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

Matthew Hanley is senior fellow with the National Catholic Bioethics Center. With Jokin de Irala, M.D., he is the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Hanley's and not those of the NCBC.

  • Randall

    This article is an important contribution to the subjects of Islam & culture. I was aware of Naipaul and Stark before, but Henri Pirenne and Emmet Scott are new to me. I’m grateful to Mr. Hanley for bringing them to my attention. I will look up those books.

    In light of the revelations coming out of Rotherham, England, I recall a discussion I once had with some young English adults at a party. It was during the year following the 9/11 attacks and I was teaching English in Poland. English people who go abroad to teach English are almost uniformly a leftist crowd. (Often only passively so, in that even if they aren’t obsessed with politics, when prodded will supply the predictable ‘America is evil / Republicans are stupid / Christianity is as violent as Islam’ etc., responses.) The group of English people I was with were no exception.

    After we’d all had a few drinks and were discussing the world situation, one young woman honestly commented on how violent and ignorant the Muslim people were in the predominantly Muslim area of her home town back in England.

    There were a couple typical “How can you generalize like that? But what about America or Christians, blah blah blah” reactions.

    But then a second young woman spoke up and said, “No, I had to deal with Muslim men in my previous job in England and almost always it was an unpleasant experience. I don’t like them.”

    Yes, Christian charity is required and I’ve met pleasant, intelligent Muslim people. Also, I respect Islam inasmuch as it takes God and man’s relationship to God and eternity very seriously. I’d certainly rather engage a Muslim on these issues than a milquetoast relativist.

    But Islam is seriously deficient, it is NOT the answer to humankind’s most important questions. We need informed voices need to speak on this.

    Only Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  • MJ Anderson

    Excellent article. Had not known of Pirenne and will look for his book. The entire discussion of course brings Pope Benedict’s Regensberg Address to mind.

  • Chris in Maryland

    The narrative about “Pax Islam / Lumen Islam” is the joint project of Islamist and leftist propaganda.

    Western liberals and progressives, and many conservatives, want to stay in their happy place and pretend that the west just keeps progressing, and “authentic Islam” is a nice neighbor.

    30 years ago I read liberal “history” about the how Islam brought “civilization” to the Mediterranean basin. Having read a little broader and deeper than the “whig interpretation” in the last 15-20 years, this article is spot on.

    Here’s a current “katholic” anecdote about the marriage of the western progressive mind and Islamic propaganda: in the Catholic parish of St. Paul the Apostle, near Lincoln Center in NYC, a member of the “out-in-ny” wing of amchurch, when I stepped inside this historic and beautiful church last year, in the altar of The Annunciation on the left side, there was Islamic propaganda from the Koran on placards inside the shrine to the Immaculate. That’s right – the “katholic pastor and parishioners” are in their syncretist insanity promoting the heresy of Islam, whose primary purpose is to deny The Incarnation, eradicate Christianity, murder its children and erase the witness of the woman whose “Yes” opened the doors to Christ.

    The parishioners and pastor in that Church do not know what they are doing. But the angel who appeared to the prophet does…

  • Jon S.

    Thank you for a great article. Does Pope Francis agree? How many of our bishops agree?

  • Rich in MN

    Sometimes it takes me decades to connect dots. Twenty five years ago I was taking a class in which the professor discussed the “two Byzantine periods — ‘Byzantine I’ and ‘Byzantine II’.” It was the second Byzantine period, starting in about the 7th Century, that marked the starting point of the most profound collapse of Western civilization. I cannot recall if he ever stated/speculated about what caused this second collapse but, if he did say ‘Islam,’ it did not stick in my foggy little brain at the time. Well, it is sticking now….

    On a tangential note, as our myopic mass media focuses on promoting ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘marriage equality’ and demonizing the Catholic Church, there is someone else listening at the keyhole and watching. Every day, we bombard the keyhole listeners with “Exhibits 1 and 2” as to why America truly is the ‘Great Satan’. If the Church were ever to be crippled, corrupted, or confused beyond the point of being able to speak effectively against our prevailing culture, then the two sides will meet face to face — those promoting ‘faux equalite’ and those keyhole listeners — just like they met 13 years ago.

