It’s always a little sad when a publication or web site you otherwise respect and trust starts publishing drivel. Regrettably such was the case over at the RealClear websites when they published (not just linked, but published) an article preposterously entitled, “Religion didn’t kill science in the Middle East” And while I tend to just ignore most historical revisionism as something utterly not worth my time, this article not only justifies the anti-intellectual attitudes that run through the “religion of peace” but it completely dismisses historical truth.
The article does correctly point out that at a certain point in history—the article conveniently says between the 9th and 13th centuries (I’ll come back to these dates)—the Islamic world was the height of civilization in terms of science and mathematics. This was the era that saw the invention of Algebra, and advances in chemistry, medicine, and astronomy. Okay so far. Then the author goes onto to point out why Islam began falling behind: like most historical revisionists he blames the Crusades in the 11th century and Columbus in the 15th century (easy punching bags for every lightweight pseudo-intellectual hack) as things that hurt the Islamic world, it’s ability to trade (and with it the prosperity to allow a culture to indulge in scientific research). Ridiculously, Genghis Khan and the fact that you can’t put Arabic into a printing press are also blamed.
The problem with all of this – the reasons given for the decline of scientific research were was in fact in decline before a Crusader ever set foot in the Middle East. In fact if we look at Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 we find that there is not a single major scientific advancement to come out of the Arabic world after 1025.* In fact we not only see scientific advancement disappear from the map but even art. Literature in the Islamic world goes from a massive output of quality work that still stands the test of time, to almost nothing past 1050**. As the First Crusade started in 1096 (and all the other points the author brought up occurred after that) I find it very hard to blame any of them for the death of intellectual output in the Muslim world which seemed to happen at least 50 years before that. It also seems to be very disingenuous of the author of the article to say the scientific achievements continued until the 13th century when really they died off in the 11th…it’s as if he picked a date that allowed him to blame the Crusades, to hell if it had no relation to facts.
Also if it was only the lack of prosperity and constant conflict that was the cause of the death of science in the Middle East…Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, are all rolling in cash and have been fairly stable (by standards of the region they’re incredibly stable) yet at best we’re seeing them use the resources of Western intellect instead of breaking new ground. Something seems to ring very false. And if the argument of the article is false, is Islam and it’s core teachings to blame?
So what really killed the science in the Islamic World? Well the answer to that can be found in one simple name: Aristotle. In the 750’s the Abbasid Caliphate took control of the Islamic Empire and with them came a branch of Sunni Islam called Mu’tazilism (don’t be too shocked you haven’t ever heard of them, they’re all dead). The Mu’tazilites were the branch of Islam that actually bothered to read the works of the Ancient Greeks when the Islamic armies conquered all the cities in their new Empire. And there they found Aristotle, a man who wrote about physics, psychology, politics, ethics, biology, metaphysics…who held reason and logic as the guiding light for all of human existence. Despite the fact that Islam was never too hot on reason*** the common sense nature of Aristotle won out with Mu’tazilites who decided that reason not blind unthinking faith needed to be the guiding light. And for a couple centuries they were guiding force of culture (or at least a force in the 10th and 11th century) that you saw the major output and advances in mathematics, science, literature, and art. However in 1063 (you know around the time when everything stopped), as stated in The Closing of the Muslim Mind by Robert R. Reilly,
“Nizam al-Mulk, the power vizier to Seljuk sultan Alp-Arslan, had the curses [against the Ash’arites] stopped. According to British Islam scholar W. Montgomery Watt, al-Muk also ‘began to implement a policy of supporting and strengthening the Ash’arites against the other theological and legal schools.’”
Who are the Ash’arites? They’re pretty much the archenemies of the Mu’tazilites (you may not know the name Ash’arite, but you’re more than familiar with their attitudes). They believe in faith as the only guide and reason as merely hubris.
They believed in following the Koran without interpretation, just following what it said. Their most famous scholar al-Ghazali published a book The Incoherence of Philosophy which among other things set out to destroy the usefulness of reason at anytime in any place for any purpose. Sharia Law is a direct outgrowth of Ash’arite belief. As the Ash’areites
came into power they not only challenged the Mu’tazilites, they had them killed and their works burned. And low and behold when this belief came into power, the intellectual output of Islam just dried up over night. Amazing how when you deny reason the fruits of reason disappear. All the advancement that apologist like to talk about for the Golden Age of Islam came from the time when the Mu’tazilites, who downplayed religion, were in power.
So is religion to blame? Yes, yes it is. Because the fact is that while my sympathies will always be for the Mu’tazilites I can also admit they were terrible Muslims. A good portion of Mu’tazilite writing is trying to explain away the contradictions between reason and Koran. The Bible starts with a statement that God gave man dominion over Earth (thus it might be intelligent to know what goes on here), praises intellect, and implies that the reason and free will of God exists in the human soul. All of this matches up very well with Aristotle…which is why St. Thomas Aquinas found it so easy to graft Aristotle onto Christianity in the 1300’s (you know right before the time that science and research were coming back into style in Europe). The Mu’tazilites had to do everything but outright deny the Koran to prop up the common sense reason of Aristotle. The Koran dismisses reason, allows for no room for free will or even the laws of physics as everything occurs by the will of Allah (you roll your pen off the table, it falls, according to Ash’arties it fell not because of gravity because there is no such thing…it fell because Allah willed it to fall, the god of Ash’arism is the micro-manager to an infinite degree…things seem to fall at a constant rate of 32 feet per second per second not because of laws of physics, but because God is a creature of habit)… please go read The Closing of the Muslim Mind if you think this is just my interpretation. Right, wrong, or indifferent, religious liberty aside, Islam is a religion that at its core is dead set against the mind/reason/logic. Other religions are more ambivalent, you can find evidence supporting faith and evidence supporting reason, but no sides come out a winner, but in Islam, and especially the Ash’arite interpretation which is still in fashion, reason always loses to faith…in fact there isn’t even a contest.
And it should be noted that while other religions don’t make it as hard to work with it is the Aristotelean spirit that drives culture and science to thrive. Now it may be as the author argues in The Cave and the Light that it is the battle between Aristotle and Plato that drives civilization and that even when you have too much Aristotle things get a little stagnant…be in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Human Accomplishment, The Cave and the Light or the recently released The History of the Renaissance World: From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople if you are going to judge what drives civilization to improve it is Aristotle. And the RealClear article which tries to free Islam of blame by ignoring what caused the growth of the Islamic world and how it was religion that got rid of the works of Aristotle, is intellectually baseless, trying only to relieve the only religion liberalism actually likes of it’s participation in hurting the advancement of civilization.
*There is one major figure in the field of medicine from the 1200’s but I think it’s safe to say his work in medicine was due to the Crusades more than hurt by them.
**It should also be noted that until the modern era the vast majority of literature that came from the Islamic world came from Sufi writers. The charges I make against Islam later in the article almost never apply the Sufism which philosophically does little more than pay lip service to the core tenets of Islam.
***The problem is this. In Islam there is no story that God made man in his own image, in fact the Koran states that nothing can be compared to Allah (112:1-4) and if we lack in the image (usually interpreted to be will and intellect) in common what good are those things in us, and unlike the Bible which in the old Testament praises Solomon for his intellect and the Gospel of John states “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God and Reason was God.” (yes, that’s a more correct translation than what you’re used to reading)…there are no such lines praising reason and logic in the Koran, only faith. Blind, unthinking, unquestioning faith.