Fjordman: Islam, the West and Our “Shared Heritage”

Fjordman’s latest essay has been posted at Dhimmi Watch. Some excerpts are below:

Hebrew had been dead as a spoken language for centuries already in Roman times, but it was the language of the Hebrew Bible, and a Jew such as Jesus of Nazareth would almost certainly have known some Hebrew. He would most likely also have been familiar with the languages of the two previous empires that had ruled the Levant, the Aramaic of the Persians (and the Assyrians) and the Greek of Alexander the Great’s empire. The one language he didn’t know was Latin. The extent to which he spoke these languages is disputed, but it’s likely that he knew something of all three. Jesus, who founded the religion which was to become Christianity, probably spoke at least some Greek. I’m pretty sure Muhammad did not.

Paul, the person who shaped Christianity more than anybody next to Jesus, was a Jew, but also a Roman citizen. Although the relationship between the Roman state and the adherents of the new religion was complex (some of the early Christians were executed by Roman authorities, including the founder himself), Christianity grew and eventually conquered the Roman Empire from within. Christianity was a Roman religion from the very beginning. It would be fair to say that it was born out of a Jewish conceptual universe, but was shaped in a Greco-Roman environment and baptized in a spring of Greek philosophy and Roman law.

When the American Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century discussed how the shape of their young Republic should be, they were influenced by, in addition to the English parliament and the French thinker Montesquieu (who was inspired by the British political system), descriptions of democratic Athens and the Roman Republic through Aristotle’s political texts and Cicero’s writings, among other things. None of these texts were ever available in Arabic, Persian or Turkish translations. Cicero was extremely influential in European thought from the Renaissance through the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment, yet totally ignored by Muslims. Roman law is secular and changeable, unlike sharia which is eternal and institutes a religious apartheid system. Roman law was used by Europeans, but not by Muslims. Of the Greek heritage, Muslims even during the so-called “golden age” were uninterested in the concept of democracy, men ruling themselves according to man-made laws.

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One of the reasons why Greek natural philosophy was so quickly assimilated into European universities during the Middle Ages, in sharp contrast to Islamic madrasas, was that the earliest Christian theologians were familiar with Greek philosophy and borrowed from its vocabulary and conceptual universe. For Muslims who came from the Arabian Peninsula, the Greco-Roman legacy was an alien intrusion which their cultural immune system failed to fully internalize and eventually rejected. This does not mean that they never borrowed from it when it suited them. They did; but it was never “theirs.” For Christianity it was one of its two parent cultures, the other being the Jewish spiritual legacy as contained in the Hebrew Bible. This had practical consequences, for instance in the positive Christian view of pictorial art, which came from the Greco-Roman parent culture. This was never shared by Muslims.

Art is never just “art.” It always reflects the world-view of a particular culture. Islamic art has usually been quite sterile. Muslims have created some miniature paintings, but never anything comparable to Western art or ancient Greek art for that matter, and virtually no sculptures. In contrast, the Greek artistic legacy left a major imprint on early Buddhist art and sculpture in the border regions of northern India, after Alexander the Great’s conquests. You could thus argue successfully that Westerners share a “Greek legacy” with Asian Buddhist-influenced cultures more than with Muslims. To me, the Islamic failure to fully internalize Greek science is indicated by their failure to internalize the Greek spirit as reflected in arts and politics.

Read the rest at Dhimmi Watch.

9 thoughts on “Fjordman: Islam, the West and Our “Shared Heritage”

  1. Thank you for posting.

    Remember that everything I just wrote here was once considered self-evident. Now it’s controversial at best, “racist” at worst.

  2. I would drop the term “Asia”. The only thing which for sometime bound these pieces of land together was buddhism. It is no more true. Zoroastrians and buddhists were our natural neighbours managing a cultural heritage based on more than common linguistic wealth. A further study in this sense/field would make us naturally much stronger.

    Speak to some educated Japanese: He or she will argue that the European/Western thing starts in India influenced world: architecture, socializing, showing emotions (being naked!), reasoning, creating thought systems etc. based on logic (the Europeans conflate India preferably with mystic
    , but there is lot of super-dry science as well).

