It is impossible to deny that Islamic civilization was failed to live up to its earlier promises. In almost every field, from science and technology to democracy and human rights, the Islamic world first fell behind the West and now trails other areas of the world, most notably many Asian nations. This has implications for Islam as well as its societies.
On a great number of quality of life indexes, from rates of illiteracy and science to its lack of military power, the Islamic world has failed miserably by global standards. It should be noted that the Islamic world also lags in what many regard as moral standards. For example, there are high rates of sexual abuse, consumption of pornography and even Islam’s history of slavery makes it impossible for Muslims to claim the high moral ground. The following page on Muslim statistics has many shocking figures.
Of course, the state of societies does not in itself prove anything about the religion of the people in those societies. However, it is only natural to expect those following the perfect ideology of a god to at the very least set some kind of example, even if they are not following that religion perfectly. Besides, those defending Islam point to its golden age as evidence of its enlightening power.
Islam’s golden age
Many are quick to point out Islam’s golden age. This peaked during the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from 750 to 1258. At this time, when Europe was primarily in its dark ages, Islamic civilization’s intellectual and other achievements where second to none.
However, it is important to take some things into perspective.
- Rulers of this empire were generally less dogmatic and more tolerant of other faiths as Muslims were the minority in many areas, and the tax on unbelievers provided a primary source of revenue.
- With other areas of the world isolated and Europe in its pathetic state, there was little competition.
Inventions from the Islamic world
While some inventions and discoveries certainly did come from the Islamic world, it should be noted that two of the most credited, numbers and Algebra, actually did not.
- The number system developed over a long time, but most of its final refinements, in fact, came from Hindu India. Arabs adopted the system and Europeans then copied it from Muslims.
- Algebra’s roots go back to ancient Greece with others contributing afterwards. The system was only formalized by the Persian mathematician Al Khwarizmi, and there is some doubt as to whether or not he was even a Muslim.
Why did the Islamic world fall behind?
Regardless of how far ahead the Islamic world was at one time, it has done so poorly since then that people flee away from the Islamic world for a better life and not towards it. This way people have voted with their feet against the Islamic world is especially damming when you consider the great oil wealth of the Middle East, and the fact that it was once a cradle of civilization. What could be the causes of this decline?
This is frequently heard and often given as a justification for terrorist attacks. However, the Islamic world, which had its own history of empire and imperialism, was only under imperial rule for a relatively belief period. Since then, oil has given many Muslim nations a significant voice in world affairs. Besides, many places that were once under imperial rule, from Hong Kong and Singapore to Canada, have done fine for themselves.
The Mongol invasion
While it is true that these invasions caused massive death and destruction (you have to wonder why Allah would have allowed them) which the Islamic world never really recovered from, human history is full of very destructive wars. For example, China suffered from the Mongol invasions too and Europe has been laid to waste by relatively recent world wars. However, these civilizations recovered.
Not properly following Islam
This is a very interesting excuse to look at as it has serious implications for Islam.
- There is no hard evidence that there was any decline in religiosity in the Islamic world leading to the weakening of its civilization.
- Saying Muslims are not following Islam as well as before raises the question of why would people become less interested in following a superior system created by a god that was serving them well?
- Most importantly, even if Muslims were not following Islam properly, wouldn’t they still be closer to divine will than the rest of the world? For example, wouldn’t Muslims making mistakes in their religious practices still be doing better than Christians? Those following a perfect ideology created by the creator of the universe should certainly have a competitive advantage regardless! Besides, by most measures, such as frequency of prayer, Muslims are still more devoted than the followers of other religions.
In fact, the record suggests that those nations that are the least dogmatic in following Islam are more successful. For example, those Muslim majority nations that have generally done the best, to include Malaysia and Turkey, are the most secular. This is not only for Islam. Studies have shown that societies with the lowest levels of religiosity tend to be better off overall (see religion and better societies).
Blaming leaders for problems, however valid it may be, is as old as human history. Leaders are flawed as all human beings are. Why should the leaders of the Islamic world be worse and holding their people back more than those of the rest of the world?
If this is, in fact, true, and it may be to some extent, it is saying that Islamic society produces the worst leaders. The Islamic world generally has the most autocratic leaders and lowest levels of freedom. This cannot all be blamed on outsiders and certainly has something to do with the kind of societies that Islamic teachings lead to.
The Islamic mindset
A more likely reason behind the decline of the Islamic world lies in the teachings of a religion and the climate it creates. The decline of the Islamic world comes in the early 12th century after more conservative forces began to push back and closed the ‘gate of ijtihad’ which was testing the boundaries by saying empirical observation, and not just the Quran, was a source of truth.
Looking back at advances in human history, such as the European Renaissance, shows they are most likely when societies moved away from dogmas and opened up to new ideas and ways of doing things. Those societies that are not open to ideas invariably fall behind.
While this is simplifying a complex topic, when a society follows an ideology that tells them they already have all the answers in a book, there is far less motivation to seek, learn and change. The Quran, after its usual praises to Allah, starts out by saying it is divine word that is not to be questioned. Rather than encouraging free thinking and new ideas, Islamic education generally centers on rote memorization of the Quran.
The status of women
The generally low status women hold in the Islamic world is part of the mindset and has certainly played a role in holding the region back. When even the idea of educating women drives some Islamic fundamentalists to violence and half of the population can contribute so little to society, progress is hindered.
Of course, there are other factors, but the record speaks for itself. The Islamic world has had over 1400 years to show how it can shine, as a superior system created by a god should. However, the fact that the Islamic world presents anything but a beacon for humanity proves it has more earthly origins.