Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Once Mighty

In the long centuries of the Islamic Golden Age, from the middle of the 8th century AD to the middle of the 13th, the Arab-speaking Muslim world presided over the greatest commercial civilization on earth. It offered the most tolerant government policies to people of other faiths, including Jews and Christians. Indeed, if Arabic civilization had not done such a good job preserving and expanding the realm of human knowledge, Europe might never have had its Renaissance.

One of the great puzzles of the modern world is how a civilization could go from being so wealthy, enlightened, and tolerant to one that is known for its violence, anti-intellectualism, and blind hatred. There may even be lessons here for the West, which views its commercial and moral achievements as unassailable.

Although the causes of the Arabic decline are hotly debated, two things played important roles. First, the rise of a powerful external threat, the Mongols. Second, the rise of religious and intellectual leaders who insisted on imitation and obedience, rather than independent thought and reason.

Of course, the circumstances of history change. But human nature does not. Perhaps there is a lesson here for the West, which faces its own external threat, and which has its own set of voices calling for imitation and obedience.


Allan said...

It would be so nice to return to an age when independent thought and reason were valued rather than suspect.

Ben Rast said...

Of course, much depends on the definition of both terms. The Protestant reformers who rejected the Catholic Church's monopoly on intellectual authority unwittingly paved the way for the birth of truly scientific thought, the very thing so many of them today view as suspect if not evil (consider the attempts to link Darwin and Hitler).

I think the lesson of history is simply this: we must be very careful with any attempt to protect society at the price of individuality. Without different ways of thinking, we can make no progress, we have no opportunity to experiment and innovate. At the same time, we must be prepared to accept the possibility that innovation might lead us to suprising, even shocking conclusions.