Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald discusses the acadhimmic cliche of a high Islamic civilization that far surpassed the rest of the world — a cliche that has passed into the popular consciousness:
One of the most important means of softening up the Infidels has been the rewriting, both of Islamic cultural achievements, and of Western history, so as to make grand claims about the significance of the former for the latter. This is one of the aims of the carefully-premeditated Euro-Arab Dialogue that Bat Ye’or discusses at length in Eurabia.
Robin Cook, the late former Foreign Secretary, in 1998 at the Ismaili Center in London states that “It is the most wonderful reminder in the very heart of London that the roots of our culture are not just Greek or Roman in origiin, but Islmaic as well. Islamic art, science and philosophy have helped to shape who we are and how we think.” He stressed “the debt our culture owes to Islam,” for “Islam laid the intellectual foundations for large portions of Western civilization.”
Similar remarks, equally smarmy, have been made by the current Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, or for that matter, by any number of European leaders — and especially among those who have held positions in the E.U. bureacracy. A succession of Europeans trooped to the European-funded Library of Alexandria, where they gave speeches, one after the other, about the greatness of Islamic civilization and all that Europe owed to it. Romano Prodi, currently the front-runner to succeed Berlusconi in Italy, was particularly egregious in his comments. Ignorance? Stupidity? Indifference to history? A readiness to please the rich (Arabs) and the powerful (the Muslims within Europe, who need constantly to be placated)? Who knows? If Europeans were well-educated, or instructed by those who were well-educated and not about to let people get away with such nonsense, it would be one thing. But mass education, the 1968 debacle, which affected attitudes toward intellectual authority and merit, not only in France but elsewhere in Europe, lowered standards and helped soften up European brains for what is a propaganda war, based partly on these claims made for Islamic “culture.”
It is important not to accept these dreamy claims either about the “greatness” of Islamic civilization — which any number of people, including Bernard Lewis, formulaically allude to as if they feel they must always and everywhere make some gesture toward the wounded feelings, and self-esteem problems, of Muslims. How delicate we all allow ourselves to be, and yet how willing, at the same time, we are to treat history itself, Mnemosyne in her tatters, so roughly, without the slightest concern for her feelings, her sense of herself.
The more one studies the history of “Islamic civilization,” the less impressive do its claims appear.
For a few centuries the Islamic world served as a conduit (of Chinese papermaking, of Hindu numbers and algebra, of Greek philosophy rendered first into Syriac, then into Arabic, often by Christian or Jewish translators). There were some very minor achievements and a handful of figures, their names repeated over and over and over: Al-Rhazi, Averroes, Avicenna, Al-Farabi, and a dozen others — compared to the tens of thousands of similar figures in the Western world, not to mention those in the civilizations of China, or those unknown creators of Inca or Mayan civilization.
Almost all of the famous figures in high Islamic civilization were either non-Muslims, or Persians whom, dare one say it, in thought as in poetry (Firdowsi, Hafez, Khayyam, Sa’adi), were just “less” Muslim than the always more primitive and more fervent Arab Muslims. In art, the Indo-Persian (or Mughal) miniatures are not the products of Islam; they are the products of people ignoring the strictures of Islam. Should we give credit to Soviet Communism for Mandelshtam, formed by pre-Soviet Russia, or for Sakharov, a dissenter from everything that the Soviet system stood for? Of course not. Why then give “Islam” credit for those who, in spite of Islam, or because they were never Muslims to begin with, did so much?
The “Golden Age” of Islamic civilization was in many ways parasitic on the Christian and Jewish host populations that had been conquered. These populations were more advanced, numerous, and rich than the conquering Muslim Arabs, and remained so for some time. And while those Christians and Jews remained culturally significant, and not only as translators and transmitters of the achievements of non-Muslim civilizations, eventually they were reduced in numbers, power and influence. In Muslim Spain, political upheavals drove out some of the most significant figures (as Maimonides was driven out by the Almohad-induced persecutions — he escaped from Grenada to Fez, where he lived disguised as a Muslim, but the atmosphere of persecution in Fez led him to Cairo, where he worked as a physician for the Fatimid rulers).
