The University and the Arab Tradition

September 01, 2015

The following is author and independent scholar Jonathan Lyons' convocation address to the Class of 2019 given on August 24, 2015. His remarks draw on his books The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, and Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism.

Dean Everette Dennis: When I addressed my first convocation at NU-Q in 2011, five years ago, my topic was “Welcome to the House of Wisdom.” In those remarks I drew heavily on the thinking of our convocation speaker today—and reminded students faculty and staff of the rich intellectual heritage of the Middle East into which we Americans had come to establish a school. Dr. Jonathan Lyons is an independent scholar, author and lecturer whose four published books have contributed mightily to the West’s understanding of Islam and Middle East as well as work on the sociology of knowledge. He has taught at George Mason and Georgetown Universities and has lectured widely at such schools as Princeton, Reed and others. A graduate of Wesleyan University in Russian and history, he did his doctorate in sociology at Monash University in Australia. Between his BA and his Ph.D. he worked 20 years with the Reuters News Agency as a foreign correspondent and editor with posts in Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, Jakarta as well as Washington D.C. Dr. Lyons is a good friend of NU-Q having served on the advisory committee for the NU-Q Media Majlis since 2012. We are privileged to have him here today. Please join me in a warm welcome for Dr. Jonathan Lyons.

Jonathan Lyons: Thank you, Dean Dennis. And thank you to the student body, faculty, and administration for hosting me. It is a pleasure to stand before you as we celebrate the beginning of another academic year here at Northwestern University in Qatar.

At an occasion such as this, it seems appropriate to invoke the very real value and importance of cultural exchange, of student-to-student contacts, in short, all part of what has been called a dialogue of civilizations. And it appears incumbent upon me to use this Convocation to call upon everyone here to approach the academic year as an opportunity to build bridges between East and West. After all, we are gathered in Doha, in the very heart of the Arab and Muslim world, to attend a leading American institution of higher education.

Yet, I want to caution you that it is not enough to build bridges grounded only in the understanding of the moment. To build lasting bridges, it is imperative that you understand the deeper cultural context with which you are engaging. I am here to recount for you—or, perhaps in some cases, to remind you—that what often appear as two very different and even inherently hostile worlds, those of Islam and the West, actually share a common cultural, intellectual, and, in many ways, religious heritage that goes far deeper than our current differences would suggest.

In other words, I want to pose the following for your reflection: If we are truly in need of bridges between East and West, then what exactly is the chasm we are trying to cross? How was such a chasm created? And of what does it consist?

It is fitting on this Convocation Day to begin our inquiry with a look at the very institution we are here to celebrate—the University and the tradition of Liberal Arts which it embodies. Now, a glance at almost any textbook or academic monograph on Western intellectual history will surely portray the rise of the university in Europe as a defining moment in the emergence of Western civilization. Edward Grant, the celebrated historian of science, for example, calls the rise of the universities a “peculiarly Western phenomenon.” This was also the view of the great George Sarton, who almost single-handedly created the discipline of history of science in the United States.

"If we are truly in need of bridges between East and West, then what exactly is the chasm we are trying to cross? How was such a chasm created? And of what does it consist?" (different font size)

These and other like-minded scholars all see the idea of the university, an institution to which many devoted their professional lives, as central to their own identities as heirs to the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment and its notions of inevitable scientific and social progress. As a result, few have delved deeply into the evolution of the university, preferring to accept it as a natural birthright of modern, that is Western, intellectual life.

Yet Muslim traditions dating to before the advent of universities in the West include the wearing of distinctive dress or gowns by the teaching masters, such as the one I have on today. Then there is the awarding of a chair as a seat of honor for a distinguished teacher and the granting of a recognized degree, in this case the teaching license—in Arabic, the ijazah—to signify a student was deemed ready to take on pupils.

It has even been suggested, quite plausibly in my view, that the notion of the baccalaureate, or Bachelor of Arts degree, can trace its roots back to medieval Arab practice, as can the very establishment of what we might call a university culture that transcends specific space and time.

