The Medieval Arab Culture in the European Cultural Heritage, foundation of the Arab – European cultural diplomacy in the 21 Century 


            On Thursday, the 14th of June 1325, the second day of Rajab 725 after Hejjira, the 21-year-old Abu Addullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta had left Tangier. Thirty years later, after traveling more than 75,000 miles, he returned to Fez, Morocco and wrote a book: “The Famous Travels of Ibn Battuta”. His stories reveal us the important role played by merchants traveling the land and seas.  His memoirs are a significant historical source for the early Renaissance history of my country, Romania, where the Silk Road linking Spain and China crossed the Amber Road descending from Scandinavia to Greece.

In Ibn Battuta’s time, voyages, commerce, education and faith existed together within a space of dialogue and convergent civilizations.

            To the world of today, the men of medieval ages seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history books, their monuments adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is often perceived as a romantic image heritage coming out of the Arabian Nights. Yet, I believe we can learn a great deal from our brethren of yore, since that was the time of the first global economy and of the first global trade.

The European cultural heritage has always been a difficult and extremely sensitive topic for all those interested in preserving and rendering history valuable. The studies written on this matter reached and impressive number, yet no one ever provided a viable solution. The main difficulty consists of the subjective character of the very idea of heritage. Almost involuntarily, a western scholar will favor historic and cultural realities, as he perceives them as being more appealing, meanwhile an easterner historian will always relate to the tradition of his ancestors, and will tend to hold second in value the values of those which do not share in that specific tradition. In such cases, it seems that the idea of cultural heritage is reduced to distinguishing between concepts and settling boundaries on more or less arbitrary bases rather than the concrete and honest identification of the perennial cultural values that decisively laid their mark on European culture. It should be noted that all disputes of such sort are almost exclusively fueled by the religious or denominational affiliation of those involved in them. Given the circumstances, the only way to actually solve such dissensions is dialogue, a dialogue structured according to various aspects of reality: scientific, sociologic, cultural, artistic, and, last but not least, religious. Naturally, this should be a dialogue based on unity in diversity and, why not, on that certain coincidentia oppositorum of which spoke Nicholas of Cusa. Maybe is not entirely accidental that it was Nicholas of Cusa who wrote, shortly after Constantinople fell, a short work entitled De pace fidei  (On peace between religions), a work which, despite it importance and vision, was overlooked for a long time.

            The conference organized by the Muslim World League in July 2008 in Madrid under the patronage of King of Saudi Arabi, HRH Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz al Saud and King of Spain, HRH Juan Carlos, may be considered a model in the attempt to set the foundation of an effective and durable dialogue between the Christian and Islamic religions. Top-level religious leaders and representatives of the theological academia participated in this conference.

            Due to the success of the “People and religions. Peace is the name of God” assembly I organized in Bucharest 1998 and which is probably the event with the widest participation of religious leaders in the world, I was invited, together with Tony Blair, as the only personalities with a statemen career. Tony Blair, that dedicated himself during that period to a peace project in the Middle East, presented only a short speech at the reception offered by the two kings at Palacio Real, so that I had the honor of holding the keynote opening speech, as well as the conference closing speech.

            I am glad that the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin offers me today the possibility of resuming, as President of the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy, some of the ideas presented in Madrid, enriched by further experience in a context where the appeal to cultural diplomacy in relations between the Arab and European world becomes imperative.

At the base of this undertaking stands the clear conscience concerning the importance of religious life for the contemporary society, as well as the desire to value not only common points, but, even more, cultural, social and religious differences, in order to ensure a better understanding of the reality we live in. Not in the least, there must be underlined the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the context of exacerbating fundamentalism, in both Muslim and Christian worlds.

            The encounter between Christianity and Islam is not by any means recent. On the contrary, one could say that the birth of European civilization coincides with the beginning of the dialogue between Islam and Christianity, a dialogue rich in nuances and consequences that have changed in a radical manner the perception of society, as well as that of political organization and that of religious life. It might sound somewhat shocking, yet the very cultural heritage on which we desire to dwell upon will be used as a proof in constructing our thesis.

