Earlier this year, as conflict raged in northern Syria, two professors, one Lebanese and the other American, both from elite universities in the Washington, D.C. area, passed the long night at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, drinking tea. They pondered the weighty issues of the region: whether the nation-state paradigm was the residue of colonialism or a reality to which nations of the Middle East must conform; American military engagement and its consequences; and, of course, the sources of violent extremism. At one point, the Lebanese professor lamented, “These extremists are the worst thing ever to happen to Islam.” The American professor casually observed that they wished to reject modernity and return to the Middle Ages. “But the Islamists are themselves modern,” the Lebanese professor responded. “The violence against ideas and freedom and the dignity of the person—this is all modern, not medieval. Islam’s Golden Age was actually fairly free and tolerant of diverse thought.” The American professor arched a skeptical brow.

The American professor’s position will take no one by surprise. It pervades western institutions, from the media to academia to the foreign policy establishment. The assumption has scarcely been challenged in the public square. “These people want to roll back the clock to the Middle Ages,” it is said. But the Middle Ages they envision isn’t the one of historical fact, for medieval Islam was generally diverse in its culture and institutions, and capable of assimilating new and complex modes of thought.

Recent conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the declaration of the Islamic State (IS), and the putative restoration of the caliphate have only reinforced misconceptions about Medieval Islam. Unlike Islam in its Golden Age, today’s radical Islamists demonstrate a capacity only to destroy, not to build. In the rubble may be found the remains of a once-thriving civilization, predicated not merely on faith but also reason and pluralism.

As historian Ira Lapidus observed, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, seeking “cultural legitimacy” during their successive dynasties (661CE–1258CE), shunned an Arab-centric caliphate in favor of a diverse “imperial elite,” which consisted of “Inner Asian soldiers, Iranian administrators, Christian ecclesiastics, and Muslim religious scholars.” There was, to be sure, civil war and unrest, and not a few tyrants; even the otherwise enlightened Harun Al Rashid was, Bertrand Russell wrote, “accompanied by the executioner, who performed his office at a nod from the caliph.” But the caliphate proved remarkably durable, and as Europe struggled to emerge from barbarism, science, philosophy, and education were thriving in the Middle East. Christopher Dawson, an eminent historian of Catholicism and the Middle Ages, noted that the medieval Muslim world became “the scene of an intense intellectual activity,” from Spain to Afghanistan, “which showed itself not only in philosophy but in mathematics and astronomy and medicine.”

It was Islam that brought Greco-Muslim scientific culture to Western Europe, giving rise to centuries of material and intellectual progress. The tireless translations of Gerard of Cremona, Plato of Tivoli, and others should not be taken for granted, nor should the transmission and assimilation of the “new” learning—algebra and trigonometry, engineering and agriculture, astronomy and chemistry, and perhaps above all philosophy—much of which was met with hostility in Latin Christendom. Even the thought of Thomas Aquinas was briefly banned by the thirteenth century Parisian bishop Etienne Tempier. That Reason resisted subordination to faith in this epoch marked a significant achievement for intellectual progress in the West. And so alchemy became chemistry and astrology became astronomy; similarly, the assimilation of Aristotle’s systematic reasoning became Scholasticism, a forerunner of the scientific method. None of this was a foregone conclusion, though it has been taken for granted during the Enlightenment and since.

Edward Gibbon called the medieval age “the triumph of barbarism and religion,” but Dawson and others argue that Gibbon’s beloved Rome itself was to blame for failing to assimilate the scientific culture and methodologies that arose in ancient Greece. It was Islam that brought the seeds of that culture to Europe. Dawson also notes that while both Christendom and Islam were deeply religious, Islam had “entered into direct relations with Hellenism and was able to draw on the rich resources” of Greece, whereas medieval Europe “only possessed an indirect and secondary contact with Hellenic tradition,” never fully assimilating the scientific culture of Greece. Muslim civilization readily assimilated the achievements of Greece and produced a flourishing intellectual life in its own right. It was, he continued, “in Spain and Sicily that the Christians first met the Arabs and Jews on equal terms, and came under the influence of the brilliant civilization that had developed in Western Islam from the tenth to twelfth centuries. It was here that the eyes of Western scholars were first opened to the riches of Greek and Arabic learning and to their own scientific backwardness; and it was here…that the Christians put themselves to school with the Arabs and the Jews and laid the foundations of the new scientific culture of the West.”

The credit the West owes to medieval Islam thus cannot be overstated; it is also not widely known. Perhaps this is because it is impossible to imagine the present-day Islamic State giving rise to Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Today’s Islamist fundamentalists are the successors not of these enlightened medievals, but of the modern revolutionary. The ranks of ISIS resemble the materialist ideologues who beheaded nuns and children in Paris during the Reign of Terror, or the revolutionaries who compelled children to execute adult prisoners in Cambodia’s “killing fields.” Theirs is a violence not merely against the flesh, but against the rational order, against reason.

From the appalling savagery that has seized the Middle East, whose public squares are today filled with crucified corpses and severed heads, some look for a Solzhenitsyn to emerge, one who will challenge the intellectual and spiritual underpinnings of this extremist experiment.

But it is westerners who hope for a Solzhenitsyn; it was also westerners who introduced to the Middle East toxic ideologies, terrorist techniques, victimization narratives, and an entertainment culture that glorifies sexual promiscuity, drugs, and violence—all of which have contributed to reactionary extremism in the region. It is increasingly clear that the Middle East’s encounter with western modernity has brought neither stability nor prosperity; rather, much of the Muslim world has recoiled in horror at what it regards as moral depravity and decline.

Many westerners have also recoiled in horror in recent decades and have similarly looked to the fundamentals of religion as an antidote. Westerners—Americans in particular—are accustomed to distinguishing between the popular culture and the actual values of the people. The average American shares little in common, for example, with a movie star, and this kind of class distinction is implicit; to those who encounter America principally through film and television, however, this distinction is not necessarily understood. (A friend who served in Afghanistan recently told me that it was widely believed by Afghans that Americans are not at all religious and essentially live in pornographic films.) The depravity of pop culture icons does not, of course, encapsulate the full reality of the West, but it is this vacuous culture that Muslims encounter as the face of modern, western democracy—and there is little in it which they regard favorably.

Future historians are likely to regard the modern epochs of Europe and the Middle East as more barbaric than the medieval. Indeed, the term “modern,” with sufficient distance, is likely to supplant “medieval” one day as a synonym for backwardness and barbarity. Humanity would have been better served had misconceptions about medieval Islam—pervasive among Islamist extremists and Western intellectuals alike—never taken root. Perhaps the best weapon against militant Islamism is greater comprehension of the stark contrast between the culture of reason, art, architecture, diversity, philosophy, and science that characterized medieval Islam and the violence and barbarism that characterizes militant Islamists (who, as of this writing, have not yet succeeded in constructing so much as a website). The choice is not between western democracy and fundamentalist extremism; this is a false dichotomy. Rather, Muslim civilization has within its own history and culture an alternative to both violent barbarism and contemporary western permissive culture. Until this is discovered, the barbarism is likely to worsen.

Andrew Doran writes from Washington, D.C.

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