PROPHETS AND LOSSES: The Rise and Decline of Islamic Civilization

Monday, November 17, 2003

For nearly a thousand years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, the Islamic world was powerful, creative, and self-confident. In science, in trade, and in the arts, Muslim civilization rivaled and often surpassed the best achievements of the European world. But beginning sometime around the seventeenth century, Islamic power and dynamism began to wane, to be eclipsed by the West. Today, by nearly every measure of social and economic development, Islamic nations fall far short of Western nations. Why? Did the historical rise and decline of Islam result from processes internal to the Muslim world or from its interaction with the West? What can and should be done to revive Islamic civilization?

Recorded on Monday, November 17, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: what happened to Islamic civilization?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, one of the central puzzles of world history, the rise and decline of Islamic civilization. For nearly a thousand years after the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Islamic civilization remained creative and self-confident. In science, in trade and in the arts, the achievements of Muslim civilization rivaled and often surpassed those of Europe. Then beginning sometime around the 16th century, Islamic civilization began to wane, losing ground at first slowly but then more and more rapidly to Europe and the West. Today, by nearly every social and economic measure, the nations of Islam fall far behind those of the West. What happened?

Joining us, three guests. Azim Nanji is director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Seyyed Vali Nasr is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. And John Esposito is a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown and the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam.

Title: Prophets and Losses

Peter Robinson: Scholar Stephen Schwartz interviewed in The Atlantic, I'm quoting him now: "It's a big cliché in the West, Islam needs a reformation. No, a Protestant-style Islam would be stripped down. If Islam needs anything comparable to developments in Christian history, it needs a Counter-reformation." That is what the Catholics did in response to the Protestant Reformation. "You reaffirm faith. You reaffirm tradition but you adjust the day-to-day workings of the religion to the realities of a modern society." What the Muslim world needs today is more religion, not less. John?

John Esposito: I think so. I think the real question though is what kind of religion? What interpretation of religion?

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: I agree what the Muslim world needs is more complicated, complex approach to religion rather than just stripping it down to bare bones.

Peter Robinson: Azim?

Azim Nanji: Islam is not simply a religion. It's a faith. It's being a culture. It's being a resource for civilizations. I think we cannot simply reduce reformation or ideas of counter-reformation just to a notion of religion.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now we'll begin this very modest project of taking on thirteen hundred years of history in one television program. We begin as did Islam with the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Born around 570, dies in 632. Like Jews, Muhammad demonstrated enormous respect for Abraham and the patriarchs. Like Christians, he demonstrated enormous respect for Jesus and Mary. Simple question but a basic one, to what extent was he leading Arabs of his day into the Judeo-Christian tradition and to what extent was he founding a religion that was entirely new, that was a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition? John?

John Esposito: I think that clearly you see the Judeo-Christian roots but that's affirmed by the Quran itself, let alone the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. So it's not a concept that's alien to Islam. On the other hand, Islam takes that and from a Muslim point of view and in terms of its own development, it moves beyond it and develops its own sort of distinctive set of beliefs and practices.

Azim Nanji: My sense is I think as John pointed out, you know, the revelation confirms that it is--there's continuity with the Judeo-Christian as well as other traditions. But what it also says is that the society in which the revelation is coming is a parochial society. It's limited by its view of history and of faith, just to that tribal culture. And so while the Quran addresses larger issues of the nature of the absolute, how the absolute interacts with society, what it is also doing is saying that you have to become part of a larger global history of humanity and not restrict yourself to a view of society of the divine that is completely parochial in a very narrowly tribal sense.

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: You know, there is also a matter of historical experience here. In other words, what Christianity are we talking about? The Christianity that was born in the Middle East amongst Semitic people or the Europeanized Christianity--the Christianity that absorbed a great deal from Roman Empire and Iranian religions and European tradition? So, you know, aside from how they sort of part with each other at the beginning, these religions have moved in different directions.

Peter Robinson: New topic. The role of military conquests in Islam's rapid spread.