            Looking back, towards the Middle Ages, we would be tempted to believe that between the Islamic community and Byzantine or Latin Christendom there has been a permanent struggle, the best example in this regard being the Crusades.  Each of these communities was convinced of its spiritual spirituality and of having the clear conscience of holding the truth. Each of them took pride in their synthesis between religion, culture, society and political order as being the best framework for human life. The three communities were different in their linguistic, ethnic, military or commercial models, yet one could observe that many similarities arise when focusing on the problem of knowledge. Unlike us, medieval man, whether he was Muslim, Christian or Jew, saw in philosophy and theology an indissoluble unity governing thought and life. Philosophical method and theological thought did more than simply describe abstractions meant to enchant the enlightened minds of the medieval universities, but realities accessible to everyone, in accordance with one’s understanding powers. This meant that, despite numerous conflicts between Christendom and Islam, the route of ideas has never been jeopardized. Western Christendom brought with it the ambition for power and the thirst for knowledge and affirmation, both rooted in the Greek-Roman tradition. On the other side, Islam leveled the balance by means of a well-built cultural, social and political system eminently founded on religious principles. This represents the key in understanding the extraordinary spreading of Islam: the belief that Allah the Almighty governs everything and everybody and that His works and commandments were made known to humans through Muhammad, His prophet. We find ourselves in the presence of two statements, of two assurances, and of two levels of reality: the Absolute and the relative, Cause and effect, God and the world. Islam is the religion of certainty and of equilibrium, while Christianity is that of love and sacrifice. It is not to be understood that each of the two religions holds a monopoly. Instead, it would be more appropriate to maintain that each emphasizes one aspect of truth.

            It is hard to see that certain equilibrium we were speaking about, when looking at the present development of the relationship between the two great monotheistic religions across Europe. The only certainty reaching us seems to be conflict, struggle on various realms, mutual intolerance and the lack of any desire for dialogue. Yet, we must not forget that all these are nothing but the effects of a half-understood history, a history out of which each side chose to retain only the dark side. It is almost on a daily basis that the media transmits alarming news related to the migration of Muslims into the boundaries of the European Union, insisting on their so-called incapacity to adapt to the norms and the realities of Western world. Given the situation, we are bound to ask ourselves a very simple yet pertinent question: do we really know our own values and norms? Or is it that everything reduces to a shallow understanding of things, the more convenient – the more dangerous? 

            I shall revert to the image of the Middle Ages, a time – beyond the grim characterizations it has been subjected to – marked by an extraordinary cultural effervescence and by an enormous knowledge desire which nurtured current civilization. It was in this context that Europe would learn from Islam that the world is a whole comprising both the religious and philosophic realm, as well as the secular, and that is should be treated as such. This spirit appeared for the first time in the Islamic world with the publishing of a series of treaties entitled Mujarrabat (Experimenta). The first to contribute to this series was Abul – Ala Zuhr (who died about 1078) of Cordoba, father of the famous physician Avenzoar. To his philosophic and theological ideas would subsequently adhere, in succession, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, without the involvement of any danger of compromise. This fact is in itself extraordinary, both through grasping the unifying capacity of Islam, but also through its actuality. If almost a thousand years ago the great three religions managed to convene, why, then, to us today this achievement seems impossible? Why, then, this inter-religious dialogue seems destined to take place only in the confined space of an academic enclave? One could argue that, because this dialogue was carried exclusively in the realm of ideas, it itself hindered a broader expansion of the idea of religious dialogue. Yet evidences to support the contrary are easy to produce. The case of medieval Spain is perhaps the best example. Despite the long Arab domination, the connection between Islam, Christianity and Judaism has been extremely fruitful. It would suffice to remind of the first school of Oriental studies, which was opened in Toledo by the monks of the Dominican order, as a fruit of their contact with the Islamic world and civilization. Toledo was the first great cultural centre in Western Medieval Age. In the twelfth century, Toledo represented for the Christian world what Baghdad represented for the Islamic world. It would also suffice to remind that Avicenna was translated in Toledo by a small group comprised, amid others, by Ibn Daud, a Jew versed in Arabic, who translated the text in Castilian and by Dominicus Gondisalvi, a Christian who provided the translation from Castilian to Latin. This translation of Avicenna is of foremost importance, first, because we have a Jew and a Christian working together with the purpose of culturally rendering available a text belonging to a Persian translated into Arab; second, the text of Avicenna was the first important philosophical work to reach the Western world. To avoid abusing your time and to allow the distinguished guests to present their opinions, I will go over the fascinating history of Latin translation and the dissemination of the treaties published in Cordoba by Abul Ala Zuhr in 1078 in the European cultural space, titled Mujarrabat (Experimenta), and also the great work of the great Arab philosopher Avicenna in the XII century. You will be able to find these details in the printed text that will be broadcasted on demand and in a video for the students of the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy. Too often we forget that Latins knew Avicenna before even Aristotle was entirely translated in Latin. In fact, if we can spoke today of a thirteen century philosophy and theology called “scholastic”, this is mainly because Avicenna had already been read and put to use as early as the end of the twelfth century. Alain de Libera, one of the best-qualified researchers on the civilization of the Middle Ages, rightfully concludes that “it was Avicenna and not Aristotle the one that initiated the Western world into philosophy”.

