Islamic civilization

The Closing of the Muslim Mind and the Decline of Islamic Civilization

A response to Robert R. Reilly’s book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Last I year I published then took down an early version of this essay. This is the updated version (also published as chapter 3 of my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims).

In his essay “The Problem of Islamic Decadence”, the British historian J. J. Saunders (1910 – 1972) mentions the many theories that Westerners have proposed to explain why Muslims went from being the all-powerful rulers of the world to being backward and politically weak.

Considering Islamic civilization a weak and backward one is a relatively new thing. Saunders writes:

Not until the Age of Enlightenment did the West awake to the fact that its enemy and former mentor had slipped so far behind: only then were attempts made to account for this decline. Up to the end of the seventeenth century Islam presented the appearance of great strength and viguor, at least politically: the three leading Muslim States, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia and Mogul India, ranked among the world’s great powers, and even the Sharifian kingdom of Morocco was treated with respect by Christian nations as late as the age of Louis XIV. Around 1700 there was a noticeable change. The final repulse of the Turks from Vienna (1683), the Christian reconquest of Hungary, and the Peace of Carlowitz (1699), registered the unmistakable decay of Ottoman might. The death of Awrangzib (1707) was followed by the rapid disintegration of the Mogul Empire. The fall of the Safavid dynasty (1722) ended the political greatness of Persia.[1]

Among undeniable signs of the decline of Islamic civilization were the fact that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb needed a Dutch passport to perform the Hajj in 1706,[2] and the fact that the Ottomans were so geographically ignorant that they were taken aback by the appearance of a Russian fleet in the Mediterranean in 1770, not knowing that the Baltic Sea was connected to the Atlantic Ocean according to Saunders.[3] As early as 1670, a European traveler through Persia and India noticed the lack of intellectual curiosity and the low technological sophistication of these lands.[4]

The French intellectuals Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Voltaire (1694-1778) and the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) blamed government tyranny and mismanagement for the state of Muslim societies.[5] Ernest Renan, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 19th century, blamed Islamic theology. According to Renan:

Only by freeing themselves from the paralysing grip of the Koran and the Law could the Muslim people hope to contribute again to the general advance of civilisation.[6]

Since Renan, the idea that Islam causes backwardness has been thoroughly taken up by the West’s intelligentsia so that it is taken for a fact these days—despite its banality and its sociologically amateur understanding of the functioning human societies. The works of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are a more sophisticated restatement of Renan’s ideas. One of the latest contributions to this field of Islam-blaming is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis by Robert R. Reilly.[7] This essay focuses on a critique of Reilly’s writing while introducing an alternative, and far more plausible, explanation.

Reilly argues that the Islamic theological doctrine of predestination and other Ash’arite—the dominant theological framework within Sunni Islam—teachings have driven Muslims to a fatalistic, anti-intellectual dead-end, a “suicide” as Reilly describes it, quoting Fazlur Rahman (1919 – 1988), the famous Pakistani Islamic intellectual.

Reilly’s thesis is that scholarly theological positions hamper Muslim curiosity and intellectual achievement. He asserts that religious scholars and their doctrines have the power to put a damper on the freedom of thought among Muslims. In his rather depressing vision, intelligent Muslims are almost mind-controlled by a fatalistic Islam, and if only they would abandon this version of Islam, they would, as if by magic, acquire the ability to stop being narrow-minded and develop into full human beings. As is sadly typical of Western discourses about Islam, Reilly compares the very worst examples of the people of the Middle East with the best of the West, and from this highly skewed comparison he concludes that Islam must be the reason why the Middle East is not doing as well as the West.

If Reilly is right that the presently dominant version of Islam causes narrow-mindedness and is tantamount to “intellectual suicide”, then we would expect the intellectual elite of the Muslim world to be severely affected by this suicidal doctrine. Men and women who would have been scientists and inventors in a different reality would instead be narrow-minded and anti-intellectual worshipers at the feet of the religious scholars. It sounds like the set-up for a good story, but is there any reality to this scenario? The question to ask is: are city-dwelling, cosmopolitan Muslims hampered in their intellectual curiosity by theological doctrines?

Reilly’s answer should be yes. These people would be responsible for intellectual progress; but there is supposedly little intellectual progress, therefore these people are instead narrow-minded anti-intellectuals who need to be freed from harmful Islamic doctrines.

In the Reilly’s imagination, Muslim hordes listen to their religious scholars then zealously go on to implement whatever backward thing said scholars recommend.

But in the world of reality, like George Eliot’s Christians and George Orwell’s proletarian Catholics, Muslims politely listen to the preachers at the Friday sermons, then go out to think whatever they themselves choose to think. If the sermon makes sense within their personal, familial and cultural conceptual frameworks, they may be motivated to slightly change their behavior in response to it. And if it did not survive this critique, the content will simply be ignored. And if a preacher insults their intelligence or conscience one too many times, they will simply stop attending their sermons and find another mosque to go to (if one is available). If not, they may go to the sermon as late as possible to catch the obligatory performance of the communal prayer after sermon ends, as I have seen some Muslims do.

Reilly writes:

There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been on the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.

