The Golden Age of Islam
In the wake of atrocities committed in the name of Islam, we are always reminded that these acts and those who commit them are deviants. Islam is a religion of peace, the vast majority of whose followers condemn violence. We are also reminded of history- that Islam was once a beacon of light, while our own European civilisation wallowed in the Dark Ages. During its Golden Age, Islam led the world in science and philosophy, and embraced peoples of all races and creeds in a beautiful multicultural paradise.
Of course, this view of the past leaves Islamophiles with a conundrum. If Islam in the past was so advanced, tolerant, and wonderful, how did it sink to the sorry state in which it finds itself today? Even in the rosiest view, the Islamic world is deeply backward compared to the West. By every conceivable metric by which one might wish to compare two civilisations, Islam lags far behind. And in many ways, things are getting worse. So, what went wrong?
The answer is nothing. That is precisely the problem. We in the West have gotten to where we are by changing fundamentally over the past thousand years. The Muslims have not. They never went backward, they just failed to advance in the same way we did.
To illustrate this point, consider the most lurid example of what is wrong with Islam in the modern world. The Islamic State terrorist group, which until recently controlled a vast swath of the Near East and still inspires millions across the world, is condemned universally in the West. Many, clinging to the “religion of peace” canard, are even squeamish about referring to it by its name.
But everything ISIS does that so horrifies us was established practice during the “Golden Age of Islam.” Medieval Islamic rulers drew legitimacy from their devout enforcement of Sharia Law, which demands brutal punishments from severing the hands of thieves to publicly executing apostates. They also demonstrated their piety by waging an endless war of jihad against the unbelievers, which was so successful that a faith that took root in a dusty corner of Arabia came to encompass a fifth of the world. Infidels in their midst were tolerated so long as they accepted their lowly subjugation and paid regular jizya protection money for the privilege of being allowed to exist as second-class citizens. To be fair, ISIS does still offer this option.
Christians and Jews subjected to this could take some solace in the knowledge that they were still better off than heathens, to whom nothing is owed but death, and slaves. Well into the modern era Muslims practiced slavery on a scale that would make European slavers blush. Over a millennium that ended only when European imperialists put a stop to it in the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, countless millions of Africans were captured, chained, and dragged to the Near East. There, depending on their sex, most could expect to either be castrated and worked to death or raped endlessly into an early grave. White slaves enjoyed a higher status. After all, Muhammad himself established in a reliable ahadith that a white slave is worth two blacks (“whose heads look like raisins”). It must have brought comfort to European children that, having been dragged from their homes, forcibly converted, and made to serve in some sultan’s army or harem, they did have some opportunity for advancement.
None of this is to say that contemporary Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, was terribly pleasant. Brutality, poverty, sickness, and injustice defined pre-modern life. In many ways, the Islamic world was indeed more enlightened, wealthy, and advanced than Western Europe. But to claim that the the society of the Abbasid Caliphate was anything but horrifying by modern standards is to be misleading and wrong. Even more preposterous is to call ISIS “un-Islamic” because they reject the norms and values of the 21st Century West. Do we imagine that they are simply making things up? They are the most Islamic people on the planet. Everything they do is inspired by their religion. If their behaviour strikes us as unreasonable and barbaric, we should also reevaluate how we think of the historical society that inspires them. Relative to some other parts of the world at the time, medieval Islamic society may have been enlightened and advanced. But that is not a high bar.
To better understand how Islam got this way, let us examine its history. From the earliest days of the faith, intolerance and war were at the core of what it meant to be Muslim. When the people of Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca rejected his message, he fled to neighbouring Medina, raised an army, captured the city, and thanked Allah for his support by destroying the town’s traditional religious heritage. He then turned on the Christians and Jews. Early in his prophetic career, when he was just an illiterate merchant overcoming a mid-life crisis by preaching about his talks with God, Muhammad had courted “peoples of the Book,” and revealed the flattering Quran verses about them so often cited by modern Islamophiles. When they rejected him, his attitude darkened. Later Quran verses and hadith, which supersede the earlier ones, curse out the infidels and damn them to hellfire. The prophet’s talk was not cheap- upon taking power, he expelled them from the Arabian Peninsula, save one acquiescent Jewish tribe, on which he later turned with a genocidal vigour, murdering all their men and distributing their women and children to the Muslims as slaves.
