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How Islam had a defining role in shaping the medieval world for what it stood for....


By the beginning of the seventh century Classical Civilization, the humanist civilization created by the Greeks and spread by the Romans throughout the north and west of Europe, was flourishing as never before. In the east, great centres such as Constantinople, Alexandria, Ephesus and Antioch remained seats of learning and research. In the west, after a period of disruption during the fifth century, when the Western Roman Empire came to an end, stability returned and urban life flourished as ever. The Gothic and Frankish kings who now controlled the provinces of the west did everything in their power to maintain the economy and institutions of the Empire.

Writers of the time, such as Gregory of Tours, describe the opulent cities of Gaul and Italy of the sixth century, and give much information about the luxurious lifestyle of the urban elite of the time. The great thinkers of the period, such as Boethius and Cassiodorus, were thoroughly stepped in the learning of Greece and Rome, and even churchmen like Saint Benedict displayed familiarity with and respect for the works of the Greek and Roman philosophers.

Actually, by the year 600, Classical Civilization was not only flourishing but expanding. Following the Christianization of Ireland in the fifth century, Classical learning came to the rocky crags of Ireland's west coast, and by the second half of the sixth century, Homer and Virgil, the great works of pagan antiquity, were discussed in the remote retreats of Christian monks in the Hebrides, off Scotland's western coast. In Germany too, the Merovingian kings had spread Classical culture beyond the Rhine, and the boundaries of Latin civilization now stood at the Elbe - much farther east than under any of the Roman Emperors. When in the seventh century the Arabs reached southern Italy and Spain they found a highly sophisticated Latin civilization, a civilization rich in cities, agriculture, art and literature, and presided over by completely Romanized Gothic kings. On their arrival in Spain, Gothic Spain, the Muslim conquerors of 711 were astonished at the size and opulence of its cities. Their annalists recall the appearance at the time of Seville, Cordova, Merida and Toledo; "the four capitals of Spain, founded," they tell us naively, "by Okteban [Octavian] the Caesar." Seville, above all, seems to have struck them by its wealth and its illustriousness in various ways. "It was," writes Ibn Adhari, among all the capitals of Spain the greatest, the most important, the best built and the richest in ancient monuments. Before its conquest by the Goths it had been the residence of the Roman governor. The Gothic kings chose Toledo for their residence; but Seville remained the seat of the Roman adepts of sacred and profane science, and it was there that lived the nobility of the same origin. (Cited from Lious Bertrand and Sir Charles Petrie, The History of Spain, London, 1945, p. 7).

Not much sign of decline here! Another Arab writer, Merida, mentions Seville's great bridge as well as "magnificent palaces and churches," (Bertrand and Petrie, pp.17-18) and we should note that archaeological confirmation of this picture is forthcoming. Several of the magnificent Visigothic churches and palaces still stand, and the discovery near Toledo in 1857 of a collection of richly wrought Visigothic votive crowns encrusted with precious stones brought the descriptions of the Arab conquerors to mind in the most vivid way possible (See Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain, London, 1992, p. 18).

What could have brought such a prosperous and enlightened culture to an end? As early as the 1930s Belgian historian Henri Pirenne had located the proverbial smoking gun. But it was not in the hands of the Goths or Vandals, or the Christian Church: it was in the hands of those people whom it had, even then, become fashionable to credit with ‘saving’ Western Civilization: the Arabs. The evidence, as Pirenne was at pains to show in his posthumously published Mohammed and Charlemagne (1938) was incontrovertible. From the mid-seventh century the Mediterranean had been blockaded by the Arabs. Trade with the great centers of population and culture in the Levant, a trade which had been the mainstay of Western Europe's prosperity, was terminated. The flow of all the luxury items which Pirenne found in the records of the

Spanish Visigoths and the Merovingians of Gaul, came to an abrupt end, as Arab pirates scoured the seas. The flow of gold to the West dried up. Gold coinage disappeared, and the great cities of Italy, Gaul and Spain, especially the ports, which owed their wealth to the Mediterranean trade, became mere ghost towns. Worst of all, perhaps, from the perspective of culture and learning, the importation of papyrus from Egypt ceased. This material, which had been shipped into Western Europe in vast quantities since the time of the Roman Republic, was absolutely essential for a thousand purposes in a literate and mercantile civilization; and the ending of the supply had an immediate and catastrophic effect on levels of literacy. These dropped, almost overnight, to levels perhaps equivalent to those in pre-Roman times.

