Found it: The Islamic Golden Age!

19 September 2010
 Found it: The Islamic Golden Age!

EuropeNews 19 September 2010 By Henrik R. Clausen

Book essay: The Closing of the Muslim Mind, by Robert R. Reilly.

One of the more interesting memes regarding Islam is that of a so-called "Golden Age", a historical period when the Islamic world was affluent, progressive and a great place to live. As a historical, physical fact, that meme has been proven false. However, in the secluded area of philosophy, things are somewhat different. As the introduction states:

This book is about one of the greatest intellectual dramas in human history. Its landscape is the Muslim mind.

How man regards his powers of reason has been a decisive influence on the shape and destiny of civilizations, including the Islamic one. How could it be otherwise, when these rational powers affect how reality is perceived, how revelation is perceived, what can be known, and how to discern the meaning of the known?

This is the story of how Islam grappled with the role of reason after its conquests exposed it to Hellenic thought, and how the side of reason ultimately lost in the ensuing, deadly struggle. (The Closing of the Muslim Mind, page 1)
There was a time when Islam embraced Reason and Logic, respected dialogue and challenged Christianity in open debate, a time when Islamic philosophers and leaders did not act from fear of intellectual inferiority. That time was primarily from AD 813 through AD 833, under the rule of Caliph al-Mu'man, and to a lesser extent under the reign of the next two Caliphs, altogether 34 years until AD 847. For the intellectual, this period in Islamic history can indeed be considered 'Golden'.

Robert R. Reilly, in his book "The Closing of the Muslim Mind", sets out on an intellectual journey to identify this period, its influence on mainstream Islamic thought (Sunni Islam, to be exact. Shia Islam is different), how this intellectual freedom declined step by step. And in particular how it was ultimately killed off entirely by the Sufi imam Al-Ghazali, crushing the resistance of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was eventually declared a heretic, his books burned in public and he himself exiled.

In slightly over 200 pages, Reilly dives into the works of Islamic philosophers and the ideological battles that raged up to 1200 years ago, over the nature of Allah, free will vs. predestination, and the eventual defeat of rationalism in the struggle against strict Islamic law, Sharia. A short period of Hellenic influence can be found in the 9th century, followed by an extended period of decline, where over centuries the proponents of free will and rationality were exiled from the heart of Islam.

This book is a stratospheric intellectual journey, for good and for bad. It is not for those intimidated by long philosophical debates, for it does challenge the reader significantly. But for those up to the challenge, the book is highly rewarding, as it enables the reader to identify crucial details in the Islamist narrative, makes it possible to identify subtle sleights of hand, and thus to effectively counter it.

A peculiar feature of the book is that through focusing solely on the relatively narrow field of Islamic philosophy, the historical context of Islamic conquest, Jihad and the political system of Islam is largely not touched upon. This gives Reilly the freedom to address philosophical points on their own merits, but to get the full benefit of the book, it is very useful to have a solid historical background about how Islam developed and spread.

Worse, though, is the fact that Reilly ignores the brutality with which the Mu'tazelite view was enforced. There certainly was a lot of "compulsion in religion" in enforcing the Mutazilite view, and it was a far cry from being propagated through polite discourse and sincere conviction. Andrew Bostom describes the means applied by Caliph al-Mu'man in his article Bring Back Islam’s Mutazilite "Golden Age"?"

Along the way, Reilly explains in clear terms the problem of voluntarism, that according to Islamic theology every single happening in life, every stone dropping and every fire lighted, is but the direct expression of Allahs' will, and the catastrophic implications this has for the loss (in principle) of cause and effect in Islamic thinking. A reader of Christian background might well find this weird, but it is well worth it to be aware of these fundamental philosophical differences between Islam and other religions.

Eventually, Reilly does not restrict himself to philosophical deliberations. Towards the end of his book, he moves on to show how these philosophical principles, strange as it might sound, empowers the fundamentalists and the radicals of Islam – the very people we make so great effort to defeat.

