AL-MA’MUN – Book Sample
CONTENTS – AL-MA’MUN
- Acknowledgements xi
- INTRODUCTION 1
- Al-Ma’mun Attacks the Pyramid 2
- The Scholar-Caliph 4 TheWorld Inherited by Islam 5 Muslims:A Divided Minority 8 The Coming of the Abbasids 10 The Problem of the Sources 13
- EDUCATION 17
- Parents, Step-parents and Foster Parents 17 Topography and Domestic Space 19 Elementary Education 22
- Grammar 23
- Poetry 25
- History and Hadith 27 Learning toThink 28 The Legacy of Iran 32
- The Question of the Law 33
- An Inscrutable Personality? 36
- THE FIRST SUCCESSION CRISIS 39
- The Succession to al-Rashid 42 Al-Ma’mun Left in the Lurch 44 A New Force in Khurasan 46
- viii AL-MA’MUN
- The CivilWar 48
- The Siege of Baghdad 51
- The Death of al-Amin and the Crisis of Legitimacy 53
- THE SECOND SUCCESSION CRISIS 57
- Al-Rida’s Claim to the Imamate 60
- The End of theWorld? 62
- An Appeal to Iranian Muslims? 64
- The Proto-Sunni Response 66
- A Reversal of Policy? 68
- Al-Ma’mun’s Return to Baghdad 70
- Al-Ma’mun’s Later pro-Alid Policies 73
- Later Shiite Responses 74
- The Pilgrimage to Mashhad 77
- SCIENCE AND RATIONALISM 81
- The Ancient Scientific Legacy 83 TheTranslation Movement 84 Measuring the Earth 88
- Greek Medicine in Baghdad 91 The Book of Ingenious Devices 95 Breakthroughs in Mathematics 98 The Map of theWorld 102 Hostility to the Literalists 105
- DEFENDER OF THE FAITH 107
- Recentralization and the New Military 107
- The Byzantine Campaigns 109 The Dome of the Rock 111 Provoking the Literalists 113 The Inquisition 115
- The Scholars Resist 118
- The Death of al-Ma’mun 121
- The Inquisition After al-Ma’mun 123
- The Historical Significance of the Inquisition 125
- Epilogue 129
- Bibliography 133
- Index 137
- CONTENTS ix
AL-MA’MUN ATTACKS THE PYRAMID
Al-Ma’mun was accompanied on his visit to Egypt by a learned Christian: Dionysius, the archbishop of Antioch.
On an earlier visit, Dionysius had noticed a tunnel in the north face of the pyramid of Khufu. He had entered the tunnel and followed it for a short distance before hitting a dead end. Since the struc- ture all around him seemed to be solid, he had decided that the pyramids were not the granaries of Joseph after all. Rather, he had supposed, they were temples built atop the tombs of ancient kings.
Acting, it seems, on the archbishop’s report, the caliph did not try at first to use the tunnel. Instead, he tried to punch the pyramid open, or knock it down, by battering it with a catapult. Since the pyramids are in fact largely solid, the pounding had no effect.
Unwilling to give up, the caliph decided to try the arch- bishop’s tunnel. Although it appeared to be a dead end, it might simply be blocked. On this assumption, the caliph’s workmen built a fire in front of the blockage, causing it to expand on one side and thus to crack. They may also have used vinegar to weaken the mortar that held the blocks together.After pulling the debris aside, they found that the tunnel continued deeper into the pyramid.
An Egyptian author of the thirteenth century describes what they found inside: Inside the pyramid were passages leading up, and others leading down, all of them terrifying in appearance and difficult to get through.These passages led up to a cubical room eight by eight cubits in size. In the middle of the room was a basin made of marble.
When the top was broken off, nothing was found inside but decayed human remains.At that point the caliph put an end to the expedition (Idrisi, 34–35).
In 1801, the French Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy published an article arguing that al-Ma’mun cannot have entered the pyra- mid. But recent work by Egyptologists makes it clear that de Sacy was wrong.
The original entrance, which had been covered over after the pyramid was built, would have been invisible. Later, however, Pharaonic-period tomb robbers had made their own tunnel.This tunnel, which had subsequently been blocked off to prevent another break-in, was the one the archbishop had ventured into. By unblocking it, the caliph’s men gained access to the passages made by the original builders.
