How Muslims Can Catch Up by Daniel Pipes

The closure of original thought caused the decline of Islamic civilization as Europe took off.

Originally published on July 22, 2022 by The Washington Times under the title “Why is Muslim society lagging behind?

Illustration of Muslim society and closed-mindedness by Greg Groesch /The Washington Times

WASHINGTON, DC – July 22, 2022 – A deluge of statistics makes it clear that contemporary Muslims have fallen behind other peoples, whether in health, corruption, longevity, literacy, human rights, personal security, income or power. But why? There are four competing explanations, each fraught with implications.

First, the global left and Islamists blame Western imperialism. For them, today’s tribulations inevitably follow the two centuries after 1760 when almost all Muslims fell under the control of 16 predominantly Christian states (UK, Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Russia, Ethiopia, Philippines and United States).

But this accusation ignores two essential facts. First, Muslims lagged much of the rest of the world in these indices long before 1760 – which helps explain why they came under Western control in the first place. Second, Western control ended about seven decades ago, leaving plenty of time to flourish and succeed, as so many non-Muslim peoples have; compare Singapore/Malaysia, India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestinians or North/South Cyprus.

An overview of Muslims under Christian rule in 1920.

Second, analysts hostile to Islam tend to blame this religion for the Muslim tribulations. Attributing the medieval success of Muslims to appropriating the contributions of forcibly subjugated cultures, such as Roman, Greek and Iranian, they portray Islam as a mind-numbing influence that encourages rote learning, inculcates fatalism and breeds fanaticism. But that, too, is illogical: if Islam allowed Muslims to successfully borrow from other civilizations a millennium ago, how can it prohibit similar borrowing today?

Personally, this historian defends a third explanation: that various factors – the rejection of original thought and the Mongol invasion in particular – caused the decline of medieval Islamic civilization even as Europe took flight. Then, a searing mutual disdain and hostility prevented Muslims from learning from Christians. If modernity had been invented in China, Muslims would be much more advanced today.

These conflicting interpretations come to mind when reading Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2019), a book offering a fourth important explanation. Ahmet T. Kuru, professor of political science at San Diego State University, argues that too close relations between religious and political authorities have stifled Muslim creativity over the past millennium, and that this coalition must be broken. for Muslims to progress. His thesis deserves serious study. (The following quotes are from a summary of his book.)

Kuru begins by recalling that “a certain degree of separation between the ulema (religious leaders who represented Islamic knowledge, education and law) and political rulers” characterized the Muslim golden age from the 8th to the 11th centuries. century of our era, when Muslims enjoyed a wealth and power that placed them at the forefront of civilization. In particular, “the overwhelming majority of ulema and their families worked in non-governmental jobs, especially in commerce.” The resulting religious and philosophical diversity energized early Muslim societies.

“Too close relationships between religious and political authorities have stifled Muslim creativity over the past millennium and this coalition must be broken if Muslims are to get ahead.”

Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment By Ahmet T. Kuru

Ahmet T. Kuru (PhD, University of Washington) is director of the Center for Islamic and Arab Studies and Bruce E. Porteous Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. He was a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University.

From the middle of the 11th century, “the Ulema-state alliance began to emerge in present-day Central Asia, Iran and Iraq”. It then spread to Syria, Egypt and beyond, leading to the marginalization of the intellectual and economic classes. This, in turn, led to a decline in Muslim scientific productivity and economic dynamism.

For example, Europeans invented the printing press around 1440, but it took Muslims almost three centuries to print a book in Arabic characters. This extreme delay follows the absence “of an intellectual class to appreciate the scholarly significance of printing [and] a merchant class to understand the financial opportunities of printed capitalism. Military commanders in Muslim empires saw no value in the printing press, and the ulema saw it as a threat to their monopoly on education. As a result, in the 18th century, European presses printed 20,000 books for every one printed in the Ottoman Empire. Even today, Arabic books represent only 1.1% of world production. From the middle of the 11th century, “the Ulema-state alliance began to emerge in present-day Central Asia, Iran and Iraq”. It then spread to Syria, Egypt and beyond, leading to the marginalization of the intellectual and economic classes. This, in turn, led to a decline in Muslim scientific productivity and economic dynamism.

For example, Europeans invented the printing press around 1440, but it took Muslims almost three centuries to print a book in Arabic characters. This extreme delay follows the absence “of an intellectual class to appreciate the scholarly significance of printing [and] a merchant class to understand the financial opportunities of printed capitalism. Military commanders in Muslim empires saw no value in the printing press, and the ulema saw it as a threat to their monopoly on education. As a result, in the 18th century, European presses printed 20,000 books for every one printed in the Ottoman Empire. Even today, Arabic books represent only 1.1% of world production.

The first book printed in Turkish, Lugat-i Vankulu, was published in 1729.

The first book printed in Turkish, Lugat-i Vankulu, was published in 1729.

The 19th century reforms did not address the Ulema-state alliance and therefore failed. Later efforts were even worse due to a combination of military-led expansion of state power, proliferating radical ideologies and insecure secular leaders. Second, the disproportionate revenues from hydrocarbons “have hindered democratization and created rentier states”.

Looking ahead, Kuru offers Muslims four excellent recommendations: recognize the problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment; neither imperialism nor Islam for them; focus on the damage that the Ulema-State alliance is causing to intellectuals and entrepreneurs; and develop ideas of “economic restructuring based on productive systems that encourage entrepreneurship”.

Now, will Muslims heed this sage advice? The record, unfortunately, suggests not.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is President of the Middle East Forum.

Originally published as ‘Why is Muslim society lagging behind?’ » by The Washington Times July 22, 2022.

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