Refuting God’s Crucible
Posted by paulipoldie on November 2, 2008
This text is written in response to God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis, an American historian and two-time winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. In my opinion the book is largely a waste of money. This essay is not made to review the book as much as it is to refute it. It overlaps to some extent with the text The Truth About Islam in Europe, which I have published at the Brussels Journal before.
Briefly summed up, God’s Crucible laments the fact that Charles Martel, “the Hammer,” halted the advancing Islamic Jihad at the Battle of Tours or, Battle of Poitiers, in 732:
“Had ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders, as they hypothesize – one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths. Curiously, such speculation has a French pedigree. Forty years ago, two historians, Jean-Henri Roy and Jean Deviosse enumerated the benefits of a Muslim triumph at Poitiers: astronomy; trigonometry; Arabic numerals; the corpus of Greek philosophy. ‘We [Europe] would have gained 267 years,’ according to their calculations. ‘We might have been spared the wars of religion.’ To press the logic of this disconcerting analysis, the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.”
Mr. Lewis is clearly sympathetic towards this view, and writes that the Carolingian order, established Charles Martel (Carolus in Latin) and his grandson Charlemagne, was “religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive.” Curiously, he mentions in passing that there was continuous “out-migration to the Christian kingdoms” from al-Andalus. Why did they move to the Christian lands, whose economy was “little better than late Neolithic,” if life was so sweet in al-Andalus? Lewis states that: “At the end of the eighth century, Europe was militarily strong enough to defend itself from Islam, thanks in part to Charlemagne and his predecessors. The question was whether it was politically, economically, and culturally better off for being able to do so.”
As Tim Rutten commented in his review in the Los Angeles Times: “In other words, the West would be better off if it had been incorporated into an all-conquering Islamic empire in the early Middle Ages. OK. Still, it’s fair to wonder why, if that’s true, the West ended up with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution and the Islamic world got chronic underdevelopment, a pervasive religious obscurantism, Al Qaeda and the trust fund states of the Arabian peninsula?” Mr. Rutten also pointed out that another person who wanted Islam to win and wipe out Christianity was Adolf Hitler.
God’s Crucible is published during a time when Spain and Portugal under Islamic occupation are being hailed as a model of coexistence with Islam. The European Union recently announced its intentions of expanding to include the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. There is a concerted effort going on to present Islam as something non-threatening. In May 2008, Germany’s Der Spiegel, Europe’s largest weekly magazine, hailed al-Andalus as a “Multicultural model” for Europe: “For nearly 800 years, the inhabitants of al-Andalus, as the Arab dynasties called their empire on the Iberian Peninsula, allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to coexist in a spirit of mutual respect — a situation that benefited all.”
As Robert Spencer says in his book Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t: “Islamic apologist Karen Armstrong enunciates the common wisdom when she says that ‘until 1492, Jews and Christians lived peaceably and productively together in Muslim Spain – a coexistence that was impossible elsewhere in Europe.’ Even the U.S. State Department has proclaimed that ‘during the Islamic period in Spain, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace and mutual respect, creating a diverse society in which vibrant exchanges of ideas took place.'”
Those who want a second opinion can start with reading the online essay Andalusian Myth, Eurabian Reality by Bat Ye’or and Andrew G. Bostom: “There were rarely periods of peace in the Amirate of Cordova (756-912), nor later. Al-Andalus represented the land of jihad par excellence. Every year, sometimes twice a year, raiding expeditions were sent to ravage the Christian Spanish kingdoms to the north, the Basque regions, or France and the Rhone valley, bringing back booty and slaves. Andalusian corsairs attacked and invaded along the Sicilian and Italian coasts, even as far as the Aegean Islands, looting and burning as they went. Thousands of people were deported to slavery in Andalusia, where the caliph kept a militia of tens of thousand of Christian slaves brought from all parts of Christian Europe (the Saqaliba), and a harem filled with captured Christian women.”
