The “Arab Spring” Is Going The Same Way As “The Golden Age of Islamic Science”—And For The Same Reasons


When the rebellions in the Arab world broke out, most commentators were quick to declare that an “Arab Spring” had come to the Middle East. There was a widespread assumption in the West that the Arab world would soon be engulfed by demands for the institution of liberal democratic governments in most, if not all the Arab countries.


Many were therefore shocked by the seeming meteoric rise in strength of the Moslem Brotherhood and the even more extreme Salafist theocrats…and many of those who were so quick to talk of an “Arab Spring” now use the term “Arab Winter” instead.


The confusion that has accompanied the Moslem hardliners’ rise to power is not dissimilar to the ongoing wonderment and debate over why the so-called “Golden Age” of Islamic science died too.


I haven’t seen a comparison of these two events, which took place nearly 1000 years apart, in any of the media articles being written. But a close look at both events shows that there is a great similarity in the reasons why they took place.


So, this article will present a short historical review of how and why the scientific golden age came about, why it collapsed, and finally how and why that collapse is similar to the political events we see taking place around us in the Arab world today.


When we think about Islam today, we tend to consider it only in terms of a religion based on a single prophet’s religious revelation. But its foundation was also a major political event. Mohammed saw his revelation as a means to unify all the tribes of Arabia, and halt the seemingly endless tribal bloodletting there, by imposing a single, in his view, universal understanding of what God wanted of all mankind. To that end, the new religion adopted a rigid set of laws, called the Sharia. And the bloodletting, at least in theory, was refocused from the tribes to non-believers.


In order to impose the new laws, the new religious leaders needed a political framework to police the laws. The result was the concept of the Caliphate, in which the leader would govern based on Sharia, as interpreted by the leading legal scholars of the day. In theory, at least, the Caliph was supposed to be chosen by consensus.


However, almost immediately after Mohammed death in 632 the system broke down. The first caliph was Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, who ruled for only two years. His successor, Umar ibn Khattab was personally chosen by Abu Bakr on his deathbed, but he too didn’t last very long because he was killed by his servant. The third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, was chosen by a council of elders, called the Majlis. But he too was murdered—this time by a group of dissidents. The fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, faced a series of civil wars, and lasted for only 5 years before he too was assassinated.


I am providing this pocket history for two reasons. The first is that that Ali’s death led to Islam’s first and greatest schism—between the followers of Ali, who became known as Shiites, and the rest of the followers of Islam, who became known as Sunnis. The second reason is that, with Ali’s death, the political leadership of Islam was transferred to a hereditary dynasty. Authoritarianism, not consensual politics, had won the day and became the model for rule in most of the Islamic states from then on.


These factors, which I have never seen mentioned in any media reports, had a powerful impact on the development of Islamic science, and are having a potent effect on the Arab rebellions today.


But first, I must return to the subject of Arab self-governance and flesh out the subject a bit more.


One of the most important elements that have driven the Shia/Sunni split ever since it began was the difference between the two groups over who should govern the Ummah, the nation of Islam.   Sunni Islam stipulates that the head of state, the caliph, should be selected by a Shura – in other words, elected by a council of Muslim wise men or their representatives. Followers of Shia Islam, on the other hand, believe the caliph should be an imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (Muhammad’s direct descendents). The electors should be an imam’s peers.


There is no place in this scheme of things for what Westerners call “democracy”—the sovereignty of the people and their right to choose their leaders. This is because Islam is based on the concept that the ultimate sovereign is God. He has limitless and terrifying power. Only those who have studied the Koran and the Hadith can possibly have even an inkling into what God wants. This means that the masses are expected to be followers of the clergy, not leaders or initiators.


Incidentally, among Shiites, the direct progeny of Muhammed are designated by, and are the only ones permitted to wear a black turban.


If you have ever noticed, both Ayatollah Khamenai and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah both wear black turbans—designating them as both the progeny of Mohammed and people chosen by God to rule. For all his religious learning, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, for example, could never become Iran’s supreme leader because he wears a white turban.


