Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sheesh ...

Sheesh, I sure get hot under the collar quick when religion comes up. Thomas Cahill's reference to Augustine about which I wrote a few days ago got my back up, but I have cooled down. I left his Irish book by the wayside for a while and picked up something rather more to my typical taste ... Stephen O'Shea's lively review of "Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World" entitled Sea of Faith. And there on page 79, discussing the world after the fall of Visigothic Spain to the Muslims but also after their timely defeat by Charles Martel at Poitiers/Tours in 723 or 733, he writes this:

A commonplace of monastic chronicles and letters spoke of mundus senescit, the world grown old. That glum sentiment would have been deemed peculiar outside of western Christendom. The idea that a dying civilization was "saved," by the Irish of whomever, is parochial and would have been thought of as such by the denizens of the Mediterranean. By the yardstick of trade, intellectual inquisitiveness, and cultural interchange, civilization was doing quite well in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, with or without the monks.

If I have a single impression from having spent a year reading medieval European history, it would be precisely that. (That O'Shea takes an obvious swipe at the nevertheless engaging and talented Mr. Cahill is just a pleasantry.) The fall of Rome was cataclysmic, but life went on with its wearying combination of battles, migrations, disasters, and death alongside quotidien joys and boredom and countless lives lived passionately and anonymously. Alas, I cannot deny, having considered the matter long and deep for fifteen years, that I consider the irruption of Islam to have been, on balance, a tremendous blow to humanity. But the clash of civilizations (is a liberal allowed to say that?) has certainly been fascinating, and it deserves the full attention of every worldly citizen. (To be ecumenical, I consider the rise of Christianity to have been a blow to humanity as well ... let's be fair.)

The disaster of Islam is not without its upsides ... carpets, music, Ibn Khaldun, calligraphy, chanting, the Egyptian middle class, Rumi, graduate studies. But this was a monotheism that stripped away the ambivalence so thoroughly that it had to invent Sufism as a stand-in for the subtlety that its dominant demagogues so expertly crushed with their recitations. Since I wrote that piece a few days back, I have not been able to get this out of my mind: "[it was] Christianity's own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it 'uniquely unstable,' subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries' worth of devastating upheaval."

I studied Islamic history for a decade, primarily in service of a dissertation on Islamic chronicles from the early Malay world. And it is a fascinating history, no doubt, but a history whose peaks are early and whose declines are long. There are no escape valves in Islam. When Muslims pretend to seek to return to the halcyon days of the rashidûn — the first three or four rightly guided caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and then the ill-fated Ali, the latter three of whom were all assassinated — they can actually pull up some texts that are reasonably unambiguous about what sort of stick to use to clean your teeth, and appropriate methods for lopping off a foreskin or a hand or a head. Christian fundamentalists, generally speaking, seek a return to an era no further back than a few decades or a century or two at the most. The early days of Christianity were filled with tornadoes of hair- and ear-splitting discourses about body and divinity and trinity, and the presence or absence of a single iota. Hardly a Christian alive can sort all of that nonsense out, let alone give you a reasonably accurate representation of Leviticus.

So the middle ages of Islam is a slow sinking into torpor, and the middle ages of Christianity is the slow rising of a challenge to its institutionalized nonsense. And modern Islam is predominantly a revelling in the torpor, and modern Christianity is a thuggish ignorance of its own history and those who have defeated it again and again. That's what I think ... and more historically minded western liberals than care to admit agree in some measure notwithstanding all the palaver about multiculturalism and acceptance and the truly moronic notion of Islam as a religion of peace.

I actually sat down tonight to write about Alfred the Great ... I have a post in my head that insists on being stillborn ... but this is what came out. Within a day or two, O'Shea is going to hold forth about one of the most important forgotten battles in history, Manzikert in 1071. I can barely wait, even though "our side" will probably lose again ... it has in every account I have read so far.

Photo at top by Arod; detail of a poster about town these days advertising the ill effects of methamphetamine. Not sure why, but the head seems a propos. Image below from Wikipedia Commons, depicts the battle of Manzikert; I believe that the Turk Arp Arslan is using the defeated Byzantine Romanus IV as a stepladder to mount his horse. Both would be dead within little more than a year.

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