Lewis alludes to some of this himself. He mentions “a small group of Andalusian Christians” filled with “fanaticism” who engaged in “a senseless spike in religious provocation” where individual Christian priests and laypersons “publicly disrespected mosques, the Qur’an, and the Prophet’s name.” Because of this, Cordoba’s qadi (Islamic judge), poor thing, had no choice. The ruler Muhammad I “approved his qadi‘s death sentence in 851-52 for thirteen Christians for whom clemency was impolitic if not impossible under Malikite Sharia.”
Unfortunately, these “Christian militants,” as Mr. Lewis calls them, were still deaf to all pleas of behaving properly submissive to Muslims, and more death sentences ensued:
“Twenty or so ‘Mozarab martyrs’ were dispatched in 853 or the year following, and a dozen more afterward. In another wave of Christian blasphemy in 859, thirteen more were executed, along with two daughters of a prominent Muslim family living in distant Huesca who defiantly disclosed their secret Christian conversion.” Lewis believes that: “A poll taken of Andalusians of all faiths would have shown an overwhelming disapproval of the ‘Mozarab martyrs.’ These Christian extremists were an aberration not because they acted outside history but because they were premature – three centuries ahead of the history whose intense cultural nationalism and religious intolerance were inculcated in the decades after the Battle of Clavijo.”
The “religious intolerance” he is referring to is not the Jihad waged against Christians and Jews in Spain and Portugal; it is the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It is traditionally seen to have begun with Pelayo in 718. Although initially slow, it speeded up from the eleventh century onwards. The Portuguese had been liberated in 1249 under King Afonso III. The concept “Holy War” was originally alien to Christianity and was imported to Europe only after Europeans had been confronted with centuries of Islamic Jihad.
In a review in the Washington Post, James Reston Jr. criticized the “stilted academic prose,” but concluded that “Lewis has made an important contribution to the growing body of literature on Muslim-Christian relations that has emerged after 9/11.” Eric Ormsby of the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, even if commenting on the “overly rosy picture often painted of Muslim Spain,” concluded that “In the end, these errors do not seriously mar the powerful thrust of his narrative.”
Lewis himself writes that people during this “golden age of tolerance” were executed for criticizing Islam. Isn’t that a bit disturbing, given that al-Andalus is now supposed to serve as the blueprint for our coexistence with Islam, according to our authorities and much of our media? “Blasphemy” against Islam and Muhammad is punishable by death according to sharia law, which is why the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim in Amsterdam in 2004.
On September 11th 2001 the city of New York suffered a Jihadist attack which caused more deaths than any other attack on the American mainland in its history, yet a few years later the New York Times publishes a reasonably positive review of a book which says explicitly that European civilization, and by extension the Unites States, should have been wiped out by Jihad centuries ago. I find this particularly disconcerting because I know for a fact that books by Ibn Warraq, Robert Spencer and other Islam-critical authors have too often been ignored by the same newspaper, which appears more willing to listen to those who want to wipe out their civilization than to those who want to defend it.
The idea behind God’s Crucible and similar books seems to be that we have such a “Eurocentric” culture and that “Islamic civilization” is being unfairly treated. I can count endless amounts of books on the dark sides of European colonialism, some of them no doubt justified, yet comparatively few good books have been published on the victims of 1400 years of Islamic Jihad on several continents. The problem is that Islam gets too little criticism, not too much. In contrast, I actually believe European culture is being slighted today. We now face a situation where the United Nations increasingly wants to ban “Islamophobia” across the world as hate speech, while books saying that Western civilization should have been wiped out are praised. Which civilization is actually being demonized here?
Europe has for much of its history undeniably been a rather violent place, though this is not unique to Europe. I will question, however, whether Europeans are particularly “ethnocentric.” After having spent a lot of time reading history from several continents, visiting other countries and talking to people from different cultures, my impression is that Europeans have, by and large, been less ethnocentric and a lot more willing to give credit to other cultures than is common elsewhere. Western countries are being destabilized because of mass immigration from nations across the entire world, including Muslim countries. Our current problem is that we are too open-minded and naive, not that we are “too racist.” This is still a flaw, but precisely the opposite of the ones we are constantly being accused of having.
