Was it ever right?
Hazhir Teimourian despairs of Islam
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Towards the middle of the seventh century AD, the two big empires of the Middle East, Persian and the Byzantine, fought each other to exhaustion over spurious reasons for two decades. As a result, when a bare-footed, fiery and hungry sect burst out of the backwater of Arabia, they were almost open to it.
The Byzantine provinces of Syria and Egypt, plus the whole of the Persian empire as far as Samarkand, fell to the Arabs in quick succession. Libraries were burnt down and famous centres of learning, such as the 'university' of Jondi Sahpur in Persia, were destroyed. Persia, which had recently become the centre of western philosophy due to Christian persecution in Byzantium, quickly became a wasteland.
The great majority of the books in three great libraries in Alexandria disappeared similarly, even though the exact circumstances are disputed. One account says that a wealthy Greek offered a large sum of money to the Arabs to sell him the books, but the conquerors turned down his offer after consulting the caliph Umar in Iraq. He pronounced all books either harmful or superfluous to the Koran, and so the libraries were used to fuel Alexandria's public baths.
This ideology of destruction continued for roughly two hundred years as the guiding principle of the Muslims until the second dynasty of their caliphs, who were installed by a Persian rebel army, went soft, irreligious and decadent. They put an imitation of the imperial crown of Persia on their heads, wore Persian robes, played back-gammon, installed the crescent-and-star emblem of the Persian emperors as that of Islam, and surrounded themselves with Persian officialdom, ceremony and ritual.
They also sent agents everywhere to recruit astrologers, physicians and architects to fulfil the daily needs of their courts. Some of these servants were Christians and Jews who, in turn, recruited translators to render into Arabic the writings of the Ancient Greeks and Persians. Persian Viziers set up great libraries of their own. Theologians, heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, declared that because the Koran "had been created in time", it had dated with time and needed reform.
This era, the era of the Arabian Nights which was, by the way, largely a translation of a Persian book whose original version was destroyed is universally regarded as the 'Golden Age' of Islam. Even though, by then, the early Arab conquests had broken up into several rival empires, many technical achievements came the way of the Muslims. Among the most important were the adoption of Hindu numerals and the borrowing of the technique of Chinese paper-making. 'Muslim' physicians at least one of whom, the Greek-speaking Persian Rhazes (854-935), said he did not believe in God succeeded in making important inroads into anatomy and pharmacology. Mathematicians, such as the Persian Kharazmi who gave us the algorithm founded algebra. Travellers went far and wide and recorded the habits of the Hindus and the Vikings.
For a while the land of Islam overtook the Byzantines and the rest of Europe which continued to decay in the grip of Christian doctrine, even though we owe the preservation of much classical writing whose highest achievements are, for me, the plays of Euripides to the Byzantines, not to the Muslims. Other factors were also at work. For example, the existence of a unified government encouraged trade and the spices of India and the silk cloths of China passed through the eastern region of Islam on their way to Constantinople and brought much wealth to the region.
But freedom still had severe limits. Only in isolated pockets was it allowed to encroach upon theology or philosophy. Nor did it last long. The theological reform movement of the ninth century was soon suppressed and, in late eleventh century, the great mathematician and free-thinker, Omar Khayyam, became the subject of a death fatwa because "he loves the Greeks, not Islam". This is the age when the Turks, newly arrived as invaders from north-east Asia, establish their rule over the whole of Iran and Iraq and impose the Shari'a law rigorously over the land. The long intellectual decline of 'Islam' which really set in, continues to this day.
To sum up, then, the Muslims briefly pulled ahead of the west precisely because they were not good Muslims! Their progress was in spite of Islam, not because of it, and it came to a halt as soon as Islam was taken seriously again.
None of the above is included in Bernard Lewis's book. Born in London and now at Princeton university as perhaps the world's most distinguished writer on Islam, he has written a riveting book. It is full of wonderful and important tales from the history of Islam over the past 1300 years to show how the Muslims' victories on the battlefields of western Asia, Africa and Europe made them too proud to want to learn from the despised 'infidel', how they felt humiliated later when they saw the Christians surge ahead in wealth and power, and how they tried to catch up by trying to acquire only the military technique and technical knowledge of the west, not its freedom to speculate where Allah would not allow. But he praises too highly the largely military 'glory' of the 'Golden Age' of Islam, and he does not say openly that only by shedding or downgrading Islam itself as the last and eternal message of God to Mankind would the inhabitants of the land of Islam have much chance of catching up with the rest of humanity.
Even more disappointing is his recipe for the immediate future. He recommends to Muslims to "settle their differences and join their talents, energies and resources in a common creative endeavour to make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and the Middle Ages, a major centre of civilisation." Otherwise, he says, the Middle East is in danger of ending "sooner or later in yet another alien domination, perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new, expanding superpower in the East."
Many Muslims would read into this recommendation the prospect of yet another great age of imperialism and the need to unite again militarily to form an empire from Morocco to Indonesia which, by the way, never existed. The only thing such an empire would have in common would be Islam. Otherwise, why would so many diverse peoples and geographical regions want to make common cause?
What went wrong? is available from Amazon (UK)