How Islam Set Back Western Civilization

In his travel writing, V.S. Naipaul parlays personal encounters, to great effect, into expositions of the underlying cultural forces that impact whole peoples. This has often meant puncturing received multicultural wisdom. Among the Believers, for instance, plumbs the undercurrents of life in Islamic lands, taking the reader well beyond the headlines and into people’s worlds. Though much has changed since 1981 when it appeared, there is still much to absorb from his conversations in four non-Arab nations: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (In the 1998 sequel, Beyond Belief, he converses again with some of the same figures).

Always engaging and insightful, though not necessarily edifying, his withering gaze is capable of coexisting with poignant accounts of actual persons. The latter quality notwithstanding, it came as somewhat of a surprise when this first rate diagnostician actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature, particularly as unflattering aspects of his life, rather than the merits of his piercing prose, could have easily derailed the process. With those strikes against him, you might suppose that there must be something to his writing. And there is.

In his hands, the inner grappling and motives of individuals, humble or privileged, surface because he deftly elicits their spiritual outlook. Though he professes to be an atheist, he sees that a sense of self, and life’s meaning, derives to great extent from religious orientation.

Themes of social dislocation and lost personality dominate his observations of these lands. With one of his interlocutors, a well-positioned Sumatran who had studied in the United States, Naipaul brought up the magnificent ninth-century Buddhist and Hindu temples of Borobudur and Prambanan – treasures of Javanese culture. Utterly disinterested, the man responded by saying they are “something for the international community to look after.” Would a Roman dismiss the Coliseum in such a manner; a Greek say the same thing about the Parthenon; a Peruvian about Machu Picchu?

He further tells Naipaul that his role was “preparing the next generation of leaders of Indonesia.” They would eventually “replace all this” – “this” being anything not sufficiently Islamic. His only prescription was that the emerging leaders be true Muslims. For him, Naipaul writes, “Indonesia was a place to be cleansed.” Its particularities could not coexist with his faith.

Another figure, of more humble station, “lived with beautiful mysteries” surrounding his country’s rich pre-Islamic past, for that was simply the only manner in which it survived. “Scholarship, applied to his past,” Naipaul discerns, “would have undermined what had become his faith.”

       V.S. Naipaul, b. 1932

In village schools – pesantrens – Naipaul observes boys only pretending to study books on Islamic law and Arabic grammar. Far from embracing tradition or providing solid education, this amounted to “a breaking away from the Indonesian past; it was Islamization; it was stupefaction, greater than any that could have come with a Western-style curriculum.” I wonder if Naipaul could safely make that kind of observation today, considering that a U.K. politician was recently arrested for quoting Churchill to similar effect.

For yet another figure – a Malaysian – learning, reading, and history were all superfluous. The way forward, for him, was purely a matter of correct religious belief. If only his fellow Malays would zero in on the right abstractions, as he did, all would be well. Naipaul suggests this amounts to the use of religion as an instrument of diversion from other important elements in life: isn’t immersion of that kind, to the exclusion of all else, merely “an easy way out?”

In his view, the arrival of Islam had led to a destructive disengagement, even as it also served as an outlet for rage, which it “sanctified.” Late-twentieth-century Islam, Naipaul posits, “had the flaw of its origins – the flaw that ran right through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith. . .it offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything – but who had ceased to exist. . .this political Islam was rage, anarchy.”

For the native peoples who lost their traditional way of life, it may have provided a particular structure or sense of purpose – a replacement for prior forms of social and religious organization – yet it also left people severed from their roots and rendered them disinterested about the whole arena of human development.

Inculturation is a whole topic of its own. Suffice it to say here that Christianity and Islam take radically different views on this matter. It’s hard not to notice that Christianity’s arrival among, say, native peoples of the Americas is generally cast in a negative, imperialistic light, whereas referring to Islam, as Naipaul does, as the “purifier of Malays,” does not raise the ire of the multiculturalists.

To read Naipaul’s accounts of social dislocation and lost personalities, one is tempted to draw parallels to the “lost generations” of the socialistic West. They too are stifled by high unemployment and afflicted by their own distinctive spiritual desertification. Naipaul’s accounts also demonstrate personalized microcosms of what Robert Reilly has proposed as macrocosm: that Islam has to an overwhelming extent invested in a concept of God whose predominant attributes are omnipotence and willfulness – thereby rendering reason marginal.

        Henri Pirenne (1862-1935)

Even capricious willfulness, one that admits of illogicality, violence, and deceit may be consistent with God’s unfathomable designs. Having decisively rejected any Hellenizing influence, the pursuit of science and ethics has also flagged. The net result: a diminished ability to engage the surrounding world with coherence and vigor.

The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne asked a related question: what, in fact, caused the Dark Ages? In his posthumous Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), Pirenne contested the conventionally accepted explanation for the fall of classical civilization: the formal dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in 476, following its descent into decadence, paved the way for a barbarism that led inexorably to the subsequent Dark Ages of the 7th to 10th centuries.

Pirenne observed that the governing barbarians did not obliterate the Roman infrastructure, and that the overall modus vivendi carried on much like it had, prior to its fall, because the “barbarians” adopted the prevailing Roman ethos. They did not foist their own language, laws, or customs on Rome.

