By: Andrew Stunich
Islam So Dominates Islamic Culture That It Had To Play A Role In Its Decline
The cause of the Islamic world’s decline is, like most issues related to Islam, controversial, but worthy of consideration given Islam’s increasing impact on Western culture. Bernard Lewis, a highly respected Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University who has written extensively about the history of Islam, wrote a well-received January 2002 Atlantic Monthly article and subsequent book entitled “What Went Wrong” wherein he set forth many sound reasons that help to explain why the Islamic world declined from its once dominant cultural, economic, and military status to its current state of abject inferiority.
However, Prof. Lewis’ analysis implausibly exonerated Islam as a factor in the Islamic world’s decline. He opined that “to blame Islam as such is usually hazardous and not often attempted.” He further argued that it was not plausible to blame Islam because during most of the Middle Ages it was the world of Islam that contained the major centers of civilization and progress.
While Prof. Lewis’ is correct that Islam once contained the major centers of civilization and progress during the Middle Ages, there is nonetheless a plethora of evidence that overwhelmingly establishes that Islam was a substantial factor in the decline of Islamic civilization.
We refer to the Islamic world using its majority religion to identify the culture for a compelling reason: Islam is more than just a religion. In its original form, Islam is a complete social, political, and religious way of life that absolutely dominates the lives and thoughts of fundamentalist Muslims. As a matter of simple logic and common sense, one is left to wonder how it could possibly be that the religion that so overwhelmingly drives and dominates Islamic culture could somehow have managed to not play a role in its decline? Quite the opposite is true: It would be hard to overestimate Islam’s role in the decline of Islamic civilization.
Islamic Diversity Often Masks Recognition of Islam’s Full Impact On Islamic Civilization
When I discuss Islam, except where otherwise noted, I am referring to the Islam Muhammad preached and practiced which I often refer to as “fundamentalist Islam” or “Muhammadanism.” On the other end of the spectrum of Islamic faith, I refer to Muslims that are largely influenced by non-Islamic factors, but who maintain some connection with Islam because they were born into an Islamic culture, as “cultural Muslims.” The Islamic world also contains Muslims that fall within many points between the two poles of cultural Islam and fundamentalist Islam and many Muslims that fall outside of the two poles (i.e., Twelver Shiite Islam) such that any analysis of Islam’s impact on the Islamic world can be quite challenging. But we should not be overly distracted by the diversity of Islamic belief nor should that diversity be allowed to preclude recognition of the impact of fundamentalist Islam on Islamic culture.
Real Islam is the religion founded in the seventh century by Muhammad Ibn Abdullah and which is based on the Quran, hadiths, and Sira (biography of Muhammad). A fundamentalist Muslim attempts to practice Islam just as the first three generations of Muslims did as set forth in the Quran, hadiths, and Sira.
Islam is a revealed religion with a distinct set of unchanging rules and guidelines to follow. It is not a religion that is supposed to “come from within” like some new age religion. It seems quite incongruous to claim that one believes that Muhammad was Allah’s prophet and therefore profess to be a Muslim and then reject clear Islamic doctrine as established by Muhammad when the Qur’an demands that Muslims obey Muhammad and follow his “perfect” example. The religion is named Islam, meaning submission, because its founder, Muhammad, claimed that is the word Allah said to him in several alleged revelations. (Fn 1) Otherwise, the religion would surely have been known as Muhammadanism or something similar thereto.
I applaud on moral grounds any Muslim that rejects the violent and hateful aspects of Islamic doctrine, but it seems that at a certain level of modification from the Islam Muhammad preached and practiced, one ceases to be a Muslim. We would all be better served if adherents to evolved or reformed versions of Islam would more accurately self-identify under some other designation.
Instead, we see Ahmadiyya Muslims, many Sufi Muslims, and Bahai Muslims all believing they are “Muslims” when they have deviated so far from the religion Muhammad preached and practiced that Muhammad would hardly consider them Muslims. Muhammad once ordered a mosque, whose members were practicing a heretical form of Islam, burned and his followers burned it to the ground with the heretical Muslims inside thereby establishing in Islamic doctrine that schisms were not only not to be tolerated, but should be violently suppressed. (Fn 2)
Sikhs should be praised for admitting that they are adherents of a new religion that combines aspects of Islam and Hinduism. Many Muslim sects should follow the Sikh’s example as it would help alleviate much of the confusion that arises whenever Islam is analyzed and it would limit fundamentalist Islam’s ability to hide its true nature.