    On another tangential note, I wonder if Cdl Dolan will be wearing a rainbow sash at next year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade? It really would be the tolerant thing to do….

  • myshkin

    Good post. I used to teach a class on Islam and Cinema and one of the things I covered was the history of Islam from a scholarly viewpoint and from the fabricated versions popularly spread by Muslims. (The fabricated versions have a manuscript tradition traceable at the earliest to 200 years after the events it supposedly relates. The old film ) So I was aware of Pirenne’s thesis, but also aware that among most Western scholars it was regarded as an antique curiosity having little to add to contemporary scholarship on Islam. So I am very surprised and interested in the book by Emmet Scott. One caveat about it is Mr. Scott himself. It would help to know his credentials as a historian (there is nothing I can find about him other than the detail-less blurb on Amazon). Can anyone fill in more details about the author?

    Naipaul is a great writer, although something of a misanthrope … As David Pryce-Jones wrote of him in 2001, “Long before others, he began to report on the irrational frenzy loosed these past two decades by religion in the Islamic world from Iran to Indonesia and Pakistan. This phenomenon too was a retreat from history into self-serving myth. Self-pity possesses Islamic fundamentalists so absolutely that they are able to close out everything else. Yet Naipaul also observed with profound insight that even the most fanaticised among them know that the West will always be there setting the objective standards, and that they can do nothing about that. They are to be pitied for rage so helpless.”

    What Pryce-Jones couldn’t see is that the Islamic rage against the West is well-funded and well-manned by a generation of jobless, prospectless, Muslim youth. Oil money is there to burn, but they have scant industry, scant technological-know-how, and scant critical-reasoning skills. The only use for the money that makes sense to them is to fund their rage. The West is in for another 30 years of jihadist terrorism.

  • Pope’s man

    Slightly off topic:
    Msgr Charles Pope’s blog is back on line, but minus the post concerning NY Paddy’s Day Parade. Instead, an apology for offending anyone is proffered by Msgr Pope.

    Since he must obey his bishop, there’s no fault on his part. The bad deed lies on the steps of the morally derelict bishops who obliged him to remove it and apologize for the truth. They dare not stand up for the Catholic faith they supposedly profess.

  • Howard Kainz

    I am reminded of a campaign in 2007 when CAIR was sending out emissaries to speak at Milwaukee Catholic parishes. Our parish was scheduled for 4 one-hour presentations. I met with our pastor and mentioned CAIR’s terrorism connections, and even the warnings from other Muslim organizations; but he saw no problem. I contacted then-Archbishop Dolan about the matter, and was referred to Auxiliary Bishop Sklba, who simply wrote to me about the positive experiences he had had in various dialogue experiences with Muslims. I attended 2 propagandistic sessions. Apparently many bishops and priests think they are just following the Vatican II approach to dialogue with non-Christian religions indicated in Nostra aetate and Lumen gentium.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Our Bishops and frankly, most Catholic people are woefully ignorant about history in general, and Islam in particular. Nostra Aetate is an utterly feeble document wrt Islam…it gives almost nothing except a passing thought, succumbing to the over-optimism of inter-religious dialogue, and making a plea that people forget the crimes and atrocities of the past. So pathetic…but worse, such a tragic flaw.

  • Dave

    Great article, and many thanks! I knew a little bit about M. Pirenne but nothing of Emmett Scott and I look forward to reading the book. But we all need to beware: arming ourselves with truth of all kinds — spiritual, religious, historical, and philosophical — causes us to be excited and hopeful that we can share this knowledge with other truth seekers. Only thing, the crowd wants to be lulled, it wants to be lulled. Myshkin, you’re right about the next 30 years, barring intervention by our Lord and the Immaculate Heart — for which we should all fervently pray. Fact is, Muslim couples have many more kids than do Western couples, and the demographics in the West are against us Christians. So we need to be evangelizers and educators, and we need to be prepared for the consequences. Imagine what would have happened to Chris had he spoken to the pastor at St. Paul the Apostle.

