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ETpro's avatar

What stalled progress in North Africa and the Middle East?

Asked by ETpro (34552points) March 22nd, 2011

This is not meant as a racist or religious rant and I urge all who answer to avoid using it as such. What is puzzling me is what went wrong in the Arab world. It was the center of knowledge, with much of the world’s leading literature, architecture, enlightened government, science and medicine coming from there from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Much of the wisdom that sparked the Age of Enlightenment in the Western World came from the Middle East as Europe began to reach out and learn from Arab universities.

But something derailed all that progress. Today the area is home to repressive governments and has one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates. What went wrong? What can the Arab world today, and the rest of the world, learn from that tragedy?

Islamic Golden Age
Science in medieval Islam
A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment

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17 Answers

WasCy's avatar

I googled “Islamic Golden Age” and got just over 1,000,000 hits.

I googled “myth of islamic golden age” and got 1,900,000 hits.

Maybe you’re focused on the wrong side of the myth.

Qingu's avatar

Islam worked better as a religion than Christianity did. The Quran is a more effective cult manual than the Bible.

I also have a feeling that the Europeans constantly being at war with one another probably helped develop their technology faster.

Colonialism probably didn’t help either, once the Europeans got the fancy tech.

josie's avatar

Any body can say what they want about the West.

The book to read is What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis.
He is the Dodge Prof Emeritus in Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton.
Short book. Almost a long essay.
The whole story.
It has nothing to do with the West.
The problem is a fatal flaw in that culture. If you haven’t already read it (and perhaps you have since you seem like the inquisitive and studious type), I give it the highest recommendation. Especially for people who wonder exactly what you asked.

ETpro's avatar

@WasCy I expect that plethora of sites denying what is historical fact has more to do with right-wing political prejudices than with any fact of the 8th through 13th centuries.

@Qingu If that is so, how come the Christianity cult grew so much larger?

@josie Thanks. I have not read it, but definitely will add it to my reading list. Thanks.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I suspect it may have been the crusades. As in ancient Greece, a focus on military technology slows development in philosophy and more abstract fields of knowledge. Having several long wars would have depleted manpower (and women were rarely educated), and would have focussed the most brilliant minds on military tactics rather than more academic topics.

@WasCy The nature of search engines means that the second search would have contained many results from the first, as secondary results do not need to contain all words. Everything that mentioned the Islamic Golden Age would have been included on that list.

SavoirFaire's avatar

It is worth noting that Bernard Lewis is hardly a neutral source and has done all of his work from an armchair for over four decades now. It’s hard to be a cultural expert when you refuse to talk with anyone from the culture.

josie's avatar

Good to see that argumentum ad hominem hasn’t lost it’s luster on Fluther. I was starting to worry that fallacy had fallen out of fashion.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Have I said how much I love the NYT yet today? No? I love the NYT.

Timur Kuran, an economist at USC, author of ’‘The Islamic Commercial Crisis: Institutional Roots of the Delay in the Middle East’s Economic Modernization,’’ he proposes an answer: Islamic partnership law and inheritance law interacted to keep Middle Eastern enterprises small, never allowing the development of corporate forms. In the Middle East, when the proprietor of a successful 13th century business died, all of his male relatives would inherit the business, rather than a single heir. Imagine running a successful salt-trading business with 67 of your nearest and dearest male relatives – sons, son-in-laws, nephews, brothers, uncles, cousins, etc.

josie's avatar

@BarnacleBill The valid point being, they have intrinsic problems which, when revealed, always vexes the “Hate and Criticize The West for Everything” crowd.
I like the NYT occasionally.

mattbrowne's avatar

Over the last couple of months I read several books trying to understand the reasons why the Golden Islamic Age was never resumed after 1250 CE. I encountered a couple of interesting hypotheses which include the following factors:

1) Sacredness of written Arabic resisting change. Modern spoken Arabic didn’t lead to a new form of modern written Arabic

2) Planned economy introduced by the Ottoman empire

3) Strong reservation about the printing press. It took centuries for Gutenberg’s invention to reach the Middle East and North Africa and become widely accepted

4) No reformation like what happened with Protestantism and later Catholicism and Judaism

5) Tribalism

6) Being subjected to imperial colonialism

7) Difficult access to global knowledge

There are more. If you interested I’ll have another look at the books I mentioned.