The French writer Remi Brague explains this in his interesting book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization: “It is now fashionable to hurl at European culture the adjective ‘eurocentric.’ To be sure, every culture, like every living being, can’t help looking at the other ones from its own vantage point, and Europe is no exception. Yet, no culture was ever so little centered on itself and so interested in the other ones as Europe. China saw itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom.’ Europe never did. ‘Eurocentrism’ is a misnomer. Worse: it is the contrary of the truth.”
Moreover, “Islamic civilization, in contrast to Europe, has hardly dreamed of using its knowledge of the foreign as an instrument that would permit it, through comparison and distancing in relations to itself, to understand itself by becoming conscious of the non-obvious character of its cultural practices.”
Muslims were for the most part uninterested in other cultures and rarely bothered to learn their languages. The few translations that were made from other cultures were mainly concerned with scientific matters, not with historical events or “useless” cultural ideas, and they were often made by non-Muslims. The creation of archaeology as a scientific discipline was done by Europeans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Muslims showed little interest in the history of their pre-Islamic ancestors, let alone that of other nations, and sometimes aggressively destroyed historical remains unearthed in their own countries.
According to Remi Brague, usually a culture reflects on itself only when it is constrained by an inferior situation. Europe, on the other hand, represents the perhaps unique case of self-reflection brought about through its relation to peoples whose land it had just conquered. One such example is the Spanish Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who in the sixteenth century chastised his countrymen for abuses against natives in the Americas. In the words of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa:
“Father Las Casas was the most active, although not the only one, of those nonconformists who rebelled against abuses inflicted upon the Indians. They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of the moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality. The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization of our world.”
Some of the abuses Las Casas accused his countrymen of were undoubtedly real and should not be excused. Still, we should remember that for instance Mesoamerica was a region with bloody conquests going on in pre-Columbian times, especially by the Aztecs, who practiced human sacrifice on a scale unknown in the Old World at the time. Yet to my knowledge, no account has come down to us of individual Aztecs criticizing their countrymen for these practices, certainly not cases that affected public policy. In my opinion, the Aztec religion was evil, and whatever else the Spanish have been guilty of in their former colonies, stamping out the Aztec religion should definitely count among their good deeds. In the process of converting the Aztecs (Mexica), the missionary Bernardino de Sahagún nevertheless took great care to record the language and customs of the people he was working with.
In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a book hailing the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, Charles C. Mann writes the following: “Sahagún is known as the first American anthropologist, for he labored for decades to understand the Indians he sought to convert. With other missionaries, he amassed an archive on the Mexica and their neighbors – dynastic histories, dictionaries of native languages, descriptions of customs, collections of poetry and drama, galleries of paintings and sculpture – unequaled by that on any other Indian group, even the Inka. From it emerges, in almost full detail, a group portrait of a kind that is usually obscured by loss.”
An Islamic Spain could have produced brutal conquerors, but would have been unlikely to display the self-criticism of Bartolomé de las Casas or the cultural curiosity of Bernardino de Sahagún, both products of a Christian European civilization. In India, the discovery of the Indo-European language family, the world’s largest in terms of speakers today, was made by Sir William Jones, a gifted British classical scholar who had mastered French, Italian and some Hebrew and Arabic at an early age. According to Ibn Warraq in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Jones is said to have known thirteen languages well, and twenty-eight fairly well, at the time of his death. In 1786 he elaborated a theory of the common origins of most European languages and those of Iran and northern India. According to Nicholas Ostler in Empires of the Word, the Mughal rulers in India, largely of Turkish origins but influenced by Persian culture, had never made the same connection: “The new Muslim masters, despite their independent knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, did not distinguish themselves for their linguistic scholarship.”
