Mind of the Musulman: The Sterility of the Arab Mind
The sterility of the Arab mind is apparent in every manifestation of intellectual activity — Arab civilization is the result of the intellectual efforts of non-Arab peoples converted to Islam — Arab science, astronomy, mathematIcs, chemistry, medicine, is only a copy of Greek science — in history and geography the Arabs have left a few original works — In philosophy they are the pupils of the School of Alexandria — In literature, with the exception of a few lyric poems of no great value, they are under the inspiration of Greek and Persian models — “The literature of the Moors in Spain is of Latin inspiration — In the fine arts, sculpture, painting and music, the nullity of the Arabs is absolute.
THE sterility of the Arab mind is apparent in every manifestation of intellectual activity, and more particularly in letters, in art, and in science, whose culture calls for qualities of originality and imagination. When the Arab wished to embark upon a literary, artistic, or scientific work, he had nothing to draw upon in his own inner consciousness; so he copied and imitated, without ever originating anything.
What is called "Arab civilization," in so far as any manifestation of Arab genius is concerned, has never had any real existence. The civilization that passes under that name is due to the labor of other peoples who, subjected to Islam by force, continued to develop their aptitudes in spite of the persecutions of their conquerors.
When the Arab people, under the earliest successors of Mohammed, undertook wars of conquest, they were a horde of rude barbarians, innocent of any intellectual culture, or of any artistic or scientific attainments. As compared with the Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians, they were in much the same situation as the Berbers of Northern Africa find themselves today in relation to European nations.
A series of unforeseen successes precipitated the Bedouins into the midst of civilized nations, who exerted an incontestable influence upon them; nevertheless they were slow to assimilate foreign attainments. The earliest works in the Arab language were composed under the rule of the Abbassid Caliphs, not by Arabs, but by Syrians, Greeks, and Persians, converted to Islam.
It was only towards the third century of the Hegira that the Bedouins began to be civilized. It is to this period that the translations of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Latin works may be dated, which revealed to the conquering Arabs stores of knowledge of which they were totally ignorant, and introduced among them the elements of former civilizations.
But this foreign influence only made itself felt upon those Arabs who had left their country to settle in Syria, in Persia, or in Egypt. The bulk of the nation who stayed in Arabia were shut off from this influence, and remained in a state of barbarism.
To give the name "Arab civilization" to the artistic, literary and scientific movement that by a false documentation is made to coincide with the accession of the Abbassid Caliphs, is to fall into error.
In the first place, because the Arab element only participated in it to an extent hardly perceptible; and further, because this movement was the result of the intellectual activity of foreign nations only converted to Islam by force; and finally, because the movement was already in existence in the countries conquered by the Arabs long before their arrival. The Syrian, Persian, and Indian works which are the manifestation of this intellectual movement, and which carryon the Greco-Latin work, are anterior to the Muslim conquests. It is, then, in defiance of fact to attribute this artistic and scientific effort to the Arabs, and to give the name of "Arab Civilization" to an intellectual movement due to the Syrians, to the Persians, to the Hindus, unwilling converts to Islam, but who, nevertheless, had preserved the qualities of their race. In reality, the movement was nothing more than the continuation, and, as it were, the ultimate flowering of Greco-Latin civilization. It is easy to prove this.
When Caliph Al Manzor (745-755), fascinated by the brilliancy of Byzantine culture and advised by Syrian, Greek, and Persian officials, who filled the various offices of the Empire, wished to spread the knowledge of science, he caused translations to be made into Arabic of the principal Greek authors: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy.
There were Syriac versions of these authors already in existence, and the task of translating them into Arabic was therefore entrusted to Syrian scribes. It was through these translations that the Arabs made acquaintance with the Greek works, and upon them that they worked in the first instance. But the Syrian scribes, too recently converted to Islam to be fully imbued with Muslim dogma, were content to translate the Greek authors faithfully. The Arab fanatics consequently found these versions not sufficiently orthodox; certain passages wounded their religious feelings; so, when they were sufficiently instructed to do without their Syrian intermediaries, they hastened to bring out new translations in accordance with Arab susceptibilities, and in harmony with Muslim conceptions. They suppressed everything in the Greek works that seemed to them contrary to the teachings of Islam; they added the religious formulae with which they were familiar, and they even carried their zeal to the extent of causing the names of the original authors to disappear.
