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Chapter 7


The flowering of Islamic culture is the stuff of legend. Muslims invented algebra, the zero, and the astrolabe (an ancient navigational instrument). They blazed new trails in agriculture. They preserved Aristotelian philosophy while Europe blundered through the Dark Ages. In virtually every field, the Islamic empires of bygone days far outstripped the achievements of their non-Muslim contemporaries in Europe and elsewhere.

Or did they?

Well, not quite. Unless copying counts.

Guess what?

· The much-ballyhooed “Golden Age” of Islamic culture was largely inspired by non-Muslims.

· Core elements of Islamic belief militated against scientific and cultural advancement.

· Only Judaism and Christianity, not Islam, provide a viable basis for scientific inquiry.

What about art and music?

We hear a great deal about Islamic literature—or at least a lot about Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273) and The Thousand and One Nights. There is also the Persian poet Abu Nuwas (762–814), whose heterodox views on homosexuality we discus in chapter eight; al-Mutanabbi (915–965), whose surname means “one who pretends to be a prophet”; the heterodox Turkish Sufi Nesimi (d. 1417); and Persian epic poet Hakim Abu al-Qasim Mansur Firdowsi (935–1020), who set the history of Persia to verse. For his sources, he used Christian and Zoroastrian chronicles, which have long since been lost.

Many of these men were open Islamic heretics; few seem to have taken inspiration from Islam itself, with the possible exception of Farid ud-Din Attar’s twelfth-century allegory The Conference of the Birds. They left behind many great works, but most of these are notable not for their Islamic character but for their lack of it. However, to credit the inspirational power of Islam would be tantamount to crediting the Soviet system for the works of Mandelstam, Sakharov, or even Solzhenitsyn.

But what about Islamic achievement in other artistic fields? Where are the Muslim Beethovens or Michelangelos? Where can one listen to the Islamic equivalent of Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto or savor the Islamic Mona Lisa or Pietá?

Don’t waste too much time looking. There is music and art in Islamic countries, and some Muslims were responsible for impressive musical and artistic achievements, but it was always in spite of Islam; nothing comparable to Western musical and artistic traditions developed, because Islamic law outlaws both music and artistic renderings of the human form. In music, there is nothing like Bach’s B Minor Mass or gospel in Islam, for above all, musical creativity has no place in religion.

Islamic law invokes Muhammad himself in forbidding musical instruments, quoting several ahadith:

Allah Mighty and Majestic sent me as a guidance and mercy to believers and commanded me to do away with musical instruments, flutes, strings, crucifixes, and the affair of the pre-Islamic period of ignorance. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will pour molten lead into the ears of whoever sits listening to a songstress. Song makes hypocrisy grow in the heart as water does herbage. “This Community will experience the swallowing up of some people by the earth, metamorphosis of some into animals, and being rained upon with stones.” Someone asked, “When will this be, O Messenger of Allah?” and he said, “When songstresses and musical instruments appear and wine is held to be lawful.” There will be peoples of my Community who will hold fornication, silk, wine, and musical instruments to be lawful.1

These are not ancient laws that are universally ignored today, like some old American colonial ordinance against spitting on the sidewalk. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini spoke vehemently about the evils of music—and not just rock and roll or rap, but all music:

Music corrupts the minds of our youth. There is no difference between music and opium. Both create lethargy in different ways. If you want your country to be independent, then ban music. Music is treason to our nation and to our youth.2

And art? Islam’s prohibition of representational art is even more absolute. Muhammad said: “Angels do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or some images (or pictures etc.) of living creatures (a human being or an animal etc.).”3 Not encouraging words for a budding Caravaggio.

Of course, Western museums will go to great lengths to display what they can of enamel or calligraphy in order to give Islamic art its due (and, of course, the architectural and artistic marvels inside mosques can’t be transplanted from their settings), but compared to the Western artistic tradition, only the most blinkered multiculturalist would not admit that it’s pretty slim pickings.