Reilly quotes things like the above, thinking that they are somehow representative of all Muslims, when:

  1. Saudi’s cosmopolitan Muslims would find that just as laughable as any Westerner.
  2. There are perhaps tens of thousands of Americans who do not believe the moon landings ever happened. A quick search on Amazon.com for “moon landing hoax” brings up dozens of books.
  3. Saudi Arabia, this supposed capital of Islamic backwardness, now produces more scientific research[8] than Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel or Romania.[9]

Whether Saudi’s Wahhabi preachers dislike the country’s research institutions or not, the Muslim population not only tolerates them, but is proud of them and their achievements. In 2010, the Saudi website al-Weeam reported that a female Saudi student had come first in her class at Southampton University in England. The article led to 88 comments, most of which praised her achievement. A few of the usual suspects were present to mention how she was suffering moral decay by being in England, but these were the exception “that proves the rule”; most readers found positive value in her achievement and expressed pride in it.[10]

An illustration of the independence of the Muslim mind from religious scholars is the way Iran’s middle class rejects the Shia practice of temporary marriage, rightly recognizing it as legalized prostitution[11]despite scholarly approval for it.

Egypt is a very conservative country, yet its scientific output has increased from 4,515 scientific research papers published in 2005 to 17,300 in 2016. It is common to brush such data aside by saying this progress is happening despite Islam. Even if the research institutions that are producing these papers are staffed by devout Muslims, this is brushed aside by saying that they are not really Muslim in their hearts, that they have abandoned parts of Islam and this enables them to be rational and human. In this way, all actual cases of Muslims acting rationally, acting as intelligent and modern creatures, are dismissed in order to maintain the narrative that Islam promotes irrationality.

Western pundits preemptively close all doors to data that would prove their theses wrong; any data about real Muslims behaving intelligently, rationally and humanistically is inadmissible to them (they are not real Muslims, or they are doing what they do despite Islam), while all data showing otherwise is admissible.

Reilly, as many other pundits, considers Wahhabism somehow a natural form of Islam that has the danger of spreading to all Muslim minds. This is despite the fact it is likely only practiced by less than 1% of the world’s Muslims, largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims strongly dislike it. When the Wahhabi Ibn Saud conquered Mecca and Medina with the help of British funding[12] in the 1920’s, the people of these two cities so strongly disliked Wahhabi preachers that he had to import clerics from Egypt.[13]

Reilly has to focus on Wahhabism because he is trying to explain why Islam is causing so much terrorism.[14] Like almost all of those who try to answer this question, he tries to find the reasons for Islamic terrorism within Islamic cultures and societies, ignorant of the fact Islamic terrorism is very much a 20th century phenomenon triggered by colonial rule in Egypt, the Jewish ethnic cleansing of Palestine[15], and the US arming, training and funding of the Wahhabi Taliban and al-Qaeda organizations in the 1980’s in order to weaken the Soviet Union.[16]

Instead of trying to look blindly grope inside Muslim minds for the causes of Islamic terrorism, Reilly would probably do much better to call up a few of his friends at the Pentagon.[17]

The decline of Islamic science

The rise of the rationalist Mu’tazilites coincided with the rise of Islamic science in the 9th century, and the fall of the Mu’tazilites and the rise of Ash’arites in the 11th century coincided with the fall of Islamic science. Reilly considers it his most important contribution to the discussion of the decline of Islam to suggest that the abandonment of Mu’tazilite doctrine and the adoption of the less intellectual Ash’arite doctrine was a cause for the decline and fall of Islamic civilization. For him this correlation equals causation.

During the period of decline that started from 900 CE onward, the Abbasid empire suffered repeated Turkic invasions. The same process that caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (centuries of barbarian invasions causing a breakdown in urban networks of professionalism and trade) happened to Islam from the 10th century to the 15th century. The West was spared this process during the same period so that it enjoyed a Renaissance in peace just as the Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni was carrying on his slaughter of cosmopolitan and productive Iranian cities.

Baghdad was the center of Abbasid science and philosophy, which was largely conducted by Iranians coming from the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia. These cities were one by one decimated by the Turkic and Mongol invasions, and Baghadad itself never recovered from the destruction of its irrigation system by the Mongols.[18] Two centuries after the Mongols, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane re-destroyed Baghdad even more thoroughly than the Mongols had managed.[19]

Russia and Poland, the only significant areas of the West that suffered Mongol and Turkic invasions during the same period, were until recently just as famous for being backward and undeveloped as the Muslim lands, despite being Christian lands. John Saunders writes:

Since the conversion of Northmen and the Magyars around 1000, Western Europe had been completely free from this scourge. The Mongols, who devastated Russia as thoroughly as they did Western Asia, got as far as Silesia in 1241 before their leaders were obliged to return home in order to elect a new Great Khan. Had they pressed westwards to the Rhine and the Atlantic and overrun Germany, Italy and France, which they could probably have done with ease, there would have been no Renaissance, and the West, like Russia, would have taken centuries to reconstruct the shattered fabric of its civilisation. Western Europe has perhaps never properly appreciated its good fortune in escaping conquest by the last and most dreadful of the invaders from the steppes of Asia. It emerged from the Dark Ages in the eleventh century, at the very time when the first barbarian blows were being struck at the world of Islam, and it was able from then onwards to build up a new civilisation on the Atlantic fringe of the Eurasian continent uninterrupted by the raids and devastations of Turks or Mongols or Bedouins.