In Sunni Islam, an imam is usually just a prayer leader in a mosque, while in Shia Islam an Imam has far greater status because he is considered to be bereft of sin and infallible.


Now why is this important to us? It’s simple.


The United States has based its entire recent policy towards the Arab world on the premise that it must foster democracy everywhere. But among Moslems, democracy, at least as Westerners define the term, has no inherent legitimacy as a political system. The only role democracy plays, if it is used, is to enable “rightly-chosen” leaders to take their appointed place in the political hierarchy. After that, it can be disregarded.


One of the greatest mistakes the Americans made after invading Iraq was to believe that they could impose democracy in a country that was incapable of electing a single national leader by popular vote—a leader whose legitimacy, after the election, was unquestioned by all the electors. The plurality of Iraqis, religious Arab Shiites, could only vote for an imam or his representative, while the second largest minority, the religious Arab Sunnis, could only vote for a person chosen by a Majlis, or council of Sunni elders and Islamic scholars. Any person elected in any other way, ipso facto, has no legitimacy to either religious Sunnis or to religious Shiites in Iraq.


The same is true in Iran. So long as religious Moslems remain a majority in Iran, all efforts, including those by Americans, to foster “regime change” and to create a secular leadership will come to naught.


But the Shia/Sunni division is not the only source of instability in the Islamic world. Despite his battles, Mohammed was never able to overcome the problems that arise from tribalism. Blood relations remain the paramount social structure in the Arab world.

In fact, almost immediately after Mohammed’s death, a series of civil wars, based on clan and tribal allegiances, broke out.


What we see in Libya today is therefore no aberration, but the continuation of a long history of tribal warfare that began long before Mohammed’s arrival on the scene.


Modern science in the West began when the right of individuals to think independently began to take precedence over the rights of a ruling, tribal aristocracy of barons, petty princelings and kings…and the right of the monopolistic Catholic Church to decide which subjects were permissible for study and debate.


In Europe, and later America, this breakdown in the existing power structure eventually led to the creation of the nation-state…and to democratic rule, in which the residents of the state, at least in theory, are the sovereigns. No less importantly, it also led to the development and acceptance of the scientific method, which demanded that assertions about the natural world be accompanied by decisive proof.


The Arabs, however, took a different tack. In order to cope with tribalism, they consistently sought out a single strong leader who was backed by a religious body. That body was usually willing to trade support and religious legitimacy for the leader in return for the leader granting the religious leaders the perks and privileges which they believed were rightfully theirs. That is precisely the form of government that exists in Saudi Arabia today. In this system, because God is the ultimate sovereign, the individual has no inherent rights.


The first of these strong leaders founded the Umayyad Caliphate. Although the family was from Mecca, it established its capital in Damascus.


While Islamic beliefs required that the Caliph be chosen by a Majlis, the Umayyads immediately set about establishing the principle of hereditary rule.


That was the end of the proto-democracy that the early Islamists had envisaged.


The Umayyads came to power at a particularly propitious time. The endless wars between the Byzantine and the Persian empires had weakened both. That made them less formidable on the battlefield. No less importantly, their constant fighting had forced them to tax their subjects very heavily. Thus, when the Islamic armies arrived, many of the new subjects of the Caliph were attracted by the promise of lower taxes; and for that reason, amongst others, most of the newly-conquered peoples were also willing to convert to Islam.


Their sudden victories then enabled the Islamic rulers to claim that their successes had been the product of God’s direct intervention, and that anyone failing to obey Islamic teachings was disobeying God’s will. Even today, those long-past military victories are used by Islamic missionaries as justification for their claims that Islam is the only true, universal religion.


Instead of imposing heavy taxes, the Umayyads were able to pay for their interminable wars through the plunder they acquired during their military campaigns. And within 90 years, they had assembled the seventh largest contiguous empire the world has ever known.


However, the caliphate also quickly became a victim of its own successes. Much of its tax money initially came from what were called “dhimmis”—those Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Berbers and others—who were considered third class citizens, and thus more heavily taxed than Moslems.


But as more and more of the dhimmis converted to Islam, there were fewer and fewer of them to pay the heavier taxes.


