“In medieval times, the firm belief that the world was flat led to the riots, isolation, and even death to those who dared to challenge this fallacy. Misconceptions and myths can be dangerous. Today, this same ignorance and intolerance has led to a backlash against Islam and Muslims. It will support the dissemination of true Islam, a religion of love, friendship, peace and brotherhood, and their true understanding.” (True Islam – An Islamic History of Europe)
My guess is most readers are tired of hearing how inferior Christianity was in the Middle Ages (say 600 AD – 1100 AD) compared to Islam in the same centuries. At the same time, we are consistently being reminded through media – like the BBC documentary in the link above – of how the Islamic world was hundreds of years ahead of us, and how much of our civilization we owe to them. Indeed, some commentators and documentaries have gone so far as to say that without Islam there would be no Renaissance or other development in Europe during and after the Middle Ages.
There is just one catch with this narrative.
It doesn’t quite seem to fit the facts.
The flat Earth myth
In case the reader is not aware of it, the idea that Europeans ever thought the Earth was flat – is a myth. All scholars and people with education knew the Earth was round like an orb – and possibly all others. The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat was spread through several people, for example Washington Irving. He wrote a story/biography of Columbus, and to juice it up he added this myth to his story. Later it simple spread into “common knowledge”.
Let us take a closer look at this civilization which was supposedly hundreds of years ahead of the Europeans.
The Elephant in the Room
Whenever the story of how great Islam once was is being presented – the presenter has to lie. He has to lie by omission. Because there is an elephant in the room – in Christian Europe – which cannot be mentioned. And that elephant is the greek speaking Christian state of Byzantium – otherwise known as the East Roman Empire.
At this point – it’s time to divide Christianity in two. The original Roman Empire created by Augustus was a latin speaking pagan empire centered at Rome. After a tumultuous 3rd century Diocletian and later Constantine the Great reorganizes this empire. Some time after Constantine the Great the empire evolves into a greek speaking Christian empire centered at Constantinople. This would be in the 300s AD. Over the next two hundred years, the western part would break apart – ending the West Roman Empire in 476 AD. Over these years, contact with the greek european east would decline. The western part of Europe evolve into latin speaking Christian countries – where knowledge of greek – and the body of greek classics like Herodotus, Thucydides, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid and so on would disappear.
Yet, these greek classics – indeed all greek classics – still existed inside Byzantium – where greek was the Lingua Franca. So lets define two Christianities, the Latin Western Christianity, and the Greek Eastern Christianity. To the greek half we even need to add Irish monks. The reason is, they kept and copied both greek and latin classics. Also in the greek half are the monasteries under Islamic rule still containing greek, syriac and other documents. With this in mind, let’s see how the early Muslims really leaped “hundreds of years ahead”.
The imitation game begins
632 AD – Muhammad dies – Arabs conquer Egypt, Palestine, North-Africa, Spain, and Iraq etc.
And now, say around 700-800 AD, they leap 200+ years ahead of Christianity.
I notice I’m not very precise there, we must say Latin Christianity.
And what actually happened?
The Arabs tried to capture Constantinople – and they failed (717 AD – 718 AD). Interestingly enough the greeks won thanks to a clever invention – Greek Fire (last seen in Games of Thrones). And they were mightily impressed by this city – the biggest and most splendid city in the world.
And then they started the imitation game – they wanted to be as powerful, wise, and excellent as the Byzantines. After all – they were superior – they must be better than anyone in the world.
Somewhere around this time they assembled their Quran – an imitation of the Bible and New Testament. But they also wanted to be as learned as the Byzantines, so they asked for greek texts to be translated into Arabic:
“The main period of translation was during Abbasid rule. The 2nd Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Here he founded the great Persian Library with texts containing both Greek Classical texts as well as texts from ancient India. Al-Mansur ordered this rich fund of world literature translated into Arabic.”
And they started an immense program of translating anything and everything into arabic – greek, persian, hindi. They built – in their capitals – Houses of Learning – which became vast libraries with almost any available text around available.
Already here there is something strange. If they wanted to read greek classics – why not learn greek? The Romans didn’t translate greek into latin because they spoke greek. Why wouldn’t the Arabs learn greek like everyone else? And didn’t they need to speak greek anyway to converse with their many greek speaking subjects? Was it merely to have books to show rather than read – at least for the ruling elite?