These compilations were made not from the original Greek, nor even from the Syriac versions, but from Arabic translations made from the Syriac by Syrian scribes, so that the thought of the original authors was not only distorted by these successive interpretations, but even falsified by Muslim fanaticism.
These shapeless or distorted works, to which it is difficult to give a name, passed current during the Middle Ages as the original productions of Arab genius. Their true character was not discovered until much later, when, at the time of the Renaissance, the Greek manuscripts were exhumed from ancient libraries and there were scholars capable of translating them.
It was in this way that there were falsely attributed to the astronomer, Maschallah, who lived during the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid, certain treatises on the astrolabe and the armillary sphere, which were nothing but distorted reproductions, according to the method described above, of Arabic versions made by Syrians from Syriac translations of the works of Ptolemy. About the same time, Ahmed ben Mohammed Alnehavendi, who, by the way, was a Persian converted to Islam, drew up some astronomical tables from the same source.
Under the reign of Al-Mamoun, Send ben Ali and Khaled ben Abd-el-Malek Almerourandi, who measured a degree of meridian, did no more than apply the theories of Greek mathematicians. Another astronomer, Mohammed ben Moussa Ali-howarezmi, an Islamized Persian, drew up some tables after Hindu authors; and other tables were composed by Ahmed ben Abd'Allah Habach, from Ptolemy, and writers of his school.
The famous Al Kendi, who enjoyed such a great reputation in the Middle Ages, and who was known as the Philosopher par excellence, was an Islamized Syrian Jew. His works on geometry, arithmetic, astrology, meteorology, medicine, and philosophy, were translations or compilations from Aristotle and his commentators.
Other astronomers and mathematicians, such as Albumazar, Al Nairizi, and Albategui — the two latter being Persians — were compilers from writers of the school of Alexandria. In fact, in astrology and astronomy the Arabs were merely imitators.
Born in Chaldaea before the dawn of history, then imported into Egypt, this science was introduced into Greece, where its confused principles and observations that had been transmitted orally from generation to generation, were coordinated and fixed in writing.
Ptolemy's Almagest may be regarded as a complete statement of the astronomical attainments of antiquity. It was from this work, known to them by Syriac versions, that the Arab authors quarried, and upon which they commented, under a hundred different forms, without adding anything to the original.
To the study of mathematics the Arabs in like manner contributed nothing new. For a long time they were credited. with the invention of algebra, whereas they did no more than copy the treatises of Diophantus of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century; but, as the source from which they drew was unknown in the Middle Ages, they were looked upon, quite wrongly, as the originators.
The numerals commonly called Arabic, and the system of notation which bears the same name, come from Hindustan. The Arabs themselves call arithmetic "Indian reckoning," and geometry "Indian science" (hendesya).
Arab knowledge of botany was obtained either from the treatises of Dioscorides, or from Hindu and Persian works. In chemistry, or rather alchemy, they were the pupils of the Alexandrian school. Djeber and Rhazes, the latter an Islamized Persian, did no more than copy the works of Alexandrian Hermetism.
There is the same absence of invention in regard to medicine. From the third century of the Christian era, Greek physicians had found their way into Persia, where they founded the celebrated school of Djondischabour, which soon became the rival of Alexandria.
They taught especially the doctrines of Aristotle, of Hipparchus, and of Hippocrates, which the Persians readily assimilated. Mesue, one of their pupils, of Persian origin, became physician to Haroun-al-Raschid, and composed several treatises in imitation of Hippocrates, among which may be quoted his Demonstrations, a Pharmacopeia, and some papers on fevers and on food.
But it was especially at Alexandria that Greek medicine emerged from empiricism and assumed a really scientific character.
