is the existence of this political process that enables us to live without politics. Having consigned the business of government to defined offices, occupied successively by people who are the servants and not the masters of those who elected them, we can devote ourselves to what really matters – to the private interests, personal loves, and social customs in which we find our satisfaction. Politics, in other words, makes it possible to separate society from the state, so removing politics from our private lives. Where there is no political process, this separation does not occur. In the totalitarian state or the military dictatorship everything is political precisely because nothing is…. The political process is an achievement – one that might not have occurred and has not occurred in those parts of the world where Roman law and Christian doctrine have left no mark. Even today most communities are held together in other ways – by tribal sentiment, by religion, or by force.”
The notion of a “common Abrahamic monotheism” is misleading. A comparative reading of the Gospels and the Koran makes it evident that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, despite what Muslims and some non-Muslim apologists might claim. Jesus refused to punish an adulterous woman by stoning by stating that he who is without sin should throw the first stone (John 8:7). In contrast, Muhammad endorsed stoning. Jews once practiced lapidation (stoning) but have long since been able to move beyond such cruel practices, whereas stoning is still practiced by some Muslim groups in the twenty-first century.
In the Islamic world, Greek natural philosophy was never fully accepted, and what initial acceptance there had been was largely nullified by the highly influential theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111). He regarded natural philosophy as dangerous to Islam and was even skeptical of the concept of mathematical proof, one of the most important and unique contributions of ancient Greek scholarship to the modern world. Edward Grant explains in his very well-researched book Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus:
“[Al-Ghazali] included the mathematical sciences within the class of philosophical sciences (i.e., mathematics, logic, natural science, theology or metaphysics, politics, and ethics) and concluded that a student who studied these sciences would be 'infected with the evil and corruption of the philosophers. Few there are who devote themselves to this study without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads' (Watt 1953, 34). In his great philosophical work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali attacks ancient philosophy, especially the views of Aristotle. He does so by describing and criticizing the ideas of al-Farabi and Avicenna, two of the most important Islamic philosophical commentators on Aristotle. After criticizing their opinions on twenty philosophical problems, including the eternality of the world, that God knows only universals and not particulars, and that bodies will not be resurrected after death, al-Ghazali declares: 'All these three theories are in violent opposition to Islam. To believe in them is to accuse the prophets of falsehood, and to consider their teachings as a hypocritical misrepresentation designed to appeal to the masses. And this is blatant blasphemy to which no Muslim sect would subscribe' (al-Ghazali 1963, 249).”
As Ibn Warraq sums up in his modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim, “orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind.”
It is true that a number of Greek works were translated to Arabic, especially in the ninth century when a group called Mu’tazilites attempted, without lasting success, to reconcile Islamic with logic. They have gained a modern reputation as freethinkers, but as Ibn Warraq writes:
“However, it is clear now that the Mu’tazilites were first and foremost Muslims, living in the circle of Islamic ideas, and were motivated by religious concerns. There was no sign of absolute liberated thinking, or a desire, as [Hungarian orientalist] Goldziher put it, ‘to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox view of life.’ Furthermore, far from being ‘liberal,’ they turned out to be exceedingly intolerant, and were involved in the Mihna, the Muslim Inquisition under the Abbasids. However, the Mu’tazilites are important for having introduced Greek philosophical ideas into the discussion of Islamic dogmas.”
Ibn Rushd (Averroes) was born in Cordoba, Spain (Andalusia) in the twelfth century. He held comparatively progressive views on women and faced trouble for his freethinking ways, yet he was also a jurist of sharia law and served as an Islamic judge in Seville. He supported the traditional view, still held by leading scholars in the twenty-first century, of the death penalty for persons leaving Islam: “An apostate…is to be executed by agreement in the case of a man, because of the words of the Prophet, ‘Slay those who change their din [religion]’…Asking the apostate to repent was stipulated as a condition…prior to his execution.”
Nevertheless, Ibn Rushd is chiefly remembered for his attempts at combining Aristotelian philosophy and Islam. According to Ibn Warraq, he had a major influence on the Latin scientists of the thirteenth century, yet “had no influence at all on the development of Islamic philosophy. After his death, he was practically forgotten in the Islamic world.” Philosophy in general went into permanent decline. One of the reasons for this was the writings of al-Ghazali, who argued that much of Greek philosophy was logically incoherent and an affront to Islam. Averroes’ attempts at refuting al-Ghazali were ignored and forgotten.
Al-Ghazali, whose influence cannot be overstated, was a highly orthodox Muslim on matters regarding the use of violence against non-Muslims. Here he is on the importance of Jihad:
“[O]ne must go on jihad [i.e., warlike razzias or raids] at least once a year...One may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them...If a person of the ahl al-kitab [People of the Book] is enslaved, his marriage is [automatically] revoked...One may cut down their trees...One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide...They may steal as much food as they need.”
