Dr. Abdulkarim El-Eryani
- Dear friends and colleagues. It is my greatest pleasure to be one of the speakers in this very important Symposium: "Windows on the Cultural Heritage of Yemen", which is the first of its kind in the history of Yemen-American relations.
I believe that I speak for all my colleagues from Yemen who are present with me today. Very special thanks to H.E. Abdulwahab AI-Hajjri, Yemen ' s Ambassador in Washington, DC; to the Smithsonian Institution and its Director, Mr. Thomas Lentz, who was gracious enough to give the welcoming speech on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution; and to Dr. Julian Rubin, Director of the Freer Gallery, who was not able to be with us for health reasons. I must also express my personal appreciation to Mr. Ray Irani, CEO of Occidental Oil Co., for his graceful introduction of Yemen's achievements during the 25 years of President AH Abdullah Saleh’s leadership. I must thank him for his flattering remarks about me.
However, I must say that Mr. Ray Irani symbolizes the pinnacle of a Lebanese-Arab immigrant, who came to the U.S.A. with very few American dollars in his pocket. Today, he is the CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the U.S.A. That is why I call the U.S.A., “The Land of Opportunities.” Please greet with me Mr. Ray Irani. I wish I could call him Mr. Ray “Eryani”. That will be a source of great pride for me.
I must also express special thanks and appreciation to the wonderful people who have been active for almost two years preparing for this great event, under the guidance of Ambassador Al-Hajjri. They are: Boushra Almutawakel; Dr. Brigitte Boulad-Kiesler; Dr. Maria deJ. Ellis (Ria), Director of the Yemeni-American Institute in Sana'a ; Mrs. Amal Hull, wife of H.E. Ambassador Edmund Hull, American Ambassador in Yemen; and the many private and official partners who have made this great symposium possible.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the title I have chosen for this talk is: “Cultural Links or Cultural Divides"! I feel that this title may be suitable after the tremendous havocs brought by the tragedies of September 11, 2001 – not only to Arab-American relations and perceptions, but also to the Arab-European relations. I hope that I, and all participants in this symposium will be able at the end to persuade our American friends and colleagues who are attending here with unprecedented number (as Mr .Lentz noted in his opening statement), that after that horrendous tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the only way out is to promote cultural links, and to minimize (but not deny) cultural divides as they exist in all human societies.
We should admit that these cultural divides may lead sometimes to disagreement and eventual conflict, but can never be used to explain the tragedies of Sept 11, 2001 – because they have gone beyond any human conflict in time of peace and stability in the world at large. That does not mean that conflicts in our region are non-existent; but they can’t be used to justify or explain the crimes of Sept 11, 2001.
Dear friends, I believe that most of you are familiar with the book written by Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, “The Clash of Civilizations”, published in 1997. This widely acclaimed book was described by Dr. Henry Kissinger as “one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War”. However, the book was severely criticized by almost all Arab intellectuals inside and outside the Arab world. They all sensed, in 1997, an appeal by Huntington to the Western world to get ready for a Clash with Islamic Civilizations. Unfortunately, in my limited reading of Arab magazines and periodicals, I never read a single article which dealt objectively with that book.
For me, I am not here to analyze, refute or accept Huntington's arguments. I have come from afar to promote cultural links. Therefore, the question is: did that book signal the dawn of cultural divides between the East and the West in general? – and between Islam and Christianity, in particular? Tragically enough, it was only four years after publishing the “Clash of Civilizations”, that the horrific crimes in New York and Washington, DC were perpetrated by a group of fanatics embracing the Islamic Faith. That crime was condemned by all Muslims who understood how tolerant Islam was, with all faiths during the past 1400 years. Nevertheless, one can't deny that the murderous attacks on Washington, DC and New York City have made millions of Americans (and even Europeans) claim that these crimes are a vindication of Samuelson’s "Clash of Civilizations".
The question, is, shall we allow these terrorist acts to obliterate a brilliant history of cultural links and religious tolerance between Islam, Christianity as well as Judaism – which has lasted for almost a millennium despite periods of conflict between these three religions which have so much in common?
Ladies and Gentlemen, to make my point, I would like to refer you to a wonderful book just published this year (2003) by Professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University under the title: “The Ornament of The World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain”. The Washington Post wrote the following about this book: “The enthralling history of widely hailed as a revolution of a (lost) golden age, bringing to vivid life the rich and thriving culture of Medieval Spain, where for more than seven centuries Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in an atmosphere of tolerance where literature, science and art flourished” .
Dear colleagues, due to time limitations, I will explore (briefly) how Arab/Islamic cultural links were with Europe during medieval times, not only in Spain but also with the many centers of Arab/ Islamic learning centers such as Baghdad, SamarKand in central Asia, and Sana 'a,Yemen. It is very important to say that many scholars agree that these cultural links sowed the seeds of European Renaissance that lead to the “Industrial Revolution” – which also led to our modem digital age.
