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Examining the "Golden Age of Islamic Civilization"

Glen Chancy

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A few days ago I listened to the radio show of a commentator I respect. The show was well done as always, until he discussed the Arab Conquests and the glory of Islam. In lauding the greatness of the Islamic Golden Age, he repeated several pervasive myths about Islamic Civilization. I will examine several of the most prevalent ones and shed some light on the truths they obscure.

The Roots of Islamic Conquest

First is the widespread belief that the Arabs, who were mostly semi-nomadic herders, were unique in their conquest of a large empire. This is not true. Many advanced cultures feared the fierce nomads roaming the vast uncharted steppes and deserts that surrounded them. The Chinese for example, were so threatened by the pastoral peoples living to the north that they built and garrisoned the Great Wall to keep them out.

The Huns, the Mongols, the Hittites, the Magyars, and the Goths are examples of other pastoral tribes who burst into prominence to establish large empires. The Macedonians of Alexander the Great were a sedentary, though less advanced, people that did the same thing.

How did the nomadic tribes conquer such rich and powerful dynasties as China, India, Persia and Byzantium? In his book "War," Gwynne Dyer writes,

"At the turn of the millennium, A.D. 1 or thereabouts, the population of the Mediterranean region was around sixty million, and the total size of the army, including not only [Roman] legionary troops but all the cavalry and auxiliary forces, was not much above three hundred thousand...[The nomads] were poorer, less well organized, and less heavily armed, but they were enormously mobile, being mostly mounted on horses. Moreover, they could put practically their entire male population of military age into battle. There were no 'nomadic hordes: 'the civilized peoples greatly outnumbered the nomads even several thousand years ago, because farming feeds far more people from the same area of land than herding. But a pastoral nation that can put 100 percent of its young men into highly mobile raiding parties can take on a peasant society of ten times its population with a good prospect of success..."

The Muslim Arabs like other nomads before them, did not conquer the targeted lands of the near East all at once. Constant raiding parties reduced the peasants and villages to poverty and ruin. The overextended military of the civilized nations could not be everywhere at once, leaving the citizens vulnerable and predisposed to surrender. Even Rome at the height of its power was barely able to field enough men to protect its vast borders from the constant threat of invasion. In the ancient world, barbarism often trumped civilization and speed often trumped size. In the Near East victory was even easier; it had no state with sufficient strength to stop the Muslim Arabs.

The conquest of vast and diverse lands was not uniquely a Moslem triumph since many nomadic peoples accomplished the same thing. Their real victory was in holding on to the lands they had conquered. Unlike the Mongols, who established an empire that extended from China to Vienna but lost it when Chinese civilization reasserted itself, the Muslims remain to this day. Instead, it was the Armenians, Byzantines, Copts, Syrians, and other peoples of the Near East who were swamped by the Arab tide and whose civilizations disappeared from history. In fact, in the historic homelands that they conquered, the Muslim Arabs are now considered indigenous people.

Muslim longevity succeeded because the Muslim Arabs developed a theological and political system that maintained power over their captives in ways that eventually absorbed them into Moslem society. Islam teaches of continuous warfare, called jihad. The purpose of jihad is to subjugate the peoples of the world to the law of God as decreed by his prophet Muhammad. Jihad drives the Moslem practice of assimilation.

Islam divides the world into two camps -- the dar al-Islam, the lands of peace governed by Islamic Law; and the daral-harb, the lands of war that are destined to come under Muslim rule. The Muslims are to gain these lands either by war (harb) or by conversion of the inhabitants. According to Muslim jurists, the will of Allah is that all the possessions of non-Muslims should enter into Muslim hands. Every act of war perpetrated in order to reclaim these possessions is legal and immune from censure.

The holy war was the foundation of Islamic expansion. To the Bedouin people it promised wealth. The war was waged until the people of the dar al-harbsubmitted, at which time their land became part of the dar al-Islam and they became dhimmior "protected people." The dhimmiwere allowed to continue living on their land if they submitted to Muslim law and paid taxes, particularly the jizyaor poll tax. Islam made war a religious obligation and convinced the Muslims of their superiority over the conquered dhimmipeoples. Islam also governed Muslim relations with the conquered peoples regarding rights, duties, obligations, and limitations.

From the first day of conquest forward, the dhimmi became foreigners in their own land, completely at the mercy of their Muslim overlords. Islam not only provided the motivation and legitimization for Arab tribal unity and massive conquests, but it also added a bold new dimension: conquered people could become part of the conqueror's nationality and ruling elite. No vanquished people of earlier centuries could dream of becoming the nationality of their captor and participate in the power structures of the empire.

