Harun al-Rashid

Sinbad

Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world.  He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.

He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded.  A good and generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy.  He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.

His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith.  So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period.  Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols.  Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.

Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.

In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book.  “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia.  They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.

At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid.  Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed.  The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh.  Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story.  And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.

From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes.  It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling.  Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens.  Al-Rashid is a thread that runs through every weave in the fabric of literature.

The power of press: why Islam lost to the West

printed_quran

It is seldom that you can take an invention and say categorically that it is directly responsible for given outcomes.  But we can do this with Printing.  The invention of the moveable type printing press in Europe set the west on a fast track to development of thinking, education, technology, representative government, free market economies and a rights based legal system.  The rejection of printing by the Ottoman Empire had the effect of stagnating the Islamic world.

In the mid 15th century the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in world politics.  A rising star.  In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople.  The centers of learning in the world were Arabic; Baghdad, Damascus, Granada, Cairo.  People living in the Islamic world had better health, education, cleanliness, rule of law etc than those in the west.  In England at this time, for instance, the Wars of the Roses began, plunging the country into decades of turmoil.

Several things then happened that changed the dynamics of East and West.

Firstly Gutenberg perfected the printing press.  This technological breakthrough was rapidly copied all over Europe.  With widespread availability of bibles there was a rise in literacy and scholarship.  With access to the text of the Bible came a focus on the differences between church Dogma and the word of the Gospels.  This led directly to the reformation of the church in the West and the rise of Humanism.

Questioning the authority of the Church set in motion a rise in free thinking.  If the Pope can be questioned then why not the King?  Across Europe we see the rise of the third estate.

The Reconquista was completed in Spain in the latter half of the 15th century, defeating the Emirate of Granada.  With the fall of Islam in Spain a great wealth of knowledge was unlocked from the Arabic libraries.  Scholars found ancient Greek texts on philosophy and science.  The philosophical works by authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles etc, pre-dated Christian writings.  They approached religious matters through reason rather than faith.  The rediscovery of these works plunged the Christian world into a crisis which was exacerbated by the new literacy and widespread availability of the bible.

At the same time the scholars unlocked scientific texts by the Greeks such as Archimedes and Pythagoras, and mathematical developments by Arabic scholars such as Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi as well as learnings from the Kerala school of mathematics in India.

In the 13th and 14th centuries access to these texts was highly restricted.  A university could proudly boast a library numbering books in the dozens.  Monasteries restricted access to their hand copied texts.

With the invention of printing these works became available to a far wider audience.  Europe experienced the Renaissance.

At the same time, in 1483 to be precise, Sultan Bayezid II instituted a ban on printing in the Arabic Language.

By the time this ban was lifted, and widespread printing was made available to the Arabic world, the West had left the Arabic world behind.  By the 19th Century the Ottoman Empire was “The sick man of Europe”.

Spain, Portugal, Holland, England and France ruled empires that spanned the globe.

The Arabic world continues to suffer from the after effects of this 300 year ban on printing.  In the West we need to be patient with developments in the Islamic nations.  Europe did not grasp the concept of democracy in a few short decades.  The grip of blind dogma on religion was not an overnight change.  It took centuries of scholarship to resolve.  It is amusing how many westerners expect the Arab Spring revolutions to deliver Western Style economies in a couple of years.