    Another thing basic for our strategic thinking is the fact that the early Christianity was not meant for outside Oikoumene: “The inhabited civilized world”. Something like bigger projected Israel? Our modern translations put flatly oikoumene as “world”.
    (Jesus was even reluctant to bring his thought outside Israel).

    Latin was not of much use. We forget that stubbornly since late Latin became a medium for spreading Christianity plus Roman statemanship in our future lands. The lingua franca was then the Greek (it was so for educated classes until recently in places like Rumania, Bulgaria etc). We forget the dominace of the Greek throughout the Roman Empire as a medium – there were too many foreigners including slaves, war captives. Sicily, South Italy was very Greek for centuries before Roman administration took over. It did not change the countryside for centuries to come.

    The Aramaic was a lingua franca as well (fully comparable to the importance of the Greek) – used even by the pharaons as a diplomatic medium. The father of Moise was “Aramaic” (means what?), is it why in the Jewry the maternal lineage is decisive? Jesus spoke Aramaic.

    Assyrian and Aramaic are also very close. Aramaic competed with related Babylonian in Mezopotamia.
    Spreading Arabic and fabricating “Arabs” must have been very easy in a region where everybody knew and spoke something similar. Moreover the Arabic already contained the elements of these languages in a similar manner like quran spreading contained Jesus, Abraham, Moise, quotes from tora etc.

    Who knows some Greek, for him there is not
    much surprize in store in Old Persian or Sanskrit.

    But for an average European the latter two are already very exotic.
    We do not dare to look at our fundaments.

    Strategic keys (and ideological tools) are also hidden in the comparative semitic languages studies. It would probably show the terrible dependence of the Arabic language/culture on
    its natural preislamic surroundings.Something like the Western technology “Made in China” – not even reinvented – copied cheaply and provided with a very good marketing (in the case of islam the marketing was called violence).

    The marxists did something very similar: distorting a drastically reduced heritage and selling it as
    something very new. The means of anathema/fatwa for them was their kidnapped “science” seemingly in contradiction with our “religions”/past/heritage.

    A perfect cuckoo nest. Uproot and substitute.

  3. Czechmade: You make good comments. I’ve been reading Greek Thought, Arab Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) by Dimitri Gutas, which is a surprisingly boring book. Gutas treats the Arabic translation movement in Baghdad as a major achievement. It was an achievement in some ways, but he admits that they benefited greatly from the pre-established Zoroastrian Persian ideology of translation and libraries. He also admits that Muslims only translated scientific works, not the Homeric epics, for instance. He does briefly mention that they translated some Sanskrit and Persian works as well, but says almost nothing about the Indian ones. The Indian numeral system in particular was important and should be mentioned, although the Greek texts were clearly the most important.

    Muslims had access to Greek, Persian and Sanskrit works. Theoretically speaking, they could have explored the Indo-European linguistic tree. But they didn’t. Europeans did.

    It is true that Muslims made some worthwhile works in mathematics, but we should remember that the three most important mathematical traditions in the ancient world were the Greek, the Mesopotamian (which the Greeks head learned from, and which the Persian continued) and the Indian. The Chinese and East Asian mathematical tradition was significant, but less influential than the Indian one. I would be tempted to say that China was a hardware civilization whereas India was a software civilization. The Chinese were better at applied technology and engineering than they were at mathematics and abstract science.

    Nevertheless, this means that Middle Eastern Muslims had direct access to all of the most important mathematical traditions on Earth simultaneously. It would almost be surprising if they didn’t make any significant mathematical works.

  4. One book on my reading list which I haven’t read so far is The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies by Thomas McEvilley. My impression from what I have read about it is that he places too much emphasis on the Indian influence on Greek culture. Everybody says nowadays that Greek culture was “really” invented somewhere else (think Black Athena). We do know that the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Phoenicians influenced the Greeks, but the Greeks openly admitted this, and these cultures all belonged to the Eastern Mediterranean world whereas India was far away.

    There is a school of thought which claims that Plato’s political system in The Republic mirrors the Hindu caste system, and that Greek atomism was imported from Indian atomism. I haven’t seen convincing evidence of this so far, and it’s difficult to see how this influence should have been transferred to Greece prior to Hellenistic times, but the question is worth exploring. We can find traces of a commonly shared Proto-Indo-European mythological heritage with India, however faint.