Now that the destruction brought by the barbarian invasions has been repaired and trade has resumed, we should take another look at Muslim societies and see whether things are changing or not. Islam has not changed greatly in the past 200 years. Muslims continue to consider the Quran the literal Word of God and the hadith collections of al-Bukhārī and Muslim as canons of the faith. If Renan, Lewis and Reilly are right that Islamic theology is causing a closing of the Muslim mind (John Saunders, too, considers Islam a potential negative influence), we would expect little change to have taken place after the restoration of peace, because they tell us that it is the Muslims’ Islamic beliefs that is making them backward and decadent, not something outside of Islam, such as historical circumstances.

Today, throughout the Muslim world there is great interest in philosophy, in science, in literature. The top 6 Muslim-majority countries in terms of population (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Turkey) have increased their scientific output by three to ten times in the past ten years alone.  Iran now publishes more scientific research papers in peer-reviewed journals than Sweden, Poland or Belgium. Muslims are sending their children to Western-inspired universities by the millions. In Iran and Egypt, most Western bestsellers are translated and published a year or two after their publication in the West. It is breathtakingly ignorant to color one’s understanding of the Muslim societies of today by prejudices inspired by the decaying societies of 1000-1900. Islamic theology has remained the same, yet everything else is changing.

The Scientific Revolution was the edge of edges that enabled Europe to rule the world until the year 2000. It has only been in the past 20 years (since the 1990’s) that the nations outside of Europe, Muslim and non-Muslim, discovered the importance of formal scientific research. Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India and China realized they would forever be second-class citizens on the world stage, clients of Europe, as long as they did not have a system for churning out discoveries as Europe did.

All of the 20th century was a difficult lesson for the third world in learning that, to keep up with Europe, it is not sufficient to copy its technologies; one needs to recreate its scientific research culture. Only this enables one to have the well-educated and well-equipped men and women needed to develop the blades of aircraft engines and the connectors used in supercomputers.

At the moment that I am writing this, we stand at the moment in history when the non-European world has finally realized the essential necessity for scientists. China went from publishing 28,000 scientific papers in 1996 to over 400,000 in 2016. Recently it was announced that China had surpassed the United States in its output to become the world’s number one publisher of scientific research.[20] Iran has seen even more dramatic growth, going from less than 1000 papers in 1996 to over 47,000 in 2016. Similar growth can be seen in all major Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.

We are now in a major turning point in history, perhaps as important as that in 1600 when Western Europe became the world’s supreme civilization. The thing that gave Europe its permanent edge over the past centuries no longer solely belongs to it. The culture of scientific inquiry is being recreated throughout the world, so that today any of Egypt, Iran, India or Malaysia is likely perfectly capable of carrying science forward even if Europe and the United States were to vanish from the world.

A theory that blames Islam for the Islamic world’s status today will have to tell us that this recent realization of the crucial importance of science to national prowess and prosperity is going to make little difference as long as Muslims remain devout. We are supposedly backward because of Islam, not because of historical circumstances. But a quick comparison between Muslim countries and their non-Muslim equivalents in the next section shows that this is just a figment of the imagination; these nations are remaining devout Muslims while embracing science.

We Muslims are often given the nonsensical choice of either choosing to be human or choosing to be Muslim, and in Western works like S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment and Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment, the writers make it amply clear that they could never see eye-to-eye with a faithful and devout Muslim (who is invariably an enemy of rationality and intellectual progress). They cannot conceive of someone as intelligent as themselves (or God forbid, more intelligent) being a faithful Muslim.

Caught between Western discussions of often imaginary Muslims are actual, living and breathing Muslims who are experiencing no crisis, who are happy to engage in intellectual pursuits, and who while respecting the religious scholars, do not take them seriously when what they say goes against reason and conscience. Are Muslim doctors systematically avoiding intellectual inquiry because of Ash’arite indoctrination? This is such an incredibly outlandish thought that it would make most Muslims laugh. Are Muslim parents systematically forbidding their children from reading Western classics and studying the humanities at Western universities? No. They see no conflict between intellectual inquiry and Islam because to them there is no conflict, and it is their opinion that matters; it is they who make Islam’s history.

Imaginary Muslims live in Muslim “no-go zones”, do not read except strict religious literature, do everything the scholars tell them, and keep their women in cages. Real Muslims live wherever they want, read whatever they like, are respectful but inwardly skeptical toward the religious scholars and treat their women according to whatever their human instincts and cultures demand. It is time that we started considering real Muslims in our discussions of Islam. Imaginary Muslims need to be taught reason, rationality and humanism. Actual Muslims do not—they have already embraced these ideas and integrated them into their own lives. In just a single century the Islamic world’s scientific output has increased by orders of magnitude, nearly all Muslim families have started to send their children to secular universities that have popped up all over the Muslim lands, and almost all Muslim countries have adopted some form of constitutional democracy. This, I believe, is sufficient progress for just one century.

Harmful theology?

The Ash’arites (represented by al-Ghazālī and others) said that God is capable of willing anything. Reilly thinks this shows a dangerous moral relativism within Islam, since it tells us that God’s nature is totally arbitrary.

But this is fantastical nonsense; a Muslim cannot perform the obligatory prayer without referring to God as the Gracious, the Merciful, multiple times, amounting to a minimum of 36 times a day. Can a theological idea that the majority of Muslims have never even heard of[21] somehow override this consistent emphasis on God’s attributes of grace and mercy?

