Did Islam Destroy Classical Civilization?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Much of what I say in the article below goes so much against received wisdom that it might initially seem wrong, even obviously wrong. The notion, for example, that Christianity was inherently violent and intolerant is now so deeply ingrained that the reader might balk at the claim made here that this was not the case, and that violence and intolerance entered Christianity at a very specific time.

Also, the belief that Byzantium remained a flourishing outpost of classical civilization all through the "dark centuries" and into the fifteenth is so taken for granted that the reader will be shocked to find that Byzantium too had its "dark age" - a dark age perhaps even more obscure and impoverished than that of the west. Yet this is precisely what archaeology has now found.

For reasons of space I have not always been able to present the evidence in its fullness, complete with references etc., but the reader must understand that such evidence does exist, and is presented at length in my recently-published Holy Warriors. Here I have tried to answer some of the objections raised by the reviewers, but to answer them all, in the detail I would like, would take another book in itself.

Decline of Classical Civilization

One of the most enduring problems of history is the decline of Classical Civilization. How is it, scholars have long asked, that the civilization of Greece and Rome, which had endured over a thousand years, gave way to the world of the Medieval, an age which saw, for a while, the decline and apparent disappearance of the rationalist spirit of Greece and Rome?

In academic and journalistic literature and in the popular imagination, there is no mystery at all. After the Barbarian Invasions of the 5th century, we are told, the peoples of Western Europe reverted to living in thatched, wattle-and-daub huts. Cities were destroyed and abandoned, the art of writing virtually lost, and the mass of the population kept in a state of ignorance by an obscurantist and fanatical Church, which effectively completed the destructive work of the Barbarians. Into this darkened stage, the Arabs arrived in the 7th and 8th centuries like a ray of light. Tolerant and learned, they brought knowledge of the science of antiquity back into Europe and, under their influence, Westerners began the long journey back to civilization.

That, in a nutshell, is the story told in an enormous number of scholarly treatises and academic textbooks. It is a story implicitly accepted by a large majority of professional historians, both in Europe and North America; and yet it is a version of the past that is completely and utterly false. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a narrative further removed from what actually happened. And, shocking as it may seem, historians have known this for several generations. Why this knowledge has never been fully disseminated or integrated into academic thought is a moot point, but the fact that textbooks designed for schoolchildren and students of higher education can still be printed promoting the above version of events should be a cause of deep concern.

The Europe that Muslims Found

The truth is that when the Arabs reached southern Italy and Spain, they found not a bunch of primitive savages, but a highly sophisticated Latin civilization, a civilization rich in cities, agriculture, art, and literature, and presided over by completely Romanized Gothic kings. How do we know this? The Arabs themselves said so. On their arrival in Spain, Gothic Spain, the Muslim conquerors of 71 1 were astonished at the size and opulence of its cities. Their annalists recall the appearance at the time of Seville, Cordova, Merida and Toledo; "the four capitals of Spain, founded," they tell us naively, "by Okteban [Octavian] the Caesar." Seville, above all, seems to have struck them by its wealth and its illustriousness in various ways. "It was," writes Ibn Adhari,

among all the capitals of Spain the greatest, the most important, the best built and the richest in ancient monuments. …