No part of the world today, or possibly any civilization in history, experiences a more complex variety of situations and circumstances than the Islamic world. All over the world, Muslims look back from the turbulence of their time to the Golden Age of Islam, when they were the greatest power in the world and performed outstandingly well in many fields of human endeavor. But how did it get from such glory to where they are now, wherein Muslim countries rank low with the rest of the Third World under the shadow of the West?
Muslims themselves are rather ambiguous in explaining it. So, perhaps, are scholars in the West. I have not heard much on what they have to say, but a few sources such as Imran Khan’s Pakistan: a Personal Journey and a speech by Prince Charles after the Gulf War of 1991 has given me a sufficient idea. Imran Khan’s autobiography gives a complete account.
“The decay and decline in Islamic intellectual thought, according to Iqbal, set in five hundred years ago when the doors to ijtihad, a scholarly debate on our religion and its traditions, were closed. The Quranic principles, which for Muslims are eternal principles, needed constantly to be re-interpreted in light of new knowledge. In his lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal cites three reasons for this stagnation. First, around the tenth century, there was controversy between two schools of thought-one rationalist and one conservative-about issues such as the eternity of the Quran. The ruling Islamic dynasty at the time, the Abbasids, threw their weight behind the conservatives, fearing that unrestrained adherence to a particular type of rationalism could endanger the stability of Islam as a social polity.
The second reason was the rise of ascetic Sufism, which grew partly in reaction to the increasing conservatism of the Islamic establishment. The Sufis, the mystics of Sunni Islam, wanted to focus more on inner spirituality, rather than a rigidly guarded set of rules. But according to Iqbal, their concentration on otherworldliness ignored Islam’s role as a means of organizing society and politics. He complained that ascetic Sufism ended up attracting and finally absorbing the best minds in Islam. The Muslim state was thus left generally in the hands of intellectual mediocrities, and of the unthinking masses of Islam, who found their security only in blindly following the ‘schools’ of the great Islamic jurists such as Abu Hanifa and Malik Abn Anas. Iqbal-pointing to the Quran’s emphasis on ‘deed’-believed it was contrary to the true spirit of Islam to turn away from the real world, as some Sufis did. He felt that becoming a hermit or ascetic meant avoiding the joy and struggle of real life. To those who taught Islam, he said:
To teach religion in the world-if this be your aim
Do not teach your nation that it should withdraw from the world
The third and probably most decisive factor was the Mongol’s destruction in 1258 of Baghdad-the centre of Muslim intellectual life. Had the Mongol hords (sic) not taken over swathes of the Muslim world, our history might have been very different. This legendary tribe from Mongolia laid waste to cities and decimated populations across Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Their merciless sacking of Baghdad, which had at one point been the centre of wealth, commerce, and learning of the Islamic world, has historically been seen as being the death blow for the Golden Age of Islam. With the destruction of its famous libraries, centuries of learning were lost, and this huge cultural trauma inevitably led to greater conservatism as Muslims feared the eradication of their civilization. Although the Mongols had by the early fourteenth century converted to Islam, their autocratic rule clamped down on the capacity of the ulema (Muslim legal scholars) for independent judgement. The gates to ijtihad were declared closed. Unity became key, dissension discouraged, and foreigners became suspect.”
Note that Imran Khan, and Iqbal, are talking about the decline of intellect in Islam, not of Islamic power itself, and the two may not entirely correlate. This is still the best account from a Muslim I have gotten of Islam’s decline. The reason, admittedly, is that I have not read much on this literature. However, I know that no Muslim anywhere knows what really happened which caused Islam to go down from being a powerful civilization to what it is now. But, unwittingly, Imran Khan’s book alludes to it.
In the beginning of the excerpt, Imran Khan says that the “doors to ijtihad were closed” five hundred years ago, or around 1500. At the end, he says that the “gates to ijtihad were declared closed” by the fourteenth century, the 1300s. He does not account for the gap. Imran’s mention of something happening five hundred years ago is most mysterious, as nowhere else in the book does he explain the meaning of what he said. And it is mysterious to all Muslims. As a matter of fact, the 1500s was the time that the downfall of the Islamic world began in earnest while the West started to rise.
To those of my readers who are curious to know the reasons behind the decline of Islamic civilization, I have the following astounding revelation. Muslims consider many peoples to be enemies of Islam, such as Mongols in the past and more recently, Soviets, Israel, and the US. But in fact, the greatest adversity that the Muslims ever faced in their history, which hurt them far more than anybody else ever did, are the developments in Mexico and Peru five hundred years ago.