Pirenne stressed that the arrival of Islam effectively isolated Europe both intellectually and economically. And with this economic paralysis came war: the Muslim conquests were to unleash a torrent of violence against Europe. As a direct result of the Arab advance, by the seventh and eighth centuries, Christendom, the area within which Christianity was the dominant religion, diminished almost to vanishing-point. This catastrophic loss of territory - everything from northern Syria to the Pyrenees - took place in a space of two or three generations. In Western Europe there remained only a nucleus of Christian territory, comprising France, Western Germany, the Upper Danube and Italy (as well as Ireland and parts of Britain); and these regions felt themselves threatened also with imminent extinction: For the surviving Christian territories were besieged and under sustained attack from the north and east, as well as the south. As the Arabs sent army after army to plunder, destroy and occupy, they encouraged and, in some ways directed, further attacks on the core areas of Europe from other directions. Thus even the Viking onslaught, which devastated huge areas of the British Isles, France and northern Germany, was elicited by the Muslim demand for slaves. The latter is a fact not yet widely known, though well-accepted by professional historians: the Vikings, essentially, were piratical slave-traders, and their notorious expeditions across the seas to the west and along the great rivers of Russia to the east were elicited first and foremost by the Muslim demand for white-skinned concubines and eunuchs.

Without Islam, there would almost certainly have been no Vikings. As it was, this trading-alliance between the barbarians of the North and the Muslims of Spain and North Africa was to bring Christian Europe to the brink of collapse.

Thus far Pirenne was prepared to go. Whilst arguing that the Muslims destroyed Classical Civilization in Europe, he did not challenge the widely-held assertion that, within their own territories - or the territories their armies conquered - in the Middle East and North Africa, the Muslims were better-disposed towards Classical culture. Indeed, it is widely held that they became enthusiastic patrons of the arts and sciences; and this was a proposition Pirenne did not counter. Yet it is the contention of the present writer that the Arabs terminated Classical culture in the Middle East just as surely as they did in Europe: And here they did it not merely by disrupting trade and bringing impoverishment: Here they destroyed Classical Culture as a deliberate act of policy.

Such a statement of course goes entirely against the grain of conventional thinking, which sees the Arabs as the saviours, rather than the destroyers, of Classical learning. We are told endlessly of the Arabs' respect for knowledge, and of how they preserved the works of the Classical authors after they had been lost and devalued by a darkened and barbarous Europe.

There is no question that, for a while, the Arabs did permit some of the learning and academic institutions they found in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia to survive. Yet the type of science and learning they supported tended to be of a purely utilitarian nature, and was focused primarily upon mathematics and medicine. Furthermore, even these branches of knowledge were tolerated only for a brief period - much briefer than is popularly imagined. And of Classical learning proper - of the humanist and broad respect for all knowledge that characterized Classical Civilization - the Arabs had, from the very beginning, no time whatsoever. 

Many people are familiar with the story of how Caliph Umar ordered the destruction of the library at Alexandria shortly after the Arab conquest of Egypt. In keeping with the politically correct ‘zeitgeist’ of our time, scholars now generally dismiss this as a piece of Christian propaganda originally disseminated by Coptic sources in the tenth or eleventh centuries. Yet even if we accept that the story cannot be verified, there is no question whatsoever that the Arabs did indeed destroy much of the heritage of Classical civilization, including many - or even the great majority - of the works of the ancient authors. This is proved beyond doubt by the rapid severing of links with the past which followed the Muslim conquest. Within a very short time indeed no one in Egypt had any idea of the name of the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid - though this knowledge had earlier been readily available in the works of Greek writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus, as well as native Egyptian writers working in Greek, such as Manetho. And the same severing of links with the past is found throughout the Muslim world. By the eleventh century the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam could not name the builders of the great palaces at Persepolis and Susa. These structures, he imagined, had been raised by a genie-king named Jamshid.

Who can deny also the immense amount of damage done to the ancient monuments by the Arabs? We know that, from the very beginning, the Muslim conquerors of Egypt established a commission whose sole purpose was the location and plundering the pharaohnic tombs. This destruction continued for centuries. Thus by the twelfth century Saladan, the Kurdish Sultan lionized in a thousand politically-correct novels, plays and movies, began the destruction of the Giza pyramids, and his son Al-Aziz Uthman continued in the same mode - making a real attempt to demolish the Great Pyramid itself. (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 50)

Throughout the Near East, from the beginning, Christian monasteries and churches were plundered and razed to the ground by the Muslims. The monasteries themselves housed vast numbers of volumes not only of Christian but also of Classical learning. That such destruction occurred is denied by no one - not even by Islamic apologists like Karen Armstrong.

