Prosperity and the rise
and fall of Islam
At one time Muslim culture led the world in knowledge
and prosperity. Now, in most respects, it lags far behind. What are the
factors that led to its rise and subsequent fall? Are the factors due do
Islam or in spite of it? Is the West to blame for the relative poverty of
Islamic societies or does Islam itself contribute to this situation? To
investigate these matters we need to look at historical developments, the
nature of wealth generation and the role of Islam in it.
In its early years, Islam spread rapidly. Within a
century, Islam had conquered Persia, Palestine, Egypt, and had swept
across North Africa and into Spain. The reasons for this expansion were
partly a matter of conquest, especially on the part of the Umayyad
caliphs, who ruled from Damascus. The role of slavery in this military
success cannot be discounted, as well as Islam’s ease of recruitment,
and its promise of paradise. But Islam’s success may also have been due
to its ability to transcend nations and races, its provision of a common
language and its moral code which provided a great advance over tribal
culture, assisting commercial relations, trade and trust between traders.
In addition its monetary and accounting systems and legal code were useful
in adjudicating financial contracts and disputes. This expansion in trade,
as well as the open intellectual environment of early Islam, gave rise to
the wealth of its civilization.
The Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from Baghdad from 750
to 1258, provided the peak of Islamic civilization. In the 9th
century the collective sayings and interpretations of the early caliphs
were recorded in the hadith. The Abbasid’s greatest achievements were in
the area of philosophy, science and mathematics, in which they led the
world. They studied, preserved and translated the Greek classics. The
Muslim world is justifiably proud of its achievements in this regard.
Muslim scholars provided major contributions to mathematics, algebra,
trigonometry, chemistry, physics and medicine. This was a civilization
that surpassed all others in its prosperity and achievement.
Much of the knowledge of the Greek philosophers was
known to the Romans, including for example the teachings of Aristotle, who
advocated reason and logic. While the Romans had a sophisticated financial
sector, they showed little interest in mathematics. In 529 Christian
Emperor Justinian closed down the Athenian schools of philosophy. What
followed was the Dark Age in Europe, in which there was no progress for
centuries and no practice of science or philosophy. The works of the
ancient Greeks were lost to Europe. Meanwhile the teachings of the Greek
philosophers were preserved in the East and were continued, enhanced and
developed by Muslim philosophers.
A great advantage was provided by the introduction from
India of Hindu-Arabic numerals, which provided a pivotal advance over the
cumbersome Roman numerals. This development of a more convenient number
system assisted progress in science accounting and bookkeeping. Key to
this was the use of the number zero, a concept unknown to the Romans.
These numerals were adopted by the Arabs, starting around 750. Around 820
the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi studied them and used them in calculations.
Al Khwarizmi originated "algebra". He applied this knowledge to
contracts, surveying and tax collection. The use of this number system
spread throughout the Muslim world over the next two centuries, assisting
the development of science. The system was first mentioned in Europe
around 1200, but Christian adherence to the Roman system hindered its use
and introduction. It was only fully accepted in Europe after it was
adopted by the Italian traders in the Renaissance of the 16th century, who
followed the practice of their Arab trading partners.
Another of the great Muslim philosophers was Ibn Rushd
(known in the West as Averroes), who lived in Muslim Spain in the twelfth
century. He continued the philosophy of Aristotle. He wrote of the harmony
of religion and philosophy. He believed the Quran contained the highest
truth while maintaining that its words should not be taken literally. He
proposed a dual method of expounding theology, one for the intellectuals
and another for the masses in general. He believed that to the masses, one
must speak of religion, but to the enlightened few one may disclose
scientific truth. He was saddened by the fate of women in society, stating
that no scope was allowed for the development of their talents, and that
they seemed to be destined exclusively to childbirth and servility to
their husbands. His writings did not please religious zealots and he was
removed from his post as judge and physician to the ruler in Cordoba.
