When the ancients were wise

By Razib Khan | August 30, 2010 4:46 am

2009-02-02-HouseofWisdomcovI picked up The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization on the run, as I was about go traveling somewhere. I didn’t look at the contents or even the jacket summary very closely. My interest specifically was to get to know a little more about the Abbassid House of Wisdom, which like the Academy of Athens was more defined by a bustle of intellectual activity rather than a physical space. In particular I wanted to know more about Thābit ibn Qurra, arguably the most renowned translator of ancient works for the House of Wisdom, and the last pagan intellectual of note in western Eurasia before Plethon. Thābit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, a religious sect in Haran which had convinced the Islamic authorities that they were a People of the Book, but who clearly descended from the pagan tradition of that city which persisted down to late antiquity thanks to the protection given by the nearby Persian rulers (during the period when Justinian was eliminating all traces of institutional paganism from the Byzantine Empire, from the Academy in Athens, the Sun Temple in Balbek, to the Temple in Philae, Haran was spared because the proximity of the Persian Empire meant that the Byzantines did not have a free hand in disrupting the local social equilibrium without cost to their domination of the region). But The House of Wisdom is not that book at all, only a few pages are given over to the Abbassid House of Wisdom. Rather, the title refers to the interaction between the civilization of Islam and Western Christendom between late antiquity to the high medieval period, and is a metaphor for Arab Islamic civilization. If you want to know about Adelard of Bath, Roger of Sicily, and Frederick II, this is the book for you! These are some of the novel bit players in the rather well worn story of “How X Saved Western Civilization,” with X being the Arabs in this narration (the other figures, such as Averroes, are well known to you from other works).

I was disappointed with the framework of The House of Wisdom. Because I misunderstood the title I thought it was going to be a narrowly focused work with a scholarly bent. Instead it was meandering, broad brush, and most definitely aimed toward an ignorant lay audience. This sort of work isn’t all bad. Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World is of similar bent, though more focused and scholarly. The intent of the publishers in these sorts of works are clear. Here another book in the same vein, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (I can not recommend this as much as Wells’ attempt). Jonathan Lyons tries to do the same for the Arabs as Colin Wells did for the Byzantines, but there are differences which I think are instructive. Lyons turns the Byzantines into bit-players on the margins of his story, which is really about the dance of the West, those societies which were heirs to the Western Roman Empire, and the Muslims of Araby (there is sentence where he refers to “Christians” and then to “Byzantines,” with it being obvious that he’s distinguishing the two. This is obviously a minor error, but it points to the fact that the Byzantines have been pushed so far to the margin Lyons’ story that they aren’t even included in Christendom!). Wells used the Muslims as a contrast with the Byzantines, showing how these two streams of preservation of ancient wisdom differed in the details, and how they complemented each other. So Byzantine influence was more powerful in Italy, while works derived from Al-Andalus were more prominent in what became France. The historical reasons for this moderate disjunction are straightforward and need not concern us here. But of more interest is that while the Muslims tended to focus on the abstract philosophical and technical wisdom of the Greeks, it was from the Byzantines that we derive the preservation of the Hellenic humanistic tradition. Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes. This is a substantive distinction, and one that is not often highlighted.

Instead the author of The House of Wisdom spends an inordinate amount of time contrasting the civilized and the barbaric. The civilized in this case being the Arab Muslim, and the barbaric being the Latin Frank. We’ve been around this block many times, and I don’t understand why we need to revisit this normative inversion again. Perhaps I’m not part of the intended audience, I’m the type of person who reads thousand page books on the Crusades, so I’m not really interested in rehashes of the conflict over a few paragraphs. The corrective bias which I believe Lyons is operating under because of the presumption of an Islamophobic ignorant audience is why there are counter-polemics such as Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. The Crusades were of course balanced by the Arab conquests, which was a veritable rollback of Christendom. One could write another book about “how the Greeks and Persians civilized the Arabs.” The contempt with which the older cultures viewed the Arab Muslims is evident in the Shahnameh or John of Damascus’ writings, and the transformation of Araby into a font of literate sophistication which the Franks encountered in the 4th Muslim century is an important story in and of itself. But instead we’re treated to these black & white morality plays which satisfy the Middle Eastern urge to remind the West who was savage and backward once. This isn’t serious scholarship. Positivism may not be possible in a pure form, but there’s a spectrum between the objective and polemical.