This became known in Latin as the Studium generale and meant that students and professors of one institution were essentially accredited to study or teach at other institutions outside their home base. So, for example, my own Doctorate was awarded by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, but its validity is recognized by colleges around the world, including Northwestern.

So far, I have only touched upon organizational or institutional trappings of the university. But what about its core mission? What about the spirit of inquiry that has animated the university from its roots in the Middle Ages to the present day?

Here, too, the Arab contribution was both invaluable and unmistakable, for the scholars of Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, and other centers of medieval Muslim learning helped free their Western counterparts from the confines of religious speculation and directed them to the study of what the philosophers of the day called The Nature of Things—in other words, Science.

One of the most interesting aspects of medieval history of science is the relationship between sacred and profane knowledge. For Latin Christendom, the great Church Father Augustine had pretty much set the tone in the fifth century. He writes in The Confessions“Men proceed to investigate the phenomena of nature … though the knowledge is of no value to them: for they wish to know simply for the sake of knowing.”Upon his conversion to Christianity, Augustine then foreswears both art and science: “Certainly the theaters no longer attract me, nor do I care to know the course of the stars.”

However, things looked very different in the Muslim world. Arab scholars readily found divine support for science in the revealed Word of God. A number of verses in the Qur’an refer to the order inherent to God’s universe and to man’s capacity to recognize and exploit this order for his own needs, such as keeping time.

“He [God] it is who appointed the sun a splendor and the moon a light, and measured for her stages, that you might know the number of the years, and the reckoning [of time]. … He details the revelations for people who have knowledge” (10:6).

Elsewhere, the Qur’an advocates the use of elements of God’s creation for orientation amid the featureless deserts and navigation across the vast oceans:

“He has appointed the night for stillness, and the sun and the moon for reckoning. … And He it is Who has set for you the stars that you may guide your course by them amid the darkness of the land and the sea” (6:97-98).

The Qur’an also commands believers care for the weak and infirm, which stimulated the field of medicine and the creation of the first recognizable hospitals. It should not be surprising, then, to note that Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, written in the early 11th century CE, served as the standard European medical text for 600 years.

By one scholar’s count, the Arabic word for “knowledge” (ilm) and its derivative forms comprise almost one percent of the Qur’an’s 78,000 words and are among its most frequently used terms and phrases, a linguistic feature that highlights just how important the concept was for the first Muslims.(different font size)

At the same time, many of Islam’s rituals and obligations demand a relatively sophisticated understanding of the natural world. Believers could not simply follow the advice of Augustine and close their eyes “to the course of the stars.” Rather, Muslims are required to know the proper times of the five daily prayers, the start of the lunar fasting month of Ramadan, and the direction of Mecca—all requiring a relatively sophisticated understanding of the natural world. In response, the early Muslim world developed a theoretical understanding of these and related problems, pursued innovative research to address them, and then broadened this new understanding to encompass a truly scientific worldview.

Today, the true scope of the Arab and Muslim contributions to Western science and philosophy—and the very real contributions these scholars made to world civilization—gets far too little serious attention. During my brief residency on campus, I have been discussing the social, political, and epistemological forces that have conspired to impose this silence over the ensuing centuries. And this has been at the core of my academic research and writing.

But for now it is worth noting that at the time the emergence of the Muslim world as a scientific and cultural superpower was not a secret among the small but rising new class of European intellectuals. In fact, we can read written accounts by some of the intrepid scholars who left the comforts of home to learn Arabic and to pursue cutting-edge science and philosophy then available only in the Muslim world. At the time, Western learning was in crisis and largely relied on partial recollection of the teachings and texts of Greek and Roman tradition. Knowledge was transmitted largely by rote and carried with it little theoretical understanding. This state of affairs did not sit well with the new cohort of young scholars that grew out of social, economic, and political changes afoot in tenth-century Europe.

Chief among these changes were the development of a money-based economy and the rise of towns and cities. Peasants escaping bondage to the land peopled these new towns, where they could pursue independent lives as merchants or artisans. These new urban communes gradually began to organize to defend their interests against the nobility, the Crown, and the church. Students and teaching masters, who at first met only informally, followed the lead of artisans and other urban professionals and came together in independent corporations to regulate membership, limit competition, and protect their livelihood. The totality of members of any guild or profession was called a universitas, and this is the origin of the modern term university.

