Transcript: 321. Judith Herrin on Byzantium and Islam

Historian Judith Herrin joins us to talk about competition and mutual influence between Islam and Byzantium.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So we're going to be talking about Islam and Byzantium, which is an issue I just looked at in the previous episode. I thought maybe I could ask at the beginning if you could tell us what sorts of evidence we can draw on here, so what sorts of texts, what other sorts of evidence we can use to explore the relationship between the Byzantine and Islamic realms.

Judith Herrin: Well, to begin with, I think we should stress, we should remember that in this long period of about 800 years from the birth of Islam, the arrival of the Arabs in the Mediterranean world and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, you know, we have a very, very long period. And so it's important to remember that Byzantium changed a lot in those 800 years, and so did Islam. And there were also several types of Islam. After all, in the first period, we're talking about Byzantines and the Arabs. In the later period, after the 11th century, we're talking about Byzantium and the Turks primarily. And then the Crusaders come in action by bringing militant Latin warriors to reconquer the holy places of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and so on. And the Byzantine Greeks rather stand back from that effort and leave it to the Latin Crusaders to battle with the different Islamic forces. But it's very important, I think, to remember that in the initial period of Byzantine-Islamic relations, we're talking about Byzantium based in Constantinople and the Islamic caliphate first at Damascus, later at Baghdad. And these critical periods from the mid-seventh to the mid-tenth century are really enormously interesting for these cultural exchanges. And in that period, we have first very considerable narrative sources about battles, raids, treaties, all the paraphernalia of warfare, which sprang from the extreme rivalry that the two societies manifested. And in association with these narrative sources, we also know a lot about the diplomatic contacts. High-ranking ambassadors were sent from Constantinople to the Islamic capitals and back again. Usually men very close to the emperor from the court, sometimes eunuchs, sometimes patriarchs, sometimes intellectuals, like John the Grammarian, so-called because he was a really brilliant scholar or phoetius before he became patriarch. And these figures clearly were chosen in order to impress the Arabs with not just the dignity of the Byzantine emperor, but with the skill of his diplomatic corps. Then there are also lots of written sources about the theological disagreement between Christian and Muslim belief and efforts at conversion. There are also legal documents which indicate what is the status of converts, and of course, very important, what is the status of the children of mixed marriages. And there we have a whole epic story of Digenis Akritas, who was himself mixed Muslim-Christian and then went off to marry a Christian princess, and they lived in Euphrates in this enormous palace that he built. And he fought valiantly against the Arabs, and his culture was about as mixed as you could get. So there are lots of sources that tell us about these mixtures and the legal documents that describe how converts are to be treated. And beyond all that, there is, of course, the great rivalry manifested in propaganda. Propaganda on both sides, the Christians always claiming that the emperor is more powerful, the empire is, the Christian empire is more powerful than the Arab, the caliph responding in kind. And in their buildings, the inscriptions on the buildings, and in their art, of course, we have very considerable evidence of this rivalry, which came to the fore in Iconoclasm.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, and I guess even something like coins would reveal quite a bit about the... So I've read, for example, that people say that Umayyad coins are supposed to be modeled on Byzantine coins, and then later Byzantine coins are modeled on Islamic coins.

Judith Herrin: Correct. I think that is absolutely the case. And it's also very interesting that in the initial phase of adopting coinage, because of course, the Arabs did not have their own coinage, the seventh century. And when they adopted a coinage system, they did attempt to use the Byzantine, overstruck the Byzantine coins, and then develop their own figural images on coins until Abdulmalik at the end of the seventh century introduced a strictly an iconic coin with quotations from the Quran and nothing suggesting his portrait or the portrait of anyone else. And these coins with nothing but messages on them were obviously designed as a form of propaganda and taken up by the Byzantines in their term.