We should first take note of the fact that the sixteenth century was the most important century in human history, in fact, far exceeding any other century in the history of humanity. Before this time, the development of human civilization followed a strictly uniform course. But suddenly, when the sixteenth century arrived, humanity experienced a monumental change. The whole structure of human society was suddenly torn asunder as vast changes in civilization occurred all over the planet, agriculture, economics, the biosphere, the climate, and even the biology of the human species. The century saw human experiences that were so monumental nothing else in all of history ever came remotely close. There were, for example, the discovery of two continents by one individual, the subjugation and annihilation of a whole major unit of civilization by a single nation, a giant epidemic killing off a large part of the human species (an estimated one hundred million people), and gold and silver available in such massive amounts, and in the hands of so few, that a whole fleet of ships filled with tons of the material regularly set off into the ocean. The decline of the Islamic world was but a small sideshow in what was happening on our planet.
I will not explain all of the wonderful things I mentioned, only those relevant to this argument, so go and read up on the Columbian exchange in general and in particular the epidemics wiping out nearly all the Red Indians, the Little Ice Age thought to be caused by the massive decline of human populations, the conquistador phenomena, and the 15th-16th century Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery.
All this sounds interesting, but we are right now talking about how our great Islami civilization started to deteriorate. We all know that, not able to confront the Islamic world, Spain and Portugal took to the seas, discovered America, began to colonize it, and sent their ships around Africa to trade with Asia. This paved the way for rising European domination of the world that continues today. But the fact is, as soon as this began in full swing in the 1500s, the Europeans knocked the Muslims off balance and destroyed their influence in the world in two ways.
Europe had for a long time been overshadowed by the Islamic world and Asia. But because of its huge population and vast resources, the small continent had formidable potential, especially vis-a-vis the Islamic world. That was why they so ravaged the Middle East during the Crusades. But even as they were incapable of militarily subjugating the Muslims, they were leaving the latter behind in technological advances. They had developed the most advanced catapults during the Crusades, and now, come 1400s, they made another technological breakthrough.
Guns and gunpowder were invented in Asia. As they spread throughout the world, it was Europe which made the world’s most superior developments in the field. Portugal and Spain, followed by other countries, discovered how to mount cannons on ships. This allowed them to take control of the world’s oceans. So, when Portugal encircled Africa and entered the Indian Ocean at the dawn of the 16th century, they proceeded to destroy the Arab trading dhows and take over the Asian trade themselves. The Arabs began to wage a naval war against them, but European superiority in weaponry proved decisive in a battle off Diu (1509). The Islamic presence on the seas was destroyed.
The Muslims still had the Silk Route to trade with the Far East, but it had already deteriorated after the decline of the Mongol Empire and the Black Plague. Islamic influence in Asia (and East Africa) was cut off. Turn the other direction, and the Arabs still traded by land with West Africa. The major trading commodity from the north was salt, while Sub-Saharan Africa supplied a large part of the world’s gold. Europe was heavily dependent on this gold, as well as of other African products. Arabs shipped all of this by camel caravans to Spain. But the Portuguese sent their ships to trade with the Africans directly, and Granada, where Muslim trade passed through to Europe, fell to Spain in 1492. Arabs still traded across the Sahara, even as the Europeans became serious competitors. But, then, something happened which caused not only the trans-Saharan trade to collapse, but the economy of the entire Islamic world to corrode.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to seek new economic opportunities for Spain. When he arrived in the Caribbean, after seeing that the natives had gold, he decided to mine the metal to supplement that from Africa. In 1499, he struck significant gold mines in Haiti, making Spain the richest country in Europe (Portugal followed soon after by accessing the lucrative trade of India). When it was discovered that the landmass Columbus found was one unknown to Europeans and not Asia itself, further exploration of the Americas stagnated.
The Caribbean islands were inhabited by simple societies of huts, which were conquered by the Spaniards. But it was not until twenty years after Columbus’s first landing that Spaniards began to penetrate the mainland, first taking over Panama. It too had simple societies, and also, and excess gold. What the Spaniards did not know was that Panama was a major trading hub, with goods slowly altercating between the indigenous people in North (chiefly in Mexico and Central America) and South America (chiefly the Andes).
A further ten years passed, until 1519, when Spaniards began to explore north. Hernan Cortez landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, inhabited by an ethnic group known as the Mayans, where he made an astounding discovery. He found that there was advanced civilization at a Bronze Age level and a huge population. The Mayans had roads, building, metals, and even writing. But this was not the end. From the deserts of northern Mexico to Honduras, an area of civilization known as Mesoamerica reigned. They were very culturally advanced. Cortez moved north to Mexico, where he found an empire ruled by an ethnic group known as the Aztecs. The capital was a huge city known as Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.
Anyway, Cortez found that there was a huge amount of gold and silver in Mexico. Because the indigenous societies all across this world, the Americas, were very simple with short-reaching commercial links, they used gold and silver for decoration, rather than for money. Gold statues and trinkets were in common use. But these people, who lived in isolation in their two unique continents since the beginning of human history, have now received visitors from a different world where the sparkling metals have a totally different significance.