Title: Sufi's Choice

Peter Robinson: Now we come to this amazing moment in world history when Islam which begins in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, expands explosively. Within the Prophet's own lifetime Islam gains control of the Arabian Peninsula. By 650, an organized Islamic state rules Arabia, the Fertile Crescent in Egypt. And by the early 700s, just a century after the Prophet's death, Islam reaches from the fringes of China and India through the Middle East, clear across North Africa, all of Spain and reaches as far north in France as Lyon. What's going on here? In one century, you have this explosive expansion of this faith and culture. John, what…

John Esposito: I think a lot of factors come into play. Some people like to reduce it simply to religion and some to politics. And I think it's a combination. To begin with, the Byzantine and the Persian Sassanid Empires had basically bled each other almost to death. They had been warring for a long time and were very weakened. Okay. Now on the other hand, what the Prophet managed to do and what Islam did was to unite the Arab tribes and provide a source of enormous inspiration and motivation. So now you had the inspiration and the motivation with a strong faith but also with a mission to spread the faith as well as to spread, if you will, the Islamic rule. You have a political situation at least initially where you're moving out into areas that are weak and you also had the economic motives because with success, for those who were fighting, you know, will come the rewards of fighting. And if you were to die, you gain eternity. So that a variety of political, economic, social as well as religious factors come into play.

Peter Robinson: But you mentioned too--two empires which I hadn't thought of but the Persians are weak, the Eastern Roman Empire is weak but it's also true that this is taking place when the Western Empire--when Rome is in decay and struggling with the barbarian invasion--so-called barbarian invasions. So these three great empires which would just what a couple of centuries earlier have sat on the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa like a mattress are weak, impenetrable. That's what you're saying?

John Esposito: Yeah and this phenomenon's important because for many Muslims in later period of history, what they come to believe is, you know--when you say, you know, how do I know? The Bible tells me so.

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Esposito: Well, for many Muslims the Quran is the word of God. How do I know? The Quran tells me so. But also early Muslim history is seen by Suni Muslims as validating the claims of Islam. This…

Peter Robinson: Huge historical validation. Right.

John Esposito: This miraculous expansion as it were.

Peter Robinson: And it does look miraculous. Historically it looks miraculous.

Vali Nasr: And actually that's one of the major things that separates Muslims from Christians and Jews, the absence of persistent persecution early in their history. I mean, aside from theology and doctrine, this early historical experience is a very important distinguishing factor between them.

Peter Robinson: Azim let me read to you another quotation from an encyclopedia. This is from Encarta if anybody'd like to look it up. "The remarkable speed of this religious expansion can be attributed to the fact that it was accompanied by military conquests. The caravan raids of the early years of Islam soon became full-scale wars and empires and nations bowed to the power of this new phenomenon." Now this, of course, again, for Americans trying to sort out Islam has immediate and powerful present day implications. For example, President Bush seldom misses an opportunity to say Islam is a religion of peace but it's not so, is it?

Azim Nanji: No, what we need to do is to reframe the two assumptions that are in that article.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Azim Nanji: One is religious expansion. The other is conquest. Muslims had embarked on a conquest. They conquered existing empires that in their own turn had embarked on conquest. The process of people in those areas converting to Islam is a much longer process. I think it's often forgotten that up until at least 900, in all these territories that had been conquered, Muslims were still in a minority.

Vali Nasr: I think what Azim was saying is very important. If you look at the Muslim world today, populations in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, each of whom are more than there are Arabs today. None of them actually became Muslim through conquest. Most of them became Muslim through missionaries and Sufi saints.

Peter Robinson: Next topic: Islam as the greatest civilization on earth.

Title: Those Were the Beys

Peter Robinson: Islam at its height. The creativity, the self-confidence, the dynamism as I read the history lasts for centuries, something like nine hundred years. So Charlemagne halts the northern advance at the Battle of Tours in 732 and it's sort of decided that Islam won't take France. And as late as 1683, you have Muslims penetrating deep into the European mainland, laying siege to Vienna. So you've got from the time of Muhammad through at least the late seventeenth century, self-confident, buoyant, expansive empire and here's what the scholar Bernard Lewis says about this civilization. "The civilization of Islam was by far the most advanced and the most creative in the world. Muslims led the world in science and developed a highly sophisticated, economic system of production and exchange, with a remarkably advanced system of banking and credit." Where does this civilizational energy and creativity come from?