PC Myth: Islam was once the foundation of a great cultural and scientific flowering

In fact, Islam was not the foundation of much significant cultural or scientific development at all. It is undeniable that there was a great cultural and scientific flowering in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, but there is no indication that any of this flowering actually came as a result of Islam itself. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it did not come from Islam, but from the non-Muslims who served their Muslim masters in various capacities.

The architectural design of mosques, for example, a source of pride among Muslims, was copied from the shape and structure of Byzantine churches. (And of course, the construction of domes and arches was developed over a thousand years before the advent of Islam.) The seventh-century Dome of the Rock, considered today to have been the first great mosque, was not only copied from Byzantine models, but was built by Byzantine craftsmen. Islamic architectural innovations, interestingly enough, arose from military necessity. A historian of Islamic art and architecture, Oleg Grabar, explains, “Whatever its social or personal function, there hardly exists a major monument of Islamic architecture that does not reflect power in some fashion…. Ostentation is rarely absent from architecture and ostentation is almost always an expression of power…. For instance, in eleventh-century Cairo or fourteenth-century Granada the gates were built with an unusual number of different techniques of vaulting. Squinches coexist with pendentives, barrel vaults with cross vaults, simple semicircular arches with pointed or horseshoe arches…. It is possible that certain innovations in Islamic vaulting techniques, especially the elaboration of squinches and cross vaults, were the direct result of the importance of military architecture, for which strength and the prevention of fires, so common in wooden roofs and ceilings, were major objectives.”4

There are plenty of other examples. The astrolabe was developed, if not perfected, long before Muhammad was born. Avicenna (980–1037), Averroes (1128–1198), and other Muslim philosophers built on the work of the pagan Greek Aristotle. And Christians preserved Aristotle’s work from the ravages of the Dark Ages such as the fifth-century priest Probus of Antioch, who introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world.5 The Christian Huneyn ibn Ishaq (809–873) translated many works by Aristotle, Galen, Plato, and Hippocrates into Syriac, which his son then translated into Arabic.6 The Jacobite (Syrian) Christian Yahya ibn ‘Adi (893–974) also translated works of philosophy into Arabic and wrote his own; his treatise The Reformation of Morals has occasionally been erroneously attributed to several of his Muslim contemporaries. His student, a Christian named Abu ‘Ali ‘Isa ibn Zur’a (943–1008), also made Arabic translations of Aristotle and other Greek writers from Syriac. The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683. The first hospital in Baghdad during the heyday of the Abbasid caliphate was built by a Nestorian Christian, Jabrail ibn Bakhtishu.7 Assyrian Christians founded a pioneering medical school at Gundeshapur in Persia. The world’s first university may not have been the Muslims’ Al-Azhar in Cairo, as is often claimed, but the Assyrian School of Nisibis.

There is no shame in any of this. No culture exists in a vacuum. Every culture builds on the achievements of other cultures and borrows from those with which it is in contact. But the historical record simply doesn’t support the idea that Islam inspired a culture that outstripped others. There was a time when Islamic culture was more advanced than that of Europeans, but that superiority corresponds exactly to the period when Muslims were able to draw on and advance the achievements of Byzantine and other civilizations. After all, the seventh-century Muslim invaders of Persia were so uncivilized, relative to those they had conquered, that they exchanged gold (which they had never seen) for silver (which they had) and used camphor, a substance entirely new to them, in cooking.8 Are we to believe that these rough men entered their new surroundings with daring new artistic and architectural plans tucked under their arms?

But when they had taken what they could from Byzantium and Persia, and sufficient numbers of Jews and Christians had been converted to Islam or thoroughly subdued, Islam went into a period of intellectual stagnation from which it has not yet emerged. Even more nagging is the question of why, if Islam really did reach such a high level of cultural attainment, it went into such a precipitous and lingering decline.

What happened to the Golden Age?

It’s true: Muslims once led the rest of the world in various intellectual endeavors, notably mathematics and science. But there was such a decline after this “Golden Age” that of the age itself there is scarcely any trace left in the Islamic world.

