The myth of the Islamic Golden Age
So far, so good. Yet a proper appreciation of the disturbances requires a much longer time frame. In a nutshell that is as follows. Today the West is powerful; Islam is nearly powerless (and would be completely so, if it were not for oil). This is not the way things were supposed to work. Supplanting Judaism and Christianity and taking its place as the final, perfected version of the Abrahamic religious tradition, Islam must also foster the most advanced society. For many centuries after the Islamic conquests beginning in the seventh century, this was indeed the case—or so we are told. Islam led the world in the arts and sciences and overall quality of life. Then something mysterious happened. Islam was knocked off its throne, and the West usurped its place. In this way, to use crude language, Islam went from being a "top" to a "bottom," while the West ceased to be a bottom and became a top. This is quite a reversal.
This metamorphosis has elicited various explanations. The geographical situation of the West turned out to be more advantageous, especially with regard to colonizing the New World. The challenges of a cold climate and a relatively undeveloped agriculture caused Westerners to rise to the challenge, in a way that the more easy-going situation of a semitropical environment did not. Or perhaps the answer lies in the realm of ideas. The West experienced the Reformation, ushering in an age of religious pluralism. By contrast, Islam has never had a Reformation.
My own answer is that the question is largely a pseudo-problem. Islam was never so advantageously seated with regard to the West. By the year 1300 the population of Europe attained, demographers have estimated, one hundred million people. Reliable estimates are hard to find in the far-flung realms of Islam, but I suspect that core Muslim lands, much of them desert, also held about one hundred million people.
Unaccountably absent in this balance sheet is China. The population of Song and Yuan China was in fact more than one hundred million, and Sinic society had achieved countless technological advances, from printing and ceramics to gun powder and large seagoing vessels guided by the compass. China had successfully exported its civilization to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Today this heritage forms the basis of he mighty engines of the East Asian economies. So it is not just the West that has shown up the pretensions of Islamic triumphalism, but even more the East, which, being for the most part neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, had no benefit of the Abrahamic heritage.
In short it is important to bear in mind (as many, such as that overrated mountebank Bernard Lewis, do not) that there were t h r e e major players in the Old World—China and Far Eastern civilization; Islam; and the Christian West. The Crusaders had tried their hand at overthrowing Islam, and eventually failed. But the East succeeded, through the fury of the Mongols. When Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was clear that religious superiority, presumed or real, was no magic talisman, protecting Islam from unbelievers. Today, many think, it is East Asia, not Islam, that will supplant the West. The jihadists and Muslim supremacists may defeat the West, but then they will have to reckon with an even more formidable enemy, one which does not present the "soft underbelly" of compliant liberal institutions.
Let us return to our main theme. In the high middle ages the three societies were roughly equal. Then the West became dominant. In the event, Islam turned out to an "also ran," poor marks for the True Faith.
Viewed as it is in a cracked mirror, this world-historical disappointment fuels much of the rage of the Muslims. The rage will continue, but the imbalance is not likely to be addressed. There is no way of generating prosperity and intellectual freedom where the conditions of these are lacking.
Let us look more closely at the supposed triumphs of medieval Islam, when it was supposedly on top (though in reality probably China was). We must address the myth of the Islamic Golden Age.
Medieval Islamic science is thought to be its crown jewel. Yet what is meant by Islamic in this sense? Non-Muslims--Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians--laid the foundations for this science. They relied mainly on Hellenic sources, but also Persian and Indian ones. Empirical findings risked being disregarded if they challenged the authority of the Koran in any way. In astronomy Islamic toponymics has of course left significant traces in the star map: Aldbeberan, Betelgeuse, Rigel. However, Islamic astronomy remained tied to Ptolemy’s Almagest. As such, it was incapable of freeing itself from geocentrism—there never was an Arab Copernicus. Algebra, to be sure, bears an Arabic name, but the basis of the discipline is Greek. Moreover, the "Arabic" numbers were originally Indian. It was the Indians who invented the all-important concept of zero.
What is usually termed Islamic philosophy consisted mainly of footnotes to the Greek thinkers. Philosophy always had a precarious situation, threatened by the perception of any encroachment on religious orthodoxy. Restrictions on freedom of thought are summed up by the concept of the "closing of the gate of Ijtihad." Somewhat loosely, one can render ijtihad as "freedom of thought." In the light of this event, which may have occurred as long as a thousand years ago, there is no longer any room for debate on many key questions. Today the Muslim intelligentsia, the ulema, is extraordinarily diffuse in its distribution. Yet the melancholy truth is that this body of thinkers has achieved uniformity on such subjects as homosexuality, the status of women, and the lending of money for interest. For a long time, there has been no room for debate on these matters.
In short, "Golden Age" achievements in science and philosophy occurred not because of Islam but in spite of it.
But what about those accounts of Western scholars traveling to Moorish Spain to study and translate Islamic versions of the Greek scientific classics? Such reports are true, but in due course Europe learned that there were better versions of these texts, in the original Greek, housed in the libraries of Byzantium.