Because so many Muslims do not practice fundamentalist Islam, the religion often masks its true nature very effectively. Any religion, no mater how clear its doctrines, varies in practice depending upon the nature of the culture where it is practiced. This principle is especially true for Islam. Islam is a syncretic religion that incorporates beliefs from other religions, particularly Arabian Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Because it is already a syncretic religion, Islam has historically readily absorbed increased influence from the other religions previously practiced by new Muslim converts in specific regions. The most well known being the Islam practiced by many Shiite Muslims. Over time, Islam often shed the increased influence in some regions as the old religions in various locales faded from memory, but in some regions, such as Iran, the influence of the prior culture and religion leaves a permanent mark that can greatly alter Islam—not always for the better as exemplified by Iran’s Islamic government.
Sometimes, however, the foregoing process does improve Islam with the unfortunate result that fundamentalist Islam, with the help of religiously sanctioned deception known as taquiya, often evades full blame for its extremely violent and hateful doctrines. As will be shown below, real or fundamentalist Islam started as an extremely aggressive, warrior religion and its beginnings set the stage for the Islamic world’s eventual decline.
What Went Right Set The Stage For Decline
Understanding what went wrong in the Islamic world is, perhaps, best addressed by first recognizing what went right because the initial success of Islam and its early rise to economic, political, and military power is also a primary cause of what ultimately went wrong.
When Muhammad and his early followers arrived in Medina, it is clear that they were in a less than secure economic state. They had cut themselves off from the protection and support of their tribe – an act that was considered tantamount to a death sentence at the time. Moreover, this severance from their tribe’s support and protection occurred in a hostile environment. The Arabian Peninsula consists mainly of desert that, under normal circumstances, can only support a low-density population. Whether Muhammad felt that he had no other alternatives or whether he felt he had other options is something we will probably never know with certainty, but there is no question that Muhammad chose to create a society that sustained itself and advanced its interests by preying upon non-Muslims.
Mohammed said: “I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, None has the right to be worshiped but Allah, and whoever says, None has the right to be worshiped but Allah, his life and property will be saved by me.” (Fn 3) “Allah made the Jews leave their homes by terrorizing them so that you killed some and made many captives. And He made you inherit their lands, their homes, and their wealth. . . .” (Fn 4) Clearly, Muhammad viewed non-Muslim’s land and property as fair game and his conduct established that he practiced what he preached.
Given the foregoing Islamic doctrine, it should not come as a surprise that Islamic history reveals that about eighteen months after arriving in Medina, Muhammad and his followers started raiding caravans owned by their former tribe in Mecca. These raids resulted in the murder of some of the caravan merchants and brought booty to the early Muslims such as raisins, tanned hides, and other various goods that allowed the early Muslims to flourish. (Fn. 5) . Not only were valuable goods obtained directly from these raids, but captives from subsequent raids were either ransomed back to their families in Mecca or sold as slaves resulting in additional revenue. Financial success attracted more believers to the developing Islamic faith.
These caravan raids resulted in the early Islamic community developing the resources needed to later attack entire Jewish tribes. The subsequent attacks on Jewish tribes resulted in the destruction of the Jewish tribes on the Arabian Peninsula by some combination of slaughter, slavery, and expulsion. The attacks also transferred land and great wealth to the Muslim community that allowed it to then dominate the entire Arabian Peninsula.
Muhammad’s goal of gaining wealth via robbery and warfare is undeniable. It is also undeniable that extremely reprehensible means were utilized. The earliest history of Muhammad originating from a devout Muslim, Ibn Ishaq, reveals the brutal means by which Muhammad conquered non-Muslims and stole their wealth:
“Kinana, the husband of Safiya, had been guardian of the tribe’s treasures, and he was brought before the apostle [Muhammad], who asked where they were hidden. But Kinana refused to disclose the place. Then a Jew came who said, ‘I have seen Kinana walk around a certain ruin every morning.’ The apostle asked Kinana, ‘Art thou prepared to die if we find thou knewest where the treasure was?’ And he replied, ‘Yes.’ So the apostle ordered the ruin to be dug up, and some of the treasure was found. After that Kinana was asked again about the remainder, but he still refused to tell. The apostle of Allah handed him over to al-Zubayr, saying, ‘Torture him until he tells what he knows’, and al-Zubayr kindled a fire on his chest so that he almost expired; then the apostle gave him to Muhammad b. Maslama, who struck off his head.” (Fn 6)
The hadith also reveal Muhammad’s methods. Muhammad said “I have been made victorious with terror. The treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.” (Fn 7)
The early behavioral example of Muhammad is of paramount importance to Muslims and set the stage for much of what is wrong in the Islamic world. The Qur’an expressly advises Muslims that in Muhammad they have “a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one. . . .” (Fn 8) In addition, the Qur’an repeatedly commands Muslims to not only obey Allah, but to obey Muhammad. (Fn 9)
It cannot be emphasized enough that the beginning of wisdom with respect to an understanding of Islam and its impact on Islamic civilization is the realization that Muhammad did not just bring a type of monotheism to the Arabian Peninsula by eliminating worship of all of the other pagan gods. Of far more significance is the fact that Muhammad also brought the belief that Muhammad was the Prophet, Apostle and Messenger of Allah, that Muhammad had to be obeyed as commanded by Allah, and that Muhammad’s life was the perfect example for living. This aspect of Islamic belief that Allah allegedly commanded that Muhammad must be obeyed and, further, that his life is a perfect example for Muslims to follow, has overwhelming ramifications when trying to gain an understanding of Islam and any Islamic civilization.