But there are gems of interest in The House of Wisdom. With only 200 pages at his disposal the author really didn’t have time to delve into the literature which he cites and alludes to (which makes the standard West-is-bad framework annoying as it wastes space). In particular, though not explicitly fleshed out I think one can see how Arab Muslim civilization benefited from its geopolitical position and economies of scale. The Arabs reunited many parts of Alexander the Great’s Empire, bringing Alexandria under the same political and social order as the Persian heartland. With the Arab conquest of Sindh, and the defeat of the Tang at Talas, we see that they had interface with other great civilizational traditions. At its height the Umayyad Caliphate was bounded on the West by Latin Christian civilization and on the east by the outposts of the Chinese cultural penumbra. In India the Umayyad’s seem to have come to an understanding with both the Buddhists and Brahmins of Sindh (in particular, the tax exemptions of Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests were maintained as a holdover from the pre-Islamic order). Greek, Chinese, Indian, and Persian wisdom all came together during the Abbassid period in the House of Wisdom (as well as extinct civilizations, such as that of Persian Christianity and Central Asian Buddhism). If there is one fact which I found to be noteworthy in The House of Wisdom it is that Lyons connects the spread of paper from China to the Arab world in the 8th century with the explosion in translation in the 9th century under the aegis of Al-Ma’mun. So like the printing press paper may have triggered an intellectual revolution. It is very interesting that almost all the earliest preserved works of the ancients can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassids in the 9th century, and the Byzantines under Constantine VII. This occurred over ~150 years or so, and it is to this expenditure of capital on the part of these potentates to which we can give thanks for our remembrance of secular Western antiquity.

So what wisdom did the the Arabs transmit to the Franks? If you’re deeply interested in that, I recommend Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages and more especially The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. Remember that a disproportionate contribution by the Arabs was in the domain of natural philosophy, the precursor to science. The Byzantine advantage lay in works in the original Greek, but the Arabs transmitted the works through the intermediation of several languages, from Greek to Syriac to Arabic to Latin. Science’s beauty is that such translation shouldn’t garble the meaning so much, it is a clear and distinct enterprise with little need for semantic nuance. The introduction to most of Aristotle’s thinking in the West was famously through Averroes, the “Commentator” cited by Aquinas. Averroes did not know Greek, and himself relied on Arabic versions of Aristotle’s work.

ESBdioceses0811The aforementioned Adelard of Bath looms large in The House of Wisdom because he brought back works from the Arab world on astrology and philosophy of immediate technical utility. Prior to the modern era astrology and other pseudo-sciences were part of the body of natural philosophy. Star charts and models of celestial mechanics were critical to a proper astrological enterprise. The ancient societies had developed excellent techniques over time, culminating in the work of Ptolemy. Additionally, the Islamic world had an infusion of complementary knowledge from Indian astrologers. The combination of the wealth of the Arab world, the fact that it had access to ancient works, and its cross-cultural connections, meant that in the domain of astrology it was far superior to anything found in the Latin West. Because of the belief in the power of the stars the Arab wisdom in this case had immediate yield and quickly spread after Adelard’s translation effort. Something similar occurred in the realm of geography, where Arabs had a natural advantage over the isolated and parochial Franks. Jonathan Lyons does not explore the economic basis of these differences in cultural capital much, but if you are curious I recommend Christopher Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Of the successor polities to the Roman Empire that of the Arab Muslim world was clearly the wealthiest to start out with. Much of the subsequent advancement in various technical arts can be attributed to the ability of the Arabs to marshal their surplus capital, and the consequent positive feedback loops which might emerge even in a Malthusian world.

