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The Dilemma of Islamic Civilisation: St. Thomas was Right

As the deadline for a proper response from the Iranians regarding their nuclear weapons programme passes, it probably behooves a few of us to step back and think: what is Islamic culture and civilisation all about? What would things be like if they actually achieved their objectives?  This is not an idle question. In the early years of Islam, conquest of vast civilisations was the rule rather than the exception. The early Muslim generals were right not to pursue conquest in Europe too hard; Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia were far more valuable places. All of these had been great nations at one time and even at the rise of Islam were still advanced from remote, crude places such as Britain and France.

Early Islamic civilisation was a wonder in many ways, especially when it got past the usual power holder/power challenger/careerist Arab politics. A good example of this were the Crusades. Muslims were not only able to (eventually) run the Christian forces out of the Holy Land, they were also able to demonstrate to same forces that they were living like pigs (and, as Moses Maimonides reminded us, with them) back home. Such was an impetus to do better. And Europe did. The whole genesis of modern Islamic radicalism is a shame-honour reaction to “Western” superiority, especially in the sciences. So how did this reversal take place?

One explanation comes to us in a book entitled The Ancient Engineers, written by one L. Sprague de Camp. He describes what happened to Islamic civilisation in the wake of the devastation of the Mongol invasions by the likes of Tamerlane as follows:

As a result of these devastations, Islam underwent another change: a return to religion. Many caliphs had been indifferent Muslims–skeptics, materialists, winebibbers. In view of the disasters that had befallen upon Islam, the time was ripe for a return to the true faith. In +XII and +XIII lived two of the greatest philosophers of the age. The first was an Iranian, al-Ghazzali; the second, a Neapolitan, Tomaso d’Aquino or St. Thomas Aquinas.

The pious and learned Saint Thomas (1225-74) spent much of his life arguing, at enormous length and in tiny illegible handwriting, that there was no conflict between science and religion; that all truth was one, and that therefore Aristotle’s logic must fit into the Christian faith. In face, Saint Thomas promoted Aristotle to a kind of pre-Christian saint.

The pious and learned Ghazzali (1058-1111) also studied the science and philosophy of the Greeks but came to different conclusions. After mature and searching consideration, he decided that these studies were harmful, because they shook men’s faith in God and undermined religion: “they lead to loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the creator.”

Europe followed St. Thomas, while Islam followed Ghazzali. For example, in 1150 the Khalifah of the moment proved his piety by burning the books of a philosophical library of Baghdad. As a result of these diverging trends, science and technology flowered in Europe so richly and advanced so swiftly that the rest of the world is still breathlessly trying to catch up. On the other hand, science in Islam withered away.

The real irony is that Ghazzali was right and Saint Thomas wrong. Sciences does shake men’s faith in God and undermine religion. It has been doing so for many years and shows every sign of continuing to do so . As to how it will all end, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, only our remote descendants–if any–will be able to say. (L. Sprague de Camp, The Ancient Engineers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, p. 285 (original copyright 1960))

Although there is much truth to this quotation, Sprague de Camp overlooked an obvious fact: although he asserts St. Thomas was wrong, the Christian civilisation he contributed to moved forward in ways that the Islamic one Ghazzali contributed to did not. Like most secularists, Sprague de Camp both underestimates people with religious conviction and tends to run all religions together as the same when in fact they are not. This is why the secularists that inhabit the high places of North American and Europe just can’t quite fathom what they’re looking at when attempting to deal either with radical Islam or the Religious Right. (It also explains the many foreign policy errors that Western governments make when dealing with the “war on terror.”)

There are many was of explaining the disparity between Aquinas’ Christianity and Ghazzali’s Islam, but we prefer to go to the heart of the matter: the differing concepts of God. Anyone who has read St. Thomas Aquinas knows that he depicts a God who has free will, who chooses to consistently do good, and who has brought into being a creation that has order and structure (even though Aquinas and other Aristolelians don’t quite get how that order works.) That concept is backed up by the Bible, which shows us an orderly process from Creation forward. God himself has chosen to interact with his people on their level, which reached its culmination in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Such a concept invites people to look at the creation both inferior to its maker (an idea Christianity shares with Islam) and of interest to study and use. This proved a springboard for the Renaissance (which ended up being more than just a “rebirth” of the ancient world) and beyond. It survived its greatest challenge with the Reformation. For all of the positive things that came out of that, the radical Augustinianism that moulds Reformed theology is simply too close to an Islamic concept of God.

Turning to that, the Qur’an has an unbending consistency in setting forth the absolute sovereignty of God. Many of the self-imposed limitations (and we emphasise the phrase, “self-imposed,” we still hold that God is omniscient and omnipresent) of God as he interacts with his creation are out the window: goodness, caring and love for his creation and people, allowing his creatures free will, just about anything. Allah does as he pleases, and our only response is to submit. Such a concept leaves little room for anything else. This is why the two religions–and civilisations–went in two different directions.

As long as the Middle East and other Islamic areas were ruled by “local” rulers, especially the Ottomans, no one there gave the disparity much thought. It is the forced invasion of Western power, first colonial, then economic and last the establishment of a very Western (if not Christian) State of Israel proved a civilisational “shock and awe” the reaction to which the West is dealing with every day. It’s one thing to try to win by destroying your opponent, but what do you do for an encore? Islam has already dealt with this problem once. As we said above, the Crusades were a great victory for Islam. But the aftermath was centuries of decline. This may explain why most Muslims are defensive about the Crusades; they may have won the war but they followed up by losing the peace.

And this is the dilemma that thoughtful Muslims must wrestle with. We know from personal experience that there are many fine minds out there in the Islamic world labouring in scientific and technical fields. (We’ve helped a few along, too, with our free civil engineering downloads.) For the last half century, many Muslim nations have had the revenue to develop their countries in many ways, but far too much of this has been squandered. For example, the Iranians should have been able to develop their own nuclear capabilities without help from the Russians, but they did not. There are bright spots, but overall the impression is not a happy one.

Islamic radicals may be able to inflict a great deal of damage on the West, especially if our governments don’t shake off political correctness on the one hand and the raw, untempered desire to prove manliness on the other. But if such Muslims don’t adopt a more positive view of their purpose on this earth, someone will sooner or later defeat them, if they don’t inflict defeat amongst themselves. Can they find this in Islam? History, in this regard, is not encouraging. al-Ghazzali’s ghost still haunts the halls of power in Riyadh, Tehran and in bin Laden’s cave too, and until it is exorcised forward progress will be impossible.


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