The Classical Islamic World as Vanishing Mediator of ‘the West,’ Part I
Anyone who has read a bit of my writing knows that I think that the notion of ‘vanishing mediators’ is essential to understanding how historical periods change. These vanishing mediators describe that which needs to be forgotten for a particular cultural paradigm to hold sway, and often these crucial repressions re-emerge in cultural consciousness when that structure is about to go from dominant to residual within that culture, indicating that one or more emergent formations are competing to give rise to a new dominant. Vanishing mediators are like ghosts, they haunt a given cultural formation as long as it is in dominance, yet were they to become part of that cultural formation, they would unweave it, for they are its constitutive exclusions, that which needed to be forgotten.
Often this is because of some ‘anxiety of influence’ that this mediator had upon it. Teens, for example, often form their identities by negating their parent’s identities, and they can only learn to appreciate aspects of their parents when they begin to have identities beyond that of with or against their parent’s influence. Only when there are new influences might it possible to get over the anxiety of being controlled by their parents, and hence, admit their influence upon them, linking their new identities with aspects of their childhood selves which might have, in their teens, been too embarrassing to remember lest it remind them of their parents.
The particular vanishing mediator that concerns me here is that of ‘the West,’ which is to say, contemporary Euro-American society, and the story of ‘the West’ it has told itself since coming to world domination. We have perhaps been trained to think of ‘the West’ as a place or a culture, but I like to think of it as a story. This story was largely constructed during the period of colonialism, in which some of the world’s powers took over others due to their advances in various sorts of technologies, and had to explain why they were different from them. Many of the classic texts of post-colonial studies, such as Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, as well as more recent texts like Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather and Laura Marks’ Enfoldment and Infinity, help to explain aspects of how this story was written, and what it left out in order to do so. What follows is a broad-brushed synthesis of some of their ideas. And while this is necessarily cursory due to the brevity of this text, it’s my hope that there are enough hints here of where to go for more information to fill out the picture sketched here in the broadest of terms.
‘The West’ as Selective Fairy Tale
The story known as ‘the West’ is the story about where ‘we’ came from that is generally taught to students in High School. Namely, ‘we’ are the result of the conflux of Judeo-Christian religion and Greco-Roman philosophy. This synthesis came to fruition in the late Roman Empire, but because the Romans were too decadent, their society collapsed, and there was a long period of hibernation in which the Church put ‘reason’ into hibernation. Luckily, trade picked up again, and people started to realize that the Greeks were worth remembering. With the return to the Greek origin, ‘the West’ was revivified, and an age of exploration began, outwardly with ships, and inwardly with the rise of scientific investigation. From here it was a short step to the industrial revolution, and the rise of industrial capitalism which has now brought productivity and increasing freedom and technological development to the globe. Few stories could be more false than this. In fact, I hesitate to even write this, lest my words be taken out of context, and it be thought that I support such ridiculous, dangerous claims!
The story described in the preceding paragraph is bogus from the start. Greek knowledge is extensively inspired by that of its neighbors. Most of the Greek sages traveled far and wide in ‘the East’ before returning home to spread what they had learned, and rumor has it that some made it as far as India. Many Greek ideas had precursors in Egyptian thought, and in fact, much of the way Greeks talk philosophically can be seen in allegorical form represented in various aspects of Egyptian, rather than Greek, myths. For example, the highly philosophical accounts of the origins of language in the late Egyptian myths which describe relations between Thoth and Maat, the father god of writing and the mother goddess of the life-force, respectively, uncannily act as precursors to a wide variety of not only Greek but also Christian ideas on the relation between matter and meaning, word and creation, echoing in Greek down to logos and hyle, the origins of word and flesh in later Christian thought. Or, for example, the way the myths of Isis, Osiris, and Horus prefigure aspects of Jewish and Christian notions from the birth of Moses to the cruxifiction of Jesus. For more on these issues, see Robert Wright’s excellent text The Evolution of God. And beyond religion and philosophy, Greek math built upon Egyptian foundations, as well as those of Babylon and beyond. Euclidean geometry finds its foundations in the word problems whereby the Egyptians did the simple quadratic equations needed to build the pyramids. While the Greeks were great synthesizers, and clearly achieved some sort of incubator in their ‘Golden Age,’ their raw materials were all borrowed.
