“At the Banquet of Cultures. Mesopotamia’s Heritage in Arabic Times” CAROLINE JANSSEN

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“At the Banquet of Cultures. Mesopotamia’s Heritage in Arabic Times” CAROLINE JANSSEN

Published in Melammu Symposia 3:
A. Panaino and G. Pettinato (eds.),

Ideologies as Intercultural Phenomena.
Proceedings of the Third Annual Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project. Held in Chicago, USA, October 27-31, 2000
(Milan: Università di Bologna & IsIao 2002), pp. 119-33. Publisher: http://www.mimesisedizioni.it/

This article was downloaded from the website of the Melammu Project:


The Melammu Project investigates the continuity, transformation and diffusion of Mesopotamian culture throughout the ancient world. A central objective of the project is to create an electronic database collecting the relevant textual, art-historical, archaeological, ethnographic and linguistic evidence, which is available on the website, alongside bibliographies of relevant themes. In addition, the project organizes symposia focusing on different aspects of cultural continuity and evolution in the ancient world.

The Digital Library available at the website of the Melammu Project contains articles from the Melammu Symposia volumes, as well as related essays. All downloads at this website are freely available for personal, non-commercial use. Commercial use is strictly prohibited. For inquiries, please contact melammu-db@helsinki.fi.


At the Banquet of Cultures: Mesopotamia’s Heritage in Arabic Times

In regions like Mesopotamia with its heterogeneous population, ideologies of tolerance and universalism were useful tools to unite the different ethnic groups.1 Such ideologies are an inter- cultural phenomenon in se, and vital to societies with complex histories and foundations. A common language, politi- cal ideas and religion are important in- gredients to create a feeling of together- ness. In this paper we explore the idea that such ideologies can be transplanted from one empire to another, and that they can cross linguistic, political and even religious boundaries.2

The imperial ideology of the Sasanians encouraged the study of scientific and religious texts, irrespective of their land of origin. Their translation project made

I. Mesopotamia’s past

1. The legend of the Babylonian barrel

A legend handed down by medieval Arabic authors tells us that when the

1 The author/year system is used in the footnotes, except for the first reference.
This article presents research results of the Belgian Programme on Interuniversity Poles of Attraction ini- tiated by the Belgian State, Prime Minister’s Office, Science Policy Programming. The scientific responsi- bility is assumed by the author. I further wish to thank the organizers of the conference for inviting me.

of Persian a language of sciences and universal knowledge. They developed an ideology which connected the translation movement to the study of the Avesta, and thus to Zoroastrianism; yet Abbasid rul- ers succesfully transformed it into an Arabic cause, thus laying the foundation of the flourishing of sciences in the Is- lamic world. In this contribution, some evidence is gathered which shows that the intellectual heritage of Mesopotamia, enriched by the study of foreign cultures (Greece, India), was not rejected at the moment of the Islamic conquests but was quite influential during the second half of the first millennium AD. Sasanian values and ideologies were incorporated into the cultural program of the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad.

Muslims set out to conquer Mesopota- mia, they asked the Persians about the wonders of the land. One of these was that Babylon had several magical objects, one of which was a large barrel. When

2 We were much inspired and enlightened by D. Gu- tas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. The Graeco- Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abb sid Society (London & New York, 1998). By placing the Arabic translation movement in a per- spective much wider than the title of his work sug- gests, he laid valuable foundations for those who are interested in the Babylonian/Persian heritage in Is- lamic times.


A. Panaino & G. Pettinato (eds.) MELAMMU SYMPOSIA III (Milano 2002) ISBN 88-8483-107-5




the king organized a banquet, every guest poured out his own drink into it, but when later at night drinks were served from it, everyone received what he had brought. We can take this image as a metaphor for Mesopotamia’s past, where so many people had sat at the banquet of cultures, yet cultures had kept a number of distinctive features all along.3 Meso- potamia is in fact an early example of a multicultural society, where people of different stock and backgrounds, (se- mi-)nomad invaders and settlers, had placed their cultural marks, and had con- tributed to the prosperity, intellectual de- velopment, highlights or downfall of the region. It is thanks to this often fruitful exchange that the region saw the birth and development of cities, writing, ad- ministration, magic, religions, and last but not least, of sciences.

2. The world order

From early times onwards Mesopota- mia’s population had been of mixed ori- gins and linguistic affiliation. From those times on the region had given birth to states and empires, that united peoples and superimposed themselves over the diverse tribal groups, or at least tried to keep them under control. By creating states rulers increased the possibilities of production and trade.4 The accumulation

3 C. Janssen, B bil, the City of Witchcraft and Wine. The Name and Fame of Babylon in Medieval Arabic Geographical Texts (Ghent, 1995), 73; 83; 87; 200ff. 4 Ideas around the dynamics of empires are devel- oped by K. Ekholm & J. Friedman, ““Capital” Impe- rialism and Exploitation in Ancient World Systems,” in M.T. Larsen (ed.), Power and Propaganda. A symposium on Ancient Empires (= Mesopotamia, Copenhagen Studies in Assyriology 7) (Copenhagen,

of wealth became highly organized and professionalized. The empires installed a ‘world order’ which allowed economy to prosper, by creating a stable and secure environment for the population.5 In the early states, economic benefits served as a cement of the nation.