The dhimmipeople under Muslim rule were thus in a unique position. Any Christian could renounce Christ or any Jew the Law of Moses and bow to Mecca in order to become part of the ruling elite. The Christian or Jew who renounced his faith would be welcomed into the Muslim community and immediately improve his lot in life. He moved from oppressed to oppressor simply by choosing to worship the God of the conqueror rather than the God of the conquered. It is no mystery why many chosethis route and a miracle that more did not. No other nomadic invader developed such an approach for legitimizing and perpetuating its rule. War and subjugation had been developed into a comprehensive religious system.

The Dependence of Muslim Civilization on Christian Antiquity

Commentators often speak of the glorious Islamic Empire, with its vast wealth, unique art, and spectacular architecture. Did this wealth have something to do with the greatness of the Islamic Civilization? Or was the Islamic Empire rich because it pillaged pre-existing civilizations? Bat Ye'or argues in her book, "From Jihad to Dhimmitude," that Islamic civilization borrowed from the Christian civilizations it conquered.

"Scribes, secretaries, treasurers, accountants, craftsmen, peasants, doctors, scholars, diplomats, translators, and politicians, the Christians formed the base, the texture, the elite, and the sinews of the Muslim Empire. Without the collaboration of Christians, the creation and expansion of this empire may not have been possible. The conquered Christians placed all the resources -- all the proficiencies, the accumulation of technical skills, and sciences built up by earlier civilizations -- at the service of nomad chiefs or semi-nomad Arabs and later gave them to the Turks. Islamic literature, science, art, philosophy, and jurisprudence were born and developed not in Arabia, within an exclusively Arab and Muslim population, but in the midst of the conquered peoples..."

For the first centuries of the Islamic Empire, the majority of the population was comprised of highly skilled Christians ruled by a minority of Arab Muslims. During this time the productive people did what they had done for centuries -- they built, they traded, they created wealth. Asthe dhimmi population declined through conversion, emigration, and mass execution, so did the vitality and glory of the Islamic Empire. Without the Byzantine architects, Armenian merchants, Greek craftsmen, and Egyptian peasantry, the Islamic world became the poverty-stricken place it is today; one that differs little from the Arabia of the seventh century. In a sense the Muslim world didn't decline. Rather, as the Christians declined it simply returned to its barbarian roots.

At the beginning of Muslim rule there were some impressive accomplishments. The progress however, can be attributed to the advanced but conquered Christian culture. The city of Baghdad was built by Christian artisans and architects, often enslaved. The Christian physician Ibn Bakhtishu founded the great hospital of Baghdad. Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock was designed and built by Byzantine architects. Christian and Jewish scribes translated Sanskrit, Persian, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts into Arabic. Many of these scholars and artisans converted to Islam in order to work and to ensure their safety. Consequently, their accomplishments have been erroneously credited to Islamic civilization ignoring the fact that they received their training as Christians or Jews.

Eventually some great scientists and philosophers arose in Islamic culture. With the accumulated knowledge of antiquity made available by the translations into Arabic, some scholars were able to advance in optics, math, and philosophical commentary. Ironically, even though the scientists and philosophers were Muslim, they were mostly non-Arab. Historian Ibn Khaldun writes, "It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions; and those savants who claimed Arabian descent spoke a foreign language, grew up in foreign lands, and studied under foreign masters."

Unfortunately, the class of indigenous Muslim intellectuals was rising at the same time that the Muslim society was becoming more Islamic. Orthodox Islam had always had little use for "foreign science," and the ulama, or Muslim clerical class, constantly stirred animosity against it. The jurists aggressively opposed the ancient sciences as endangering the faith and of being no use to the pious. With less of a Christian population to restrain them, their opinions went unopposed by the11th and early 12th centuries. Their hostility and distrust sounded the death knell for Islamic science.

Historian Renan sums up the situation:

"Science and philosophy flourished on Muslim soil during the first half of the middle ages; but it was not by reason of Islam, it was in spite of Islam. Not a Muslim philosopher or scholar escaped persecution. During the period just specified persecution is less powerful than the instinct of free enquiry, and the rationalist tradition is kept alive, then intolerance and fanaticism win the day. It is true that the Christian Church also cast great difficulties in the way of science in the Middle Ages; but she did not strangle it outright, as did the Muslim theology.