Peter Adamson: A word you've already used a couple of times is rivalry. And I guess that's the first thing we think of when we imagine the relationship between Islam and Byzantium in this period that it's an antagonism or rivalry. But already some of the other things you've said suggest that the situation might have been a little bit more nuanced, because if they were also borrowing ideas from each other or imitating each other's cultural practices, then we're talking about more than just warfare and enmity, right?

Judith Herrin: Indeed, most definitely. And I think the rivalry leads to a sense of superiority, and then it's a question of not which is just the more powerful society, but which is the society that has greater intellectual standing, greater resources and capacity to manifest names of superiority. And I think that's definitely visible on both sides. But in the mid ninth century, it seems there's really a very distinct turn to appreciation, borrowing, imitation, and an understanding and respect for the achievements of the other, which is very novel and, of course, very hesitant to begin with. But under the emperor Theophilus and Caliph Al-Ma'mun, you certainly see this sense of the coming and going between the capitals, which is not just about ending warfare and exchange of prisoners. It's about 'what are they doing? What are they building? How are they organizing their society?' All these questions which spark a much greater curiosity about the other.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I guess, I mean, in a way, that's really the key question, I think, especially as concerns the history of philosophy, whether we're talking about an interest in the other culture that's born out of a desire to compete and defeat the other side. So like you might want to go check out their cities or their armies to get an edge in warfare, for example, as opposed to real genuine curiosity. So for example, a figure that I covered in the last episode is Simeon Seth, who actually translates from Arabic into Greek and draws on Arabic sources in his own works. And it's hard to imagine that that is motivated by just pure antagonism to Islam. It seems more like he actually is open to influence from that direction.

Judith Herrin: Yes. And it's very interesting that it's in this area of medicinal treatment and diet and really he manifests a concern and makes these translations. I think his knowledge of Arabic was not very widely shared in Byzantium. But of course, there must have been a Greek translation of the Quran because Nikitas Byzantios had tried to refute the Quran, Surah by Surah, and he apparently didn't know Arabic. There was a Greek version that the Byzantines could read. So they, and of course, the Arabs had the Bible and knew the New Testament. So they had everything they needed to make comparisons between the two faiths. But the actual translation, the amount of translation from Arabic, it's a very late development, I think, with the astronomy, and [Chionides?] who goes from Trebizond to Baghdad and makes translations in the 14th century. Again he's exceptional and there's a lack of capacity on the Byzantine side, which is not shared at all by the Muslims. I think Seth is very unusual and it's only in the very early period when John of Damascus is talking about Islam as a heresy, as an offshoot of Christian thinking, which has gone wrong, that you can see that somebody who lives under caliphate rule and clearly knows Arabic because his father was involved in the administration and he himself must have been bilingual, John of Damascus can take on the arguments of the Quran and can attempt to refute. Of course there are many Christians living under Arab rule who know Arabic. They translate their liturgy into Arabic, that's a really clear sign that Arabic is lingua franca and they wish to worship in it, although they remain Christian. Of course there are many types of Christians. We mustn't assume that all the Christians living under caliphate rule espouse the same definitions of Christian faith as in Constantinople. They may have followed the definitions that were made, they may have followed changes, but many of them drew on their own quite idiosyncratic Christian definitions which went back many, many generations. The Monophysites who really only believed in the single nature of Christ, the Nestorians who of course had a different view altogether, the Church of the East and the Syriac liturgy which had propagated very different interpretations of Christianity - just think of the Syriac hymns and the beauty of the Syriac liturgy. Which meant that there were a lot of Christians under caliphate rule whose formative period was in the fifth and sixth centuries and they didn't change according to definitions in Constantinople.

Peter Adamson: So the situation then I guess would be that in Constantinople and in the Greek speaking regions of Christianity there aren't that many people who can read Arabic, or certainly can't engage with high level Arabic literature, but of course in the Islamic realm - so if you're talking about Christians who are living, for example, in Syria which is controlled by Islamic political forces - they speak Arabic every day so it's a very different situation.

