Catherine Lytle: Which way are you looking: upstream or downstream?

Heraclitus said that, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Richard Bulliet questions the direction that the person is looking when they step into the river: upstream or downstream? According to Bulliet, “Historians are looking downstream…Policy makers and political scientists, by contrast, look upstream.”1 If I stepped into that river I would wonder what is downstream, however, no matter how many scenarios I would predict, none of them would come to fruition. I could make an educated guess but I could never be certain. Therefore, I would probably venture upstream to see for myself what has already happened. From that river’s bank instead rose the phenomenon of political master narratives. Master narratives are “stories that are so well known, so frequently cited, so thoroughly described, and embedded in the literature in regard to the past that people take them to be self-evident or true; yet they never are.”2 They are stories that were prophetized and vocalized on murky ground.

One of these master narratives, that remains the anthem of many media channels today, is the notion of a ‘Clash of Civilizations.’3 Historically speaking, in the instance of Jewish and Muslim interfaith relations, dispute was never based on religious differences rather than circumstance. The two religions share similar religious practices and there was never a question of anti-Semitism; as Arabs themselves are Semite. Leon Poliakov says that, “…normal xenophobia developed into what we have come to know as anti-Semitism only after the establishment of the Christian Church.”4 Poliakov concludes that there is nothing incompatible between Islam and Judaism. Huntington divorced religion from politics in a manner that would induce the acknowledgment of a ‘clash of civilizations’ but it is not until we realize that religion in fact has everything to do with politics and cultural practices that we can see that his theory is wrong. Cultural practices of a country are amalgamations of, but not limited to, religious, sociological, economical and historical factors. After thinking about my country, Czech Republic where there is no predominant religion that influences daily politics (courtesy of the ashes of a communist regime), I too agree that it is impossible to separate historical and sociological factors from political decisions and so unless one considers these factors, there is but room for a misinformed interpretation of ideas.

Perhaps the most poignant refute of the notion of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is the considerations of Jewish and Muslim interfaith relations during Muslim Spain (711-1492 CE). For over 500 years Jewish culture was cultivated under Islamic rule and with the threat of the extinction of the Hebrew language looming over Spain,  Arabic grammar impressed the Hebrew language scholars so much that it helped revive Hebrew. The scholars discussed interpretations of Biblical verses and applied innovations that Arab philologists brought forth and applied it to Hebrew grammar according to Arabic literature and philosophy.5 While Bunzl implores that there was never a threat of assimilation because the Jews in Muslim Spain had a distinctive character, vigor and determination,6 I am more inclined to interpret these interfaith relations in terms of apprivoisement.

The symbiosis of cultural practices nestled under a singular command is not extinct today, regardless of popular belief, but thrives in the form of André Azoulay, a Jewish senior advisor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Apprivoisement necessarily insinuates that there is a flow of knowledge that is continuously being transferred between the faculties, and not linearly. Muslim Spain bestowed romantic literature upon Europe while it was Ancient Greek philosophy that morphed its way into Islam through caliph al-Ma’mii ( 813-33CE), theologian al-Ash’ari ( d. 935 ) and theologian al-Ghazali (c.1056–1111). The corpus Classical Greek texts was forgotten in Europe until the works of Plato and Aristotle were translated from Arabic into Latin and ignited the European Early Modern Era: essentially, we are enjoying through these texts through an Arabic lens. While China and India did not assimilate the Arabic translations of these texts into their society, Christians did because it was part of their culture as well.With knowledge being diffused across constantly shifting borders, to whom do we attribute the knowledge and where do we draw the lines between these civilizations?

Furthermore, romantic literature developed in Spain and then traveled to Europe where it further developed in the Counter-Enlightenment movement in forms such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. As a reaction to the predictability of the rationalist philosophy that was instigated in the Enlightenment period, Europeans began to look to romance and Muslim theology to relieve themselves of boredom. Nurture to relieve boredom. How can we consider works such as Cyrano de Bergerac and other post-Enlightenment works without realizing how they came to exist?

Bulliet suggests that we should consider these relations instead as historical parallels in growth of the Islamic faith community, the Jewish faith community and the Christian faith community.8  Drawing lines between societies that are all a confluence of ideas feeding into each other, in other words practicing apprivoisement, would disprove Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” and the existence of Islamic civilization that is irreconcilably different from Western civilization.9


Understanding the cyclical route that knowledge undertook to this point in time would suggest that in essence there is only room for interpretation as each time it morphed into a new ideology. But even that interpretation would be dubious. The existence of master plans is inherently flawed as it ignores the transformation knowledge and suggests a linear seemingly self-evident truth. I believe that stepping into that river for myself looking upstream and realizing what the river that is rushing below me right now is saying and why is a form of grace. Grace, to me, is the understanding of the present and not the desperation to prophetize the future.


Works cited

1. Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization”  (lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice” Oberlin College, OH, Craig Auditorium, March 9, 2010, Transcription by Rachel Bouer). Page 2.

2. ibid 2

3. A term that was popularized by Samuel Huntington, a political science professor at Harvard University.

4. John Bunzl, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East, (Gainesville,Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004). page. 32

5. ibid 38

6. ibid 40

7. Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization”  (lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice” Oberlin College, OH, Craig Auditorium, March 9, 2010, Transcription by Rachel Bouer).

8. ibid 8

9. ibid 6