All the knowledge from Greece that the Romans systematized and elaborated became part of the culture of the Hellenistic world of the late Roman empire. This is the world of the decline of the Western Empire to German invaders, and the rise of Byzantium. The language eventually shifted from Latin to Greek, and under the Greek monarch known as the Ptolemeys in Egypt, Alexandria continued to flourish after the Western Empire had fallen. Under the twin lights of Alexandria and Byzantium, Greek knowledge was refined and mixed with the new upstart religion, Christianity, as well as Jewish sources, and contributions from the many ‘mystery cults’ of late Rome, and Gnostic Christians who drew from a wide variety of sources for inspiration.
The origins of Greek knowledge in Egyptian sources, and its heritage in the Hellenistic world, was well known during the Renaissance, a period in which the worship of ancient knowledge from Greco-Egyptian sources was highly prized by means of the famous hoax perpetrated by the authors of the Corpus Hermeticum. Despite the fact that these texts, thought to be written by the ancient Hermes Tresmegistus, a mythical figure combining aspects of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes, were from Hellenistic times, and were not in fact from before the time of the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophers, the fact that Renaissance scholars thought that these writings were originally from Egypt, and were the decisive source of Greek learning, describes how foundational Egypt was in the story that the scholars in the Renaissance told about the origins of Greek knowledge. For more on this, see Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent The Western Esoteric Tradition: A Historical Introduction, as well as Frances Yates’ work on the influence of the Corpus on Renaissance proto-science.
The Hermetic tradition’s influence on European culture certainly continued on with the Masons, and despite the fraudulent nature of these texts, the fact remains that until the period of high colonialism, which is to say, the nineteenth century, which in many senses starts not only with the French Revolution by also Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, does Egypt get written out of ‘the West.’ Likewise it is only at this period, in which Europe and America start seeing a common heritage which involves carving up the rest of the world with their technological advantage, does the very narrative of ‘the West’ become important, for it is only at this time that ‘the East’ emerges as a unified foil against the industrialized capitalist might of Euro-America in the nineteenth century.
And it is at this time that not only is Egypt removed from the story of ‘us’, but the Classical Islamic and Hellenistic world as well. As any reader of medieval and Renaissance philosophy knows, references to Arabic language philosophers are frequent. It was only from the later period of the Engligtenment forward that these references start to vanish, and almost symptomatically as colonialism and slavery seems to increase. Descartes labored to cast off the scholastics, just as Locke and Bacon tried to cast off the Renaissance proto-scientists, and with this went the memory of the indirect influence of the Aristotle and Plato carried by Arabic thought into the European world. Tabula rasa ergo sum, indeed!
From Plotinus to ibn Rushd and ibn Sina
Not only did Egypt and the influence of Islam vanish from the narrative of ‘us’ during the period of high colonialism, but also the period in which Christian thought was given birth to by an influx of Greek, Jewish, and various pagan influences, a period which greatly influenced Islam in turn, namely, the Hellenistic period. This strange transitional period linked many historical periods together, and in many ways can be seen as the mixing pot that gave rise to major aspects of both Christian and Islamic theology by means of the influence of Greek Neo-Platonism.
The Hellenistic world was largely dominated by the twin schools of thought which were either worldly philosophy, represented by the twin yet rival schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism, and the more mystical, Pythagoreanized version of Platonism espoused by Plontinus, Proclus, and their descendents, known as Neo-Platonism. In many ways, these are brought together in a great synthesis by the early Church fathers, particularly by means of notion of the word incarnate as first described by Philo of Alexandria and later expanded into official Church doctrine. For more on this period, and its philosophies, see Tripolitis’ Religions of the Hellenistic Age, Wallis or Gregory on Neoplatonism, the Inwood and Gerson’s Hellenistic Philosophy, or A.A. Long’s From Epicurius to Epictetus.
The Hellenistic period is one that is often glossed over in dominant history books, usually there is just a jump from the fall of Rome to the dark ages, then to the Renaissance. Why might this be? As scholars are increasingly arguing, this is because the Hellenistic period only sees its full development and flower, and ultimately, the seeds of the Renaissance, with the Islamic world.