Judith Herrin: Exactly, it's a very different situation and of course the Greek education, Byzantine education does not encourage the learning of foreign languages. This is one of the very weird elements of a good education in Constantinople and in other centers where bishops had schools and where monasteries had trained monks, everything was done in Greek and there was little to no Christian works in other languages, and certainly very little time for works in Arabic, or capacity to deal with them.

Peter Adamson: One thing I'm wondering about, in terms of, now just thinking about the Greek culture, so let's just concentrate on Constantinople, is that in the Islamic world scholars like Dimitri Gutas have pointed out that there was a lot of intellectual competition with Byzantium and that one of the reasons why they were so keen to explore philosophy and science was effectively to present themselves as the true heirs of Greek wisdom. So they sort of took over Aristotle and other figures from the philosophical and scientific tradition and said, well, we're doing this properly and the Greek Christians aren't anymore, we're the true heirs of Hellenic science. I'm just wondering to what extent there is a corresponding kind of rhetoric or polemic on the Greek side, so do you think that in Constantinople there was any thought that they better get their act together and read Aristotle because otherwise they were going to fall behind the Muslims, and that even if that didn't matter in a practical sense, it would sort of look bad?

Judith Herrin: I think when they sent embassies to Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries and they saw what amazing achievements in scientific and scientific advances the Arabs had made, even discounting written sources and philosophical discussion: astronomy, mathematics, the whole notion of algebra, these were the fields in which they realized they were falling behind and they cultivated their own scholars and tried - certainly the Emperor Theophilus tried very hard to ensure that the study of ancient Greek culture was kept alive and developed. Leo, the mathematician, is said to have been one of these Byzantine experts who was summoned to Baghdad and Theophilus said, on no account am I going to lose you, I'm going to set you up with a school in the Mangana palace and you are going to teach our young people everything you know. And Leo, the mathematician, is very significant and clearly did contribute enormously to the development of mathematics. But we must never forget that the Arabs took over all the ancient Greek wisdom and in that field of mathematics they took the books of Diophantus, which is one text that I have studied closely because it's so interesting to me that they took the 13 books and studied them all, and when the Byzantines found that they lacked six books because they hadn't been copied - these six had not been copied, they come in the middle of the 13 books, guess what, they were discovered in Arabic translation. So the Arabs really conserved and worked on their inheritance from the ancient cultures, and in Byzantium errors and mistakes and gaps began to develop as they did not. But I don't think for a moment that they didn't realize that Aristotle was key, and of course they also kept alive Plato's thinking, which was not so important, not so much developed by the Arabs. So they did respect and want to develop their knowledge of ancient Greek thought in all its fields and there are very notable contributions, particularly I would say in the late Byzantine period when Maximus Planudes is a real polymath, very interested in the use of ancient Greek sources and the development of what he has inherited through generations of scholars.

Peter Adamson: Something else that you've mentioned a few times already is the phenomenon of intercultural or inter-religious debate, sometimes even live debates between Muslims and Christians, so that's more common in the Islamic world and sometimes letters going back and forth trying to refute each other. So again, concentrating on the Greek speaking sphere and maybe on the scholars in Constantinople, how much do you think that they really understood about Islam? You mentioned before that they may or may not in different periods be able to read the Quran. You mentioned that John of Damascus thinks of Islam as a kind of splinter, heretical offshoot of Christianity, which seems kind of weird. So do you think that when they try to refute Islam, do they have a very good understanding of what they're up against?