In the big picture though The House of Wisdom has less impact on the modern mind because I believe we do not comprehend the power of the ancients over those who lived before 1800. Lyons himself observes that Western Europeans on occasion selected inferior techniques and truths from the Greeks over Arab derivations and extensions because of the presumption that the Greeks were superior in all way to later peoples. The idea that ancient peoples were wiser, and lived in a better age, is not one that most of us in a post-Malthusian consumer world of technological obsolescence can grasp, but it is a cultural universal. The Chinese, Indians, Greeks and Romans all looked to golden ages, when morals were superior, and wealth and health were the way of the world. Part of this may be that in the Malthusian world there were recollections of periods in their culture when the demographic parameters were expansionary. That is, land was in surplus, labor in a deficit, and necessities a surfeit. But whatever the origin, this model persisted down to the 18th century and the Enlightenment. The Renaissance had been an efflorescence of learning, but it had been retarded in its progress in some ways because of the reverence for ancient precedents. This is most evident in medicine and physics, where Galen and Aristotle led scientists astray.

There are some domains where the ancients still hold sway today. Religion is one. To some extent the literary humanities as well. Among non-scientific, and even some scientifically minded, there is still the idea that “ancient wisdom” can unlock secrets which we moderns have forgotten. To understand psychology I know of individuals who go seeking wisdom in the Sufis or Bhagavad Gita. I suppose that says something about the state of modern psychology. But it is also testament to the fact that despite our modern reliance on technological and scientific advancement the mind still craves ancient wisdom which can be gotten for free. Many believe that just by digging in musty archives one can find magics which unlock the secret of the universe. Magics which the ancients had stumbled upon, and which we have forgotten. To me that is the real polemical lesson that books such as The House of Wisdom should be teaching us, that pre-modern man thought that wisdom could be excavated and borrowed, and not created de novo. Instead, these sorts of popularizations are aimed toward an ignorant and dull modern audience caught up in Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann’s latest hobby-horses.

Image Credit: Howard Wiseman

MORE ABOUT: Arabs, History, Islam

Comments (34)

  1. Ganesha

    Although I’m sure the review is accurate and justified, it seems to me an error to suggest that “digging in musty archives” is a vain endeavor. The Sufis, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and numerous other traditions and sources both written and oral are based upon thousands of years of collected wisdom. That they do not present information in the supposedly exact language of the relatively modern invention called “science” does not mean that they are implicilty spurious. Modern scientific principles adhere to intellectual reasoning, which is but one of the ways in which our brains process information. Intuition and emotion can just as readily lead one to knowledge and wisdom. Afterall, isn’t it just possible that, in our pursuit of “truth,” we _have_ lost some lessons that others once knew?

  2. John Emerson

    It’s a sort of truism that the Muslims developed Aristotle whereas the Byzantines developed neo-Platonism, which was much more mystical, so that Arab scholarship was more usable and, you’d have to say, more progressive than Byzantine scholarship. How valid this truism is I’m not sure; the story has to be more complicated than that. (The Byzantines are also given credit for bringing texts to the West after the Ottoman conquest).

    Be that as it may, the neglect of Byzantium by Western scholars is really quite amazing. I’m more interested in the topic than most people, and I can only name two Byzantinbe authors, (Procopius and Anna Comnenus). People still talk about the Fall of the Roman Empire in 476 even though it lasted almost a millenium longer in the east.

  3. Mary

    Wonderful post, Razib. You describe our yen for ancient wisdom lost so beautifully. Even I can summon up more sorrow and regret over the destruction of the library at Alexandra than I can for my grandmother’s lost diamond ring. All your book recommendations are icing on the cake and Amazon can grant us a thousand wishes.

  4. (The Byzantines are also given credit for bringing texts to the West after the Ottoman conquest).

    the greeks started going west to italy even earlier than that.

    Be that as it may, the neglect of Byzantium by Western scholars is really quite amazing.

    i think there’s something of a normative bias. the byzantines are commonly referred to as stagnant. fair enough. but most pre-modern societies exhibited stagnancy. perhaps they’re judged more harshly because they’re almost western.

    Afterall, isn’t it just possible that, in our pursuit of “truth,” we _have_ lost some lessons that others once knew?

    this is fair. but please note that i’m referring to people who think that ancient wisdom is commensurable with modern scientific knowledge. this is more clear with fundamentalist types who read their scriptures as scientific works, but it’s also evident in mystics on occasion. i have heard rishis and sufis described as ‘scientists’ by some.