Many aspects of the Islamic world during the Christian dark ages are an extension and advancement upon the Hellenistic seeds of the Christian late Empire. The doctrine of creation as an act of speaking, so clearly described in the Christian Gospel of John, was influenced by Greek notions of the logos, yet found their logical fulfillment not in the incarnation of Christian doctrine, but the Islamic privileging of the written world above all. While Islam is a radically diverse religious and philosophical domain, many schools of Islam during this period, as well as today, argue that the Qur’an is eternal, uncreated, and that each activation of it by a human act of recitation (which is what the word Qur’an literally means) relinks this finite world to the eternal and infinite from which it came.
During the Christian dark ages, Islam radically advanced upon Greek learning: one excellent account of this in regard to mathematics can be found in John Derbeyshire’s excellent 2007 text Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. Advanced quadratic equations, of the sort that are the bane of High School math students, are in fact the result of Islamic refinements of Greek and Egyptian mathematics. Beyond math, many of the vaulted navigational advances that made the ‘age of exploration’ in Europe possible originated in the Islamic world. The advances in geometry present in many Islamic designs anticipate many of the developments of contemporary mathematics, such as that of Penrose tiling.
As Marks describes in her wonderful book, it was during the period of the Crusades that Islamic knowledge began to filter slowly into the backwards Christian lands. Cedric Robinson details how the plunder from the Crusades provided the ‘seed money’ for the age of exploration. Robinson details how cities like Genoa and Venice became wealthy due to being the launching points for many of the Crusades, leading eventually to the becoming the merchants of the rest of the Christians to the north and west, but when these wealthy cities started bickering and taxing their merchants, Portugal saw opportunity and created low tax laws to entice banks to move their money their, leading to investment in exploration coming from Portugal. For Robinson, the Crusades were the origin of the prosperity that allowed the Italian city states to develop what today we call ‘the Renaissance,’ as well as the Iberian start of the ‘age of exploration.’
Marks details how during this period, Venice was the bridge to the Islamic world, linking the Christian nations to the clearly more advanced civilization of the Islamic world. And I have seen with my own eyes the Christian inscriptions on palaces in Spain in Arabic letters, simply because, in the words of the guide to these palaces, Arabic was clearly acknowledged as the language of learning at the time (12-1300’s)in that part of the world, even more than Latin. Marks shows how much Western art was influenced by Islamic world in terms of tastes, goods, styles, and material culture of various sorts.
And increasingly scholars are emphasizing just how much the Renaissance’s turn to Greek models was influenced by the Islamic world. For in fact, the massive turn to Aristotle which resulted in the sholastics of the late middle ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, were a reaction to the way in which new texts by Aristotle, long lost in the Christian lands, were challenging long held beliefs now that they were being made available by means of contact with the Islamic world. Aquinas’ work in fact is full of references to Islamic philosophers, particularly ibn Rushd, often known in Latin as Averroes, a defender of the Islamic heritage of thought influenced by Aristotle.
If the late middle ages and scholasticism were under the influence of ibn Rushd’s Aristotelianism, the early Renaissance was a period in which new translations of Greek sources had begun, bypassing their Arabic translations. Cosimo Medici supposedly was on his deathbed waiting fervently for translations of Plato (before he told his translators to put this on hold for a more urgent task, namely, a set of texts widely assumed at the time to be more ancient, namely, the Corpus Hermeticum). Early modern/
Renaissance science, as practiced by the likes of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, were strongly influenced by the Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato, which had grown from the teachings of Plotinus to become a particularly influential aspect of Islamic thought, via the notion of the emanations of God, as represented by the primary Islamic exponent of Neoplatonism, and its introduction to the Christian lands, of ibn Sina, otherwise known as Avicenna.
On to ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’
If there is a cause of the Renaissance and age of exploration in the Christian lands, it is clearly contact with the Islamic world, both in terms of the financial seed money to get it started, the trade and shipbuilding needed to spur war and trade, and the scientific learning that came in its wake. And if there is a link to Greece, it goes by the twin names of ibn Rushd and ibn Sina, perhaps the two most important ‘western’ philosophers that you’ve never heard of.