The book is short, which is probably a good thing. It makes demands on the reader, but pays back well when proper time and deliberation is invested in it. For anyone desiring an insight in how Islamic tenets developed, and how it influences our world today, there is really nothing comparable. Purely historical accounts of Islam abound, philosophical explanations are rare. This is a very valuable contribution, but requires quite a bit of background knowledge to be fully appreciated.

Review opinion: One of a kind, 4/5

Opinion over and done with, let us have a closer look at what this book is about.

What is the "Islamic Golden Age"?

First a detour, though, from philosophical matters to what is more widely known as the Islamic Golden Age, and why it is of such great importance to the Islamist narrative. The myth is nicely summarized as it were fact on Wikipedia (usual Wikipedia caveats apply). More usefully, it defines the time period of the Golden Age:

The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally dated from the mid-8th to the mid-13th century A.D. (sack of Baghdad by Hulagu, the grand-son of Gengis-Khan).
This is simplistic, however, for it defindes it simply as the period of the first Abbasid Caliphate, which evades defining what exactly would make the age 'golden'. The Wikipedia article on the Abbasid Caliphate provides a more honest overview of the rise and decline of the period, showing that it was not exactly golden.

In contrast, here is the meme as propagated by Islamists, from

The Islamic Golden Age was of enormous importance to the development of world knowledge and technology. It came in a time when Islam and the People of the Book living under the nation of Islam were politically united and lived in harmony. As usually said, our unity has always lead to our strength and on the other hand fitna is the source of our weakness. The golden age of Islam brought about wonders to the world whether scientific, educational, architectural, medical and or any other subject one can think of.
A common feature of the Golden Age is to list inventions from the Islamic world, as done on their page on Islamic Inventions:
In Islam, it is encouraged to try and achieve the highest knowledge, in an Islamic civilization. The Muslims of the caliphate were reminded about this everyday. When people did try to achieve knowledge, they inspired many others to do so whether Muslim or not, as a result of this when the Caliphate and other Islamic states did exist; advances in technological, medical, social, judicial, scientific,political and many other areas were made everyday.
It's easy to ridicule such exaggerations, for example by pointing out that European inventions of the same period (not to mention later) are much too numerous to mention, that the inventions in the Islamic world were frequently done by non-Muslims, in spite of Islam, and to no benefit for the citizens of the Islamic countries at large. Or, to look it in another way, that since this intellectual creativity died out at least 750 years ago, the Islamic world must have been ruled by idiot, pirate slave-traders ever since – that it should get its act together and get more sensible rulers.

But that's not what the Islamists have in mind. Their narrative is different, as explained at

Besides being partially conquered multiple times Europe was economically revived thanks to the Muslim Golden Age, Europe would've been left behind in Medieval times if it were not for the Muslims.
While this is largely false, there is a seed of truth in there. Two, actually, for Islam did indeed make multiple incursions into Europe, the most famous being halted in AD 732 by Karl Martell. Islam remained the ruling system in Iberia, however, where the Reconquista went on for centuries trying to wrestle control of what is now Spain and Portugal from the Moors. The idea that Europe was economically revived due to the "Muslim Golden Age" is unsubstantiated and false, Europe created its own prosperity, and the Middle Ages were, when examined properly, anything but dark:

Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason:

Indeed, the so-called Dark Ages was not a time of nothing great being done; much was beginning to be done, mainly through the Catholic Church. Agriculture was progressing because of monasteries which had acquired large amounts of land and needed to use it more efficiently. Some towns developed around monasteries or other Church institutions for work and protection. The Church encouraged this [...]
The other seed of truth, so obscure that the author of would probably not be aware of it, is that when Toledo was conquered from the Moors in 1159, Europe gained access to Greek classics that had been translated into Arabic and kept safe in the library. Safe from influencing Islamic thinking and public philosophy, that is. When these works were translated into Latin, the influence on Christian philosophy was extensive, leading to a revival of philosophy, a clearer understanding of rationality, reason and logic, the first formulations of universal human rights, economical and technical progress, and a voluntary abandonment of slavery.

Thus, the Islamic world did indeed bring seeds of progress to Europe. In contrast to the Islamic world, the seeds found fertile soil, sprouted, grew and bore fruit. But the fact that the classic Greek texts survived in the Islamic world can hardly be credited to Islam itself. This happened in spite of Islam.

The Islamist narrative is not directly concerned with truth, however. The main purpose is that of glorifying Islam, and thereby contribute to making Islam rule supreme. Several elements here try to serve that purpose:

  • The belief that Islam revived Europe economically (our technological and accounting advances did that).
  • The idea that Muslims brought Europe out of the Middle Ages (the Middle Ages were fine in themselves).
  • The discreet notion that Europe 'owes' something to Islam. If anything, we owe only to credit Islam for motivating valiant self-defence. There is nothing owed, and nothing that makes Islam deserve any form of repayment.
  • And, not least, there is the implicit attempt to establish Islam as morally equivalent (at least) to Christianity.
This serves the fundamentalists well, for if there was indeed an Islamic Golden Age, something must have gone wrong later, for Islamic countries are obviously in a rather poor state today:
The myth of an Islamic Golden Age is needed by Islam's apologists to save it from being damned by its present squalid condition; to prove, as it were, that there is more to Islam than the terrorism of Bin Laden and the decadence of the oil sheiks. It is, frankly, a confession that if the world judges it by what it is today, it comes up rather short, being a religion that has yet to produce a democratic or prosperous society, or social and cultural forms admired by neutral foreign observers the way anyone can admire American freedom, Japanese order, Israeli courage, or Italian style.
The Islamist narrative supports the demand to return to a more strict form of Islam, as aptly formulated in the parody "It's in the Quran", which can be found on the Internet:
In our days of glory, now centuries past The kingdom of Islam stood mighty and vast Then we failed our faith and watched your power grow But soon our greatness will return and this is how we know

Because it's in the Koran, it's written in the Koran A world united under Allah is the future of man [...]The call to Jihad is nothing but the call to expend the effort to restore Islamic Faith, the Caliphate, and make the reign of Islam as extensive as possible. This is a battle cry we'd better heed. It is, in part, based on a misreading of history.

One of the ways we can counter the Jihad is to read history properly, give credit where credit is due, and destroy the legitimacy of religious zealots who claim that Europe (or the Jews) somehow 'stole' the grandness of Islam. A grandness that, upon examination, turns out to be largely based on exploiting the educated and hard-working non-Muslims in the countries conquered by Islam. This is detailed in several books, for instance Serge Trifkovic: The Sword of the Prophet, who (bluntly, yet based on historical fact) states:

Islam's "golden age" was parasitic on the Christian cultures and peoples it conquered, and ended when it "killed the host".

The real Islamic Golden Age

"A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas – in fact, it commits intellectual suicide", - Fazlur Rahman, Islamic scholar.
While Pope Benedictus XVI may be justified in pointing out that we in the West are slowly losing our Hellenic heritage of Reason, it is widely assumed that Islam has always been contrary to reason. This, surprisingly, is not the case. It just happens that Islam was dehellenized so early and so profoundly that even suggesting the idea that things have been different now constitutes heresy.

The roots of this is a debate about who God – in this case Allah – really is. Any such idea must necessarily be compatible with the foundation of Islam, the Quran, and to a lesser extent the hadith. The two main contestants for who Allah is were:

  • His absolute will and power
  • His qualities of justice and rationality
The role of reason is pivotal here. It has immense implications to know, for instance, if reason has any standing to address revelation, judging it against certain standards, or if revelation is above reason.

