It is interesting to look at pluralism from an empirical perspective, searching for examples that we might find in history and in different Cultures, and to weigh its outcome in society. This will bring us to meet, if not the idea of pluralism, at least, the practice of It. Since it has always been a matter of fact for societies at crossroads the exchange and different cultures take part in one society. The Middle East is the crossroad between the three continents which makes it one of the most interesting areas to search for pluralism and its outcome in history.
At the same time, the period of the creation and the growth of the Caliphate is one of the best moments regarding the historical conjuncture. Moreover, the fact that is not well known from this point of view and sometimes even used as an example of the opposite ideas, It makes it even more important to look at it. The region since ancient times has been a place of exchange, clash, and meeting of different societies. From the wars between the Greeks and the Persians to the formation of the Hellenistic kingdoms, after the death of Alexander the Great, to the rise of the Roman Empire, the clashes between the Sassanid Empire and the Byzantines, and the formation of the Arab kingdoms of Lakhmids and Ghassanids. At the moment of the birth of Islam, the Middle East is at a turning point. The fading power of Byzantines and Sassanids left a vacuum soon filled by the authority of the Caliphate. The vast cultural heritage of these two societies was also inherited by the newly born Islamic society, creating a melange of Cultures.
In the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate, the created society, managed to gather the impulse from the conquered society, already keen to the practice of pluralism, and then sublimate it in the literature, philosophy, political theory, science, arts, and religion. The different ethnic components of the Society came together to build a new vision of the World, Persians became great philosophers studying the Greek Philosophy translated by the Nestorian Christians at the service of the Caliphs in Bayt al-Ḥikma in Baġdād, built on the model of the Sasanids library of Gundīšāpūr.
One of the first and the best examples of the shared construction of Islamic Culture is probably the Persian grammarian Sībawayh (760-796), who wrote the first Arabic grammar book, Al-Kitāb. Given the great importance of the Arabic language in Islām and considering the holiness that it is attributed to it, it is of great relevance the fact that the first grammar book was written by someone coming from a different cultural background. The Arabic language also had a very strong role in the unification of the Caliphate and of the different components of it.
This, I think, is a strong symbol of how, from the beginning, the Islamic medieval Society has been marked by multiculturalism. Language remains one of the important tools to connect cultures and people, thanks to the Christian translators that the works of Greek philosophers could be translated, first in Syriac and then in Arabic. Those translations gave the basis for the development of Islamic Philosophy, that re-elaborated the thought of Greek philosophers, developing it, and using it as a base for their ideas.
The Arabic version of these books is sometimes the only one left of the original work, lost in the fall of the Byzantine Empire, allowing the transmission and the preservation of the Greek heritage through the translations. The works translated were not only philosophical but also scientific; about mathematics and medicine. One of the best-known translators was Ḥunayn Bin Isḥāq (809-873), a Nestorian Christian famous for his translations from Greek to Syriac or to Arabic of books of Greek Philosophy, the Old Testament and many of the works of Galen, a Greek doctor. Isḥāq Bin Ḥunayn (830-910), son of Ḥunayn, is known for his work on the books of Ptolemy and Euclid.
Another Nestorian Christian known for his translations is Abū Bišr Mattā Bin Yūnus (870-940), working from Syriac to Arabic on the books of Aristotle and also famous for being the master of Al-Fārābī. Among the students of Bin Yūnus, there was Yaḥyā Bin ‘Adī (893-974), a Jacobite Christian who translated from Syriac the works of Plato and Aristotle. Another Jacobite Christian was Ibn Al-Zura’ (943-1008), a student of Bin ‘Adī, philosopher, and physician in Baġdād.
Those are the names of some of the most famous translators in the translation movement. This movement was possible thanks to the patronage of the Abbasids Caliphs, in particular, Ğafar Al-Manṣūr, Hārūn Al-Rašīd and ‘Abdallah Al-Mā’mūn. They supported the intellectuals and made the translation movements flourish, this helped the arrival of the Greek Philosophy and Science in the Arab World. The Bayt al-Ḥikma, or the House of Wisdom, was created around 830 by Al-Mā’mūn and was inspired by the Sassanid academy of Gundīšāpūr, where the knowledge of Greeks, Persians, Syrians, and Indians was being collected. The Bayt al-Ḥikma had a huge collection of books, one of the most impressive libraries of the times, it was working as a hospital, and as an astronomical observatory.
