Where is the Islamic Renaissance?

In the late 1500s, Japan had more guns than any European country, but that ended as Japan entered a self-imposed isolation that lasted over two centuries. This peaceful Tokugawa period was the time of the shoguns and samurai.

That changed in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay with his black ships and demanded that Japan open up as an international trading partner. Realizing that trade was preferred to colonization, Japan signed treaties with many Western powers. By 1868, the emperor became more than a figurehead with the Meiji restoration. Japan began an aggressive period of industrialization, and this former insular country defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. It had become a world power.

From shunning outside influences to mastering them in 50 years—pretty impressive.

Let’s compare that Japan with another region of the world: the Muslim world of the Middle East and North Africa (I’ll refer to this region as MENA). Japan showed that a country can change a lot in 50 years if it is dedicated, and we’ve seen a lot of change in MENA. The Middle East became the world’s largest oil producing region 50 years ago and now receives about $800 billion per year from its oil. So how has MENA used its 50 years?

We can evaluate countries on governance and democracy using Country Indicators for Foreign Policy data, which considers six criteria: democratic participation, government and economic efficiency, accountability, human rights, political stability, and rule of law.

The MENA countries don’t fare well. Half are in the worst 25%, including most of the largest ones: Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The Muslim world is grossly underrepresented in science Nobel Prizes, and it is not a source of innovation today.

With the enormous windfall of outside technology and cash, MENA could’ve done so much more. And the incredible thing is, they did. With the support of Islam, this region of the world was a center of civilization during the Islamic Golden Age, 500 years that ended with the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258.

While Europe stumbled through the Middle Ages, the Muslim world of the Middle East and North Africa built libraries and great buildings, preserved the works of Aristotle and other Greek scholars, and developed trigonometry, algebra, and astronomy. Our numbering system (zero, positional notation, Arabic numerals) was invented in India but introduced into Europe by North African Arabs a thousand years ago. Over 200 stars have Arabic names (Betelgeuse, Rigel, Vega, Andromeda), and some of our scientific words and ideas came from Arabic (algorithm, algebra, azimuth, alchemy).

A thousand years ago, the libraries of Moorish Spain had close to a million manuscripts, and the translation of Greek works, preserved in Muslim Spain, helped fuel the European Renaissance.

Historians can tell us why MENA’s recent history played out as it did. But how plausible were other paths? Is it naïve to wonder if history could have played out other ways with a benign or encouraging flavor of Islam that would’ve allowed a Renaissance in the Islamic world? Will the Arab Spring be seen as a turning point?

One objection to this hope points out that that the Koran has a lot of crazy stuff in it, but so does the Bible. Christians have been able to put that behind them. Whether Christians are consistent or not isn’t the point here—they don’t see in the Old Testament justification for things that modern people simply don’t accept.

If Christian Europe could go through a Renaissance, the Muslim world can too, especially since they’ve done it once before.

The ink of a scholar is more holy
than the blood of a martyr
— attributed to Mohammed

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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