It follows that Muhammad’s early example has had a tremendous impact on Islamic culture. The example, as can be seen above, was indisputably not a favorable one. It is little wonder that Dante’s Divine Comedy depicts Muhammad in Hell being tortured for eternity by devils. Even if one ignores the immoral aspects of Muhammad’s example, once the opportunity for booty and ill-gotten gain played itself out, what was left for the Islamic world? It seems to me that not much was left other than to wait for the rest of the world to develop an economy that made the oil under the sand extremely valuable and that appears to be exactly what happened.
Unfortunately, Muhammad did not set forth a good example illustrating that his followers should work hard and develop industry, trade and agriculture. Muhammad had clearly set up a system predicated upon military expansion and an economy that thrived based on the fruits of conquest. Such an economy is doomed to failure when the source of booty not only runs out, but military losses drain the economy. Consider the example of the Ottoman Empire – the last great Islamic Empire.
In 1683, the Ottoman Turks tried to advance farther into Europe by besieging Vienna. The Turks had planned and prepared elaborately for the battle but nonetheless lost. It was a major turning point in history. The Turks not only lost the battle and failed to gain any war booty, but the fleeing Turks left behind a great bounty for the European victors. Polish King Jan Sobieski purportedly described the windfall in a letter to his wife as follows:
“Ours are treasures unheard of … tents, sheep, cattle and no small number of camels … it is victory as nobody ever knew of, the enemy now completely ruined, everything lost for them. They must run for their sheer lives . . .” (Fn 10)
Of course, it can be argued that decline from other causes led to military defeat, but my main point remains valid regardless – a civilization built upon conquest is doomed to failure. The historical record conclusively establishes that no empire has ever succeeded in maintaining its hegemony forever.
Islam once made Islamic cultures stronger as it produced fearless soldiers that believed they would receive an earthly award (booty and women) if they lived and a heavenly award if they died. Qur’an chapter 4, verse 74 promises: “Let those fight in the cause of God Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of God, – whether he is slain or gets victory – Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value).” Mohammed said: “The person who participates in (Holy battles) in Allah’s cause and nothing compels him to do so except belief in Allah and His Apostle, will be recompensed by Allah either with a reward, or booty (if he survives) or will be admitted to paradise (if he is killed). ” (Fn 11) The Qur’an guarantees instant Paradise to those who fight for Allah. (Fn 12) Dying for Allah is presented as preferable to living: “And if ye are slain, or die, in the way of God, forgiveness and mercy from God are far better than all they could amass.” (Fn 13) Martyrs are promised a secure, sensual (sensual is expanded to erotic in the hadiths) and luxurious life in paradise with beautiful women. (Fn 14)
When wars were fought hand to hand with swords and other such weapons, Islam had an advantage in that many Islamic warriors were absolutely fearless and not only unafraid to die, but sometimes eager to obtain their virgins in Paradise. As technology advanced, while it still takes courage to fight in any war, it is a little easier to fire a weapon from some distance as opposed to slashing and hacking in close combat amidst severed limbs, rivers of blood and the smell of sweat, blood, and human waste. In the modern age, the advantage is to the better educated and better familiarized with advanced technology and religious zeal with its associated fearlessness is no longer a significant advantage.