            Sparkled in Toledo, the movement for acculturation of the Western world continued Naples and Southern Italy, due to the “cultural policy” employed by Emperor Frederick II. His love for Arab culture and science determined to oppose the Sixth Crusade, which, in turn, led to his excommunication by Pope Gregory IX. Despite this extremely harsh sanction, the emperor did not hesitate to militate in favor of ending the conflict, his attitude being materialized in signing the Joppa (Yafo) Treaty on the 11th of February 1229. Founder of the University of Naples, Frederick II resembled the ancient caliphs of Baghdad in the sense that he carried a policy of translating and purchasing books; he has enjoyed the company of renowned translators, such as Michael Scot, the one who supervised the work of small bilingual translation teams. To put it shortly, Frederick II introduced to Western European world the rigour of philosophical interpretation, scientific curiosity, and, above all, the unequaled appetence for beautiful of the Arab world.

            We must not forget that the first attempt to translate the Holy Qur’an was achieved around 1141, following the advice of Venerable Bede, at the Cluny Abbey, one of the most important religious and cultural centers of the Middle Ages. Whether is the University of Paris or various Italian universities, the treatises belonging to Arab physicians, physicists, or astronomers are held in high esteem, equal to that enjoyed by the documents belonging to classic antiquity. Even on the realm of theology, Fathers of the Church such as Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great or Siger of Brabant make use of Arab commentaries on Aristotelian, Platonist or Neo-Platonist texts without any hesitation.

            It is the duty of today’s intellectual elites to reaffirm in public that at the foundation of Modern Europe lays an Arab heritage often denied and seldom put to good use. He have got used to clichés such as “Islamic expansionism”, “religious fundamentalism”, “intolerance”, yet we remain content with exploring the mere surface of the problem and we do not dare to access its profound dimension. The massive migration of Muslims in the European space is not caused simply by economic or politic factors. In a certain manner, they perceive themselves as being tied to the civilization they adopt, and this is due to the shared cultural heritage, and this is not the case of mere philosophical or sociological assumptions, but these are concrete and well-founded realities. A Muslim can equally be a dependable European citizen and still be a faithful believer, without the need of any compromises. The difficulty arouses when this European cultural heritage is misinterpreted. Much too often we confuse the cultures themselves with the heritage these cultures produced in time. We are permitted to speak about a Greek, Latin, Iberian or a German culture, but the concept of cultural heritage transcends the Nationalist sphere. Its validity extends to the whole European space, and this fact can be observed primarily from people’s way of being, from their day-to-day existence. As such, the possibility of an authentic inter-religious dialogue is conditioned by the understanding and mutual acceptance of this heritage. We are not allowed to forget that the very notion of ‘religion’ implies the existence of a real communion, beyond our differences. Similarly, culture implies – before anything else – the existence of a dialogue out of which we all have something to learn. Ultimately the common denominator is the human being, with all its aspects, and, from this perspective, in the Era of Globalization, Muslims and Christians can work together in peace towards understanding the greatest mystery of the world: MAN.