What then of the "Islamic Golden Age" of science and learning so much praised and celebrated in popular academic culture? As I explain in some detail in my recently-published *Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization*, this Golden Age is largely a myth. There is much evidence to suggest that the appearance of Islam on the world stage has been seriously misdated, and that the plundering of the ancient monuments begun under Caliph Umar in the seventh century forms a continuum with the plundering and destruction carried out by Saladin and others like him in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These two events may well have been separated by no more than 150 years rather than the 450 now believed. There was a brief period, a very brief period indeed, during which some forms of (mainly utilitarian) learning and research was tolerated. The much-vaunted "Islamic" contributions to technology and learning - as for example the invention of paper and the use of the zero - were in fact Chinese and Indian innovations. Most of these had already arrived in Persia before the Islamicization of that country, and the Muslims simply used what was already in existence.

The rejection of science and reason is said by some apologists for Islam to have been the fault of philosopher/theologian Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Yet, as Catholic priest and physicist Stanley Jaki has explained, the rejection of reason is implicit in the Koran. There is no question that Al-Ghazali, one of the pillars of Islamic jurisprudence, "denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah."(Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Regnery, Washington DC, 1988, p. 242) Yet from the very beginning, "Muslim mystics decried the notion of scientific law (as formulated by Aristotle) as blasphemous and irrational, depriving as it does the Creator of his freedom." (Ibid.) Robert Spencer quotes social scientist Rodney Stark who notes that Islam does not have "a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science. ... Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah's freedom to act." (Robert Spencer, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity is and Islam isn't, Regnery, Washington DC, 2005, p. 154)

Allah's freedom to act is seen all too clearly in the outlandish events of Muhammad's life, where sacred moral laws are broken by the Prophet and his followers, only to be vindicated - afterwards - by new "revelations" from Allah.

Allah's total freedom to act resulted in fatalism and the death of reason; a universe dominated by forces that are utterly incomprehensible. If my house is destroyed by lightning, it is the will of Allah; it has nothing to do with my failure to install a good lightning-rod. This was the very essence of what we call "Medievalism". Islamic cosmology was explained thus by Maimonides:

Human intellect does not perceive any reason why a body should be in a certain place instead of being in another. In the same manner they say that reason admits the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an insect might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant.

This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe. Whenever they affirm that a thing belongs to this class of admitted possibilities, they say that it can have this form and that it is also possible that it be found differently, and that the one form is not more possible than the other; but they do not ask whether the reality confirms their assumption...

[They say] fire causes heat, water causes cold, in accordance with a certain habit; but it is logically not impossible that a deviation from this habit should occur, namely, that fire should cause cold, move downward, and still be fire; that the water should cause heat, move upward, and still be water. On this foundation their whole [intellectual] fabric is constructed. (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, M. Friedländer trans., Barnes and Noble, New York, 2004)

The rejection by Islam and the Islamic world of science and reason is illustrated by a number of significant events, such as the burning by El Mansur (Caliph of Cordoba, late tenth/earth eleventh century) with his own hand, of the "materialist and philosophical works of the library associated with Hakam II," (Bertrand, loc cit. p. 58) as well as by the major and obvious facts, such as that by the thirteenth century Europe had overtaken the Islamic world in virtually every field of science and technology - though Islam had, just a few centuries earlier, inherited all the great centres of Greek and Babylonian learning, when Europe had to start from scratch. And here we need only note, by way of example, that during the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, the Islamic forces were quite incapable of building cannon with which to assault the walls of the city, and had to rely on the services of a Transylvanian defector: this in spite of the fact that both firearms and gunpowder were originally an Asiatic (Chinese) invention.

The rejection of rationalism and of reason itself is inherent even in Averroes, whose ideas, after all, were predicated on the notion that faith and reason were ultimately irreconcilable. His position has often been described, inaccurately, as the doctrine of the double truth: what is false in theology could be true in philosophy and vice versa, and that contradictory statements could therefore both be true depending on whether they were considered from the point of view of religion or philosophy. What he actually taught was more subtle. He believed that Aristotle's ideas on many issues (such as the eternal existence of the earth) were the results of sound reasoning, and that no fault could be found in the logical process that led to them. Yet these views contradicted divine revelation, as found in the Koran. As a philosopher, Averroes argued, he had to follow the results of reason wherever they led, but since the conclusions they reached contradicted divine revelation, they could not be true in any absolute sense. After all, what was feeble human reason against the omnipotence of God, who transcended it? It is difficult to see in this the beginnings of a scientific revolution on the lines of that which took place in Europe from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Those who claim such have quite misunderstood the science of the Renaissance, which was most assuredly ‘not’ based on the separation of faith and reason. If we doubt this, we need only look at the life and thinking of the Renaissance scientist ‘par excellence’, Isaac Newton, whose guiding principle and ‘raison d'être’ was the examination of the physical universe in order to reveal the majesty of God's design.


John J. O'neill is the author of Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization.