Monday, June 08, 2009

More 'Not Quite'

"As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam - at places like Al-Azhar University - that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment." So said the learned scholar, President Barack Obama, attempting to ingratiate himself with the Muslim public, not only by quoting passages of the Koran, and by invoking the symbol of peaceful greeting, Salaam Aleichem (peace be with you), but by praising Islam as the keeper of humankind's learning.

But was it so? It was, in fact, early Christianity in the Middle East, much pre-dating Islam that was ultimately responsible for Irish monasteries taking it upon themselves to act as repositories of the learning of the ages, the transcriptions of great scholarly work, the busy scriptoriums salvaging, protecting and holding dear the 'light of learning ... paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment'. For it was the earliest of monasteries originating in Egypt from whence wandering hermits ('monks') spread. Early monasteries originated in Egypt as places where wandering hermits gathered.

To branch out by the fifth Century to spread the monastic movement to Ireland and where St.Patrick, the son of a Roman official, embarked on the conversion of the pagan Irish to Christianity. These early "monks" lived alone, but met in a common chapel. The contemplatives who founded those Celtic monasteries, built often on isolated islands, were responsible for safeguarding humankind's collected learning in the sciences, the humanities, and religion.

Over the space of a thousand years a variety of orders of monks and nuns became established in various communes throughout the British Isles. They represented the Benedictines, Cistercians, Cluniacs, Augustinians, Premonstratians and Carthusians, and all had their disparate monastic settlements, isolated and dedicated to their versions of Christian heritage, thought and prayer.

Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey crypt

And it was throughout the long period of the Dark Ages and the Medieval period that these monasteries became the repository of scholarship and learning, preserving them for future generations. It was the monks who represented the educated members of society, and the monasteries housed ancient manuscripts and where sacred texts were copied in exacting manuscripts and illuminated texts.

And then there is the additional statement: "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition." President Obama was speaking to a huge audience whose knowledge of history from the perspective of Islam might not equate precisely with that as seen from a Western perspective. The Inquisition was a Spanish affair, long after the reconquest of Spain from from Islamic rule. The duo of Ferdinand and Isabella (Aragon and Castile) brought the Inquisition to bear on Conversos (Jews converted under duress to Christianity) and Moriscos (Granadian Muslims).

Moriscos had the choice of voluntarily exiling themselves from now-Christian Spain or to convert to Christianity. Spain was determined that it would prevent Moriscos from ever again becoming a vital force in Spain. The Inquisition was launched to ensure religious conformity in the country, its work to seek out crypto-Jews, enforced by none other than a descendant of Conversos, Tomas de Torquemada. When Andalusian Moriscos rebelled and appealed for aid to the Ottoman Empire mass expulsions of Spanish Muslims occurred.

Although it was mostly Conversos suspected of still practising their forbidden religion as Jews that suffered torture, burning at the stake and auto da fe.

Representation of an Auto de fe, as depicted by Pedro Berruguete1495.

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