The history of Islam's relationship to scholarship is an odd one -- with something to teach us about the West.
Islam and Scholarship: A Brief History
The oddity is this. In the middle ages, the Islamic world was a fountain of scholarship. Indeed, the great European renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, indeed, the birth of the university, though supported by numerous cultural and economic developments in Europe, took almost all of its intellectual inspiration from the reconquest of Muslim Spain. In Spain they found the works of the great philosophers Averroes (the Latinized form of ibn-Rushd, d. 1198) and Avicenna (ibn-Sina, d. 1037), who had kept alive the philosophy of Aristotle when he was totally lost to Europe. In fact, the first texts of Aristotle to reach medieval Europe -- the original stimulus for all subsequent intellectual development in the West -- were translated not from Greek but from Arabic.
Averroes and Avicenna, along with other greats like al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Farabi (d. 951), and many more, were the greatest philosophers of their time. And they came from the far reaches of the Muslim Empire: Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi were in Persia (modern-day Iran), while Averroes was in Cordoba (modern-day Spain). This period of the Muslim Empire also oversaw some great non-Muslim scholars, most notably the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (d. 1204), who was born in Cordoba, died in Egypt, and contributed enormously to the progress of philosophy throughout the Western world.
Yet within a few centuries, Muslim scholarship was dead. By the time of the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance in Europe, scholars were fleeing the Islamic world; indeed, Muslim immigrants to Europe were a great stimulus to that flowering of letters and culture. Since that time, Europe has pulled far ahead of Islam, at least in political philosophy, economics, science, and technology, and arguably in art, literature, and philosophy.
The standard explanation for this decline in Muslim scholarship is that the religious authorities clamped down on philosophers when the philosophers started discussing political things, because Islam demands total control of the political realm. I think we can take that a step further.
The Nature of Islam
Theologically, Islam is defined above all by a radical monotheism, undergirded by a vigorous denial of any "association" with God. God is to be totally separated from creation, totally exalted. Islam rejects the Trinity as a kind of polytheism; they also reject the Incarnation as bringing God into too much contact with the world. God is not to be "associated" in any way with worldly things.
Thus the first pillar of Islam is the simple confession, "there is no God but God," and Islamic art, beautiful as it is, is confined to only calligraphy: no images, lest we associate anything with God. (Protestantism, of course, took up this same kind of anti-image anti-associationism; but Judaism and pre-1517 Christianity insisted, to the contrary, on God's connection to earthly realities, proclaimed specifically through the proper use of cultic materials, sacred spaces, and imagery.)
The word Islam (and its participial form, Muslim) means "submission" -- but this is only a correlate to the doctrine of God's absolute supremacy. The Muslim accepts and bows before God's absolute sovereignty. The other four "pillars" of Sunni Islam (only slightly modified in Shi'a Islam) are all aspects of submission. First, the five times of prayer, defined not by what is prayed but by the obligation to affirm God's sovereignty at each hinge of the day. Second, "alms-giving." Insofar as this is about giving to the poor, it is simply an affirmation of God's sovereignty over our material resources. But it is also an affirmation of the Muslim community, and is given for the spread of the religion as much as for the care of the poor. It is a sign that the Muslim is part of a political body -- more on that in a moment. Third, fasting. Unlike Christian fasting, which is fundamentally about the training of desires, this is simply a proclamation of Allah's lordship: thus it is accompanied by wild feasting after sunset. And fourth, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, made once in a lifetime, to proclaim one's fidelity to the religion.
What is notable about these pillars is their externality. There are no Beatitudes in Islam (though there are small pockets of mystics). There is no virtuous transformation, no personal relationship with God. Islam is about God's sovereignty, not about friendship. And thus heaven is not a Beatific Vision, not an embrace with God, but simply acceptance into a happy place, marked by worldly delights: costly robes, bracelets, perfumes, exquisite banquets, strong drink (prohibited in this life), and yes, for men, carnal delights with untouched virgins.
Islam touches life in a different way from how Christianity and Judaism touch life. There is, of course, Sharia. But this governs public interactions, mostly relating to sex, politics, and property. It's not about personal transformation.
The Spread of Islam
Now, I think we can account for the rise and fall of Muslim scholarship based on the nature of Islam. Islam spread as it did -- conquering everything from France to India within a hundred years of the Prophet's death -- in part because it doesn't demand any internal transformation.
The Qur'an can never be translated: it is, in Muslim thinking, inherently an Arabic document. I think that's a good metaphor for Islam as a whole. Christianity demands inculturation -- translation -- and so Christianity conquered Rome from the inside out. Christianity brings every aspect of culture into contact with faith.
This makes it hard for Christians to raise armies. Though there certainly have been Christian armies, and various sorts of Crusades, they always run up against moral qualms. Within the bounds of Sharia, Islam has no fundamental problem with slaughter, rapine, etc. Christians have committed these crimes, but our religion prohibits them. Although most Muslims are not terrorists, it really isn't beyond the pale of Islamic theology to say that you can commit a horrible deed and then go to your eternal reward. That makes armies easier.
It also makes conquest easier. Christianity has to consolidate its gains, bring real conversion, of morals and manners and customs and ways of thinking. But once Islam has gained the upper hand, it can keep moving. The rejection of "association" fundamentally means that Islam doesn't care how people think, as long as they submit to the rule of Allah. It's an easy religion to convert to.