Even today five times as many books are published in modern Greek (11 million speakers) every year compared to Arabic (300 million speakers). Half of all books published in Arabic are of a religious nature mostly sponsored by Saudi Arabia.

Qingu's avatar

@ETPro, the Christian cult had a 600 year head start on the Islam cult. That said, it ain’t that much larger, it’s certainly in decline nowadays, and I would wager there are significantly more “practicing” Muslims than “practicing” Christians.

ETpro's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Definitely an influence. Thanks.

@SavoirFaire Perhaps Lewis wants to maintain his pristine academic viewpoint.

@BarnacleBill Great . And I like the NYT too.

@josie I have to believe that the hatred and distrust of the West is an impediment. Much better to work together cooperatively.

@mattbrowne Excellent answer. Thanks so much. And yes, if there is more, please add.

@Qingu I found this estimate thta suggests that practicing Muslims will outnumber practicing Christians by 2035. The Telegraph trumpets that Islam will “Triumph”. I see it as a Pyrrhic victory. Frankly, I think that is an indication of the progress of the West. We are letting go of ancient superstitions and myths better than the Muslim world is.

Qingu's avatar

@ETpro, that’s just in Great Britain! There are something like 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide today, and perhaps 2 billion Christians. And when you consider how many of those Christians are in America and Europe—and how little their “Christianity” means to their daily lives, beyond mindlessly attending Christian and Easter services—I think it’s pretty clear that Islam is the stronger of the two religions at this point in history.

And I agree that Westerners are letting go better than the Islamic world… but I don’t think this is because of differences in the people involved, but rather with the books. The Bible is a mess compared to the Quran. The texts and traditions that make up Islamic ideology are much more effective at drawing people in, and holding them in, than Christian texts and traditions.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie It’s not an ad hominem attack. The bias and inaccuracy in Lewis’ work have been noted by many scholars in his own and related fields.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – I think you are both right and wrong. Most Muslims outside the Arab world don’t understand the Quran, and even modern Arabs struggle with the ancient version of their language. So when they listen to suras it’s more like listening to music than actually contemplating deeper meanings. For this reason Martin Luther translated the Bible to German. For the same reason the Catholic Church eventually stopped using Latin during their services. The idea to separate state and religion is a key message in the gospels. Methods like Higher Criticism and secular countries were developed by Christians. Freedom of thought exists in majority Christian countries and this continues to inspire young Tunisians and Egyptians. The idea is still very effective at drawing people in.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – Here are the books I mentioned, some in English and some in German:

The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis

Lost in the Sacred – Why the Muslim World Stood Still by Dan Diner

Malady of Islam by Abdelwahab Meddeb

Der Untergang der islamischen Welt – Eine Prognose by Hamed Abdel-Samad

Die große Verschleierung by Alice Schwarzer

Here’s an English interview with Alice Schwarzer:

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, eh.

On the Quran and language, I don’t think the fact that many Muslims don’t understand Arabic means the “cult” of Islam is weaker as a result. The alleged magical-ness of Quranic Arabic seems to work in the religion’s favor, independent of whether it’s actually understood. (This strikes me much like how the Catholics for years suppressed translations of the Bible… as soon as people started to understand what the Bible said instead of regarding it as a “magic” book, they realized how much of it was bullshit!)

Also, freedom of thought has never existed in “Christian” countries. It exists in “Western” countries, and it only came into existence by tearing itself away from the jaws of the Christian theocracy. Christian scholastics were no more “free” than Islamic falsafas in their exploration of thought; religion constrained both societies’ philosophers. It’s just that, in the end, the Christian religion was less effective at doing so, because it was less coherently managed and less politically entrenched.

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