Herephiles and Erasistratus by their works prepared the way for Galen, who was to give this science its full development. The treatises of Galen, under the name of Pandects of Medicine, were compiled and translated into Syriac by Aaron, a Christian priest who lived at Alexandria in the seventh century. This Syriac version was translated into Arabic in 685, and is the source from which the Arab physicians drew, notably Serapion, Avicenna, Albucasis, and Averrhoës, whose Koullyat is a downright translation of Galen. The only Muslim who introduced anything new into medicine was Rhazes, who died in 982: he was a Persian. He introduced the use of mild purgatives and of chemical preparations into pharmacy; he was regarded as the inventor of the seton and advocated the study of anatomy.
Ali ben el Abbas, who carried on the work of Rhazes and who drew up a course of medicine, was equally a Persian.
The celebrated Avicenna (Abu Ali Hossein ibn Sinna, 980), was born at Afchanah, in Persia. His best known work, the Kanoun, is a compilation of the treatises of Galen, from the Syriac versions.
In a Latin translation, the Kanoun was very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, and was looked upon as an original work. Avicenna cared so little for Muslim dogma that he used to drink wine, and recommended its use to others.
The treatises of Albucasis, Avenzoar, and Aben-Bithar, all three of them natives of Spain, are also reproductions, more or less faithful, of the writings of Galen, of Aaron, and of the Alexandrine physicians, reproductions made from Syriac translations.
Maimonides, wrongly considered as an Arab doctor, was a Jew born at Cordova in 1185. Of a scientific mind, and indifferent to Muslim dogma, he drew upon himself the persecutions of the Almohads, and had to take refuge in Egypt. His Aphorisms of Medicine were translated into Latin in 1409; his treatise on the preservation and regulation of health in 1518. It was through them that Greek medical science was known in the Middle Ages.
The Arabs have especially excelled in directions that do not call for great powers of imagination, notably in history and geography. The Syrian and Persian writers supplied them with abundant materials from which they drew without displaying any remarkable critical faculty. This resulted in compilations, often crude, such as the works of Masoudi (956): Akhbar and Zeman, history of the time; Kitab Aousat, the midway book; M'oroudj-ed-Dheheb oua Maadin-el-Djewahir, the fields of gold and the mines of precious stones. Such is also the work of Ebn-el-Athir: Kemal al Taouarikh, the complete chronicle, beginning with the creation of the world and ending at the year A.D. 1231.
As much might be said of the abridged history of Aboulfeda, the prince diplomat and warrior, who sought relaxation from the anxieties of power in writing a sort of universal history, of which the first part comprises the patriarchs, the judges, and the kings of Israel; the second, the four dynasties of the ancient kings of Persia; the third, the Pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Greece, and the Roman Emperors; the fourth, the kings of Arabia before Mohammed; the fifth, the history of various nations, such as the Syrians, the Sabeans, the Copts, the Persians, etc., and the events that happened since the death of Mohammed up to A.D. 1828. This work is only original so far as Arab history is concerned. The same remark applies to the Universal History of the Syrian Aboulfaradj (1226-1286).
Borhan-ed-Din Motarezzi (1145-1285) collected a great number of Arab traditions, affording some curious references to pre-Islamic manners. Of the same genre is Nowairi's Historic Encyclopaedia of the Arabs, and the History of the Arab Conquest of the Peninsula, by Ebn-el-Kouthiah, and Tabari's Arab History, all original works containing valuable information.
A place apart should be accorded to Ibn-Khaldoun (1882-1406), whose Annals contain the history of the Arabs up to the end of the fourteenth century, and that of the Berbers. He is one of the few Muslim writers who is not content with merely compiling from previous documents.
He deals first with historical criticism and its methods; then he studies the community and its origin; gives a succinct description of the globe, and examines the influence which diversity of climate may exert upon man; he then goes into the causes of the development and decadence of States, among nomadic peoples and in the midst of large concentrations of population. He treats of work in general, enumerating the various professions, and finishes with a classification of the sciences. He was born at Tunis, and was of Spanish origin.