What followed was a real War of the Worlds. Cortez invaded the Aztec Empire and conquered it within two years. Victory was easy because the Spaniards harbored diseases within their bodies that spread and killed the indigenous people who had no little or no immunity against them, causing a massive epidemic across the two continents. The Spaniards plundered all the Aztec gold and gained control of the mines. They started shipping these unprecedented amounts of gold into Spain, which became a richer country still.
But it would be a full decade before this clash of civilizations reached its height. In 1532, after Spanish society was solidly established in the Americas, an expedition led by Francisco Pizarro headed south from Panama to explore the West Coast of South America. They were absolutely uncertain of what lay ahead, but what they found exceeded their expectations. From central Columbia to the Chilean deserts, a vast civilization was stretched across the Andes Mountain Range. What is more, most of it happened to be unified under an empire known as the Inca Empire, which was large, even by world standards. It had an estimated 30 million people, extensive agriculture, and extreme industrial strength for a Bronze Age culture, building roads, aqueducts, bridges, and buildings across the vast mountains. Most of all, under their feet lay the largest amount of gold and silver the world had ever seen.
The Incas, like all such Native American societies, used this vast amount of metal for decoration. One Spanish chronicler who visited claimed that the Inca nobility had walls paved with gold, had golden statues of corn and other crops in their gardens, had large golden statues, and had various other such decorations. Gold and silver was not lacking.
The Inca armed forces were too strong for a Spanish takeover, but Francisco Pizarro and his small team launched a small attack that kidnapped the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, holding him ransom for a large amount of gold and silver. They killed him anyway, and went back to the colonies to collect a larger force to fight the confused Incas. The diseases that the natives caught from the Spaniards spread throughout the empire. Within a few years, the Spanish gained control of the basic Inca infrastructure, though they continued to fight rebels for forty more years. The Spanish plundered the entire wealth of the empire, acquiring much gold and silver, and then started to open up extensive mining operations.
All the vast gold and silver the Spanish armies acquired as they roamed across what is now Spanish America were shipped back to Spain, and from there, into the rest of the world. Some later began to be shipped across the Pacific to Asia. Well, there were two consequences that resulted from a major addition being made to the world’s supply of the shiny stuff.
One particular consequence is where we leave off. The trans-Saharan trade collapsed, as West Africa’s gold deposits were dwarfed by those in Mexico and Peru. Besides, the Portuguese controlled all trade in the region now. So in addition to the Arab trade with Asia, there goes the Arab trade with Africa. The Arabs literally became confined in their deserts (as also did other people like the Persians). It would remain that way for the next four hundred years. As the deserts are a place without many resources, life was lacking. Now, it is natural that they start beating up women and wearing flowey beards to preach narrowly defined religious dogma in schools, though mostly what happened is that they became extremely reactionary. The beatings and the beards seem to have increased after direct military contact with the West.
The general consequence the Peruvian gold and silver had on the world was that all the gold and silver fueled 400 percent inflation, according to Loewen, which corroded the economies of most non-European countries, helping Europe to develop a global market system. So much for Islamic financing, which Imran Khan praised as having developed cheques, letters of credit, and joint stock companies in its good days. This caused the beginning of the decline of Asia and Africa, resulting in the world today where we all are the Third World. The vast gold and silver made the Christians stronger than the Muslims.
As a single sentence in Lies My Teacher Told Me (James Loewen) goes, “Whereas Muslim nations once rivaled Europe, the new wealth undermined Islamic power.” Nothing more completely and accurately summarizes Islam’s decline, whereas Imran Khan’s account, which reflects the views of all Muslims, is one hundred times longer and fifty times more wrong.
By the way, there is another factor that may have led to the decline of the Muslims. The rise of the Ottoman Empire occurred alongside the rise of Europe. The Ottomans were a people of Central Asian origin, and the empire based both in Anatolia and Constantinople, which means that the Ottoman Empire was European. During the 1500s, they subjugated vast swathes of the Arab world, controlling important regions. Unlike other Muslims, the Ottomans were not oriented towards world trade as much. Their concern was taking over land, both in the Middle East and in Europe. For the next four hundred years, the Ottomans suppressed the other Muslims, especially Arabs.
So, the decline of the Muslims can be summarized in these terms: Portuguese gunships blocked out Islamic trade and Spanish gold and silver corroded the market economy of Islam, causing Islamic influence to fall while over the next centuries, Europeans continued to grow in power. On top of that, a European, though Islamic, country, Turkey, suppressed the Arab world for the next four hundred years.
It was not until the end of that era that both the Arabic desert and the disagreeable terrain of Iran were found to be of immense value. It was full of oil. This did not however make Muslims the same superpower they were before. The reasons for this cannot be easily explained, but there was plenty wrong with the world that the Arabs emerged to after their four hundred year slumber. Perhaps it can be summed up by saying that the West controlled global commerce (oil trade including) and also the Arabs needed western technocrats in exploring and refining the black gold. Due to this dependence coupled with other deep rooted factors, the Islamic world would not revert back to the way it was in the Middle Ages.