Once Islam led the world in intellectual and cultural activity, as well as economic and military power. Then it closed its doors.
In an extraordinary speech (translated on Raymond Ibrahim’s blog and virtually unnoticed by the world media) delivered on New Year’s Day by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the religious imams of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, al-Sisi called for an Islamic religious Renaissance, the effect of which would be to modify the “corpus of texts and ideas that we have (made sacred) over the years” to the point that “we have antagonized the entire world.”
He exhorted the imams: “You cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective….. Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible! I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world ………. is waiting for your next move …. because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”
As he was speaking, other related events were transpiring in ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq that dovetailed with al-Sisi’s remarks. In Raqqa (northern Syria) and Mosul (Iraq), ISIS has ordered schools closed while the curriculum is being made to conform with what the radical Islamic organization considers “sacred religious educational rules”. These “rules” effectively ban the study of philosophy, sports, physics, chemistry, fine arts, music, civics, social studies, history and psychology as ISIS maintains that these are “infidel” subjects that “do not fit in with the laws of God” (as noted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group).
At Al-Azhar, Al-Sisi spoke of the hideous violence around the world perpetrated in the name of Allah by radical Islamist organizations like ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, al-Shabab, the Taliban, and others, but he might have also directed his words to a comparison with another Islamic era a millennium ago that promoted the very same intellectual ideas that ISIS has banned – ideas and achievements that many noted scholars and historians (Muslim and otherwise) attribute to the “Golden Age of Islam.”
The Decline of the Islamic world
The religious zealotry that propels today’s radical Islamists can only be explained within the context of history. The odyssey that has carried the Arab Muslim world from the heights of its ancient glory to its modern day abyss is a story that spans fourteen hundred years and innumerable humiliations most of which can be traced to its own failings.
There was a time when Europeans, seeking enlightenment and learning, studied at the feet of Islamic scholars. It is a time long-past but not forgotten by Muslims like al-Sisi who yearn for an Islamic religious (and intellectual) renaissance.
Since its Golden Age during the Moorish Empire a millennium ago, Islamic history has been in an steady tailspin that has led to a culture of victimhood and death fueled by religious hatred, sectarian violence, centuries of isolation from Western enlightenment, and an overwhelming almost mystical desire to restore past glories.
Today, the Arab world is constituted by a series of twenty-one failed states bereft, for the most part, of progressive leaders and unable to produce one single manufactured product that can compete on world markets. Far from being an enlightened civilization, it has become a cultural backwater replete with massive poverty, repressive governments, vast illiteracy, medieval laws, rising Islamist anger and a Gross Domestic Product less than that of (coincidentally) Spain.
It has not always been that way.
The Golden Age of Islam
Islam arose in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Like Christianity, it officially condemned forced conversions, but unlike Christianity, Islam instructed its followers to ensure that the world was under the political control of the Faithful. Hence, Islam’s political domination could be, and was, spread by the sword. Islamic cavalries burst out of Arabia and quickly took control of the Middle East, Byzantium and Persia. The Middle Eastern armies of the Christian Byzantine Empire were defeated and annihilated in 636, and Jerusalem fell in 638.
By the early 8th century Arab Islamic forces had conquered North Africa, reached the Straits of Gibraltar and crossed into Visigothic Spain. By 712, they had reached the center of the Iberian Peninsula, and by the 730’s, they were raiding deep into the heart of France until defeated by the Frankish leader Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732.1 Gradually retreating south over a period of centuries, they eventually consolidated their power in southern Spain.
There, over the next eight hundred years, the Arabs managed to develop a majestic civilization on the Iberian peninsula – a civilization that came to be known as Andalusia. For Muslims, Al Andalus (Andalusia) remains not only a symbol of vanished greatness, but a kind of alternative vision of Islam – a vision sought by Islamics today but unattainable in the modern era unless Islam itself is totally reformed.2
In The Age of Faith historian Will Durant wrote: “For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, in refinement of manners, in standards of living; in humane legislation and religious tolerance; in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy.”
