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Western civilisation's immense debt to Islam

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#1 [Permalink] Posted on 16th July 2019 20:55
Western civilisation's immense debt to Islam

The Guardian

16 July 2019

Boris Johnson is painfully ignorant of the immense cultural, economic, and scientific contributions of Muslims (Islam kept Muslim world centuries behind the west, Johnson claimed, 16 July). Western civilisation owes an immense debt to Islam, whether in the form of algebra, the saving of ancient Greek heritage or the free-market economics of Ibn Khaldun.

Johnson is correct that many Muslim-majority nations are beset by social and political problems. Yet the same holds true for numerous Christian-majority nations such as Russia, Honduras, Haiti and South Africa. He also makes a “false equivalence” argument in comparing stable western democracies to war-ravaged countries like Bosnia, seemingly blaming Muslims there for being attacked. Curiously, Muslim extremists promote the same arguments as Johnson, albeit for different aims. Neither depiction is true nor helpful.

Another pathetic observation by the next British PM concerns the Ottoman empire. Johnson takes one oddity of the Turkish dawlah – the resistance to the printing press – and passes over achievements of the sultans such as religious tolerance and the architectural feats of Sinan. He claims this one act of backwardness negates the entire history of Islam, although resistance to technology is apparent even in British history, the luddites a classic case in point.

Johnson’s authority for his ignorance is Winston Churchill. If Churchill said it, it must be true. However, Churchill was neither a historian nor a sociologist. He was a myth-maker whose literary skills were devoted to “demonstrating” the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over all others. To achieve this sleight of hand, Churchill had to simultaneously denigrate other cultures, including Islam. It seems that Great Britain under Johnson will be beset by similar doses of myth, fantasy and supremacist doctrines.

Dr Colm Gillis

Hethersett, Norfolk

• Boris Johnson is quite wrong to deprecate Islamic civilisation by comparison with the achievements of Rome, which he is so fond of trumpeting. As the great historian Lévi-Provençal expounded in detail, from military organisation to public administration, from urban planning to irrigated agriculture, the caliphate in Córdoba was an advanced “medieval” regime, for three centuries the effective inheritor of Roman Spain. But it was also highly repressive, imposing the dhimmi subject-status on Christians and Jews and judicial murder on opponents and apostates. This is doctrinal policy in Islam, as shown by the practices of the caliphates in Iraq and Syria in those times, and more recently in ours. Modern liberal democracy, for all its unrealised ambitions (eg social equality), is infinitely friendlier to freedom and human dignity than either Islamic or Roman rule.

Peter Lomas

Balmullo, Fife

• Before deprecating Islamic civilisation as inferior to western, the Tory contender should surely acknowledge the outstanding examples of high Arabic society and culture seen in such places as mudéjar (Moorish) Spain, notably Granada’s Alhambra Palace, Córdoba’s Mezquita mosque and Seville’s Alcázar as well as in cities beyond, like Palermo, Fez and Damascus.

Not only did these Islamic civilisations lead in the fields of astronomy, science, medicine and farming irrigation when most of Europe was still in the dark ages, but they also encouraged Muslims, Christians and Jews to live and trade together in harmony for centuries.

Sadly (as surely the scholarly Johnson must know), much of this rich tapestry was swept away by invading armies from either Turkey in the east or Christian Castile in the north. Given such wanton ignorance, is Boris Johnson really fit to unite and lead an increasingly multicultural Britain?

Paul Dolan

Northwich, Cheshire

• While not wishing to support Boris Johnson in any way (I think he would make a disastrous PM), may I offer Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s suggestion, made in one of his programmes, that the complexity of Arabic script may have impeded the Arab world’s enormous strides in mathematics, art, literature, medicine and astronomy up until the middle ages. The invention of the printing press and its use to disseminate western culture and ideas worldwide and the inability or difficulty of doing the same with Arabic script may have been one of the causes of the loss of impetus for the Muslim world. Just an idea.

Joan Hepworth


• Given Boris Johnson will not be long at 10 Downing Street, perhaps he should apply for the master of studies at his old university in Islamic studies and history. On the other hand, I doubt he has the linguistic skills to get in. The great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, in 1377, in his preface to the Muqaddimah, wrote: “The inner meaning of history … involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.” The “how and why” of Boris Johnson and his many wayward events over the years speak for themselves. What did Mr Johnson learn during his four years at Balliol College, Oxford?

Bruce Ross-Smith


• It is astonishing that Polly Toynbee, in commenting on the Laffer curve (Journal, 16 July), should describe Ibn Khaldun as “an obscure 14th-century Islamic scholar”. Her grandfather, the world historian, Arnold J Toynbee, described Ibn Khaldun’s introduction to the Muqaddimah as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place”. Ibn Khaldun is regarded by both western and Islamic scholars as one of the world’s great minds. Clearly there has been, down the generations, a narrowing of view and understanding.

Francis Robinson

Egham, Surrey
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