As anyone who has visited the pyramid of Khufu knows, the Egyptian author’s description of the interior is accurate: a series of narrow pas- sages leads downwards and then upwards to the Great Gallery and the burial chamber of the Pharaoh. Because the burial chamber had already been robbed in antiquity, there was noth- ing left for al-Ma’mun to find.
But the caliph’s expedition was not entirely fruitless: the entrance that he tore out of the rock is the one now used by millions of tourists every year.
Despite his discovery of the burial chamber, al-Ma’mun must have been disappointed. Based on his experience of Greek and Egyptian temples, he doubtless expected the pyramids to contain engraved tablets, books, or inscriptions. He may even have been looking for texts that would help Ayyub decipher the hieroglyphs. But as we now know, the Rosetta Stone, the bilin- gual inscription that would make the decipherment possible, would not be discovered for another thousand years.And even if they had had access to a Rosetta Stone, al-Ma’mun’s translators would probably not have been able to reconstruct ancient Egyptian.
The scholars of Baghdad were experts in Arabic grammar, and some were gifted translators of ancient Greek; but historical and comparative linguistics were disciplines cen- turies away from being born.
Although modern scholars have doubted the story of al-Ma’mun’s Egyptian expedition, medieval Arabic chroniclers (that is, the historians of various ethnicities who wrote in Arabic) never did. For them, pyramid-breaking was behavior typical of a caliph famous for his love of learning and insatiable curiosity.
Al-Ma’mun, they note, was among the caliphs who commissioned the translations of ancient philosophical works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. His patronage of math- ematicians and engineers produced several scientific break- throughs, including the first treatise on algebra and a relatively accurate measurement of the circumference of the earth.
He himself had an expert’s command of both the “Arab sciences,” that is, grammar, poetry, and the like, and the “foreign sciences,” that is, logic, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, state- craft, and other disciplines known through the translations from Middle Persian and Greek. Once a week, we are told, he would invite representatives of different religions and schools of thought to defend their positions, and he would often join in the discussions himself.
For a good many Arabic chroniclers, al-Ma’mun’s learning was a dangerous thing. Unlike his predecessors, he was not con- tent with the usual responsibilities associated with the office of caliph: collecting taxes, appointing governors and judges, safe- guarding the pilgrimage route, and launching campaigns against the pagans and the Byzantines.
Instead, he sought to revive the original meaning of “caliph”: that is, God’s deputy on earth. For him, this title meant that he was uniquely qualified to deliver the community from error in matters of religion. He seems to have adopted this conception of caliphal authority to justify his seizure of power in 813. But he must also have taken the idea seriously.
Otherwise, there is no good explanation for the wildly controversial policies he adopted once his position was secure.
THE WORLD INHERITED BY ISLAM
As the caliph’s fascination with the pyramids indicates, the world he lived in was already ancient. In that sense, it was very different from the European world of his older contemporary Charlemagne (d. 814, when al-Ma’mun was 28 years old).
By the ninth century, SouthwestAsia had already witnessed the rise of three generations of civilizations. The first was that of the ancient world.These civilizations included the Egyptian culture that had produced the pyramids, as well as the Mesopotamian
empires of Hammurabi, Sargon and Nebuchadnezzar, whose techniques of irrigation and mud-brick construction were still in use in the caliph’s home region of Iraq.
This first generation also produced the monotheistic religion of the Israelites. By al-Ma’mun’s time, people had only the haziest knowledge of these civilizations, but their legacy was still alive, partly in inherited patterns of thought and ways of doing things (such as the techniques of irrigation and brick construction) that people were not conscious of owing to anyone and more particularly in the Hebrew Bible, which supplied the monotheist faiths with many of their fundamental stories and ideas.
The second generation was that of Greco-Roman civilization. At the time of the caliph’s visit to Egypt, the only major city there was Alexandria, which had been founded by Alexander the Great. Alexander and his heirs had carried Hellenistic culture as far east as Afghanistan.
Their successors, the Romans, controlled North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean coast, with occasional forays into the deserts of Syria and Arabia. It was under their rule that Christianity arose among the Jews of Palestine. In the fourth century CE, the Roman empire moved its capital eastward to Constantinople and adopted Christianity as its official faith.
Though many of them eventually broke away from the Church of Rome, the Christians of the eastern part of the empire maintained the legacy of Hellenism. When the caliphs began looking for scholars who could translate ancient Greek, they found them among the Christians of Iraq.
The third generation was that of Islamic civilization, still in the process
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