Islam and the sacred word; In the year 1000, the Islamic world was far superior to Europe in science and the arts. What happened?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 March 2009)

Since the poor suffer most in hard times it's inevitable that Muslim countries will be painfully affected by the global recession. Most Muslim states are desperately poor, even when oil prices are high. The Arab nations in particular are burdened by incompetent government, inadequate education and large populations that appear destined to endure poverty indefinitely. They suffer, and they know it, from their failure in most cases to create modern standards of society.

That was the conclusion of the Arab social scientists who wrote, for the UN, the Arab Human Development Report in 2002 and later produced three more detailed reports. They described chronically stagnant economies with limited freedoms as well as antiquated institutions of science and technology. The Arab scholars depicted a region badly in need of radical change.

Their conclusions were authoritative but hardly original. In 1930, a Syrian-Lebanese journalist, Shakib Arslan, wrote a book, Why Have Muslims Fallen Behind, and Why Have Others Forged Ahead? Educated Arabs understood that their countries, judged by the lives they provided for their citizens, were inferior to those of the West. Today they know that many non-Western societies such as China, Japan and Korea have also moved far ahead of them.

This phenomenon has fascinated me for many years. In December, 1999, I wrote my last column of the millennium on the long-term waning of the Islamic world. In the year 1000, it was far superior to Europe in science and the arts. But what started out as Islam's millennium became Europe's instead.


Dan Diner, a German-born historian who teaches at the University of Leipzig in Germany and the Hebrew University in Israel, has offered some persuasive answers in his new book, Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still (Princeton University Press).

Diner's academic prose can be a barrier but the content makes his book worth the struggle. In searching for structural realities beneath everyday life, he recalls Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and other scholars in the Toronto school of communications.

He locates the central problem in Islam's failure to understand the necessity for a powerful secular element in society. Cultures founded on the words of Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius and even Karl Marx have proven flexible enough to create spaces for independent secular values and institutions. Among major religions, only Islam finds this idea intolerable.

Diner criticizes the late Edward Said, who blamed the West for most Arab failures. Colonialism robbed the Arabs and humiliated them, then scholars in the West justified anti-Arab prejudice, according to Said's famous book, Orientalism, published in 1978. His ideas convinced armies of professors who in turn indoctrinated two generations of students.

While Said spoke as an Arab sympathizer, he merely provided the region with excuses for centuries of incompetence, not really much of a favour.

In Islam, as Diner argues, sacred law is immutable. Work, ethics, morals and politics are all deeply influenced by the sacred. To be lost in the sacred is to be separated from the events of the world and the possibility of progress. A close observance of sacred law stops time in its tracks.

He discusses Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Islamic historian who narrated the rise and fall of dynasties but never imagined historic change. Events, for him, moved in cycles; everything was a repetition of the past. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, the past resembles the future as one drop of water resembles another.

Printing, developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, provided the classic case of the sacred realm overwhelming the secular. Printing was banned by Islamic authorities because they believed the Koran would be dishonoured by appearing out of a machine. As a result, Arabs did not acquire printing presses until the 18th century. Meanwhile, books transformed the very nature of thought in the West while Islam fell 300 years behind. Today, as the Arab Human Development Report argued, the development of a colloquial printed Arabic is a necessity, but religious authority stands in the way.

Apologists for the Arab states sometimes argue that the necessity to fight Israel has diverted them from social progress and that radical Islamists present a continuing and costly threat to their societies. But so far as I can tell, the situation of most Arabs would be wretched even if modern Israel did not exist and no one had ever heard of the Muslim Brotherhood. The cracks in the foundation of the Muslim states are far older and deeper than any recent events.

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