Since Muhammad was in no way a theologian, it was left for later generations to develop a theology from the Quran and other Islamic traditions. particularly after the extensive Islamic conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries, the need to develop a consistent notion of the divine became clear, as other religions bordering the Islamic world had long since wrestled with these problems and found well formulated answers to them. Islam needed to catch up, or have its credibility as a religion undermined. The Mu'tazilites were first in doing so, establishing their ideas of divine nature, rationality and morality during the 9th century. Their opponents, the Ash'arites, formed later.

The main contestants were three:

  • The Mu'tazilites, who advocated divine reason, justice and morality.
  • The Ash'arites, who advocate divine omnipotence, not bound by morality or reason.
  • The Hanbalites, who would have none of this, and stuck to the scriptural commandments.
As the Hanbalites did not even engage in logical debates, the main battle was between the Hellenic-oriented Mu'tazilites, advocating that Allah is reasonable, moral and just, and the fundamentalist Ash'arites, who logically would argue that any commitment to reason or morality would constitute a violation of Allahs omnipotence and thus be essentially impossible.

This battle of reason and morality versus the supremacy of the Will has taken place at other times and places. Most famously in 19th and 20th century Europe, where the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his advocacy of the supremacy of the Will was rudely exploited by rulers considering themselves unbound by any form of absolute morality, leading to an absolute disaster. A similar struggle is currently taking place between Islamic fundamentalists and moderates, the former unfortunately dominating.

From the point of view of a ruling elite, reason and morality are dangerous tools. If they can be held accountable by either, their violations of either can lead to embarrassing situations, which could jeopardize their legitimacy, their claim to be just rulers, and the whole system of absolute rule that has been Islamic tradition through 13 centuries.

As the Mu'tazilite position would grant significant power to the common man, the Ash'arite position would usually be preferable to rulers. This position dominates Sunni Islam today, and constitutes a significant obstacle to establishing accountable democracies in Islamic countries. The decree by Muhammad that whatever the Umma decides is flawless, compounds the problem.

Two decades of reason (within limits)

In 813, Caliph Al-Ma'mun came to power. He was a strong proponent of the Mu'tazilite view and promoted it throughout the Caliphate. In 827, the view that the Quran was part of creation, not eternal, became Islamic ortodoxy. He had Christians at his court and encouraged rational debate about the merits of Islam vs. Christianity, as recorded by long series of letters in the book The Apology of Al-Kindi, from which the following quote is taken (p. 36):

Therefore bring forward all the arguments you wish and say whatever you please and speak your mind freely. Now that you are safe and free to say what ever you please, appoint some arbitrator who will impartially judge between us and lean only towards the truth and be free from the empery of passion, and that arbitrator shall be reason, whereby God makes us responsible for our own rewards and punishments. Hereby I have dealt justly with you and have given you full security and am ready to accept whatever decision reason may give for me or against me.
This is a line of thought from a true rationalist, and it can be difficult to imagine that this kind of debate has taken place in the palace of the Caliph. Yet, under Al-Ma'mun, it did. The accounts of this would, the book "The Apology of Al-Kindi", would later be considered such heresy that any house where a copy was found was to be razed to the ground, along with 40 houses around it, according to law in Egypt. This is how the Golden Age of Islam was killed. Not that the brutal enforcement of Mu'tazelite views was a shining example, but still...

The downfall

Opposition to the idea of Islam being a rational religion, Allah bound by logic and morality, formed relatively fast. Al-Ash'ari was the leading opponent, giving rise to the Asharite school of thought, which by means of reason seeks to demonstrate that reason is not compatible with Islam, that reason cannot be used to know the divine, and thus there is no compelling reason to apply reason to the Quran or other things Islamic. This was a more sophisticated position than the Hanbalite, and with a solid footing in Islamic scripture was effective in pushing back Mu'tazilite dominance.