Muhammad’s followers were no less devout. When the tribes of Arabia, who had sworn fealty to the prophet personally, tried to go their separate ways after his death, they were violently disabused of their notions of self-determination and religious freedom by the first caliph, Abu Bakr (namesake of the late ISIS leader). His successor, Omar, launched the conquests that made Islam a world religion. The Byzantine Roman and Sassanian Persian empires, which dominated the known world, were exhausted by centuries of warfare. Like so many other barbarian conquerors, the fierce Arabs ran roughshod over their weary civilised neighbours, and over a few generations conquered an empire spanning from Carthage to Khorasan.
The conquests that built the Islamic empire, though less rapid than those of Alexander of Macedon and less vast than those of the Mongols, were undeniably impressive. Like their warlord prophet, the caliphs thanked God for his favour by imposing His just rule on their new subjects. Omar himself is credited with a code of religious discrimination that forms part of the canon of Islamic jurisprudence. On top of paying the jizya for their lives, dhimmi unbelievers were subjected to a series of humiliations. They were forbidden from practicing their religion publicly, from building their houses or churches taller than Muslim equivalents, from bearing arms, riding horses, or employing Muslims, and had to wear special clothing to identify them as filthy infidels. As the centuries wore on and Islam became the majority religion, the situation ramped up from the original Jim Crow-style system to something akin to Nazi Germany, with discrimination maturing to genocidal massacres and expulsions. Jews were the favoured target, though it should be noted that when the Spaniards took Granada, the last outpost of Islamic Spain, in 1492, there was not one Christian to be found there.
But however divinely inspired their laws, it would be impossible for an illiterate people with no tradition of government above the tribal level to administer an intercontinental empire. It would be generations before there was a competent Muslim intelligentsia to speak of, and centuries before Islam became the majority religion. Egypt, for example, was conquered in 641, but remained predominantly Christian for seven hundred years. In the meatime, Muslim rulers relied on the educated, civilised Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians native to their new dominions.
It is thus ridiculous to attribute to attribute the achievements of Islam’s Golden Age to Islam. In Islam’s formative centuries and through the Golden Age, the vast majority of the empire’s subjects, including learned philosophers, scientists, and administrators, were not Muslims. These dhimmi owed their opportunities to rise to prominence thanks not to some enlightened ethos of tolerance and equality, but to the need of rulers who had no idea what they were doing. As more and more people got sick of the the uncertainty and oppression of dhimmitude, conversion took off, and the glory of so many subjugated societies was appropriated by Islam. It is telling that for centuries great mosques were rarely built, but rather were made by repurposing conquered cathedrals, and redecorated in a nascent architectural style inspired Rome and Persia.
Today’s popular conception of virtually every aspect of medieval Islamic society glosses over a more complicated, less rosy reality. First, we are told that during the halcyon pre-modern age, the Islamic world was united and at peace under one caliphate. It was not. Sectarian conflict erupted almost the minute Muhammad died, as partisans of his nephew and son-in-law Ali (the first Shiites) rejected the accession to the caliphate of those from outside his bloodline. After several wars and the assassinations of three of the four “rightly-guided” caliphs (including Ali), Muawiyah I united Islam under the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyads, prominent among the persecutors of early Muslims, fell to the Abbasids, who invited them to a feast of reconciliation, slaughtered all of them, then threw a rug over their corpses and feasted their victory.
It is the Abbasids, with their strong, enlightened rule, who are credited with presiding over Islam’s golden age. In fact, by the early 10th Century at the very latest (they took over in 750), the caliph himself was a mere puppet head of a government whose writ hardly ran outside southern Iraq, and whose theological authority extended west only to northern Syria. Most of the realm was ruled by petty sultans who fought endless wars to cobble together dominions that rarely outlived them. Many, most prominently the Shiites who ruled a vast swath of North Africa and the Near East, regarded the ruler of Baghdad as illegitimate or even a heretic. The Dar al-Islam, the Arabic term for the Islamic world, was really more deserving of the title Dar al-Harb, “house of war,” which is what they call everybody else.
When we break open the false façade of unity and peace, the rest of the image begins to crumble. To some extent, to be fair, medieval Muslims did allow many non-Muslims to live and keep their faiths. But let us be honest and clear about the choices the defeated had: they could convert to Islam, pay protection money and live ever more precarious and marginal lives as second-class subjects, or die. As we have noted, accommodation was inevitable given the vast majority of the conquerors’ subjects, including those on whom they depended to actually run the empire, were infidels. Praising medieval Muslim rulers for allowing Christianity to exist is even sillier than praising the British rulers of India for tolerating Hinduism (and Islam), because the British at least were capable of running their colony without high-level native expertise.