In order to do so, states need a good organization: the army, the administra- tion, postal services, legal institutions etc; or as F. McGraw Donner eloquently put it: “Troops to put down opposition and enforce judgments and regulations, administrators to assess and collect the taxes on which the state relies (among other things, to pay its troops and other officials), legal specialists to elaborate and enforce the state’s law – this is the stuff of which states are made.”6

In a multicultural society minorities and even majorities can be suppressed, but such a system is not the most effi- cient way to rule. An empire based on force will collapse as soon as the balance of power shifts. However, if people be- lieve they take part in the great enter- prise of civilization, feel protected and share political and economic interests, they will be motivated to ‘stand united,’ also in adversity. Much less force and expenses are needed. The people must be convinced that they enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life (which is what the ma- jority of people want) thanks to their governement, and this is where ideology comes in. The idea of participation can

1979), 41-58.
5 B.K. Gills & A.G. Frank (eds), The World System. Five hundred years or five thousand? (London & New York, 1993 [1996], 149ff place these develop- ments in the perspective of ‘World History’ and look into the economic foundations of the ancient Meso- potamia.
6 F. Mc.Graw Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton, 1981), 39.


be real or originate from ‘a false con- sciousness,’ as Liverani expressed it.7 It can be a tool to suppress and exploit, or to make a socially balanced state, in which people share (part of) their wealth and bring each other to prosperity. Eco- nomical and political stability are pre- requisits to achieve this level of civilized life. Ideology and propaganda are the means to make the people cooperate, even if it is against their own direct ad- vantage.

Very early on Mesopotamia’s rulers had understood that military excellence and economic development were not the only means to keep the empire together; royal inscriptions testify to the fact that an imperial ideology, based on religious foundations, was an important tool to convince people to accept their world or- der. The people of Mesopotamia had to believe that the imperial organization was a sublime achievement of civiliza- tion itself. Perhaps the world order found its most eloquent expression in the arts.

Very early the idea was developed that laws, taxes and decisions of the gov- ernement were to be respected not only because the ruler was able to use force and procure economic benefits, but also because he had a divine mission to lead his people into prosperity. Mesopotamian law collections such as Hammurabi’s fa- mous Code, were preceded by an ideo-

7 The latter term is taken from M. Liverani, “The ideology of the Assyrian empire” in M.T. Larsen, (ed.), Power and Propaganda. A symposium on An- cient Empires (= Mesopotamia, Copenhagen Studies in Assyriology 7) (Copenhagen, 1979), 298.

8 M. Liverani, 1979, 297ff gives an insight into the mechanism and aims of imperial ideologies. In his view, which is based on the example of the Assyrian empire, imperial ideologies are dreadful tools ‘to present exploitation in a favourable light for the ex- ploited.’ We do not necessarily see them in the light of the establishment of injustice and exploitation; solidarity is also sometimes accepting something aga- inst one’s direct interests, and ideologies can help

logical statement, the Prologue. In it, the divine order came first, naturally fol- lowed by the king’s historical role in the divine plan. Furthermore, the king was depicted as someone who truly cared for his people. It was a clear ideological foundation of power.8 In the Epilogue sanctions are formulated against those who violate the cosmic order by acting against the royal prescriptions, or by mo- difying or destroying the Code.9

3. The creation of the multi- nation state

Maps of e.g. the Third Dynasty of Ur, Hammurabi’s kingdom, the empires of the Mitanni, Hatti, Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria show how large territories in the region were united under one rulership.10 Maps of trade contacts and warfare show the impact the states of Mesopotamia had far beyond the borders of the alluvial plain.11

The first imperial states can be found in Mesopotamia from the second half of the third millennium onwards, and with them came ideologies that justified ruler- ship and the unification of regions. But it is in Achaemenid times, when the Per- sian region was united with the Fertile Crescent under Iranian rule, that the

establish such behaviour.
M. Liverani also makes some sharp observations on the role of religion in propaganda and power (301f).
9 RlA, s.v. Gesetze, p. 244b-246a.
10 See e.g. M. Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (New York & Oxford, 1990), 102 (Ur III); 120 (Hammurabi’s kingdom); 134 (the empires of the Mittanni, the Hatti, Egypt and Babylonia); 140 (Middle Assyrian empire), 179 (the Assyrian empire in the late 8 centrury BC), etc. to visualize these empires.
11 See e.g. M. Roaf, 1990, 113 (showing the Old Assyrian trade routes); 116 (the world of the Mari letters), etc.





foundations were laid for a ‘world em- pire,’ connecting East and West in a way never seen before.

