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Article donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

"What Went Wrong?"

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I just finished an interesting book "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" by Bernard Lewis. 1 The author points out the book was already in proof when the terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened. So it wasn’t written in response to those attacks. However, it certainly sheds some light on what led up to those attacks.

A Wikipedia article "Science in the medieval Islamic world" explains that the Islamic era began in 622 CE and the Islamic Golden Age ran roughly from 692 to 945 CE while Europe was in the Dark Ages (which extended roughly 5th to 10th Century). It continued in parts of the Islamic World roughly until 1492 CE when the Islamic World went into an economic and cultural decline. During this time Europe (the West) entered the Renaissance (roughly 14th to 17th Century) and hasn’t stopped advancing since then.

During its Golden Age, Islamic achievements covered a wide range of subject areas: mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, alchemy (which became chemistry), ophthalmology, geography and cartography.

One leader was Jabir ibn Hayyan (8th to 9th cent.). He is credited with identifying sulphuric and nitric acids and processes such as sublimation, reduction, and distillation.

I suggest people read the Wikipedia article to see for themselves what other scientific advances were credited to Islamic scholars.

Mr. Lewis comments towards the end of the book:

"By all the standards that matter in the modern world -- economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights -- what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low."

Many have wondered "What went wrong?" Some in the Islamic world have asked "Who did this to us?"

Mr. Lewis says:

"It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one’s misfortunes."

Some have asked "What did we do wrong?" Some blame the clerics as Mr. Lewis points out:

"These, they say, are responsible for the persistence of beliefs and practices that might have been creative and progressive a thousand years ago, but are neither today."

Some blame fanaticism that wants to take the Islamic world back to their conception of the Islamic Golden Age. Such an age, if it had been a reality, would never have led to the great advances the Islamic World made during their actual Golden Age.

Others blame the Islamic decline on Islamic sexism:

"... and the relegation of women to an inferior position in society, thus depriving the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people, and entrusting the crucial early years of the upbringing of the other half to illiterate and downtrodden mothers. ... products of such an education, it was said, are likely to grow up either arrogant or submissive, and unfit for a free, open society."

But the latter is exactly what many fundamentalists don’t want -- a free, open society.

I think that what happened is that the elites in Islamic society succumbed to hubris. Hubris is the belief that we as individuals, and our society/civilization /religion as a whole is superior to all others. To be fair many Christians and Jews and Atheists and people of other faith traditions, religious leaders, politicians, academics and corporate executives also suffer from hubris. It is a common human shortcoming.

Lewis points out:

"... you take what is useful from the infidel; but you don’t need to look at his absurd ideas or try and understand his inferior literature, or to study his meaningless history."

When you know all there is to know about everything, no one can teach you anything of value. You resent those who don’t recognize or acknowledge your superiority.  AND you really hate those who flaunt their successes in your face. Many will do anything to destroy those that have what they don’t have.

This is, in my opinion, "What went wrong." The elites and far too many ordinary folk succumbed to hubris. If you are a leader (preacher or politician) who knows all there is to know about everything you have to restrict access to education and the media — TV, newspapers, books, etc. Now, this list also includes access to the Internet -- and sometimes travel to other countries -- to the masses. You can’t let them learn something that counters your authority. Knowledge/education can lead to wealth and political power. So, access to both must be limited. As the Bible says, "The truth shall set you free." And these leaders don’t want to set their people free. In this day of world-wide communications and easy travel it is no longer possible to control the information and knowledge to which people have access.

If you are one of the masses, you have probably been brow beaten since you were born -- told all you need to know about everything. You may have been taught that to question is a sin. To learn that what you have been told isn’t true or isn’t the whole truth can shake the whole foundation of your being, leaving you lost and adrift without hope or guidance.

Unless, that is, you are one of the few who haven’t had their innate curiosity and intelligence stifled by the censors. The future of a nation rests with these people. Many flee their native countries for the West creating what has been called a "brain drain". The brightest students were sent to western Universities to study. They often sought asylum so they wouldn’t have to return to their home countries. Western countries recognizing their talents were only too happy to offer them jobs and asylum.  A few return, and a few never leave and try to change their countries from within. But they often seem to be fighting a losing battle.

If you happen to be a colonial power or religious leader with dreams of expanding your empire, you might -- as has been done over the centuries -- try to force your political and/or religious belief system on others. After all, you know all there is to know about anything of importance and owe it to the ignorant masses to set them on the right path -- thus alienating the people you are trying to "save"! Alienated people tend to become more intransigent. We see this happening over and over again.

Nationalism/tribalism/racism has risen its ugly head around the world and in our own country. Unfortunately these folk who need to read and learn something from a book like this are the ones least likely to read it, because they already know all there is to know about everything. Nobody can teach them anything of value.

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Book referenced:

  1. book cover Bernard Lewis, "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford University Press, (2001), at: Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. Available in Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback formats.

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How you may have arrived here:

Home page > Islam > here

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Original posting: 2019-MAY-13
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
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