The Arabs of Andalusia in southern Spain (known as “Moors” meaning “dark” – a negative term referring to the Berbers who came from Morocco) treated Christians and Jews with tolerance, enabling them to live, work and learn together in relative peace and harmony. While Europe was struggling through the throes of feudalism, the Moorish aristocracy was promoting private land ownership and encouraging banking. However, although there was little or no Muslim proselytizing, societal restrictions on infidels were imposed.3
Nevertheless, as Bernard Lewis has noted, for centuries the worldview and self-view of Arab Muslims seemed entirely justified. The Moorish Empire of Andalusia represented the greatest military and economic power in the world, trading in a wide range of commodities through a far-flung network of commerce and communications in Asia, Europe, and Africa; importing slaves, gold and other commodities from Africa, wool from Europe, and exchanging a variety of foodstuffs, materials, and manufactured goods with the civilized nations of Asia. The Moors improved trade and agriculture, patronized the arts, made valuable contributions to science, and established Cordoba as the most sophisticated city in Europe.
Inheriting and translating the scholarly works of the Greeks and Persians, they added new and important innovations from outside, such as the use and manufacture of paper from China and the decimal system imported from India.4
Within the span of two hundred years, the Moors had turned Andalusia into a bastion of culture, commerce and beauty. Irrigation systems imported from Syria and Arabia turned the dry plains of the peninsula into an agricultural cornucopia. To native olives and wheat, the Moors added fruits and herbs from throughout the known world – pomegranates, oranges, lemons, artichokes, cumin, coriander, bananas, almonds, henna, saffron, sugar-cane, cotton, rice, figs, grapes, peaches, apricots and rice as standard crops.
While Europe descended into feudalism, Andalusian homes featured marble balconies for summer and hot-air ducts under their mosaic floors for the winter. They were adorned with gardens with artificial fountains and orchards. Paper, a material still unknown to the West, was everywhere. There were bookshops throughout Andalusia and more than seventy libraries.5 The great library of Cordova held an estimated 600,000 manuscripts.
By the end of the first millennium, Cordoba had become the intellectual well from which Europeans came to drink. Students and scholars alike traveled from France and England to sit at the feet of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to learn philosophy, science and medicine.
It was in Moorish Spain that Muslim mathematicians utilized decimals instead of fractions on a large scale, and Hindu numerals were, for the first time, incorporated in the inherited body of mathematical learning. Today, they are known as “Arabic numerals.” Even the concept of “zero” (sifr) came from the Arabic translations of Andalusia.6
To this rich inheritance, Andalusian Islamic scholars and scientists added an immensely important contribution through their own observations, experiments and ideas. In most of the arts and sciences of civilization, medieval Europe was a pupil and, in a sense, a dependent of the Islamic world, relying on Arabic translations for previously unknown Greek works. While medieval Europe floated on a sea of superstition, illiteracy and barbarism, Andalusians was busying themselves probing the limits of the arts, the cosmos and the sciences rather than dwelling on victimization (as the Arab world does today).
Islamic texts broke new ground in the fields of medicine, astrology, astronomy, pharmacology, psychology, physiology, zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, optics, literature, architecture, sociology, philosophy, metallurgy, animal husbandry, physics, mathematics (notably algebra, geometry and trigonometry), music, meteorology, geography, mechanics, hydrostatics, navigation and history.
But what really caused the intellectual bombshell to explode were the Arabic commentaries on the Greek translations of Aristotle. These analyses and theorems shocked the West by giving religion and philosophy equal status to rational, scientific thought in explaining the nature of the universe.7 Most historians of the period agree that these debates and the use of scientific logic sparked what came to be known as the European Renaissance.
Unlike those in the Arab world today who seek to establish a global Islamic caliphate based upon a narrow regressive, radical interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith (its commentaries) like ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist organizations, the Moors of Spain encouraged free thought, experimentation, discussion and evaluation.
Islamic Spain produced scientists and scholars who enhanced the quality of the astrolabe not just to determine prayer times, but to serve as an astronomical guide to those who navigated the world’s oceans making it possible to establish both longitude and latitude.
Andalusian scientists advanced the work of the Greeks in the development of the magnetic compass and ascertained the earth’s circumference.