The empire stretched from the Medi- terranean to the Indus region, and in- cluded up to 20 provinces (‘satrapies’). These regions were united in a multi- nation state, in which local traditions, religions and forms of administration were preserved. They were subjected to a yearly inspection by ‘the king’s eye.’12 The unification, combined with a respect for local traditions and cultures, created a framework for a peaceful interchange between the distant regions.13

Cyrus, who had conquered Babylon, had laid the foundations of the Achae- menid empire and its imperial culture. He was apparently very convincing in his role of a ‘benevolent ruler,’ according to the different segments of the Middle Eastern population.14 The Babylonians, the Jews,15 even the Greek agreed upon this.16 In Babylonia, local administration was conducted as it was before, and the economic life was not disturbed by Cy- rus’s conquest.17 The fact of servitude was masked, and Cyrus won the loyalty of the population.18

Religious groups met with tolerance and benevolence: not only did Cyrus sup- port his tribal gods near Pasargadae, but he also restored the temple of Jerusalem

12 A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (Chicago 1948 [1959]), 59.
13 M.G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam. Con- science and History in a World Civilization, 1: The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago & London 1974 [1977]), 118.

14 M. Roaf, 1990, 204.
15 A.T. Olmstead, 1948 [1959], 49. 16 M. Roaf, 1990, 204.

for the Jews and returned the captive gods of Babylon, Assyria and Elam.19 He was a model ruler for the multicultural society. Herodotus mentions that the Per- sians called him a father, because his in- nate kindness always inspired him with plans for the well-being of his subjects.20

In the collective memory of the Middle East the Achaemenid period was remem- bered as a period of prosperity and high civilization. For the Sasanians, the later Iranian rulers whose ambition it was to resuscitate the past and integrate it in their own imperial ideology, the times of the ‘first Persians’ stood out as an era of harmony and wisdom, of glorious days.21

The model of rule imposed by Cyrus, with his moderate taxation and religious tolerance, impressed both the inhabitants and the neighbours of the empire, both contemporary and later generations. Even if it was never an easy job to rule such an empire, and internal struggles occurred, it lasted for 150 years, until Alexander the Great conquered an almost intact Per- sian empire. Only a few years after Alex- ander’s unexpected death however it fell apart; by then, the infrastructure allow- ing fruitful exchanges between East and West was seriously damaged.22 Accord- ing to Arab historians, a period of ‘lesser kings’ followed.23

17 A.T. Olmstead, 1948 [1959], 77.
18 A.T. Olmstead, 1948 [1959], 71.
19 A.T. Olmstead, 1948 [1959], 71.
20 Herodotus, The Histories, 243 (= book III 91).
21 R.N. Frye, The Golden Age of Persia (London, 1975 [1993]), 1.

22 M. Roaf, 1990, 215. 23 C. Janssen, 1995, 150.


II. The heritage of Mesopotamian culture in Sasanian imperial ideology

1. The legend of Alexander the Destroyer

It is no wonder that for the heirs of the old Mesopotamian civilizations, Alexan- der the Great was not ‘the one who brought civilization to the East,’ as he was once perceived in some western ver- sions of history. In Arabic sources, many of which are derived from Persian ac- counts, his role is even quite ambiguous. According to some legends he was the one who destroyed Babylon, who de- stroyed civilization itself, whereas others put him on an equal rank with Solomon himself, Alexander and Solomon being the two prototypes of pious kings. All depends on the segment of the population from which the legends came.24

One of the Alexander legends is re- lated to the downfall and even extinction of scientific scholarship in the ancient Middle East. It tells that Alexander the Great (doubtlessly here a symbol of Greek civilization) came and stole the scientific works of Mesopotamia. He had them translated into Greek and then wiped out the traces of their origin. By his pillage of Mesopotamia he created ‘the Greek miracle.’ The scientific know- ledge of Mesopotamia had been recorded in the texts of the Avesta and Zand, cop- ies of which had been carefully stored in the Royal Treasury and the Fortress of

24 C. Janssen, 1995, 147-185 gives examples that illustrate that ‘double roles’ are not the privilege of Alexander alone, but that all the kings representing episodes from Babylon’s past were similarly ‘double faced.’ Heroes to some, they were sworn enemies to

Archives. Alexander is said to have de- stroyed these texts, after which he had the local scholars killed, so that all who knew about science and its origin were dead. Some scholars however managed to escape and tried to save what they could. Thus the ancient knowledge of Mesopo- tamia was scattered over the world. After that fateful event, ‘learning was obliter- ated in Iraq,’ as the Abbasid astrologer Ab Sahl b. (;Q<; N put it.25

But the ancient Middle East would reemerge on the scientific stage under Sasanian rule, thanks to the so-called ‘translation movement.’ This is at least how Sasanian ideology represented the past.

2. The Sasanian translation movement

Translation activities had existed in Mesopotamia from very early times on- wards: bilinguals, lists of words and ex- pressions helped the Akkadians to under- stand Sumerian texts, and letters refer to interpreters used to communicate with people such as the Cassites. Important texts were translated or recreated in the many languages of the ancient Near East. But the Sasanians ventured upon a larger enterprise: a translation movement, which was a deliberate attempt to assemble knowledge from different regions and

others. For Alexander in particular see p. 181ff.
25 For versions of this story in Persian sources such as the Zoroastrian D nkard and the Book of Nativities, and in Arabic translation (Ab Sahl b. Nawba N), see D. Gutas, 1998, 34-45.





make Persian its vehicle. Although this is probably a scholarly development, it was linked to the imperial ideology of the rulers who patronized the scholars. The later Arab historians and their Persian sources depict the translation movement as a well-planned action, carried out in a most systematic way, step-by-step, by several kings: Ardashir is said to have collected religious texts, Sabur non- religious texts, and Chosroes I Anushir- wan would have decreed that these texts had to be studied and discussed for the benefit of mankind.26

