Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Muslim in You (1)

Post 17

Most people in the West think that there is little or no connection between Western cum Christian culture and that of Islam. They look down upon Islam as a religion cum civilization that is chaotic, destructive and that has never offered anything constructive to the cultures of the world in general or, more specifically, to Western culture as well as Western Christianity. Well, Westerners have heard plenty about the negative aspects of Islam, often in slanted and distorted form. Since we are now neighbours who daily rub shoulders with each other, it is useful to be aware of the positive contributions of Islam to the Western world so that we can also respect them.

Actually, the Muslim world has for centuries led in terms of cultural development and was far advanced in civilization compared to the primitive medieval West.
Syria’s Baghdad was the place to be. Especially medical students from the comparatively primitive West would study in Baghdad. Noah Gordon’s The Physician is a delightful novel that is relevant here. Published in 1986, a New York Times reviewer judged the book “surprisingly relevant in an age when fanatical fundamentalism and intolerance are…on the rise….” Its relevance is precisely its depiction of a high culture that could not possibly have arisen out of the negative and chaotic picture Westerners have of today’s Islam. A book I am currently reading is Stephen Glain’s Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants, in which he has a chapter on Syria that, chaotic as it is today and far behind in modern development, was at one time a major centre of international culture and economics.

In Spanish Andalusia, the underdeveloped West had a high Muslim culture right at its doorstep for some 700 years, during which time it developed a flourishing culture. Superior Muslim cultural spillover into the Christianizing West was inevitable. Andalusian culture itself was the product of centuries of multi-cultural interaction and fermentation in Asia between Muslims, Christians and Jews, going back many centuries. It was Christian Syriacs who translated Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelian works, into Arabic before Islam saw the light of day even. From those translations, Muslim scholars became familiar with that philosophical tradition, interacted with it and was influenced by it.

As Islam moved westward, Muslim scholars translated these works into the language of the West, Latin. It was from there that the West learned about Greek philosophy and developed its own interaction with it. Christian theologians and philosophers also interacted with their Muslim counterparts, some in agreement, while some developed their own in opposition to Islamic philosophy, but they were all influenced by it one way or another. Then the various Christian philosophers, influenced as they were by their Muslim counterparts, interacted and discussed among themselves, but again in ways that can not be fully understood or appreciated without recognizing that Muslim background. Much of pre-Reformation theology and philosophy was heavily indebted to that culture and religion. (For a scholarly summary of this development I refer you to Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, volume 2, part iv.) Though today the residue of that background has become increasingly difficult to trace, it is only a lack of historical awareness and prejudice against Islam that have combined to produce gross ignorance of the Islamic foundational roots of our current culture.

You may agree with the above summary of philosophical developments, but dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if these abstract philosophers were influenced by Islam? What does that have to do with you, the reader of this blog or with the man/woman on the streets of Vancouver or Toronto? In short: the common sense of today in the West is the product of centuries of philosophizing that trickled down into the consciousness of the common person. “Trickle down” may not always work in economics, but it surely does in philosophy. Even if you know nothing about these ancient philosophers, they are woven into the fabric of your common sense.

I will continue with more of “The Muslim in You” in my next blog. Stay tuned. If things get too philosophical or abstract for you, let me know by writing a comment. I am trying to shift back and forth between abstract and more “practical” realities.

That is a distinction I make only halfheartedly, for in fact there is nothing more practical than philosophy, for the philosophy of yesterday becomes the “common sense” on tomorrow’s streets via the university. Today, you are thinking and doing as you are because of what abstract philosophers wrote over the past few centuries. Ideas, as they say, have legs. You may not know their names or have read their books, but they are part of you. They are in your veins, not to say DNA. Muslims are among your cultural ancestors. Welcome them back into your psyche and into your world, though, being a Christian, I step back from encouraging you to become a Muslim. I am, after all, Christian missionary.

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