Indicator of Civilisation from King Alfred the Great and Caliph Harun Al-Rashid

But it happened on a certain day, that the countrywoman, wife of the cowherd, was preparing some loaves to bake, and the king, sitting at the hearth, made ready his bow and arrows and other warlike instruments. The unlucky woman espying the cakes burning at the fire, ran up to remove them, and rebuking the brave king, exclaimed:

“Ca’sn thee mind the ke-aks, man, an’ doossen zee ’em burn?
I’m boun thee’s eat ’em vast enough, az zoon az ‘tiz the
turn.” (27)

From a single mention in an email, I find myself delving into the world of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (Britain). and finding this wonderful gem of a translated biography from 1847. As the above story shows, it reads as a story book, and, indeed, references to the lineage of the day resonates with “Lord of the Rings” and other modern fantasies. There is also that disquieting phrase, in the biography, that reminded me that this is a story from another era, when accepted prejudices against the Jews could be used as a metaphor to clarify the severity of misbehaviour, “and both those two who, like Jews, sought to betray their master”.

King Alfred’s official biography doesn’t seem to support the notion that he met the Abbisidian Caliph (Musa or Harun Al-Rashid were contemporaries). Charlamagne who was a more powerful (Frankish) king did receive gifts from Harun (a clock and possibly an elephant). Alfred did go to Rome as a youth and possibly so did Harun.  So conjecture lies in the medieval connections between the rulers of Christianity, Islam and the pagans (Danes etc). Certainly Islam showed the greater technological and trade advancements of the time, that perhaps only tranfered to Europe after the much later Crusades.

Interestingly, Harun made Jews wear identifying clothes, much like our more recent resident evil, the Nazis. Considering the above in Alfred’s biography, prejudice against the Jews may have been one common interest. today, the west seems to have largely gotten over it, while Islamic nations seem still to be riddled. Maybe the degree of anti-semitism can be used as a benchmark for how far a society has become truly civilised.


2 thoughts on “Indicator of Civilisation from King Alfred the Great and Caliph Harun Al-Rashid

  1. Social leanings of a society cannot judge the civilization factor of it.
    A society can be the most advanced, but how such deep opinions about one minority, and would that cause the society to be UNcivilized?
    For example, the US. Atheism is looked down upon by most minorities and the majority. Infact, there was a poll taken a few years ago, and over 90% (I want to say 93, but I forgot) of the US (both natural born and naturalized citizens) would not want their children marrying secular people. However, little over half of the nation only minds segregated marriages.
    See what I mean?
    Not to mention, the US is still, as a whole (based on the laws we have), anti-Homosexuality. And now there is a big stigmata towards Muslims.
    So, from what you have said, I take it that the US is not civilized, as well.

    • I guess the question about ‘being civilised’ depends on the definition of civilised. Here I am pondering, rather than proposing, whether an indicator or benchmark of a civilised society is the level of its anti-semitism. In regards Christian and Islamic antisemitism, a blindspot for their own founders teachings seem to be at the heart of ongoing anti-semitism, while same blindspot provides an indicator for the need of those teachings in the first place.

      In regard the USA, from a Baha’i point of view, there is a principle that the Prophets of God, not excepting Bahá’u’lláh Himself, .. appear, and deliver their Message in countries and amidst peoples and races, at a time when they (those peoples) were either fast declining, or had already touched the lowest depths of moral and spiritual degradation. Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith (1921-1957), provided this commentary about the place of the USA in establishing a peaceful, unified global society, in 1938: “To a lesser degree this principle must of necessity apply to the country which has vindicated its right to be regarded as the cradle of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (USA). So great a function, so noble a role, can be regarded as no less inferior to the part played by those immortal souls who, through their sublime renunciation and unparalleled deeds, have been responsible for the birth of the Faith itself. Let not, therefore, those who are to participate so predominantly in the birth of that world civilization, which is the direct offspring of their Faith, imagine for a moment that for some mysterious purpose or by any reason of inherent excellence or special merit Bahá’u’lláh has chosen to confer upon their country and people so great and lasting a distinction. It is precisely by reason of the patent evils which, notwithstanding its other admittedly great characteristics and achievements, an excessive and binding materialism has unfortunately engendered within it that the Author of their Faith and the Center of His Covenant have singled it out to become the standard-bearer of the New World Order envisaged in their writings. It is by such means as this that Bahá’u’lláh can best demonstrate to a heedless generation His almighty power to raise up from the very midst of a people, immersed in a sea of materialism, a prey to one of the most virulent and long-standing forms of racial prejudice, and notorious for its political corruption, lawlessness and laxity in moral standards, men and women who, as time goes by, will increasingly exemplify those essential virtues of self-renunciation, of moral rectitude, of chastity, of indiscriminating fellowship, of holy discipline, and of spiritual insight that will fit them for the preponderating share they will have in calling into being that World Order and that World Civilization of which their country, no less than the entire human race, stands in desperate need.
      Observations such as these, however distasteful and depressing they may be, should not, in the least, blind us to those virtues and qualities of high intelligence, of youthfulness, of unbounded initiative, and enterprise which the nation as a whole so conspicuously displays, and which are being increasingly reflected by the community of the believers within it. Upon these virtues and qualities, no less than upon the elimination of the evils referred to, must depend, to a very great extent, the ability of that community to lay a firm foundation for the country’s future role in ushering in the Golden Age of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.
      How great, therefore, how staggering the responsibility that must weigh upon the present generation of the American believers, at this early stage in their spiritual and administrative evolution, to weed out, by every means in their power, those faults, habits, and tendencies which they have inherited from their own nation, and to cultivate, patiently and prayerfully, those distinctive qualities and characteristics that are so indispensable to their effective participation in the great redemptive work of their Faith. (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p.16, 18)

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