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Max Kerner: “Holy Wisdom Needed to Create a Shared Culture in Europe”
Mar 1, 2016

Professor Max Kerner, the former Deputy President at Aachen RWTH, one of the top universities of Europe, is recognized for his research on East-West dialogue during Middle Ages. We had an inspirational talk with him in Aachen where he shared his vision for a shared culture in Europe.

The Fountain: You are an expert on Charlemagne, who was a contemporary of Harun al-Rashid. What can you tell us about these two rulers and their impacts on the cultural history of their civilizations?

Professor Dr. Max Kerner: The inhabitants of the city of Aachen, Germany, associate Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid with a wonderful story - the story of the white elephant, Abu l-Abbas. In the late 90s of the 8th century, Charlemagne sent a delegation to Baghdad. This trip, of course, had a political dimension to it. At that time, there were two powerful, rival Arab dynasties: the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Umayyads in Cordoba. Charlemagne was also on bad terms with the Byzantine Empire. He hoped that Baghdad could exert some pressure on Byzantium. Harun al-Rashid in turn hoped that Charlemagne would keep the Umayyads in check. This was, from a geopolitical and military standpoint, an almost ideal situation for cooperation.

Culture played a very central role in that mission as well. Firstly, Harun al-Rashid was politically in charge of Jerusalem, which is of paramount importance to all three Abrahamic religions. The holy places were supposed to be accessible to Christian pilgrims, and Harun al-Rashid was capable of securing them this access. Secondly, Baghdad at that time was an important cultural center for scientific and medical research. Charlemagne hoped to get a share in these findings.

The white elephant basically stood for these ideas, and its name, Abu l-Abbas, symbolized them. Abbas was the progenitor of the Abbasids and he was also a relative of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, when Harun al-Rashid made Charlemagne a present of a white elephant named Abu l-Abbas, this was not only a gesture of kindness, but it also had great symbolic significance. And Charlemagne certainly understood that. Charlemagne was a Christian, but culturally, he was very open to the Muslim Arab culture.

You are co-editor of a book entitled Institutio Trajani, which ranks among the great mirrors for princes. Can you tell us briefly what a “mirror for princes” is?

A “mirror for princes” is a book that teaches a leader specific rules and conventions that are important for his statecraft. One thing special about this “Institutio Trajani” is that it is most probably written by a Greek author, Plutarch, but the only existent text is in Latin. It propagates a model of society that can be described as organological. In other words, the human body is taken as a microcosm that reflects the great macrocosm of the universe. The human body has different members: head, hands, feet, abdomen, and many other more. And in the “Institutio Trajani” these organs are assigned to the different parts of a society. The Agricolae - those employed in agriculture - are represented by the feet, while the sovereign is represented by the head. The head cannot be ruled by the feet, and the function of the ruler cannot be exercised by the Agricolae. The same applies to the reverse case. This division of tasks results in a hierarchical society with different functions, but all of these functions are vital, not least those of the so-called lower classes (if we use modern sociological terms).

So this mirror for princes attributes specific management functions to the rulers, but all other sectors of society have their special tasks and there raisons d'être, as well. Such an organological model does not meet our present understanding of democracy. But we can accept its substance – namely, the realization that all parts in society have their meaning and importance.

Mirrors for princes are also a common denominator of the Orient and Occident. Works like “Il Principe,” by Machiavelli, “Institutio Trajani,” by Plutarch, or the “Speculum Regum” are classified to be significant mirrors for princes of the Occident. In the East, we could mention the “Siyasetname,” by Nizamulmulk, the “Gulistan,” by Saadi or the work “Kutadgu Bilig."It is said that the culture of the “mirrors for princes” has been lost in modernity. Who or what has taken its place?

Just like in Latin-European culture, there were also mirrors for princes in Arab-Muslim culture, and the works just mentioned were important examples. But as a matter of fact, this literary genre no longer exists.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, every open society must hold a debate about its society and culture, and about its constitution and state organization. In this context I would assign the role that the mirrors for princes used to play in the past to the intellectuals of today. They write texts, in Arabic as well as in other languages, and in the Arab world as well as in the Western world. Whether they find attention and recognition is a different question, but the mirrors of princes were also sometimes ignored. In German society, admonitory texts like these are mostly written by political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and - to a lesser extent - by historians. One example of the latter is the “History of the West,” an important work by an historian named Heinrich August Winkler. If we want to know what exactly constitutes the West, then it is not enough to define it solely from the viewpoint of the current situation and problems. It is just as essential to examine how certain things have emerged.