Judith Herrin: I think there's a very instructive example in the construction of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, when Abdul Malik orders this magnificent new shrine to be built over the rock from which Muhammad was taken on his night flight. He requests and receives mosaicists, mosaics craftsmen and actual mosaic tessellae, for the decoration of the interior. And as we know, there are Quranic verses which proclaim the superiority of Islam inscribed around the edge of the structure, and these must have been put up by those mosaicists. They may not have known what they were setting, but clearly they had a very clear notion when it was made. And they must have asked, what is it that this says? And there is, of course, the warning: 'Do not say three. Three is bad. Three is bad. It's only the one.' And this is the very basic understanding of the difference between Christian belief and Muslim belief. The Christians have this trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. And quite understandably, the Muslims with their monotheistic influence find this incomprehensible, very difficult to accept, and they stress the one, the one Godhead, and the creation of the world by the Godhead. So there is an example there in 692 when one very spectacular, utterly beautiful monument proclaims the superiority of Islam. And I can't believe for a moment that this was not relayed to Constantinople, and Justinian II, who had supplied these building materials, was not very vexed. However, the rivalry between the two and the notion that they didn't understand each other, I think, is a bit belied by the fact that they were constantly debating and discussing and thinking about different definitions, first of Christian belief and then of how it impacted on other societies. The challenge of the Latins after the so-called schism of the 11th century was followed by very considerable exploration of what the Latin West was thinking that was different and how they understood Islam. And I think we have to remember that in the 15th century, before he became emperor, Manuel II spent a long winter discussing with a Persian, as he is called in the text, dialogues from the Persian, four long books of debates about the difference between Christianity and Islam, which are a very clear indication of the interest and continuing curiosity that Christians had about what the Muslims believed.

Peter Adamson: Do you think there was a general understanding on both sides that they were in fact worshipping the same God and they just had different beliefs about that God? So you say God is one, we say God is three, but of course we're talking about the same entity?

Judith Herrin: Yes. I think that the fact that the Muslim faith had embraced the Old Testament, the Jewish Old Testament, the creation of the world, the list of the prophets, the commandments, of course, including the second commandment against graven images, all that indicated that there was a shared notion of the one God, the creator God. The real problem was that there were so many other difficulties. I mean, the Christians thought that the Kaaba was a sort of pagan idol and that the Muslims made their pilgrimage to this pagan idol in a way that they would condemn as venerating a stone, and they distinguished their own relics and tombs and saints from that in their own way. But there was definitely an understanding that there was the one God and that these, with the Jews, they shared that notion of one God and they inherited the Jewish as well as the Christian interpretation of that revelation.

Peter Adamson: One other question I have about this is just in practical terms, what it was like to be, so to speak, a Christian living on the wrong side of the border, as opposed to a Muslim living on the wrong side of the border. So to put the point in a really simplistic way, would it be better in this period to be a Muslim living in Constantinople, like maybe a Muslim trader, for example, or would it be better to be a Christian in Baghdad?

Judith Herrin: My impression is that the Christians in Baghdad had more freedom to think and worship and develop their skills than Muslims in Constantinople. Most Muslim traders, in fact most traders of all kinds, were very restricted in their access to the Constantinopolitan markets and they were accompanied by guards and not allowed to just wander around, even rather high ranking Western embassies were pushed around and kept in palaces that leaked, as Lieutobrand tells us, not allowed to go straight to the palace and see the emperor and present their case. Everything was very stage managed and for traders it was actually very controlled so that they could not buy more than a certain amount of purple silk and more than a certain amount of whatever else was on the market. Although there were mosques, or there was a mosque in Constantinople - and we know there were mosques in other cities, as in Athens, so there were facilities for Muslims to worship in some places. It's not clear to me that they had much freedom of movement or had much pleasure in living under Christian rule, whereas the Christian communities under caliphal rule showed very little interest in being a sort of fifth column for the empire. They didn't want to go back and live on the other side of the border. Christians living within the caliphal areas had much less restriction imposed on them. Their adoption of Arabic as a liturgical language, all these features suggest that they were integrated into society in a different way. Certainly, Muslims were never integrated into Constantinoplean society in the same way. That being said, of course, the Komneni had a Jewish doctor who was allowed to ride in the streets. Most Jews were not. So although there were Jewish communities, they were not well treated. Although there were synagogues and Jews continued to worship, they were not given a high status. I'm sure it would have been the same for the Muslims had there been larger numbers of them. We don't get this impression of colonies of Muslims actually living in Constantinople regularly.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. I suppose the difference is that the Muslims took over a territory that was full of Christians. Byzantines didn't seize Constantinople from a Muslim power. The Muslims had to integrate a Christian population in a way that the Byzantines never had to integrate Muslims.