Reilly writes that the elimination of cause and effect “makes prediction impossible”. He refers to the case of certain Islamic scholars getting weather forecasts banned between 1983-1984 as evidence.  But his evidence actually takes away from his thesis; even in a traditional and supposedly backward country like Pakistan, the ulema could not get weather forecasts banned for more than a year. The scholars won for one year and consistently lost every single year before and after that—despite Pakistan remaining very much a conservative Muslim country. The sensible conclusion is not that Muslims believe in irrationalist nonsense, but that they reject nonsense even if it comes from their religious scholars.

The Safavids and Qajars were not Ash’arites, they were in fact Shia who maintained respect for the opposing rationalist Mu’tazilite tradition, yet they were no more open to intellectual inquiry than the Ash’arite Ottomans. Additionally, today Ash’arite Sunni countries like Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia are not behind non-Ash’arite Iran and Azerbaijan in science and intellectual inquiry. Both the past and the present show that Ash’arite theology is useless as a predictor of the openness or closedness of the Muslim mind.

If religious scholars abuse Islamic theology to attack common sense, Muslims will feel embarrassed that their religion has to be represented by such people. Reilly continually uses the excesses of certain minor sects and political groups in their support for unreasonable policies as proof for Ash’arite theology’s extreme influence, despite the fact that the majority of Muslims consider these groups unrespectable and unworthy of attention. George Makdisi mentions an interesting case of theological abuse by a scholar:

The Spanish grammarian Ibn Mada’ (d. 592/1196) wrote a refutation of the concept of the regent (‘āmil: regens) in grammar, on the basis that government belongs to God alone. The author, applying the Ash’ari theological view to grammar, denies the power of the regent on the basis that desinential inflections are really the result of God’s acts; they are merely attributed (kasb) to man. Needless to say that this view had no success in the field of grammar.[22]

A person who views Islam as an anti-intellectual force will consider the above “typical” of Islam. But Makdisi, who understands the functioning of real-world Islamic societies, considers it “needless to say” that this absurd abuse of theology was not taken seriously by Muslims. The quoted anecdote does not show that Ash’arism had a negative influence on Muslim minds, it in fact shows the opposite; Muslims by and large do not accept nonsense even when dressed in the language of religion.

It is tempting for an intellectual, especially a Westerner, to think of himself or herself as a knight in shining armor chosen to rid the Muslim world of its backwardness, chosen to bring the Muslims out of the darkness of faith into the light of reason. But such a person, if they were to go to cosmopolitan places like Cairo or Tehran, and if they were to have dinner at a devout cosmopolitan Muslim’s home, will find that there is no need for the battering ram of reason and rationality they brought with themselves. The closed gates of the Muslim mind are an illusion; there are no gates. Look at the books sold on the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Baghdad. The openness of the Islamic world of today to ideas from around the world would shock medieval Islamic theologians (and medieval Christian theologians). Even in the Islamic theocracy of Iran the books of freethinkers like Avicenna and the latest Western bestsellers are not merely tolerated but celebrated. This alone should be sufficient to show that the idea of “closed” Muslim societies and minds is uninformed fantasizing.

[1] J. J. Saunders, Muslims & Mongols: Essays on Medieval Asia, ed. G.W. Rice, Christchurch: University of Canterbury and Whitcoulli Limited, 1977, 27.

[2] Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey, 26.

[3] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols, 106.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid., 104.

[7] Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010.

[8] 18,953 research papers in 2016 according to Scimago Journal and Country Rank.

[9] Perhaps the larger part of Saudi’s scientific growth is due to the importation of foreign scientists. But the fact that the Saudis are willing to spend billions of dollars on research, and the fact that the Saudi population is not up in arms against this scientific growth but actually supports it should give us pause.

[10] Sālim al-Shaybānī, “Mutaba`ithah saudiyyah tuhaqiq injaz ilmi wa tatafawwaq al-talabah al-baritaniyyin fi jami`atihim”, Alweeam, December 1, 2010, weam.co/4351 (retrieved January 27, 2018).

[11] One can marry someone for a day as long as a cleric is present to officiate the wedding.

[12] See Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, London: Profile Books Ltd, 2018.

[13] See Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

[14] Almost all cases of Islamic terrorism are carried out by Wahhabis and sects following similar doctrines.

[15] For the Palestinian issue, see Ila Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007.

[16] See Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s Wars for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2016.

[17] The Pentagon was providing regular flights to al-Qaeda members right before 9/11, as FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds has publicized. See Edmonds’ interview with Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine: “Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?”, November 1, 2009, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/whos-afraid-of-sibel-edmonds/ (retrieved December 24, 2018).

[18] Saunders, Muslims & Mongols,  114.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dockrilll, Peter. “China Just Overtook The US in Scientific Output For The First Time.” ScienceAlert, January 23, 2018,  https://www.sciencealert.com/china-just-overtook-us-in-scientific-output-first-time-published-research (retrieved March 5, 2018).

[21] In my discussions of Ash’arite theology with Muslims, I have found that they find it very unsettling and outlandish, since it goes against the normative Islam they have learned throughout their lives; that God is just and kind.

[22] George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: With Special Reference to Scholasticism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990, 124.