The Alexander legend was used, in the imperial ideology, to justify this ambi- tious project, which involved a remark- able openness to intellectual achieve- ments of foreign cultures. If Alexander the Great had destroyed the perfect knowledge of the ‘first Persians,’ was it not the task of the Sasanian rulers to undo his evil deeds? If the scholars had fled to the four corners of the world, in a desperate attempt to save the sciences from destruction and themselves from being slaughtered, was not all the knowl- edge in the world, irrespective of its pre- sent whereabouts, of Persian origin? Was the project not just the re-translation of the wisdom once contained in the sacred Avesta, or at least of knowledge derived from it, hence a moral obligation for the

pious kings? When they translated texts from Greece, India, and maybe even China, was it not their own intellectual heritage they resuscitated?27 Thus, the Sasanians constructed a new identity and meanwhile gave impulses to the rebirth of scientific life, making their empire a meeting place of different cultures and Persian the language of a universal sci- ence.

The translation movement laid the foundation of a study of universal know- ledge, and showed a great respect for values and ideas of the different cultural strata of the empire and beyond. In this period there were academies and librar- ies, and a great diversity in opinions and beliefs. In the heart of the empire, revo- lutionary ideas about social justice and movements of religious syncretism sur- faced.

What is important for our discussion is that the imperial ideology encouraged the study of different cultures and made the translation of texts a national cause. Thus the foundations were laid for scientific development. The project was protected against xenophobic reactions of the re- ligious establishments by anchoring the foreign texts to the original culture of Persia and linking them to the corpus of the Avesta through the ‘Alexander the Destroyer’ legend.

III. Ideologies crossing the linguistic and religious border

1. The translation movement under Islamic rule

The Sasanian empire came to an end by the conquests of the Arab Muslims, which came without any doubt as a sur-

26 D. Gutas, 1998, 34-45.

prise for the superpowers. The Arabs had been present in the confines of the em- pire since a long time, as cuneiform sources and reliefs on the palace in Niniveh attest. But they had never founded an empire or posed a serious

27 D. Gutas, 1998, 34-45.


threat to the rulers. Once united under impulse of Islam, the Arab Muslims were extremely succesful and rapidly annexed vast territories once belonging to the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. As a consequence they all of a sudden became masters of the former multi-nation em- pires with their strong intellectual and administrative traditions – traditions that had had little appeal to the Arab nomads so far. They had not developed law codes, established academies, and had even only recently developed an own script.

When they became rulers, they did what previous rulers had often done. Lo- cal administration and institutions were almost left intact, at least in the first century of Islamic rule. For almost a century the administration in the former Byzantine and Persian regions continued to be conducted in Greek respectively Persian. Even in matters of religion the impact on the masses of the population was limited in early Islamic times. The conquests were not set up as a mass con- version project. Islam itself was not con- ceived as a new religion (the God of Is- lam was the God of Jews and Christians) but as the ‘seal’ of prophecies.

But what attitude had the Muslims to adopt versus the scientific and specula- tive sciences cherished in the Middle East – and so unfamiliar to the Arab tribes? How did they react to the scholars of the Persian academies and libraries, and how did the guardians of Mesopota- mia’s heritage respond to Muslim rule? What was to happen to the intercultural exchange of ideas and beliefs, which had been so central to the Sasanian ideology? Could the new rulers ‘take over the sci- ences of the communities that had domi-

28 EI2, s.v. Ikhw n al- af ’, 1073b.

nated before them,’28 as was thought by the Brethern of Purity in the tenth cen- tury, or would they reject them?

It is important to observe that the Muslim conquerors did not have final answers to these and other questions when they arrived in Iraq. It would take several centuries before the debate of the relationship between Islam, the sciences and philosophy would be fully devel- oped.

Islam itself was still in its formative years and we must realize that much of what we consider as unalienable features of this religion were still a matter of re- flection or debate, or did not even exist, in the first centuries of Islamic rule. To the elements under construction belong the šar ‘a (Islamic law), orthodoxy, and the impact of the prophetic traditions.

To come back to our questions, ini- tially, it seems, intellectual life was not seriously affected. The first conquerors, in their newly founded garrison cities, were not sufficiently embedded in Greek and Persian culture to worry about this issue, while the conquered people were not too much involved with Islam on a fundamental level. Only gradually they started to communicate on an intellectual level. A confrontation of both traditions, either resulting in a rejection of religion or science, or an attempt to harmonize them, was unavoidable in the long term, but seemed not to be important in the be- ginning. In the early days of Islam, the conquerors and the conquered lived in the same region but in a different uni- verse. The first step towards each other came through language (when Persian scholars started to write in Arabic, the language of those in power), not through religion. Many early authors of Arabic





texts were of Persian origin. By the time the opposition between the scientific ap- proach and religion became an issue, large parts of the heritage had already been translated to Arabic, and many ideas had become part of Islamic culture itself.

