The Rise of Muslim Civilization

Let’s leave religion out of this and talk about how Muslim civilization got where it is. We suffer many blind spots because of our Western centric point of view. One of the most egregious has to do with the rise of the Muslim Empires. Our ignorance has often bought us to accept our adversary’s historic worldview. It is myopic.

Everybody remembers the Roman Empire fell in 476. Barbarians - whose idea of culture was peeing up against ancient monuments - replaced it. Not quite accurate. In fact, the Roman Empire didn't fall until 1453. The lost parts included Rome, but they were not the richest or most advanced provinces. The Empire in the East, which included the heartland of the ancient world - Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and the Levant - continued. We call it the Byzantine Empire; they just called themselves Roman. To put it in terms we blog about, it is as if the "red states" plus Washington DC fell to outside invaders leaving only the "blue states". What would you think?

What most of us don't learn in our history classes is that the rival of this Roman Empire was Persia, the heir to a long and splendid civilization. They fought an extended bloody war. The Romans won, but both sides were exhausted. It was just then that Arab Muslim warriors appeared. Had they shown up a generation earlier or later, either the Romans or the Persians could have dispatched them as they had so many other brigands from the southern deserts. Now they were able to conquer all the Christian Roman lands in North Africa and the Middle East and all of the exhausted Persian Empire.

There were never many Arabs and they brought little in the way of material culture. They acquired and ruled the still prosperous cultures that were heirs of the ancient world. There were no "dark ages" here before the Arab conquest. The Arab policy of taking many wives and concubines from the conquered population ensured what we would probably call ethnic cleansing today. Their enslaving and relocation of existing populations changed the face of the region. Within a few generations, the structures developed over four millennia were gone. Ancient cities, vineyards and fields were abandoned to the deserts. Being a very small minority compared to their conquered populations and without the skills required to run a complex state, the conquerors were tolerant. Since they relied on the conquered peopled for most of the arts, crafts, sciences, often administration and most of the actual work, they had little choice.

The Arabs were consumers and transmitters of the cultures of their conquered peoples. The learning that helped spark the Renaissance in Europe came via Muslim Spain or from refugees fleeing Muslim conquest of places like Constantinople. But it rarely originated from Arab sources. Western Europeans were getting back the learning of the ancient world plus advances that came from the ancient cultures of Persia or India.

The parallel with the modern world is interesting. Today Arab wealth comes from oil produced with outside technologies, outside initiative and usually outside labour.

The accusation of Western imperialism against the Muslim world is accurate, but incomplete. It all depends on when you start counting. If you look at history from about AD 700 onwards, you see a vast Muslim Empire that seems vibrant and cultured. But if you go back just a little farther, you find these very same places already had advanced and vibrant non-Muslim cultures that didn't voluntarily become part of the Muslim world, and know that this world was created by Muslim imperialism.

For the next thousand years(actually until 1683 when the Poles and Austrians defeated the Turks at Vienna), the imperialism was on the Muslim side. Think about the location of Vienna and you will see just how far it got. For the next century and a half there was equilibrium. Muslim imperialism reached into the heart of Europe even into the 20th Century.

It was only recently - because of superior science and technologies - that the West was able to first hold its own and then expand on the world stage. This was not a bad thing. Western civilization created a more tolerant and prosperous world than anyone imagined. Before we feel guilty about our own culture, consider that a Muslim is freer to worship his God according to his choice in the U.S. or the UK than in any Islamic country in the world or the history of the world.

The most benevolent place is here (in the West) and the most benevolent time is now. At least when you consider everything that went before on any kind of large scale, it is not bad. Let's just get our worldviews right and leave the shorter time frames to others.

Posted by Jack at August 9, 2005 10:51 PM