[Book Review] Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

Lost Enlightenment is a highly readable overview of the history of the Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia, an area that gave Islamic civilization the majority of its great philosophers and thinkers (Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Biruni, al-Ghazali)  and many of its great scholars (such as the creators of five of the six “canonical” hadith collections: al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa’i, al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood, the exception being Ibn Majah who, a Persian like the rest, came from Qazvin in Western Iran).

While the book is a good source of information on Islamic civilization’s most advanced and intellectually productive area, it is marred by the writer’s secularist bias. It is often implicit in his writing that he believes the more religiously faithful a Muslim is, the less capable of rational and logical thought they are. He often spends many pages arguing that a particular thinker was actually secular and only paid lip service to Islam (Ibn Sina, Khayyam). As for the devout Muslim thinkers he covers, he often cannot hide his contempt and his belief in the person’s narrow-mindedness and falseness of conscience (as in the case of al-Ghazali).

Errors

Lost Enlightenment is also marred by various errors. The writer’s grasp of the workings of the Islamic religion and its intellectual tradition is amateurish at best (despite his merits as a historian). Starr is guilty of incredible statements like the following:

Going still further, a new governor named Nasr, ignoring the Quran’s demand that apostasy be punished by death, in 741 struck a deal with the Sogdians that abolished all punishments for those who had reverted to their former religions.

He also writes in another place:

But Ghazali branded both thinkers posthumously as heretics and therefore, according to the Quran, punishable by death.

And yet in another place:

Those who follow the philosophers were not merely heretics but, he averred apostates. The Quran quite clear states that apostates must be punished with death.

The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy anywhere in it! This is an elementary error that even an undergraduate student of Islamic studies should not make.

Starr attributes to the scientist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi a “weighty commentary” on the Quran, confusing him with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was born two centuries later.

Starr writes:

Quranic prohibitions against depicting the human form were frequently ignored...

The Quran has nothing to say on the depiction of the human form. These elementary errors about Islam’s chief scripture betray a serious ignorance of Islam as a religion, in contradistinction to the author’s wide knowledge of Central Asian history.

Starr mentions al-Hakim al-Nisaburi as a critic and challenger of al-Bukhari who caused him to be expelled from Naishapur. This means that al-Naisburi was able to go back to the time 60 years before his birth to harass al-Bukhari. It seems that Starr confused al-Naisaburi with al-Dhuhali, who fits Starr’s descriptions. Al-Hakim al-Naisaburi was actually a champion of al-Bukhari, critical to the canonization process of al-Bukhari’s hadith collection, as is covered in detail in Jonathan Brown’s The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim. This is all the more strange since Starr quotes Brown’s book multiple times in the pages dealing with al-Naisaburi.

Finally, some nitpicks: He says that Tus is 15 miles northeast of Nishapur. It is actually 43 miles away. He also writes:

Insurgents seized Basra on the Red Sea...

Basra is 700 miles away from the Red Sea.

In summary, Starr’s Lost Enlightenment is a good historical overview of the period it covers. Readers should be aware of its biases and should read books by other scholars to get a more accurate understanding of the topics covered.

What happened to Islamic civilization? Why did Muslims fall behind in science and technology?

I wanted your in depth opinion on a particular observation. Muslims, historically speaking, have been responsible for hundreds and thousands of scientific discoveries. What happened to us? Why are we in the stage we are?

Only 100 years ago, which is just a little more than one human lifetime, the Ottoman Empire was a sovereign Muslim nation that could stand up to any Western power. No Jewish colonizer would have dared to terrorize and massacre Palestinians when the Ottoman Empire was there to protect its citizens.

While many Muslims, including scholars, think that Muslims were always powerful, capable and thriving throughout history until modern times, this is mostly a romantic fairy tale told to console and encourage.

The Crusaders were able to take Jerusalem and other parts of the Levant from the Muslims in 1099 CE and ruled it for nearly 100 years. Where were the great Muslim powers in this time that they couldn’t take it back? The Middle East was a mix of weak and fractured “Muslim” powers, who were only Muslim in name but in general acted like any modern power, using religion to justify their actions while being under the influence and sometimes control of foreign non-Muslim powers.

The current weakness and powerlessness of Muslims is similar to their state during the Mongol invasions. Some Muslims thought the end of the world had arrived, thinking the Mongols were the promised Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj (Gog and Magog) mentioned in the Quran. The Mongols utterly destroyed the Sunni Muslim Khwarezmian Empire which controlled nearly all of Modern Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and parts of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, and which had existed for 150 years, through the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children. After that, they went on to destroy Baghdad and Damascus, although the Abbasid Empire had been in decline for centuries before the Mongols arrived.

On the other side of the Medieval world, Muslims ruled nearly half of Spain for nearly 800 years, until 1492 CE (which is also the year the Americas were discovered). Just as they threw Muslims out of Spain, Christians went on to conquer two continents, spread Christian rule all over them, and eventually built the world’s most powerful nation there.

The Myth of Continuous Power Increase

There is a myth among Muslims that since they belong to God’s chosen religion, they should have been able to establish a globally dominant power that ruled the world forever. But God doesn’t promise us that. He promises that we will be tested:

You will be tested through your possessions and your persons; and you will hear from those who received the Scripture before you, and from the idol worshipers, much abuse. But if you persevere and lead a righteous life—that indeed is a mark of great determination.1

God also threatens us with His ability to remove us from power and replace us with others if we do not follow His guidance:

131. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. We have instructed those who were given the Book before you, and you, to be conscious of God. But if you refuse—to God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God is in no need, Praiseworthy.

132. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God suffices as Manager.

133. If He wills, He can do away with you, O people, and bring others. God is Able to do that. 2

Verse 131 above mention’s God’s warning to the People of the Book. The Old Testament contains many promises by God that if His people disobey, He will abandon them to whatever that may happen to them, and that He will make others dominant over them. In the Book of Deuteronomy (part of the Old Testament, and part of the Torah), prophet Musa (Moses) says:

25 When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the Lord thy God, to provoke him to anger:

26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

27 And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you.3

The Quran, too, mentions prophet Musa saying similar things:

6. Moses said to his people, “Remember God’s blessings upon you, as He delivered you from the people of Pharaoh, who inflicted on you terrible suffering, slaughtering your sons while sparing your daughters. In that was a serious trial from your Lord.”

7. And when your Lord proclaimed: “If you give thanks, I will grant you increase; but if you are ungrateful, My punishment is severe.”

8. And Moses said, “Even if you are ungrateful, together with everyone on earth—God is in no need, Worthy of Praise.” 4

Our relationship with God is not one where He constantly supports us just because we say we are His nation, unlike some Muslims and many Jews think. Here is the Jewish feminist author Naomi Wolf expressing her surprise at finding out (by reading the Hebrew Bible) that unlike what many Jews think, God does not promise them never-ending support just because they are “His chosen people”:

He never says: "I will give you, ethnic Israelites, the land of Israel." Rather He says something far more radical - far more subversive -- far more Godlike in my view. He says: IF you visit those imprisoned...act mercifully to the widow and the orphan...welcome the stranger in your midst...tend the sick...do justice and love mercy ....and perform various other tasks...THEN YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE AND THIS LAND WILL BE YOUR LAND. So "my people" is not ethnic -- it is transactional. We are God's people not by birth but by a way of behaving, that is ethical, kind and just. And we STOP being "God's people" when we are not ethical, kind and just.5

She is not quite correct when she says “my people” is not ethnic. Jews are God’s chosen, but being chosen does not necessarily mean one is chosen for a good thing. Jews are God’s chosen in that He gave them many scriptures and throughout the centuries continuously sent them new prophets to guide them back to the Straight Path. He chose them for a specific test. Their being chosen is not just a privilege, it is both a privilege and a heavy burden. If they reject God despite being chosen, God sends the most terrible punishments on them, like He has done many times throughout history. Many Jews forget the burden and choose to enjoy the privilege of thinking of themselves as God’s chosen elite.

Our relationship with God is contractual. If we obey, He supports us. If we disobey, He stops supporting us and subjects us to unfriendly powers.

The story of the Jews is a good lesson for us. Many times in their history they were extremely powerful. After they left Egypt, they entered Canaan around 1446 BCE. They disobeyed God when they were about to overtake a city and live in it, so God punished them by having them wander in the desert for 40 years. They finally entered Canaan in 1406 BCE and completely conquered it by 1399 BCE. Once they become a sovereign power, they soon start to do evil, abandoning God, worshiping Baal or the Calf, practicing usury or allying themselves with irreligious foreign powers like Egypt. For this reason, as they rejected and sometimes even killed their prophets, every few generations God would send a powerful foreign power to destroy many of their cities and slaughter many of their people.

When they continued to reject God, He sent Babylon to conquer their lands and sent them into exile for 70 years. After that the Persian emperor, whose empire had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to their lands and reestablish themselves there. Their story continued the same as before, with them doing evil and being punished for it. In 70 AD, a few decades after they rejected Jesus and tried to kill him, they tried to escape the rule of the Roman empire. In return they had their city of Jerusalem utterly destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Jews killed.

The Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman victory over the Jews, among other things, still stands in Rome.

Titus, the Roman commander who was in charge of the Roman victory over the Jews, is supposed to have refused to wear a wreath after the victory, saying that he was only acting as a tool of God’s wrath over the Jews. Perhaps this was God’s punishment on them for their rejecting God’s prophet Jesus.

In Jewish history there is an important historical lesson; that just because a nation associates itself with God and claims to be His people does not mean they will always have God’s support.

Muslim nations have had a history similar to that of the Jews. Many powerful Muslim states have risen and fallen throughout history, and this process is not going to end. If we establish a caliphate like some Muslims dream about, and even if it rules the world for 1000 years, if most of the population abandons Islamic values and Islam becomes largely culture and tradition and not faith, then that caliphate too will fail. God will enable another Mongol invasion, or another invasion by the British and the French, to come and divide their caliphate and do with it as they please.

Christianity’s Place in Islamic History

Just as Islam faded in the Middle East and became little more than cultural tradition and ceremony, Christianity rose in the West. The Christians who conquered the Americas thought they were doing it for God’s sake. They read the Bible daily, they established Biblical law in their colonies, and they braved many dangers in order to establish families, villages and cities in empty and hostile lands.

God’s promise in the Quran came true for them for their deeds:

65. Had the People of the Scripture believed and been righteous, We would have remitted their sins, and admitted them into the Gardens of Bliss.

