Travelling from Chalcedon to Crdoba

by Graham Hellier

from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008

The gates of the city shall never be shut by day, nor will there be any night there (Rev 21:25).

From the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, Georgis bin Bakhtisho, dean of the great Christian medical school in Gundeshapur, Persia, was on his way to Baghdad. The summons had come from none other than Abua Jafar Abd Allah al-Mansur ibn Muhammad, second Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, who lay seriously ill with no doctor in Baghdad able to help him. Georgis succeeded in curing the caliph and was appointed physician to the palace. He was the first of eight generations of the Bakhtisho family, who together with many Syriac Christians from the Church of the East served a succession of Muslim caliphs as doctors, friends and advisors. Complaints made to a later caliph, al-Rashid, that Gibra'il Bakhtisho, as a Christian, should not have such a position in a Muslim court brought the answer: "But I owe my good health to him, and since the well being of the Muslims is dependent on me, their well being is dependent on Gibra'il".

The Great Mosque of Córdoba
The Great Mosque of Córdoba

It was the second century of the Muslim era. Arab armies had conquered the Byyzantines at al-Yarmuk in Syria (636AD), and the Persians at al-Qadisiyah soon after. They were welcomed by the Nestorian and Monophysite Christians who had endured many decades of persecution following the Council of Chalcedon (451AD). The council now has 'the patina of sanctity'. In fact, it failed to be ecumenical and met in an atmosphere of violence, with a cordon surrounding the city to keep out protesting monks. Imperial officials set the agenda; the overriding aim being to secure uniformity within the empire. Its decisions were referred back to the Emperor for his approval. Step by step, in the great councils, the Church mirrored the totalitarianism of the State and became in effect an arm of the State. Emperors and patriarchs set out to subdue the Christians of North Africa and the Near East. Orthodoxy triumphed and the Christian world was shattered.

Islam brought welcome relief for, as one Nestorian chronicler put it: 'The hearts of the Christians rejoiced at the domination of the Arabs (may God strengthen and prosper it)', and a Syriac Christian wrote how God had: 'raised from the region of the south the Children of Ishmael to deliver us froxm the hands of the Romans'. There was no one to help when the Muslim army took Jerusalem in 637 for the Emperor's forces were far off, harrying Coptic Christians in Egypt. The Egyptian churches were bitterly divided because of Cyrus, patriarch and prefect, a cruel and devious man, who used 'the cross as an iron mace to club native resistance'.

The 'heretical' Syriac Christians were midwives to the birth of Muslim culture and learning. The centre of the cultural world was not in Rome but in the east, where Persian and Greek civilisation intermingled and Christian scholars had long drawn from the riches of both. The 'school of Edessa' (now Urfa in Turkey) known also as 'the school of the Persians', was multi-disciplinary, teaching not only theology, liturgy and biblical studies but also philosophy, medicine, natural sciences, secular history, geography, music and languages. When forcibly shut down by the Emperor Zeno in 489, most of its members founded a new school in Nisibis, Persia. Its first principal was Narsai, a famed poet, exegete, preacher and theologian, known as 'the harp of the Holy Spirit'. Further schools were established in Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Gundeshapur. Generations of physicians were trained in the latter. It was they who gave asylum to pagan philosophers driven out of the Platonic academy in Athens by the Emperor Justinian.

Under early Islam, in contrast to Europe, these were the days of itijihad. Jihad is 'struggle' and can refer to the inward struggle to live according to the will of God or to the outward struggle against the enemies of Islam. Itijihad refers to the struggle for truth, through dialogue, through reason, through learning. In these years it was said that the 'gates of itijihad were open' and Muslims sought wisdom from every source. Christians had translated many Greek works into Syriac and were now well placed to convert these into Arabic. Among the finest scholars was Severus Sabkhut (d 667), who was a doctor, mathematician and philosopher. He was knowledgeable in astronomy and the natural sciences. Then there was Jacob of Odessa, who translated many works from Greek to Syriac and produced a chronicle updating Eusebius' Church History. Yuhanna bin Adi al-Tikriti (b 893) founded a school of logic and translated many philosophical works into Arabic. Qanawati lists over 60 translators at this time, of whom 58 were Christian. Scholars flocked to Dar al-Hikmah - 'The House of Wisdom' - in Baghdad, where sponsors were known to pay in gold the weight of each book translated into Arabic. Its first principal was a Nestorian Christian, ibn Masawah. His most famous pupil was the Christian scholar, Hunayn Bin Ishaq (809-873). He was a master of Arabic, Greek, Syriac and Persian. He led a team of translators and published a guide setting down the principles of accurate translation. More crucially still, he laid the foundation of scientific and philosophical terminology in Arabic. His team translated most of Galen's medical works, as well as many of the works of Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates.