The Andalusian historian î1C>, who lived in the 11th century AD, confirms that in the beginning of Islam, the Arabs ‘cultivated no science other than their language and a knowledge of the regula- tions of their religious law, with the ex- ception of medicine,’ and that the Um- mayad dynasty, which ruled the empire from Damascus, did not bring any change in the situation. Only when the centre of power shifted to Mesopotamia, under Abbasid rulership, things changed. In the words of î1C>: ‘people’s ambitions re- vived from their indifference and their minds awoke from their sleep.’ It was the caliph al-Mans r, the founder of Bagh- dad, whose name was associated with this proces of ‘awakening.’ He is be- lieved to have had a particular interest in philosophical knowledge and astrology, the old science of Chaldaea.29 In the course of history, the Abbasid rulers, who were strongly influenced by the Per- sians, placed themselves in the line of rulers of the ‘World Empire’30 and pa- tronized the sciences, as the Sasanians had done before them. Arabic geogra- phers from the Abbasid period often sug- gest that there was a feeling of continu- ity, e.g. when they refer to Iraq as ‘the land of Babylon,’ and idealize the days of the Persian kings.

The spirit of the translation movement was kept alive, and with it, universalist trends. The Bayt al- CEG; (House of

29 The full passage is translated by D. Gutas, 1998, 31.
30 M.G.S. Hodgson, 1974 [1977], I, 280.

Wisdom) is doubtlessly the most famous exponent of this movement, as D. Gutas has demonstrated, but other evidence can be found. We first show how the broader cultural context in which D. Gutas placed the House of Wisdom influences its ap- preciation, then we give further examples of the survival of the old ideals from texts on B bil (ancient Babylon) and the ‘Case of the Animals’ by the Brethern of Purity.

2. The case of the Bayt al- CEG; (the House of Wisdom)

The history of the House of Wisdom is usually represented in the context of the Islamic empire. The authorative Ency- clopaedia of Islam depicts it as a short- lived institute that was founded by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’m n, at the begin- ning of the ninth century, while it men- tions that its library had already been there under his father Har n ar-Raš d. The Encyclopedia of Islam adds that its foundation took place ‘undoubtedly in imitation of the ancient academy of Djundays b r,’ and that its main activity was ‘the translation of philosophical and scientific works from the Greek origi- nals.’31 According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the influential Barmakids were the motor behind the translations, the ca- liph al-Ma’m n is just believed to have given a new impetus to the movement. The recently published Encyclopedia of Arabic literature gives a similar report.32 The Barmakids belonged to a family from urasan, once probably linked with a Buddhist shrine. Their ancestors were

31 EI2, s.v. Bayt al- ikma, 1141a.
32 EAL, s;v. Bayt al- ikma, 145-146.


ministers of the Sasanian empire, or so it was believed.33 After al-Ma’m n, the centre was closed down, and its collec- tion may have passed into private hands.34 In this representation, the House of Wisdom becomes a marginal phe- nomenon in Islamic history.

This is however not a fact but the re- sult of too narrow focusing. Misconcep- tions abound. It is Dimitri Gutas who drew the attention to these facts after a study of the translation movement. He gives textual proofs of the continuity of intellectual life between Sasanian and Islamic culture. He corrected the picture sketched in the Encyclopaedia of Islam by a thorough analysis of Persian and Arabic sources, and by using an interdis- ciplinary perspective.

First, he placed the House of Wisdom in the context of the translation move- ment in Abbasid times, then linked this movement to its fore-runners from Sa- sanian times. Second, he demonstrated that the House of Wisdom was not erected for the study of Greek texts, but that translations from Persian were its main activity. This makes the link be- tween the Sasanian translation movement and the Arabic translations even stronger. He further formulates the hy- pothesis that the House of Wisdom in- stitutionalized translating from Pahlavi into Arabic. As far as the Greek heritage was concerned, they were part of the corpus the Sasanians had recovered and translated into Pahlavi.35

The following picture now unfolds it- self. Under the Abbasids parts of the former establishment were succesfully integrated in the new empire and with their integration and participation in the governement the exchange of knowledge

33 EI2, s.v. al-Bar mika, 1033.
34 EAL, s;v. Bayt al- ikma, 146.

and views became more common. The attitude of the Muslims towards the sci- ences shifted from indifference to keen interest. While traditionalists from the religious establishment and Arab parti- zans may have been opposed to the in- flux of foreign ideas, Abbasid rulers turned the translation movement into an Arabic cause. Not only did they encour- age the study of philosophical and scien- tific texts; they made Arabic the lan- guage of science for the Islamic world, and thus laid the foundations of the de- velopment of sciences in the Islamic world, which soon achieved high levels. The old ideology had stripped itself from its religious associations, and had chosen a new language of expression, in accor- dance with the new balance of powers. A new empire had taken the torch of civili- zation.

It is thanks to the merits and insights of Abbasid caliphs such as al-Ma’m n that the connection between the sciences of antiquity and Islamic culture got solid foundations, and that they blended into a new civilization. The Abbasids have transformed Arabic into a language of sciences, by adopting the principles of the translation movement. Indeed, as the Brethern of Purity observed, they took over all the sciences that had preceded, and this at a time when a new concept of law and justice was being developed.36

But the support of sciences and phi- losophy, the study of texts outside the framework of Islam put them in a vulner- able position. The ideology behind the translation movement is one of inclusion, which is the cement of a large empire. However, when the empire started to de- sintegrate, claims of defenders of ‘pure Islamic values’ became more and more

35 D. Gutas, 59-60.
36 EI2, s.v. Bayt al- ikma, 1141a.





prominent, undermining the ideology of the cosmopolitan freethinkers and schol- ars.

