Robert Fulford's column about Islam's lost empire

(The National Post, December 28, 1999)

A millennium ago, in the last days of the year 999, civilization was following a clear course. An objective student of history, if there had been such a person, could have told you with certainty where the future of world politics lay: with Islam. It was an unstoppable force and would eventually control the known world, including whatever parts of Europe it chose to occupy.

The Muslims had energy, confidence and imagination. Their society, born on the edge of the Arab lands less than four centuries before, was far superior to Christian Europe's. Bernard Lewis, the great historian of Islam, has written that the Muslims of those days "neither feared nor respected the barbarous individuals of northern and western Europe, whom they saw as uncouth primitives." Such things are hard to compare, but Islam at the year 1000 was probably the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilization that had so far developed anywhere.

So how did it come to pass that Christian Europe (and the colonies it established in America) eventually dominated the world? What started out as Islam's millennium became Europe's instead. In history there are few dramas so compelling, and so unexpected. In geopolitics, this was the greatest surprise of the second millennium.

The Muslims of 1000 were more literate by far than the Europeans, and they were better at astronomy, medicine, engineering, geography and mathematics ("algebra" is an Arabic term). Their architecture and their gardens were more impressive than anything Europeans would imagine for centuries. And the Muslims were well established in Europe. Cordova, their capital in Spain, was the richest European city, a place of magnificent palaces and mosques.

Islam's claim on the future remained valid for centuries more. As Europe grew more powerful, so did Islam. The age of Islamic military conquest lasted until 1669, when the Ottoman Empire, after a long war, took Crete from the Venetians. That turned out to be its last acquisition. Fourteen years later, it was evident that history was reversing itself. In 1683, the Ottomans, after trying to conquer Vienna for 60 days, withdrew in disarray. The fighting that followed destroyed much of their army and crippled the military wing of Islam. From the Muslim point of view, Europe soon ceased to be an invasion target and became an alien force whose armies and cultures began to trespass on the Arab lands. What happened? It's not entirely clear.

It was obvious in retrospect that power was shifting long before the siege of Vienna. Perhaps 1492 was the key year. Granada, the last Islamic city in Spain, surrendered to Christian armies in January, and before the year was over Columbus had arrived in America and made Europe's expansion across the Atlantic possible. Eventually, America enriched Europe to an extent that Islam could not equal.

But we might have expected (given the state of play in 1000) that the Muslims would be the first to see America. What pushed Europe ahead? Culture was the crucial factor. If we define culture to include religion and ideas, then it was culture -- not productivity, markets or military force -- that determined the fates of these empires.

Islamic and Christian thinkers approached reason in different ways. Islam (the word literally means "submission to God") accepted the world as God had made it. While Muslim thinkers did not necessarily expect to understand reality in rational terms, Christians developed a high esteem for reason and high hopes for what it might accomplish.

In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Christian thinkers combined Greek natural philosophy, Roman private law and Christian theology. They came to believe that reason has its own priorities and deserves its own independent institutions, notably universities. In these institutions it became possible, sometimes, to encourage heresy and innovation, which can amount to the same thing.

Late in the Renaissance, a form of heresy, Protestant Christianity, became a progressive force. Martin Luther, whatever he intended to do, wrenched daily life out of the hands of religion. Islam had no Martin Luther, nor is such a person quite imaginable.

The West came to believe that an idea might have value on its own, whatever its origins. So Europe could absorb and use whatever Islam created. Islam, however, viewed the inventions of the West with suspicion. The classic case was the printing press, which Islam vigorously resisted. In 1485, a decree by the Ottoman sultan, Beyazid II, banned this new invention, on the grounds that it would be sacrilegious to use the Arabic language in mechanical equipment.

The Koran and Arabic were so closely entwined that the language itself demanded pious treatment, which it wasn't likely to get from printers. Furthermore, printing threatened Islamic calligraphers, who became its powerful enemies. Jewish publishers could operate in Turkey only so long as they did not use Arabic. Printing in Arabic was illegal until the first half of the 18th century, and even then it grew slowly. When Napoleon arrived in Egypt in 1798, Cairo had no presses. By then, European thinkers had been educating one another through books for more than two centuries.

How far did Islam fall? It lost the ability even to name its section of the world. In 1902, an American naval historian, A.T. Mahan, called the area between Europe and East Asia "the Middle East," a term that could have been invented only by someone who thought Europe the world's core. That demonstrated the widespread belief that the Arab lands now contained a marginal civilization, significant only as it related to the true centre. Through much of this century, "Middle East" has been the common term all over the globe, even inside the region itself.

It wasn't apparent until the 1960s that Islam could be reinvigorated. Recent decades have brought an Islamic resurgence powerful enough to influence world politics and make the conflict between Islam and the West an issue once again. But that's another story, to be told in another millennium.

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