In the year AD 848, the tables were turned. Caliph Ja'afar al-Mutawakkil declared the Mu'tazilite position heretical, punishable by death, and books as well as persons advocating this position were cleansed from the Caliphate, including whipping of the Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi (not the same as above). In 885, the copying of any book on philosophy was banned, and in 892 a ban on trading books on philosophy, theology and related subjects was enforced. The Mu'tazilite position was forced underground.

This led to a cascading collapse of reason within Islam. From the demotion of reason followed the primacy of the will, Allah as unknowable, the loss of causality, epistomology. objective morality, justice and free will. In short, most of the qualities that Hellenic thinking has endowed Christianity with. Much too detailed to repeat here, Reilly goes through how each of these components fell by the wayside, once the fundamental issue of reasons' applicability to the divine had been resolved. The end result being that practically only jurisprudence, in other words the application of Sharia law, remains a vital and living issue in Islam.

The Metaphysics of the Will, the loss of causality

Probably the most intriguing chapter in the book is the one about the supremacy of the Will. This is a sensitive subject here in Europe, for we know from the disasters of the 20th century how an immoral application of the supremacy of the Will can lead to immense disasters. But the subject is important, not least because large numbers of Islamists today consider themselves subject to the Will of Allah and show extreme determination in applying Allah's Will in the real world, usually to the detriment of those who do not believe in Allah or the Quran.

Going to the very roots of this raises philosophical questions, such as "Do things exists by themselves?" "Are there laws of nature by which Allah is bound?" "Can there be such a thing as a free will for human beings?" The extreme view of the Asharites is best illustrated through an example. From Islam and Science:

Even a speeding arrow may or may not reach its destination, they said, because at each moment along its path God destroys the world and then creates it afresh the next moment. Where the arrow will be at the next moment, given that it was at a particular spot at an earlier moment, cannot be predicted because it is God alone who knows how the world is to be recreated.
By European Medieval standards, this is really far-fetched. With the advent of modern astrophysics and high precision clocks, this has moved from grossly implausible to obviously absurd. The known universe is roughly 13 billion light years across (to compare, the Solar System is 8 light hours), and if the entire universe was to be destroyed and recreated a billion times a second, Allah would be quite busy tearing things apart and putting them back in the same place they were a billionth of a second earlier. This just doesn't add up.

A different fundamentally unscientific nature of this claim is that no way exists to disprove it. From a Western point of view, this is too hopelessly absurd to deserve consideration.

Worth noting in context is also the degradation of rationality, in the Western world (and East Asia) considered fine qualities: By descending into absolute voluntarism, rationality becomes benign and meaningless.

From a mainstream Islamic point of view, this world view is a necessity, for no natural law can be permitted to restrict the Will of Allah. Things are different from a Christian point of view, of course, for here the laws of nature are part of Creation, and exist in order that man can examine them and make the most of them. The root causes of the fatalistic Islamic world view is here. Christianity really is fundamentally different, much to the benefit of all who enjoy the products of science and technology.

The loss of rationality has an obvious consequence: the rise of irrationality. From the 'impure' nature of pigs, dogs and infidels to the spread of absurd literature, such as Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Islamic world has little basis for evaluating what is rational and what people have been forced to believe, nor even tell the difference between the two ways of thinking.

The chaotic world view is a bad breeding ground for absolute morality, like a solid concept of private property or the sanctity of life as such, and provides no philosophical basis for contradicting terrorists such as PLO, Hamas or Hezbollah, who act in the name of Islam and Allah. This is what the final parts of Reilly's book deals with, and is important for policies today. We cannot assume that our opponents act in way we would consider rational, including the vital point of respecting treaties and other mutual agreements. We need to use our own critical facilities in this case.

The final kill: Al-Ghazali

Back to history, where one important figure deserves mention, to say the least. For even though the Mu'tazelite world view had been pushed from the throne, it still existed in the Islamic world for centuries. To not only discredit the idea that Islam can be compatible with reason, but to kill it and bury it deep, a very special person was needed. That special person was one of the greatest nihilists the world has ever fostered, the sufi master and philosopher al-Ghazali (AD 1058-1111).