The tensions between the different segments of the population surface in the accounts on Babylon.

3. The death of Babylon

Babylon had since long been in ruins when the Muslims conquered Iraq; the location and identity of the site was known, and the physical appearance of its remnants intruiged them. They knew the stories that surrounded the ruined city (that there were seven cities with magical objects; that it was built by gi- ants; that it was haunted; but also that it had been the capital of a large empire, etc). Babylon figured on the maps of the Classical geographical school of Iraq, probably because the geographers used older Persian prototypes and the ruins had still some meaning to the Muslims (it was referred to in the Qur’ n as the place of the fallen angels H r t and M r t, and Christians and Jews came there to visit ‘Daniel’s pit’).37 The site still served as a landmark.38

The Arabic texts show that scholars such as al-B r n and al-Mas‘ d had good (if not always entirely correct) no- tions of Mesopotamian history. E.g., al- Mas‘ d divides its history into the peri- ods of the kings of the ‘Suryan n,’ who were the first to keep records of reigns and astronomical observations; the kings of Mosul and Niniveh; the kings of Babylon; the first Persians (up to Dar- ius); the ‘lesser kings in whose days

37 C. Janssen, 1995, 104; 187ff. 38 C. Janssen, 1995, 91-111.
39 C. Janssen, 1995, 150.
40 C. Janssen, 1995, 147-185.

41 C. Janssen, 1995, 157-185.

there was no ‘strong man’ and factious- ness reigned’ (something the scholars such as al-Mas‘ d apparently disliked); the second Persians (i.e. the Sasanians) and the Greeks and the ‘R m’ (Ro- mans/Byzantine rulers).39

The city of Babylon was believed to have been constructed by mythical per- sonalities of the Iranian past such as Bi- y r sib, or Nimr d, or the Canaanites, and so on. The city is said to have been destroyed by Alexander the Great, or ac- cording to others, by Chosroes.40 The same amount of confusion and contra- diction surrounds its rulers, many of which are ‘double-faced.’ Nimr d, Nebu- chadnezzar and Alexander the Great oc- cur as great kings (builders, protectors etc.) and as great evildoers (destroyers of temples and cities).41

Legends surrounding the ancient city show that some realia of the old world were preserved in the collective memory. Thus the texts mentions that the kings used a ‘magic map’ enabling them to use rivers as a weapon against people ‘who refused to pay taxes,’ and they refer, al- beit in a fantastic way, to the river or- deal.42

When we investigated the legacy of the ancient city in Islamic times, we were struck by the number of references made to it. But above all we were surprised to see the variety of the stories connected with it. It soon became clear that the sto- ries did not belong to one tradition, but to different strata of the society (the Per- sian cyclus, the Jewish heritage, …). The choice of its founder and the destroyer, the appreciation of the ancient rulers, and the stories are undoubtedly linked with

42 C. Janssen, 1995, 202f. (magic map); 206 (river ordeal); translations of the different versions of the tale of the seven cities can be found on pp. 73, 83f and 87.


the strata of the population from which they originated. It is in order words ideological history. What different peo- ple told about the city, depended on their view on Mesopotamia’s past.

In the course of the tenth century, some, hostile against the Persian nostal- gia, minimalized its significance for the present times: ‘hardly anybode knows where B bil is’43; ‘B bil is a place’ (full stop)44 and the Palestinian al-Muqaddas even said that one should stop calling Iraq ‘the land of B bil’ ‘because true Ar- abs had never named it that way.’ He did some research to prove his case.45

This vehemence can only be inter- preted as a reaction to the persophiles who used its name to conjure up an ideal world: that of the ancient Persian em- pires, when Mesopotamia was full of harmony, tolerance and justice (or so they claimed). In the words of al-Ma- s‘ d :

‘The central climate is the climate in which we were born, be it that the days have separated us from it. We are now at a long distance from it, and in our hearts a deep longing for it was born, the more so since it was our fatherland and birth- place. This is the iql m (climate) of B bil, and this iql m was splendid under the Persian kings (…). (All) this (was true), when this climate was (still) char- acterized by (qualities) such as the great number of resources, the mildness of its land and the opulence of its life, and the possession of the ‘Two Tributary Stre- ams’ (…), the Tigris and Euphrates, the totality of the nations in it and when the evil ones kept far from it. It was the center of the earth, the climate of the sun, which stood in the middle of the

43 al-Muqaddas (10th century AD), see C. Janssen, 1995, 36.
44 az-Zama šar (12th century AD, in a geographical dictionary), see C. Janssen, 1995, 67. Although of Persian origin, he is known to have opposed the Per- sian partisans of the šu‘ b ya movement, and to have

seven climates, and the ancestors used to compare it to the world as the heart com- pares to the body, because (all) the con- cepts stem from the people of this land (…) because of their wisdom in (all) matters, precisely as does the heart.