In geography, the Arabs have left some works of indisputable originality. Their conquests, the obligation upon them to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and their commercial travels enabled them to make the acquaintance of regions unknown to the Greeks. Their highly developed faculty of observation led them to record valuable information. They gave a faithful transcript of reality; the greater part of their accounts are strictly accurate: such, for instance, as those of Ibn-Batuta, of Ibn-Djobeir, of Ibn-Haukal, of Ibn-Khordadbeg, of Aboul-Feda, of Istakhri, of Bekri, and of Edrisi.
In philosophy, the Arabs, incapable of conceiving any system of their own, adopted those of Greece, of Persia, and of India. It was chiefly through works of the Alexandrine school that they were initiated into this branch of science. The Ptolemies, by their princely liberality, had drawn to this great city numbers of learned men from all parts of the then-known civilized world, notably from Greece, from Syria, and from Persia. These savants, whose works extend from the third to the end of the fifth century, were well acquainted with the various hypotheses to which the human brain had given birth. Thanks to them, Oriental and Greek philosophy — two absolutely different conceptions — were fused together.
Oriental philosophy, represented by Jewish and Christian doctrines, was steeped in a mysticism of which we should have to seek the origin in the religious beliefs of India. Muslim Sufism, which came into existence about the second century of the Hegira, seems to derive from Buddhism, and did, as a matter of fact, come from India. Man purified by meditation, trance, and the strict observance or certain rules, could raise himself to the divinity and become identified therewith. It was Sufism that inspired the founders of the various religious brotherhoods of Islam, which are so many manifestations of Oriental mysticism.
Greek philosophy, on the contrary, founded upon reason and logic, is divided into two leading conceptions: the peripateticism of Aristotle and the spiritualism of Plato. It was the Platonic theories that served as the link or bond of union between Greek realism and Oriental mysticism.
Peripateticism was introduced into Alexandria about the second century A.D., by Alexander of Aphrodisias; but, under the influence of Jewish and Christian doctrine, the pure fount of Aristotle was somewhat diverted and defiled. Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Porphyrius, Themistius, Syrianus, David the Armenian, Simplicius, John Philopon, Jamblichus, were the more or less faithful disciples of Aristotle from whom the Arabs derived their inspiration. The latter knew the works of these authors through the versions and commentaries of the Copts; but they were never in possession of the original works of Aristotle.
It was under such circumstances that the treatises of Honani and of Yahia the grammarian, upon Aristotle, and those of Alkendi, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Avenpace upon Plato, were written.
The Arabs also knew, through the medium of the commentators of the Alexandrine school, the traditions relating to the Seven Sages and to the minor philosophers; but they copied more especially the works of the successors to Aristotle, particularly those of Themistius, of Alexander Aphrodisias, of Ammonius Saccas, and of Porphyrius. Plotinus and Proclus were held in great esteem among them. The discourses of Apollonius of Thyana, of Plutarch, and of Valentinian were familiar to them. They adopted the ideas of these authors, often distorting them, either because they did not understand them, or because they wished to make them fall in with Muslim dogma; but they added nothing that could be accepted as original.
One of the latest and most celebrated Arab philosophers, Averrhoës, wrote commentaries upon Aristotle, with extracts, that made his reputation at a time when the works of the Greek philosophers were unknown. The system known in the Middle Ages and at the Renaissance by the name of Averrhoism has nothing original about it. It is merely a resume of doctrines common to the Arab peripateticians, and borrowed by them from writers of the Alexandrine school.
But Averrhoës had the luck of the last comer, and was considered as the inventor of doctrines which he had only set out in more complete form. As Averrhoës knew no Greek, he knew the writings of Aristotle only through Arabic versions made from Syriac and Coptic translations.
Avicenna, who brought out an Encyclopaedia of philosophic science, compiled the works of the Greek peripateticians, and of the Oriental philosophers, from Arabic translations of Syriac versions.