Winston Churchill on Islam:

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine—must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

“Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die. But the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.”

Take, for example, the medical sciences. Muslims established the first pharmacies and were the first to require standards of knowledge and competence from doctors and pharmacists, enforced by an examination.9 At the time of the fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (763–809), the first hospital was established in Baghdad, and many more followed. Yet it was not a Muslim, but a Belgian physician and researcher, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), who paved the way for modern medical advances by publishing the first accurate description of human internal organs, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543. Why? Because Vesalius was able to dissect human bodies, while that practice was forbidden in Islam. What’s more, Vesalius’s book is filled with detailed anatomical drawings—but also forbidden in Islam are artistic representations of the human body.

In mathematics, it’s the same story. Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780–850) was a pioneering mathematician whose treatise on algebra, once translated from Arabic, introduced generations of Europeans to the rarified joys of that branch of mathematics. But in fact, the principles upon which al-Khwarizmi worked were discovered centuries before he was born—including the zero, which is often attributed to Muslims. Even what we know today as “Arabic numerals” did not originate in Arabia, but in pre-Islamic India—and they are not used in the Arabic language today. Nonetheless, there is no denying that al-Khwarizmi was influential. The word algebra itself comes from the first word of the title of his treatise Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah; and the wordalgorithm is derived from his name. Al-Khwarizmi’s work opened up new avenues of mathematical and scientific exploration in Europe, so why didn’t it do the same in the Islamic world? The results are palpable: Europeans ultimately used algebra, in conjunction with other discoveries, to make significant technological advances; Muslims did not. Why?

One answer is that Europe had a long-standing intellectual tradition that made such innovations possible, while the Islamic world did not. This even included making use of Arabic works in ways that Muslims themselves did not: Aristotle, along with his Muslim commentators Avicenna and Averroes, were studied in European universities in the twelfth century and after, while in the Islamic world their work was largely ignored and certainly not taught in schools, which concentrated then, as now, mostly on memorization and study of the Qur’an. There were other notable Islamic philosophers; why were Avicenna and Averroes read in the West, but anomalies in their own traditions? Why wasn’t philosophy even taught in Islamic schools in those days?

Muhammad vs. Jesus

“No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus (Mark 10:18)

“The Jews say: ‘Allah’s hand is chained.’ May their own hands be chained! May they be cursed for what they say! By no means. His hands are both outstretched: He bestows as He will”

Qur’an 5:64

The idea that Allah’s hand is “not chained” is a reflection of his absolute freedom and sov ereignty. If God is good, as Jesus says, His goodness may be discernable in the consistency of creation; but in Islam, even to call Allah good would be to bind him.

Much of the responsibility for this must be laid at the feet of the Sufi Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1128). Although he was a great thinker, he nevertheless became the chief spokesman for a streak of anti-intellectualism that stifled much Islamic philosophical and scientific thought. Some philosophers, al-Ghazali noted, were a bit too hesitant to embrace the revealed truths of the Qur’an: Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah al-Kindi (801–873), for example, had suggested that religion and philosophy were two separate but equal paths to truth.10 In other words, philosophers need not pay attention or homage to the Qur’an, with its self-serving prophet and bordello Paradise. Abu Bakr ar-Razi (864–930), known in the West as Rhazes, even went so far as to say that onlyphilosophy leads to the highest truth.11 Other Muslim philosophers pursued similarly dangerous lines of inquiry. In his Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali accordingly accused Muslim philosophers of “denial of revealed laws and religious confessions” and “rejection of the details of religious and sectarian [teaching], believing them to be man-made laws and embellished tricks.”12 He accused the Muslim philosophers al-Farabi and Avicenna of challenging “the [very] principles of religion.”13

