Day 1095 – Ken here (M)(9-10-2012)
(DEF III, v.5, Ch.50, pp.180-190)(pages read: 2220)
Tired and a little sick but blogging away…
We’re still struggling through a kind of miscellaneous wilderness of background information on the Arabs, Mohammed, and Islam – far from history and farther from Rome. But struggle we shall.
Today is all about a very ticklish text – the Koran – so it will be interesting to get Gibbon’s take – an Enlightenment, late 1700’s take – on the most important religious text, dictated by Mohammed himself, in all Islam. The Koran exists, of course, by itself, as a text, and as a continuously re-interpreted foundation of Muslim thought, but it also has a very different shadow-life in Christendom all its own – almost as if the “Christian” idea of the Koran and the actual text were two entirely different books.
As I said, an interesting chapter – at least from a socio-anthropological view of the texts of Islam as refracted through the mentality of an ex-pat English philosophe.
Gibbon has a sardonic, amused reaction to the Koran (which significantly he also had for organized Christian religion, as every good citizen of the larger Enlightenment had). He also assiduously maintained a knee-jerk reflexive admiration for all things English (and by inclusion Protestant and Christian) which he never gave up, no matter what the topic.
He both debunks “medieval” interpretations of the Koran and Islam and waxes deliciously sarcastic about specific tenets. The idea of tolerance was very new to the European Enlightenment scene, and Gibbon wasn’t incredibly good at it. But he tried. In general, after the Wars of Religion in the 1500’s and 1600’s, Christians in the late 1700’s were not particularly tolerant of each other, let alone of Muslims. Some of my ancestors were burning witches in Massachusetts a few decades before Gibbon. And Islam, of course, was not noted for its tolerance at this time. Just being Christian was reason enough to be conquered by the Ottomans. It was a great time for black and white, a poor time for shades of grey.
Islam was a still a militant and powerful force at this time. Remember, the Ottoman empire was past its peak, but only a hundred years before (The Siege of Vienna – 1683 (as far away in time to Gibbon as the First World War in 1914 is to us – in other words, not all that long a time), had overrun Middle Europe. Vienna was one of the last European capitals to raze its walls in the 19th century. They were there for a reason.
Gibbon – quoting the Koran – on its origins
But Mahomet was content with a character, more humble, yet more sublime, of a simple editor; the substance of the Koran, (91) according to himself or his disciples, is uncreated and eternal; subsisting in the essence of the Deity, and inscribed with a pen of light on the table of his everlasting decrees. A paper copy, in a volume of silk and gems, was brought down to the lowest heaven by the angel Gabriel, who, under the Jewish economy, had indeed been despatched on the most important errands; and this trusty messenger successively revealed the chapters and verses to the Arabian prophet.
Instead of a perpetual and perfect measure of the divine will, the fragments of the Koran were produced at the discretion of Mahomet; each revelation is suited to the emergencies of his policy or passion; and all contradiction is removed by the saving maxim, that any text of Scripture is abrogated or modified by any subsequent passage. The word of God, and of the apostle, was diligently recorded by his disciples on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of mutton; and the pages, without order or connection, were cast into a domestic chest, in the custody of one of his wives.
Two years after the death of Mahomet, the sacred volume was collected and published by his friend and successor Abubeker: the work was revised by the caliph Othman, in the thirtieth year of the Hegira; and the various editions of the Koran assert the same miraculous privilege of a uniform and incorruptible text. In the spirit of enthusiasm or vanity, the prophet rests the truth of his mission on the merit of his book; audaciously challenges both men and angels to imitate the beauties of a single page; and presumes to assert that God alone could dictate this incomparable performance.
(DEF III, v.5, Ch.50, pp.181)
I love Henry II of England. My favorite movie when I was a kid (and still, as an adult) is “The Lion in Winter” – Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole. An amazing piece of cinema. The script (like Eleanor’s bare breasts during the long ride from France to Palestine on Crusade) dazzled. Henry II was a man of many parts, and not unsurprisingly, was also the father of English Common Law, the basis for Civil Law in Commonwealth Countries and the U.S. (with the continual exception of Loiusiana which proudly harks back to Roman Law and to France and Napoleon). A new line of thinking links the beginnings of English Common Law, the middle 1100’s, Henry II, and the Sharia (Islamic “Common Law”) via the courts of Sicily.