Not only that, the Umayyads made several crucial mistakes. Probably the most important of these was that they treated the new converts as second class citizens and favoured Arabs when they handed out public positions. Understandably, since many of the new converts were more educated and more civilized than the former desert dwellers, there was resentment.


On a broader scale, though, privileged positions in government meant not only greater status, but also access to corruption and money. Thus, the Arabs could afford more wives, which then created a severe market shortage in women available for marriage.


This phenomenon worked both for and against the rulers.


On the negative side, it created resentment on the part of young men. Not only was there shortage of women, but precisely because of the scarcity, the bride price also rose.


On the positive side, from the point of view of the Umayyad rulers, the young men’s need for a big dowry then enticed them to join the army, which provided the Umayyads with more soldiers. As might be expected, many of these soldiers were then killed in battle—which reduced the surplus of vigorous, young males. Those who survived, though, could expect to gain the money they needed from plunder and booty, which meant that they would not turn their anger on the government of the day.


The thing was, though, the advantage the Moslems had acquired because they were facing weakened empires, eventually dissipated, and new competitors for power arrived. After the Umayyads suffered their first big defeats, at the hands of the Europeans at Tours and at the hands of some of the Asian tribes, the amount of plunder dropped and the Umayyads had no choice but to raise taxes…and, no less importantly, the soldiers no longer had access to booty. With no booty, soldiers’ morale also dropped.


Henceforth, when Moslems came to believe that they could not have enough bread or enough money for a dowry, they have been be willing to join forces with whomever appeared to be a new savior—the very situation that brought about the downfall of Mubarak in our day. The primary reason behind the rebellion against Mubarak by the secular youngsters was that they could not find jobs to pay for bread and a dowry.


Clearly, anyone or any party that takes office and cannot come up with a comprehensive plan to rebuild the Egyptian economy, is doomed to fail and is likely to face another popular revolt.


It’s worth noting that although the protesters in Cairo railed about just about everything under the sun, even the most militant feminists never mention the words “bride price,” which grooms must pay their betrothed before they get married. This is because none of the Islamic countries has a legal provision for providing women and children with financial sustenance in the event of divorce or abandonment.


In the case of the Umayyads, revenge by the dispossessed and the disenchanted was also not long in coming. A rival tribe, the Abbasids, began preaching rebellion among the disenchanted—and especially among the Shiites, who were also being discriminated against.


Full-scale war broke out, and all but one member of the ruling family of Umayyads, including all the women and children, were hunted down and killed. The sole survivor fled first to Egypt, and eventually made it to the outer region of the Umayyad territories, Spain, where he established what eventually came to be known as the “Cordoba Caliphate.”


It was only at this point, a hundred years after Mohammed, that what we today call “the Islamic golden age” really began. And the lessons that can be drawn from the successes and failures of this period of history are truly profound. They apply not just to the Arab world, but to almost everyone else.


So let us go through at least some of the lessons one by one.


The first, and maybe most important one, is that during this period of Islamic history, itjihad, or individual thinking, was still permitted.


I’ll come back to ijtihad in a moment. But before then, I have to explain the overall social and political environment in which ijtihad prospered.


The Abbasids inherited an empire that was so large that it was largely ungovernable because of the huge distances involved. So, unlike the Umayyads, who looked down on all non-Arabs, the Abbasids, courted their new, fellow co-religionists—especially the Persians. Unlike the Umayyads, the Abbasids recognized that they simply didn’t have enough educated Arabs to run an empire. They needed a corps of competent bureaucrats who knew how to run such things as an imperial postal service. The Persians, who had run an extensive empire of their own prior to the Moslem conquest, were the obvious choice to man these positions. As a result, the capital was moved from Damascus to the brand new city of Baghdad, largely so that the Abbasid leadership could be closer to Persia.


Since even before the days of Alexander the Great, Persia had been a repository of not only of Greek philosophy and science, but also of knowledge gained from trade with neighbouring countries such as India and China.