And what about those numerous, well-stocked libraries of Andalusia that we hear about? Once again, this claim is misleading. By and large the "libraries" consisted of locked cabinets in madrasas containing a few battered Korans and commentaries. Moorish civilization was in fact a condominium, established on both sides of the straits. Morocco, not ravaged by the Catholic kings, had a similar culture and similar wealth. If there were great libraries they should have flourished in Morocco as well as in al-Andalus. Where are Morocco’s great libraries?
In art the flourishing craft traditions fostered the creation of many beguiling objects in metalwork, pottery, illuminated manuscripts. Yet Islam created no Giotto or Raphael; no Rembrandt or Rubens. This was not because of a supposed ban on images—there are plenty of images in manuscripts, but because painting as such never developed as a major art.
So the fabled Golden Age of Islam is mostly a myth. But what about the West? Wasn’t it shrouded in darkness, dependent on cultural imports from Islam? Not very much. Gothic architecture, one of the most splendid achievements of Europe’s "Dark Age,"was not originally "Saracen." Scholars have long exploded that claim. And the intricate rhymes and strophe patterns of Provençal poetry, so far from being derived from Islam, served in fact as the model for Arabic works of similar character in Andalusia. Paper, it is true, came to us from Islamic lands, but the Muslims had purloined the technique from the Chinese.
In the theory and practice of politics, Islam never developed any tradition of representative government or a doctrine of the separation of powers. Religious and secular authority were inextricably mixed in Islam. In Islamic tradition the concept of the rule of law as we know it is absent, as this requires a powerful tradition of secular law. With its mixture of Roman law and the common law, the West successfully forged such an instrument. Islam only created Shari’a law, which, bizarrely, its adepts wish to impose on Western Europe. Until the recent controversial insistence on introducing this religious law, the Western tradition of jurisprudence remained the norm throughout the world, including such countries as Turkey, India, and Japan.
Perhaps the least known accomplishment of the West lies in its ability to bridge science, on the one hand, and daily life on the other. Wind mills and water mills were already known in ancient times. Yet they proliferated only after 1000 in Western Europe. Experiments with their gears and drives led to the creation of a host of other machines. In a development that culminated in the Industrial Revolution, Europe became a culture of machines. Burdened by a fatuous sense of its own superiority, Islam was very slow to accept Western machines.
Why did the West become so mechanically conscious? The answer lies in large measure in social structure. Although there were large serf populations, slavery as such died out in Western Europe (unlike Islam, where reputedly the peculiar institution survives until this day). Absence of slaves (yielding a labor shortage, abetted eventually by the Black Death), required substitutes of a nonhuman variety. To tend these machines a new class of artisans arose, outside of the normal triad of clergy, nobles, and serfs. Eventually the advance of the interests of the artisans and the cultivation of machines became inseparable.
Such was the accomplishment of "Dark Age" Europe.
In the foregoing I have sought to expose the myth of the Islamic Golden Age. But of course it took two to tango. It became conventional wisdom to laud Islam’s splendor in contrast to the West’s squalor.
Whence did the complementary myth of Europe’s Dark Ages arise? Historians of ideas have traced it back to the Renaissance, whose adepts sought to differentiate themselves in this manner from the preceding Gothic period. However, the notion of the Dark Ages only really came into its own in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when writers like Gibbon and Voltaire sought to exalt Islam (Golden Age myth and all) as a counterweight to Christianity.
Nineteenth-century Romantics shifted attention to Moorish Spain, viewed in its full pathos as one of history’s great lost causes. A well-known American example is the tales of The Alhambra (1832) by Washington Irving. To be sure, the expulsion of the Moors, following that of the Jews, served to impoverish the cultural life of the Peninsula, as Germán Arciniegas and others have emphasized. What is often forgotten, however, is that starting in the eleventh century much of the brilliance of Moorish civilization had been extinguished by two puritanical Berber groups, the Almoravids and Almohads.
For different reasons, then, Westerners and Muslims alike have had an interest in promoting the myth of Golden Age Islam. The former were seeking to castigate certain trends in their own society; the latter to recover a glorious past. It is time, though, to take off the rose-colored glasses.
PS For the most part my arguments against the myth of Islam’s Golden Age are not new. For a recent contribution along these lines, see Serge Trifkovic’s polemic The Sword of Islam (2000).
What I have added are two comparative points. 1) The European Middle Ages were not simply a horrible nightmare of barbarism and ignorance, as the Enlightenment would have it. Its achievements, particularly in the realm of technology, were extraodinary. I may return to this theme later. 2) The record has been distorted by the omission of a third major player, China. Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000) has argued, convincingly I think, that that the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was the most advanced of its day, outpacing both Islam and Europe. Those who extol medieval Islam charge doubters with ethnocentrism. They themselves are guilty of this fault, because they regularly omit China.