So far it sounds very good. Except – one must ponder; this translation business can at best just raise the scholars among them to the level of the Byzantines – not surpass them. And they still haven’t accomplished anything themselves – translating Aristotle and Euclid into Arabic is just that – translation.
They also copied technology – like the greek invention the Astrolabe. In short – in this period they seemed very keen on playing catch-up with the Byzantines.
As for the headline “The imitation game” – the Byzantines had a Bible – so they made a Quran, the Byzantine had holy city Jerusalem – so they used Mecca, the Byzantines had prophets/God – so they made Muhammad/Allah.
The Byzantines had the greatest church in Christianity – the Hagia Sophia – so they made the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Does anyone see a pattern here?
All this puts the early Muslim scholars certainly hundreds of years ahead of Latin Christianity in the West – but at best equal to the Byzantines in Constantinople.
And what did they do with all this knowledge in mathematics, philosophy, medicine? They applied it, and for a long time the scholars among them were at Byzantine levels, far above and ahead of Latin western Europe. All this excellent greek knowledge was for a time still lost to the Latin West.
Did they improve on this knowledge they translated – certainly – how much? Very difficult to tell – the main body of their knowledge at this time is still the greek classics and what is built on this by the Byzantines. How can we even distinguish clearly what is translated and what was created? We must also take into consideration that if Byzantine progress is transferred to their Arab neighbors, Arab progress is probably transferred the other way as well.
When the translations had been made, they spread throughout Islamic territories, they came to Spain and to Sicily – countries with borders to Latin Christianity. From here – some greek classics could find their way back to Latin Europe – which had forgotten them.
And indeed, some translations were done from Arabic into Latin before the Crusades.
The Crusades – where they succeeded – and where they failed
The Crusades started in 1095 AD – and were intended to take back Christian land from Islam due to their intolerant and genocidal treatment of their Christians and Jewish subjects. They succeeded eventually in places like Spain and Sicily, but in the end failed in Palestine. The biggest success of the Crusades however, was that the Latin West reconnected with the greek speaking Christian East. Already during the first Crusade the crusaders visited Constantinople and Byzantium and brought back greek classics. They actually also sacked Constantinople at one point – but that just gets the classics back faster.
So – why would we need Arabic translations of Byzantine greek texts when we get the original greek texts themselves? Is there any need for the Arabic translations?
Is there any need for whatever the Arabs may have improved on? Perhaps, but the main body of knowledge is the greek classics like Euclid and Aristotle, and historians like Thucydides.
So what if all the arabic texts disappeared and we just had the Byzantine texts, monasteries texts, Irish texts? We would have it all – we would have no need at all for whatever the Arabs added.
It seems that Islamic “influence” on European development is – of no particular importance. We did get the Hindu numeral system via them – but this would likely have reached us eventually without the Arabs.
At some point in history it seems the Latin West and Islam had the same starting point – possession of the greek classical works in mathematics, philosophy, medicine and so on. Yet from that same starting point, the West ended up landing men on the Moon – and Islam – well – I take it the reader watches the news.
What went wrong with the Arabs? They had the same scholarly level as Byzantium, a head start of – say – 200 years on the West – and they accomplish – nothing?
Could it be the imitation game?
Who is Jahve?
Who is this God Jahve? What does he care about? How does he work in his various writings? What is he interested in? Or should that be: What is He interested in? Does he care about capitalization?
I’ll make a comparison here of the Christian Bible and the Quran – with emphasis on what this God Jahve cares about.
King James Bible
66 books in total, 31,102 verses. 39 of these are in the Bible (Old Testament – OT), with 23,145 verses, 27 books in the New Testament (NT), with 7,957 verses.
It starts with the beginning – the creation of the universe. Jahve is big on chronology. Things are always presented in the correct chronological order. Numerous times he inspires long lists of father/sons through numerous generations. He likes accuracy – he references to historic events so we can pinpoint events to the nearest year – like the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, as well as Babylon’s fall to Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. And he likes names – the Bible total has about 2600 names in it. As for geography, the Bible mentions 1172 places. It is the same in the New Testament – Jesus has no less than two long lists of ancestors, and the stories are linked to worldwide events like the Augustan population count of 6 AD. He uses different writers on various subjects over a period of more than a thousand years (perhaps not written down at first but certainly in writing the last 400 years – to ~100 AD).