If you believe Mr. Edward Said, the “orientalist” Sir William Jones was actually a racist pig who invented comparative linguistics in order to establish his country’s dominance over “the Other.” If so, it’s strange that Muslims didn’t think of this when they ruled other peoples for centuries. After all, Persian, which they knew, is an Indo-European language, as is Sanskrit as well as Greek, Armenian and the tongues of many of their subjects. Muslim scholars had access to a number of Semitic languages, from Arabic and Hebrew to Aramaic, in addition to languages of other Afro-Asiatic branches in North and East Africa. They were thus in a position to discover this linguistic tree, too, but they didn’t. Did they simply lack curiosity?
Said has accused Westerners of creating negative myths about others, but some of the most stubborn myths are directed against our own ancestors, not against “the Other.” As Edward Grant puts it in Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus:
“Perhaps the most powerful illustration of bias against the Middle Ages concerns Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery to the New World in 1492. Many came to believe that the most significant achievement of Columbus’ voyage was the discovery that the earth is not flat – as was universally believed in the Middle Ages – but round. This is utterly false. No educated person in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth (Russel 1991). They all knew it was round. Their authority was Aristotle. In his major cosmological treatise, On the Heavens, Aristotle emphatically declared the earth a sphere and even presented an estimate of its circumference. All who were educated in the universities of the Middle Ages would have read that passage. But it could be found in many other treatises they might also have read. No one would have doubted it. And yet, nineteenth-century authors were able to construct a falsehood still widely believed that everyone in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth until Columbus’ voyage proved its sphericity.”
David C. Lindberg confirms this in a discussion of Aristotle’s thoughts on the cosmos in The Beginnings of Western Science:
“Arguing from his natural philosophy, he pointed out that since the natural tendency of earth is to move toward the center of the universe, it must arrange itself symmetrically about that point. But he also called attention to the observational evidence, including the circular shadow cast by the earth during a lunar eclipse and the fact that north-south motion by an observer on the surface of the earth alters the apparent position of the stars. Aristotle even reported an estimate by mathematicians of the earth’s circumference (400,000 stades = about 45,000 miles, roughly 1.8 times the modern value). The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin.”
David Levering Lewis in God’s Crucible mocks the state of learning in medieval Europe, yet largely ignores the Byzantine Empire. I have been told that the books of John Julius Norwich regarding Byzantine culture are good, but as an introduction, A History of Byzantium by Timothy Gregory is not bad. I have reviewed it in The Legacy of Byzantium at Jihad Watch.
According to Lewis, while the libraries of Cordoba contained many thousands of manuscripts, “The great Benedictine abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland numbered a mere six hundred books, all of them in vellum (calfskin) or parchment (sheepskin). The availability of paper in the Arab empire greatly enhanced the diffusion of knowledge and made large library holdings possible. Paper – made from bark, linen, and hemp rather than the papyrus of pressed reeds of the Egyptians – would have an impact on Muslims similar to that of the printing press on Europeans seven hundred years later.”
There is some truth in this. Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000 by Julia Smith is a much better book on the Early Middle Ages in Europe. As Smith says:
“Books required expert scribes and an abundant supply of high-quality animal skins for the parchment. Consider two of the most famous works from eighth-century Northumbria: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, available today as a paperback of 290 pages, required the skins of about thirty animals for a single copy, while the magnificent, exceptionally large Lindisfarne Gospels was made from the skins of over 150 calves. Hildemar of Corbie (d. c.850) intimated that his monastery could sell a book made from thirty skins for 60 denarii (silver pennies), a sum approximately equivalent to the value of four fleecy sheep or fifteen piglets: Corbie’s own library possessed over 300 titles, most of them recently copied. Stocking a library of this size was extremely expensive.”