(…) It hurts me [to perceive], in which condition the vicissitudes of fate have lead me because of my separation from this capital (…).46

The description of the climate of B bil (here the old kišwar-iql m, not to be con- fused with the Ptolemaic climates)47 conjures up a world of peaceful coexis- tence and prosperity. It is r nšahr, the heart of the old Persian empire, whose kings were ‘like the most precious pearl in a necklace’ (al-Mas‘ d ).48 This open veneration of the Persian empire can only have existed in the Abbasid empire, be- cause it was felt that Abbasid rule was conducted in the same spirit.

The Iraqi geographers left many de- scriptions of this ‘climate of nostalgia.’ There is no doubt that Babylon became the symbol of the old world order, the civilization of the Iranians. It is a land of tolerance, moderateness, prophets, wis- dom. For al-Mas‘ d this society was continued under Abbasid rule, when Baghdad flourished as the intellectual center of the Islamic world. Then he puts a precise date to the desintegration of the world, namely in 332 AH (943/944), when the Buyids challenged the caliphate and captured Baghdad, reducing Iraq to a provincial status. In the tenth and elev- enth century factiousness grew and the empire started to fall apart. The ideal of the universal empire, ruled from Bagh-

defended arabophony.
45 C. Janssen, 1995, 37.
46 C. Janssen, 1995, 125.
47 See C. Janssen, 1995, 114-115. 48 C. Janssen, 124.





dad, was shattered.
According to D. Gutas, the translation

movement as such died out by the end of the first millennium. However he stresses that this does not necessarily mean a de- cline of scientific production.

Still, there is a shift, we believe: a new order was about to emerge. By now, the different segments of culture were blen- ding. The translation movement had translated philosophical and scientific ideas into Arabic, hence into the lan- guage of the religious establishment. The boundaries between the conquerors and the conquered had been blown up, there were no longer two universes. Whereas in the first millennium the diverse intel- lectual traditions were more or less or- ganized in separate streams (natural sci- ences, Islamic scholarship, philosophy) they became more and more intertwined from the tenth, eleventh century on- wards.49

The confrontation between the sci- ences and religion could no longer be avoided in a climate in which orthodoxy had crystallized and defenders of a pure, traditionalist Islam had started to attack the freethinkers and cosmopolitan spirits.

For pure scientists, intellectual free- dom is of the essence, and compromises are not possible. For pure believers, re- ligion cannot be compromised. But this causes factiousness, which tears apart the Islamic world, and divides the umma, the Islamic community. In the new world or- der, some of the greatest thinkers will try to reconcile philosophy, science and re- ligion, but they face harsh problems.

The Brethern of Purity (I w n a af ’) witnessed the process of the de- cline of old universalist values and the

49 See M.G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam. Con- science and History in a World Civilization, 2: The

attack on the science and rationality, and were alarmed.

4. The case of the animals

Some thirty or forty years before the end of the first millennium AD, a more or less enigmatic group of people from Basra calling themselves the ‘Brethern of Purity’ started to write essays. Their col- lective pseudonym is a clear reference to the fables of Kal la wa-Dimna, a text of Indian origin which was translated into Arabic through Persian. In their 51 ras ’il (essays) they drew up the balance of civilization. They presented an overview of all the areas of knowledge, including themes related to mathematics, philoso- phy, physics, psychology, law, religion and magic. They defended the study of science and religion in a universalist spirit. Strange as it may seem to us, they felt it was necessary to hide their iden- tity, but claimed to have had a broad support in all the strata of the society (kings, vizirs, artisans, merchants, etc.).

The collection contains a charming piece of fiction, the ‘Case of the Ani- mals.’ The animals complain that the hu- mans are cruel to them and abuse them. Because the humans lack respect for the their nature and sensibilities, they revolt. A complaint is filed before the king of the Jinns. All kind of animals plead their case (sheep, pigs, camels, worms, in- sects, …); humans try to invalidate their arguments.

The kernel of the story is truly of an- cient Mesopotamian spirit: it is a debate between the animals and humankind, both claiming superiority. But it is much

Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods (Chicago & London, 1974 [1977], 152ff.


more than the traditional Sumerian ‘de- bate-of-the-tamarisk-and-the-palmtree’- type of story; in this debate between hu- mans and animals, the entire cosmic or- der is at stake.

The text is very pleasant and vivid, with all the animals boasting their quali- ties and degrading human beings. It is almost a piece of theatre, and full of hu- mor, e.g. when the pig complains that he is confused: should he complain about the Christians, who eat his flesh, or about Jews and Muslims, who refuse to do so?

But the reader may not be deluded by the entertaining character of the text: the authors stress that serious issues are at stake. What are these ‘issues’? One can see different levels of interpretation. The piece can be read as a social fable (about class struggle and as a criticism of the socio-economic system) or as an ‘eco- logical fable’ (about animal rights, the relation of man to nature, and the eco- logical system).50 But whoever thinks its main issue is the defense of the op- pressed will be puzzled by the ending. For no matter how much sympathy the animals gain, no matter how lucid their arguments are, they lose their case. The modern reader will feel disappointed by this seemingly ‘unhappy ending.’