In these times there were interfaith dialogues between Muslims and Christians. A manuscript is still extant of that between Patriarch Timothy I and the Caliph al-Mahdi (775-85), where Timothy is recorded as saying: 'It is clear that Muhammad walked in the path of the prophets'. Another memorable debate was between Hunayn bin Ishaq and Yehya bib al-Munajjim, who was seeking to convert him. A third dialogue as late as 925 was held in the Green Church in Tikrit between Dinkha of Tikrit and al-Mas'udi. These were not the dialogues of antagonists but of thinkers who respected each other and sometimes worked alongside each other. The Christian philosopher Yuhanna bin Adi was taught by the Muslim thinker, al-Kindi as well as by the Christian, Abu Bishr Matta. Some Arab schools were open to Christians, considering Jesus an ideal of purity and holiness and, unusually for Muslims, accepting the account of his crucifixion.

Such work was key to the emergence of Arab civilisation and an essential conduit in the transmission of Greek knowledge to Western civilisation via the Arabs in Spain. The one exception to this was the remarkable flowering of Irish learning in the seventh and eighth centuries. Significantly, the Celtic churches, also tainted with 'heresy', had maintained contact with the Eastern Mediterranean. It was said that their scholars came to the continent 'like a swarm of bees'. In the ninth century Erigena Scotus taught at the court of Charles the Bald. He translated the writings of Dionysius, the Areopagite (fifth century) and followed him in regarding theology as 'a kind of poetry'. Like the Greek fathers he insisted that truth can only be expressed in paradoxes - 'yes and also no'.

The Muslim empire was, of course, theocratic and it too developed its imperial agenda. Christians suffered progressively from their inferior status, from social pressures and from taxation. The time came when Christians in high office could no longer protect their communities. There was a hardening in Muslim attitudes, a growing Muslim orthodoxy and the closing of the gates of itijihad . As in the hardened orthodoxy of Christianity, religious leaders decided that all important questions had been resolved. Muslims had added greatly to the heritage bequeathed to them, drawing from India, Persia and Greece, and making important advances in science, mathematics, engineering and geography, but the time came when few fresh advances were made. In the ninth century al-Shafi'I codified Islamic law and set out the doctrine of consensus by which, once agreement had been reached, it was irrevocable. The process was completed by al-Ghazali in the twelfth century, who taught that revelation must prevail over reason and predestination over free will. The great Christian communities withered under bouts of persecution and the later onslaughts of Tamerlane's Mongols, of Kurds, and of Ottoman Turks.