Oriental philosophy, the mysticism of the Sufis, found its most celebrated interpreter in AI Ghazzali (1058), who borrowed his doctrines from the Jewish and Christian mystics of the School of Alexandria. While recognizing, with Aristotle, the sacred rights of reason, Al Ghazzali held that "the truths established by reason are not the only ones, that there are others to which our understanding is not capable of reaching, that force us to accept them, although we cannot deduce them by the aid of logic from known principles; that there is nothing unreasonable in the supposition that above the sphere of reason there is another sphere, that of divine manifestation, and that, although we may be completely ignorant of its laws and its methods, it is sufficient that reason should be able to admit its possibility."
This is the door open to dreams and wanderings of the spirit. Oriental mysticism was not long in supplanting Greek logic, and the Muslim fanatics received with favor the theories of AI Ghazzali, who became the philosopher of orthodoxy. One of his writings, Vivification of the sciences of religion, had such celebrity that it gained him the title of Hojiet-el-Islam, the proof of Islamism.
Between these two philosophical tendencies: the logic of Aristotle and Oriental mysticism, a crowd of secondary influences may be discerned — Byzantine, Egyptian, Persian, or Indian. Each of the subjected nations in turn gave up to the conqueror a portion of its conceptions. The Arab, incapable of drawing anything from his own inner depths, copied, adapted, imitated, and distorted. It is in these foreign influences that must be sought the origin of the religious sects that divided Islam.
These sects came into being wherever the Arab spirit, coming into collision with other religious conceptions, brought about a sort of fusion of doctrines.
Finally, there is not, properly speaking, any Arab philosophy; there are adaptations to the Arab spirit, to the Arab mentality, of Greek, Alexandrine, and Oriental philosophic doctrines; from these adaptations philosophy has gained nothing; its equipment of knowledge has not been increased; its horizon has not been extended. The Arabs have left the doctrines of Aristotle and of the Jewish and Christian philosophers just as they were transmitted to them. They have copied, but they have neither invented nor improved.
It is curious to note that the ablest grammarians, those who have best explained the mechanism and the spirit of the Arabian tongue, are Islamized foreigners, Persians, Syrians, or Egyptians. Siba-waih, Farezi, Zedjadj, Zamakschari are Persian converts. The lexicographers, Ismail ben Hammad Djewhri and Firouzabadi are also Persians.
Among the rhetoricians and philologists the majority are either Persians or Syrians, such as Ebn-el-Sekaki, who has been compared with Quintilian for clearness and with Cicero for the richness of his style; or AI Soiouthi, who treats of the purity, the elegance, and the vigour of the Arab language, and joining example to precept, quotes passages from the most esteemed authors as witnesses in support of his dicta.
It is only fair to recognize that the Arabs have produced quite a number of remarkable grammarians. The Arab mind, particularly well adapted to compilation, to minute analysis and to commentaries which call for little imaginative effort, has found a congenial field in grammatical study.
Treatises both in prose and in verse abound; and all are crammed with quotations, for the proper appreciation of which it would be necessary to know a crowd of writers whose works have not come down to us.
In literature properly so called, in the literature of imagination, even more than in the sciences, the poverty of invention of the Arabs and the barrenness of their minds is made apparent. The only original productions of Arab genius are the Moallakat.
From the remotest ages there have been poets in Arabia, a sort of troubadours, who went from tribe to tribe, from market to market, reciting their verses. In those days the most important market was that of Okadh, in the Hedjaz. The poets used to come there to display their talent; there they held literary tourneys, and the poem that vas adjudged the best was inscribed in letters of gold and hung up in the temple of the Kaaba. It was this practice that gave the name Modhahhabat (gilded), or Moallakat (suspended, or more probably, considered as having a great value, from the root, allaka).
The subject, the form and the rhythm are invariably the same. Those that have come down to us, the Moallakat of Imroulkais, of Tarafa, of Nabiga and of Amr ibn Kholtoun are compositions of a hundred lines each. The author celebrates his native country and his sweetheart; he bewails his distant separation from them; then he boasts of his own exploits, praises his horse, his arms, and turns his enemies into ridicule.
