The Flowering Of Arab Culture And Contacts With India
Having rapidly conquered large parts of Asia, Africa, and a bit of Europe, the Arabs turned their minds to conquests in other fields. The empire was being consolidated, many new countries had come within their ken and they were eager to find out about this world and its ways. The intellectual curiosity, the adventures in rationalist speculation, the spirit of scientific inquiry among the Arabs of the eighth and ninth centuries are very striking.
Normally, in the early days of a religion based on fixed concepts and beliefs, faith is dominant and variations are not approved or encouraged. That faith had carried the Arabs far and that triumphant success itself must have deepened that faith. And yet we find them going beyond the limits of dogma and creed, dabbling with agnosticism, and turning their zeal and energy towards adventures of the mind. Arab travellers, among the greatest of their kind, go to far countries to find out what other people were doing and thinking, to study and understand their philosophies and sciences and ways of life, and then to develop their own thought. Scholars and books from abroad were brought to Baghdad and the Khalif al-Mansur (middle eighth century) established a research and translation bureau where translations were made from Greek, Syriac, Zend, Latin, and Sanskrit. Old monasteries in Syria, Asia Minor, and the Levant were ransacked for manuscripts. The old Alexandrian schools had been closed by Christian bishops and their scholars had been driven out. Many of these exiles had drifted to Persia and elsewhere. They now found a welcome and a safe haven in Baghdad and they brought Greek philosophy and science and mathematics with them—Plato and Aristotle, Ptolemy and Euclid. There were Nestorian and Jewish scholars and Indian physicians; philosophers and mathematicians.
All this continued and developed during the reigns of the Khalifs Harun-al-Rashid and al-Mamun (eighth and ninth centuries) and Baghdad became the biggest intellectual centre of the civilized world.
There were many contacts with India during this period and the Arabs learnt much of Indian mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. And yet, it would appear, that the initiative for all these contacts came chiefly from the Arabs and though the Arabs learned much from India, the Indians did not learn much from the Arabs.
The Indians remained aloof, wrapped up in their own conceits, and keeping as far as possible within their own shells. This was unfortunate, for the intellectual ferment of Baghdad and the Arab renaissance movement would have shaken up the Indian mind just when it was losing much of its creative vigour. In that spirit of intellectual inquiry the Indians of an older days would have found kinship in thought.
The study of Indian learning and science in Baghdad was greatly encouraged by the powerful Barmak family (the Barmecides) which gave viziers to Harun-al-Rashid. This family had probably been converted from Buddhism. During an illness of Harun-al-Rashid, a physician named Manak was sent for from India. Manak settled down in Baghdad and was appointed the head of a large hospital there. Arab writers mention six other Indian physicians living in Baghdad at the time, besides Manak. In astronomy the Arabs improved on both the Indians and the Alexandrians and two famous names stand out: Al Khwarismi, a mathematician and astronomer of the ninth century, and the poet-astronomer Omar Khayyam of the twelfth century. In medicine, Arab physicians and surgeons were famous in Asia and Europe. Most famous of them was Ibn Sina (Avicenna) of Bokhara, who was called the Prince of Physicians. He died in 1037 A.C. One of the great Arab thinkers and philosophers was Abu Nasr Farabi.
In philosophy the influence of India does not seem to have been marked. Both for philosophy and science the Arabs looked to Greece and the old Alexandrian schools. Plato and, more especially,Aristotle exercised a powerful influence on the Arab mind and since then, and up to the present day, they have become more in Arabic commentaries than in the original versions, standard subjects for study in Islamic schools. Neo-Platonism from Alexandria also influenced the Arab mind. The materialist school of Greek Philosophy reached the Arabs and led to the rise of rationalism and materialism. The rationalists tried to interpret religious tenets and injunctions in terms of reason; the materialists almost rejected religion altogether. What is noteworthy is the full freedom of discussion allowed in Baghdad for all these rival and conflicting theories. This controversy and conflict between faith and reason spread from Baghdad all over the Arab world and reached Spain. The nature of God was discussed and it was stated that He cannot have any qualities, such as were commonly attributed to Him. These qualities were human. To call God benevolent or righteous was, it was suggested, just as pagan and degraded as to say that He has a beard.
Rationalism led to agnosticism and scepticism. Gradually with the decline of Baghdad and the growth of the Turkish power,this spirit of rationalist inquiry lessened. But in Arab Spain it still continued and one of the most famous of Arab philosophers in Spain went to the limits of irreligion. This was Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who lived in the twelfth century. He is reported to have said of the various religions of his time that they were meant for children or for fools or they could not be acted upon. Whether he actually said so or not is doubtful, but even the tradition shows the kind of man he was, and he suffered for his opinions. In many ways he was remarkable. He wrote strongly in favour of giving women a chance to play a part in public activities and held that they were fully capable of justifying themselves. He also suggested that incurables and such-like persons should be liquidated as they were a burden on society.
Spain was then far in advance of the other centres of European learning and Arab and Jewish scholars from Cordoba were greatly respected in Paris and elsewhere. These Arabs evidently had no high opinion of the other Europeans. An Arab writer named Said,of Toledo, described the Europeans living north of the Pyrenees thus: ‘They are of a cold temperament and never reach maturity.They are of a great stature and of a white colour. But they lack all sharpness of wit and penetration of intellect.
‘The flowering of Arab culture and civilization in western and central Asia derived its inspiration from two main sources—Arab and Iranian. The two mixed inextricably, producing a vigour of thought as well as a high standard of living conditions for the upper classes. From the Arabs came the vigour and the spirit of inquiry; from the Iranians, the graces of life, art, and luxury.
As Baghdad waned under Turkish domination, the spirit of rationalism and inquiry also declined. Chengiz Khan and the Mongols put an end to all this. A hundred years later central Asia woke up again and Samarkand and Herat became centres for painting and architecture, reviving somewhat the old traditions of Arab-Persian civilization. But there was no revival of Arab rationalism and interest in science. Islam had become a more rigid faith suited more to military conquests rather than the conquests of the mind. Its chief representatives in Asia were no longer the Arabs, but the Turks* and the Mongols (later called Mughals in India), and to some extent the Afghans. These Mongols in western Asia had become Muslims; in the Far East and in the middle regions many took to Buddhism.
* I have often used the word ‘Turk’ or ‘Turki’. This may confuse, as ‘Turk’ is associated now with the people of Turkey, who are descended from the Osmanli or Ottoman Turks. But there were other kinds of Turks also—Seljuks, etc. All the Turanian races of Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan, etc., may be called Turks or Turkis.
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