* * * * * *

In the year 955 the court in Constantinople was agog. The new arrival was Rabi ibn Zayd, bishop of Elvira in Spain. The astonishing thing was that he was a diplomat in the service of the Caliph of Córdoba. He enthralled the courtiers with his descriptions of the great city - 'the highest of the high and furthest of the far'. He spoke of hundreds of mosques and public baths, of paved and well lit streets, of running water from the aqueducts. The largest library held 400,000 volumes at a time when Christian Europe could scarce find 400 manuscripts in one place. Córdoba was the creation of Abd al-Rahman, the refugee prince of the Umayyads who had fled Damascus when the Abbasids massacred his family. He was the architect of the rich and tolerant culture of Andalusian Spain that survived fragmentation, inter-city wars and incursions from north Africa, and would give its invaluable legacy to Europe even after the Christian reconquest.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba had been adapted from a Christian church, after the manner of the Mosque in Damascus and was shared by both faiths. A new Baghdad had arisen. Hasdai, who was Jewish, became Grand Vizier to Abd al-Rahman III and translated Dioscorides' On Medicine from Greek to Arabic. Judah Halevi explored issues of faith and reason in The Book of the Khazars . and, writing in Arabic, came to be celebrated as 'the greatest poet of Andalusia'. The Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averrhoes) wrote his commentaries on Aristotle. The Jewish philosopher, Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides) wrote The Guide for the Perplexed . The Christian, Peter Abélard, developed the 'sic et non' theology of Erigena Scotus and the early Greek fathers. Islam has a similar tradition represented by the thirteenth century humourist philosopher, Nasruddin. Two men come to him to judge their quarrel. He listens to each in turn, telling them: 'You are right'. When his wife intervenes: 'They can't both be right!', he promptly replied: 'Woman, you're right too!'.

Abélard taught in Paris but learning had flowed from Damascus and Baghdad, through to Córdoba and Toledo and was entering European consciousness. The Christians of Toledo celebrated the Eucharist in Arabic and welcomed scholars from all over Europe. Peter, Abbot of Cluny, who gave refuge to Abélard, used the great library there and commissioned the first translation of the Qur'an into Latin. The greatest of the translators, like Robert of Ketton and Michael Scot, were, in effect, explorers as well, discovering new worlds of learning.

So Muslim science and mathematics spread to Europe - the astrolabe for navigation, algebra (al-gabara), algorithms (taken from the name of al-Khawarizmi) and Arabic numerals (adapted from India). In the thirteenth century it was Sicily where two worlds met and the scholars pored over their books. It was there that the Emperor Frederick came, in 1220, with another crusading army. Astonishingly he was well versed in Arabic and when he took Jerusalem from a less tolerant Christian king, his first act was to restore the Muslim call to prayer.

Nor was Andalusia alone in the world of Islam - far to the north, in fifteenth century Afghanistan, Herat had become the capital of the Moghul Empire. Queen Shad had married the son of Tamerlane and the city became home to a Nestorian-Sufi cultural flowering that made it famous for its poets, its mosques and its libraries. Many of its wonderful buildings survived until it was largely destroyed by the British retaliatory expedition of 1885. Meanwhile in sixteenth century India the Muslim ruler, Akbar the Great, had set out to be 'emperor of all the faiths', marrying a Hindu and holding weekly seminars for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsees. He abolished the poll tax on non-Muslims, ended slavery in his kingdom and gifted Amritsar to the Sikhs. His contemporary, Elizabeth I, corresponded with him and testified to his reputation for humanity. Did she know how far his dominion outshone the glories of Britain's Elizabethan age?

Why did Andalusia fall into decline? In part, it was bitter Muslim rivalry - 'the years of strife' from 1009 onwards - and in part, it was the fierce fundamentalism of the Berber tribesmen enlisted to defend the caliphate, who then turned on their hosts. Then came the fragmentation and the rivalries of sixty and more city states. In the fourteenth century it was the Black Death that destroyed the very fabric of social and religious order, followed by the triumph of Christian orthodoxy as Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Jews and 'the Moors' from Spain.

Today, the world's fundamentalists would have the gates of itijihad firmly closed. The orthodox may open them but their guardians are wary of the coming and going. The tolerant have no such apprehension but easily become indifferent to those who pass through. It is the seekers and dissenters who can be truly catholic and welcome the interfaith world where uniformities give way to the 'yes and no' of creative thought. John's vision of Jerusalem is of a city with open gates. Would he recognise that pilgrims come to give as well as receive? 'Orthodox' meant 'right opinion' and came to mean 'true glory', but beware - the truth cannot be gated and guarded. The 'true glory' transcends our lesser creeds. We can take courage, abandon our exclusive past and discover the inclusive God of all people - each with the best of their own.

We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us (al-Kindi, ninth century).

Graham Hellier is a retired Church of Scotland minister and author of The Thoughtful Guide to Christianity.