According to Edward Said, since the times the West developed ideas about the East the only thing the East failed to do, was to depict itself in appropriate ways. Do you also think that the Islamic world failed in this task, or has at least been often misunderstood?

Yes, the Islamic world is often mistaken or misconceived in the West, just as, conversely, the Western world is often mistaken or misconceived in Arab-Muslim countries. There are diverse reasons for this, but one thing is clear: both spheres have to search for ways to present themselves adequately and transparently - and, indeed, in the whole range of their orientations.

Islam is not Islamism, Islam is not Jihadism, Islam is not Salafism. All the terrible things we are confronted with daily in the media do not represent Islam. On the other hand, you also cannot separate these phenomena entirely from Islam. They are recent developments that should not be blanked out; quite the contrary. In the same way, you cannot separate the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the persecution of heretics in Christian history from Christianity. An important question is: which role does violence play in the respective religions? And even more importantly: What can we do to prevent violence in the future? Of course there are big cultural-philosophical discussions on this topic.

In his “Ring Parable,” the German writer and philosopher Lessing shows how this type of conflict could be dissolved. In this well-known drama, a father has three sons whom he loves equally. On his deathbed, he gives each of them a ring, emphasizing that this is the heirloom ring, which passed down through generations. So all three are convinced to own the original ring, not just a replica, and quarrel over it after the father’s death. It turns out that it is impossible to find the “real” ring. The only way to find out whether one of them has the real ring is that all of them try to live a life pleasant in the eyes of God and mankind, so that their ring’s powers can prove true. The winner of this competition shall be the one who has the true ring, i.e. the true religion. Each of them may claim in their confidence to possess the true religion, but none of them must claim to have the only truth.

You do not need to carry out large Islamic studies or European studies to realize what the core of this parable is: a plea for religious freedom. And this religious freedom does not endanger the self-claim of the religions. The important thing is: what I claim for myself, I also grant to others.

Today’s societies are interconnected and they have multiple identities. How did historiography in the past deal with heterogeneity, and how does it deal with it today?

It must be a task of historiography, to describe heterogeneity in places where it did really exist. History is supposed to depict the past as it really was. I will give you an example: Spain. Spain for centuries had an Arab-Muslim history. But how does the Spanish historiography deal with this heterogeneity? One thing is that you describe how things worked at that time, but a different thing is to evaluate the occurrences. And historians can’t ignore this task. If you look at the evidence of Arab-Muslim Spain, then it is possible to read and review it in very different ways: In Spain a large caliphate was established that existed for centuries. Then it was recaptured gradually by the Reconquista until, finally, the last Muslims were expelled from Granada. The Mezquita of Cordoba is a terrific evidence, but at the same time, until today, a quarrelsome object. Because in the 16th century, Charles V brought up a cathedral in the middle of this mosque; and even today the bishop of Cordoba does not allow Muslims to assume their typical prayer attitude in front of the mihrab in the Muslim part of the Mezquita. For him, this place and the whole environment is a Christian cathedral now.

Therefore, is this Muslim-Arab episode accepted as a part of Spanish history, or is it rather described as an aberration, a byway, a detour? And consequently: which are the leitmotifs of the country - the dream of Al-Andalus, the Convivencia, the social coexistence, or the Reconquista, the recapture, the fight? At these two keywords - Reconquista and Convivencia - other European countries also chafe. As for my part, I think Convivencia is the only solution possible.

In Turkey, in turn, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul once was one of the greatest churches of Late Antiquity. After Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453, he made a mosque out of it, and in the 20th century, under Ataturk, it was transformed into a museum. Today there are ambitions to reconvert it in a mosque again. These two examples show how difficult it is to deal with heterogeneity.

Traditional historiography usually focuses on a particular cultural identity while other identities are largely blanked out. Do you think that this might change in the next years, for example with regard to the history of Europe? Do you think questions might be raised about the essence of Europe, about some meta-identity that goes beyond national state, but at the same time also determines limits and borders to it?

If you ask “What is Europe?” you also have to ask another question: What are the old foundations of Europe? There are at least three that are repeatedly mentioned:

Firstly: Christianity and the church - a subject with many, highly complex subchapters. (What is the essence of Christianity? What makes the difference between church and Christianity? What about Christianity’s responsibility for the dark chapters in church history?) No one, not even the biggest critics, doubt that Christianity and the church belong to Europe. But there is a debate about whether or not both still are important, and whether Christianity itself possibly has become a mere overhang of tradition.

Secondly: Nation and the nation-state. The nation-state was born in Europe and exported from there into the world. Worse than nationalism is National Socialism, which played a disastrous role in recent German history.