They are exact pictures of the nomad, warlike lire of the Bedouins before Mohammed's time. Their literary value is about equal to that of the ballads of our own trouvères.
Then there are some songs collected in the Kitab el Aghani, belonging to a period a little later than the Moallakat: the complaints of a lover separated from his mistress, or rejected by her; the martial strains of a warrior; clamorings for vengeance; the glorification of a tribe, or of a feat of arms; insults addressed to an enemy. These little pieces recall our own ballads of the Middle Ages. This is about all that can be attributed to Arab genius, to its personal inspiration.
Immediately after the death of Mohammed, when the Arabs were precipitated by their conquests into the midst of peoples more civilized and more refined than themselves, their literature was not long in showing the effect of foreign influence. In contact with Byzantines and Persians, the poets, like the warriors, became more effeminate. They sang no longer of battles or of vengeance; they changed themselves into courtiers, and sang the praises of the Caliph and of influential personages from whom they hoped to receive favours and presents. To please the all-powerful master, who lived in the style of a King of Persia or of a Byzantine Emperor, in the midst of luxury and pleasure, they sang of good cheer, of wine and the love of women. As these subjects lack variety, they endeavored to brighten them up by a studied refinement of expression, by virtuosity of style, by the use of archaic and erudite expressions, by flashes of wit and the play upon words.
Such was Arab literature in the time of the Ommeyads and of the earlier Abbassids, when Motanebbi, Ibn Doreid, Abu Lâoli, and Omar Ibn Faradh were its principal representatives.
From the time of the Caliphates of Haroun-al-Raschid and El Mamoun, when the Arabs were initiated into Greek scientific knowledge through Syriac and Arabic translations of the works of antiquity, their literature became exclusively didactic. Their poets composed in verse treatises on grammar, on prosody, on astronomy, on mathematics and on jurisprudence. These efforts have no more original value than the prose works of their scientific writers. They are compilations made from Syriac versions; and this literature, which embraces several centuries, reveals the poverty of the Arab spirit and its powerlessness to draw forth anything from its own inner consciousness.
Fable and allegory occupy an important place in this literature. Here again the Arabs merely reproduce the compositions of India, Persia and Greece, adapting tem to their own mentality and the dogma of Islam. Calila and Dimla is a translation from the Persian; the fables of Lokman are copied from those of India and Greece; they were very probably compiled by a Christian of Syria.
The few Arab romances that have come down to us are likewise of foreign inspiration. The elements of intrigue and of the supernatural in the Thousand and One Nights are borrowed from the Persian; only the scenes of Arab life are original, and they are realistic representations without imaginative embellishment. The same may be said of the Romance of Antar, a sort of prose epic depicting the war-like life of the Bedouins.
Epic and dramatic poetry, which depend upon high imaginative gifts, do not exist among the Arabs, a further proof of their poverty of imagination.
There was in Arab literature one incomparable period: the Andalusian period. Under the Ommeyads of Spain, the Arab language was used to express original thought, a thing that had never happened to it before. Richness of invention, abundance of natural feeling, freshness of expression, fine and delicate ideas, such are the characteristics of the poems of this epoch. Unfortunately, they are not of Arab but of Latin inspiration. The greater part of these poems were composed by Islamized Andalusians, that is to say, by pure Latins; the rest by Arabs born in Spain who had received Latin culture. We can see the Latin genius shining through their productions; we find in them impulses of imagination, feelings expressed with a grace and delicacy unknown to the best Arab writers.
As a historian has remarked: at the bottom of their heart there always remains something pure, delicate and spiritual that is not Arab.
In modern times, Arab literature has remained sterile; since the later Abbassid Caliphs it has produced no work worthy of remark; it has lived and still lives on its past.