In short – Jahve is big on chronological history, names, places, the Temple, references to historic events to pin down the story to the correct time, as well as the full history of the Jewish people over a millennia. Much of this is also in very well written language.
It’s worth noting that from 300s BC the Jews lived under greek rule, and must have had much inspiration from the classical greek history writers as well as other greek scholars.
The Quran has 114 chapters, or suras, and 6,236 verses.
The Quran is non-chronological. The whole book has a mere 50 names in it, and the only place mentioned in it seems to be Mecca. It repeats stories which has already been dealt with in OT and NT, something Jahve never did inspire in his previous works. It has serious (and accepted) contradictions – yet only one accepted author – Jahve himself.
Does this seem believable?
Jahve never authored a book before – he always worked through other people. He was fanatically chronological – always showing father/son relationships and kings chronologies. His focus in the Old Testament was the history of the Jews and their Temple. This patient God – who supposedly worked his inspiration over more than a 1000 years – now throws all he cared about away and replaces it with this unchronological mess created over a couple of decades?
One might also ask – what is the “added value” of the Quran? What new material does it bring to the world? Take the often quoted “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.” (Qur’an, 5:32)
This is not original, it’s a quote from Jewish writings – so why repeat it here? Indeed all the material repeated from the Christian NT and Jewish Bible is merely wasting valuable space here – why can’t Jahve come up with new and original material in the similar style of NT and OT? What happened to Jahve’s previous attention to details, like names, places, and chronology – or his great interest in history?
One can almost picture how the Quran was assembled: The Arab ruler wanted to show his own great Quran to his conquered people – in writing – and sent people back to Arabia to collect it. When they had the (Medina) suras stacked in a pile on a table, it seemed – and was – much smaller than both OT and NT. They stuffed it with whatever was around – and it reached a respectable size. This would necessarily cause some problems down the line though.
It’s eerie how Muslims praise this book into the heavens with statements like “The original miracle of the Qur’an. Many people refuse to believe that any human being, particularly an illiterate man, could have produced it.
I believe any illiterate can produce books perhaps better than this Quran. All he has to do to improve on it is to keep the two books he assembles in correct order.
The Quran itself states in 2:23: “And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.”
Well, the Bible is better, any greek classic is better, Harry Potter is better. In fact – one would be hard pressed to find a book worse than the Quran.
One thing that also strikes me – is how primitive parts of it is. Here is a quote:
Q2:63 “… and We said to them, «Be apes, despised.»
This is of course meant as an insult (to the Jews being mentioned) – but this is typically of bad writing. Firstly, you should not use insulting and derogatory language at all. Secondly, if you are to insult someone – do it with wit and rhetorical skill. Many highly skilled writers have come up with imaginative insults, e.g., Faulkner (about Hemingway):
“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Single word insults are impolite and primitive, something one would expect of an uneducated man in a drunken quarrel. One should expect better from a Divine being.
The difference between Islamic claims about the Quran – and what the Quran actually delivers – this distance must be the greatest in human history.
For a while the Quran was probably protected by being written in arabic. Eventually though, Christian and Jewish scholars would be able to read it.
Now the Arabs needed to defend the Quran in front of Christians and Jews. But they could not admit how it was created – just mashing various scriptures together. So they put their best brains to work – to work out some explanation as to how the Quran was what it was – a mess. And through the centuries all their best intellectual brains was wasted trying to make “sense” out of this mess.
To “explain” what the Quran really means, they produced an astonishing amount of “user manuals” called Sira (life of Muhammad) and Hadith (sayings of Muhammad). Of the latter, there are six different books in Sunni tradition, 4 books in Shia tradition, and two in Ibadi tradition. That makes 12 – different – books to explain – the Quran. One of these Hadith books, the main Sunni, is Bukhari. It is more than 4 times longer than the Quran itself. And there are at least 12 such books.
This is absurd.
Sometimes when I read the Bible I use my Gideon version – borrowed of course. The Gideons leaves Bibles in hotel rooms across the world. Not a bad idea – lots of fascinating reading in that book. Yet, what if they would have to leave a “manual” as well – 4 times the size of the Bible – just so the reader could make sense of it?