Pirenne stressed that the source of the Roman Empire’s vitality cannot be disassociated from its essentially Mediterranean character and orientation; that clearly remained intact for quite a while. Western trade flourished as before, connected with the great cities of the East – where prosperity, population, and learning were concentrated. The overall features of life throughout the region in 600 were similar to what they had been in 400.

It was not until the advent of Islam in the 7th century, precisely then and only then, that destruction really arrived. Recurrent Islamic raids altered the very orientation of the littoral peoples; they fled the Mediterranean and for the first time looked to the north. East was severed from West, and the previously unified Mediterranean, “having become a Musalman lake, was no longer a thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it always had been.”

Unlike the German invaders, wherever the Arabs went they ruled. This was a dimension of their religious claims. They sought not conversion per se, but demanded subjection, creating an insuperable barrier between the conquered and the Muslims: “What a contrast between them [the Arabs] and Theodoric, who placed himself at the service of those he had conquered, and sought to assimilate himself to them!” The whole region was thereby transformed, as the Arabs ushered in “a complete break with the past.”

Egyptian papyri, which had been widespread in the West (and a solid indicator of literacy), disappeared, as did distinctive coins that were in use right up until the Arab conquest – leading to the barter system.Despite the literary and archaeological sources, however, Pirenne’s arguments were dismissed in favor of the view that Islam had been (unlike “repressive” Christianity) an enlightening force.

In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012),Emmet Scott has taken up Pirenne’s thesis. Though he is primarily interested in the controversy it generated, he does not shy away from rendering a verdict: “scholarship has now arrived at several conclusions which are really beyond dispute, and which tend to offer definitive support for Pirenne.”

In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, classical civilization was intact and humming along, even expanding. In fact, some regions were “flourishing as never before”; Spain in particular, as well as Gaul, was enjoying a resurgent late classical culture.

Scott points to the hundreds of known Visigothic-era structures, even noting that by the early 7th century architects had brought back meticulously cut stone; these structures, Scott observes, were “far superior, technically and artistically, to their successors of the tenth century Romanesque.” In fact, the rich Visigothic architectural legacy stands in conspicuous contradistinction to the “virtually complete absence of all archaeology from the first two centuries of the Islamic epoch.” Only in the mid-tenth century do artifacts reemerge.

The great cities of the East – in Syria and Asia Minor – suffered violent destruction at the hand of the Arabs in the early seventh century. Sudden ruin during war, it might be objected, is one thing; these cities, however, were never rebuilt. In fact, significant archaeological remains in the entire Mediterranean as well as Middle Eastern regions (beyond Roman influence) seem to have entirely vanished for the next three centuries.

Construction – to say nothing of preservation – was not nurtured by Islam. Indeed, “almost all knowledge of these countries’ histories disappears, and does so almost overnight.” Of Egypt, Scott writes that the change imposed upon them in the early 7th century “can only be described as catastrophic.”

Islamic lands, as Naipaul recounts with personalized detail, have tended to experience a measure of what Egypt did so acutely: the effective loss of her own history. Moreover, another highly significant feature is now part of the archaeological record: a layer of sediment found throughout the Mediterranean known as the “Younger Fill.” This stratum of subsoil, which is not confined to the Mediterranean but is found in all the shores occupied by Muslims, represents the “geographical signature of the end of Graeco-Roman civilization.”

This subsoil was deposited between the mid-seventh and mid-tenth centuries, precisely coinciding with the deafening archaeological silence. It can be explained by the wholesale abandonment of irrigational and agricultural systems when the littoral peoples abandoned coastal settlements for hilltop fortifications in response to unremitting Muslim raids.

Scott acknowledges that Pirenne’s overall hypothesis remains disputed.

It nonetheless dawns on the reader that it was controversial in Pirenne’s day for the same reason it is today: today’s multiculturalists weren’t the first to be motivated by animus towards European civilization. One is thus left to ponder – there really is no sidestepping it – the extent to which received wisdom on the Dark Ages is a byproduct of prior predisposition to paint Catholicism as a retrograde force.

Among European countries, incidentally, only the English use the term “Dark Ages”; Henry VIII and his successors had reasons to make all things Catholic look dark. Portraying the history of Islam in glowing terms, likewise, has been another means of denigrating European civilization, and ultimately Christianity.

Paradoxically, scholars in Communist China, oddly enough, have discovered the truth. As Rodney Stark records in The Victory of Reason, Chinese scholars undertook a lengthy study of what ultimately accounted for the West’s pre-eminence. After decades of investigation, they concluded: not guns, politics, or economics – factors they had felt may have been decisive. Instead, they were led to something deeper: 

we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

The deeper look – as these Chinese scholars found – always pays the most dividends. Many today say that what Islam needs most is “reform.” Those who know it best, however, regard that as wishful thinking – given the displays of malice making headlines today. The 13th century Dominican Meister Eckhart inadvertently left us a wise precept when he wrote: “if God were able to turn away from truth, I would cling to the truth and let God go.” 

That might sound a bit subtle – or irreverent. But since truth is one of the names of God – at least in Christian understanding – Eckhart was not placing anything above God. He was stressing that there can be no conflict between God and the Truth. It is uncanny how the destiny of whole peoples – towards flourishing or foundering – hinges on their perception of such fundamentals.

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.