There are many myths about Islam being circulated, not just by Muslim apologists but by Western dhimmis. Take for example the idea that science, culture, the arts and learning all flourished under Islam while the West went through some “Dark Ages”.
That phrase of course is the pejorative term which Enlightenment atheists and secularists used of the Middle Ages which was in fact a period of a great flowering of science, learning and the preservation of Christianity – all by Christians. Simply reflect on what the monks and monasteries were doing during this period for example.
But this whole notion about Islamic progress has been shown to be a myth. While minor developments did occur during this period, the truth is, much of this happened in spite of Islam, not because of it. In short, it was not Islam that was responsible for most of these achievements, but the slaves, or dhimmis, living amongst them.
For example, most of the supposed achievements of scientific advancement happened not because of Islam and Muslims, but took place at the hands of Jews and Christians who were imprisoned by Islam or living in dhimmitude under them. Indeed, while Islam benefited from the Greek sciences, this was translated for them by Christians and Jews living under their domination.
And much of this was of course not scientific innovation, but really a case of borrowing and transmission, as with paper-making coming from China, the algebraic concept of zero brought in from India, or the translation of some books by Aristotle, etc. And things like Islamic architecture were of course heavily dependent on Byzantine.
Those who want to take these general themes further are urged to get the important 2010 volume by Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind. In 250 pages he details historically why Islam turned its back on rationality and reason while siding with archaic dogma, thus committing intellectual suicide.
One scholar who has written extensively on these specific matters in his various books is historian Rodney Stark. He reminds us that only in Christian Europe did modern science emerge. This is because “Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.”
Islam offers us a much different worldview: “Allah is not represented as a lawful creator but has been conceived of as an extremely active god who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate. Consequently, there soon arose a major theoretical bloc within Islam that condemned all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy insofar as they denied Allah’s freedom to act.”
He continues, “The result was to freeze Islamic learning and stifle all possibility of the rise of Islamic science, and for the same reasons that Greek learning stagnated of itself: fundamental assumptions antithetical to science. . . . To sum up: the rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exists because it was created by God. To love and honor God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork.”
But let’s look at some specifics here. As mentioned, it was overwhelmingly the dhimmis, or conquered Christians and Jews living under Muslim domination, who did most “Arab” science. They are the ones who did most of the translating into Arabic.
For example, it was Nestorian Christians who primarily collected, translated and oversaw the Greek manuscripts as they were translated into Arabic and Syriac. And Muslim or Arab “medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria.”
In science and engineering, very little of the achievements can be traced to Arab origins. Instead, they originated with the conquered populations. “Many of the Muslim world’s most famous scholars were Persians, not Arabs. This includes Avicenna … as well as Omar Khayyam, al-Biruni, and Razi….
“This list could be extended for several pages. What may have misled so many historians is that most contributors to ‘Arabic science’ were given Muslim names and their works were published in Arabic, that being the official language of the land.”
So too mathematics: “The so-called Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin. The splendid Hindu numbering system based on the concept of zero was, in fact, published in Arabic, but only mathematicians adopted it – other Muslims continued to use their cumbersome traditional system.”
Even the much acclaimed Islamic architecture “turns out to have been mainly a dhimmi achievement, adapted from Persian and Byzantine origins.” Moreover, “many famous Muslim mosques were originally built as Christian churches and converted by merely adding external minarets and redecorating the interiors.”
Perhaps the Western dhimmis’ zeal to promote Islam is due to a love of coffee, something I can share with them! But again, this had nothing to do with Islam “inventing” coffee – they simply popularised an existing discovery by Africans who were part of the Arab slave trade.
Says Stark: “Even many of the most partisan Muslim historians, including the famous English convert to Islam and translator of the Qur’an Marmaduke Pickthall, agree that sophisticated Muslim culture originated with the conquered populations.”
Much more can be said about all this, but it should be clear by now that the claim that Islamic culture in general and Islamic science in particular at one point historically far outstripped that of Europe is “at best an illusion” as Stark puts it. The truth is, nothing went wrong with the Islamic world:
“To ask what went wrong is the equivalent of asking why Spain fell, when in fact the collapse of the Spanish Empire revealed that Spain had never risen but had remained a backward medieval society. So too with Islam.”
Or as another commentator puts it by way of conclusion:
In fact, the litany of “Muslim” achievement often takes the form of rhapsody, in which the true origins of these discoveries are omitted – along with their comparative significance to Western achievement. One often doesn’t hear about the dismal fate of original accomplishments either. Those who brag about the great observatory of Taqi al-Din in [freshly conquered] Istanbul, for example, often neglect to mention that it was quickly destroyed by the caliphate.
At the end of the day, the record of scientific, medical and technological accomplishment is not something over which Muslim apologists want to get into a contest with the Christian world. Today’s Islamic innovators are primarily known for turning Western technology, such as cell phones and airplanes, into instruments of mass murder.
To sum up, although the Islamic religion is not entirely hostile to science, neither should it be confused as a facilitator. The great achievements that are said to have come out of the Islamic world were made either by non-Muslims who happened to be under Islamic rule, or by heretics who usually had little interest in Islam. Scientific discovery tapers off dramatically as Islam asserts dominance, until it eventually peters out altogether.
Vishal, Book, p. 236
Stark, For the Glory of God, ch 2 – esp pp. 146-147, 154-154
Stark, How the West Won, pp. 294-299
Myths about Islamic Science (Short piece)
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