Judith Herrin: Exactly. I think it was always, except on the border regions where there obviously was considerable coming and going - the borders were very porous. There are some very nice descriptions, not just to Yenise, but of Muslim traders trading in the border areas. When one dies, he has to be buried, and there is a cemetery for the non-Christian dead. On one occasion, the Christian trader who has been cooperating with this merchant makes sure that he's buried with his head facing Mecca, not the east and things like that. And there were cemeteries for foreigners throughout the empire so that they would get a decent burial, though it would not be connected with a Christian cemetery. These things, it's very difficult to judge how many, what sort of proportion, how familiar people were with Islamic thinking. But Muslims must have been traversing the empire regularly in order to trade, and perhaps to propagandize and to make converts. I think Islam was never such a messianic converting religion, whereas the Christians, of course, were constantly trying to convert the Muslims and the Jews, and they persecuted the Jews when they wouldn't convert. So there was a much stronger Christian missionary effort, which also included punishing those who refused to convert.

Peter Adamson: One last question. I haven't gotten to the fall of Constantinople yet, because obviously that sort of comes at the end of the series on Byzantine thought. But looking ahead to that, can you say something about the situation once the Ottomans do take over Constantinople? What can you say about the viability of Christian culture in the capital after that, and especially the viability of Christian intellectual culture?

Judith Herrin: After 1453, I think one of the key features is the appointment of Gennadios, the ex-patriarch, as the head of the Christian unit, the Christian group in Constantinople and throughout the empire. So he becomes their leader. He's an intellectual. This is a man who's engaged with Latin Christian thought, made some translations from Latin, tried very hard to maintain the Greek view, the Greek interpretation, and understanding of Christianity. But he's a man of wide culture, not a narrow, dogmatic figure. Though he is sometimes portrayed as such. But my impression is that he had inherited from the 14th century intellectuals like Planudes a much greater interest in the wide range of Greek culture. And indeed, recent studies have suggested that the 14th and early 15th centuries see cultural developments which are very much more intellectually interesting and surprising in a way. There is a whole spiritualist notion of indwelling among the Christians themselves, which leads to hesychasm and a very interesting monastic development, but quite different from the earlier monastic tradition. There are also very interesting developments in intellectual thinking with Metochites and figures who build churches and attach to their monasteries very large libraries and cherish their books and exchange books and borrow books in order to copy them. And of course, what was left in Constantinople after the conquest by Mehmed II, what was left was then very rapidly purloined by the Latin West in order for books and icons and miniatures and objects that could be removed to be taken to Renaissance Italy. And Cardinal Besarion was one of the first to make sure that all his library made it to Venice. And in that way, there was an inevitable reduction in the facilities and the resources left to the Christian population in Constantinople. But they still persisted in the cherishing and the reworking and maintenance of their Greek Christian inheritance. And that included, of course, the texts that they had cherished in their schoolbooks, in their school learning, with all the philosophy and the practical arts: veterinary science, medicine, mathematics. Those things still survived for a limited period. I think the West takes a very large responsibility for having denuded the Byzantine Empire of its most important manuscripts in this amazing search for anything written in Greek. These ambassadors that were sent out by the Pope, by other figures, intellectual figures in Italy and France, for that matter, desperate to get hold of books, any old books, anything written in Greek. And then, of course, they made the main translations and they added to their own great, I mean, enormous benefits themselves. And undoubtedly, they did not leave as much for the Greeks in Constantinople, who did dwindle and decline into a very poor condition. But this was a long process, long, long, long process. And initially, I suspect, Gennadios tried very hard to hold together not just the Christian community for its faith, but for its culture. 


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