Not having left an example other than military conquest as a means to sustain Muslim society, Muhammad sowed the seeds of its eventual decline. While some might argue that Muhammad was once a caravan merchant himself thereby setting an example of entrepreneurship, that profession preceded the early Muslim community’s Hijra or migration to Medina. The Islamic world gives overwhelming emphasis to Muhammad’s example after the Hijra to such an extent that even the Islamic calendar is not based on Muhammad’s birth, the date of his first alleged revelation, or the date of his first convert. Instead, the Islamic calendar starts with the Hijra which speaks volumes. It emphasizes that what is important is not when Islam was in its infancy without military or economic power, but that what is important is political and military power. Such a view is well warranted by the statements attributed to Muhammad. Mohammed once was asked: what was the best deed for the Muslim next to believing in Allah and His Apostle? His answer was: “To participate in Jihad in Allah’s cause.” (Fn 15)
Based on the foregoing, it is undeniable that Islam’s origins are inextricably entwined with conquest and a drive for booty. As such, the origin of Islam has been a hindrance to an Islamic culture that holds Muhammad up as a perfect example for all time that Muslims are commanded to emulate. Winston Churchill reached the same conclusion:
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! [Votaries means a devout adherent of a cult or religion] Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.
A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities – but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” (Fn 16)
The Focus On The Study of Islam Undermined Islamic Culture
Another result of the religious dominance of Islamic culture is that even when education is undertaken in Islamic culture, the emphasis is too often centered on Islamic studies. The Islamic world devotes such a disproportionate amount of its education resources on the teaching of Islam that it acts like an anchor that impedes forward progress. Not only does the emphasis on religious study take away from the study of knowledge that might help advance the culture, but it has the additional pernicious effect of cementing Islam’s grip on the culture. Muslim youth are inculcated into a relatively unshakable Islamic belief system that perpetuates itself into perpetuity. Many Muslims spend much of their time memorizing the Qur’an. Memorizing such Qur’anic verses as “slay the pagans wherever you find them” hardly prepares Muslims for an increasingly technical world.
The Islamic world was actually undermined when the technology advanced that made the spread of the Qur’an and hadith to larger numbers of the faithful possible. Increased knowledge of and access to the actual tenets of the religion actually caused more Islamic orthodoxy. The Internet is exacerbating the problem. Islamic civilization was actually better off when Muslims were dependent on religious leaders and hearsay for an understanding of their faith during the periods when a more moderate form of Islam developed.
Discrimination Against Women Harms Islamic Culture
Islamic doctrine regarding women also impedes progress. Imagine what would happen to the world’s premiere economy, the United State’s economy, if women were forced to comply with Sharia law? The United States would lose a significant percentage of its work force and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would suffer. Islamic doctrine directly leads to the restrictions on and prejudices against women in Islamic culture that impedes advancement. It is beyond credible dispute that Islam is an inherently misogynist religion that has resulted in untold discrimination against women.
Muhammad taught that captured women were lawfully subject to slavery and rape by their male captors. (Fn 17) Note that in the Quran the references to “those whom your right hands possess” is a euphemism for captives and slaves. Modernly, it is applied to non-Muslim women working for Muslims in Islamic countries. It is common to hear reports of workers in Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia, being raped by their male employers. (Fn 18)
Islamic doctrine is no more enlightened with respect to Muslim women. Muhammad declared that women are intellectually inferior to men and that they comprise the majority of Hell’s occupants. (Fn 19) One hadith records Muhammad as stating: “Women are naturally, morally and religiously defective.” (Fn 20) The Qur’an describes men as being above their wives, demands women’s obedience to their husbands, demands that women cover themselves, and states that their husbands may beat them. (Fn 21) Muslim women are given less of an inheritance than men. (Fn 22)
Modernly, probably the most terrible aspect of Islamic discrimination against women is that their testimony in court is considered to be worth only half that of a man’s testimony. (Fn 23) This law, in addition to other aspects of Sharia Law, yields the terrible result that if a woman wants to prove that she was raped, then she must have solid evidence beyond her own testimony as the male rapist’s testimony is deemed to outweigh her testimony as a matter of law. Muslim women that are rape victims sometimes find themselves jailed or stoned to death for reporting rape given that since it cannot be proven, they have effectively admitted to adultery. (Fn 24)
Based on the foregoing, it seems obvious that Islam has directly resulted in women being unable to make a full contribution to Islamic society. Any religion that prevents approximately half its population from full participation in the economy patently acts as a hindrance to advancement and economic growth. Bernard Lewis seems in accord on this point. He accurately summed up the plight of women in the Islamic world as follows:
“According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality – unbelievers, slaves, and women. The women was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the women was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time.” (Fn 25)
Given the Islamic world’s treatment of women and focus on religious studies, is it any wonder that the Islamic world declined? To understand just how poorly the Islamic world performs on the World stage, consider the following. Muslims comprise approximately twenty percent of the world’s population and they have collectively won less than ten Nobel Prizes. Jews comprise .02 percent of the world’s population but have collectively won more than 180 Nobel Prizes. (Fn 26)
Islam is Not Conducive to Democracy
Many, including Bernard Lewis, have opined that Islam is not incompatible with democracy. That is an arguable point, but what is not subject to legitimate argument is that Islam is hardly conducive to democracy. Muhammad set a clear example of combining religious and political authority. Islam also naturally fosters the belief that man cannot by popular vote set aside “Allah’s laws.” A religion that does not even give protection to someone for being unable to believe that Muhammad was God’s prophet (Quran chapter 9, verses 5, 29), can hardly be expected to produce the type of enlightened belief in pluralism that is necessary in any healthy democracy.
