Civilization : Susan Buck-Morss


Aziz Al-Azmeh has shown that the political institutions of the Umayyad Dynasty, that became traditional within Islamic history, were a concatenation of prexisting forms already in situ when Muslims arrived, bearing traces of a (violent) mixing of Sassanid, Byzantine, Persian, and Judaic forms. Such mixing, he claims, is not the exception, but the norm. Institutions develop cross-culturally in diverse ways and at different rates, so that socio-political forms and religious forms do not have identical histories. As the historian of Late Antiquity, Isabella Sandwell writes, “We . . . should not make religious identity an issue on occasions when it is inappropriate to do so.”13 Clearly I am not speaking here about the pure forms of politics under the Rightly Guided Caliphs, men who were not dynastic rulers. The very fact that they are evoked today in opposition to existing forms indicates their ideal rather than historical significance when it comes to the empirical history of Islam. Regarding this always mixed history Al Azmeh observes that

elements derived from the slight Arab tradition of kingship, heavily impregnated by Byzantine and Iranian paradigms, were combined with the enduring heritage of Semitic religion, priesthood, and kingship. Muslim forms did not arise ex nihilo, nor quite simply from the writ of a Book; to propose otherwise is absurd in the light of historical reason.14

It was this “concatenated universe of mirrors we call Late Antiquity,” he later adds, “which Muslim imperialism tidied up, rendered recoverable after a more orderly manner, and made its own”.15

Al-Azmeh considers his own sociological approach to political power not opposed to Islamic knowledge traditions, but within them, as well as within those of the West: “By science (‘ilm) is here understood in the general sense conveyed by Wissenschaft, an orderly procedure for the investigation and exposition of political material in terms of a broader methodological context. This . . . was one premise for the development of Ibn Khald­ûn (d. 1406) and of his ‘ilm al-umrān’ [‘science of civilization’].”16 And indeed, if we consider the history of science, the case against separate civilizations is clear. Whereas the earlier civilizational story as told in the West depicted Islam as preserving in a static way the pre-existing scientific knowledge of the Ancient Greeks until its fortunate re-discovery by Europe, we now know not only that this is false (Islamic scientists continued to make fundamental discoveries throughout the period), but that if one’s goal is to write a history of scientific advances, the boundaries of civilization make no sense whatsoever. George Saliba makes the strong claim that “civilizations cannot be held apart in the story of the rise of science,” which has been the consequence of activities migrating across cultures.17 He argues for a “new historiography” of the advance of science that, far from being dependent on a civilizational Golden Age, can progress as well in times of political decline.18

Foremost Western scholar of Islamic art, Oleg Grabar, examines Islamic styles in the small, Christian kingdom of Norman Italy that benefitted in every branch of sciences and the arts because of its open, multi-cultural society and tolerance of other religions. Emphasizing the hybrid character of all great artistic works, he writes: “I remain committed to the notion that no study of art (or history) is the exclusive property of those who belong to or descend from the culture that created that art.”19 There are multiple other examples. Islamic art in Andalus mixed local, Byzantine, Arabic and Coptic styles, and secular Muslim goblets became receptacles for sacred Christian purposes. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus were both in conscious architectural dialogue with surrounding traditions.20 Architecture historian Deborah Howard has shown us that without knowledge of Islamic cities throughout the Middle East, you cannot begin to understand Renaissance architecture in Venice.21 And Hans Belting has investigated how the Renaissance invention of perspective, a founding moment in European history of art, would have been a scientific impossibility without Alhazen’s science of optics, that was translated from the field of mathematics to that of the visual arts via the philosophical work of Biagio Pelacani, who “had precise knowledge of Alhazen,” and who in turn influenced founding figures of Florentine perspective, including Bruneleschi and Ghiberti.22 In short, the birth of modern Europe was itself a continuation of the past, made possible by trade, travel, and scientific, artistic, and intellectual exchange with the Islamic world(s).

Put another way, none of the presumptions behind the concept of civilization – political imperialism, religious unity, ideological hegemony, or territorial inclusion – none of these are necessary for cultural influence and intellectual exchange to take place. Cities on the crossroads of networks have the cultural advantage. Small kingdoms like Norman Sicily have left large artistic legacies, cross-pollinations were the rule in trading areas, intentional diasporas (of the Hadrami in the Indian Ocean, or the Armenians, who settled in three continents) negotiated diplomatically between imperial power centers, and these activities were more important for the development of human civilization than the so-called separate civilizations could have been.23 It goes without saying that isolated, national histories are even less capable of grasping the actually lived complexities of collective, social life. André Gunder Frank, in his history of the multi-civilizational world economy that existed for centuries before Europe became a major player, decries “not only the subjective immorality but the intellectual absurdity” of the so-called “clash of civilizations,” which presumes the inevitability of ethnic hatreds and political exclusions. Frank considers economic historians the worst offenders, as they base their stagist views on the “false universalism of European Social Science”; against this offense, he claims, “we need an entirely differently based world history and global political economy.”24

Cross-cultural influence is not strong enough to describe a universal human characteristic, the fact that in the production of cultural life, people work creatively from within the multiplicity of life-worlds that they experience. If the development of modern Europe without the Islamic world would have been impossible, if Islam itself is not a place, nor a polity, and if calling it a “religion” reflects the invented, nineteenth century meaning of the word, why does it make sense to write history in mutually exclusive, civilizational terms?25 By whatever definition you chose, the word cancels itself out: Civilizations are themselves multi-civilizational.

13. Isabella Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity Greeks, Jews, and Christians in Antioch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 281. See also Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World, ed. G. W. Bowersock et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Belknap Press, 2001).

14. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Polities (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 63.

15. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship, 87.

16. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship, 89. He is arguing explicitly against Patricia Crone, who sees Islamic religious experience as the key to Muslim political history. From another perspective his research challenges the Caliphate’s own claim to originality, described by Davutoglu: “The Caliphate as a political institution was the child of its age, and did not look upon itself as the revival of any political institution of an earlier date.” Ahmet Davutoglu, Alternative Paradigms, 124.

17. George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007), 22.

18. George Saliba, A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

19. Oleg Grabar, “The Experience of Islamic Art,” in The Experience of Islamic Art on the Margins of Islam, ed. Irene A. Bierman (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2005), 27.

20. See especially the work of Finbarr Barry Flood, The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Making of Umayyad Visual Culture (Islamic History and Civilization) (Leiden: Brill, 2000) and Objects in Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

21. Deborah Howard, Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture, 1100-1500 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

22. Hans Belting, Florenz und Bagdad: Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks (Münich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2008), 161 and passim.

23. On the Hadrami network from Yemen see See Eng Seng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); and on the New Julfan Armenians see Sebouh David Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

24. André Gunder Frank, Re-Orient, 2 and 28.

25. See Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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