In order to take advantage of all that knowledge, the Abbasids set up a royal library in Baghdad called “The House of Wisdom,” and embarked on one of the biggest translation projects in history. They were greatly aided by an invention that had just arrived from China—papermaking. The arrival of paper was revolutionary because it was relatively cheap, unlike parchment. It wasn’t brittle, like papyrus. And it actually absorbed ink and was thus more permanent. The arrival of paper had an effect that was comparable in its day to Gutenberg’s later invention of moveable type and the advent of the internet in our own times.


Knowledge, for the first time, became more easily accessible. And because it was all deposited in one place, a person could draw from different disciplines while researching something. In other words, these early Moslems were engaging in interdisciplinary scholarship long before the term was invented.


The world’s first university was only founded in Bologna after the turn of the first millennium, so the House of Wisdom was sort of a proto-university—a half-way step between the Greek agora and the Athenian academies, and the university as we understand the term today.


Such an environment naturally attracted a whole coterie of people seeking knowledge—including Jews and Byzantine Christians who were suffering under increasing censorship by the increasingly orthodox Church.


This need to provide for a free-flow of people and ideas within a single, open-plan, architectural setting, in order to foster intellectual entrepreneurship, has only recently been rediscovered by successful companies like the Bell Labs and Apple.


The question that then arises is: How did the Abbasid caliphs pay for all this—especially since there were no new sources of plunder? And the answer is that they did so by allowing the growth of a competitive middle class—and especially of that class most despised by both Chinese and Marxist social theoreticians—a bourgeoisie. The merchant class, which was based on trade, was both a source of continuing taxable income, and a continuing source of new ideas and technologically-advanced products that the traders were bringing in from afar.


Too much taxation or a closed environment where only those merchants who have close ties to the authorities have access to permits and credit (as occurred in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East in recent years), would have been crippling to the Abbasids, and have been a disaster for most modern Arab countries.


I should add here that many of these ancient traders were Jews. In fact, most of the activity on the five main trade routes that ran through these Islamic lands to Europe were run by Jews for the simple reason that the Jews were the only people living in both Asia and Europe who spoke and could communicate with each other in a single language—Hebrew.


Not only that, unlike the Moslems, who thought themselves superior in every way to the European Christians, and therefore didn’t feel any need to have any intellectual contact with them, the Jews were willing to talk to everyone,  learn from everyone, and pay taxes—even outrageously high taxes—to whoever was in  position of authority.


The very opposite scenario was played out in the Arab states during the twentieth century. With the rise of what was termed “Arab nationalism,” the Jews, Armenians and Greeks who had formed the basis of the trading merchant class in Arab lands were all expelled or otherwise forced to leave from places in the Middle East where they had lived for millennia. As a result, one of the most important conduits of new knowledge disappeared from the Arab world.


But let’s get back to medieval Baghdad. For all the reasons I have already given, it is no wonder, therefore, that within a relatively short period, Baghdad went from being a “no place” to the largest city in the world, with a population of over a million inhabitants. This growth in urban populations then meant that there was a greater need for efficiency in the production of food for the non-agrarian population. The result was the need to invent of all sorts of new, semi-industrial machinery such as more efficient water wheels, not only for use in irrigation, but also for grinding grains. From there it was only a hop, step and jump to other innovations based on the water wheel such as the industrial production of other needed goods, including that new and highly-desired product—paper.


In fact, one can say that the golden age in Spain only took off after an Abbasid brought the first paper-making plant to Umayyad Spain.


Today, none of the Arab states can produce enough food to feed their own populations. And thus valued tax money and foreign exchange has to be used to purchase food, when it could have been used for education, infrastructure, and the other prerequisites for a technologically-based modern industrial economy.


Another important feature of the Abbasid Empire was that, unlike the regimes in almost all Arab countries today, there was a relatively great deal of local autonomy, and the central authority was relatively weak. Thus rather than having heavy-handed policies established by the caliph, there was a great deal of freedom for local initiatives by viziers and local emirs…and this brought about competition between these local leaders. That competition then fostered the merchant class, which, among other things, could provide these leaders with symbols of authority such as rich silks and other luxury items. Many of these leaders then also used the local taxes they imposed for other prestige-providing projects such as the establishment of their own academies.