Azim Nanji: I think it comes from the ability of Muslims to interact with two sets of circumstances. One, what local cultures had developed. I mean, when Islam goes to Iran, there is a long tradition of sort of Persian creativity that Islam embraces, builds on. When it enters the Mediterranean world, there's been a long history of cultural development that it embraces, appropriates, further develops it. I think the process is one where Islam doesn't go in with a fully thought out system of science, history, culture. It develops one in interaction with these countries.

Peter Robinson: Can I--to reach for a modern analogue, would it be fair or fair-ish at least to say that you see some of the same energies that you see in 19th and 20th century Japan? That the civilization of Islam is brilliant at assimilating ideas, techniques and so forth from other cultures? Is that a fair comparison?

Vali Nasr: That is very true and actually there are a fair number of examples, both in India and Iran. There were very extensive traditions of science, of medicine, of astronomy that predated the arrival of Muslims. But Muslims did not approach these in a dogmatic fashion. They absorbed this into Muslim culture and if you would, Islamized the local cultures. And the result was a very sort of a furtive combination of local civilization and culture with Islam.

Peter Robinson: So far from going around stamping themselves on all of these cultures, there's an immense openness--almost a civilizational playfulness in the Muslim mind.

John Esposito: They did it across the board, if you look at early Islam. When Arab armies moved into an area, when they moved into Damascus, they moved into areas that were far more developed, sophisticated, whether it was political institutions or it was cultural and civilization. You actually had massive translation bureaus set up and libraries. The works of other civilizations and cultures were collected, translated, appropriated, and then you had a second layer of development where then the stamp is put on it. That is, when, in fact, then Muslim scholars made their contribution. But there was this different, you know, base that they drew from--all the other cultures that they had brought in. One point I want to make is you introduced your question now. And we do this all and many of us when we speak, you talk about the spread and everybody talks about the spread of Islam, let's say and its threat to France. We don't say the Umayyad Empire versus Christendom or this ruler versus--in other words, you know, with the West we distinguish countries, rulers, but we tend to use the word Islam. And Islam, for many people, means the religion of Islam when they hear it. When we're talking about emperors, imperial designs, et cetera and I think that's what also creates the muddy waters and having to work through them.

Peter Robinson: From the rise of Islamic civilization to the decline.

Title: Bazaar Turn of Events

Peter Robinson: Battle of Lepanto, 1571. Hardly the alliance of all Christendom, Spain, Venice, Genoa and the papal states, defeat the Ottoman Navy. Part of what's going on is that the Venetians design and manage to finance several huge super-galleys. So you see suddenly an energy in the financial markets. There's a certain ship craft in the West that didn't used to exist. And the Ottoman Navy is defeated. Incidentally it's quickly rebuilt but there is a major defeat imposed. Second siege of Vienna 1683, the Ottomans are routed by the Poles, force them to retreat south through the Balkans, Turkish historian writes, "This is the most calamitous defeat we have suffered since the foundation of our state." Napoleon invades Egypt in 1798. French firepower proves overwhelming. The French lose, as I recall it's 35 men. The Mameluks lose between 5,000-6,000. Something has happened with the beginning--to date it in the Western timeline--with the beginning of the Renaissance and it doesn't merely seem to be the rise of the West. Sources of the Western energy are a separate show. The question now is what's going on within Islam?

Azim Nanji: I think we really do have to speak about the rise of the West because it is through expansion, through discovery, through added economic incentive, wealth, that comes particularly from South America, that the West not only then displaces Muslim centers of power like the Ottoman but it displaces centers of power like the Aztecs and so on everywhere else. And it's going to displace Japan in its arena. It's going to displace China. So you really have to look at this in a global sense. I don't think you can say that something goes wrong with the Muslim world.

Peter Robinson: All right so you're not going to say something goes wrong with the Muslim world, you're going to say something goes tremendously right with the Western world.

Azim Nanji: With the Western--in many ways.

Peter Robinson: That's all?

Azim Nanji: Yeah, but little…

Peter Robinson: You buy that John?

Azim Nanji: I think things go wrong with the Muslim world over a long period of time.

