Shia islam, eastern Christianity, Liberal arts education, and 1raq (Part 1) – by Sel Harris



The land of Iraq has been a place of vital importance for centuries. With this artcle, I begin a three (3) series which explores this very important topic. Not only was the land of Iraq important for the development of both Shia Islam AND Eastern Christianity, it was also the land which preserved and nourished both Greek Philosophy and Liberal Arts Education. First, some historical background. For about 600 years before the Calling of the Prophet Muhammad, the land of Iraq was caught between 2 major world powers: the Byzantine Greek Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) in the West and the Sasannian Persian Empire in the East. Long before the birth of Shia Islam, Imam Ali, Fatima, Imam Hussein, and Imam Hassan — Iraq was the border land between these two Global Empires. The border shifted frequently.

Sometimes “he Land Between the Two Rivers” found itself either the eastern most border of ths Byzantine Empire OR the western most border of the Sasannian Persian Empire. Both Empires employed “client pre -Islamic Arab tribes to carry on proxy “wars” in military and economic matters. The Byzantne Empire employed the banu Ghassan tribe which adopted “non-Western Syriac speaking Syriac Christianity” and the Persian Empire employed the Banu Lakhmid tribe which adopted Syriac speaking “Nestorian Christianity.” Details about the origins of these “Christianities” are given below. It is my opnion that the first three Christian centuries were the best Christian centuries. In those centuries, there was not a single Christianity; rather there were many Christianities. There were Latin speaking snd Greek speaking in the West. In the East, there were Syriac speaking Christian communities.

In my judgment, the “diversity” was to be preferred. All of this began to change in the 4th century. For political reasons, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great decided that “One Church” was required for the unity of the Empire. Thus began the sad age of Christian Church Councils. It was further decided by Imperial Decree in 313 AD that the “true church was the Greek or Latin speaking Churches.” Vety early on, the Syriac (the predominantly spoken language in the Middle East before Arabic) Church travelled east on the Silk Road planting Syriac speaking churches in India, China, and Japan. These Syriac speaking churches paved the way for the future coming of Islam. What concerns us here is the beginning of both the Church of the East (also known as Nestorian Church) and the Syriac Orthodox Church (also known as Jacobite Church but not to be confused with the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church). Both were persecuted Churches in the West.

When they were “kicked out” by an Emperor Convened Church Council, they found safety in the land of Iraq under the protection of the Sasannian Persians. In the year 432, the Byzantine Emperor convened the Council of Ephesus. Syriac speaking Christians in the Empire refused to adopt Greek as its language. Theu found protection and safety.

They were constituted as the Church of the East. Again, 100 years later, Syriac speaking Christians were still having it tough. In the year 451, the Byzantine Emperor convened the Council of Chalcedon. Having been excommunicated, they too found safety in Persia. In the “Iraqi part of the Sasannian Empire, both of these Syriac speaking Churches flourished. In the year 527, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great assumed the throne.

He set out to reestablish the old Roman Empire through Conquest. He began with Iraq. Justnian the Great was the ancient equivalent of a 21st century Evangelical Christian. It was his way or the highway! Justinian was a zealot and could not stand to have anything pagan in his Empire. This included the Neoplatonic Philosophy which was popular and sought to “unite the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle.” Neoplatonism was considered “Near Eastern Monotheism without Jesus.

” The Neoplatonists sought to embark on a spiritual journey to “The ONE.” In 529, Justnian closed BOTH Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum — bastions of classcal liberal arts education. The Philosophers and professors fled East into the land of Iraq where they were welcomed and protected! They resumed their teaching in Iraq and began translating Greek woks of Plato and Aristotle into BOTH SYRIAC AND ARABIC!! They continued the study of Neoplatonic Philosophy which was incorporated by peripatetic philosophers who were Muslim teachers in Shia Hawzas.

The Islamic historian al Tabari narrates the arrival of Islam into both Iraq and Persia. The Syriac speaking Christians welcomed Islamic government because Muslims provided the tolerance that Greek and Latin Emperors never gave them. Both the Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphs gave “the Ahl al Kitaab” the dhimmi status that the Prophet Muhammad had gven the Christians of Najran earlier. Syriac Christians contributed greatly to Islamic Pbilosophy.

In the 9th century, Baghdad replaced both Athens and Alexandria as seats of Greek learning. If i could go back to one era in history, it would be to the time of Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries! This brings us to the great Muslim Philosopher al Farabi — the “Second Aristotle.” Were it not for al Farabi, the Western World may never have known the works of Aristotle. al Farabi wad taught by Al Bishir Matta, the great Nestorian Christian Philosopher. A fellow classmate of Matta’s was the Jacobite Christian Philosopher, Yahya ibn Adi. (We will talk more about him in Part II of this series.) al Farabi translated all of Aristotle’s works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. A favorite of al Farabi’s was Aristotle’s ORGANON which was Aristotle’s curriculum for liberal arts education! al Farabi was especially taken with this Aristotelian statement in his De Interpretatione: ” just as all people have not the same writing, so all people have not the same sounds. So all people have not the same speech, but the mntal experiences , which these directly symbolize, are the same for all.” al Farabi translated the WHOLE curriculum into Arabic thus preserving liberal arts education. He realized thatba vommon education can be the mechanism by which different people may co exist!! My undergraduate degree was taken at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

It was a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts! Were it not for al Farabi, Shia Islam, and the tolerant Philosophy in Baghdad, my College may never have been founded. In this regard, I am grateful to Shia Islam for making me who i am. My Master of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary owes a debt as does my MPhil and PhD degrees at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. They are ALL rooted in the liberal arts educatin which Shia Hawzas preserved. – NEXT WEEK: How Shia Muslims enabled Liberal Arts to be preserved in the curricula of the Shia Hawzas in Iraq and Iran.

Consider this passage from the book “THE MANTLE OF THE PROPHET,” by Roy Mottahedeh, c 1985 “during the late spring of 1978, a professor at the University of Teheran came to visit me at Princeton University. He had studied for many years at the seminaries in the shrine city of Qom at which traditional Shia learning is taught as we walked through the Gothic architecture of the University i asked my friend ‘how does one become a Mullah?’ He told me that in the Shiah seminaries, a student begins by studying grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

From that moment, i knew i wanted to write this book. Grammar, rhetorc, and logic comprise the trivium, the first three of the seven liberal arts as they were defined in late classical world, after which they continued to constitute the foundation of the scholastic curriculum as it was taught in many parts of medieval and Rennaissance Europe.” (pp 7-8)

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