Friday, September 3, 2010

1001 Inventions: The Once-Great Islam's Great Decline

Nations and cultures in decline seem to revel in their past greatness. In fact, if you find a culture that's loudly proclaiming its past accomplishments, it's a sure bet that the culture is in decline. Young people look forward, old folks look backwards, and so it is with cultures and nations. Just go to the British Museum and you'll see what I mean: the country that once stretched around the world now rules an island, but loves to bask in its history.

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.


  1. Craig, you should ask WHY Islam has experienced such a decline from its auspicious beginnings. There was this little thing called The Crusades, still ongoing, apparently. Dar-al-Islam was overrun by hordes of ignorant barbarians from the West, who destroyed their libraries, killed their scholars and stole anything that could be carried off. From the 10th century till now, Western powers have been suppressing any advances in the Muslim world and fighting any attempts to stabilize the region so we can continue to play them against eachother and steal all their stuff. It's important to recognize that the hateful ignorance that is the hallmark of fundamentalist Islam today has its roots as an import from western Christianity.

    1. To Anonymous of Sept 6, 2010
      Your rant is historically inaccurate and your meme is intellectually dishonest. The Crusades were comparatively small relative to the constant jihads conducted against Europe by Islam during the same period as well as before and for centuries afterward. Moreover, before the then relatively recent conquest of the middle east by Islam it was largely a Greek or Helenic society based on trade and commerce, not conquest by the sword. The Crusades were a counter attack across thin stretch of coastline, not some massive invasion by hordes. That was done by the Mongols.

      The Abbasidian Caliphate rule was briefly ended for three years in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the Mongol khan, sacked Baghdad, resuming in Mamluk Egypt in 1261.

      Islam effectively destroyed its own abilities to advance during the Abbasidian Caliphate when it closed "the gate of ijtihad", independent thought. The clerics outlawed concepts such as cause and effect, killing the use of scientific inquiry for almost a millenium. You cite "the hateful ignorance that is the hallmark of fundamentalist Islam today", but the cause is an adherence to the Koran, Sira and Hadith doctrine books, using some very twisted logic.

      Your education is wanting. Unfortunately accurate and complete histories are not taught in US primary schools nor our colleges and universities. But that is a different discussion.

  2. Anon – it's an interesting thesis you make, that Islam imported its anti-science attitude from Christianity. But I don't believe it's true. I stand by the main message of my blog, that fundamentalist religion is incompatible with science. ALL fundamentalist religions, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other religion that makes claims that science can refute, will inevitably evolve anti-science memes.

    In other words, it's a case of co-evolution, not one of an inherited or adopted trait. Christianity and Islam both evolved anti-science memes independently, and each would have done so without the other.

  3. "...religion insists that faith is more important than facts..."

    Science was the topic I studied least in school. Is it any wonder I went on to become a pastor? But I could not escape reality for long. Thank humanity for science.

  4. Hey! Get your facts right, please! Just because you're anti-religious, which is a perfectly worthy endeavour in itself, doesn't mean you are let off when you get things wrong!!

    The British Museum existed in 1753, well before British Imperialism had generated a world-wide Empire. That only came to realisation in Victorian times, 100 years later. Besides, it isn't and never WAS Britain specific. The Museum was founded to celebrate and preserve a whole human history of culture and achievement, which it aims to do to this day...

    Google "A History of the World in 100 objects," which the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has just presented to the nation by means of a daily spot on BBC Radio 4. It started with an object from 2 million years ago; I don't think even the Brits have a "national" heritage spreading back THAT far!!

  5. Baz – I didn't mean to disparage the British Museum at all. It is a truly wonderful institution, one that I visit every time I'm in the UK. In fact I picked on it because it does illustrate my point (that Britain was once a much larger empire), and because such an august institution can take a bit of ribbing without coming out tarnished. I tried to think of other examples of the once-great cultures (just think about your world history and you can easily identify a couple dozen) that are now much reduced. Almost to the last one if you criticize them or make fun of them, you'll get howls of protest and be accused of cultural insensitivity or racism.

    I picked the British Museum because my last name is James and my family roots are in Wales, so I'm poking fun at my own culture, and it is still an institution that ranks as one of the finest in the world. So your point is well taken, but I'd like to think an upstart author like me is not going to put much of a dent in the Museum's reputation.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.