In the West – the situation was different. The well-organised Bible did not have too many contradictions, and lent itself well towards the systematic approach so engulfed in the Aristotelian works. This might explain why Thomas Aquinas embraces Aristotle so much.
The Arabs had to create hadiths, they had to create multiple schools of thought to explain the contradictions in the Quran. The Bible + Greek Classics brought the West forward, the Quran brought nothing but stagnation. Far worse – it caused them to take a stand against rational thought.
After Muhammad, Al-Ghazali is perhaps the next most important philosopher (according to his Wikipedia page). About his book “Incoherence of the Philosophers”:
“The Incoherence also marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falasifa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Avicenna and Al-Farabi) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks.”
From this article we have:
“Al-Ghazali was worried that when people become favorably influenced by philosophical arguments, they will also come to trust the philosophers on matters of religion, thus making Muslims less pious. Reason, because it teaches us to discover, question, and innovate, was the enemy; Al-Ghazali argued that in assuming necessity in nature, philosophy was incompatible with Islamic teaching, which recognizes that nature is entirely subject to God’s will: “Nothing in nature,” he wrote, “can act spontaneously and apart from God.” ”
A revealing paragraph in the same article tells us when this anti-rational thinking started:
“To understand this anti-rationalist movement, we once again turn our gaze back to the time of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun. Al-Mamun picked up the pro-science torch lit by the second caliph, al-Mansur, and ran with it. He responded to a crisis of legitimacy by attempting to undermine traditionalist religious scholars while actively sponsoring a doctrine called Mu’tazilism that was deeply influenced by Greek rationalism, particularly Aristotelianism. To this end, he imposed an inquisition, under which those who refused to profess their allegiance to Mu’tazilism were punished by flogging, imprisonment, or beheading. But the caliphs who followed al-Mamun upheld the doctrine with less fervor, and within a few decades, adherence to it became a punishable offense. The backlash against Mu’tazilism was tremendously successful: by 885 AD, a half century after al-Mamun’s death, it even became a crime to copy books of philosophy.”
So something happened in the years leading up to 885 AD – where the Arab muslims turned their backs on reason (and sanity?). The article quoted above does not give a reason – it merely observes that it did happen – and was finalized by 885 AD. The Arabs started with – shall we say – common sense – and then something drove them powerfully away from this. What was the driving force?
Was it an open debate about the Quran?
The rational people of that day must have pointed out that the Quran is self-evidently a mesh of two or more different books – and that the result pales in comparison to the Bible – or any other book for that matter. Was the reply from muslim “scholars” to abandon reason and prohibit any critique of the Quran? It would explain why they first turn to reason – for later just to abandon reason – and embrace insanity.
The 13 year old boy
I saw one of ISIS videos. In one one scene, an about 13 year old boy was “guilty” of something. He sat blindfolded, facing a wall, hands tied behind his back. Then the executioner pointed a handgun to his head – and pulled the trigger.
I do not know the boy’s name.
By western rational thought his death came about like this: The finger pulled the trigger, causing the hammer to hit the cartridge, causing a spark inside, setting alight the gunpowder, causing a massive pressure due to hot gas, pressure increasing so the bullet at the end is pushed violently through the barrel – leaving the gun at a massive speed – and killing the boy.
By Al-Ghazali Muslim thought, it’s rather different. The trigger is pulled – God wills it. The spark comes – God wills it. The gas expands – God wills it. The bullet starts to move – God wills it.
Every event is individually controlled by “God”. There is no cause and effect. And no guilt for the executioner. Who is he to argue with God?
This is not reasoning. This is moral and intellectual bankruptcy.
For those who read about the Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommandos following the German armies going East at the start of the second world war, it’s interesting to observe that these mass murderers actually had a conscience. It can be indirectly noticed in the massive alcohol consumption they had. This “stress” was also noted by the leadership – who later came up with more humane methods of killing people.
Humane that is – for the murderers.
For ISIS – the “moral” defence is – God wills it. It’s God who moves the bullet – so their conscience is clear.
The Link back to Antiquity
Scholars inside the Islamic world did contribute to science, yet their contribution is blown out of all proportions.
I would argue that from the earliest Greek philosophers, historians, and scientists there is an unbroken chain of scholars from Pagan Greece to Pagan Rome to Christian Rome to Greek Byzantium to Late Middle Age to Renaissance until today – never were Arabs or Islam really needed. In fact – when they went “anti-reason” they actually regressed and went backwards in time.
