Sales-talk about the Islamic ‘Golden Age’

Critics of Islam need to know about the Islamic “Golden Age” because it will be thrown at them on various occasions. That Golden Age ended in the 13th century A.D... Actually, according to many historians, it ended even earlier than that -- in the 12th or even the 11th century.

True, at this period there was a lot of culture and civilization in the Muslim world (depending on when and depending on where). Yet that was around eight centuries ago -- at the least! Not only that: virtually the entire Islamic Golden Age was engendered by the influence of Greek philosophy and science; as well as of Jewish and Christian theology, and Persian and Indian culture.

It is, therefore, a sign of desperation that Muslims need to go back so far in order to sell us the idea that Islam “is a religion of culture... and peace”.

Even during the Islamic Golden Age minorities were still persecuted and jihad was still fought. In fact, culture and science were some of the results of Islamic imperialism. So, yes, there were also periods of peace and culture.

The thing is that “Islamic culture” was not actually Islamic: it was Muslim. That is, the various cultural flowerings had very little -- or nothing -- to do with Islam and the Koran.

Basically, Muslims simply shouldn't need to mention what happened in the 12th century in order to sell Islam to the unbeliever.

Islam's Contribution to Western Culture

All this by way of a response to the claim that Islam has made “many contributions to Western culture”.

For example, take this passage from Irshad Manji:

“Let me highlight a handful of Islam’s contributions to Western culture. The guitar. Cough syrup. The university. Algebra. Mocha coffee...” (page 65)

This is one of the most common mistakes you can find in defence of Islam.

How can Islam itself have contributed the guitar, cough syrup, algebra, etc. to Western culture? How can a religion, or the Koran, the hadith, etc. have contributed these things?

It's absolutely ridiculous to claim that Islam -- a religion primarily based on the Koran -- could have had a hand in the invention of the guitar, algebra, cough syrup syrup, etc. Which passages in the Koran, or the hadith, etc. helped contribute to the creation of algebra? Which passages even helped inspire the invention of cough syrup? Again, this is plain silly!

What Manji must really mean is that people who happened to have been Muslims made these contributions to Western culture. Islam itself had absolutely nothing to do with it. I suppose we could say that Islam might have obliquely inspired these Muslims to invent these things. But those causal affects are very oblique indeed.

We can even say that these scientists, poets, inventors, mathematicians, etc. invented or created these things in spite of Islam, not because of it. Perhaps Islam, on the whole, got in the way of their inventions or creations -- i.e., it didn’t help or inspire them. In fact, it often did get in the way.

Algebra, the guitar, cough syrup, etc. wouldn’t have been created or invented if it weren’t for the vitally important precedents which came from infidel (or non-Muslim) cultures. Even if Muslims were the inventors or creators of all these things, they wouldn’t have been the inventors or creators of any of them if it weren’t for the groundwork done by the infidels of ancient Greece, Rome, India, Persia, etc.

Above and beyond all that, some of the examples of “Islam’s contributions to Western culture” are a bit suspect anyway. Apart from the fact that every one of these examples would have required non-Muslim antecedents to set the groundwork, it's unquestionably the case that algebra is not a Muslim invention. Algebra goes back to the ancient Greeks. And it's also said that Diophantus (3rd century AD) was “the father of algebra”. He lived around 300 years before Islam.

So perhaps all Manji meant is that Muslims, not Islam itself, added to the tradition and extent of algebra. Muslims, let alone Islam, certainly didn’t invent or discover it!

As for both the guitar and the university, it depends on how these words or concepts are defined. Guitarlike instruments date back to various ancient cultures -- all of them predating Islam by hundreds if not thousands of years (especially in ancient India and Asia). Perhaps, in the end, Manji is only taking about the word ‘guitar’ itself (as also with the word algebra!). Yes, that word comes from an Andalusian Arabic source; though that doesn’t mean that Muslims -- let alone Islam -- invented the guitar.

Exactly the same kinds of thing can be said about Manji’s other examples of “contributions to Western culture”. Again, the idea that Islam itself -- rather than people who happened to be Muslims (whom themselves were hugely indebted to non-Muslim culture and knowledge) -- invented or created any of these things is plainly ridiculous. Indeed, to say that Islam contributed, or invented, or created, algebra or anything else is a grammatical or conceptual mistake.

Because of all that, the same criticism can be levelled at what Manji claims in the very next paragraph. She writes:

“Innovation and the spirit of ijtihad went hand in glove. In the southern Spanish city of Cordoba, for example, a sexually spunky woman named Wallada organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.”

We can even rewrite that passage thus:

A woman -- who just happened to be a Muslim -- organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.

A more germane point would be:

Did the Koran, etc. inspire or influence this “sexually spunky woman” to ‘analyse’ itself?

All these things were done in spite of Islam, not because of Islam. Would we say that a serial killer -- who believed in sleeping with, then killing, everyone he met and in eating worms -- was inspired or influenced by Islam simply because he did all these things as a Muslim? More to the point: was Islam to blame or responsible for his serial killing and his eating worms? Of course not. So why can’t we say the same about Muslims who invented the guitar, or cough syrup or who contributed to algebra? And in Manji’s other example, was Islam itself (or the Koran itself) response for this Cordoban woman’s spunkiness or her penchant for salon discussions about poetry, dreams, etc.?

Thus the basic question is:

Did Islam itself contribute to Western Culture? Or, alternatively, was it simply Muslims (under the profound influence of non-Islamic culture) who did so?