  5. omar

    I wrote the following long note 3 years ago and it covers some of the same ground as your comments. My apologies for the length of this comment, but I have no time to revise it down right now:

    In the last few months, I have seen several disturbing examples of serious scientific journals publishing fantasies about the Islamic “golden age” as if they were scientific fact. Some examples and my comments follow:

    A. In an otherwise reasonable article about doctors and terrorism (NEJM, August 16th, http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/357/7/635?query=TOC) the author chose to insert a quote from the “Times” that panders to this trend. The quote states: “it (the terrorist attacks involving Muslim medics) also insults the pride that Muslims take in the achievements of their golden age, especially in the fields of medicine, surgery and pharmacology. Medicine owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy. It was the great Muslim physicians of Spain and the Middle East who laid the foundations for today’s science; it was the writings and medical observations of scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, as he was known in Europe) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) that led directly to the medical advances of the past nine centuries.”

    1. The idea that the work of so and so led directly to every advance in modern medicine in the next 9 centuries is true only in the sense that almost everything that happened in the interconnected world of Europe and the Middle East in the 12th century “led directly” to all that happened in subsequent centuries. Muslim physicians made some significant advances in medicine and, perhaps even more important, preserved and passed on the knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. But the idea of a “golden age” that is responsible for all progress in the modern world is simply the mirror image of the idea that Muslims are irredeemable barbarians who contributed nothing worthwhile to the world. Medieval Islamicate civilization, while undoubtedly civilized and progressive by the standards of the age, was not especially enlightened by modern standards. Slavery and torture were widespread, religious minorities faced discriminatory rules, the caliphate suffered repeated dynastic squabbles and civil wars, legal protections were minimal, women were kept out of public life and free enquiry was frequently suppressed at the whim of one or the other absolutist ruler. We should avoid the temptation to treat today’s Muslims as children who may get upset if you don’t throw them a few lines about the “golden age”. The intentions behind such “positive lying” are undoubtedly benign, but in a scientific journal we should stick to verifiable claims and (relatively) objective data.

    B. A few months ago, the scientific journal “Nature” published an amazing piece of Islamist apologetics (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v448/n7150/full/448131a.html) by modern Islamist Ziauddin Sardar. Their intent was probably benign: maybe “Nature” hoped to foster some kind of modern, scientific culture in the Muslim world by promoting what they regard as benign and relatively civilized Islamism. But the article makes sweeping statements about history and historical categories (“classical Islam inspired science, progress in science made Muslims powerful, colonialism destroyed Islamic science, etc. etc”) and offers them up as established facts.

    1. As pointed out above, the purported golden age was hardly as “golden” as Sardar imagines.

    2. A case can easily be made that this knowledge and creativity had not really died down in the settled areas of the Middle East prior to Arab conquest and political unification under the Arabs provided an opportunity for bright individuals to make contributions to human knowledge, as it has in other times. Religion could (and sometimes did) hinder the process, but rarely directly aided it (unless you wish to credit religion for providing the social glue that held society together, but then again, that same role has been played by other religions and continues to be played by other ideological constructs).

    3. The idea that Islamic nations were powerful because of some significant technological advantage and devotion to science is open to question. One can easily argue that when it came to making war, the Islamic caliphate never reached the technical level of the Romans, but then again, neither did their opponents. Even the Romans repeatedly suffered defeats at the hands of technologically inferior opponents because the difference in war-making technology between barbarian and advanced civilization was not decisive in those times (and may not be decisive in some ways even today).

    3. The idea that “colonialism” somehow destroyed classical Islamic science is laughable. By the time the colonial powers arrived, there was no scientific tradition in any part of the Middle East that could even remotely compare with the emerging scientific traditions of Europe (which is the main reason why they were colonized in the first place). This is the most easily refuted of Sardar’s arguments and the fact that the editors of “Nature” are unaware of such elementary facts (or wish to ignore them) is deplorable.

    C. In November 2006, “Nature” published a special on “Islam and Science” that was breathtaking in its superficiality (http://www.nature.com/news/specials/islamandscience/index.html). For example:

    1. The issue was introduced with repeated references to “Muslim science”. Why is “Muslim science” a reasonable unit of analysis, but not “Hindu science”, “Buddhist science” or even “Christian science”? We are talking about 50 countries with little in common beyond the allegiance of varying proportions of their population to one somewhat heterogeneous religious tradition. It may be (as the most extreme detractors and most extreme adherents of Islam are equally eager to claim) that there is something special about the adherents of Islam and in their case (and their case alone), it makes sense to define them by religion rather than by geography, culture, ethnicity or any other criterion. But this is a fraught and complex debate and the editors of “Nature”, far from making a sensible contribution to it, do not even seem to be aware of its existence!