They produced books on astronomical tables that were used by European scientists for the next four centuries.
Andalusian Arabs coined the term “Algebra” (Kitab al-jabr wa l-muqabala – written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi in 825 CE) and the basic trigonometric functions of sine, cosine and tangent.
And it was from the Andalusian philosophers, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) from whom great Christian scholars like St. Thomas Aquinas (who served as vicar provincial in Andalusia) drew the philosophies and concepts that eventually laid the foundations for the European Renaissance.
The Moors also made great advances in the field of modern surgery. They put the study of medicine on a scientific footing by eliminating superstition, introduced medical Codes of Conduct, and required the introduction of examinations and the taking of the Hippocratic Oath.
In the 9th century, an Andalusian physician was the first to diagnose smallpox and measles and relate them to the concept of “contagious” diseases (which, until that time, had been thought to originate only from within the body itself); and it was an Andalusian physician who pioneered the use of sutures made of animal gut to bind wounds.
Andalusian scientists constructed the first “globe” of the known world; broke new ground in the field of modern chemistry (or alchemy – a derivative of the Arabic word al Kimiya) – including the development of dosage standards (prescriptions) for patients and the process of chemical preparations for medicines. They developed the tables outlining the “angles of refraction” leading to an explanation of, among other things – twilight, established laboratories for long term experimentation and pioneered new methods of observation and measurement.
Andalusian Arabic scholars also left an intellectual imprint in the heavens as one can readily see when reading the names of the stars on a modern-day celestial globe. And because of this flood of knowledge flowing from Andalusian scholars, the first universities began to appear. College and university degrees were developed along with corresponding textbooks. Arabic music spread throughout Europe, giving us the keyboard, the flute and the concept of harmony.8
The translations of the works of the Moors continued even as the Moorish Empire broke apart into feuding factions. In the end, like the other Empires of history, Andalusia fell in 1492 to the Catholic princes of Castille and the counts of Barcelona in the Reconquista.
The Great Arab Decline
With the end of the Golden Age of Islam, the great Arab decline began. Rather than acknowledging the learning revolution brought forth by the European Renaissance, Islamic leaders scoffed at it in the certain belief that there was nothing to be learned from these infidel upstarts.
Over the intervening centuries, Islam became narcissistic and withdrew within itself.
In 1485, the printing press (a symbol of the Enlightenment) was banned from the Ottoman Empire by decree. Arnaud de Borchgrave has written that when Napoleon arrived in Egypt, in 1798, Cairo did not have a single printing press. By then the European intelligentsia had long since embarkedupon self-improvement through books and learning for almost two centuries while the Ottoman Empire languished.
The Muslims who were expelled from Andalusia took refuge mainly in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, but the legacy persisted. Some families, it is said, still have the keys to their no longer existent ancient houses in Cordoba and Seville. Today, in mosques from Mecca to Tehran, imams continue to invoke the memory of Andalusia in Friday prayers reminding their flocks of past glories and the humiliation Muslims have endured at the hands of the infidels.
But it is a convenient scapegoat for their own shortcomings.
Nevertheless, the end of the Andalusian Empire has never been forgotten by Arabia. For al-Qaeda and ISIS, its restoration is seen as the fulfillment of the will of Allah and as “divine retribution” to the descendants of those who conquered and destroyed Al Andalus.9
To the radical Islamists, President Obama is simply another infidel in a long line of infidels – from the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople, to the Holy Roman Emperors, to Queen Victoria, and to other European imperialists – who represent mere impediments to the divinely ordained expansion of Islam. “Interference” with the will of Allah, they believe, cannot stop the restoration of their new caliphate.
But those who support radical Islam fail to appreciate how Andalusian society achieved its greatness.
In their zeal to exact revenge and to punish infidels for past transgressions (real or imagined), these radical Islamists have placed their faith in an interpretation of Islam that renders tolerance, independent thought, debate and all creative, scientific experimentation heresy unless carried out solely for the purpose of waging jihad (holy war) against the perceived enemies of Islam.
Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Princeton University and the leading Western scholar on Islamic history argued with some merit that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also a state dominated by that faith (Islam has yet to separate church from state) created a society that was and remains in its essence totalitarian, “bound by rules and strictures that make it too static to adapt and compete with a West (that) does not demand control over the political and economic spheres.”10
As a result, the radical Islamists of today are caught in a self-imposed religious prison to which al-Sisi referred in his speech at Al-Azhar. The kind of society that produced Andalusia – one that encouraged scholarship through the study of science, learning, independent thought, debate and discussion – represents the very antithesis of the kind of society radical Islamists seek to impose on the world by force and submission. If Taliban Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria are the best they can do, it is a far cry from the glories of their past.
As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared in his New Year’s Day speech to Egypt’s imam scholars – without an Islamic religious (and intellectual) reformation, restoring the dignity of the Islamic world will fail.
1. Paul Crawford, “Crusades: Political and Military Background,” ORB Online Encyclopedia, 1997.
2. Lawrence Wright, “The Terror Web – Were the Madrid bombings part of a new, far-reaching jihad being plotted on the Internet?” The New Yorker, August 2, 2004.
3. Moorish Spain practiced d’himmitude, which saw Islamic rulers require tens of millions of non-Muslim peoples treated as second-class citizens as they are required to be treated by the Quran. Jews and Christians were tolerated under Islam provided that they paid a poll or head tax (jizya) and accepted Islamic superiority. They had no right whatsoever to an independent existence and could live under Islamic rule so long as they kept to the rules that Islam had promulgated for them. Great injustices often flowed from this status. The works of Bat Ye’or, the world’s foremost authority on d’himmitude are the seminal writings on this subject.
4. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle East Response (Oxford University Press, 2002).
5. James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed, (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1985) p. 37-38; See also: Dean Derhak, Muslim Spain and European Culture.”
6. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong, op. cit.
7. James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed, op. cit. 1985 p. 42.
8. Dr. K. Ajram, “Setting the Record Straight: The Miracle of Islamic Science,” Appendix B, 1992; Paul J. Balles, “Arabs (Muslims): Illusion and Reality;” see also: Islamic Civilization E-Book, http://cyberistan.org/ebook1.htm
9. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Holy War in Europe,” American Enterprise Institute, April 7, 2004; Ron Fraser, “The Spanish Connection,” theTrumpet.com, May 2004; DEBKA counter-intelligence sources (from December 2002) note that three months before the US invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda began issuing a stream of fatwas designating its main operating theatres in Europe. All are designed to redress what they perceive as historical injustices including the loss of Andalusia. Turkey topped their “hit” list followed by Spain. Italy and its capital Rome were next. Muslim fundamentalists view Rome as a “world center of heresy because of the Vatican and the Pope.” Finally, there was Vienna because “the advancing Muslim armies were defeated there in 1683 before they could engulf the heart of Europe.” On November 3, 2003, Turkey saw two terrorist outbreaks in Istanbul that claimed 63 lives and injured more than 600. Islamic fundamentalists assert that these acts were committed to “recover the honor and glory of the Ottoman caliphates that were trampled by Christian forces in 1917 in the last days of World War I.” On March 11, 2004, Spain followed with over 200 dead and 1,500 injured when al Qaeda stuck at Madrid’s commuter rail system. In their mind, they are one step closer to restoring their Andalusian empire. To the world, the goal of restoring Andalusia is fantasy. To the followers of al Qaeda and ISIS, it is inevitable. Their religious edicts dictate the “liberation” (by terrorism) of all lands once under Muslim rule, and the plan of conquest spans the oceans to America as well.
10. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis in Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (NY: Random House, 2003); Dennis Mullin, “Call it by any other name, it still adds up to a crusade,” The Washington Post, January 5, 2003; Review by La Shawn Barber, Townhall.com, 2005.
The writer is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel). He is a former member of the Canadian Justice Department, a past Director of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Western Office), a member of Hadassah’s National Academic Advisory Board and a Contributing Editor for Family Security Matters and Intellectual Conservative. He served as a Consultant to the Secretary General of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian intifada. His book “The Quartermasters of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad” and articles are archived at www.acpr.org.il andwww.marksilverbeg.com.