Letters from the Goodwill Brothers of Basra : a medieval Islamic message of tolerance and pluralism
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“We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”Newt Gingrich said the above words in reference to the recent “ground-zero mosque debate”, a heated media controversy which surrounded plans for the Park 51 Islamic Community Center to open in downtown Manhattan on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Assuming a necessary enmity between America and Islam, Gingrich’s claims seem rooted in the theory of a “Clash of Civilizations”. This theory envisions “the West” and “Islam” as diametrically opposed entities with no common values, and has become widely pervasive in informing much of post-9/11 America’s political and academic discourse. When chalked up against the social, cultural, and literary history of Islam, however, the Clash of Civilizations theory is a poor fit. For medieval Arabo-Islamic culture saw a vast rise of humanistic literature bearing a clear multi-civilizational influence. The Letters of the Goodwill Brothers of Basra constitute one of the most overlooked of these works. Composed by a group of 10th century Abbasid Muslim littérateurs, the 52 Letters draw parallels between the teachings of Islam and those of prior great wisdom traditions, including Indian and Ancient Greek wisdom, Judaism, and Christianity. Focusing on the way the Letters frame Islam in the context of perennial human wisdom, I show how this text is ultimately an irenic text aimed at promoting religious tolerance and cooperation in the tumultuous sectarian atmosphere of 10th century Abbasid Iraq. I argue ultimately that the irenic message of the Letters presents an alternative narrative to the Clash of Civilizations theory, a narrative of tolerance from the Islamic past by which our own society may benefit when it comes to the relationships between American Muslims and non-Muslims.