    2. The editors state that: “There has never been a greater need for the measured, evidence-based approach to problems that comes from scientific training. Its contribution may be small amid the current turbulence, but it is all the more worth pursuing.” But having said that, none of the contributors (with the exception of Nader Fergany) exhibit any signs of having taken their own advice. Party slogans and pop-culture bromides take the place of any attempt at analysis. One contributor states “In the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had a favorable reception in Muslim countries.” how did he reach that conclusion? The great mass of Muslims was not even aware of the most elementary achievements of Modern science. The traditionally trained theologians had very little to say about Darwin and when they did find something to say, it was almost wholly negative. The acceptance of evolution by a few Western trained intellectuals hardly constitutes “favorable reception”. Equally careless statements are made about the history of “Islamic science”, the nature of politics in Muslim countries and the nature of Islam itself. The level of historiography and analysis on display would be an embarrassment in a good quality high school. In “Nature” it is downright shameful. One expects a higher standard of discourse from the premier scientific journal in the world.

    3. The contributors repeatedly refer to a purported golden age of rationality and science in the Middle East about a thousand years ago. For example, asking Muslims to “reclaim… a great Islamic past in which new knowledge was valued and scholars were free to pursue all lines of enquiry”. The reality is much more complicated than that. Islam as a religious tradition is not unusually open to outside influences. Like all other religious traditions, it absorbed much from the older traditions that existed in its area of influence, but it was rarely willing to openly admit such cultural borrowing and the doctors of Islam (like their counterparts in other traditions) tended to do their borrowing surreptitiously. The civilization that resulted was not especially enlightened by modern standards though for a time, the culture was vibrant and creative and amidst the usual medieval cruelty and caprice, individuals (not all of them Muslim) made multiple original contributions to human knowledge. That is all very well, and is a valid area of inquiry and comment, but a serious journal like “Nature” should either steer clear of this topic or make a sensible and scholarly contribution to it. Repeating fashionable nostrums because they suit the propaganda needs of the day is justifiable in mass communication but is a disservice to science.

    4. They state that in Iran and Pakistan, the rise of political Islam has been accompanied by increases in university education and scientific activity. What (if any) is the causal connection between these events? What would have happened to universities without the rise of political Islam? Again, is “Islam” even the correct unit of analysis in this case? Can the particular histories of Pakistan, Chad and Saudi Arabia be described by one common descriptor, “Islam”? One article displays a figure showing the greatest increase in scientific output has occurred in Iran and Turkey. Since one is avowedly “Islamic” and the other avowedly “secular”, an intelligent observer may be excused for wondering if something other than “Islam” explains or links these results. But the editors of “Nature” seem to have made a policy decision to divide the world into the “house of Islam” and the “house of unbelief” and having boxed themselves in, they end up making nonsensical comparisons between apples and oranges. One can have intelligent arguments about whether it is a good idea for a science journal to collect data on “Muslim countries versus non-Muslim countries” (without defining either), but the contributors to this issue do not make any of these arguments. Instead, they prefer to skirt all tough questions and gloss over all difficulties.

    5. Most of the articles provide very little hard information. We learn little about the actual state of science in these countries and even less about the possible explanations for their lack of scientific development. Surely the editors of “Nature” could have made an effort to come up with some hard data or rethink their conceptual assumptions if no data could be found in the categories they had chosen?

  6. #6, chest thumping about golden ages seems like a normal state of discourse for the typical human. indians, chinese, africans, arabs, europeans, etc., “invented everything” in their own telling. instead of accepting the intellectual creativity of europe from 1500 to now, european supremacists engage in fantasy making which transforms all ancient civilizations into “lost white civilizations.” the main problem is that those of intellect and interest need to move past this. the chinese peasant who thinks that the chinese invented everything is just as ideologically biased as an afrocentrist kid in detroit, but the fact happens to be that chinese invented a lot more than africans of “everything” (though not as much as western europeans as of this writing).

  7. Wedplan

    i have heard rishis and sufis described as ’scientists’ by some.