Subsequently in the Muslim world the teachings of
Averroes were considered to be too rationalistic, and the religious
orthodoxy was not further challenged by philosophers. This came to be
known as the closing of the "gate of ijtihad" (independent
thought). However in Christian Europe, Averroes’ teachings aroused much
interest. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks was rediscovered via the
Muslim world. Many centuries were spent trying to reconcile this
philosophy with Christian belief. As the universities slowly obtained
greater independence from the church, the writings of Aristotle and
Averroes’ interpretations of them became a subject of debate. This
created turmoil in the minds of many medieval European intellectuals but
helped sow the seeds of the Renaissance and stimulate interest in
Muslim scholars argue that Quran urges quest for
knowledge of nature by observation, and this inspired the development of
scientific method by Muslims. However in the 12th century when
Muslim philosophers began to suggest that truth itself may be revealed by
empirical observation as well as from the Quran, there was a religious
crackdown, the gate of ijtihad was closed and scientific research largely
ceased in the Muslim world. It was eventually pursued in Europe, but not
without resistance from religious authorities there. The start or the 13th
century saw the beginning of the relative decline of Islamic civilization.
This decline was not caused by outside forces. It was not caused by a lack
of dedication to Islam. It was caused by Islam itself. This is because
rejection of science and scientific method was rejection of what was to
later become the main driving force in industrial prosperity.
Scientific research in the Muslim world declined and
the intellectual environment became inhospitable to the open and honest
exchange of ideas. The craft guilds, which also existed in Europe, may
have been more successful under Islam in preserving their monopolies,
excluding competition and product improvement. Craftsmen were granted
higher status than merchants, and were able to restrict the idea of free
competition. There was a feeling in the Muslim world that improvement was
unnecessary, except perhaps in the technology of warfare. Gradually all
the advancements known to the Muslim world passed to Europe, where the
knowledge was eventually utilized to greater effect.
Another invention of the Muslims, arising from their
advantage in numeracy, eventually also proved of great benefit to Europe.
This was the accounting innovation of double entry book keeping. This was
originally devised to reduce bookkeeping errors. Every transaction was
entered both as a debit and a credit. The totals of each should balance.
It was soon seen to have other advantages. It enabled managers to
determine the net worth of their business at any time, and enabled the
business as to be seen as an entity in itself, distinct from the owner.
This assisted in another aspect of trade, that of the extending of credit
to parties who are not well known to the lender, by providing and accepted
basis for business valuation.
The bookkeeping system, and its numerical basis became
known to Italian merchants through their contact with Arab traders, and
later spread through Europe. The innovation of double entry bookkeeping
led to other financial innovations. Bills of exchange, were used in the 13th
century by traders. These were promissory notes which allowed merchants to
transfer amounts they owed each other without the need to exchange coins
or goods directly. Lesser merchants found that by depositing funds with
prominent trading families, they could obtain drafts which were credible
money in distant places. Others found that they were able to purchase at a
discount, bills redeemable at a later date. This was an implicit interest
rate that for the Europeans did not violate the prohibition on usury.
Such a prohibition has always been recognized in Islam,
where any borrowing or lending of money for interest is considered usury.
Certain measures have been developed to provide alternatives, or to
circumvent the ban, but this type of economic sanction has traditionally
been held as one reason the Islamic countries began to fall behind Europe
after about the 13th century. The prohibition of interest in
Islam prevented the development of financial markets and institutions that
later became essential to the provision of private investment beneficial
to the community.
An inevitable aspect of government finance is the
collection of taxes. In ancient times the collection of taxes was often
hash and inequitable. The task of collecting taxes was often contracted
out to private agents or "tax farmers". These tax collectors
often had the power to extort and intimidate, and confiscate property.
They may have forced deficient taxpayers into agreements involving delayed
payments with excessive interest penalties. These agents were often
closely associated with the financiers and profiteers from public works,
combining to give the industry a poor reputation. This is reflected in the
views of the ancient philosophers regarding the morality of such
activities. The ancient religions including Islam all adopted the belief
in the immorality of interest payments. However in later Christian
philosophy it was considered that if a person was to lend a sum of money,
and forgo any claim on it until a certain future date, then that person
was entitled to some monetary reward for that sacrifice. That reward, in
relation to the sum, was interest. It was thus considered that only an
excessive rate of interest, rather that all interest, could be considered
usury. Such an interpretation is prohibited in Islam.