Same goes for learning. To be fair, medieval Islam was not an entirely parasitic civilisation. Scholars in the Islamic world, many of them Muslims, did contribute to fields like philosophy and mathematics. But it is worth noting that even apologists’ accounts of “Islamic” achievements, especially vis-à-vis their contribution to the post-medieval West, rely heavily on their transmission of the work of others. Preserving Classical texts is valuable and we are in debt to them for doing it, but it is not that hard. “Arabic numerals” are oft cited as a fundamental Islamic contribution, but they were actually invented in India, and only gained prominence across most of the Islamic world under later European influence. Derivations of developments like universities, hospitals, and the scientific method to Islam range from flimsy to false.
Medieval Islam was no less medieval than Europe. It existed in a better-connected region of the world, and benefited from natural wealth and far higher baseline of development than Western Europe. These historical, economic, and geographical advantages produced a civilisation that was in most ways superior to that of Christian Europe at the time. But those regions also would have flourished under continued Roman and Persian rule. It is not that impressive to be wealthy when one’s dominions lie in the centre of the ancient world’s trade networks, and are warm and fertile in a premodern world in which agriculture is the beating heart of the economy. The wealthy regions of the medieval Islamic world were prosperous and developed before the Arabs arrived. That they remained so for several centuries after conquest is not really an achievement.
Similarly, it is not exceptional to be tolerant when one has no choice but to be, especially when, as we have noted, tolerance diminished with its necessity. It can be misleading to compare tolerance for other religions between the Christian and Islamic worlds. The Muslims took over lands that were Christian already, and followed a later religion that explicitly acknowledged Christianity. For Europeans, Muslims were belligerent heretics bent on conquering and dominating them as they had their brethren across the Mediterranean. Both sides treated their Jewish minorities abhorrently. Jews probably were better off under Islamic rulers, but that is a ridiculously broad generalization. And to be fair to the Christians, it should also be balanced with theological considerations- one shudders to imagine how Muslims then and today would feel about Jews if they had killed Muhammad.
It is especially silly to claim that Islam somehow inspired or facilitated Europe’s Renaissance. The Greco-Roman inheritance was better preserved in the Islamic world because Islam had conquered the wealthiest and most developed two thirds of Christendom. Egypt and Syria were rich and advanced, and France and Germany poor and backward, before the Arab conquests. It is hard to argue that wrenching these regions from Christendom into a new empire hostile to Europe helped Europe. We must also discount the claim that Arabic learning sparked the Renaissance. Islam shone brightest when the end of Europe’s Dark Ages was still a distant light at the end of the long medieval tunnel. There was, however, one key moment of cultural exchange facilitated by Islam: that was when the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople, where Classical culture had been preserved better than anywhere else in the world, sending thousands of refugees to Christian Europe. The year was 1453, right as the Renaissance took off. It was the culmination of Islam laying waste to the old Roman Empire that finally sparked the reawakening of Europe.
Whatever the cause, it was Europe that took off, to build the modern world and leave Islam in the dust. To be fair, the end of the Golden Age of Islam is more accurately seen as a fall relative to Europe, than a decline in nominal terms. But still, why did Islam so comprehensively fall behind?
The conventional timeline lays the corpse of Islamic splendour at the feet of the horsemen of medieval apocalypse. In the 13th Century, the Mongols, led by Genghis “I am the wrath of God” Khan, cut a path of destruction across Eurasia from Korea to Hungary. In 1258, his heirs sacked Baghdad and wrought such havoc on its environs that they are credited with reducing what was once the Fertile Crescent to the desert we know today. The Mongol conquest is conventionally considered the end of Islam’s golden age. But that is a weak excuse. After all, China, Russia, and Persia were similarly savaged, and all bounced back stronger than ever a century or two later. Hulegu Khan is no reason why the Middle East should still be a backwater.
Many apologists, ever keen to bend over backward to blame the West for everything, have another fallacious idea. They claim that the Crusades, a sporadic series of generally unsuccessful expeditions by European knights to the Near East, devastated Islam and created an enmity between our two civilisations that lingers today. They are wrong. Although an occasional nuisance, the crusaders were a relatively peripheral concern affecting only one relatively unimportant region of the Islamic world. Apart from a few brief episodes, notably the climactic clash between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, they were of secondary importance for both Christian and Muslim rulers. Atrocities were committed by both sides, but nothing outside the normal scope of medieval warfare. After a century or so the Europeans and Muslims got tired and decided to redouble their efforts brutalising their own. The “wars of the Franks,” as the Muslims called them, faded from memory and were largely forgotten until the 19th Century. Their memory was revived in both Europe and the Islamic world in light of a trend, European colonialism, and an ideology, nationalism, alien to the men who fought for Jerusalem and Acre. Finally, to reemphasise the obvious, the Crusades happened eight hundred years ago. They were not terribly noteworthy even in their time, were quickly forgotten, and the only reason we now attach so much importance to them is because they fit the rhetoric of Islamic extremists and useful idiots in the West.