    Rishis of the kind that ‘observed’ and discovered profound insights are described ‘scientists’ to appeal to modern people who consider the scientific method to be superior to all. One way of looking at it, especially in the Indian tradition, is that they arrived at their insights through experiments involving ones own self, including the body, mind, consciousness, breath (prana) and transcending those to get at the core of everything, i.e. sunyata, nirvana, mukthi, moksha, kaivalya or whatever they called it. They are called science because these people described the methods by which any individual could repeat the same experiments that they did to arrive at the same insights. In other words they were guides to practical efforts (sadhana) as opposed to mere mental gymnastics, which was available in abundance as well.

  8. trajan23

    Interesting stuff, Razib. Some comments:

    1. Neglecting the Byzantines: Although Western scholarship has seldom given the Byzantines their full due (cf. Gibbon’s rather less than respectful treatment in his DECLINE), I think that some of the current neglect might reflect the “multicultural” impulse that infects so much contemporary scholarship. A Byzantine specialist friend of mine once commented that he feels that one reason why Byzantine Studies are given short shrift in the academy is because Byzantium is “coded white,” and no one is interested in adding another “White” culture to an already lengthy list.

    2. Wise Ancients: Put yourself in the position of a, say, an Italian monk in 925 AD. Compare your culture to the achievements of Antiquity: Virgil, Cicero, St. Augustine, Jerome, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Villa, etc. you would, I am sure, feel rather dwarfed by he titans of the past.

  9. 2. Wise Ancients: Put yourself in the position of a, say, an Italian monk in 925 AD. Compare your culture to the achievements of Antiquity: Virgil, Cicero, St. Augustine, Jerome, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Villa, etc. you would, I am sure, feel rather dwarfed by he titans of the past.

    yes. but many people today as if they’re italian monks in 925.

  10. trajan23

    “yes. but many people today as if they’re italian monks in 925”: Well, such people are simply foolish. I was just trying to point that there have been periods when the “moderns” would be justified in feeling inferior to the the “ancients.” For that matter, technological and scientific progress do not necessarily go hand in hand with aesthetic achievement. For example, the period 1660-1789 (the 18th century as defined by my own field, 18th century English Lit), is normally scene as a literary valley separating two peaks (the Renaissance/ Early Modern and the Romantics). This is,of course, in contrast to the tremendous progress that was made in other fields: philosophy, music, chemistry, etc.

  11. if you read my stuff, you know i’m not a universal whig. so no need to convince me of that.

  12. onur

    no one is interested in adding another “White” culture to an already lengthy list

    Well, if we go by the racial definition of Whiteness, northern and central Arabians of Muhammad’s time were completely or almost completely White (they are near-completely White today despite the centuries-long Black slave trade during the Islamic era). Islam was born among Whites, spread among Whites in its first centuries and was formalized by Whites, so it is a product of Whites and Islamic culture is essentially a White culture. When we look at the matter this way, it doesn’t look surprising to us to learn about the Arab fascination with Greek wisdom for instance.

  13. @trajan23

    > For example, the period 1660-1789 […] is normally scene as a literary valley

    Hooray for English Litsters’ classy typos… no offense meant 🙂

  14. onur,

    i traced your IP and it’s turkish. you’re in turkey, right? so let me clue you in to something: in the USA i’m brown, and you’re brown. now, if you happen to have brown hair and blue eyes, with your name you’re still brown.

    white people don’t behave like barbaric savages blowing themselves up in public places. some muslims do, so no muslims can be white by definition. Q.E.D.

    non-white people are oppressed by white people. so if you’re oppressed, as muslims are supposedly, you’re non-white. Q.E.D.

    white people can not be part of the “global south” or “developing world,” so if muslims, or argentina, are, they can’t be white. Q.E.D.

    israelis oppress palestinians. so israelis are white. palestinians are brown. even if it’s a black ethiopian jew oppressing a blue eyed christian arab, it’s white on brown oppression.

