Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The myth of the Islamic Golden Age

Most observers of the violence in Islamic countries triggered by the cartoon controversy would agree that this turbulence is but the surface manifestation of deeper strains. Among them are a sense of humiliation engendered by the US incursion in Iraq and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggle; the grievances (justified or not) of the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe; and the corruption of their own governments.

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.


Blogger Peter Konieczny said...

I just came across your writings about this topic, and I would have to disagree with you on several points. The large size and diversity of libraries, whether they be in al-Andalus, Iraq, Egypt, etc., is well documented. While religion was an important subject, their was also a huge amount of material related to secular affairs - history, science, mathematics, economics, etc. I am a medieval historian, and have been doing work on sources of medieval military history - chroniclers from an Islamic country like Syria are far more numerous than say English or Italian contemporaries. It is also obvious that these writers were able to access much source material and be able to write much more. Al-Tabari, for example, was a famous 9th century historian - the English translation of his book comes out to 29 volumes, and this only represents part of his writings.

As for Morocco, it was repeatedly invaded by Spain from the 15th century onward - they even hold onto a city called Cueta - but also that Morocco itself was never a particularly prosperous region either. It would be unfair to critiicize it for not being at the level of al-Andalus.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Konieczny said...

Also, as for a Muslim Copernicus, you should probably read up on Nasir al-Din Tusi. See:

Lastly, with regards to slavery, while it was not practiced widely in northern Europe after the 12th century, it certainly was a facet of life throughout the Mediterranean region, regardless of religion. I am not sure if you believe that slavery is still practiced in Islamic nations today, but I cant think of any examples of that being true. Slaverly, where it does exist, is either mostly in pockets of Africa that are still politically tribal, or in the trafficking of women for prostitution that is sadly a problem in Western and Eastern nations.

2:11 PM  
Blogger mario said...

A typical dictionary definition of hypnosis states that it is: a state that resembles sleep but that is induced by suggestion. However, anyone who has tried hypnosis (and any self respecting hypnotist) will tell you that this is a very simplistic view of the subject!
A much better description comes from the Free Online Dictionary which states that hypnosis is: an artificially induced state of consciousness, characterised by heightened suggestibility and receptivity to direction. So what does this mean and how can it be used to your advantage?

Well, the subject of hypnosis has been discussed and pondered since the late 1700s. Many explanations and theories have come and gone though science, however, has yet to supply a valid and well-established definition of how it actually happens. It's fairly unlikely that the scientific community will arrive at a definitive explanation for hypnosis in the near future either, as the untapped resources of our 'mostly' uncharted mind still remain something of a mystery.
However, the general characteristics of hypnosis are well documented. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, deep relaxation and heightened imaginative functioning. It's not really like sleep at all, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or the feeling you get when you watch a movie or read a captivating book. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the outside world. Your focus is concentrated intensely on the mental processes you are experiencing - if movies didn't provide such disassociation with everyday life and put a person in a very receptive state then they would not be as popular (nor would TV advertising be as effective!). Have you ever stated that a film wasn't great because you just couldn't 'get into it'???
This works very simply; while daydream or watching a movie, an imaginary world becomes almost real to you because it fully engages your emotional responses. Such mental pursuits will on most occasions cause real emotional responses such as fear, sadness or happiness (have you ever cried at a sad movie, felt excited by a future event not yet taken place or shivered at the thought of your worst fear?).
It is widely accepted that these states are all forms of self-hypnosis. If you take this view you can easily see that you go into and out of mild hypnotic states on a daily basis - when driving home from work, washing the dishes, or even listening to a boring conversation. Although these situations produce a mental state that is very receptive to suggestion the most powerful time for self-change occurs in the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep.
In this mental state, people feel uninhibited and relaxed and they release all worries and doubts that normally occupy their mind. A similar experience occurs while you are daydreaming or watching the TV. You become so involved in the onscreen antics

3:58 PM  
Blogger Kronprinz Adam said...

There is no myth of the islamic golden age. There is proof, that there was a large development of early science, astronomy, algebra, engineering, medicine, agriculture...brothers Banu Musa, for example, created a book about mechanics and invention called "Book of Ingenious Devices".
So these islamic rulers created a civilization there, and filled it with poetry, music and gardens. They became refined.
They considered science and engineering important...meanwhile Europe was in the Dark Ages, paper was unknown, zero was unknown, hygiene was poor and greek authors were burned as "pagan", nothing important happened until Charlemagne...
It seems the arabic empire declined, split and was weakened by the Reconquista and the Mongol Invasion. The Mongol invasion burned the universities and libraries and destroyed the books. Reports of that time tell that the waters of Tigris became black during 6 months due to the enormous amount of ink of all the books sunk there...(probably exaggerated, but I think there is some true behind this report).
These facts are documented. All civilizations rise and decline, just as Greece, Rom, India, and Spain did. It requires a lot of ethnocentrism and arrogance to deny the original achievements of a culture. I think the islamic golden age was succesful because at some point, scientist and philosophers could exchange their ideas was due to Spain that these ideas could enter Europe...

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It was very interesting. I have done studys myself on the Islamic Golden age after having conversations often angrily exchanged online about what Islam gave to the world. A number of such inventions were and I quote'

Algebra (modern maths would be weak and limited without it), the compass (without it, you would still be in Europe), algorithm (without it laptops wouldn't exist), pharmacies, discovery of circulatory system, enhanced architecture, modernisatio of trigonometry and all of that is just a tip of the iceberg!

I looked at what he had posted and went through them one by one.

Algebra came from the Babylonians origianly.

The compass was created/discovered by the Chinese in about 200 BC 800 years before islam.

Algorithams were discovered and have their first routes in islam at 800 AD

Pharmacies had their earliest known compilation of medicinal substances during the Sushruta Samhita, an Indian Ayurvedic treatise attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC. However, the earliest text as preserved dates to the 3rd or 4th century AD. Well before Islam.

Circulatory system was Ancient Egypt when Egyptians were worshiping pagans. Obviously well before Islam again.

An odd thing I find with Muslim worshhipers and even scholars is the over drumming up of The Islamic golden age. All the above bar 1 was created by other cultures and didn't even have its basic bare roots in Islam. This perpetual cycle of either drumming up false technologies and even teaching other muslims that these were Islamic Golden age technologies breeds ignorance and soils the names of the people and cultures that actually discovered it. If emphasise with much that you say about the main supplement keeping the Middle East afloat is its Oil rich land. Apart from oil it has far less to offer than even an African nation. Islam seems to be especially stagnating the Middle East and crippling the development of Middle easterners physically because of poor nutrition and mentally. Ask a muslim who perpetrated the 9/11 attack you seem to either get just some terrorists (fine its true, or that its a Jeudeo Christian conspiracy. And they will paste over the problems Islam has. I post this July 2013 and the Syrian conflict is still in full swing, Iraq's sectarian violence is still in the background and the Islamists look like they want to put another dictator in power.

This arbitrary pasting over problems, coming up with false discoveries is stagnating a part of the world that should for its part be able to add to human progress not stunt it.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Navaratna Rajaram said...

It is largely true but India before the Islamic invasions was a major contributor to the sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy. Incidentally, the first book on algebra was the BEEJAGANITA by Bhaskara, not Babylonian.

6:09 PM  
Blogger CrisTechnology said...

damn good read, damn good..eye opening

6:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was no islamic golden age, nor european golden age. All people are hating each other and killing each other hundred of years ago until now.
All the inventions (theoritically made by europeans), are taken from other civilizations like china, india, islamic world etc...

5:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home