Furthermore, for centuries after the Crusades, Islam would remain on the offensive. From their sack of Constantinople well into the modern era, the Ottoman Turks were the terror of Christendom. The sultan’s armies drove deep into the heart of Europe, plundering a quarter of the continent. Those two activities were symbiotic, as Christian children carried off as slaves served as the elite corps of the armies that menaced Vienna. Yet no one cites centuries of denigration and torture by the Turks as an excuse for Balkan dysfunction, much less for the Orthodox Serbs’ brutalisation of tornadizo Bosniaks.
Into the early modern era, Islamic empires from the Umayyads to the Ottomans were the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, at least outside China. All the while, the Islamic religion was gaining traction. It depends whom you ask whether people were drawn by genuine conviction or were simply tired of being robbed, harassed, and oppressed by their rulers, but what began as a trickle opened to a flood of new Muslims. As the empire matured and Islam grew from the faith of a segregated elite to that of the masses, Islamic society changed. The dhimmi, once a vital majority, became an increasingly despised minority in an Islamic world. Official harassment, popular pogroms, and forced conversions grew more common. In a civilisation that now had its own sophisticated philosophical canon, others’ learning could be sneered at as polytheist heresy. The Golden Age of Islam ended because Islamic society became Islamic.
Mature Islam smothered the light of civilisation in what had been many of the most advanced regions of the world. Part of the problem was political. A society whose rulers are allowed by their religion to sire dozens of heirs by four wives and infinite sex slaves will never be a stable one. The best that an Ottoman sultan, the most powerful man in the world, could do to secure the succession was to give his favoured son a castle close to the capital and thus a head start in the civil war that would inevitably follow his death. And unlike Christianity, which grew up alongside and blesses civil governments, Islam has no conception of separation of church and state.
As European statesmen, explorers, philosophers, and scientists built the modern world, Muslims remained convinced that they were barbarian infidels and continued to live in the past. Religious authorities, now steeped in centuries of Islamic supremacy, were ever more mistrustful of innovation. It is telling that Muhammad’s apocryphal saying that the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr was reinterpreted as anathematising the printing press. (Even more telling is that most Muslim scholars today reject this message entirely as fabricated and heretical).
As a religion, Islam is at the same time uniquely powerful and uniquely brittle. Jews and Christians call the Bible the Word of God in the sense that it is inspired by God. It has considerable authority, but both religions also have long traditions of interpretation and innovation in the faith by scholars or the church. To Muslims, the Quran is a direct quote spoken in first person by the Almighty. Its miraculous, eternal, inviolable divinity is the rock on which Islam is built. Any suggestion that it is inaccurate (e.g., in claiming that the sun sinks into a marsh to rest at the end of every day), flawed (e.g., mixing up Mary, mother of Jesus, and the prophetess Miriam, who lived a millennium earlier), or simply weird (several verses discourage Muhammad’s acquaintances from staying too long after dinner or marrying his wives after his death, lest they end up with his hated uncle dragging their innards around in the hellfire), critically undermines the entire Islamic faith.
It is imperative, then, to prevent such suggestion. Muslim scholars concoct preposterously self-serving interpretations of obviously ridiculous assertions, or just falsify the holy book in translation, as they do in claiming that the word “light,” when applied to the moon, refers to a reflected light, even when the same Arabic word is used to refer to Allah. In Islamic countries they can forego this sophistry altogether and uphold the sanctity of the religion through censorship, coercion, and violence.
This all creates a rather chilling atmosphere for intellectual inquiry. It has frozen Islam in the Middle Ages. Some teachings, like the subjugation of women and severe punishment of adulterers, homosexuals, and blasphemers, were historically not unique to Islam, but they are now are because everyone else has moved on. Other disturbing features are uniquely Islamic.
