Sunday April 14, 2024

Appropriating history

By Mubarak Ali
June 10, 2018

In the 15th century when the movement of the Renaissance emerged in Italy, scholars who were its forerunners were termed humanists. Their main objective was to challenge the domination of the Church, which controlled social, political and economic activities of society.

To break the Church’s religious monopoly the scholars turned their attention towards the Greco-Roman civilisations, which were pagan but contained a rich cultural heritage that could guide them to bring social change. The first step taken by humanist scholars was to Europeanise the civilisations and trace European roots to their culture. However, historically, that is not true.

The institutions, values and traditions of both ancient civilisations originated not from Europe but from Eastern civilisations, such as the Sumerians, Egyptians and Phoenicians. Therefore, both Greeks and Romans were Mediterranean and had a close relationship with their Mediterranean neighbours. They had little contact with the Central and Western Europe which were culturally backward. The Romans treated them as barbarians.

When historian Herodotus visited Persia, Egypt and other Eastern countries, he fully recognised the superiority of the Egyptian civilisation as the Greeks were greatly influenced by it. The Ionian natural philosopher Thales also acknowledged Egypt’s influence over the Greek civilisation. Hence, geographically, both Greece and Rome were situated in the European continent, but in terms of civilisation they were Mediterranean. This is why the attempt of Renaissance scholars to paint the two civilisations as purely European without acknowledging the Eastern influence is a distortion of history.

One of the reasons of the Roman Empire’s failure was the loss of control of the Eastern Mediterranean parts to the Arabs, who blocked the Romans’ sea-trade routes. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe appeared on the map of the world when Charlemagne built an empire in 8 AD. Although the Renaissance movement emerged in Italy, the term ‘Renaissance’ was first coined by French novelist Balzac. It was later popularised by French historian Jules Michelet. The word was even accepted by the Italians who had their own term for it: Resor G Mento.

Renaissance scholars faced problems in retrieving the cathedral heritage of both the ancient civilisations when Europe was Christianised. A systematic movement was launched to wipe out all traces of the pagan culture and philosophy. Christian fanatics stoned to death a famous woman philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, burnt her body and scattered her ashes in the air. The mob also burnt down the famous library of Alexandria which, according to them, contained blasphemous books.

When Justinian became the Roman emperor, he ordered for the Academy of Plato to be closed down in 527 AD. The academy was the centre of philosophy. Justinian shut it down on the basis of its non-Christian teachings. The result of this policy was that pagan philosophers were either assassinated or fled the country and took refuge in neighbouring countries. Consequently, Europe lost all interest in Greco-Roman knowledge. Their books and manuscripts disappeared as nobody remained interested in studying them.

When in the 8th century the Abbasid dynasty came to power, its two caliphs, Harun Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mun, took great interest in Greek knowledge. The work was translated by Arab scholars. Therefore, the credit of retrieving Greek manuscripts and translating them into Arabic goes to the Arabs. Europe came to know about Greek philosophy through the Arabic translations.

Furthermore, the events of 1453 greatly contributed to Renaissance scholars acquiring the old Greek manuscripts. After the occupation of Constantinople by the Ottomans, some Greek scholars left the city and took with them copies of the manuscripts. After editing these manuscripts, Renaissance scholars published them. They further started looking for ancient Greek literature in the libraries of monasteries and were successful in publishing them after making lots of efforts. The scholars also learnt lessons about how to secularise the European society.

In order to portray the Renaissance as a purely European movement, the scholars started making attempts to reject the contribution of the Arabs in promoting Greek philosophy. Their argument was that the Arabic translations were not accurate and, hence, misinterpreted the philosophy. They were also not in favour of recognising the contributions of Al-Farabi, Abu Bakar Razi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, who were all influenced by Greek philosophers, and whose books were included in the curriculum of European universities.

The argument of the humanist scholars was that the Renaissance was purely a European movement and had no external influence. This is a Eurocentric approach to interpret history, emphasising that the minds of the Europeans were original and denying the contribution of Asia in the making of the European civilisation.

The main objective of the movement was to reduce the powers of the Church and not change the social and political structure of society. That is why the aristocracy and wealthy merchant class supported it. Therefore, it should be treated as an intellectual movement and not as a radical or revolutionary one.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.