Not a day passes by when we don’t hear about the Islamic threat and the impending doom that awaits us. Although the contention between Islam and West goes back a thousand years, it has been reignited in recent times with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Islam is viewed by West as increasingly ‘problematic’ or desperately struggling at best. History on the other hand reveals an altogether different picture of the early Islamic civilization. We see a thriving culture of arts and sciences with centers of learning throughout the empire. Islam was a formidable force in its younger days, reaching its peak around the 13th century AD. This article presents an overview of this age-old conflict between Islam and the West, while the next one focusses on a key philosophical issue which brought the Islamic Civilization to its knees.
Much of our views on contentious issues today are based on information dished out by the news media. We can safely state that news media which gives priority to capital will always produce news that sells better rather than one that is based on facts. For the truth to have a fair chance, financial incentives must be removed from the equation. Perhaps this will be possible in the future with initiatives like public journalism and open-source news taking off.
The views on Islam’s vitality are similarly mired by skepticism but luckily there are some historical facts that are widely agreed upon. While Europe found itself in the Dark Age (500-1500 AD), the Islamic civilization was amongst the greatest of its time. Some facts about the level of development in early Islamic Civilization (750-1250 AD) are below:
- By 4th century of Islamic Era (century starting 912 AD) there were 5 fully functioning hospitals in Baghdad, 3 of which had active medical schools attached to them. Hospitals offered services free of charge and were open to all.
- The 10th century library of Al-Hakam II in Muslim Spain was one of the largest libraries in the world (400,000 volumes) with the catalogue of library books itself taking up 44 volumes.
- There were close to a 100 bookstores in Baghdad the end of 9th century .
- By the end of 11 century AD, there were 250 schools around Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem .
- Islamic scientists made key contributions in mathematics, astronomy and medicine.
Endowments are great means of ensuring sustainable development in the developed countries today. The early Muslim society used a similar concept called ‘Waqf‘ starting in the 600′s. Following are some of these endowments:
- Women: Endowments existed for helping women who were divorced (in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus) or widowed (Mecca).
- Public places: As early as 790 AD, there existed land endowments for public places like parks and libraries.
- Special needs: Endowment existed for helping the blind.
- Animals: Even endowments for taking care of injured birds and stray dogs in Damascus and Baghdad.
Overall the history of interaction between Islam and the West can be divided into 3 phases:
1. Early days of Islam and expansion/conflicts (622-750 AD)
Early years of Islam were characterised by religious passion and the lure of monetary gains from war booty. The Arabian Peninsula was an insignificant stretch of sand and desert. The opulence of the more settled lands of the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile valleys were all too charming for the nomadic Arabs. By 750 AD the Muslims had conquered lands stretching from Spain in the west to the Indus river (Pakistan) in the east. The resulting Muslim Empire enjoyed a diverse cultural and religious mix consisting of Muslims, Christians, Jews and various faiths. This diversity would play a vital role during the subsequent Islamic Golden Age (750-1258 AD) as knowledge would be actively shared amongst the various groups. The expansion of Islam in the early days threatened the European culture, specifically the Byzantine Empire from whom bordering lands had been wrestled away.
2. The Trade competition:
Islam forbids usury or the taking of interest on money lent. Trade was therefore encouraged as a means of making profit. The holy city of Mecca being an important trade center, the Arabs naturally took up trading. With the expansion of Islam and the new lands acquired by 750 AD, the Muslims were well poised to control important routes on the Silk Road. Trade caravans passed through their territories and so the Muslims acted more as a middlemen between Europe and China. Trade profits were used in building local agrarian economies by improving the canal system. Islamic centers in Iraq, Spain and Egypt saw a blossoming of culture and sciences. Greek literature on philosophy and sciences was translated into local languages and Muslim scientists made advances in fields of mathematics, astronomy and medicine.
There was considerable concern in Europe regarding the diminished profits from supporting the Muslim middleman. Europeans increasingly sought alternate routes for trade, eventually succeeding by the late 15th century. The discovery of Americas by Christopher Columbus (1492) and circumnavigation of Africa by Vasco de Gama (1498), provided Europe with the much needed alternate trade routes. Muslims weren’t very happy with these new maritime routes but did not succeed in stopping the European engagements. The final nail in the coffin came much later with the digging of the Suez Canal in 1860s. As a result, the Muslims cities along the old Silk Route were wiped out, putting further strain on an already ailing Muslim Ottoman Empire.
3. Islamic decline and ascendancy of West:
The Mongols seized Baghdad in 1258 AD, destroying the House of Wisdom and slaying the populace. The waters of river Tigris are said to have turned black with ink, from the books that were tossed into the river. Though some would attribute the decline of the Islamic Golden Age to this catastrophic event, the actual reasons were much more subtle and had started centuries earlier. The Islamic society had seen a steady decline in the creative force which had been responsible for their achievements during the Islamic Golden Age. In short, they went from being ‘creators’ to ‘followers’. The spirit of inquiry disappeared and lead to the fateful demise of a previously impressive society.
Empires which have maintained their essential vitality have always bounced back from catastrophic events with greater vigor. For the Muslims it was not to be and though the lands were regained by subsequent conquests, the creative spirit was lost altogether. The West was able to come out of the Dark Ages by tapping into their creative potential and led the world into the industrial age.
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The current state of the Muslims around the world can be seen as that of an insecure people. They have the belief and idealism of an important message (the Quran) but lack dynamism in face of a more alluring message of the West. The subsequent article will root case this lack of dynamism in the Muslim societies and present steps to correct it.
[1: A Short History of Islam, Mazhar-ul-Haq]
[2: An Islamic Model of Sustainable Development by Dr. Hatem Bazian]
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