At the end of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali asks a rhetorical question about the philosophers: “Do you then say conclusively that they are infidels and that the killing of those who uphold their beliefs is obligatory?14 He answers: “Pronouncing them infidels is necessary in three questions”: their teachings that the world existed eternally, that Allah does not know particular things, but only universals, and that there is no resurrection of the body. Thus, by the dictates of Islamic law, killing them was “obligatory.” This is hardly the way to encourage a healthy philosophical tradition. There were Muslim philosophers after al-Ghazali, but they never achieved the stature of Avicenna. Averroes, (also called Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd) answered al-Ghazali in a book called Incoherence of the Incoherence, insisting that philosophers need not kowtow to theologians, but the damage was done. The Golden Age of Islamic philosophy, such as it were, was over.

Al-Ghazali’s attack on the philosophers was a sophisticated manifestation of a tendency that has always hindered intellectual development in the Islamic world:

There is a prevailing assumption that the Qur’an is the perfect book, and no other book is needed. With the Qur’an the perfect book and Islamic society the perfect civilization, too many Muslims didn’t think they needed knowledge that came from any other source—certainly not from infidels.

Allah kills science

But the main coup de grace to Islamic scientific and philosophical inquiry may have come from the Qur’an itself. The holy book of Islam portrays Allah as absolutely sovereign and bound by nothing. This sovereignty was so absolute that it precluded a key assumption that helped foster the development of science in Europe: Jews and Christians believe that God is good, and that His goodness is consistent. Therefore, He created the universe according to rational laws that can be discovered, making scientific investigation worthwhile. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains:

Since the principles of certain sciences—of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, for instance—are derived exclusively from the formal principals of things, upon which their essence depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles; He cannot make the genus not to be predicable of the species, nor lines drawn from a circle’s center to its circumference not to be equal, nor the three angles of a rectilinear triangle not to be equal to two right angles.15

But in Islam, Allah is absolutely free. Al-Ghazali and others took issue with the very idea that there were laws of nature; that would be blasphemy, a denial of Allah’s freedom.16 To say that he created the universe according to consistent, rational laws, or that he “cannot” do something—as Aquinas affirms here—would be to bind his absolute sovereignty. His will controls all, but it is inscrutable.

Thus modern science developed in Christian Europe rather than in the House of Islam. In the Islamic world, Allah killed science.

But all is not lost: Some things for which we can thank Islam

All this doesn’t mean, however, that Islam cannot be given some credit for intellectual, scientific, or artistic attainment. In fact, we can credit the House of Islam with two landmark achievements: the opening of the New World and the Renaissance in Europe.

Every schoolchild knows, or used to know, that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America while searching for a new, westward sea route to Asia. And why was he searching for a new route to Asia? Because the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453 closed the trade routes to the East. This was devastating for European tradesmen, who had until then traveled to Asia for spices and other goods by land. Columbus’s voyage was trying to ease the plight of these merchants by bypassing the Muslims altogether and making it possible for Europeans to reach India by sea. So the bellicosity and intransigence of Islam ultimately opened the Americas for Europe.

Another consequence of the fall of Constantinople, and the long, slow death of the Byzantine Empire that preceded it, was the emigration of Greek intellectuals to Western Europe. Muslim territorial expansion at Byzantine expense led so many Greeks to seek refuge in the West that Western universities were filled with Platonists and Aristotelians to an unprecedented extent. This led to the rediscovery of classical philosophy and literature, and to an intellectual and cultural flowering the like of which the world had never seen (and hasn’t again). It may be that the decline and fall of Byzantium was a greater Muslim contribution to the history of philosophy and intellectual life in the Western world than the Arabic preservation of Aristotle.

Of course, both of these aren’t really Islamic “achievements.” They are consequences of the applications of the violent doctrines of Islam we explored earlier. But in terms of their real effects upon the world at large, they amount to more than a whole stack of Islamic philosophical treatises and a boatload of calligraphy.

A Book You’re Not Supposed to Read

The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, by Toby E. Huff; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2003. Huff explains why it was not by accident that modern science didn’t develop in the Islamic world or China, but in the West.

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