Yet if we want to interpret this text, we have to understand what happens at the end and why. First of all, the animals complain not only against the human species, but against civilization itself, a point of view that can hardly be defended by the Brethern. Second, the relationship between mankind and animals is clear in the Qur’ n, and the Brethern cannot openly overturn the meaning of the verses without falling into heresy. But in fact, the lawsuit is not decided on these

50 See the title of L.E. Goodman’s translation, The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of

grounds. The most important element in the interpretation is not that men win, but who among the humans has the final word. For the man who convinces the Jinns to decide in favour of humanity, is not n’importe qui. He is the personifica- tion of the ideal of a truly cosmopolitan man; he is a Muslim (‘Arabic in his re- ligion’), of Persian origin, and a true scholar; he unites in him the best of all the great civilizations:

“Then rose the experienced scholar, the sharp-witted man of culture and refine- ment, the discerning one; Persian in his lineage, Arabic in his religion, Hanafite in his concept of law; Iraqi in his refine- ment, Hebrew in lore, Christian in his way of acting, Syrian in his ascetism, Greek in sciences, Indian in understand- ing, Sufi in conduct, regal in character, divine in his vision, godlike in cognition, eternal.”

This man, it is clear, is the ultimate product of the translation movement. The fact that he wins, is, believe it or not, a true happy ending.

It is such a man who, according to the Brethern, has the right to rule the world. They tried to shape a model of an ideal Muslim, open, tolerant, even a syncretist. They opposed the opposite tendency, to shape an Islam focused on the model of the prophet’s life and deeds, hostile to ‘un-arabic ways.’

It must be remarked that in the Case of the Animals, where time and again the principles of a sound justice are ex- plained, not a single reference is made to the had th corpus. This pillar of Islamic law, this return to ‘truly Arab ways’ and connection to the ‘original islam’ of the Arabian Peninsula, does clearly not be- long to their ideal justice. The non-

the Jinn. A Tenth-century Ecological Fable of the Pure Brethern of Basra (Boston, 1978).





mentioning of had th is a deafening si- lence in a time where Islamic jurisdiction is founded on the Qur’ n and the model of the life of the prophet. Moreover, not the fuqah ’ (specialists of Islamic law), but men and animals freely quote and interpret evidence from the Qur’ n to plead their case. The Jinns never say they do not have the right to do so. Finally, although coranic evidence is used, the Torah and philosophers are quoted with similar authority.

With their ideals of tolerance and in- terculturality, the # QîH balance on the verge of heresy. They may have had good reasons to choose a pseudonym and only to trust ‘true friends.’ The empire was rapidly desintegrating, and times of fac- tiousness made it more and more danger- ous to seem unorthodox. The # QîH were worried and asked their readers to open their eyes and breast and heart.

5. The Babylonian barrel in the second millennium AD

Universalist ideas, a truly cosmopoli- tan civilization, is a sound foundation of a stable empire. It is also a solid ground on which scientific progress can be made. Different cultures can challenge each other’s view, and reach new levels of understanding.

The ideology of universalism is vul- nerable though, when factiousness be- comes more rewarding than unification. Then ideologies of ‘inclusion’ will have to compete with those of ‘exclusion’; the ideal of togetherness and religious toler- ance are challenged by new ideals of righteousness and orthodoxy which does not allow deviations. In the complex

51 See A.G. Frank & B.K. Gills, 1993 [1996], 176.

history of the peoples and ideas living in the Middle East, the dynamics of ‘inclu- sion’ and ‘exclusion,’ of togetherness and difference, have played an important role in the development of ideologies.

In my opinion, the vision of the world as expressed by among others the I w n a af ’ is a great achievement of world civilization. It reflects the cosmopolite world of the Islamic empire, with Meso- potamia as its heart, a wholesome civili- zation, capable of great achievements. Yet it did not survive as such.

By the end of the first millennium, the translation movement, which had started under the Sasanians and was continued by the Abbasids, came to an end, and with it the ideals of antiquity. Baghdad, the daughter of Mesopotamia, gradually lost its position as the pulsating heart of the Islamic empire in the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The desin- tegration of the empire weakened its po- sition, and it got a final blow in 1258 AD, when it fell in the hands of the Mongols.51

The ideals and ideological heritage of antiquity, the ideals of tolerance and openness to foreign cultures had flour- ished under Muslim rule, and had con- tributed to the greatness of Islamic cul- tural and intellectual life, but in the first centuries of the second millennium AD, they lost their direct impact. In this pe- riod (and not at the times of the Muslim conquests) the last pagan centers of wor- ship were closed. The ancient cultures became an endangered species, or rather mutants. They were absorbed in a new world order. Arabic had become the lan- guage of religion, philosophy and sci- ence, a language mastered by the con- querors and the conquered alike; in fact,


the distinction had ceased to exist. From now on they lived in the same universe and understood each other. The three ways of understanding the creation and cosmos were no longer organized in separate streams.


At the banquet of cultures an other drink was served. Everyone had poured out his own drink he had brought from home, but in the barrel of Baghdad, they had mingled, and something new made the world drunk, as the Sufis would say.

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Meisami J.S. & Starkey, P. (eds), Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (London & New York, 1998).

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