By this time, however, much of the West’s educational infrastructure, inherited from the Classical period, was in tatters. The ability to read Greek was effectively lost, and many collections of Ancient Greek philosophy and science were destroyed or scattered amid the collapse of the Roman Empire. Western Christendom had also lost the ability to tell accurate time or to date its most important religious holidays, such as Easter. In short, intellectual exploration and innovation were at a standstill, in marked contrast to the cultural ferment then gripping the nearby Muslim world.

Among the earliest Western pioneers of Arab learning was a young Englishman known as Adelard of Bath—my favorite character in this drama and the prototype of the wandering European scholar. Adelard was born around 1080 in England’s West Country, the son of a prosperous religious functionary. He hunted with falcons, a pursuit reserved for the privileged few. He played the guitar for the Queen, and enjoyed the best education the West then had to offer, at the cathedral schools of France. But Adelard was also a restless young man, clearly dissatisfied with the state of the world around him. In his first-known essay, he condemned all contemporary European scholarship. Soon, he resolved to travel east and master the language of Muslim scholarship before returning home with the secrets of Arab learning.

"By one scholar’s count, the Arabic word for 'knowledge' (ilm) and its derivative forms comprise almost one percent of the Qur’an’s 78,000 words and are among its most frequently used terms and phrases."

Another dissatisfied student rudely denounced his professors in Paris as “statues” who stood motionless in class rather than reveal how little they actually knew. In short order, this same student, William of Morley, announced he would seek out the Arab scholars, whom he called “the wisest philosophers in the world.” Others devoted their entire lives to translating and transmitting Arabic texts to an increasingly knowledge-hungry Latin-speaking world.

We don’t know how or exactly when Adelard himself got to the region, but he tells us he was on a bridge near Antioch, in modern-day Turkey, on November 13, 1114, when a deadly earthquake struck the region. Adelard lived through the ordeal and spent as many as seven years in the region. He later made his way back to his native England around 1116 now a changed man. Among his intellectual trophies were the geometric system of Euclid; an elaborate table of the movements of the stars; several works of Arab astrology; and a book of alchemy revealing ways to dye leather, tint glass, and produce green pigment—his favorite color.

Adelard’s lasting contribution to Western science was considerable. He returned from travels as a respected scholar and intellectual elder statesman, and he inspired a stream of brilliant scholar-adventurers who set off in search of Arab learning on everything from algebra to zoology. Soon Europe would be awash in Latin translations of all the great works of the Arabs, as the West’s new scientists struggled to catch up to the East.

Interwoven with the new science was a new approach to the world in general, including that of politics and civic administration, long the province of kings seeking absolute authority. One of his works, On the Use of the Astrolabe, introduced readers to the medieval world’s most powerful analogue computing device, which was invented by the Ancient Greeks but then perfected by the Muslims.

[BTW, a few days ago I was fortunate to visit the Museum of Islamic Art, which as one of the finest displays in the world of astrolabes. I highly recommend it.]

In this book, Adelard proposed a radical new social model to Henry II of France. Henry’s realm, Adelard boldly suggests, should be ruled by a philosopher-king, for philosophers tell the truth and are guided by natural justice and reason. It should be tolerant of all religions and beliefs. And it should recognize the authority of the Arabs—that is, of the scientists and thinkers—and not that of the rigid Church Fathers.

Most important of all, Adelard bequeathed to the West the spirit of scientific inquiry, which had so far failed to take hold in a Christian society oriented toward the afterlife and inclined to see the physical world only as a pale imitation of God’s heavenly rewards. “Of course God made the universe,” Adelard assured his Christian readers after his return home, in what amounted to a rebuke of St Augustine exhortation to abandon knowledge of the stars. “But we may and should inquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.”

