Holy wars and heaven go back a long time. Pope Urban II, he called for a holy war upon infidels in 1095 and promised paradise as reward.
Islam has got such bad press that slay-an-infidel, go-to-paradise is now thought to be a patently Islamic concept, its copyrights collectively belonging to Muslims and passed on to generations as heirloom.
Heeding Pope Urban II’s clarion call, ignorant Europeans erupted instantly. They organised themselves into bands of furious mobs, sliced through the Continent, pillaged Germany en route to Jerusalem and slaughtered thousands of “infidel” Jews in such cities as Worms, Mayence (Mainz), Cologne and Speyer. This was the ‘People’s Crusade’.
The sufferings of Jews in the Middle Ages were hateful. Their immense plight then is not comparable with what is happening now. A historical account in Hebrew by Solomon bar Samson, who wrote about 1140 and of whom nothing much is known, describes some scenes of epic frenzy.
Beautiful young Rachel, the wife of rabbi Judah and daughter of Rabbi Isaac ben Asher, had four beautiful children. “Do not spare even them,” she said to her own friends, “lest the Christians come, take them alive, and bring them up in their false religion. Through them, too, sanctify the name of the Holy God.”
In this mêlée, few had a mind of their own. Emico, a German noble, led thousands in seizing a palace sheltering Jews in Mainz. But the irony of this People’s Crusade is worth knowing. Moments before being killed, the Jews took heart in the fact that they were going to heaven. For both the slaughterer and the slain, paradise remained the lure.
Samson’s account of Edomites or traditional enemies of the Jews (he meant Christians) taking Mainz on 27 May, 1096:
‘One of them cried out: “Let us be strong and let us bear the yoke of the holy religion, for only in this world can the enemy kill us and the easiest of the four deaths is by the sword (beheading, burning, stoning and strangulation, under Jewish religious law). But we, our souls in paradise, shall continue to live eternally, in the great shining reflection (of the divine glory).”’
Another said, ‘he (who dies) exchanges the world of darkness for the world of light, the world of trouble for the world of joy, and the world that passes away for the world that lasts for all eternity’.
They remembered Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam), a common prophet of all three revealed religions, and his sacrifice of his son Isaac, commemorating which is one of the highpoints of the Hajj pilgrimage.
Europe slipped into the Dark Ages but Adelard of Bath, England, set off on a different path of discovery into the Arab world. The Arabs were thriving and brought hope and enlightenment to a benighted people.
Adelard, the English scholastic explorer and interpreter of Arabic scientific knowledge, was knocked out by Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, with its four hundred thousand books when Europe was thrust so backward that it was barely able to tell whether the earth was flat or round.
Arab scholars knew the earth’s circumference, with the West playing catch-up after 800 years. They knew algebra, astronomy, direction-finding, made mirrors and translated all Greek texts and rescued Aristotle and Plato from obscurity. Had explorers like Adelard of Bath not brought all this back to Europe, the Continent would have been marooned in the dungeon of a millennial darkness.
Adelard of Bath made important translations from Arabic, like the 13 books of Euclid’s ‘Elements of Geometry’. The original, written about c. BC 300 in Alexandria and its other Latin versions, did not survive the Dark Ages. Roger Bacon used Adelard’s translation in the next century, one that became the basis of all editions in Europe until 1533. Click here for more.
Adelard also translated Al-khwarizmi’s Zij or astronomical tables and three texts on astrology, ‘Centiloquium Ptolomei’, ‘Isagoge Minor’ or a Shorter Introduction to Astronomy by Abu Ma’shar and the ‘Liber Prestigiorum Thebidis’, a book on images by Thabit B. Qurra.
It is a common but inaccurate argument to say Muslims have remained “regressive” because they have never had a renaissance. In fact, Adelard of Bath’s Arab works did the spadework of Europe’s renaissance.
Then, there was the rich culture of the Moors, or Andalusian Spain or Muslim Spain, which float around in Spanish cultures to this day. A weakening military blunted the Moors’ scientific edge. But even as their last fortress, Granada, fell to advancing Christians in 1492, their poetry lingered on.
Here’s a sample from Verses to My Daughter by Prince Mohammed Ben Abad: With jocund heart and cheerful brow I used to hail the festal morn –How must Mohammed greet it now? –A prisoner helpless and forlorn.
A new book, ‘The House of Wisdom, How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization’, by Jonathan Lyons (Bloomsbury, February 2009) tells the ‘fascinating story of how an English scholar brought Arab learning to the West and rescued it from the Dark Ages’.
Lyons for more than two decades was editor and foreign correspondent for the newswire service Reuters and is now a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre and a PhD candidate in sociology of religion at Melbourne’s Monash University. Look him up here.
Lyons was Reuters’ bureau chief in Turkey for four and a half years and reopened the Reuters bureau in Tehran, shut down by that country’s regime 13 years earlier. He then moved to Reuters’ Washington office, before taking up his last foreign assignment in Jakarta in 2006, covering radical Islam across Southeast Asia. It is remarkable that a journalist exposed to the so-called worst of Islam and the realities of Muslim-perpetrated terror has had the gumption of bringing out the best of Islam too.
The West’s advancement continues long after the bright centres of Muslim world have shut down. If Islam solely meant only religious preoccupation, such feats and scientific accomplishments would not have been possible so many centuries ago.
Now, the tables have turned. Present-day Baghdad is wasting like muscles of a diseased limb. Jeddah is content to drive American cars rather than make its own. Tehran reportedly thinks nuclear energy is best used to wipe Israel out.
The dreamy lure of paradise is back for a potent minority but there are many more unsung Muslim Adelards today than there are wanton Emicos.