In Spain, I will talk about one of the greatest Muslim scholars (who was widely known in medieval Europe as Avirroes), Ibn Rushd, and his Jewish contemporary Ibn Maimoun, the founder of Maimonids Philosophy. Some scholars call him the “second Moses”.
From Sana'a, I will speak about a great Yemeni geographer, astronomer, scientist and historian – Abu Mohammad Al-Hasan Ibn Ahmed Al-Hamdani – whose books were known in Spain because he lived over 200 years before Ibn Rushd. Admittedly, Al-Hamdani was not as well known in Europe as other Arab/Islamic scholars were.
Ibn Rushd, who was known in Europe as Avirroes, was born in 1126 AD, and died in exile in a small Spanish town in 1201 AD. He was buried in his birth place Cordoba, Spain. Avirroes studied and debated in some European schools, most prominently in Paris – which eventually became the bastion of Avirreism philosophy, during the second half of 13th century. His most important book (which was taught in European universities until the late 17th century), was his commentary almost line-by-line on the writing of the world’s greatest philosopher, Aristotle. Ibn Rushd did not only produce the most accurate text of Aristotle's monumental work, but he made many important comments and even corrections based on his own understanding of Aristotelian philosophy.
This book and other works of Ibn Rushd arrived in Europe during the 13th century. Suddenly, the Latin World was divided into parochial dogmatists and liberal followers of Avirroes. The parochialists in both Spain and Europe, considered Avirroe’s theory about the relation between philosophy and theology heretic. Just as Avirroes received a public trial in the presence of Almohad (Al Mowahid), Caliph of Spain, and was sentenced to exile. The Roman Church in Paris issued a decree in 1277, which banned studying Avirroes.
Nevertheless, rationalism prevailed, and Avirroes was studied until new philosophers such as Kant and Descartes took the stage. So what was Ibn Rushd' s philosophy, and how did he see the relationship between philosophy (Science) and theology? Ibn Rushd considered the mind as rational and creative, and theology as instructive. Therefore, if the mind leads to a logical conclusion (which seems to contradict theology), we have to reinterpret our understanding of the theological text to fit new facts of philosophy (Science).
However, Avirroes was a great judge and deeply religious. This very brief presentation of Avirroe's revolutionary thinking turned his life in Andalusia into misery. Ibn Rushd was one of the most important people in the court of the Almohad Caliph; but the religious zealots launched a campaign against him – not only because of his apparent heresy (in advocating the need to adapt theology to scientific facts), but also because he wrote a devastating critique of one of Islam's most prominent theologians, Imam Al-Ghazali (Al-Gazel), a sophist who condemned philosophy and philosophers.
Those vicious campaigns brought him (and his disciples) to a trial in front of the Caliph. Eventually, he was exiled to a village in southern Spain. Now what was the significance of Avirroes new theory? I believe that in addition to promoting rationalism, it was the primordial theory which led to the greatest reform in the history of Christianity; that is, the Protestant Revolution, of separation between the State and the Church.
In essence, Avirroes called for the separation between philosophy (science) and theology, but he only advocated re-interpretation of theology. In medieval Europe, theology was the only science which should overrule any new scientific theory, and the church made sure to perpetuate it. A contemporary of Avirroes was born also in Cordoba. He was Ibn Maimoun (known as Maimonides). Although he was Jewish, he was an Arab educated intellectual. He wrote his most important book, “Guide to the Perplexed”
(Dalil Al-Hairanin), in Arabic.
Like Avirroes, he was deeply religious, but he believed in the supremacy of mind. Sadly, he was persecuted during an anti-Jewish movement. He and his family left Spain, to Morocco; to Palestine; and spent most of his productive life in Alexandria, Egypt –
where he was a respected intellectual.
Dear colleagues, since this great Symposium is about Yemen’s cultural heritage, I would like to present a great Yemeni geographer, astronomer, historian and scientist. He was Abu Muhammed AI-Hasan Ibn Ahmed AI-Hamadani. He was born in Sana'a, in the year of 893 AD, and died around 976 AD. Therefore, he preceded the most well known Arab contributors to European renaissance, such as Ibn Al-Haytham, Al-Bairouni and
Ibn- Sina (Avisina), respectively.
Just as Aristotle was the inspirer of Avirroes (in Philosophy), one may say that Al-Hamdani was inspired by Ptolemy in Astronomy. In his most well known book, “Description of the Arabian Peninsula”, he devoted the first few pages to Ptolemy's famous book on geography. Based on that, Al-Hamadani says: “Beware that the earth is a globe (sphere). It is not flat like a spread piece of cloth.” Then he goes on presenting what we may call an experimental evidence for his theory. He cited as an example a very famous star, known to the Arabs as Suhail Al-Yamani (Copus). As he explained, this star is seen in Sana'a in the centre of the sky. However, in Mecca (north of Sana'a), it appears at the edge of the horizon; and in Baghdad (further north), it is not seen at all.