    the reality is that the age of white supremacy continues operationally. after world war 2 white europeans gave up the explicit adherence to the positive connotations which white supremacy had, and the glory which the privilege of being the white ruling race, the herrenvolk, held. but the empirical superstructure remains. this is how white hispanics and muslims are labelled non-white. your societies are just too embarrassing to be considered white, which is a privilege earned. additionally, the more sophisticated of you use the system tactically, taking advantage of being colored when it suits (e.g., in the arab-israeli conflict, integrating it into the narrative of white jewish colonial domination over colored people makes a nice narrative), but also can continue to be racist and proud of whiteness in your own cultural domain which is beneath the explicit notice of white non-hispanic europeans (e.g., everyone knows that light brown gulf arabs treat dark brown south asians and africans like animals in part because they consider them ugly inferior races).

    i suspect that with some global rebalancing of of power to east asia and the waning of the age of white supremacy this may change. consider that afrikaner whites in south africa who have started to open channels with cape coloureds, who share their religious and linguistic culture, and some ancestry, after black rule. the biological gap here is one of genuine discontinuity, but situations change. eventually in a genuinely more balanced world where there’s too much cosmopolitan pluralism, and the current social construction will correspond more closely to genetic reality. white europeans will start to feel less indulgent of their more primitive pale brethren in a situation where they feel less confident in their manifest superiority (which is grounded in real conditions in white societies).

  15. toto

    I’m trying to build a mental model of how ancient culture was transmitted to the West. Right now it looks a bit like that:

    1- The Roman Empire crumbles, leading to a mssive loss of literacy, and therefore of texts.

    2- Charlemagne attempts to gather and preserve whatever has survived in his own empire. That means primarily the Latin Fathers of the church; Greek texts are mostly ignored, but mystical neo-Platonism is well represented in Latin texts. The “Carolingian renaissance” is almot entirely restricted to Court and Church – its main objectives are to entertain the King, and to ensure that priests can read the Vulgate. Skip a couple centuries of stagnation.

    3- The crusades and the reconquista put Christians in intimate contact with Arabs, who had preserved and enriched the technical and “analytic” segment of Greek thought, including Aristotle. Shock ensues. Over a century or two Aristotle becomes the reference for ancient philosophy. His incorporation into the burgeoning 12th century renaissance leads to scholasticism, but also to the “missed birth” of the Scientific Method (Nicola Oresme, Roger Bacon, Jean Buridan, etc.).

    (Then, the “terrible 14th century” forces a pause in intellectual development).

    4- After recovery from the 14th century crises, Renaissance intellectuals, under Byzantine influence, rediscover the Greek texts in the original language, including the literary component and Plato (the real one). The Renaissance is dominated by artists and writers, so the aborted scientific revolution of the 12th-13th century is not immediately revived, but eventually Kepler and Galileo start the fireworks.

  16. onur

    Razib, I didn’t write about the current situation of racial perceptions (especially in the West), I just tried to show how the current situation of racial perceptions is anachronistic when dealing with the early centuries of Islam (especially in the East Mediterranean world). Arabs (whether original Arabs or Arabized West Asians), Byzantines and Iranians didn’t perceive each other as racially so different.

  17. onur

    I didn’t write about the current situation of racial perceptions

    I mean specifically.

  18. onur

    in the USA i’m brown, and you’re brown

    Wow! I have never heard of such a broad definition of Brownness. South Asians (Subcontinentals) are usually classified as Brown, furthermore, most of the time Brown denotes only South Asians, at least this is what normally comes to the mind of a person living in the Old World. As far as I know, in the US West Asians are officially classified as White, though some of the European-originated citizens consider West Asians as a separate category thus non-White, half-White or something like that, but never Brown as far as I know.

  19. As far as I know, in the US West Asians are officially classified as White, though some of the European-originated citizens consider West Asians as a separate category thus non-White, half-White or something like that, but never Brown as far as I know.

    the correct term is “sand nigger” 🙂 and of course you’re white in the census. but unless you’re a christian arab (and a white looking one at that) you aren’t coded as white. sorry. i know this from personal experience, as arabs with muslim names who look as white as an italian have been classified in the same group as me (non-white) by white friends who look more like said arabs (in fact, one time the white person was actually swarthier than the arab who he was labeling as non-white). it’s a matter of psychology, not genetics.

  20. #2, one of the issues which lyons alludes to, and have heard elsewhere, is that all western elites knew greek, at least written greek, before the fall of the western empire. that’s one reason there just weren’t many translations of greek works into latin. there was no need.