66. Had they observed/enforced the Torah, and the Gospel, and what was revealed to them from their Lord, they would have consumed amply from above them, and from beneath their feet. Among them is a moderate community, but evil is what many of them are doing.6

While it is common for many Muslims to think of Christians as nothing but heathens who should magically disappear now that Islam has come, Christians are as much God’s people as Muslims are, that is, they too have a contract with God, and if they uphold their contract with God, God will uphold His contract with them. If a Christian nation is more faithful, more eager to serve God, and more observant of God’s laws, then we shouldn’t be surprised if God gives them His full support.

This was the case in the Americas and much of Western Europe until 1900 CE. With all of the corruption present, the average person’s actions and thinking were still largely controlled by Christian ideals.

Today, things are different. The West has finally abandoned the religion that made it great. The only reason the West is great today is the momentum of the past. A Muslim may lose hope when they look at the United States and see its immense capacity to dominate and do evil throughout the world. But the United States is already past its prime. It is desperately trying to hold onto its past power, constantly threatening Russia, China and Iran, but incapable of doing anything about them as they continue to rise.

The United States has had a below-replacement fertility rate since the 1970’s. If it wasn’t for their continuous importation of immigrants, their population would have been shrinking by now. A decades-long below-replacement fertility rate is all that is needed to illustrate that a nation is failing.

It is a country’s population that gives a nation its economic, technological and military power, and once the population starts to shrink, its power will decrease, because there will be fewer people to innovate, and fewer people to consume the fruits of these innovations and in this way pay for further innovations. Today the United States can afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military spending every year, and it is this spending that enables various military companies to continue innovating. But as the American tax base and economy both shrink, with this its power to spend will shrink. America is on a trajectory to become the next Portugal, once a global superpower, now almost a complete non-entity (unless it continues to import immigrants, but this cannot go on forever).

One illustration of the continuing fall of the United States is that of the world’s top 15 skyscrapers (those higher than 350 meters) finished in the past 3 years, 10 are in China, and only one in the United States. China continues to rise, the United States continues to stagnate and fall. America’s failing economy has no need for new office buildings, hotels and restaurants, since it already has more than its shrinking economy needs.

The answer to the question of why Muslims are so powerless compared to the West these days is that Islamic history ran into Christian history. Christian power was still rising when it clashed with an Ottoman Empire that was already past its prime, so the Ottomans didn’t stand a chance.

Today, Christian powers too are past their prime, and great change is coming.

The United States is unlikely to become a Portugal any time soon, and if Islam continues to spread, it might change into a new type of superpower without becoming irrelevant.

It should be noted that while China’s rise will probably be a good thing in the short-term, as its rise to power will probably prevent further significant US excesses for the next few decades, once it is firmly established as the world’s most powerful country, it could start acting like the US, forcing every other country to either become a de facto client state or get turned into a war zone.

The Long View of History

Even if Muslims establish a new global superpower that lasts for hundreds of years, it too can eventually fail and get conquered by non-Muslim powers. Imagine if this world continues to exist for the next 100,000 years. The story of Muslims being powerful then weak then powerful again might play out fifty or a hundred times more.

We humans want safety and security. We want to establish Paradise on Earth once and for all and then go on living in it. But that is not the purpose of this world, and dreams of establishing a Paradise on Earth are naive and futile. We are taught over and over again in the Quran that this world is worthless, that it will soon be over, that none of our deeds done in this world will last. The Quranic character Dhul Qarnain shows his appreciation for God’s message when he says the following right after completing building a structure for God’s sake:

He said, “This is a mercy from my Lord. But when the promise of my Lord comes true, He will turn it into rubble, and the promise of my Lord is always true.”7

For us Muslims, it is always about the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t matter what we accomplish in this world, because nothing we do will last. Everything we think we can accomplish, if God is really all-powerful, God can accomplish it in an instant if He wants. The point is not accomplishment in itself, the point is to follow God. What matters is the record of our deeds. No matter what we build, no matter how much power we have, we could see it all destroyed tomorrow. This has happened over and over again in history, though sadly we continue to fail to learn the lesson.

Why did God let the Mongols destroy Baghdad and Damascus if our purpose was to continue to gain power, wealth and fame in this world? Why did He let the Ottoman Empire, the last truly sovereign Muslim power, be invaded and destroyed? Why did He not allow the Arab powers to defeat Israel during their multiple wars?

Because this world is a test. It is not our purpose to build Paradise on Earth. Our purpose is khilafah, literally “to be stewards”. We are stewards of the earth. Our purpose is to take care of it by enjoining good and admonishing against evil, so that humanity continues, and so that the the earth does not become entirely corrupted.

A steward takes care of a farm until the owner returns, continuing the running of the farm as best as they can. It is the owner’s business what they do with the farm. In the same way, our job in this world is to continue be God’s stewards, God’s agents for good in this world, but it is His business what He does with this world, and whether He gives us power or takes it away from us. All that we can say is, “We hear and we obey.”

We are not seekers after power. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not seek power, it was given to him. Neither did any of the righteous Rashidun caliphs. We do not seek to establish global dominance, or to carry out global war. Our job is to be God’s stewards, to walk on the Straight Path.

Being on the Straight Path does not require gaining power, and in fact the seeking of power is directly opposed to it, for the seeking of power always requires that one abandon one’s moral integrity. This is the story of every political party that starts out with high moral ideals only to become a nest of corruption and evil.