Vali Nasr: It's a matter of relativity. I mean, it also feeds onto itself. In other words, once the West begins to rise in the manner that it does, it's economic expansion that brings the West to the shores of the Muslim world in a systematic fashion, not just at the European front, in India, in Asia, in Africa, in the Crimea. It is also the technological revolution. That's what accounts for the numbers that died in that battle.

Peter Robinson: Oh absolutely. But let me ask you this, why didn't the Mamluks--John mentioned, you all agreed that for some 900 years, the world of Islam, through various empires but there's openness to innovations in surrounding civilizations. Why weren't those Mameluks armed with good rifles? Why didn't they have their own artillery brigades?

Vali Nasr: The notion is you come up with the technology of the rifle and then from that point forward the Muslims are playing catch-up just like every other civilization. The bar is continuously since that point in time is being set by the West…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Vali Nasr: …as to what is advancement and what is decline. Before that as Azim suggests, there was no sort of universal, global standard by which the Muslims measured themselves.

Peter Robinson: John, I'm not satisfied here because they go from playing offense to playing defense. Something happens.

John Esposito: You know, I tend to agree with my colleagues. I think that we underestimate the sort of--just as you have the quantum leap that occurs with regard to Islam and the Islamic Empire and it happens, you know, with other peoples, in the West, you have remarkable advances in terms of science, technology, et cetera, that puts it way out front. At the same time, you do have, for example, during the Ottoman period; you do have the weakening of other parts of the Muslim world. The Ottomans emerge as the major empire on the block. They extend their influence and are resented into many of the Arab lands. For a variety of local reasons a number of Arab countries and cultures begin to break down locally. But I think that there, depending on the area, there are diverse answers. I don't think that there's a civilizational answer.

Peter Robinson: John Esposito doesn't believe the decline of Islam was rooted in any way in its own nature. Others would disagree...

Title: Mind Games

Peter Robinson: Scholar Jeffrey Hart, "The victory of rationalism in the West occurred as early as Clement and Origen, church fathers who won decisive victories for rational inquiry in the 2nd century. In the West, the life of the mind is cherished and given its independent sphere of inquiry. In Islam, the life of the mind is always subject to religious dogma. True?

John Esposito: Gee, you know, I grew up as a Roman Catholic and that's what they used to say about us. Even when we went to university, there was always a sense that gee, the difference between "you Roman Catholics"--in those days it was ethnic Roman Catholics--and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants is that however much you use your reason, there's always that line drawn in terms of your faith.

Peter Robinson: That's just highfalutin' prejudice.

John Esposito: I don't want to say it's prejudice but I think it's a cultural prejudice. That's not to say that within Islamic history and culture, you don't have a real push on the part of traditionalists who attempt to limit and control the use of reason. That clearly occurred in the development of Islamic law. It clearly occurred in the reaction to Islamic philosophy. Islamic philosophers were often under siege as being too rationalist and as going, you know, stepping beyond the bounds. But Christendom faced the same situation. Galileo faced that situation.

Peter Robinson: The three of you are experts. This is like the Mameluks facing Napoleon. You outgun me but let me try one more time.

John Esposito: We're not violent.

Peter Robinson: Intellectually I'm doomed. But is there any figure in Islamic history like Galileo? That is to say someone who, as a matter of intellect, defies the church, the church pounds down on him but in the end, he's seen to win the battle, carving out an expanded sphere of independent, intellectual inquiry, no matter where it goes? There's some…

Vali Nasr: There was no need for a Galileo figure in that sense because the whole phenomenon of Galileo is necessitated by what John mentions as the oppression of the church. Because within Islam you had Omar Khayyam. You had all the other astronomers who did the work that, you know, Galileo sort of built upon later on were accepted within the Muslim community. They were never persecuted. Even if some of the religious scholars did not sanction it, they were never put in the position that Galileo was put in. Now if you turn that around and say there's something unique in European history, that because of the oppression of Christendom, there was the necessity of secularism. And that, in turn, accounts for the sort of the take-off, well that didn't exist in the Muslim civilization. The whole approach of secularism versus religion is an idea that comes out of Western experience.

Peter Robinson: And that doesn't happen in Islam?

Vali Nasr: And that doesn't happen. Now whether that's good or bad, that's a different issue.

