John C Wright has written a piece here on Islam and history. It really is very bad but it is also quite nasty – I sometimes see Wright as just harmless but it is worth remembering how nasty his rhetoric can be. Being wrong is one thing, being wrong for the purpose of trying to invoke religious war is deeply immoral. Wright uses a crazy mix of facts and half truths. Several parts deal with the early history of Islam, which certainly is bloody and violent but no less so than the establishment of Wright’s religion – The Roman Catholic Church. That doesn’t make either religion good and it should cause a skeptical mind to consider the validity of a morality based on divine revelation but it also doesn’t make a religion inherently bad. Worse, it does not imply any kind of religious determinism – i.e. that somehow if a person is of religion X they must have a particular character or behavior, even when considered en-mass. The characteristics of a religious movement tend to be specific to time and place and as fickle as other social phenomenon.
I’ll pick out some specific levels of plain old wrong:
JCW: “The American public was largely unaware of events in the Middle East until the Carter administration, when a series of inexplicably bad foreign policy decisions on the part of the United States allowed the secular postcolonial governments there to fall into the hands of persons explicitly adopting the political system called Sharia Law.”
This is such a very odd thing for Wright to say as this is stuff that happened in his lifetime. During the Carter administration primarily there were two significant countries that shifted from being a semi-secular postcolonial government to an overtly theocratic one – Iran and Pakistan [note: definitions of ‘middle east’ vary – arguably neither of these are Middle eastern countries, particularly not Pakistan but US usage may include it]. Now I can’t dispute “bad foreign policy decisions” but sadly I can dispute “inexplicable. the bad policy decision predate Jimmy Carter and dates back to the USA and the UK deposing the secular and democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Mosaddegh had angered Britain because of his nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. The USA under President Eisenhower collaborated with Britain to depose Mosaddegh and establish the Shah as a more direct ruler of the country who would be more favorable to the US. This move essentially undermined secular democracy in Iran. Although the eventual revolution that deposed the Shah included many Iranians who hoped for a return to democracy, the net result was that a theocratic government was established.
In the case of Pakistan, a military coup by General Zia brought in a more authoritarian government that adopted more Sharia law into Pakistan’s legal system. Because of Soviet involvement in neighboring Afghanistan, Zia received support from the US. Bad foreign policy? Yes. Inexplicable? No. Indeed it was a policy that Ronald Reagan would, of course pursue further. The common thread between the two was the US supporting authoritarian governments.
Of course the most significant country in terms of Sharia law at that time and this was Saudi Arabia – a hereditary monarchy and the centre of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia. The US relation with Saudi Arabia has, of course, been dominated by oil.
Oil, the cold war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the twentieth century have been the key elements in the modern Middle East. Of course the Islamic world is bigger than the Middle East but in one sense Wright is correct – the American public was largely unaware of events. Consequently when events became two large too ignore they have tended to be perceived as sudden and shocking and mysterious – and that makes such events easy to portray as being arbitrary, irrational and the product of something both threatening and alien.
Understanding this does not require anybody to make excuses for Islam. Religion is frequently used as a way of arresting social progress or opposing democracy and Islam has many features that make it particularly apt for that including a history of conquest, intolerance and misogyny. However, none of those feature are immutable nor is a religion like some sort of mental operating system that makes people think and act in particular ways. Worse still, the notion that Wright wishes to promote is exactly the same notion that the violent radicals of Islamic nationalism also wish to promote: that there has to be some kind of inherently religious conflict and that there can be no accommodation or gradual secularization.
JCW: “The Mohammedanism, like the Stalinism who came later, demand history be abolished, and are responsible for the burning and loss of nine tenth of the known lost ancient manuscripts of history. The destruction of the Stone Buddha statues in Afghanistan, or the famous museum in Babylon, was not a mistake or the act of some odd extremists: it is a central part of mainstream Sharia. Christian churches and relics are destroyed whenever they fall into Mohammedan hands: to this day, the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople is used as a mosque, in triumphant mockery of the defeated Christians.”
