Let’s Stop Talking About “The Islamic Golden Age”

Let’s Stop Talking About “The Islamic Golden Age” June 5, 2014

If you have watched the new Cosmos series – which I guess is the most the readers of this blog have done, you have seen how lovingly he mentions how the Muslim world. Many mention the fact that the Muslim world used to love science and promote it and kept the ideas of Aristotle and Plato and classics in general and preserved them by translating them into Arabic, and later the west rediscovered those concepts and Renaissance began. Now, I don’t want to challenge the historicity of these claims, but there is a specific use of this historic era that are greatly object to.

Muslims constantly use this era to justify their religion, to boast that their religion is true and not incompatible with science. Many non-Muslims also follow this falsehood, and especially insist that these count as positive contributions of Islam. So whenever someone calls Islam a violent and irrational religion, “The Islamic Golden Age” is thrown at them to justify Islam.

This is how that age is described on Wikipedia:

The Islamic Golden Age coincided with the Middle Ages in the Muslim world, starting with the rise of Islam and establishment of the first Islamic state in 622. The end of the age is variously given as 1258 with the MongolianSack of Baghdad, or 1492 with the completion of the ChristianReconquista of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus, Iberian Peninsula. During the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun ar-Rashid (786 to 809), the legendary House of Wisdom was inaugurated in Baghdad where scholars from various parts of the world sought to translate and gather all the known world’s knowledge into Arabic. The Abbasids were influenced by the Quranic injunctions and hadiths, such as “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr,” that stressed the value of knowledge. During the age, the major Islamic capital cities of Baghdad, Cairo, and Córdoba became the main intellectual centers for science, philosophy, medicine, and education.

The Arabs showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilizations they had overrun. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew, and Latin. During this period, the Muslim world was a collection of cultures; they drew together, synthesized, and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Indian,Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations.

And here is Neil de Grasse Tyson discussing this period. I love this video so much. It shows how the rise of religion and a strict reading of Islam stopped this golden age (of course, it’s a bit simplistic to reduce everything to one philosopher, but in general the points are true).

So, why can’t you use those 300 years to justify Islam and redeem it from the horrible shit it has caused?

Look at this:

You can never call Christianity a violent irrational religion that is incompatible with science, Christianity has given things like the foundations for classical mechanics, the invention of calculus, and the science of genetics! Why don’t you revere Christianity as it has given so many valuable things to us?

Wait, you tell me: It’s true that Newton and Leibniz and Mendel were Christians, but they were also scientists, and it was through scientific method and skepticism that they achieved their scientific accomplishments, they might have been religious but an individual is more complex than that. We have no problem ascribing Newton’s achievements to science only, but when it comes to Avicenna or Ibn-Razi it’s Islamic science and Islam is an integral part of it. (EDIT: By most accounts, Razi was most probably not a Muslim, and here I meant to say that even his achievements are appropriated by Islamic hegemony. Thanks to Adam Freese for pointing this out).

But that is not true. Muslim scientists were Muslim and scientists, and their achievement is part of the universal force of science and not the tents of Islam.

While it’s true that Islam presents less tangible challenges towards science, and there are some verses and hadiths that support scientific advances and learning, no one can claim Islam is a proponent of critical thinking and skepticism. Islam misuses science, claiming it is scientific, while whenever there is a clash between science and Islamic rules, always Islam prevails. I was told that masturbation is as horrific as a deadly disease and that circumcision is very healthy and that fasting makes you healthy by science teachers. And then we have ridiculous things like “the scientific miracles of Quran”. Islam like all religions is incompatible with science, and its dishonest claims don’t disprove that.

But this is not simply an error, it’s a reinforcement of Islamic authoritarian hegemony.

That era wasn’t that IslamicWhile Harun al-Rashid and Ma’mun, the caliphates at the time, were strictly speaking “the rulers of the faithful” and their regime was theocratic, they came much closer to secularism than we ever did before or after. Ma’mun supported the Mu’tizili sect who believed in rationality and the scientific method, and tolerated religious dissidence and even non-believers. And also by all accounts these caliphs drank wine. So this era is not defined by the Muslim majority world following the tenets of Islam.

Also, by ascribing these things to Islam, you are ignoring the presence of non-believers in that movement, such as the translator Ibn al-Muqaffa’, or Muhammad al Warraq (who may have believed in god but certainly not Islam), or Ibn al-Rawandi.

But if you say this, you are replicating the authoritarian attitude of Islam even more fundamentally than ignoring non-Muslims.

Islam, basically, is a hegemony that spreads by trying to define everything by itself. It has rules for everything, and it makes its presence known in everything. But more fundamentally, it claims everything as its own. Science in Muslim majority country is Islamic science, economy in Muslim majority country is Islamic economy, art in Muslim majority country is Islamic art. That is why even the title “The Islamic Golden Age” is a repressive misnomer, and a reinforcement of Islamic hegemony. It can be the Middle Eastern and North African Golden Age, but to call it Islamic it means those territories belong to Islam and they are a sub-category of Islam. That is why us ex-Muslims feel so much excluded, because every aspect of our culture is defined by Islam.

Do not attribute secular things of Middle East and North Africa and South Asia to Islam. Science is secular, even if the scientist practicing it is also a Muslim or Christian.

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