Looking for certitude in the world around him, he found nothing (incidentally, Buddha would agree on the premise – but certainly not on the conclusion), and al-Ghazali descended into a deep personal crisis:

Of course, speculations such as these reduce everything to gibberish and make it impossible to think. Once you negate the reliability of the senses and jettison the principle of contradiction, all meaningful discourse comes to a halt. Not surprisingly, the effect on al-Ghazali was an acute mental, if not psychological, crisis:

"This unhappy state lasted about two months, during which I was not, it is true, explicitly or by profession, but morally and essentially, a thorough-going sceptic." Then "Allah at last deigned to heal me of this mental malady; my mind recovered sanity and equilibrium, the primary assumptions of reason recovered with me all their stringency and force. I owed my deliverance, not to the concatenation of proofs and arguments, but to the light which Allah caused to penetrate into my heart – the light which illuminates the threshold of all knowledge."It is said that al-Ghazali then had Muhammad instruct him through his dreams to drive reason out of Islam, to which he complied by a direct assault on anything related to reason. Muhammad then showed himself another time, instructing al-Ghazali to not merely abandon reason, but instead use reason as the very tool to evict reason from Islam. His magnus opus, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (ca. 1090), (PDF here), should be seen in this light.

Al-Ghazalis rejection of reason and assertion of voluntarism swept the Islamic world and became mainstream Sunni orthodoxy. In twenty chapters, it analyses and disparages any form of philosophical approach to knowing the divine, and effectively shuts the door to reason as being valuable or a worthy pursuit for pious Muslims. The door remains shut, to the detriment of abstract debate of reforming Islam.

In fact, the only issue truly left open to debate amongst Islamic scholars is the particulars of implementing Islamic law, Sharia. Thus, al-Ghazali significanly strengthened the fundamentalist reading of Islam and created a foundation that later the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologists Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb would build upon, in turn providing intellectual justification for todays' Islamic terrorists.

It deserves mention that a countercharge on The Incoherence was launched. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Islamic philospher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) (also known as Averroes) defended the Aristotelian tradition against the voluntaristic and irrational analysis of al-Ghazali. But this was too little, too late. Averroes lived to see his books burned in Cordoba, himself forced into exile. The Muslim mind had been effectively shut, and the Islamic world stood fast in face of any challenges.

Thus also Islamic apologists who refer to Averroes as an example of profound Islamic philosophy really should know better. His books burned, he himself exiled, he hardly constitutes any meaningful evidence of the acceptance of profound philosophy and rational thinking. Quite to the contrary, he is a dire example of the consequences of such free thinking in the Islamic world.

Can the Islamic mind be reopened? Or put in another way: "Can we enter the modern world and still retain our faith?" This is a tough question, and fundamentalists – who are clearly the most powerful today – are clear in their rejection of the idea. Probably the only way for this to happen is that Islam enters a profound existential crisis and rediscovers the forgotten seeds of Aristotelian thinking of the Mu'tazelites. This would require the West to solidly reject any kind of fundamentalist Islam to take root in modern societies, isolating Islam to deal with the existential crisis at home. This does not seem likely at present, but a better understanding of the profound differences between Islamic and Western lines of thinking would contribute to making it happen.

If you are with me so far, having read the preceding eight pages with interest, let me offer an alternative review opinion:

Get this book! Read it!

It traces Islamic thinking in ways hardly offered anywhere else, and does so without the feeling of prejudice that other critical books of Islam carry. Then take the knowledge into the world and make the case for Islam to return to rationality. If it does, that would seriously undermine the justification for Islamic terrorism. If not, the same would happen. For then Islam would be seen increasingly as hopelessly antiquated, not a salvation for Muslims, but rather a yoke to be discarded.