  • Jarheadusmc

    Lets even go back father in history to give credit where its due.
    Isabella of Spain, through her complete understanding of both the danger of Islam and it’s counter culture, she is attributed with saving all of Europe from the Muslim scourge for over 500 years up until now; now again we will face the scourge of Islam.

    Marie-Julie Jahenny,(1850-1941), Catholic mystic and stigmatic, who bore all the wounds of Our Lord and whose life and revelations enjoyed the full approval of the local Ordinaries, relates from her visions: ‘That Russia, suddenly allied with all of Islam, will attack and overrun all of Western Europe.’ In her revelations, which coincide with dozens of other Catholic mystics such as Blessed Sister Elena Aiello (1895-1961) who prophecies state that Russia will attack and overrun all of Europe and will attack America with her “secret” armies, comes the realization with today’s events that these warnings are not too far off.
    Even Sister Lucia of Fatima said April 7, 1990, that Russia, because it was not converted, attacks all of Europe and America, and China invades in the East.

    According to these and many more Catholic visionaries, mystics and saints, God is going to let our enemies punish us severely for homosexuality, abortion, pornography, immodesty in dress, contraception, divorce, etc, but mostly for the now happening great “apostasy” warned by so many, of the abandoning of near 2000 years of true faith and doctrine by the Hierarchy of the Church and its peoples.

  • Myshkin


    I recommend reading David Goldman’s book, “How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)”. When I said 30 years, I meant that the Islamic World can sustain itself as a terrorist cauldron for at most that length of time. Then it will die.

    What the effect of 30 years of constant terror on the West will be is anyone’s guess. The U.S. could go the route of Eurabia or it might rally somehow. Partly that depends on how big the terror events get. If they are big, it’s likely we’d rally. But as long as they kill only a few dozen Westerners at a time, plan on moving to USAbia for quite some time …

  • X Contra

    I now must read up on the Younger Fill. Good.

  • Steve

    An excellent, and indisputable article. There is a video on youtube that puts the points raised in this article to video format. It’s called “Why We’re Afraid, 1400 Years of Muslim Conquest”, or something close to that. What the author, and so far, the people commenting, haven’t brought up is; where is God in all this? I find it quite interesting that a study done by the Chinese cites Christianity as the reason for the success of Western Civilization. The reason I find it so interesting is because I think that God has His eyes on blessing China. American Christian media rarely mentions how large the underground church is in China, and how those Christians have been quietly enduring suffering under communist rule for decades now. I think God is going to use Islam as a hammer of His judgment on the West because we have cast God out. I think the faithfulness of China’s Christians will be rewarded with the downfall of America, and the West, and the ascendancy of China. Eventually, China will take on more Christian characteristics. Since God is in control, the violence and bloodshed caused by Islam doesn’t happen without God letting it happen. We must ask this question: “Is it possible that God uses Islamic invasion and subjection to chasten apostate Christian civilization?” The reality is, back when America was firmly rooted in a Christian worldview, and the population of professing Christians took their faith seriously, Islam would never have never been seen as a threat, let alone gained the ground it now has in America. If American Christianity doesn’t fit the description of the Laodecien church of Revelation, I don’t know what would.

  • Frank

    Western civilization declined on its own. The islamists only fill a vacuum. The west has rejected the Judeo-Christian values that made it great. You reject Jesus. Now Jesus rejects you, and much worse, now He comes down to walk the earth in judgement in the Day of the Lord.

    Good luck.

  • Rich in MN

    I am sorry for my sarcastic, cynical comment earlier. I have no idea what factors Cdl Dolan is weighing in his decision. My being flippant about it just does harm. I pray that God uses his participation for the conversion of souls.

    I also know that there is a very complicated dynamic between “Mosque and State” going on throughout the Middle East, a very delicate calculus that many leaders — civic and religious — are trying to work out, and I denigrate that reality and that process by painting it with one broad brushstroke. Caricature is poor way to express concern. I will endeavor, with God’s help, to be more charitable going forward.

  • Manny

    Wow, my goodness, this article is brilliant. This is a keeper.

  • Scott Slanda

    Good article, but I wish the author would look up the distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested”. He mis-uses the former each time he uses it.