Another Muslim scholar, the prominent North African historian Ibn Khaldun, had a similar, traditional view of Jihad and shared the deep suspicion of philosophy. Edward Grant:
“Even so enlightened an author as Ibn Khaldun (A.D. 1332-1406) was hostile to philosophy and philosophers. On the basis of his great Introduction to History (Muqaddimah), Ibn Khaldun is regarded as the first historian to write a world history. According to Franz Rosenthal: 'The Muqaddimah was indeed the first large-scale attempt to analyze the group relationships that govern human political and social organization on the basis of environmental and psychological factors' (Rosenthal 1973, 321). Despite his brilliance as an historian, Ibn Khaldun included a chapter in the Muqaddimah titled 'A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:246-258). In this chapter, Ibn Khaldun condemns the opinions of philosophers as wrong and proclaims to his fellow Muslims that 'the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods. Therefore, we must leave them alone' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:251-252). He regarded the study of logic as dangerous to the faithful unless they were deeply immersed in the Qur'an and the Muslim religious sciences to fortify themselves against its methods.”
In my online essay The West, Japan, and Cultural Secondarity, I discuss the ideas of French thinker Rémi Brague from the book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. He claims that Muslims lacked the European instinct for self-criticism and appreciation of “the Other.” They did translate scientific works from Greek and a few other languages into Arabic, but they usually didn't bother to preserve the originals. This made “renaissances,” the act of going back to the sources to reinterpret them, impossible in the Islamic world. Moreover, it made it impossible for anything resembling the sophisticated linguistic scholars of Europe to emerge, who could figure out how the Greek or Arabic languages came into existence in the first place. Brague quotes Ibn Khaldun as saying the following in his Muqaddimah:
“(The Muslims) desired to learn the sciences of the (foreign) nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mold of their own views. They peeled off these strange tongues [and made them pass] into their [own] idiom, and surpassed the achievements of (the non-Arabs) in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic languages were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered. All the sciences came to exist in Arabic. The systematic works on them were written in (Arabic) writing. Thus, students of the sciences needed a knowledge of the meaning of (Arabic) words and (Arabic) writing. They could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them.”
Logic continued to be used as an ancillary subject in scholastic theology (kalam) and in many religious schools, but there was enough hostility toward philosophy to prompt Muslim philosophers to keep a low profile. Those who taught it often did so privately, not within the established institutions. Here is Edward Grant in Science and Religion:
“Following the translations in the early centuries of Islam, Greek philosophy, primarily Aristotle's, received its strongest support from a number of individuals scattered about the Islamic world. As we have already mentioned, al-Kindi, al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd were among the greatest Islamic philosophers. All were persecuted to some extent. Al-Kindi's case reveals important aspects of intellectual life in Islam. The first of the Islamic commentators on Aristotle, al-Kindi was at first favorably received by two caliphs (al-Mamun and al-Mutassim), but his luck ran out with al-Mutawwakil, the Sunni caliph mentioned earlier. According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, 'It was not hard for the ulema [religious scholars] to convince the ruler that the philosopher had very dangerous beliefs. Mutawwakil soon ordered the confiscation of the scholar's personal library….But that was not enough. The sixty-year-old Muslim philosopher also received fifty lashes before a large crowd which had assembled. Observers who recorded the event say the crowd roared approval with each stroke' (Hoodbhoy 1991, 111). The other four scholars were also subjected to some degree of persecution, and a number of them had to flee for their safety.”
This situation was radically different in the Latin West. There was sporadic opposition to the use of reason and one serious attempt to ban the works of Aristotle at the University of Paris in the mid-thirteenth century, but this was of brief duration and eventually failed. There were no later attempts to ban the use of logic and natural philosophy per se, although there could of course be criticism against specific interpretations. “After the 1240s and for the rest of the Middle Ages, attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable.”
In contrast, Islam is in principle a theocracy in which religion and state form a single entity. Islamic schools, or madrasas, generally taught "Islamic science," that is theology, Arabic grammar, the Koran and the hadith etc. Greek and other non-Muslim philosophy was called "foreign sciences" and was never integrated into the core curriculum. Grant again:
“[The madrasas] had as their primary mission the teaching of the Islamic religion, and paid little attention to the foreign sciences, which, as we saw, were comprised of the science and natural philosophy derived ultimately from the Greeks. The analytical subjects derived from the Greeks certainly did not have equal status with religious and theological subjects. Indeed, the foreign sciences played a rather marginal role in the madrasas, which formed the core of Islamic higher education. Only those subjects that illuminated the Qur'an or the religious law were taught. One such subject was logic, which was found useful not only in semantics but was also regarded as helpful in avoiding simple errors of inference. The primary function of the madrasas, however, was 'to preserve learning and defend orthodoxy' (Mottahedeh 1985, 91). In Islam, most theologians did not regard natural philosophy as a subject helpful to a better understanding of religion. On the contrary, it was usually viewed as a subject capable of subverting the Islamic religion and, therefore, as potentially dangerous to the faith. Natural philosophy always remained a peripheral discipline in the lands of Islam and was never institutionalized within the educational system, as it was in Latin Christendom.”