Islam is not a religion of peace. To be clear, this is a stupid term invented by Western nitwits and whether any religion can be considered peaceful is a matter of perspective. But it is manifestly untrue of Islam. It was founded by a part-time warlord. It is the only world religion that categorically enjoins its followers to violence. It is also the only one that specifically names followers of other religions as targets of that violence. The Quran and Sunna do also say some nice things, but most of these are abrogated by more authoritative “sword verses.” The fashionable definition of jihad as something other than literal holy war against infidels relies on apocryphal scripture not attested until centuries after the prophet’s death. Terrorists are often accused of misconstruing Islam, but in fact their interpretation is far sounder than that of well-meaning Western idiots whose only knowledge of Islam comes from New York Times editorials and one or two fully secular second- or third-generation acquaintances.
With regard to violence, Islam is not the same of Christianity or Judaism. The Old Testament contains violence in the sense that is describes violence in historical accounts. Aside from the Book of Revelation, which describes justice to be delivered by God on the Day of Judgment, Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament are straight out of Woodstock. The Quran, on the other hand, orders Muslims to “slay the unbelievers wherever ye find them until fitna [struggle or conflict] is no more and religion is for Allah.” The follower of one religion might open his book and read, “and then fifteen generations after Adam the Jephethites came unto the Cabadites and slaughtered one million billion of them.” Another reads, “God says you have to go out and kill infidels.” Which is more dangerous?
But what of the Crusades? It is true that much violence and misery has been wrought in the name of Christianity. But violence is not integral to the religion’s DNA. Popes or Christian monarchs could declare war on heretics or heathens, but they were not bound to do so by an inextricable tenet of their religion. Christianity can be weaponised by men; Islam weaponises men.
To be fair, violence is not necessarily discrediting for a religion or even wholly bad. Ancient Romans worshipped warfare and gloried in brutal conquest, yet they still maintained a dynamic and advanced society. But it is a problem when violence upholds (and is needed to uphold) such a deeply retrograde social ethos.
Islam knows no separation of church and state, nor real freedom of religion. For Muslims, apostasy and heresy are punishable by death. This penalty is most urgently to be visited upon those who would dare to exercise what we call their freedom of speech. Unbelievers are slightly freer in that they may convert to Islam, or else accept and pay for their degradation, or die.
Another class of people, one that makes up half of any society, is even less free. To be fair, the Quran does accord to women some rights. Like so much in the religion, it was relatively reasonable in the 7th Century. A millennium and a half ago, many societies relegated women to a secondary position in society, or forced them to cover themselves (to prevent them from tempting men to sin), or turned a blind eye when their families murdered them in the name of honour. Even Muhammad’s lust for little girls, most notably his youngest wife Aisha, whom he wed at six and bedded three years later, apparently did not raise too many eyebrows. But everyone else moved forward, while God’s word kept Muslims frozen in the time of the prophet.
And this hold cannot really be broken without shattering Islam as we know it entirely. As we have noted, Muhammad’s ridiculous self-aggrandisement as the seal of the prophets, delivering the direct word of God, made Islam a particularly brittle religion. Protestant reformers’ rejection of the Church was radical, but they drew legitimacy from an even more fundamental, authoritative source. Reforming Islam is impossible without contradicting God. Even respectfully declining to enforce unreasonable laws, as many Islamic governments have traditionally done, is condemned by ascendant fundamentalists as apostasy.
The arguments of apologists do contain an important truth: most of the world’s billion and a half Muslims are not bad people. Surely most want to live normal lives in the modern world rather than be trapped in the Middle Ages. Many already do, in spite of their faith. But pointing out that a religion only turns a fraction of its followers into death-worshipping psychopaths does not prove there is nothing wrong with it. This take is colder still considering in most Islamic countries (and, more disturbingly, many communities in non-Islamic ones), support for sharia and honour killings and death for apostasy is the majority view.
A century ago, most Islamic societies were more liberal than they are today. In large part in reaction to infidel modernity (and fuelled by regimes whose oil wealth is matched only by their religious lunacy), radical fundamentalist Islam has taken the world by storm. In the fight for the soul of Islam, the bad people are winning. Ignoring the problem or papering over it with false equivalencies and revisionist history is a double-edged scimitar that cuts well-inclined Muslims as deeply as it does the rest of us. Reform, even if it is merely a return to the traditional legitimacy of worldly-minded rulers and faithful ignoring the baser impulses of their faith (as followers of other religions do), is possible. There are many Muslims who do not want to live in the past. But the Islamophiles who dominate the mainstream narrative in the West today are useful idiots who stifle the good people and abet the extremists. If we ever want to see a real Islamic golden age, we need to stop lying.