Wright makes heavy use of the misnomer “Mohammedanism” – part of his tendency to use archaic language whether it is technically flawed or not. The line about ’nine tenth of the known lost ancient manuscripts of history’ is a reference to something but it is unclear what. Most likely is the story of Caliph Omar in 642 CE ordering the burning of the famed Library of Alexandria. What Wright doesn’t note is that this was the last in a chain of destruction of ancient knowledge and that the previous burnings are better factually supported by history (the account of Omar ordering a burning doesn’t appear till the 13th century), more extensive in terms of loss. Of course he might be referring to other periods in which religious intolerance led to the destruction of great works but again this is something seen in past cultures of varying religions – times of tolerance of ideas and times of persecution of ideas. Not a feature particularly Islamic nor confined to Islam but which certainly has occurred in societies that were predominately Islamic as well as societies that were predominately Christian, as well as societies that were neither (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_books_and_burying_of_scholars ). Does this excuse past periods of intellectual repression by Islamic rulers? No.
Just to pile on the list of errors the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is a museum and not a mosque and has been since 1935. Well worth a visit.
JCW: “You have no doubt heard that there was a Golden Age of Islam, where Muslim scholars preserved the works of Aristotle and the ancients, invented the zero, or made great strides in astronomy and mathematics. This is all an outrageous lie, the precise opposite of the truth. There were certain Spanish scholars, mostly Jews and Christians, conquered by Muslims, but who preserved the ancient texts despite the Muslim program of destroying them.”
Wright really goes off the rails here with multiple levels of confusion. By being unclear and vague about a claim makes it easier, I suppose, to defend it later claiming he meant something else. However, ‘the exact opposite of truth’ should be exactly that – it should have no features of truth in it at all. I’d agree with in only one sense that a ‘Golden Age of Islam’ lacks veracity because very rapidly after the death of Mohammed, Islam ceased to be a single combined political-religious entity. When considering Islamic history we are actually considering the history of different ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. Partisan accounts of either kind (pro- or anti-) might prefer to see a single monolithic block of people but even a basic examination of history shows that to be absurd. Indeed a simple look at major Islamic countries and their recent history shows an enormous diversity – even restricting the focus to just the most dogmatically theocratic of governments shows quite different nations: Iran and Saudi Arabia for example.
So is the notion that in a period of history in various countries/cultures that were predominately Islamic there was notable scholarship in the work of Aristotle, mathematics and astronomy basically true? Yes. It isn’t difficult to check. Was it all down to ‘certain Spanish scholars, mostly Jewish and Christians’? No. Some examples:
- Ibn Sina (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avicenna ) known in the West as Avicenna 980 CE – 1037 CE. Note firstly this is an Islamic scholar who was of such significance that European medieval scholars coined a latinate name for him. Avicenna was a polymath and a notable scholar of Aristotle – by himself he is a sufficient refutation of Wright’s claim. He wrote on medicine, astronomy, philosophy and logic and was of such significance to Western thought that Dante included him among the virtuous heathens. Spanish? No, he was from central Asia and ethnically Persian. Christian? No. Jewish? No.
- Ibn Rushd (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Averroes ) known in the West as Averroes 1126 CE – 1198 CE. Another massively influential scholar, whose significance was acknowledged even in medieval times in Western Europe. Another scholar of Aristotle and a philosopher whose work was of notable significance on Saint Thomas Aquinas. Note even if we restrict ourselves to considering Muslim scholars of significance to Catholic theology, we get at least two names. Spanish? Yes. Christian? No. Jewish? No.
- Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mu%E1%B8%A5ammad_ibn_M%C5%ABs%C4%81_al-Khw%C4%81rizm%C4%AB ) perhaps the most notable Persian mathematician from whom the term ‘algorithm’ was derived and whose works helped introduce algebra (a term taken from the title of one of his work) and advances in arithmetic to Western Europe.
Were there also Jewish and Christian scholars? Certainly. Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maimonides ) is a significant example. However the idea that this was all is pseudo-history. It is palpably false propaganda.
JCW: “The Byzantine Empire preserved what we have of ancient learning, and scholars fleeing the downfall of one Byzantine theme, province, or city after another in the relentless onslaught of Mohammed reintroduced them into the West. The Moslems not only were not the preservers of the knowledge of the ancient literature, they were the main force destroying it.But one of the main causes of the fall of the ancient world was indeed Islam. The Mohammedans soon had control of the Mediterranean, which was the main trade route of the day, travel by land being prohibitively expensive. By cutting off Egypt from Europe, they cut off the breadbasket of Europe, the main source of grain to Christian lands. The economy of Europe contracted by two thirds during the Sixth and Seventh Centuries. Spain and Turkey were invaded, hammered over and over again, in relentless and unceasing wars. Each new caliph would renew the wars and attempt to outdo his predecessors in savagery and enormity because this is what Mohammedan law teaches.”
