Many cities and towns in the south of Spain bear the unmistakable imprint of their Islamic past. The magnificent great mosque of Cordoba, the breath-takingly beautiful Alhambra Palace in Granada and the splendidly proportioned Giralda minaret in Seville, are supreme examples but almost every town and village you pass will contain some historical remains dating from their Muslim days. The same in fact applies to almost anywhere you travel in the Iberian Peninsula. You will continually come upon reminders of the fact that for many centuries the population of Spain was overwhelmingly Muslim. So it is undoubtedly true that Islam was the past of that particular part of Europe. The same can be said of large areas of Middle Europe where the Ottoman Muslim presence is clearly visible in many towns and cities in the Balkans and where a lot of the population has remained Muslim up to the present time.
This historical Islamic presence can, however, only be seen in a small part of Europe so how can any claim that Islam constitutes the past of Europe as a whole be justified? To understand this it is necessary to view Europe, not so much as a geographical area, but rather as a common cultural inheritance.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe disintegrated for several centuries into a large number of warring factions. It was the reconstitution of the European part of the Roman Empire, in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, which once more started to give Europe a unified identity. This was in a large part brought about by the pope giving the rulers of different areas of the continent a common, military project, which gathered them all together under the banner of the Church. This project was the crusades.
By means of the age-old trick of positing a common enemy, the pope managed to persuade the European kings to set aside their own quarrels and concentrate as one body against the Muslims. The crusades were used by the Church for more than two centuries as a means of consolidating its power throughout Europe. In this way Islam can be seen to have been an important factor in the creation of a common European identity and to have indirectly played a vital role in Europe’s past. There is, however, a way in which Islam had a far more direct effect on Europe; one which fully justifies the claim that Islam is Europe’s past.
It is with the Renaissance that the phenomenon of modern Europe really got started. The mythology now surrounding this movement has it that the knowledge of classical Greece, which had been hidden for a thousand years, suddenly re-emerged and brought about a rebirth in the intellectual and artistic life of Europe. The truth is, however, that the torch of classical scholarship had been taken up by the Muslims seven centuries earlier. They worked on it, developed it and added to it during the whole of that period. What the Europeans received – what was to form the basis of the astonishing technological advances witnessed by the past four centuries – was passed on to them by the Muslims.
The classical texts themselves, the writings of Plato and Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, which were considered the basis of European culture, had been preserved by the Muslims. Indeed some of them only existed in Arabic translations and had to be re-translated from Arabic into Latin. It is widely recognised that the famous Muslim translation school of Toledo was the source of many of the texts that formed the basis of the European Renaissance. But it was not as transmitters of ancient learning that the Muslims played their most important part in the rebirth of Europe. There is almost no area of learning in which the original scholarship and research of the Muslims did not have a fundamental influence. But it is worth looking at five areas in particular which were all to play a pivotal role in the new European project, namely: philosophy, mathematics, cartography and navigation, optics and medicine.
Every intellectual movement must necessarily be defined and underpinned by a philosophical understanding, which lies behind it and enables it to flourish in the world it inhabits. There is no doubt that the ancient Greeks, in particular Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, provided the philosophical bedrock on which Western civilisation is based. But it is also clear that there has had to be continual development of thought over time to develop their thinking in every age since, which has enabled things to develop in the way that they have. This thinking process, which was all but completely abandoned by Europe in the Dark Ages, was taken forward during that time by many distinguished Muslim thinkers culminating in the work of the great Cordovan philosopher, Ibn Rushd, known in Europe as Averroes. He proved to be the stepping-stone to much of the European philosophy that has followed since.
It is clear that the Renaissance triggered off what has become known as the “scientific age” and that Europe and its North American offshoot owe their present dominance to the scientific advances which took place and the accompanying technological innovations to which they have given birth. Without the mathematical tools inherited from the Muslims none of these things would have been possible. Mathematics is the sine qua non for every scientific endeavour. We owe the very numbers we use to the Muslims. The Muslims developed every area of mathematics and, moreover, invented new disciplines such as algebra (named after its progenitor al-Jabir). This enabled later scientists such as Galileo and Newton to make the kind of calculations they needed in order to formulate their theories, and enabled those who have followed them to find practical applications for those theories.
Another factor leading to European dominance were the journeys of exploration made by European adventurers. These opened the way to the colonial empires of the European powers and the enormous wealth which that enabled them to amass. These voyages were greatly facilitated by the accurate and sophisticated work of Muslim mapmakers. But the greatest assistance to these power-hungry mariners was afforded by navigational aids, such as the astrolabe, which had been developed by the Muslims and which, in European hands, led within a very short time to the engridding of the globe and the world domination which followed in its wake.
The enormous scientific advances made through the use of the telescope and microscope in the fields of astronomy, physics and biology need no further elaboration. Without them these sciences would still be in their infancy. Their development was made possible by Muslim optical research. The same applies to medicine, whose development relied greatly on the vast amount of theoretical and practical work carried out and recorded by hundreds of Muslim physicians, in particular the great Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna.
Much much more could be added to this sketchy account of the way in which Muslim learning influenced the development of modern Europe but, hopefully, this has been sufficient to demonstrate that Islam can truly be said to have played a foundational role in Europe’s past. What, however, needs to be categorically stated at this point is that what the Europeans received from the Muslims and what they then proceeded to do with it are two entirely different things.
The science of the Muslims, both in terms of research and practical application, had always been carried out within the parameters defined for them by Divine Revelation as set out in the Qur’an and then implemented under Prophetic guidance. So the technology of the Muslims was always on a human scale and firmly under human control. But once the business passed into European hands something very different began to happen. The knowledge of the Muslims had a direct connection to Divine Revelation. The Europeans removed it from its proper context and used it indiscriminately and without the checks previously imposed on it by Divine legislation. The result has been the false god of monstrous proportions worshipped by so many millions today: scientific materialism.
With the Renaissance a crucial shift in perspective took place which led gradually towards people viewing the world and themselves in a completely different way. Human beings started to measure the universe not, as they had before, by Divinely revealed truth, but by their own perception of it. In other words, man made himself the measure of the universe. The relationship between man and the universe changed from being one of caretaker to being one where man considered himself the lord of creation. By the end of the Renaissance European man viewed himself as the master of existence and the arbiter of his own destiny. The Renaissance, closely followed by its sister phenomenon, the Reformation, truly proved to be a Pandora’s Box. The economic, political, philosophical and technical repercussions resulting from them form the background to the world we live in and, indeed, make up the very atmosphere we breathe.
The decisive step in the economic domain was taken by John Calvin, in Geneva. He took it upon himself to legalise, in the face of all precedents, the lending of money at interest, which had always previously been universally known as the crime of usury. This one thing, probably more than any other, is responsible for the ravaged social and physical landscape of the world we have inherited. It led to the rapid growth of banking first in Italy and Holland, and then England, culminating in the foundation of the Bank of England in 1692 and the first national debt. After this came the proliferation of international banking. That brought with it, in ever increasing quantities, international debt. