The rise and decline of Islamic civilization is one of the major phenomena of history. For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order, and extent of government, in refinement of manners, in standards of living, in humane legislation and religious toleration, in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy. In architecture it yielded the palm, in the twelfth century, to the cathedrals of Europe; and Gothic sculpture found no rival in inhibited Islam. Moslem art exhausted itself in decoration, and suffered from narrowness of range and monotony of style; but within its self-imposed limits it has never been surpassed. In Islam art and culture were more widely shared than in medieval Christendom; kings were calligraphers, and merchants, like physicians, might be philosophers.
In sexual morality during these centuries Christendom probably excelled Islam, though there was not much to choose; Christian monogamy, however evaded in practice, kept the sexual impulse within bounds, and slowly raised the status of woman, while Islam darkened the face of woman with purdah and the veil. The Church succeeded in limiting divorce; and homosexual diversions seem never to have attained, even in Renaissance Italy, the spread and freedom allowed them not in Mohammedan law but in Moslem life. The Moslems seem to have been better gentlemen than their Christian peers; they kept their word more frequently, showed more mercy to the defeated, and were seldom guilty of such brutality as marked the Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Christian law continued to use ordeal by battle, water, or fire while Moslem law was developing an advanced jurisprudence and an enlightened judiciary. The Mohammedan religion, less original than the Hebrew, less embracing in eclecticism than the Christian, kept its creed and ritual simpler and purer, less dramatic and colorful, than the Christian, and made less concession to the natural polytheism of mankind. It resembled Protestantism in scorning the aid and play that Mediterranean religion offered to the imagination and the senses; but it bowed to popular sensualism in its picture of paradise. It kept itself almost free from sacerdotalism, but fell into a narrow and dulling orthodoxy just when Christianity was entering into the most exuberant period of Catholic philosophy.
The influence of Christendom on Islam was almost limited to religion and war. Probably from Christian exemplars came Mohammedan mysticism, monasticism, and the worship of the saints. The figure and story of Jesus touched the Moslem soul, and appeared sympathetically in Moslem poetry and art.120
The influence of Islam upon Christendom was varied and immense. From Islam Christian Europe received foods, drinks, drugs, medicaments, armor, heraldry, art motives and tastes, industrial and commercial articles and techniques, maritime codes and ways, and often the words for these things—orange, lemon, sugar, syrup, sherbet, julep, elixir, jar, azure, arabesque, mattress, sofa, muslin, satin, fustian, bazaar, caravan, check, tariff, traffic, douane, magazine, risk, sloop, barge, cable, admiral. The game of chess came to Europe from India via Islam, and picked up Persian terms on the way; checkmate is from the Persian shah mat—“the king is dead.” Some of our musical instruments bear in their names evidence of their Semitic origin—lute, rebeck, guitar, tambourine.The poetry and music of the troubadours came from Moslem Spain into Provence, and from Moslem Sicily into Italy; and Arabic descriptions of trips to heaven and hell may have shared in forming The Divine Comedy. Hindu fables and numerals entered Europe in Arabic dress or form. Moslem science preserved and developed Greek mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine, and transmitted this Greek heritage, considerably enriched, to Europe; and Arabic scientific terms—algebra, zero, cipher, azimuth, alembic, zenith, almanac—still lie imbedded in European speech. Moslem medicine led the world for half a millennium. Moslem philosophy preserved and corrupted Aristotle for Christian Europe. Avicenna and Averroës were lights from the East for the Schoolmen, who cited them as next to the Greeks in authority.
The ribbed vault is older in Islam than in Europe,121 though we cannot trace the route by which it came into Gothic art. Christian spire and belfry owed much to the minaret,122 and perhaps Gothic window tracery took a lead from the cusped arcading of the Giralda tower.123 The rejuvenation of the ceramic art in Italy and France has been attributed to the importation of Moslem potters in the twelfth century, and to the visits of Italian potters to Moslem Spain.124 Venetian workers in metal and glass, Italian bookbinders, Spanish armorers, learned their techniques from Moslem artisans;125 and almost everywhere in Europe weavers looked to Islam for models and designs. Even gardens received a Persian influence.
We shall see later by what avenues these influences came: through commerce and the Crusades; through a thousand translations from Arabic into Latin; through the visits of scholars like Gerbert, Michael Scot, and Adelard of Bath to Moslem Spain; through the sending of Christian youths by their Spanish parents to Moslem courts to receive a knightly education126—for the Moslem aristocrats were accounted “knights and gentlemen, albeit Moors”;127 through the daily contact of Christians with Moslems in Syria, Egypt, Sicily, and Spain. Every advance of the Christians in Spain admitted a wave of Islamic literature, science, philosophy, and art into Christendom. So the capture of Toledo in 1085 immensely furthered Christian knowledge of astronomy, and kept alive the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth.128
Behind this borrowing smoldered an undying hate. Nothing, save bread, is so precious to mankind as its religious beliefs; for man lives not by bread alone, but also by the faith that lets him hope. Therefore his deepest hatred greets those who challenge his sustenance or his creed. For three centuries Christianity saw Islam advance, saw it capture and absorb one Christian land and people after another, felt its constricting hand upon Christian trade, and heard it call Christians infidels. At last the potential conflict became actual: the rival civilizations clashed in the Crusades; and the best of the East or West slew the best of the West or East. Back of all medieval history lay this mutual hostility, with a third faith, the Jewish, caught between the main combatants, and cut by both swords. The West lost the Crusades, but won the war of creeds. Every Christian warrior was expelled from the Holy Land of Judaism and Christianity; but Islam, bled by its tardy victory, and ravaged by Mongols, fell in turn into a Dark Age of obscurantism and poverty; while the beaten West, matured by its effort and forgetting its defeat, learned avidly from its enemy, lifted cathedrals into the sky, wandered out on the high seas of reason, transformed its crude new languages into Dante, Chaucer, and Villon, and moved with high spirit into the Renaissance.
The general reader will marvel at the length of this survey of Islamic civilization, and the scholar will mourn its inadequate brevity. Only at the peaks of history has a society produced, in an equal period, so many illustrious men—in government, education, literature, philology, geography, history, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, and medicine—as Islam in the four centuries between Harun al-Rashid and Averroës. Part of this brilliant activity fed on Greek leavings; but much of it, above all in statesmanship, poetry, and art, was original and invaluable. In one sense this zenith of Islam was a recovery of the Near East from Greek domination; it reached back not only to Sasanian and Achaemenid Persia, but to the Judea of Solomon, the Assyria of Ashurbanipal, the Babylonia of Hammurabi, the Akkad of Sargon, the Sumeria of unknown kings. So the continuity of history reasserts itself: despite earthquakes, epidemics, famines, eruptive migrations, and catastrophic wars, the essential processes of civilization are not lost; some younger culture takes them up, snatches them from the conflagration, carries them on imitatively, then creatively, until fresh youth and spirit can enter the race. As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a family line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whose name is history; they are stages in the life of man. Civilization is polygenetic—it is the co-operative product of many peoples, ranks, and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed. Therefore the scholar, though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of that Country of the Mind which knows no hatreds and no frontiers; he hardly deserves his name if he carries into his study political prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords his grateful homage to any people that has borne the torch and enriched his heritage.