It is God who gives us power if we deserve it, and if the time is right, for His own purposes, and as long as it pleases Him, until He takes it away from us. As for us, we must be thankful and content throughout all of this:

No, but worship God, and be among the thankful ones.8

It is God who manages history for us. We are not in charge, God is.

No calamity strikes except by God’s permission. Whoever believes in God, He guides his heart. God is Aware of everything.9

No calamity occurs on earth, or in your souls, but it is in a Book, even before We make it happen. That is easy for God. That you may not sorrow over what eludes you, nor exult over what He has given you. God does not love the proud snob.10

God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. And if God wills any hardship for a people, there is no turning it back; and apart from Him they have no protector.11

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them successors on earth, as He made those before them successors, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners. 12

Our job is to do good wherever we find ourselves, to worship God, to be kind and just, to follow His commandments as best as we can, and it is God who will establish us on Earth when He pleases:

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them stewards on Earth, as He made those before them stewards, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners.13

We can, of course, be political activists and social critics. We can constantly work toward social justice and the lifting of poverty. But instead of doing these by seeking power first, we do them without seeking power. We do what is right and just and kind toward everyone, and God, if He wishes, can give us power any time He wants.

Ibn al-Jawzi says in his Sayd al-Khaatir (“Quarry of the Mind”):

I reflected upon the envy that exists among scholars, and saw that its source is the love of the worldly life, because the scholars of the afterlife engage in love and do not envy others. What separates the two groups is that the scholars of the worldly life seek power and leadership in it, and they love to accumulate wealth and praise, while the scholars of the afterlife live in seclusion from these things, they fear them and have mercy toward those who are being tested by them.

Truly good and kind people, who fear God and take the afterlife seriously, do not seek power in my experience. Sometimes the right situation arises for a good person to rise and become powerful, as it happened with Saladin. Saladin wasn’t a revolutionary who grabbed power or a politician. He became powerful as part of his job as a military commander, and one thing led to another until he became a powerful ruler.

The writer Frank Herbert says the following in Chapterhouse: Dune, and I find them true from all that I have seen:

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological
personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the
corruptible.

Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it.

Scientific vs. Divine Explanations for Islam’s Decline: Islam, Christianity and Indo-European Genes

A mistake many people make, both religious and irreligious, is that when they discover a scientific explanation for something, they start to think that it means that thing is not from God. But it is a principle of God that He will never allow us to have direct evidence of His existence, therefore when God does something, it is always through scientific means, or He makes it appear to be that way. God will not carry out miracles that can be recorded and published on YouTube. The only time that we will have direct proof of the existence of God and the rest of the Unseen is at the end of the world. When the pagans requested that they see an angel before they believe in God, God’s reply was this:

Had We sent down an angel, the matter would have been settled, and they would not have been reprieved.14

If we ever had direct evidence of God’s existence, then there would be no need for faith in God. God does not want that to happen, therefore everything that happens to us must have logical scientific explanations. We can examine Islamic history to find out where things went wrong. But even if we discover every single cause and try to cure it, our success is not guaranteed.

The divine reason for the fall of Muslims is that they abandoned Islam in their hearts, while the scientific reason might be the demographic collapse of the Persian population after the endless flood of Turkic and Mongol attacks that devastated the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia (over 90% of Islam’s greatest scholars, thinkers and scientists came from these cities). The divine reasons precede the scientific reasons. If we disobey God, God will bring about logical and scientifically-explainable reasons for our destruction. And if we obey God, and carry out our stewardship in the best manner possible, God will inspire us toward whatever will give us success and power in this world.

Conclusion

As Muslims, our goal in life is not to acquire power, glory or supremacy in this world. Our goal is not to establish Paradise on Earth. We can appreciate technological and scientific accomplishments, and we can work toward them as part of our stewardship on Earth, but we must never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, everything we do is meant to serve God, and that a day will come when all of our worldly works will be destroyed as if they never existed.

In this world, we are stewards of a temporary farm, a farm whose Owner has promised to destroy in the end. We must never get attached to this farm, or seek its improvement or power over it as a goal in itself. We must never get attached to the idea of establishing a global power. Even if we establish one, it too can come and go like every other Muslim power in history. History will continue going in cycles, Muslims will rise to power, fall, and rise again. The only people who achieve success are those who fear God and serve Him in the best way possible. It is only the record of our deeds which lasts forever, everything else is temporary.

If Muslims are weak today, look again in 500 years, and they may be the strongest and most technologically advanced power on Earth. Look again in 1500 years, and they may again be weak,  oppressed and backward. It is God who gives and God who takes. If we are thankful and obedient, He will increase us and improve our station in life, and if we are ungrateful, He can always take it all away from us and subjugate us to others.

Note that I am not saying that Muslims should turn their backs on science and progress. I love science and technology and eagerly follow its news, and I look forward to Muslim societies catching up to Western ones. Last year Muslim-majority Malaysia overtook Japan in its scientific research output per capita, as the graph below shows, and that is a very hopeful sign for the growth of scientific knowledge among Muslims:

The graph shows the number of scientific research papers published by each country divided by its citizens in millions. In 2017 Malaysia produced 936 papers per million citizen, while Japan produced 892.

Other Muslim nations have shown tremendous growth in scientific research as well. Egypt today produces five times more scientific and scholarly research compared to a mere 15 years ago. Iran is on track to catch up with European countries before 2030. These are things to look forward to, but we should not lose sight of the bigger picture.