Greek natural philosophy became fully integrated into the university curriculum in Europe:
“It is important to point out that not only did university-trained theologians fully accept and embrace the discipline of natural philosophy, but many, if not most, of them were eager and active contributors to the literature of natural philosophy. It is for that reason that it is wholly appropriate to call them 'theologian-natural philosophers.' They were equally at home in both disciplines and were keen to import as much natural philosophy as they could into the resolution of theological problems, while avoiding any temptations to theologize natural philosophy. This explains why some medieval theologians can be equated with the best of the secular natural philosophers, such as John Buridan and Albert of Saxony. Some theologians, such as Albertus Magnus and Nicole Oresme, were clearly superior to them. By their actions, theologians in the West were full participants in the development and dissemination of natural philosophy. They made it possible for the institutionalization of natural philosophy in the universities of the late Middle Ages, and therefore its extensive dissemination.”
One of the most important advantages Catholic Europe enjoyed during this period was the separation between church and state. While the West developed a lively natural philosophy, “in Islam natural philosophy became a peripheral and suspect discipline, whose study could even prove dangerous.”
Edward Grant has done a great job at bringing to light this role played by the European university system in preparing the ground for the later Scientific Revolution. As he concludes: “Without the separation of church and state, and the developments that proceeded as a consequence, the West would not have produced a deeply rooted natural philosophy that was disseminated through Europe by virtue of an extensive network of universities, which laid the foundation for the great scientific advances made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, advances that have continued to the present day.”
The French professor of medieval history Sylvain Gouguenheim has published a book entitled Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les Racines Grecques de l’Europe (Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: The Greek Roots of Europe), triggered by a recommendation from the European Union that schoolbooks give a more positive rendering of Islam’s part in European heritage. Europeans, he says, “became aware of the Greek texts because it went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them.” He attacks the thesis advanced by historians such as Edward Said, which sets off an “enlightened, refined and spiritual Islam” against a brutal, racist and ethnocentric West. Aristotle’s works on ethics, metaphysics and politics were disregarded by the Muslim world because they were viewed as incompatible with Islamic ideas. Outside of a few thinkers, among them Avicenna, Averroes and the astrologer Albumasar (Abu Ma'shar), the scholars of the Middle East retained from the Greeks only what they considered to be compatible with the Koran. As Professor Thomas F. Bertonneau wrote in his review of Gouguenheim’s book, “Christianity was ready, moreover, to receive, not only the philosophy, but also certain basic political principles, of the ancient Greeks, particularly of the Athenians, such as ‘liberty, reason, and democracy.’”
It is true that there were some decent scholars in the medieval Islamic world, for instance Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Razi (Rhazes), al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), but they made their contributions more in spite of Islam than because of Islam.
The Saudi reformist thinker Ibrahim al-Buleihi expressed his admiration for Western civilization in an interview 2009, stating that “Western civilization is the only civilization that liberated man from his illusions and shackles; it recognized his individuality and provided him with capabilities and opportunities to cultivate himself and realize his aspirations.” Self-criticism is a precondition to any change for the better, and Mr. Buleihi thinks Muslim culture lacks this. Here he is, as quoted by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI):
“When we review the names of Muslim philosophers and scholars whose contribution to the West is pointed out by Western writers, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al-Farbi, Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, and their likes, we find that all of them were disciples of the Greek culture and they were individuals who were outside the [Islamic] mainstream. They were and continue to be unrecognized in our culture. We even burned their books, harassed them, [and] warned against them, and we continue to look at them with suspicion and aversion. How can we then take pride in people from whom we kept our distance and whose thought we rejected?....these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don't deserve to take pride in them, since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization.”
In medicine, there is the phenomenon of “transplant rejection,” which happens when an organ is transplanted into another body and that body's immune system rejects it as an alien intrusion. This is a useful analogy to keep in mind when assessing how Muslims and Christians treated Greek natural philosophy during the Middle Ages. Muslims did engage the Greek heritage, but only parts of it, and eventually even this limited acceptance was rejected by conservative theologians such as al-Ghazali. The immune system of Islamic culture considered Greek philosophical ideas to constitute an alien intrusion into its body, fought them and ultimately rejected them. In contrast, for Christian culture, the Greek philosophical heritage did not constitute something alien. Christians did not accept all parts of the Greek heritage as valid for them, but most of them didn’t consider Greek logic, modes of thinking and philosophical vocabulary per se to be something alien and hostile. We could say that Christianity was a Jewish child, baptized in water steeped in Greek philosophical vocabulary and raised in a Greco-Roman environment. This new synthesis was personified by Saint Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew, a follower of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and a Roman citizen.