  21. onur

    you aren’t coded as white

    Sorry for my inadequate English, but I didn’t understand what you meant by the word “coded”. And coded by whom? US officials or simple folk?

    Also are South Asians counted as Asian (thus in the same category with East Asians) in the US census?

    As to the slang term “sand nigger”, I already know that it is sometimes applied to Arabs and the other desert peoples of the Greater Middle East (including North Africa), but I’ve never heard it applied to Turks, also I don’t think it would be logical to apply it to Turks as there is no desert in Turkey and Turks have almost no Negroid admixture (just like any European ethnicity).

  22. Sorry for my inadequate English, but I didn’t understand what you meant by the word “coded”. And coded by whom? Officials or simple folk?

    i’m talking about about implicit norms. if a mediterranean looking person has a christian name, they’re white. if they have a muslim name, they’re not white. if ralph nader was muhammad ali he wouldn’t be white.

    Also are South Asians counted as Asian (thus in the same category with East Asians) in the census?

    yes. but everyone knows this is an administrative formality. no one confuses south with east or southeast asians. similarly, no one accepts that egyptians with obvious african ancestry as white. similarly, white hispanics with blue eyes are coded as non-white. and you thought muslims were the only ones with retarded sharia? 🙂

  23. also, i’ve noted before how retarded it is that liberal racially sensitive white europeans routinely use the word ‘caucasian’ to describe themselves, and exclude from the class middle eastern people who are genetically closer to the real caucasians. this is part of the general dynamic whereby racialist terms from the age of white supremacy have a second-life as politically correct terms.

  24. onur

    I guess in the USA I wouldn’t be labeled as Brown or sand nigger whether by my look (this is certain) or my ethnicity (though I come from a Muslim background my name is completely secular, so I didn’t mention name), and I would certainly be labeled as White by my look (without knowing my ethnicity/religious background) and maybe non-White or something like semi-White by my ethnicity/religious background. As a completely White-looking Turk, I wouldn’t care about how they labeled me as my genetic profile matters infinitely more to me.

  25. > as my genetic profile matters infinitely more to me
    Should it? In the end your name is Sue (in polite company), so what do you do? Get over it, I’d say. Really, Razib, is it so hard to be brown? You two should come off of it. Tears of the brown? Spilled milk.

    …yes, I’m white, even the dots on my umlaut are, why do you ask? Get a grip on yourselves, anyway.

  26. i didn’t say it was hard to be brown. if you’re a mind-reader you’re a real shitty one 🙂 please don’t fill-in-the-blanks with your exegesis on of my comments in the future jackass. if you have read my blog for any time you’d be aware of how little i care about such crap personally. if you haven’t, you should shut up and read a bit more before popping off as if you know anything about me. if you’re offended at my tone, i won’t shed any tears if you never leave a comment again you presumptuous twit, you can trust me on that. you hijacked a conversation into a totally different direction because you wanted to talk about something else. since you have a blog, you know where you can do that.

  27. > if you have read my blog for any time you’d be aware of how
    > little i care about such crap
    I have and I know.

    > you hijacked a conversation into a totally different direction because
    > you wanted to …
    make fun of both of you, which you don’t take lightly, can’t help it now.

  28. dude, don’t they use “smiley faces” in germany? i gave a minority probability that it was a joke, but your phrasing is weird, since you aren’t a native english speaker. (kind of lie onur’s, but i don’t get he’s ever joking)

  29. > don’t they use “smiley faces” in germany?
    We certainly do.

    > a minority probability that it was a joke
    “jackass”, “crap”, and “presumptuous twit” seemed to indicate a minority probability verging to zero, lest my online thesaurus got it all wrong. But that’s ok, this blog is worth it anyway, paint me black, crap, or blue.

  30. sorry, the response strategies are discrete once i’ve made an assessment. additionally, if it was a false positive i assumed you’d be clearer in the future.

  31. onur

    kind of lie onur’s

    Like what? I’ll be very glad (I can guess that you don’t have much time for such things) if you give some examples to my writing and phrasing errors so that I may improve my English writing skill.

  32. your grammar is perfect. your turn of phrase though isn’t typical of conversational american english. nothing specific, but the general flavor is different.


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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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