In fact, it seems time that the story of ‘the West’ needs to be fundamentally retold. I usually like to start the tale with Jared Diamond’s insightful theses from Guns, Germs, and Steel. In this book, Diamond seeks to answer the question of why ‘the West’ took over the world, and not the Arabic speaking lands, or the Chinese or Indian societies, or any other part of the globe. His book starts dramatically with an examination of just how easy it was for the Spanish conquistadors to vanquish the original inhabitants of the Americas. And he makes a pretty straightforward claim, namely, that any nation that had their advantages over the Incas, Aztecs, Maya, and other inhabitants of the Americas, would’ve suceeded to conquer these fertile lands, and hence eventually spread their culture to the globe, as well. For from the discovery of the Americas, large surpluses developed in Europe, and it was only a matter of time until the Industrial Revolution that clearly allowed what by this time was recognizeable as ‘the West’ to take over the globe.
But what were these crucial advantages that Spain, Portugal, France and others possess? None other than the guns, germs, and steel of the book’s title. Diamond argues that any civilization that got these three advantages would’ve been able to take over the Americas. And it was the Europeans that got the steel and guns first, although all the Euro-Asiatics and Northern Africans had the biological immunity to germs that did most of the work of killing the native inhabitants of the Americas before Spanish and Portuguese armies even got there.
Diamond shows how it there were a distinct set of geographical advantages that Europe and Asia possess over sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and the Americas, that made it such that either Europe or Asia were likely to be the first parts of the world to accumulate the sorts of surpluses necessary to spur the sort of technological development necessary to obtain guns and steel, and the density of cities necessary to develop high levels of biological immunity. Diamond then shows how China and Europe were each almost developed enough to engage upon naval conquest, and how China began their own ‘age of exploration’ in the Indian ocean under admiral Zheng He in the 1400’s, before Europe. This exploration was shut down by the nativist and isolationist Ming dynasty shortly thereafter. According to Diamond, had this not happened, the Americas might today be speaking Chinese.
But what was it that allowed Europe, rather than the Islamic world, to get to guns, germs, and steel? It seems the surpluses provided by the conquest of the Americas were the ultimately decisive factor, particularly when assisted by the fact that when the Portuguese found a trade route that lead around the southern tip of Africa to India and China, they could bypass the land routes that had made the Islamic societies the merchants that traded between far east and far west. In many senses, the Islamic societies were victims of their own success. The very tools of navigation and astronomy they developed from the Greeks were used against them. The very scientific and mathematical methods they honed over centuries were now taken up by a reinvigorated Europe. And it was precisely plunder, learning, and trade that reinvigorated the Christian lands. That is, contact with the Islamic world.
From such a perspective we can begin to write a new history of ‘the West,’ one that begins to include the gap between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. ‘The West’ begins with Egypt, flourishes in Greece, develops in Rome and Hellenistic society, passes to the Islamic World, the passes back to Europe as it starts to conquer the rest of globe. Europe then began to intentionally forget its origins during the period of colonialism so that it could justify being barbaric to the lands that had given it it’s start. Egypt began to be forgotten (though not by the Freemasons, who realized that Greek learning began on the shores of the Nile!), and Islam and the Hellenic world that bridged it to Rome were seen as unimportant. The Renaissance was simply a period when Europe ‘woke up’ and remembered that there were Greeks to dig back up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
So if we’re going to talk about ‘the West’ in any meaningful sense today, it must incorporate Egypt and Islamic moments in its history, as well as the Americas and the rewriting of this story during the colonial period. This is the story of the storymaking of the story of the West. Then again, the Islamic world isn’t simply a moment in the history of ‘the West,’ for it only intersects with ‘the West’ during this crucial period. After the Renaissance, Europe turns largely away from the Mediterranean to colonizing the rest of the globe, often finding the armies of the Islamic world too strong to deal with. But the Islamic world continued its development, as did the Chinese and Indian and sub-Saharran African world, until they too became victims of guns and steel, mixed with the industrial revolution made possible by colonialism.