In any case, whatever was “great” about Islamic civilization, despite the exaggeration, came to a close about a thousand years ago, about when Christians and Jews ceased to be an important factor, and when, within Islam, whatever freedoms an ar-Rhazi or ibn Rushd was permitted came to an end, because those mental “gates of ijtihad” were closed.
That is how the “Islamic civilization” came to an end — never to be reborn. For Islam inhibits artistic expression and scientific inquiry. It stunts the mental growth. That, above all. For a thousand years, since that brief period (about 200 years) of what some call the “Golden Age” of Islam, there has been very little of permanent scientific or other worth to be mentioned in the same breath with what was achieved in the West. Ravenna alone contains more art treasures than the entire Muslim world produced in its entire history.
Why do we keep forgetting this? Why do we pretend that “Islamic civilization,” which began in the 9th century (and Islam itself probably did not begin until the 8th), and was simply the result of the conquest of non-Muslim peoples who were not converted or killed at once, but subject as dhimmis to slow asphyxiation, was such a splendid thing? Why do many make exaggerated claims, as if they must keep constantly in mind the remarkable self-esteem problems of present-day Muslims, who must always have their own hypertrophied sense of Muslim achievements — even those from a thousand years ago — confirmed?
One of these is Lewis, who offers formulaic praise to high Islamic civilization and continues to compare Europe in the Dark Ages with the Islamic civilization that was the “richest, most advanced, most…” in the world. Now that statement can only be made by someone familiar not only with “Islamic” civilization (and with the fact that many of those who were responsible for important parts of that civilization were Christians and Jews), but also with rival civilizations on which judgment is implicitly being passed — such as China and Europe. Leave aside the gigantic and ancient civilization of China. In the study of Europe, the past fifty years of historical research have overturned, ended, put paid to, the idea of “Dark Ages.” Intellectual and artistic activity that was either not sufficiently recognized, or demeaned by historians in the past (some Protestant historians in Germany, England, and the United States found suspect the dominant role of Catholicism during those non-existent “Dark Ages”) has been discovered, unearthed, appreciated. But Lewis and those who like his phrase about “in the year 1000 A.D. Islamic civilization was the most advanced, most assured, most…etc.” appear to have ignored the revolution in the history of those “Dark Ages.” See, for a short summary, Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages!
But if Professor Lewis really does have such a view of Islamic achievement long ago, then perhaps none of us should really worry about the islamization of Europe. After all, if that was possible once, surely we should listen to the Da’wa of Tariq Ramadan, who believes that the future of Islam lies in Europe (and possibly America, though after his visa refusal that may have to wait a bit).
Another Muslim claim that has infiltrated into Western educational systems, and into the general (uninformed) consciousness, is that Europe itself owes “so much” to Islam. This is nonsense on stilts. Islam was at war with Christendom from Islam’s inception. Its only legitimate relation to Christendom was that of enemy and conqueror. Christians could be left alive, but only in an inferior position, with all of their “rights” granted by Muslim overlords, and only so long as the Christians obeyed certain onerous financial, social, and other burdens. That was it. How did “Islamic civilization” contribute? It did not contribute to the development of Western art and music. Its scientific contributions were, outside of optics and some parts of medicine, nearly invisible.
And even if we were to participate in the exaggerated claims made for things which took place a thousand years ago, one question remains:
What have you done for civilization lately?
On the civilizational resume of Islam, there is roughly a thousand-year blank.
“1000-2000 A.D. Painted Mughal miniatures, built some mosques in Constantinople, quarried the stone from tens of thousands of destroyed churches and Hindu temples for Muslim structures.” Really, no serious science for the past thousand years, no music, no sculpture, no paintings save for some un-Islamic Indo-Persian miniatures, no philosophy outside the limits of an 8th-century text composed in part of pagan Arab lore, and stories from both the Hebrew and Christian texts, imperfectly recalled– well, that just won’t do. Islam just doesn’t get the job as Permanent Solution for All Mankind. Sorry.