It is not wholly untrue that the Byzantine Empire preserved aspects of the ancient world. Indeed it provides a direct connection between Medieval times and the Roman Empire – the Byzantine Empire being effectively the direct descendant of the Eastern Roman Empire centered on Constantinople. It lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, by which point Western Europe was heading into the Renaissance and the printing press was already having an impact.
However, what Wright is really ignoring here is multiple invasions, and movements of people that ended the Western Roman Empire at one end of history but which continued to include the movement of Vikings from Scandinavia, and multiple movements of peoples out from central Asia. Those movements had mixed effects on Islamic culture. In the case of the Byzantine Empire invasions from Turkic people gradually eroded the Empire much as the movements of people in Northern Europe had helped end the Western Roman Empire. Such movements and invasion occurred with and without Islam. Wright and other people pushing Christian theocracy like to conflate any such invasion by a people that had converted to Islam as being Islamic in nature but conveniently ignore that Islamic people of other ethnicities might be displaced in the same invasions. They also ignore the same patterns of population shifts and invasion that occurred by people who were not Islamic. Indeed the most substantial being the Mongol invasions that began with Genghis Khan hundreds of years before the fall of Constantinople.
JCW: “By the Thirteenth Century, just when Thomas Aquinas was successfully integrating Aristotelian philosophy into Christian Theology, an influential Mohammedan philosopher named Algazel convinced his world that there were no such thing as cause and effect, no secondary causes, nothing but the direct will of God. Fire does not cause paper to burn, the paper is destroyed by God’s will. In the meanwhile, Christians, everywhere these days portrayed as the enemies of science and learning, established the parallel institutions of the university system and academic freedom.”
Nope. Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (aka Algazel) is 1058 CE – 1111 CE. He lived hundreds of years before Thomas Aquinas. In between time Avicenna and Averroes were writing works that would presage Aquinas. Yes, his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers was very influential (to the extent that Aquinas probably studied works by Algazel years later) but Wright here is getting his facts and timeline so confused as to be incoherent.
Wright continues in much the same way. He points at wars and slavery and other bad things that have occurred in Muslim countries and studiously ignores that in that same time war and slavery and other bad things were going on everywhere else. He manages to note World War One and Two but somehow forgets that these most destructive of wars had their roots firmly in non-Islamic nations (although both wars included Islamic countries).
He naturally lauds the Crusades, but conveniently forgets that the Crusades were fought by Western Europeans after territory in the Middle east that they did not hand back to the Byzantine Empire. He naturally completely ignores the violence and destruction the Crusades enacted against the Byzantine Empire including the Fourth Crusade (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Crusade ) which was primarily a fight between Christians, except for a brief mention in this paragraph where he also manages a quick attack on Jewish people.
JCW: “And history teaches that we cooperated and collaborated with them. Small wonder our history is not taught: we are ashamed of it. The Crusades are perhaps the sole shining example of a unified Christian world rising against the relentless Muslim aggression, and even at that, the conflict between Byzantine and Roman Christians turned bloody. (Ironically, this one glorious time is the only period modernism heaps shame upon Christianity, when we defended ourselves, and regained the Holy Land for a century.) Meanwhile both Jewish merchants and princes of Italy participated in the Moslem slave trade.”
Wright finishes with this call for glory and lambastes his favorite target of people who wear pajamas:
JCW: “Richard the Lionheart might be willing to march to war and face capture, torture and death for the greater glory of Christ; but is any pajama-wearing cocoa-sipping partisan of gay marriage, gun control, socialized medicine or free trade in aborted baby organs willing to march into the hell of war for his self-centered and sick beliefs?”
Hmm. Can anybody imagine John C Wright actually marching into the hell of war? No, me neither. Shouting rudely from behind a keyboard with confused, factually incorrect propaganda that asserts the same basic premise as ISIS and Al-Qaeda that religious tolerance is impossible? Sure, Wright can manage that but not much else. Remember that he and fellow keyboard warrior Vox Day (who is also spruiking this nonsense) couldn’t defeat a bunch of cranky nerds when it came to the Hugos – yet here they are declaring war not on some minority section of one of the world’s largest religions but the WHOLE of it! The bombastic language that Wright employs would be funny if it weren’t so poisonous.