In the 13th century, European governments
began to move away from arbitrary systems of taxation and towards more
predictable collection. In England and later in Holland, this was
performed by the merchant class, on behalf of the government. In the
Muslim world tax collection remained in the hands of a centralized
bureaucracy. The tax environment in Europe allowed capital assets such as
ships and trading stations to be owned and operated without fear of
arbitrary seizure by governments. Large scale private investments were
then possible. This provided great advantage to European merchants over
their counterparts in the Islamic world, as well as in India and China.
In 1258 Baghdad fell to the invading Mongols and the
empire collapsed. Soon however, three separate Islamic empires rose to
replace it. Isfahan became the centre of an Iranian empire, Delhi was the
centre of the Mughal empire and Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, was the
centre of the Ottoman empire. Islam retained its military prowess for many
centuries but it never regained its technological or economic supremacy.
Eventually it fell victim to Western imperialism and colonialism. This did
not lead to any particular examination of Muslim society, or any real
consideration of the reasons for its comparative decline. Rather, it led
to a reaffirmation of Muslim values. While there was resentment of western
influence, intensified due to the generally non-Islamic colonial elites
imposed on them, there was little desire to emulate the European urge to
explore and exploit. Unlike the Crusaders, the European imperialists were
interested in trade rather that religious conquest. Local religions were
tolerated. Muslims meanwhile, contented themselves with their Islamic
sense of moral superiority.
The colonial administrators of Muslim countries often
viewed Islamic culture as inimical to development and progress. It was
suggested that Islam’s attitude to material values, to work, thrift,
productive investment, honesty in commercial relations, experimentation
and risk bearing, and to equality of opportunity were all unhelpful to
growth and development. The choice for Muslim leaders was between
"Mecca" and "mechanisation". On balance, it appears
the argument has mostly been won by Mecca. The first printing press to
serve Muslims was not established until nearly three centuries after its
use began in Europe. It was suggested the education system, with emphasis
on rote learning, inhibited the development of inquiring minds devoted to
problem solving. But for too long, the real problem has been avoided and
ignored. Islam is the problem. It does not provide knowledge but rather
suppresses the quest for knowledge. In doing so, it does not encourage
prosperity but discourages it. It does not benefit society but harms it.
Muslims desperately need to break out of the strait-jacket that Islam
imposes upon them.
Modern prosperity, with all its improvement in welfare,
has been delivered to humanity by science and technology. In the last two
centuries especially, science has delivered better lives for people,
longer lives, and for larger populations. The key to unlocking the source
of these benefits was scientific method, the relentless search for truth
though observation, theorizing and testing. It has been the historical
role of all religions to attempt to suppress this quest for truth. Such a
quest threatens the basis of all religions – the unquestioned
"truth" of the sacred book. The first words of the Quran are
"This book is not to be doubted". Why should God fear doubt? A
prohibition of doubt is a virtual admission of untruth. All books should
be doubted, especially if they attempt to suppress it. Doubt is the source
of all knowledge. Only by the expression of doubt, and from that the the
elimination of falsity, can truth be revealed. The Quran does not contain
truth. It does not benefit Muslims to believe it. Neither does it define
morality – it contradicts it.
In the 13th century the Muslim world, with
its development of the culture of science, mathematics, physics, chemistry
and medicine, led the world. This was despite Islam, not because of it.
The Muslim world once possessed in its hands the keys to the future
prosperity that technology could deliver. Not only that, but with the
invention of double entry bookkeeping, it possessed in its hands the
blueprint of the plans for the modern corporation. Because of Islam,
because of the Quran, these keys were thrown away. Eventually, after
several hundred years, Europe was able to absorb this knowledge and
overthrow the dark constraint of its own religion to unlock the mysteries
of science and discover the path to prosperity. If the Muslim world had
been able to continue on this path itself, the cause of human progress
would have been advanced by about five hundred years.
(C) Copyright 2003 John