February 4, 2009

Guest Lecturer Gives Insight Into 10th-Century Baghdad

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Seventeen professors and students gathered around a table yesterday to hear Sidney Griffith, professor at Catholic University of America, speak about 10th-century Baghdad. Griffith used the personage of Yahaya ibn Adi, a prominent Christian Intellectual of the time, as a tool to describe Baghdad at the time: a society comprised of Jews, Christians and Muslims willing to correspond and talk with each other.
Griffith was brought to Cornell by the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Prof. Kim Haines-Eitzen, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, said “a colleague of mine, [Prof.] Shawkat Toorawa, [near eastern studies], said ‘let’s invite Sidney Griffith’ and I thought it was a great idea … There are a number of graduate students in our department who have crossover interests between early Christianity and early Islam, and some studying Syrian, some doing Arabic … so there’s a lot of interest here.”
This particular talk “may have been a little bit more geared towards people with a little more background in the subject, like graduate students. But at the same time it was very informative even if you didn’t have the background,” Haines-Eitzen said.
Despite the title of the event, “Doing Philosophy in 10th-Century Baghdad: Faith and Reason in the Thought of the Christian Intellectual ibn Adi and his Circle,” Griffith spoke more about the networking and personalities of the time than of the philosophy. He explained that ibn Adi was a Jacobite Christian who was born in Takrit. (Ibn Adi shares a birthplace with Saddam Hussein.) When ibn Adi was young, he moved to Baghdad: one of the most imminent hubs of learning in the 10th- century.
Griffith described ibn Adi’s upbringing, explaining how he learned logic and philosophy with the renown logician al-Farabi, setting him on the path to emerge as a leading philosopher and logician of his time. Philosophy was merely ibn Adi’s hobby, however, as he earned his living as a bookman and copyist. ibn Adi also translated philosophical texts from Syrian into Arabic.
Prof. Paul Hyams, history, attended the lecture and was happy with this “lifestyle” spin on the lecture.
“I was pleased that he talked about the intellectual life. I’m more interested in the way ideas circulate and the way people talked to each other than I am [about] the philosophy and theology,” Hyams said.
Griffith explained that most academic studies look at the sources of the thinkers’ works rather than the consequences of their actions. Griffith sought to address the latter in his talk. He said that ibn Adi had a talent for “bringing out different shades of opinion” in his discourse.
Griffith described that modern academia knows that “[based on] texts from [ibn Adi] … he [would] write an essay which was circulated amongst a number of readers, not all of whom were Christian, and that the readers had various objections to make. So, [a reader] would write out his objections and send it to somebody else who also read the essay and then that reader sent it back to the writer, Yahaya ibn Adi, who answered on the back of the paper the issues that his interlocutors raised, and then posed some questions of his own. A colleague would [read ibn Adi’s questions] and send back to him another text with their responses.” It was a constant, flowing dialogue. [img_assist|nid=34727|title=Promoting Philosophy|desc=Sidney H. Griffith, from Catholic University of America, delivers his lecture, “Doing Philosophy in Tenth-Century Baghdad” yesterday in 104 White Hall.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Griffith continued, “The very fact that these [discourses] … are referred to in other texts that have survived gives us insight into how the communication among the scholars of the time might have gone on. And I think that was a relatively common way that these scholars interacted with each other.”
ibn Adi was interested in reason and rationality. He commented and criticized in a rational and reasonable way, and believed in the idea that the pursuit of reason could bring about personal happiness. ibn Adi championed the “pursuit of true science and godly wisdom,” Griffith said.
Toorawa, the person primarily responsible for bringing Griffith, said, “I study Baghdad anyway so it’s not as if I’m interested in Baghdad because of world news … I want Baghdad discussed anyway … But, the fact that it’s in world news, I think it’s [especially] important for students to realize … that people are talking about Baghdad at other points in time … It was one of the great areas of intellectual inquiry and people forget … People may only associate cities such as Baghdad as places where military engagements take place, not necessarily as [hubs] of intellectual inquiry.”
Griffith hoped that attendees “would take away the idea that intellectual life in Baghdad, in the Islamic world and in this time period — the ninth, 10th, 11th centur[ies] — was really interesting and that they’d want to learn more about it.”
Hymas reiterated these sentiments.
“I learned that Baghdad in the 10th century intellectually seemed like a very interesting place … [Griffith] makes out a case that Baghdad is a [very notable] place for the mixture of ideas … a conversation is no good if somebody just talks at you and they don’t listen. What matters is that they listen. The manuscripts that [Griffith] talked about where on one side were questions and the other side were answers … in some sense that tells you that [ibn Adi and his interlocutors] were listening [to each other], and I find that fascinating.”