Can a culture that focuses its educational resources teaching that the Qur’an is literally God’s word really expect its citizens to accept anything other than a society controlled by the Qur’an given the express commands to the contrary? Of course not. Consider what the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had to say on the subject:
“Divine governments . . . set themselves the task of making man into what he should be. To juxtapose “democratic” and “Islamic” is an insult to Islam. Because . . . Islam is, in fact, superior to all forms of democracy.” (Fn 27)
Democracy has been repeatedly proven by example to result in the most dynamic economies in the world. Islam, by making Islamic culture naturally resistant to democracy, has, therefore, impeded the Islamic world’s advancement. Statistics tell the story quite well. Turkey’s Islamic culture has been held in check by a strong secular government and military that imposes as a matter of law sever restrictions on Islamic practice. According to the CIA World Factbook, Turkey has a $12,999 per capita GDP. Conversely, Iran, an Islamic Republic, has a per capita GDP of $10,600 despite vast oil revenue and a very educated population. But the foregoing figures do not tell the whole story. On the matter of per capita GDP and income, Hassan Hakimian and Massoud Karshenas, in their article “Dilemmas and Prospects of Economic Reform and Reconstruction in Iran,” observed:
“During the two decades before 1975 per capita income in Iran grew faster than in Turkey and kept pace with Korea. By 1975 the level of per capita GDP in Iran was more than double those attended in Korea and Turkey. However, since the late 1970s income per head in Iran has witnessed a rapid decline. . . By 1990, GDP per capita in Iran had declined by half, almost down to the levels prevalent in the early 1960s and falling behind Turkey and Korea.” (Fn 28)
A can be seen, the reintroduction of Islamic rule in Iran caused Iran to go from having a per capita income of more than double Turkey’s per capita income to a per capita GDP less than Turkey’s per capita GDP. Over time, Iran will continue to lose ground in comparison to non-Islamic countries and more secularized Islamic countries unless and until it can escape the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. The Islamic regime has driven away the country’s best and brightest and will continue to do so until its grip on Iranian society can be broken.
Nature of the Qur’an Assures That It Dramatically Impacts Muslims’ Behavior
Because most people in the West are secular, it is often difficult for Westerners to appreciate how deeply religious belief can impact individuals and society. The impact of devout religious belief is magnified in the Islamic world because of the duel nature of Islam as a religious and political system that permeates nearly all aspects of life in most Islamic countries and the belief that the Qur’an is literally the word of God revealed to Muhammad via an angel. Try to understand how the Qur’anic verses set forth in this essay would affect you if you truly believed they were literally the word of God and you lived in a society wherein Islam dominated your religious, political, business and social pursuits. When the Qur’an says slay the pagans if they will not convert to Islam and that non-Muslim’s property and even their women and children are fair bounty for Muslims to take, sell into slavery or even to utilize as sex partners whether the women consent or not, it is not hard to fathom that many adherents will do just that and that such conduct still exists, for example, in Sudan in the twenty-first century should hardly come as a surprise.
It Is Difficult For Many Muslims To Challenge Islamic Orthodoxy
Despite Islam’s obvious drain upon and hindrance to Islamic culture, Islam has inherent properties that make change extremely difficult. For example, Islamic doctrine demands that apostates, those that leave the faith or try to modify it, be killed. That command is vaguely set forth in the Qur’an, chapter 9, verse 12, but clearly set forth in the hadith. (Fn 29) It is, therefore, difficult for cultural Muslims in some Islamic states to make headway against Islamic orthodoxy as any attempt to do so might result in being declared an apostate with severe consequences. Similarly, any criticism of Islam that targets Muhammad and his example is likewise dangerous. Many Muslims can and do act quite violently to any criticism of Muhammad. Such violence is sanctioned by Islam given that Muhammad himself ordered critics and rivals assassinated.