And now I have to come back to the point I mentioned earlier—the flourishing of itjihad, or individual intellectual exploration.


This atmosphere of intellectual ferment produced a class of scholars and researchers and philosophers whose members tried to meld science, religion and the arts with rationalist Greek philosophy—especially the work of Aristotle. The first major figure to emerge from this group was Abu Yusuf Yaʻqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Sabbah al-Kindī. In addition to being the head of the caliph’s translation project, he wrote 260 books on subjects as diverse as astrology, philosophy, optics, medicine, chemistry (not alchemy, which he hated), mathematics, crytography, music theory, perfumes, swords, jewels, glass dyes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology and earthquakes.


Then came Abū Naṣr Muḥammad al-Fārābī, one of the great intellects of his time or any other time. And finally, and arguably the greatest of all the polymaths of the translation period, the Arab world was blessed with  Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā (known in the West as Avicenna), who wrote at least 450 treatises including a medical encyclopaedia that, translated into Latin, was subsequently used in Europe for over 500 years.


I think that it’s noteworthy that all three were Persians, not Arabs.


There were many other scholars and researchers who were not slouches either. For example, Rhazes, another Persian, discovered that fever was part of the body’s defence mechanism. And al-Bruni measured the earth’ circumference with almost perfect accuracy using a trigonometric method he invented. The list goes on and on.


But as usually happens when religion becomes established, institutionalized and authoritarian, orthodoxy reared it head. Within a hundred years after the beginning of the great translation project, religious hardliners encouraged the caliph to issue an order forbidding further copying of any books on philosophy.


What eventually became known as the Ash’ari school of Islam had begun a massive challenge to the rationalists. Their doctrine held, for example, that there is no such thing as “natural laws” because God is completely free to do as He chooses. In other words, the fact that the sun rises in the east is not necessarily fixed because God could choose to make the sun rise in the west at any time.


So much for the study of physics, which forms the basis of industrialization and our modern technological age. And so much for the widespread adoption of the scientific method.


The man who consolidated the anti-rationalists’ position was a mystic theologian named Hamid al-Ghazali—and one can see the impact of his beliefs on the streets of Cairo today and throughout the Sunni Islamic world. In his book “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” he attacked al Farabi and Ibn Sina because he believed that philosophy was incompatible with Islamic teaching. Reason, he argued, was the enemy of mankind because it teaches people to question and to innovate independently of God.


The immediate result of al-Ghzali’s teachings and their widespread acceptance, was what has now come to be called “the closing of the gates of ijtihad.” In its place, clerics enforced a form of religious absolutism called “taqlid,” that translates literally as “copying” or obeying without question.” In other words, believers were expected to chose a religious scholar as a model and then adopt his every belief and copy his every action without questioning.


We see this in action in Egypt today, where the same arguments and even the same phrases used by the Moslem Brotherhood’s leaders in Cairo are repeated, almost verbatim by the imams in the smallest villages.


The last of the great Islamic polymaths, Ibn Rushd, (known as Averroes in the West) was a contemporary of Maimonides in Cordoba. He tried desperately to maintain and foster the Greek philosophical tradition within Islam, but failed because politics and religion within Islam are so intertwined. As I mentioned earlier, Islam needs a political state to enforce its laws, and Islamic political leaders need the approval of the clergy to be considered legitimate.


The banning of dissent satisfies the needs of both parties. The way it is usually done, is to charge the person in question with such crimes as heresy and blasphemy—heinous, but indefinable cardinal sins in Islam. Ibn Rushd, for example, was banished for heresy and his books burned. In countries run by more secular Arab leaders, “crimes against the state,” or “sowing public discord,” of “fostering terrorism,” no less indefinable crimes, serve the same purpose.


In the end, education, in the form of madrassas, or religious academies, became the primary educational institutions in Moslem lands, and the exclusive fiefdoms of the clerics. For that reason, independent bodies devoted to knowledge based on other than religious teachings, such as universities, never developed in Islamic countries until recently. Even more importantly, translation of foreign texts into Arabic ended almost completely.