Likewise, the Arab influence on the Western understanding of philosophy was enormous, for it was through the work of the great Muslim thinkers—figures such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rush, known among the Europeans as Avicenna and Averroes—that Europe came face-to-face with the teachings of Aristotle. In fact, the Muslims were the first monotheists to wrestle with the Aristotelean corpus, which was strictly pagan in orientation and had no real place for the notion of God as worshipped by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This invaluable process of harmonizing Classical philosophy with the demands of a monotheist worldview are—like the history of Arab science—too often overlooked or downplayed in the Western tradition.

Parenthetically, much the same argument can be made about other aspects of Muslim life and culture, as viewed from the West. And not just the West, for these same attitudes and biases have, unfortunately, spread worldwide and often overwhelm Arab and Muslim scholars as well, particularly those largely influenced by Western training and scholarship. I have in mind here some of the so-called hot button issues of our times: questions of Islam and Women; Islam and Violence; and Islam and democracy, or modernity in general.

So what does all this mean for each one of us on this Convocation Day?

In the first place, it reminds us that we are about to take part in a great endeavor, one that is firmly grounded in the shared historical experience of East and West. Those of you coming from the Western world to study or to teach can take pride in the fact that you are following in the footsteps of thousands of like-minded scholars, dating back almost 1,000 years. Like you, they found the prevailing divisions into Us and Them—this was, after all, the era of the Crusades—an artificial boundary imposed from without and no barrier to successful learning.

And those of you from the Arab world should honor the great tradition of Muslim scholarship and take full advantage of the opportunities presented by Northwestern Qatar and other, similar institutions of higher learning. While the notion of universities from the United States or Europe setting up campuses in the Arab world is a relatively new one, the exchange of knowledge across the cultural and linguistic lines that demarcate East and West is anything but a novel development.

Finally, there is, I believe, a cautionary tale at work here as well. And that is to avoid when possible the pitfalls and dead ends that too often stand in the way of a true understanding of the relationship between Muslim and Western societies. I would like to conclude, then, with a brief return to the history of science, specifically the case of Muslim science and its apprehension and understanding in the West.

Here, two related problems stand out, and both illustrate the traps that lie in wait for the unwary student of the field. First of all, contemporary work in the history of science almost invariably takes as its goal or standard the shared ideas and concepts of modern science. In other words, only those historical developments that can be associated with today’s modern sciences are treated seriously and considered worthy of historical study and analysis. As a result, the glories and sophistication of the Arab astrological and alchemical traditions—two fields now viewed as mere curiosities rather than as true science—go largely unnoticed and unacknowledged.

And when the history of Arab science is studied seriously, it generally becomes a problem in search of solution—When did it die off? Or, why did it fail to produce modern science?—rather than a subject to be explored, developed, and understood in anything like its own terms.

As a result, to this day the state of our knowledge about Islamic science and philosophy remains woefully incomplete. Hundreds of thousands of scholarly manuscripts produced over many centuries in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu remain unstudied and largely forgotten. It is difficult not to believe that a systematic analysis of this material would yield a very different picture of the Muslim world than the one that predominates today.

And so I will end my remarks with a call to action in the hope that some of you may one day take up the challenge: Free yourself from the prevailing academic and social consensus, and strike out on your own—like my own hero Adelard of Bath at the dawn of the 12th century—and explore what unknown riches the Muslim world still has to offer the rest of us.

With that, I want to wish each of you the very best for the new academic year, and to encourage you to follow in the footsteps of such scholars as Adelard of Bath and William of Morley by pursuing knowledge wherever it may take you.

Thank you.

Jonathan Lyons is an independent scholar, author, and lecturer, focusing on problems of intellectual history, epistemology, and the sociology of knowledge. The convocation address above draws in part on two books by Lyons: The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, and Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. Lyons has taught at George Mason University and Georgetown University, and he has a PhD in sociology from Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, and a BA with honors in Russian and History from Wesleyan University. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Before beginning doctoral studies, Lyons served as a foreign correspondent and editor with Reuters for more than 20 years, with posts in Moscow, during the collapse of the Soviet Union; in Turkey, during the rise of the first elected Islamist government; and in Tehran during the contentious presidency of Mohammad Khatami. He also worked as a senior editor in the agency’s Washington bureau, before taking up his last foreign assignment, in Jakarta in 2006, covering radical Islamic movements across Southeast Asia.