This explains the rapid spread of Islam, I think -- but it also explains the initial success of philosophers. In the first few centuries of Islam, philosophy flourished precisely because the religious authorities didn't care. Averroes, Avicenna, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali were able to pursue truth unfettered by religious demands, internal or external: their religion didn't really affect the way they thought, and the religious authorities didn't really care. This explains, also, the success of Maimonides: it really didn't bother the religious authorities if Maimonides wanted to pursue his quest for knowledge, so long as he paid his taxes and didn't cause revolution. Early Islam was a kind of paradise for philosophers, a place where they could be left alone to do their work.
But while Islam didn't threaten the philosophers, it also didn't support them. It's noteworthy that the great thinkers came from the borderlands: Cordoba (Spain) and Persia (Iran). On the one hand, these were the frontiers, the places where the authorities were a little less concerned with what the philosophers were doing. From the beginning, the heartland of Islam was a more rigid place, both because the authorities didn't have their attention focused on external concerns and because they were looking for ways to deepen Islam's hold on the local culture. Where Islam had time to consolidate its gains, philosophy suffered.
On the other hand, these were precisely the lands that weren't originally shaped by the Arabic, Muslim way of thinking. Cordoba was ancient Roman territory, thoroughly conquered by Christianity. Indeed, not a century before the Muslims came (711-718), it was home to St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636), one of the greatest scholars of the ancient world. We might say that Muslim philosophy in Spain was "coasting": the perdurance of something that predated the Islamic conquest.
The same could be said, of course, of Persia. Persia had been one of the greatest opponents of the Roman Empire -- indeed, the one civilization Rome could not conquer. It was a great crossroads of culture, keeping alive the splendors of ancient Greece, mixing them with those of China, and pursuing its own cultural greatness. Ultimately, the West rediscovered Plato and Aristotle only because they had never died in Persia. Muslim Persian scholarship continued because Islam left it alone -- indeed, it seems that Iran, despite its repressive government, retains one of the richest and most thoughtful cultures in the Islamic world.
But if Islam didn't threaten philosophy, it also didn't cultivate it. When strains of fundamentalism arise -- and they naturally do, for reasons both religious and political -- there is nothing to push back in affirmation of philosophy. Mostly, Islam leaves philosophy alone, but when, for one reason or another, it attacks the philosophers -- for being too politically active, for undermining the faith of the people, for befriending outsiders -- philosophy can only push back through non-Muslim means.
I am no expert on Iran, but I note that Iranian culture is divided among modernists, fundamentalists, and -- ready for this? -- "traditionalist humanists." What that means, I think, is that Iranian humanism, the strand in that society that supports art and culture and philosophy and science, takes its grounding in the long, pre-Muslim, Persian tradition. (Not unlike the 15th-century Renaissance in Italy harkened back to Ancient Rome as the fount of all human accomplishment.) But when Islam takes notice of such things, it is always a force against humanism.
Now, I have written enough of an essay already, but at the end, I would like to add one plot twist, in order to make this say something about the West as well as Islam. I will assert: secularism is the Islam of Europe.
As early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a battle waged in Europe between the humanists and the fundamentalists. When the texts of Aristotle came to Europe -- from the Muslim lands -- there was a strain of Christianity that was deeply threatened. Indeed, Aristotle's philosophy was condemned over and over at the University of Paris through the thirteenth century. (The repetitions are interesting because they prove that they were ignored: if the first had worked, there wouldn't have been need for a second.) The role of St. Thomas Aquinas -- the inspiration for this blog -- was to argue that Aristotle and Christianity were not opposed. But the battle raged furious between fundamentalists and philosophers.
The battle continued through the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance. European art took off precisely where the Church lost its hold on culture. But be careful of what this means. In fact, Christianity was the source of culture. That's a big argument, but note that the great artists were depicting Christian scenes; that the vivid naturalism of European art has never been touched by a culture unendowed with Christianity's doctrine of Creation and Incarnation; that the European artistic project, both visual and musical, collapsed precisely as Christianity passed out of our culture. Modern "secular" art is hardly art at all: because it no longer exalts in creation. Johann Sebastian Bach exalted in creation: precisely because of his passionate love for the Creator.
Nonetheless, the Church needed to take its hands off the wheel to let the artists do their thing. Where the Gospel was preached, but art was allowed to flourish on its own terms: there was art. But where Churchmen painted over the works of artists -- and where the Gospel was no longer preached -- art failed.
It happened again with technology, and economics, and political philosophy. The American Constitution owes much to Christian philosophy. Indeed, without the doctrine of "Nature and Nature's God," human equality, which is anything but self-evident, would never -- and indeed, has never -- been given serious consideration. And, only to assert -- because really, I have another essay on my hands here -- the modern world was most creative, both technologically and economically, when creators were allowed to create, but inspired by a greater love.
Secularism is like Islam. It supports philosophy precisely to the extent that it leaves it alone. When Churchmen get too close a handle on things, humanism tends to suffocate. We get more worried about usury than about providing for the poor, more into having moral rules for everything than seeing human flourishing. And so secularism has been a force for good. We might even say that a nation like Victorian England was more "Catholic" than was 18th-century Italy, precisely because it allowed Christians to pursue their loves.
Yet like Islam, secularism turns to an intolerance that cannot handle humanism. It does not support humanism, and gives us only the ugly "art" of the Soviets. It does not support excellence. And at times, in its fundamentalist zeal, it turns on those who are too creative, crushing them under a weight of "equality" and "liberty" (and yes, "fraternity" and "the common good") that ultimately destroys the very things it claims to exalt.
There's something to be learned from the experience of Iran.