As a result, scientific exploration by independent-thinking individuals began to peter out as well because what today are often called “core subjects” (math, physics, biology and foreign languges) were not being taught; and rote learning became accepted practice within the whole Islamic world.


Although historians have usually attributed the end of the golden age to events such as the Crusades, the reconquista in Spain and the Mongol sacking of Baghdad, the fact is that Arab society had already become intellectually fossilized because it no longer had a core of independent thinkers who were trained and capable of coming up with imaginative solutions to new threats and challenges.


The results of this turn of events are highly visible today.


A study by the journal “Physics Today,” found that Moslem countries have an average of 9 scientists, engineers and technicians per thousand population compared to a world average of 42. There are now about 1800 universities in Moslem lands, but only 312 of them have scholars who have published journal articles. Most of these “modern universities,” by the way, are in non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan.


Although there are approximately 1.6 billion Moslems, only two have ever won a Nobel prize for science. And, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, according to a UN study, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab word has translated in the last thousand years.


A survey of current Arab science by the prestigious scientific journal Nature found only three areas of science in which Islamic countries excel—desalination, falconry and camel reproduction.


One major reason why this happened, which is never discussed in the media, is that after al-Ghazali, the Moslem world tended to view knowledge in much the same way that modern Arab leaders have come to view other natural resources—as a fixed quantity that has been granted by God and can only be renewed when and if God wishes to reveal more of His secrets. And, as I mentioned earlier, at any time, God could choose to change all accepted premises about the natural world, so the study of the natural world was perceived to be a waste of time.


In other words, the Arab leaders have had a rentier mindset—one in which people believe they can take natural resources, but don’t feel obliged to invest in alternatives to their reliance on those natural resources…alternatives that can sustain an economy over time, even after the resources have run out.


In effect, throughout the Arab world, we have seen the rentier mindset applied to intellectual resources as well.


Thus even when Moslem countries were defeated in war by technologically-superior weaponry, their response, as was the case among the so-called “Young Turks,” was to try to buy this knowledge, rather than develop indigenous responses. We see similar examples today in the Gulf States today, which are trying to buy or sponsor whole western-style universities without changing the rote system of education in primary and secondary schools that inhibit the individual thinking that is crucial to any university’s success.


All of which brings us back to the rebellions today. The major thing that you have to remember is that these rebellions have been “rebellions against” not “rebellions for.” Not one of the opposition groups in any of the Arab countries where the revolts have taken place has proposed an agenda for change. Just going to the voting booth does not guarantee a change in policies.


So, in the recent election campaigns there have been a lot of slogans, but not much more. The Moslem Brotherhood, for example, claims that “Islam is the solution.” But it doesn’t say what it is a solution to—to high unemployment? To low agricultural productivity? To a paucity of marketable patents?


Likewise, the Salafists call for a return a pristine and pious past. But we have already seen that that past is one of the main reasons why Moslems have had such a difficulty in coping with the challenges of modernity.


In both cases, nostalgia is no practical way of dealing with pressing issues. In fact it stands in the way. It has produced what Fouad Ajami has labeled “a political tradition of self-pity.”


Thus, instead of confronting issues directly, what we have been seeing today is an attempt to use the same techniques employed in the past to flee from dealing with those very issues.


The need to maintain “national honour” is the excuse most often given for a failure or a refusal to confront difficult problems. Thus, for example, the ruling military junta in Egypt, at the very time that the economy was collapsing and the country’s foreign exchange reserves were being dangerously depleted, turned down an offer from the IMF for a loan on very advantageous terms. The reason given as that accepting such a loan would be dishonorable because it could be understood to be an act of Western colonialism. Likewise, despite their chronic food shortages, the Egyptians refuse to accept Israeli agricultural advice because to do so is also perceived to be dishonorable.


As well, conspiracy theories abound. Colonialism, which has been long gone from the area, is still being blamed for any and all faults in the existing social system. And of course, anti-Zionism remains the fall-back position when all other arguments and excuses fail.


Replacing these comforting but counter-productive escape mechanisms with ijtihad and an educational system designed to promote original thought—and not jut introducing formalistic democracy—may, in the end, be the biggest challenge the Islamic world is facing today.


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