Even before the creation of the House of Wisdom, under the influence of the Nestorian schools in Edessa and Nisibis, the Caliph Hārūn Al-Rašīd, in Baġdād, was hosting intellectuals, promoting the translation of books from Greek, Persian, or even Indian books as the Astronomy treatise “Shiddarta”. The ones who started building on this foundations were the same translators, that were most of them, also philosophers, physicians, mathematician, and literates.
Among the great number of Arab Philosophers that contributed to Islamic Philosophy there were many coming from other backgrounds, most of the Persian, and among them even some of the most known, like Ibn Sinā, known as Avicenna, or Al-Ġazālī, or even Al-Fārābī, Al-Bīrūnī, Al-Rāzī, Suhrawardī or Al-Hallāğ. Ibn Sinā (980-1037) is probably the greatest Philosopher from that time and also a great physician, writing his books in both Arabic and Persian, was also influenced by Al-Fārābī and he had a great impact on the interpretation of Aristotle Philosophy. Al-Ġazālī (1058-1111) was also one of the most important thinkers of that time, of Persian origin as well, participated in the ongoing debate between Philosophy and Theology, and he was also a very important figure for the Sufi movement.
In this pluralistic society, we find also, for examples, a strong presence of Christians, the most trusted doctors of the Caliphs were of Christian origin, like Ğurğīs, a Christian doctor of Persian origin, was the personal doctor of the Caliph Al-Manṣūr. The son of Ğurğīs, Baḫtīšū’, was a doctor of the Caliphs, and even his son, Ğibrā’īl Bin Baḫtīšū’, was the doctor of the Caliph Hārūn Al-Rašīd. Beside these important figures for the Islamic Culture, there were many others who were fundamental to the Policies, the Conquests, the Revolutions of the Islamic Empire.
Since the beginning of the Islamic History, we can find important figures of different origins, like Salmān the Persian (-656), among the companions of the Prophet Muḥammad, known for the participation to the battle of the trench in Medina. Or for example, one of the most famous Muslim conqueror, Ṭāriq Bin Ziyād (670-720), of Berber origin, who lead the Muslim armies to Spain in 711. The most powerful of the generals that brought to power the Abbasid dynasty was Abū Muslim (700-755), of Persian origin. In 750 he unfolded the black banners and led out of Iran the Abbasid Armies.
Under the Abbasid rule, a great number of the vizirs where of Persian origins, like the dynasty of the Barmecide family who gave to the Abbasid Caliphs a number of great state man, as Ḫālid Bin Barmak (705-702) or Yaḥyā Bin Ḫālid (- 806). Also, the vizier of another dynasty of Caliphs, the Fatimids, was of no-Arab origin, in fact, Ğawhar Al-Ṣiqilī (911-992) that, as his name is telling us, was of Sicilian origins. He conquered Egypt for the Fatimids and founded the city of Al-Qāhirah, Cairo, and started the construction of the mosque of Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world. Another of the most famous historical figures from that time was Ṣalāḥ Al-Dīn (1137-1193), who was of Kurdish origin. He defeated the Crusaders in the battle of Ḥattīn and created the dynasty of the Ayyubids. He is still considered as a great ruler, an example of the chivalrous knight, and a fundamental historic figure in the History of Middle East.
Even though in this times pluralism was never a theory we can see from this example that was a common practice. Mentioning all these examples should make us think about the misinterpretation that can occur in reading the history of a civilization, from his opponents and also from the people that are part of it. On the other hand, denying that in this history there were clashes between the different ethnic and religious groups would be pointless, because history tells us that there were. But, what we can do it takes advantage of this knowledge?
The fact that pluralism, the presence of different religions and multi-ethnicity suffered from changing fortune should not lead us to forget the bright moment they lived. The ”Magistrae Vitae”, history, should lead us. By Pietro Menghini
A. R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Lévi-Provençal, J. Schacht (Edited by), The Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden E.J. Brill, 1986.