Before paper, the principal alternative to animal skins was Egyptian papyrus. As J. M. Roberts states in The New Penguin History of the World:
“From pre-dynastic times it was used for historical record and as early as the First Dynasty the invention of papyrus – strips of reed-pith, laid criss-cross and pounded together into a homogeneous sheet – provided a convenient medium for its multiplication. This invention had much greater importance for the world than hieroglyph; cheaper than skin (from which parchment was made) and more convenient (though more perishable) than clay tablets or slates of stone, it was the most general basis of correspondence and record in the Near East until well into the Christian era, when the invention of paper reached the Mediterranean world from the Far East (and even paper took its name from papyrus). Soon after the appearance of papyrus, writers began to paste sheets of it together into a long roll; thus the Egyptians invented the book, as well as the material on which it could first be written and a script which is an ancestor of our own. It may be our greatest debt to the Egyptians, for a huge proportion of what we know of antiquity comes to us directly or indirectly via papyrus.”
Papyrus grows only in warmer climates and there was a limit to how much papyrus you could actually produce. The establishment of the Library of Alexandria required large amounts of it. When another library was established in Pergamon in the second century BC, parchment was perfected as an alternative and was named after that city. This was by no means the first time that animal skins had been used as writing materials, but their importance was enhanced.
There are several types of parchment, for instance vellum, made from calf skin (or goat skin). Because parchment was expensive it was sometimes reused. The only surviving copies of two works of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who lived in the third century BC, were copied from papyrus rolls onto parchment and copied again by generation of scribes, until a Byzantine priest in the thirteenth century reused the parchment for a prayer book, which was discovered in a Greek Orthodox monastery in 1906 by Danish scholar Johan Ludwig Heiberg. The reconstruction of the original text has revealed that Archimedes was working with understandings of the concept of “infinity” which would not be rivalled until Englishman Isaac Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz invented calculus two thousand years alter. The fascinating story can be read in The Archimedes Codex.
The invention of paper is one of China’s greatest gifts to mankind. The knowledge of paper-making spread west via the Middle East, North Africa and finally Spain after having been acquired by Muslims during a Jihad against Chinese troops in AD 751. Although it is probably historically accurate to say that Muslims helped spread the use of paper in both Europe and India, it is highly doubtful whether this makes up for the lasting destruction they brought to the lands they conquered. It is also likely that this Chinese invention would eventually have been adopted anyway, and it should be mentioned that Islamic countries stubbornly resisted the adoption of printing for more than a thousand years after it was first invented in China, despite the fact that Persians, Arabs and other Muslims were in regular contact with East Asia through trade and must have been familiar with the invention.
As Toby E. Huff says in his excellent book The Rise of Early Modern Science, “Up until the middle of the tenth century, papyrus was the main source of writing material. Papermaking was first learned by the Arabs from the Chinese as early as the eighth century in Samarqand. By the middle of that century there was a state-owned paper mill in operation in Baghdad, and by the middle of the tenth century the use of paper was so widespread that the manufacture and use of papyrus for writing materials had died out.”
Huff suggests that the library resources of the Middle East were initially clearly superior not only to Europe but even to those of China, where there was less emphasis on libraries even though the Chinese, unlike the Europeans at this time, had the tools to make them. He also believes that there was in Islamic civilization “a strong distrust of the common man, and efforts were made after the golden age to prevent his gaining access to printed material.”
David Levering Lewis picks every opportunity he can to dismiss medieval Europeans as backward fanatics and primitive simpletons, but he does have a couple of admissions of positive qualities in their culture. He mentions that the Catholic Church banned polygamy and imposed restrictions on divorce in order to establish monogamy as the norm:
“The social ramifications for Western society could hardly have been more profound. Selection of exogamous mates imposed patience, discipline, and discernment. Though valued as property and for procreation, women of the upper classes gradually acquired greater influence as mothers in marital decisionmaking. Relieved of the intraspousal competition for respect, power, and resources that characterized polygamous arrangements, Western women – notwithstanding the oppressive realities of patriarchy – achieved in time the potential for personal freedom that would set them apart from most of their sisters elsewhere in the world. With a fine sense of the blunt, Bishop Hincmar of Reims told Frankish men where things were heading. ‘Whether she be a drunkard, irritable, immoral, luxurious, and gluttonous, a vagabond, cursing and swearing,’ he said, ‘whether you like it or not, you must keep her.’ For all the cultural superiority of their situation to their Carolingian peer, Andalusian women were given so such guarantees by the Qur’an.”
