The discussion I want to have

The discussions surrounding Abu Ghuraib are getting more and more depressing. Seymour Hersh’s article in this week’s New Yorker talks about how the torture was the result of orders from the Pentagon getting out of control. Newsweek is reporting President Bush signed the orders to commit torture. (TPM, Father Jake, Loose Democracy, Juan Cole on the same.)

Colin Powell thinks the Arab world should be more outraged over the beheading of Nick Berg. He’s right. Why is this even an issue? There seems to be a race to be the most barbarous and callous people in the world. As an American and a Muslim, this is not the conversation I want to participate in anymore. I will because it’s my duty and responsibility, but I don’t want to. I want to have a very different conversation.

Two prominent Muslim Empires in the 10th and 11th centuries were the Fatimid and Abbassid Empires. They were both attempting to claim sole legitimacy and authority in the Muslim by establishing competing caliphates. There was an element of military conflict involved. However, their power was not based solely on military might, but on cultural and educational strength. The oldest university in the world, Al-Azhar in Cairo, was founded by the Fatimids, in conjunction with the dâr al-ilm (house of knowledge), it was supposed to represent the peak of world-wide learning, embarrassing the Abbassids in Baghdad. The Abbassids had their dâr al-hikma (house of wisdom), and became a major center of sciences and culture. The earliest proofs of the round earth idea and the heliocentric nature of the solar system came out of here. In Cairo, the science of what we now know as optics was developed, as was algebra. Neo-platonic philosophy was developed to serve the emerging empire, and in Baghdad, the translation and preservation of Greek philosophy was under way. The fight was as much about who had the biggest brain as who had the biggest muscle. To that end, people of various faiths served at the highest levels of government because they were the best at what they did, and Muslims were confident enough in their own faith not to be threatened by people of other faiths who were more intelligent; it was seen as a chance to learn.

Later, during the Andalusian period, the Muslim rule of Spain, there was a great deal of inter-faith interaction and an emphasis on learning and the arts. Maimonides came out of this milieu, and the beginnings of Kabbalah, presumably from interaction with Islamic mystical movements, are traced to this time. Pope Silvestre II was sent to Toledo to get educated, and the first cataract operation was done during this era. The earliest literature we have of Spanish, proto-Spanish, was written in Arabic script; Roger Bacon said that the secrets of philosophy were rendered in a foreign script (Arabic). Learning and culture, as witnessed by Alhambra, were the hallmarks.

I’m only starting to understand the role Timbuktu played as a center of learning in the Muslim world. We do know that the earliest slave histories were written by Muslim slaves brought over from West Africa, which means the idea of illiterate Africans is an historical fallacy. We also know that there was a major library at Timbuktu.

These are the discussions and fights I want to have; who has the largest library? who has the best musicians? is neo-platonism a sound basis for religious philosophy? I don’t care who’s got the biggest gun. I really want to have a different discussion.

2 thoughts on “The discussion I want to have

  1. The beheading video had several oddities about it. The amount of blood does not seem consistent with the injuries shown, nor did the victim do any flailing or fighting or involuntary movements that I could see. I watched almost till the end, but not quite…but enough to notice that the victim was not struggling in a way I’d expect under the circumstances. I’m not sure whether I can think in terms of more or less outraged, or who should or shouldn’t be. I don’t understand Powell’s remark or what he meant by it. But that’s par for the course these days; there’s a lot I can’t understand. I’m not at all sure that we know who really performed those actions, or who released the video, or what their real purposes were. The timing of its release is also… peculiar.
    If the US torture orders came from the top, I don’t know what to think anymore. That’s not the America I thought I knew. Just want this long nightmare to end, and soon. I don’t understand Powell’s comment… the degree of outrage is always going to be relative to the closeness of those who’ve suffered or have been lost, or to their level of “innocence” in a situation, I’d think.

  2. Ooops, sorry… I didn’t see the rest of the post, and I responded to the beginning, which was the discussion you *did not* want to have!! Sorry!
    I have studied a little kabbala and am fascinated by its ideas being grounded in the mystical traditions of various cultures. Who’s got the biggest library today? Maybe the Louvre?

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