Back to the Dark Ages

Omar Nasiri author of Inside the Jihad is quoted in the New York Review of Books as saying:

    We are totally dependent on the West—for our dishwashers, our clothes, our cars, our education, everything. It is humiliating and every Muslim feels it . . . For centuries we ran far ahead of the West. We were the most sophisticated civilization in the world. Now we are backward. We can’t even fight our wars without our enemies’ weapons. New York Review of Books, quoted by Ahmed Rashid p. 22 June 12, 2008


He was right. For nearly 600 years, from roughly, 750 AD to 1350 AD, Islamic science led most of the advances in mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and philosophy. Without them Aristotle would not have been preserved. Islamic natural philosophers kept alive the teachings of the Ancient Greeks. They were the leaders in almost every advance in what we now call science. It was the only light during a time, which we derisively describe as the ‘Dark Ages.’

What happened? How did the Islamic nations go from hosting the greatest philosophers and thinkers of an age to a condition described by the opening quote? How was this light lost?

Fundamentalism seems to be a big part of it. Freedom of thought was subverted to ideology. Black and white views of the world replaced complex and nuanced inquiry. Religious tests of devotion and adherence to correct doctrine where placed at a premium at the expense rational argument, reasoned debate, and formal inquiry. Fundamentalism wrecks havoc on truth because the criteria for what is acceptable is replaced by particular and narrow readings of scripture, misguided and uncritical acceptance of authoritative declarations or attempts to fix and maintain doctrinal purity. It seems Islam lost the light because of the rise of this kind of fundamentalism.

I see fundamentalism growing in strength around the world. Christian. Islamic. It is even found among some members of our church. Faith and reason go hand in hand. However, when one is embraced at the expense of the other both lose. As I look at popular culture, I see learning and education being devalued and called elitist. I see politicians who say they are God’s followers, yet who decide to sanction only one interpretation of what that means. I worry about the growing ignorance of modern science and its methods. I see its results being ignored and undermined. I can’t help but look at the direction we seem to be heading and reflect on what happened to the Islamic world in mid 13th century. It never really recovered.

In an insightful essay in Time Aravind Adiga watches the growing loss of rational thinking in America and the rise of mysticism (and his insights apply equally well to the rise of American fundamentalism, which are really two sides of the same coin—both united in their dismissal of modern science). He compares the emerging, modern India, where science and rational inquiry are growing in influence, strength, and power. He concludes his Essay with,

    “How disturbing, then, to come to the U.S. in 2008, and find that faith in science has diminished from the White House to this hip Brooklyn neighborhood where numerous palmists operate. One part of me wants to laugh at what is happening and to make trouble for poor Julia [a palm reader introduced in the beginning of the essay]. But another part whispers: Wait. Why blow the whistle as the West declines into mumbo jumbo? Let them take our dozen-armed deities and magic incense sticks; we’ll transfer their busts of Galileo and Descartes to our engineering colleges and outsourcing companies. One day soon, their mystical children will wear turbans and serve our rational children at restaurants in Mumbai.”

I think we are facing choices about whether we are going to follow the path that Islam chose hundreds of years ago or the path of enlightenment the Latin West followed. Should you decide to label education elitist, science dangerous, and rationality faithless: welcome back to the Middle Ages. It may be a long time before we get back on track.

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13 comments to Back to the Dark Ages

  • Tim

    Thanks for the warning.
    It’s one the US certainly needs to hear.

  • Cap

    This is something that has been plaguing my mind a lot recently. You see these things, and you see society degrading. There seems to me to be a huge unwillingness to change. Or an apathy when it comes to anything different, new, hard or inconvenient. I am shocked at the amount of people I have spoken to not caring about education. These ideals, and lack of interest will pass on to our children. And I see it growing more rampant, and spreading itself abroad like a plague.

    How was this light lost?

  • Elliott

    Brilliant.

  • CEF

    What would be your answer to a church that espouses education and at the same time teaches the gospel to the lowest common denominator?

  • smw

    There is a Hadith saying that goes as follows:

    Trust in God, but tie up your camel.

    Fundamentalism seems to be the trust without the tying.

    It is backing away from personal responsibility and abdicating all responsibility to God.

    It is trusting in God’s prosperity without an attempt to get an education.

    It is trusting in God’s healing blessings without physical exercise.

    It is trusting in God fixing cars without regular maintenance.

    It is accepting anything that happens as God’s will.

    If God has a will for us, surely it is for us to use our agency to make choices and then act on those choices in a way that advances us on the spiritual pathway. We must earn bread by the sweat of our brow and not by praying on our knees. Praying isn’t going to cook the dinner. If you are hungry, get up and cook a meal. In the process, give thanks for all that went into the meal — the sacrifices of plants and animals, of others in our extended human community who planted, harvested and transported the ingredients, etc.

    I believe there is power in trusting in God and in praying. I don’t believe that it is God’s will if the camel wanders off.

  • Velska

    Well it seems to be pretty common to hold being civilized in derision (I can’t quite see how some LDS people can reconcile that with how much education has been promoted). One finger could be pointed at anti-intellectual attitudes so prevalent not only within different churches, but society in general.

    I am not in favor of any political party, but there is something in the fact that John Kerry had to hide his multiple language skills for the risk of being considered a snob. Or that Obama’s Harvard education is being used against him in painting him an “elitist”.

    Other than that, I believe that intellect and faith are both required in the long run, although in isolated circumstances one seems to be the favorite asset.

  • SteveP

    I’ve noticed that too in politics, but I’ve felt it personally, where my opinion is dismissed because I have an education. Really. I’m not one of the regular people anymore so you don’t have to pay attention to my opinion.

    smw makes an important point about accepting God’s will about anything that happens. It must have been meant to be is something I’ve had a hard time escaping.

    CEF, I’ve often wondered about that. What would happen if we taught to the highest in us. It might inspire people to catch up. The worry is of course that they will be left behind, but usually being behind inspires me to catch up. What if we taught to the “highest in us.” I think it would increase our depth rather than drag us into mediocrity.

  • Fundamentalism is “even found among some members of the church?”. That’s a very generous way of describing most Mormons. I think survey data tends to put us at the extreme–high percentages of Mormons believe in a literal Satan, literal Eden, etc. Surveys of the general public don’t get into this, but obviously literal belief in gold plates, angels, and Egyptian translations are also the definite norm in our religion. And there’s almost no tolerance for publicly disagreeing with these things. Someone who has such a hard time getting on nothingwavering ought to appreciate that he’s surrounded by that against which he fights!

  • Good post, Steve. Fundamentalism in any form is an enemy of critical analysis which is a hallmark of scientific activity. A free and open exchange of ideas is needed for intellectual endeavors to progress. Islam is a perfect example of the end result.
    Although, I am not concerned about the west falling into the same trap. Granted, there are some warning signs around as you suggest.

  • Religion is best served by embracing freedom in science. Science is best served by embracing freedom of religion.

  • Doc

    Steve,
    Nice post, I would add that fundamentalism also seems to be building on the side of the atheists with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and the like. I don’t see that leading to any kind of enlightenment, only the same animosity and fear.

  • [...]      At Mormon Organon, Steve reflects on an Islamic author who laments the loss of a once vibrant and flourishing Muslin culture to whom the West owes much more than it realizes,  Steve argues that the cultural switching of Dark Ages stagnation and Renaissance has come about largely through the r….  [...]

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