This view is confirmed by historian Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong?:
“The difference in the position of women was indeed one of the most striking contrasts between Christian and Muslim practice, and is mentioned by almost all travelers in both directions. Christianity, of all churches and denominations, prohibits polygamy and concubinage. Islam, like most other non-Christian communities, permits both….Muslim visitors to Europe speak with astonishment, often with horror, of the immodesty and frowardness of Western women, of the incredible freedom and absurd deference accorded to them, and of the lack of manly jealousy of European males confronted with the immorality and promiscuity in which their womenfolk indulge.”
David Levering Lewis expands on this with regards to another subject: “Chess, a favorite pastime of Harun al-Rashid, would be taken up by Andalusians in the 820s. Precisely when chess underwent its startling revolution on the Iberian peninsula is uncertain – when, that is, the ‘queen’ would displace the ‘vizir’ as the most powerful piece in the game, empowered to move unrestricted in all directions. In any case, the fact that the chess game played among Andalusi Arabs would keep to the old rules along with the traditional pieces, while Christians and Jews accepted the ‘queen,’ raises enough thoughts about the politics of gender in early Islam and Christianity to fill many books.”
The history of chess is still debated, but it is commonly held that the first version of the game was invented in India. It spread to Persia before the Islamic conquests, and was carried to East Asia and from the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire to Europe. It was called chaturanga in Sanskrit, which changed to chatrang and shatranj in the Middle East, while many European languages adopted some version of the Persian word for king, Shah. Chess went through a number of mutations as it spread. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the names and moves of the pieces changed considerably, until the game was more or less settled by the end of the fifteenth century. The queen became the piece with the greatest freedom of movement. This was definitely not a feature of the form of chess played by Muslims, who would never allow an unveiled female character to move around freely between male characters. The chess queen looked like some kind of harlot to them, no doubt. Although an Indian game originally, it is Western chess, as it came to be known, that is played in international tournaments.
Among the finest and funniest sets of chess from medieval times are the Lewis Chessmen, believed to have been made in Trondheim, Norway, in the twelfth century. They contain the “European pieces,” including the queen, and were carved from walrus ivory, which was often imported from the Norse colony in Greenland. According to Jared Diamond in Collapse:
“Greenland’s most prized exports mentioned in Norwegian records were five products derived from Arctic animals rare or absent in most of Europe: walrus ivory from walrus tusks, walrus hide (valued because it yielded the strongest rope for ships), live polar bears or their hides as a spectacular status symbol, tusks of the narwhal (a small whale) known then in Europe as unicorn horns, and live gyrfalcons (the world’s largest falcon). Walrus tusks became the only ivory available in medieval Europe for carving after Moslems gained control of the Mediterranean, thereby cutting off supplies of elephant ivory to Christian Europe. As an example of the value placed on Greenland gyrfalcons, 12 of those birds sufficed in 1396 to ransom the Duke of Burgundy’s son after he was captured by the Saracens [Muslims].”
It is interesting to notice how Diamond, who usually ignores Islam in his writings, casually mentions the fact that Muslims “controlled the Mediterranean.” Jihad piracy, slavery and attacks on European countries were a constant menace from the Jihad in the seventh century until the so-called Barbary States in North Africa in the nineteenth century. Some would argue that it is resurfacing now, for instance in the form of kidnapping of Western tourists.
As Paul Fregosi says in Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries: “Western colonization of nearby Muslim lands lasted 130 years, from the 1830s to the 1960s. Muslim colonization of nearby European lands lasted 1300 years, from the 600s to the mid-1960s. Yet, strangely, it is the Muslims…who are the most bitter about colonialism and the humiliations to which they have been subjected; and it is the Europeans who harbor the shame and the guilt. It should be the other way around.”
