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Christ and Baha'u'llah

by George Townshend

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Chapter 8

CHRISTIANITY AND ISLÁM

      ISLÁM, having lost a great part of its spiritual power and having to divert its manifold energies chiefly to secular ends, went forward on its conquering career, driving the Christians out of Palestine, out of North Africa, out of most of Spain, but being stopped in France by the battle of Tours. Western Christendom on the other hand sank back into the Dark Ages and languished in semi-barbarism for Centuries.

      ‘Umar and the Caliphs who followed him rapidly extended the Muslim empire from the Pillars of Hercules to Calicut. In the midst of a dark and stagnant world there sprang up as if by magic a brilliant civilization. In 760 A.D. its rulers moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdád and founded on the site of an ancient Christian village a city which became at once a world centre of culture and commerce, and so remained for five centuries. All phases of civilization as then known were there found gathered together and renewed, and in many cases carried to heights never reached before: letters and language, the arts, the sciences, both practical and abstract, trade, transport and seamanship, invention and industry, jurisprudence and the arts of government. Because of the central position of the Qur'án, revered as a literary miracle, and because of Arabian pride in their language, which they held to be the one perfect tongue spoken by man and which is indeed


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regarded by scholars to-day as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the race, literature in all its uses and forms was given a place of eminence. Schools and universities were founded and thronged by students of many nations. Great works were produced on all manner of subjects; great libraries were collected containing hundreds of thousands of volumes. The Caliphs ransacked the earth for knowledge, sending out expeditions of inquiry and making foreign lands and distant ages give up their lore. An army of translators was employed, rendering Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Jewish works into Arabic. Grammar and its laws were studied with great elaboration. Dictionaries, lexicons and encyclopedias on a vast scale were prepared. Paper was introduced from China; a new system of numerals (usually known as Arabic) from India. Arabic became the universal language. Caliphs would invite literary men of international repute to the court. Scholars, philosophers, poets, grammarians from diverse lands would find a meeting place in the great bookshops of the capital.

      The pursuit of science, practical as well as abstract, kept pace with that of letters. In experimental science, in medicine and surgery, in chemistry and physics, in geography as well as in mathematics and astronomy, the Arabs led the world of that day. They invented a new and exquisite form of architecture, distinguished by its combination of airy grace with solid strength, and by its use of light. The influence of this style can be traced through India as far as Java, to China, to the Sudan and to the whole of Russia. They developed many branches of industry and improved methods of agriculture and horticulture. Introducing the use of the mariner's compass


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their ships traversed the seas while caravans maintained a trade between all provinces of the empire, carrying produce from India and China, Turkistan and Russia, from Africa and the Malayan Archipelago.

      The glory of Baghdád with its mosques and palaces, its temples of learning, its fragrant gardens, was reproduced in the lesser centres of the world of Islám: in Basra, in Bokhara, in Granada and Cordoba. It is written of the last-named city that at the height of its prosperity it contained more than 20,000 houses and more than a million inhabitants and that a man after sunset might walk in a straight line for ten miles along paved and illuminated streets — yet in Europe centuries later there was not a paved street in Paris nor a public lamp in London.

      Cordoba was the first University founded in Europe, and in its halls multitudes of Christian scholars received instruction, among them being Gerbert who afterwards became Sylvester II, the brilliant Pope of Rome.

      Inevitably, and in spite of the antagonism between Christendom and Islám, this advanced civilization influenced the course of life and thought in Europe. Through the Muslim outpost in Sicily and the scintillating brilliance of Muslim Spain, through the intelligence of scholars and the resources of the Muslim universities, through traders, through diplomats and travelers, through soldiers, sailors and reconquered peasants, new ideas, techniques and attitudes passed from Islám to Western Europe.

      Then came the day in 1094 when the Pope called on the chivalry and the faithful of Christendom to arouse themselves and go forth and drive the Saracen hosts out of the sacred Christian shrine, which they had seized,


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and reestablish the Christian Faith in its ancient home. Europe leapt up at his word and for well-nigh two hundred years the vicissitudes of this colossal war between Europe and Asia, the West and the East, Christian and unbeliever continued to cause the loss of millions of lives, to spread infinite misery and to squander immense treasure. The Christians ultimately withdrew in ignominious and complete defeat and Islám remained in possession of all the Holy Places she had owned before.

      It was Europe, however, and not Arabia which gained from the struggle, for the Crusades provided yet another channel through which knowledge of the Muslim civilization flowed into Europe. For two hundred years the leading men of Europe were constantly going to and fro between the two continents gaining not only a first-hand knowledge of the great culture in Syria but gaining too an immense emancipation of the human spirit.

      Gradually, under, this many-pronged impulse from the East, the obscurantism of the mediaeval Church in Western Europe gave way and finally, at the Renaissance, went down to defeat. The Renaissance was truly an expression of the joie de vivre which Europe learned from the Arabs, and from the Renaissance flowed those features of the Islámic culture with which the awakened Europeans began to build a richer, happier, more eager civilization than they had ever before dreamed of.

      Christendom has been slow to realize and to admit the debt which our Western civilization owes to the East. But the facts of our borrowing are written


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large in history and nothing but prejudice can lead us to minimize our indebtedness.

      "Let us examine the two civilizations" wrote Seignobos in his Histoire de la Civilisation au Moyen Age, "which in the eleventh century divided the ancient world. In the west — miserable little cities, peasants' huts and great fortresses — a country always troubled by a war, where one could not travel ten leagues without running the risk of being robbed; and in the Orient — Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdád — with their marble palaces, their workshops, their schools, their bazaars, their villages, and the incessant movement of merchants who travelled in peace from Spain to Persia. There is no doubt that the musselman and Byzantine worlds were richer, better policed, better lighted than the western world. In the eleventh century these two worlds began to become acquainted; the barbarous Christians came into contact with the civilized musselmans in two ways — by war and by commerce. And by contact with the orientals, the occidentals became civilized."[1]

1. See The Secret of Divine Civilization by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, pp. 92-94 (Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1957). For statement of specific gains from Islám see History of Mediaeval Civilization by Charles Seignobos, pp. 117-118 (Unwin, London, 1908).


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