Look at any culture that lauds its past, and you'll find a culture that's been defeated, beaten back, or overrun. You'll see a culture that's lost its greatness, and now can only remember its past.
Apparently this is true of religion too, and Islam is giving us a wonderful illustration. A new exhibit, 1001 Inventions: Science in Muslim Lands, is glorifying the "Golden Age" of Muslim scholars. During this period, from the mid-8th to mid-13th century, Islamic scholars led the world in navigation, mathematics, engineering, science, history, and agriculture. According to Wikipedia:
The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur'anic injunctions and hadith such as "The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of martyrs" stressing the value of knowledge. During this period the Muslim world became a major intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education. They established the "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad, where scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sought to gather and translate all the world's knowledge into Arabic in the Translation Movement. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been forgotten were [saved]."Inventions such as algebra became the foundation of modern mathematics and science. Toothpaste, water pumps, clocks, windmills, cryptography ... the list goes on and on.
They even saved Christianity from itself. A great deal of the history of Roman rule before and during the time of Jesus was destroyed by Christians – cities were sacked and libraries burned – and this knowledge would have been lost forever if not for the careful preservation and translation by Islamic scholars.
It is terribly ironic that Muslims are now trotting out the great achievements of their past. If Islam still had that same esteem for scholarship and science that marked the Golden Era of Islam, they wouldn't have boast about these old accomplishments. They would instead be making even more wonderful discoveries and inventions. The past would pale by comparison to the accomplishments of today. Sadly, it isn't so.
Where did this wonderful Islamic scholarship go? How did the once-great Islamic love for discovery and tolerance turn into the Islam of today that denies evolution, guts the scientific curriculum of great universities, and discourages learning? (See New Saudi University Torpedoed by Islam?)
It's tragically simple: Religion and science are incompatible. Faith and science are enemies, armies of memes lined up on the battlefield. Only one can survive in the end. As knowledge (scientific memes) propagates through society, it inevitably comes into direct conflict with the teachings of the holy books of the Abrahamic religions. Islam is no exception.
The Golden Age of Islam was a golden age precisely because of the youth of science. Basic math, astronomy, biology and geology didn't conflict with Islam. In fact, I can imagine how the wondrous discoveries of the Golden Age seemed to emphasize the greatness of Allah.
But it wasn't sustainable. Religion can't foster science for long, because science insists on facts, and religion insists that faith is more important than facts. Inevitably, science started challenging Islam's authority and the words of the Qur'an itself.
Islam, which fostered the very foundation of modern science, had to part ways with science and engineering. Now all it can do is look back.
So take a look at the 1001 Inventions web site – it's pretty amazing. And think about how sad it is that it had to end.