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

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob the broken atheist,

    Yeah, some Muslim thinkers, mainly in the West, are willing to modernize their religion and to adapt it to philosophy, science and democracy. But they are in the minority.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    It’s a vexed business comparing apples with oranges, and so any comparison between a country (Japan) and a region with over a dozen independent, and sometimes warring states (Middle East and North Africa).

    However, there are signs that they are using their oil money to rule the world. At least in football, where Arabs own Premier League champions Manchester City, and the hosts of the 2022 World Cup are Qatar. It seems oil money goes a long way in football.

  • smrnda

    Another problem is in the past, educated Muslims learned from all over the wrold, and then staid in the nations they were from and added to the store of knowledge. . Now, if you get educated there’s a good chance you’ll leave whatever nation you were from and head to one with a higher standard of living or a better human rights record. I meet lots of ex-pats from Iran, Pakistan, and all over the Middle East. They’re take is that if they can leave, they will because they don’t see their nations changing in a positive way soon enough.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Yes, I hear the brain drain problem is a real issue. Good for the rest of the world … but maybe it would be better for the all of us if they stayed and improved their countries.

  • smrnda

    I can’t really blame people who leave the Middle East after getting educated any more than I would blame a person from some small town who moves to NY after going to college – the city holds a lot, and the small town not so much, and it isn’t likely to change unless they get some massive investments in infrastructure and human capital. I’ve met a few people who moved away from rural American – they got tired of living somewhere they felt was backwards and ignorant, and they left with the attitude that the whole region could sink for all they care.

    The other thing is that freedom of expression barely exists in many of these nations. Educated people can’t exactly speak their minds and expose people to new ideas if you’re always a few steps away from imprisonment, execution of banishment if you step on some cleric’s toes. At best, you might make some material improvements as a doctor, engineer or something else, but you’d do it your whole life feeling incredibly restrained. I can’t imagine that would be pleasant.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Totally understandable. But I’ve heard ironic tales of the London doctor (say) who wants to give back and so goes to Zambia for a couple of weeks to help with infrastructure projects … while one of the partners in his medical practice is a doctor from Zambia.

      Good point about civil society. If Muslim countries could be more welcoming to intelligent, questioning, 21st century people, they might see nice improvements after a couple of generations. But they’d have to be willing to change.

    • LeftWingFox

      I think that’s part of it, but there’s something deeper, which is that there enlightenment policies do not benefit dictatorships. Freedom of speech incites dissatisfaction and revolution. Freedom of religion and multiculturalism means sectarianism. Free Inquiry also means probes into government corruption and incompetence. Egalitarianism might lead people to thinking that the people have a right to rule.

      Middle East Policy has been driven first by the Cold War, then by Oil access as domestic supplies dwindled. That policy by both the USA and the USSR favoured co-operative dictatorships over un-cooperative democracies. The USA installed the Iranian Shah over the democratic socialist government, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Echoes of both nation’s policies echo today in the defeat of the US-backed Egyptian government, and the Soviet-backed Syrian government in the wake of the Arab Spring.

      The dictators in turn helped consolidate power by supporting the hierarchal, xenophobic, reactionary elements of religion. They don’t need multiculturalism, freedom of expression or scientific progress; they need stability so they can continue to profit from oil sales and arms deals with their patron states. Of course, this support is a double-edged sword, since empowering the extremists gives them a power base When these dictatorships fall, the next best organized power to rise is going to be the dominant religious groups.

      What we’ve seen is that separated from dictatorship, and given an opportunity to benefit from the liberal values which empower them within that democracy, we see the rise of the “kinder gentler Islam” which would otherwise be oppressed as dissidents and heretics in their homelands. As long as the US, Russia and China are dependant on Middle-eastern oil, we will continue to support dictatorships who keep the oil flowing over secular nations who choose to do business elsewhere, and thus continue to ensure that there is no “renaissance”.

  • Robb Thurston

    Why have you left Himmler and Hitler out of the equation? Cat got your tongue? Check out the connections:
    Haj Amin al-Husseini – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haj_Amin_al-Husseini, or use this:

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sorry, Robb–I have no idea what your point is.

      • Robb Thurston

        My point: it’s simple, Himmler helped instigate a lot of Islamic problems, by training instigators. Haj Amin al-Husseini received on the job training from Himmler. He was captured in Berlin when the Russians occupied Berlin and ended up back in the Middle East eventually, where he organized regressive policies which were no more friendly to a renaissance there than Himmler-Hitler et al were friendly to a renaissance of humanity in the Third Reich. If you like the Third Reich, you’ll love Syria and Iran.
        Islamo-fascism – Discover the Networks
        The use of “Islamo-fascism” to describe the doctrines and objectives of radical Islam has been attacked by media … the Nazi roots and connections of jihadists

        • Robb Thurston

          I checked and the link I gave to the valid concept of Islamofascism is snafu for me at least.
          I made a valid link here, cut and paste,please:

  • jay

    Actually some historians are questioning how ‘Muslim’ the ‘Muslim golden age’ actually was. It appears that little documentation at the time even talks about the religion as practiced by the Moors and Arabs. It seems to be quite unlike Islam as practiced today.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      If Islam can morph over time, it’d be nice if it morphed back.

  • Arkenaten

    Nice post. If you haven’t already, read Terry Pratchett’s Jingo. It will make you smile, especially in light of this post.

  • Alan R.

    Hello Bob,
    I believe that roughly at the time that St. Thomas Aquinas was writing Summa Theologia harmonizing faith and reason, Islam declared new theology off limits. I recently compared the number of entries on wikipedia for Christian theology and Islamic Theology. I was suprised at how low the number of entries were and how vague the articles were. Not a very scientific explination but interesting to me.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I was listening to a podcast arguing that Mohammed was fictional just today. I know so little about that area of apologetics that I think I’ll stick with Christianity for now. But that’s an interesting point.

      • marta macedo

        i want to turn muslim!

  • keddaw

    When the Christians had a reformation it was possible to leave the Bible’s more horrific part behind because 1. it doesn’t claim to be completely inerrant, 2. Christ the meek was the model to follow if you really wanted to ignore the less pleasant parts. Islam is less fortunate as apparently the Qu’ran is inerrant (can’t mix brine and fresh water?) and Mohammed is somewhat less pleasant as a 21st century role model.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      keddaw: The Koran can certainly fail when it makes scientific errors, but it does have a mechanism to avoid contradictions (which riddle the Bible), the Law of Abrogation. In short, any later passage that contradicts an earlier passage supercedes it.

      Just an aside.

  • marta macedo

    i´m lesbian, but i think that it is not important for my new religion because i want to turn muslim! Don’t tell anyone that i am lesbian.

  • http://www.alislam.org/ yusuf pender
    • Bob Seidensticker


      The speaker said:

      He said that such allegations were particularly unjust given that “the very meanings of the word Islam are ‘peace’ and ‘security’.”

      Sounds great. An Islam that is focused on world peace would be a nice contribution. Perhaps Muslims can try to rein in some of their nonpeaceful elements.