Azim Nanji: But there's an interesting point to be made if I may, is that the Muslim world--at least if we're looking for areas where there's a kind of vacuum--is that they were unaware of the tremendous change taking place in the Western world. In other words, they had become parochial and looked at themselves and they were not looking at this tremendous development of energy and vitality that was going on in the Western world.

Peter Robinson: So they missed it until they were staring down the muzzle of Napoleon's guns?

John Esposito: And when you're then staring down--when you then feel that you don't have the power, unlike the early period, when Muslims were in charge, they could feel very free to borrow from other cultures and not feel threatened in terms of their identity and not feel--but when…

Peter Robinson: Culturally defensive. Right.

John Esposito: …you become weak, then you become very culturally defensive. You're worried about…

Peter Robinson: You're conservative in some way…

John Esposito: …losing your identity. Absolutely. You circle the wagons. And you are very concerned that you will not be able to stand up to the other.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, Islam and the modern world.

Title: Haj Times

Peter Robinson: Bernard Lewis again on the Islamic world today. "By all the standards that matter in the modern world, economic development and job creation, literacy, educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights, what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low." What can be done to revive the world of Islam?

Azim Nanji: You know, I wouldn't put the question as what can be done to revive the world of Islam. I would say the Muslim world is part of the developing world. It has all the problems of the developing world. It has problems of great underdevelopment. It has tremendous problems of poverty. It has inadequacy in training a literate population and so on. It's a problem it shares with many countries in Africa, with India, and so on.

Peter Robinson: So the answers are educational, economic, political?

Azim Nanji: I think the two major areas are education and I would highlight the quality of governance that is needed to create sustainable institutions.

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: I agree fully with what Azim is saying. It's very true that you cannot sort of lay the blame on civilization and religion alone, that the Muslim world, good or bad, is part of the developing world. But also the picture is not everywhere as dire. I mean, there is the example of Turkey which has done enormous amount of economic stride is now a democracy, may join Europe. Iran is toying with elections. There's example of Malaysia. A lot of the view in the West is very Arab-centered.

John Esposito: But I think that one of the things, to tie in with what my colleague is saying, you don't want to underestimate, you know, a couple of things. I mean, one is the legacy of European colonialism. That doesn't mean that European colonialism caused everything. I mean, keep in mind, you know, European colonial powers weren't about empowering people, weren't about developing a civil society in many parts of the Muslim world. And they cut and ran. I mean, Britain cut and ran in the mid '40s and look at what happened in terms of the Indian subcontinent. Look at what happened in terms of Israel-Palestine. Then you have the nature--you put it very well when you talk about governance. The reality of most modern Muslim nation states is that they gain independence but then look at who their rulers are. They're kings, military and ex-military. You have authoritarian regimes that seek to stay in power or to self-perpetuate themselves. These are not regimes that are going to really be about--and they're elites--about developing political participation, about even developing a distribution of wealth. And, you know, those are very endemic problems in many of these societies and they are supported by Western powers.

Peter Robinson: It's television so I now have to ask in abrupt fashion a last question. I'm going to ask you each for a prediction. Today only one in five countries with a Muslim majority is a democracy. Ten years from now will that proportion have changed? Azim?

Azim Nanji: No.

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: Moderately, I think.

Peter Robinson: John?

John Esposito: Based on the recent past, I'm not at all optimistic.

Peter Robinson: Azim?

Azim Nanji: My answer would be different if you had said 50 years.

Peter Robinson: Fifty years from now?

Azim Nanji: I think, you know, people forget that the Muslim world has only had a history of 1,400 years.

Peter Robinson: Yes, since we galloped through all those centuries, you're allowed to extend the time horizon from a decade to five decades.

Azim Nanji: It's only 1,400 years. You know, other societies and cultures have had long history. China has had more than 3,000 years and…

John Esposito: Lost of nation states in the Muslim world are only 50 years old.

Azim Nanji: And there's still an absence of democracy in China but we have…

Peter Robinson: Are you optimistic over 50 years?

John Esposito: Yes.

Peter Robinson: You?

Vali Nasr: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Azim Nanji, Vali Nasr and John Esposito, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.