When I first began reading "The Ornament of the World" I was all caught up in the idea that Reason had been able to wriggle in to Christianity and secularize it because of the early Christian-Greek contact of the first centuries of the Christian era, so imagine my surprise to discover that the actual secularization impulse originated in the Christian-Aristotelian contact of the thirteenth century, and further, that that contact came by way of the earlier contact between Islamic thinkers and Aristotle, and their translations of the Greek philosophers into Arabic, a movement centered in Baghdad.
Do you remember that post I wrote about 'the place of reason?' You probably don't. I was all excited about the wonder of Reason, science, and the reconciliation of revelation-based faith with them, all of which I credited to Christianity. Well, today I read passages that have changed my world.
Here are some of the relevant paragraphs and paraphrases: Frederick II set up an institution of learning and translation in Sicily (circa 1220's-1230's). "The tradition of translations from Arabic was a vital...
component of the legacy Frederick inherited, with the added richness of Greek as a living language (in Sicily). (Also,) Frederick was enamored of the new sciences of his age and of the possibility of systematic and experimental study of the natural world. The man who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor a dozen years before, in 1220, spoke and read Arabic." (p.191)
"In 1210, an episcopal synod in Paris banned the commentaries on Aristotle written by the Cordoban Averroes (ibn Rushd). The commentaries were being used at the University of Paris." (p.201) "His commentaries on Aristotle, quickly available in Latin translation, had brought to a head in the Christian world the intractable conflicts with normative faith posed by a clear understanding of Aristotle's version of how the world worked." (p.202) "The genie was out of the bottle, at least for the time being; and a challenge to a certain vision of what constituted the Christian faith was being discreetly tolerated. This was, in sum, Aristotle as he had been canonized for over four hundred years int he Arabic tradition." (p.203) Eventually, up to 219 propositions from the Commentaries had been condemned as heterodox by the Parisian church.
The conflict was over the validity of two conflicting worlviews, that of reason and of faith. "The problem of how two such potentially different, even contradictory, modes of understanding the universe could coexist had arison once Greek philosophy was fully available to Muslim scholars, something that began sometime toward the end of the eighth century. Then the same question presented itself, though not for the first time, in the Jewish community, which had access to the same philosophical library in Arabic. Now, finally, in mid-thirteenth-century Paris, it reappared in the Latin Christian world. (Many men of faith) simply dismissed philosophy and the very notion of reconciling reason and theology. Of course for the adherents of pure reason, it is faith that is to be rejected as ultimately irreconcilable with philosophy and reason." (p.204)
The author, Maria Rosa Menocal, seems to have written this book simply because she loves the following proposition, which is the heart of her belief about Andalusia and its value for us: "One of the fundamental stories of the medieval West, one where the Latin Christian world and the Arabic Muslim and Arabic Jewish universes are felicitously intertwined, is of the noble effort to produce and maintain a first-rate culture, one that could hold together, at the same time and in the same place, the two contradcitory modes of thought and belief." (pp.204-5) The Abbasids moved the center of Islam from Damascus to Baghdad. "This pivotal move brought the raw and culturally mixed conditions of Baghdad into the very heart of Islam's playing field. In the fantastic round city created by the Abbasids, the caliphs themselves became the patrons of the most influential translation movement of Western history. For about two hundred years, the translation of ancient Greek scientific and philosophical texts was the focus of extraordinary expenditures of time, effot and money." (p.205)
"At work there was the same difficult and long-term effort that, among others, the Jew Philo and the Christian Augustine had already grappled with: how to make the pagan legacy an active and honest participant inthe intellectual life of the monotheistic traditions. This massive undertaking was not the sort of curatorial effort to 'preserve' the Greeks for posterity that some make it out to be. The two-century-long Muslim effort to understand and adapt the Hellenistic intellectual universe reintegrated the vital worldview of the classical world back into a living culture." (p.206)
"In this case, in Baghdad from virtually the time of its founding, the transplant also became a shaping part of its new Islamic home. From that long process a model emerged for Greek texts being transposed not only into a different language but into a monotheistic, faith-bound, and hence reason-resistant, culture. We are thus Baghdad's heirs in ways that far transcend the translations themselves." (p.207)