In the schools, otherwise exclusively religious, they continue to read the Koran and the commentators thereon, as well as the old works on jurisprudence and grammar; but no educated Arab appears to be capable of producing a new work. So, then, the Muslim community, fixed in the contemplation of the past, feels no need to think otherwise than did the generations that have preceded it. Islam, a secretion of the Arab brain, has paralysed their minds and has set up an impassable barrier between the Muslim and the rest of the world.
In the fine arts, the Arabs have shown no more originality than in science and letters; in sculpture and painting their nullity is absolute. A reason for this inferiority has been sought in the religious law which forbids the representation of living things. But the Koran only expresses this prohibition in one single passage, and even there in somewhat vague terms: "O believers, wine, games of chance, statues, and the drawing of lots are abominations invented by Satan. Abstain from these and you shall be happy.
It is almost certain that by the word statues the Koran meant representations of the pagan divinities, that is, idols. It is the old commandment of the Decalogue: "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image. . . thou shalt not worship them." Mohammed never dreamed of forbidding the artistic imitation of living things in painting and sculpture. In the Arab text, the word statue is rendered by ansab, the plural of nasb, a word that means a carved stone in a place consecrated to a protecting divinity. In another passage in the Koran the word nasb is used to mean altar. That is just the meaning it has in the passage we are dealing with. It is, therefore, by an error of interpretation that the commentators have extended this word to include statues and the representations of living things. This narrow interpretation has not been accepted by all Muslims. Both in Persia and in India forms of living things are often found in the arabesques. Makrizi records that Maowiah caused himself to be represented on the coinage girt with a sword.
It is only fair to point out that poetry has been far worse treated in the Koran than sculpture; and yet that has not hindered the Arabs from cultivating it: "Shall I tell you," we read in the revealed Book, “which are the men upon whom the demons descend and whom they inspire. They descend upon every liar taken in the act and teaching what their ears have picked up. But, the greater part lie. These are the poets whom erring men follow in their turn. Do you not see that they follow all roads like madmen, that they say what they do not do?”
But poetry has continued to blossom in spite of the maledictions of the Prophet. It is not, therefore, unreasonable to suppose that if sculpture and painting have not been developed, it is because the Arabs have no aptitude for them. A further proof lies in the fact that they did not practise these arts in the days before Islam, when they must have been cognisant of them through their relations with Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Persians. Their artistic nullity must, therefore, be attributed, not to the religious law, but to their national inaptitude. The religious law is nothing but the expression of the Arab spirit, and so it has treated with disdain what the Arab despises as being beyond his powers.
In architecture, there is no sign of Arab originality. The nomadic Bedouin never troubled about it, for he lived in a tent. In towns like Mecca and Medina, the architecture was of a primitive character, with mud walls and roofs of palm leaves. The famous temple of the Kaaba was merely a modest enclosure of stone and sun-dried mud bricks.
The first mosque that Mohammed built at Medina, after his flight from Mecca, was a very humble construction in sun-dried brick.
The Arabs only became acquainted with architecture when they left their native country; in Syria and Persia they saw Byzantine and Persian monuments, in both cases inspired by Greek art. The Greeks were the great initiators of the East in architectural matters; it was they who constructed the greater number of the palaces of the kings of Persia, and it was from them, finally, that the Arabs drew their inspiration. The dome, so wide-spread in Muslim countries, is of Persian origin; it was adopted by the Greeks, and then by the Byzantines. Syrian architects, combining Greek art with that of Persia, have contributed to the creation of what has come to be called Byzantine art. It was the Syrian, Anthemios of Tralles, who drew the plans of Santa Sophia (582-537), in which we find all the characteristics of the art wrongly attributed to the Arabs: the dome, lacework in stone, mosaics, coloured tiles, and " arabesques." But the dome had long been in use in Persia, as is proved by the dome of the Hall of Audience of Chosroes I, and that of the palace of Machita, built by Chosroes II. It was Persia that invented the arch; all the domed and arched work in the world sprang from Persia. The dome and the arch were known in Rome from the first century; the most ancient examples of them are to be found at Tivoli, in Hadrian's villa, and also in the Baths of Caracalla, in Rome.