Al-Hamadani continued to talk about stars seen from the North Pole, but not seen from the South Pole; and seen from the Equator, but not seen form either north or south of the earth.
I believe that Hamdani's most original contributions to Arab Islamic science are three additional scientific observations: The first one is his disagreement with Ptolemy, which said that the temperature of the planets was generated by their rotation. He said that this is impossible because it means that their temperature should rise constantly. How did Hamdani arrive at this (far-reaching) conclusion?
I believe that he arrived at it from the universally accepted theory in his time; namely, that the universe was geocentric. Therefore, if the sun rotated around the earth, the earth's temperature must rise constantly. The same theory of geocentrism led Hamdani to a more far-reaching conclusion: If the earth is a stationary sphere, and the planets rotate around it, it must have “ups” and “downs”. Theoretically, people and objects “down”, must fall. His answer to this was that the earth has “Jathebyah”, the Arabic word for gravity; and that this gravity has equal effect on movement “up” and “down”.
A third theory (which I think was exclusively arrived at by Hamdani’s powerful intellect) is his theory of “the role of breeze” (Arabic nasseem), in sustaining the burning phenomenon which was most puzzling to his predecessors. Hamdani cited an incident which happened in his time. He says a group of people came to the ruler of Sana' a and informed him that a great cave had been discovered in Wadi Dahr (about five KM north west of the city). They believed that it may contain a great treasure which was guarded by devils. The ruler sent his own expedition to the cave. Hamdani said the following: “These men entered the cave using candle lights. As they penetrated deeper and deeper, their candle lights turned off, and they started feeling pressure on their chests. They concluded that the devils must have done all that”! Then, Hamdani explained in the clearest terms how those people were wrong, saying “that the reason for what happened was the disappearance of the breeze (nasseem)” – (oxygen?!). Then, he stated that “burning fire and living things exist only in the presence of (nasseem)”.
Significantly enough, Hamdani proceeded to describe what is perhaps the oldest scientific experiment to prove the rule of (nasseem) in the burning phenomenon. He said “if you take a candle which is well supplied with burning oil and put it on a flat surface, then take a pot and put it over the candle, and seal the edges of the pot with mud; if you lift the pot after few minutes, you will find that the candle has turned off because of the disappearance of (nasseem)”.
Ladies and gentlemen, doesn't Hamdani precede La Voisre by many centuries? Interestingly, Hamdani described steam cooking on the basis of this theory. He said “when you prepare an oven for cooking meat, you usually let the wood burn and then put the meat in the oven on top of the fire. Then the top of the oven is covered and sealed with mud. Similarly, you seal the fire-eye at the bottom. When you open the oven after few hours you will find that the fire is dead and the meat well cooked.” He then explains that fire died because of the disappearance of (nasseem), and the meat was cooked by the steam (heat waves from water in the meat).
Dear friends, in my concluding statement, at the end of this wonderful symposium, I promise those who have asked for the full text of my opening speech to put its full length on our Embassy's website. Now we have to ask where do we go from here? I believe that promoting cultural links and minimizing cultural divides must be promoted in every way possible. We have to hold more symposia like this. The announcement of the Smithsonian that it will host Yemen's exhibition (which is now in Spain) during 2005, is a great step in the right direction.
The establishment of the Yemen Society for Preservation of Cultural Heritage by the private sector of Yemen is another great step. I think we must also promote academic exchange. The number of Arab students has declined significantly since September 11, 2001. This will only promote cultural divides. I myself, am a product of a student exchange programs, sponsored by the International Institute of Education started in Yemen in 1958. I was, in fact, no.3. Many graduates from the U.S.A are now in high positions – not only in Yemen but also in many Arab countries. I look forward to USAID resuming that program in Yemen. Promoting business links and joint investment between Yemeni and Americans is another important objective.
Finally, (before H.E. Edmund Hull makes the closing statements), I must express my deepest appreciation and gratitude for all those who have worked for almost two years to make this symposium a success. My deepest appreciation also goes to The Government of the Republic of Yemen; the U.S. Department of State; the Board members of the Foundation for the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage (Sana’a); Consolidated Contractors International Company SAL; Hunt Oil Company; Occidental Petroleum and Gas Corporation; the Social Fund for Development (Sana’a); the World Bank (Sana’a); Yemenia [Yemen Airlines]; and Contrack International, who contributed to finance the cost of the Symposium.
Finally, thanks and much appreciation must go again to the Management of the Smithsonian Institution – and particularly to Dr. Julian Rubin, the Director of the Freer Gallery.
Thank you very much