Islam’s contribution to the world should perhaps be considered to be wholly negative.
A Middle East in flames – hundreds of thousands dying in the last few years. Many people born in the West leave to fight and die over there.
I haven’t seen anyone providing decent explanations why this happens. Why do 17 year old muslim girls volunteer to join genocidal islamic groups?
Well, one reason is that they are indoctrinated – not just by Islam – but by the western countries they live in. From birth they are being thaught that Christians are bad people attacking the advanced and tolerant and wise Arabs for no reason whatsoever. The same documentaries transmits what comes down to propaganda about how advanced the Arabs were – often contrasted to the Latin West. Al-Ghazali is never mentioned – nor is Byzantium.
Is it really strange that muslims believe what they are told by western press and academia?
It’s ironic that where the Christian Crusaders failed to crush the Abbasid Caliphate, the man who finally beat them (the sack of Baghdad in 1258 AD) – Hulagu Khan – died a buddhist.
(Actually the Crusaders didn’t fight much against Arabs (like Abbasids) – their opponents were mostly Turks and Kurds (like Saladin).
Am I just another internet lunatic in the style of “the Moon Landing was a hoax”?
I must say I wonder myself – given that I contradict established historians in just about everything about Islam. Have I lost my marbles, gone bananas, got rats in the attic, or bats in the belfry, or not playing with a full deck of cards?
However, I’ve read quite a lot – and if someone asked me to give three reasons why the Crusades started, I would say 1) the 1066 AD Granada massacre – because it happened in the lifetime of the decision makers like Urban II, 2) the Seljuk-Turk invasion in Palestine a few years later, 3) the letter from the East Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos asking for assistance against the muslim aggressors (the same Seljuk-Turks).
Yet – none of these three events are emphasized or even mentioned when the Crusades are commented on in documentaries on TV for example. This suggests to me that something has gone wrong in Islamic studies around the world.
For example it’s not “science” to ignore the 1066 AD Granada massacre. Certainly – had it happened 100 years before – it would have been of little importance. But if it happened in the lifetime of the decision makers of the Crusades? Then it becomes vital to understanding the minds of the first Crusaders. They had rational reasons for starting the Crusades – and I dare say – valid reasons.
To make a comparison – leaving out the 1066 AD massacres in a discussion of why the Crusades started, is like leaving out the September 11 attacks in a discussion of the reasons for the Afghanistan invasion in 2001.
Other authors have commented this before – but many Islamic scholars are paid for by Arab states. Tariq Ramadan for example is “HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies; Research Fellow of St Antony’s College”. How many other positions and faculties benefit from Middle Eastern oil money? What happens to the long cherished academic independence?
Our press, academics, and politicians presents a view of Islam which contradicts almost everything we see of muslim behaviour today. If their ideas about Islam has any root in reality, then Boko Haram and ISIS are inexplicable. In view of Al-Ghazali’s philosophy however, it’s easier to at least see where Boko Haram and ISIS are coming from.
After all, tomorrow is another day
So why does no-one point out how bad the Quran actually is? The Quran is primitive, repetitive, violent, incoherent, and contradictory. Surely people who have compared it to, say the Bible, must have noticed this?
Perhaps they have realised – and decided to live another day instead of doing anything to upset people who have forsaken rational thought?
However, given Charlie Hebdo and numerous other incidents – for some there is no tomorrow anymore. For those who remain – we owe it to them to do something.
The brain consists of billions of living cells – each breathing oxygen like the rest of our organism. I guess a memory of something or someone must consist of many cells. As these cells live and breathe – a memory is almost like an organism in itself.
Which raises an interesting question: when you suddenly remember something – is it you searching for the memory – or the memory itself coming to you? When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me …
I sat here wondering why I write these articles – why I spend hours doing what I once hated – writing essays and reading philosophy. And as I sat here wondering, a memory came to me, from a friend and work colleague who died 15 years ago. He was highly argumentative – always wanting to analyze everything. He had a low “interrupt level” as he said himself.
I learned so much from him.
The memory was about responsibility – who has the most responsibility. And his take was – he who knows most has the most responsibility. And I guess that’s why I’m writing these essays – (I think) I know something – and am thus responsible for conveying this to other people.