Those mural decorations, which were afterwards called Arabesques, had their origin in Greece and Egypt.
The immense halls with ceiling supported by a forest of columns are equally of Greek origin. The great Mosque at Cordova, and the Alhambra at Granada are the products of Greco-Latin art, like the embossing and the cut-plaster-work of their walls and ceilings.
It was long believed that our mediaeval artists had come under the influence of Arab art. We now know that this was not the case, not only because there was no such thing as Arab art, properly speaking, but also because it was not through the intervention of the Arabs that Oriental art was introduced into France. The numerous objects found in church treasuries, and which have been wrongly attributed to the Arabs, in reality owe nothing to them; such as still remain have been identified and leave no possibility of doubt in this respect. For example, a piece of ivory representing an Eastern King squatting on an elephant, is a chessman of Hindu workmanship; the bowls are Persian; the sword of Charlemagne, preserved in the Louvre, is of Persian workmanship. The precious materials used to wrap up relics, such as the shroud of Saint Victor or that of Saint Siviard, at Sens, are Persian fabrics; another, decorated with a frieze of elephants, which may be found at the Louvre comes from India. It was Persian art that the Crusades brought to us, the art of the period of the Sassanian kings, that is to say, of an epoch of Persian reaction against the Arabs.
But Oriental art was introduced into France well before the Arab invasion, and indeed before the Crusades, by the Greeks and Syrians who were to be found trading to Narbonne, to Bordeaux, to Lyons, and even as far as Metz, in the time of the Merovingians.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, France came under the influence of Byzantine art. Sculpture in low relief, arabesques, and the sculptured lacework which were in fashion in the sixth century, came from Persia and from Syria; their origin goes back to the Assyrian and Egyptian artists.
The discoveries of Foucher at Gandhara have made known that it was the Greeks who followed in Alexander's train who taught Asia the principles of bas relief.
In music, the Arabs have shown the same nullity as in other branches of the fine arts. In a general way, the Muslims considered it as a mercenary art, putting it in the same class as dancing. Ibn-Khaldoun, in his Prolegomena, speaks of it with a certain contempt: "We know," he says, "that Maowiah reproached his son Yezid severely for being so fond of vocal music, and that he forbade him to indulge in it." And in another passage: " One day, I reproached an Emir of royal birth for his eagerness to learn music, and I said to him:
“That is not your business and does not become your dignity.”
“How is that?” he replied. “Don't you know that Ibrahim the son of El Mahdi (the third Abbassid Caliph), excelled in this art, and was the first singer of his day?”
“By Allah!” I answered him. “Why do you not rather take his father as your model, or his brother? Don't you know that this passion caused Ibrahim to fall below the rank held by his family?”
The song and the dance were held in but light esteem in both Rome and Greece; and, as the Arabs imitated the fashions of Greco-Latin civilization, it is not impossible that they adopted its prejudices against music.
Throughout Muslim history the constant operation of two conflicting influences may be noted. On the one hand it is the influence of foreign nations hastily converted to Islam, the Syrians, Persians, Hindus, Egyptians, and Andalusians who tend to introduce their foreign civilization into Islam. At the periods when this influence is preponderant, there is a great expansion of culture, with the Arabs standing, as it were, outside, and which is accomplished in spite of them.
On the other hand, there is the influence exercised by Arab elements, hostile to all progress, to any innovation. Incapable of conceiving any better state, the Arab intends to remain as he is, a shepherd, a soldier or a wanderer. Other nations are urging him to civilization, he resists them with all his forces — with the inertia of his apathy, his ignorance and his intellectual paralysis.
When he is in the ascendant, he arrests all forward movement; gradually, by means of his religion, he introduces his mentality and his conceptions into the manners and customs of the subject peoples; and in the course of a few generations he succeeds in afflicting them with his own paralysis and stagnation.
These two influences have opposed each other for centuries, with varying fortunes. In the end, the Arab influence, supported by material force, has carried the day, to the ruin of all civilization.