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Our Judeo-Christian-ISLAMIC Heritage
on November 19, 2006
Mark Graham's goal in HOW ISLAM CREATED THE MODERN WORLD is stated in a Foreward by Akbar Ahmed: to show that it was Islamic civilization which "pulled Europe out of the dark ages and into the enlightenment." This is a persuasive thesis for anyone who knows history, and one deserving of an in-depth treatment-- if not as massive a work as Joseph Needham's SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA. Unfortunately, in this all-too-brief book, Graham only succeeds partially in achieving it. His work should be viewed as an introductory essay, a call to other scholars to "flesh out" the skeleton of the picture that he has presented.
Graham provides a good deal of evidence to prove that "Islam was the giant upon whose shoulders the [European] Renaissance stood." (p.39). He shows with numerous examples that contrary to the prevalent view of Islam as narrow and intolerant, "when Islam was at its most important and influential, it was multicultural and highly secularized society with a great amount of freedom of expression and thought" (p. 48). Empiricism, the concept of a spherical earth and a heliocentric universe, libraries, universities, and the art of elegant living-- in particular the taking of baths, to which medieval Europeans were averse-- all emanate from Islamic culture. The Muslims did not just "pass on" the science and philosophy of the Greeks, they fully embraced and improved upon it, to an extent that actually called into question the Quran. As a result, debate between science and faith was as rife in the Islamic world as it was in Europe during the era of Peter Abelard, who was himself influenced by Muslim learning. Muslims embraced the inventions of other civilizations and improved upon them before passing them on-- "Arabic" numerals from India, paper and the compass from China. In the Middle Ages, they were light years ahead of Europe in medicine, as the Europeans of the time knew, as they portrayed Hippocrates in Arab garb! Their story of Muhammed's ascent into heaven from Jerusalem may have been the inspiration for Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. There is other evidence in this book for Muslim influence upon art and music-- the guitar was a Muslim invention, as was the halo in painting-- one in particular, in a painting by Renaissance artist Masaccio, bears the Arabic inscription "La ila il Allah, Muhammed ur Rassool Allah", or "There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his prophet," Islam's basic profession of faith (p. 171).
When it comes to the medieval crusades, Graham is brilliant in showing the similarity to the myth which has grown up around 9/11: as he says, in the last decade of the 11th century "a group of religious fundamentalists began preaching a holy war against the world's great empire. These barbarians resented the empire's superior culture, scientific know-how and open-minded religion. In fact, the fanatics hated their whole way of life. A few of their most radical clerics organized an army of terrorists to attack the empire by surprise, massacring thousands in an insane bloodbath. The empire had little choice but to wage war in defense of civilization." (p. 118). But he fails to touch upon the one aspect of the crusades which would have best proven his point: the contrast between the way Christian crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians of every age and both sexes and burning the Jews alive in their temple-- and the way Saladin took it in 1187, sparing the lives of the conquered. Could it be that Saladin, whose magnanimity was well-known and celebrated in Europe, was the inspiration for the European concept of chivalry? Graham misses the opportunity to make this point. Another criticism is that relative absence of the Jews in Graham's book. From the start it is clear that this book is aimed at a Christian audience (p. 12). Jews can hardly be attracted by Graham's assertion that Muhammed killed all the adult male Jews in Medina and enslaved their wives and children primarily because they would not convert to Islam (p. 24), an assertion which is apparently not even true. According to Karen Armstrong, who has written a biography of Muhammed, he did not target all the Jews, only those who had turned traitor to the "Medina Pact": "Those who had not given help to the Meccans [in battle with Muhammed] contined to live unmolested." (PBS documentary, "Muhammed"). And indeed, Jews continued to live within the Muslim world, protected like Christians as dhimmi or "People of the Book", and with a few exceptions, subject to no form of persecution except the jizya or "infidel tax" which was levied on all non-Muslims. Much of the transfer of Greek knowledge to Europe actually was the work of Arabicized Jews, for instance Moses Maimonides, author of the famous GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED.
Finally, Graham goes astray in his treatment of the question of why the West finally pulled ahead of Islam in science and technology. If the cause had been merely wealth stemming from the conquest of the New World as he contends, then Spain and Portugal would have led that revolution. But in fact they quickly became backwaters of intellectual life in comparison with the northern European countries, especially Britain. The answer, as Amin Maalouf (THE CRUSADES THROUGH ARAB EYES) grasps fully, was not greater wealth but greater political freedom. In the Muslim world, the sultan's (or caliph's) power was absolute, which was okay when an open-minded monarch sat on the throne, but devastating when a tyrannical or even mad one did. In Europe, the nobility, the cities, the various guilds, even the peasants, all had certain rights upon which even the most tyrannical of leaders-- secular or religious-- could not trample. The relatively greater political enjoyed by Europeans-- especially the English-- enabled them to continue their scientific research until it produced the Industrial Revolution. But political freedom is not something that is in the genes of Europeans. Rather it stems from a fortuitous combination of circumstances which particularly favored England and the English-speaking peoples. It can therefore be lost, and IS being lost, as a result of the "War on Terror". Thus the Military Commissions Act has recently gutted our Bill of Rights with hardly anyone noticing. Although our bungled occupation of Iraq is hardly likely to encourage love of democracy, given the fact that the one author to recognize what the Islamic world lacked is an Arab, it is entirely possible that Islam will regain its former glory by embracing the one thing it did not impart to the West and which the West itself is now abandoning: political liberty. That is the challenge for Muslims today.