The gist of it is briefly mentioned in a 2008 post in the Canadian online legal magazine SLAW in reference to a British House of Lords Decision to allow a refugee Lebanese women to appeal her deportation on the grounds that she would lose her son to her hostile husband upon her return since Sharia law only allows maternal legal rights until the age of seven – this being the reason she left Lebanon in the first place.
Sharia law is the moral code and legal code of Islam – an unfortunate combination since it encumbers and conjoins legal decisions with the will of God – an almost inescapable temptation the West has been consistently trying to avoid for the last half-century or so. Common Law is the development of law by juries, judges and precedent (previous decisions), as opposed to, perhaps, Roman Law which is promulgated by statutes of leaders or legislators.
The key point however, is that it is not the CONTENT of Sharia law that was passed to the West, but rather certain small points of the architecture of it. Three points – trial by jury, the action of debt (lawsuits to collect for damages), and a small point on the mechanism (a court, an assize – of novel disseisin to be precise, if you’re one of those who value extreme precision) to efficiently deal with returning illegally dispossessed property – all were a part of Islamic Sharia law in the 1100’s before these concepts entered English legal ideologies under Henry II.
Henry II was no proponent of a theo-centric law code administered by clerics. After all, Henry II was whipped by eighty monks for participating tangentially in the murder of the Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury – his opinions were the exact opposite – Henry tried to make English church clerks appear in lay royal courts for serious offenses in English society. Henry II clearly had a problem with a single set of rules which would comprise both moral and civil law.
So it only the architecture that was involved. I personally think the link is possible but not necessary. Islam obviously was the most advanced Mediterranean civilization in the 1100’s, especially economically. So it would make sense that Islam would have legal architecture far in advance of Western Europe. Anyone who has read Georges Duby (the great socio-economic French historian of the 1000’s, 1100’s, and 1200’s) and his landmark, rural-centric economic analyses (Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, etc) can see that Henry II was operating in the great boom-time of the 1100’s – the Reagan-Clinton-Bush years of wildly expanding prosperity after the great depression of the 800’s thru the 900’s and early 1000’s following the collapse of Charlemagne’s new empire and the new Scandinavian barbarian invasions of the Vikings. Henry was operating in an increasing economic complexity in a fit of economic expansion Europe had never seen before. Laws regarding debt and property would probably have been emended even in the complete absence of Islam (to make a broad, indefensible generality). Again, reading Duby, trial by jury has a long and tortuous history on the Eurasian peninsula and the British isles, quite apart from any Islamic influence.
It’s not that I have a cantankerous chauvinism that will not brook any non-Western sources of our current political/economic system in the West, it’s just that sometimes it seems that in an effort to appear multi-cultural and open to the rest of the world, in trying to undo a couple of centuries of colonial hysteria upholding the superior virtues of European civilization, sometimes historians can make themselves appear silly, by ignoring facts, twisting truths, and denying politically inconvenient events.
The boom of the late 1000’s and 1100’s was followed by the crazy fractal flowering of the medieval economy of the 1200’s, the population crash of the late 1300’s and recovery and expansion of Europe overseas in the 1400’s, leading to the modern world dominated by Western-style governments and economies. It doesn’t mean Europe and Europeans were first or better or smarter, it just means they stumbled on a mechanism that worked at the time and went with it. Regardless of how arrogantly they asserted themselves, it happened. The same way Islam took down the 2 mega-civilizations of the Mediterranean (Rome and Persia) in the last half of the 600’s. That happened also.
I guess I happen to feel that there is such a thing as truth apart from rhetoric, opinion and ideology – although I realize that some would think me hopelessly naive. Maybe they’re right. Truth is not for the weak-hearted or weak-minded. It requires a kind of ferocious honesty and continual practice of self-abasement. IMHO, of course.