  5. “Influencing” is a very difficult subject. Generally we focus on things in other cultures which strongly remind us of our culture. We can stay so totally blind for decades – unable to grasp anything. Esp. when the substantial matter to be grasped is too simple or too complicated. We may also understand something fully and never put it in words.

    The simple matters are the most elusive and tend to be more difficult than anything proudly deemed as “sophisticated, complicated, refined etc.”

    A good musician knows for ex. that playing the same piece again and again he goes each time through something new – new area to be explored. It can be obvious or not to the listener. He knows better.

    What the Indians grasped for ex. is the power of repetition. While we are not allowed to repeat ourselves in the West. It means we think we did not produce something good enough to be repeated? We are obliged to evolve “knowingly” not thinking the evolution might be much more slow, deep, safe and efficient. Even far away from our simple reasoning and
    checking it can go in the right direction. Repeating a satiete something good prepares one to produce something good. The result might seem to be utterly unrelated to the prime good. No emulation, no traces of the original “good” are a proof of the deep engagement. It works in sciences, it works in music etc.

    Further on outward influences:

    An alien culture might thus stress something already present in the home culture (as a sort of amplifier)and facilitating further use of a purely or partly domestic
    stuff. Many “influences” are based on radical miscomprehension.

    Some scientist (physics) claimed to be inspired and come to some valid conclusion watching monkeys jumping. The conclusion was probably with him already for months. We would never suspect monkeys influence our science/work for our scince. Same for few beers or listening to Bach/Mozart. They can facilitate something already present in our mind simply facilitating the final formula. Of course we live with many formulae never uttered. If we utter some of them (accidently or not?, who knows) – the additional job is interlinking them in a convincing manner. This may be even more important than finding the formulae.

    For a viable society it is much better to have many people working on these formulae in the nascent state allowing others to join and add more. Ready made product – even high quality – OKed by all, may have degenerating effect on poor followers bearing no witness of its genesis. Anonymous inventions are therefore the best.

    See Sokrates – he cared for a frame for his friends to be allowed to come to some conclusion by themselves. He prefered to facilitate without telling. They might have accepted his conclusion willingly, but coming to the conclusion by themselves gave the process and the result very distinct additional value.

    Jesus was a model-to-be for a while but delegated his powers simultaneously to freely acting principle called pneuma ( Holy spirit). There is not much work left for exegetes or interpreters. The “meaning of his words” is a very limiting intellectual area. The exegetes find readily and quicly themselves outside their “belief” without even noticing it.

    The logical way of working with his words would be rather creating unrelated parallels to the same, not dwelling on the suddenly static “meaning”.It would better demonstrate and reiterate his message.

    His words are one parable put in different settings to demonstrate its universal validity. He might be mute as well.
    The message would be same.

    His message was “receiving the message” without temporary, theological or intellectual limitations.

    (I am busy, it is only a sketch to think about)

  6. Jesus commanded that the gospel not just be brought to the whole world, but to all peoples. So no, he wasn’t restricting his message to the oikumene.

    And Jews were not all “death to images” before Greek and Roman culture came along. Hello, representative art in the Temple much?

  7. Maureen: I didn’t say that Judaism had no tolerance for representative art, but it didn’t hold the same prominence as it did in Christianity. Early Christian art was different from Greek art as well, but I suspect the greater tolerance for figurative art came more from Greco-Roman culture than from Judaism. Secular laws also came from the Romans.

  8. Idol worship is not as contradictory as some try to suggest:

    In Sanskrit there is a saying “moortayah alpabudhinaam” – the idols are for the weakminded.

    The beginner likes to stick to something which can capture his attention. Like kids playing with puppets. They do not think they play with real kids, but fully enjoy the game of pretending to be parents. The adults have less imagination and stick to real kids.

    The circle is perfect. Everybody enjoys his role. The Indians do not deny there is One Deity only. The Jews might be little bit surprized.

  9. Maureen, I say “the early Christianity”. It is not my observation, it is based on:

    Christoph Markschies Zwischen den Welten wandern, Strukturen des antiken Christentums 1997 Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

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