The Age of Exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was undertaken in order to get away from Muslims and re-establish contact with the civilizations of Asia without hostile middlemen. Norman Davies puts it this way in his monumental Europe: A History: “Islam’s conquests turned Europe into Christianity’s main base. At the same time the great swathe of Muslim territory cut the Christians off from virtually all direct contact with other religions and civilizations. The barrier of militant Islam turned the [European] Peninsula in on itself, severing or transforming many of the earlier lines of commercial, intellectual and political intercourse.”
When it comes to learning, there were no universities in the Islamic world. I have encountered few if any institutions outside of Europe that I would call “universities” in the Western sense before modern times. Among the best candidates is the Great Monastery of Nalanda in India, which was a Buddhist institution. It was not built by Muslims, it was destroyed by Muslims.
Already before AD 1300, Europeans had created an expanding network of universities, an institution that had no real equivalent in any other civilization on earth, and had invented mechanical clocks and eyeglasses, which was also not done in any other civilization. It is easy to underestimate the importance of this, but the ability to make accurate measurements of natural phenomena was of vital importance during the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. The use of glass lenses for eyeglasses led directly to the development of the microscope and the telescope, and thus the birth of modern medicine and astronomy. The network of universities facilitated the spread of information and debate and served as an incubator for many later scientific advances. All of these innovations were made centuries before European colonialism had begun, indeed at a time when Europe itself was a victim of colonialism and had been so for many centuries. Parts of Spain were still under Islamic occupation, an aggressive Jihad was being waged by the Turks in the remaining Byzantine lands, and the coasts from France via Italy to Croatia had been subject to centuries of Islamic raids. What did happen of innovation in the Islamic world generally took place in older centers of civilization, in Iran and Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and only while there was still a large non-Muslim population. The one “innovation” I can think of that was actually made by Muslims in the Arab Peninsula is coffee, which is an Ethiopian shrub but was first made into a drink in Yemen, later spreading to Mecca, Cairo and eventually the Mediterranean and Europe.
There are several names in use for Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. One is the “Near East.” Another is “West Asia,” which excludes Egypt, a country with strong historical ties to this region. I prefer the term the “Middle East” because it is a reminder that this region is, well, in the middle. It was the only region that had regular contacts with all the major civilizations of the Old World, from Mediterranean Europe via India to East Asia. The Chinese had little exposure to Greek mathematics and natural philosophy whereas Muslims were well familiar with Greek ideas. Europe suffered the worst disadvantages by having little direct contact with South, Southeast and East Asia, in part cut off by Muslims. The favorable geographical position of the Middle East is demonstrated by the early access to Chinese paper and the Indian numeral system, to name but two things. Europeans thus outperformed Muslims despite having a significantly weaker starting point.
In addition to this, the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam, could have been a great opportunity for exchanging scientific and technological information to and from all regions of the Old World. This did happen occasionally. For instance, some agricultural inventions were transferred to Muslim West Africa this way. Primarily, however, it served to spread information on how to kill more infidels and better to implement sharia. Muslims thus enjoyed a favorable geographic position, ruled over significant numbers of non-Muslims and had access to the accumulated learning of many of the oldest civilizations on the planet. The challenge here is not to explain why there was a brief burst of creativity in the earliest centuries of Islamic rule. The challenge is to explain why this didn’t last, and how this once-dynamic region gradually changed from being a global center of civilization, as it had been for thousands of years, to the global center of anti-civilization it is today. That would be an interesting book, but I don’t suspect David Levering Lewis will be the person to write it.
The primary cause of the failure of the Islamic world is Islam. Those who want to know more about this should read book by people who actually understand Islam. I recommend virtually any book by Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or, but here are some others:
Understanding Muhammad by former Muslim Ali Sina
Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out by former Muslims, edited by Ibn Warraq
Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam by former Muslim Patrick Sookhdeo
The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims by Andrew G. Bostom
The Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim
Defeating Jihad: How the War on Terrorism Can Be Won – in Spite of Ourselves by Serge Trifkovic