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.