Thirdly: Rationality and science. These two aspects are embodied by universities. We just now sit and talk in an institution of rationality, a technical college (Aachen RWTH), where people think from morning to evening about how things can be improved with technology.

Now it is important to clarify how we deal with these old European basics and to see if we can pull something out of them we are willing to engage with. If we are convinced of our culture, we will be ready to stand up for the good of it, for preserving its values. And in a self-respecting Europe people must say: I am not indifferent to where I come from, but I’m also taking a critical attitude towards Europe. There are certain things that I stand up for and others I want to make sure that we don’t experience ever again.

So, if you think about identity, you must become aware of own identity first. You have to fathom out how it has developed; you have to think about what is worth keeping and what is not.

Another perspective is, as already mentioned, to be open to others. And with regard to plurality and heterogeneity, the following question arises: which role did Islam play in Europe in the past and which role will it play in the future? Let’s have a look at cultural transfers. As the example of Cordoba shows, Europe is connected with the Islamic world in many ways. Most of the philosophical writings of Aristotle were passed to us through a detour, namely via the Arabic translations and commentary of Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Averroes thus has undoubtedly greatly influenced the philosophical tradition of Europe. He also brought a principle to Europe that later became part of European modernity: the doctrine of duplex veritas, the double truth. It holds that there are two claims, the theological one and the scientific one. According to this second claim, science opens up and explains the world to us - the natural sciences just as the engineering sciences, the social sciences, and philosophy. Averroes decisively contributed to the recognition of the autonomy scientific approach.

The question whether there is such a thing as a German Islam fits this context, too. Recently, it was answered positively. And of course there is a German Islam, practiced by all Muslims with a German nationality. In this sense, Islam belongs to Germany, and in the future we will probably not only have mosques, but also Muslim nursing homes and cemeteries, or Islamic holidays. On the other hand, there are many ways to think about Islam and practice it. So what are the characteristics of a German Islam? It adheres to the constitutional requirements of this country, just like Judaism and Christianity also do. And these requirements are clearly defined. Whoever adheres to it has the right to practice his or her religion, and must also be protected in his or her practice.

When it comes to the elaboration of a European identity that includes the highlights of our past and present identity, we need to create a shared culture, which connects the different pluralities with each other. And we need to define a framework in which this shared culture can exist; a framework within which people can practice their own values much the same as the collective ones. This of course is far from being easy, as current events never cease to show.

One of your fields of activity is the training of teachers. Do you have certain guidelines in this field that you attach special importance to?

I search for historical topics from the subject areas mentioned above: Christianity and the Church, nation-state development, and history of rationality. Then we try to interpret them critically according to the current state of modern historiography. In an indirect way, I’m trying to develop a basic understanding of worldviews.

In recent decades we have become information giants. There are endless opportunities to gather endless information. But at the same time, we must be careful not to become knowledge dwarfs, because what is missing quite often is the ability to transform our information into real knowledge. And there is a huge difference between information and knowledge. We live in an environment of picture worlds, superficial and without structure. And we are, as Umberto Eco once put it, in danger of suffocating in information garbage.

Therefore, a major challenge of the universities and the teacher training is to impart knowledge that can prevent this suffocation. Previous generations would have envied us for our technical opportunities. But these opportunities alone are not enough. They require a critical understanding and openness to critical examination. One principle of teachers in training should be to enable them to make their students curious about our world and to give them the means to deal with information in a critical and skeptical way. This, for sure, is a never-ending task. To use Kant’s words: we have to end self-imposed immaturity.

Do you have a final message to our readers?

Yes, and it relates to the personification of a great idea. I have already addressed the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This wonderful building originally was a church, before it became a mosque, and afterwards a museum. Its name, Hagia Sophia, means Holy Wisdom. So I hope that the holy wisdom represented in this marvelous construction will help us to create a shared culture in Europe. This holy wisdom is characterized by the fact that, on the one hand, it preserves the identities of the majority and the minority in society, guaranteeing autonomy and diversity; and on the other hand, it also seeks common ground. But you can only find common ground and create a shared culture if you develop ideas, if you have certain benchmarks. And there are a lot of benchmarks, for example, in the fields of education, philosophy, literature, art, or global ethics. Maybe we have to create and to formulate a new myth in Europe, which would build on the oppressive experience of the Shoah and also bring forth a reconciliation between Islam and Europe. If we succeed in this while respecting our old European fundamentals, we will create an open Europe. And openness has always been one of the most profound of all European features - yesterday, today, and hopefully tomorrow. So I cherish a kind of openness to the world that is willing to integrate the other, while not forgetting our own accomplishments. May the Hagia Sophia help us to achieve it!

Interview by Abdullah Kulac