"To give Islam the credit of Averroes [the most famous Muslim scholar of the middle ages] and so many illustrious thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the Inquisition the discoveries of Galileo, and a whole scientific development which it was not able to prevent."

Modern Muslims and their apologists point to the achievements of these men as the proof of the glory of Islam. However, not only were they persecuted in life, but also their works found little reception among subsequent generations of Muslims. The works of the great Muslim masters were read and studied in Paris, not Baghdad, and the Christian West developed a new order of science from them. From the 14th century to the present, nothing of any note has arisen from the Muslim world in science or philosophy. Historians consider this century to be the approximate end of the period of the "Islamization" of the Muslim Empire.

Once the Near Eastern societies completed the process of Islamization, they fell into torpor and decline. When Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, he did not build a glorious new mosque but confiscated the greatest Christian Church - Hagia Sophia - and converted it into the royal house of worship. Following the precedent of the previous 700years, Islam took from its conquered peoples while offering little in return.

The Totalitarian Temptation Within Islam

Many commentators in the West try to distinguish between traditional Islam and militant Islam (or Islamism). Ostensibly, traditional Islam is a peaceful religion while the militant variety is a modern aberration. These distinctions are even promoted by respected conservative commentators such as Michael Novak who writes,

"[The] so-called 'radical Islam or 'Islamic fundamentalism' of the new political type is in fact a bastard modernization of authentic Islam, corrupting Islam by the worst of all modern impulses. As one of our professor-guerrillas put it, If they were going to modernize Islam, why didn't they choose the best features of modernity to bring into Islam, like the Universal Declaration, and democracy, and human rights? Why the worst features -- Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler? He expressed the last sentence with exquisite disdain, to vigorous agreement from others.

However, if it's true that Islam had been founded as a peaceful religion, then it ought to have remained confined to the Arabian Peninsula. Turkey would still be populated by Greeks, Egypt and Syria would be Christian nations, and the world would be home to many more Armenians. But Islam was not founded as a peaceful religion. In fact, the totalitarian manifestation of fundamentalist Islam has its antecedents in the earlier conquests, particularly the forced Islamization of conquered peoples.

Sociologist Robert Nisbet defines a totalitarian society as "[one] made absolute by the removal of all forms of membership and identification which might, by their existence, compete with the new order. It is, further, made absolute by the insistence that all thought, belief, worship, and membership be within the structure of the State."

Ibn Warraq (a former Muslim) explains in his book, "Why I Am Not a Muslim" how the totalitarian impulse can be found in the Moslem faith. Warraq writes,

"The all-embracing nature of Islamic law can be seen from the fact that it does not distinguish among ritual, law (in the European sense of the word), ethics, and good manners. In principle this legislation controls the entire life of the believer and the Islamic community. It intrudes into every nook and cranny: everything -- to give a random example -- from the pilgrim tax, agricultural contracts, the board and lodging of slaves, the invitation to a wedding, the use of toothpicks, the ritual fashion in which one's natural needs are to be accomplished, the prohibition for men to wear gold or silver rings, to the proper treatment of animals is covered. Islamic law is a doctrine of duties --external duties -- that is to say, those duties which are susceptible to control by a human authority instituted by God. However, those duties are, without exception, duties toward God, and are founded on the inscrutable will of God himself."

These duties are fixed in Muslim law and are unchangeable. All Muslims must conform to these laws in order to attain paradise (salvation in Christian terms). While these laws are incompatible with modern civilization, their application ensured the continuity and triumph of the worldwide Muslim community in times past and are still binding on modern Muslims. Those who claim that modernization can come to the Islamic world first need to examine if progress is possible given that the heart of Islam repudiates outright the Western ideas of progress and modernity.

In the 1930's Bertrand Russell grasped the kinship between the Islamic faith and totalitarian Marxism (Bolshevism).

"Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam. Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mohammad. Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world."

For Russell, traditional Islam was already Marxist-like from its beginning. What we see today is not Islam being hijacked by extremists, but Islam maintaining its tradition.

Christ said, "My kingdom is not of this world." No Christian can establish the Kingdom of God on earth no matter how hard he might try. Islam, on the other hand, seeks to establish a heavenly kingdom in this world. A fundamental tenant of Islamic teaching is that the whole world must come to embrace Islam by any means necessary. No amount of wishful thinking will ever change this foundational truth. If Islam were to join the modern world, it must cease to be Islamic.

In "Why I Am Not a Muslim," Ibn Warraq discussed Bernard Lewis' work on Islam. Warraq writes,

"In an important article, 'Islam and Liberal Democracy,' Bernard Lewis explains very well why liberal democracy never developed in Islam. Like many scholars of Islam, Lewis deplores the use of the term 'Islamic Fundamentalist' as being inappropriate. I agree. I have already pointed out that, unlike Protestants, who have moved away from the literal interpretation of the Bible, Muslims - all Muslims -- still take the Koran literally. Hence, in my view, there is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. Islam is deeply rooted in every Muslim society, and 'fundamentalism' is simply the excess of this culture...A reformed faith that should question the divine authority on which they [the institutions of Islam] rest, or attempt by rationalistic selection or abatement to effect a change, would be Islam no longer."

Like Marxism, Islam can be an ideological tool used for nefarious purposes. This tool is not some modern variant of an ancient, peaceful religion; an Islam that has been 'hijacked' as the President stated in his misguided speech. Rather, violence - the jihad - is the very heart of Islam. Terrorism, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, even the mass immigration of hostile Muslims to the West are all expressions of traditional Islam. The peaceful, neutered, or secular variants presented to the world as traditional Islam are actually the modern inventions.< p>

Bat Ye'or, an Egyptian Moslem exiled in France wrote,

"First and foremost, the resurgence of traditionally Islamic policies is clearly no passing phenomenon. These behavior patterns are rooted in thirteen centuries of history and develop in accordance with permanent realities of an ideological, religious, demographic, and political nature. The last jihad advance was halted at Vienna in 1683. Yet warfare continued on the borders into the modern era...Modern terrorism is linked to the border raid. The means of transport now available allow the contemporary ghazi (raider) to sow death in the very heart of the dar al-harb, as his ancestors used to massacre the inhabitants of border villages... Arab-Palestinian terrorism thus modernized, ideologically and tactically, the age-old anti-Christian ghazwa (raid)."

The sacred nature of jihad invites disgruntled Muslims to take up the conquering sword for Allah. Simple cases of teenage angst, combined with the toxic belief of being chosen to impose the will of Allah on the rest of the world, can turn children even raised in the United States into killers. This way of thinking exists within Islam and is ready for exploitation by any terrorist who sees fit to use it. The only way to excise this threat is to make Islam into something it has never been or to turn the Muslim peoples away from the faith of Islam towards something else.

Why does the West fear these hard truths about Islam? The short answers are: fear of harming our relations with Muslim states, ignorance, hatred or disdain of our own religious culture, fear of offending Muslims, Jewish missives from the last century praising Islamic" tolerance," and politically correct ideas of multiculturalism. These evasions are neither new nor modern and many western governments employ them -sometimes to the detriment of other Christians. When the Turks slaughtered 1.5million Armenians in 1915, a French ship in Antioch took on 5,000 Armenian refugees fleeing for their lives. The French and British authorities, fearing to offend the Muslim countries they ruled as colonies, refused to allow the ship to unload its desperate cargo in Egypt, Rhodes, Cyprus, Tunisia, or Morocco.

The West must face the truth about Islam. The Muslims believe in their God, their religion, and their destiny while we in the West increasingly believe in nothing. Despite our wealth and our power, we are weakened by our own secularism. We must rediscover the truth -- for only the truth can keep us free.

Sources cited:

Warraq, Ibn. "Why I am not a Muslim." Amherst, 1995
Dyer, Gwynne. "War." New York, 1985
Ye'or, Bat. "The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam - From Jihad to Dhimmitude." Cranbury,2002
Russell, Bertrand. "The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism." London, 1921
Renan, Ernst. "Islam and Science." Lecture given at the Sorbonne, 29 March 1883
Nisbet, Robert. "The Quest for Community." San Francisco, 1990

Glen Chancy graduated from University of Florida in 1992 with a degree in Political Science, and a certificate in Eastern European Studies. He completed extensive course work on Russia and the Balkan States and received his certificate for his project on Russian Pan-Slavism and its relationship to Balkan nationalism. He completed post-graduate studies at the University of Adam Mieckiewicz in Poznan, Poland, where Mr. Chancy also lectured in the Information Technology Department. After three years of study, Mr. Chancy returned to America with his Polish wife. He currently holds an MBA in Finance, and works as a business analyst for a major U.S. software developer. He lives in Orlando, Florida.

Copyright 2002 Glen Chancy. Reprinted with permission of the author.



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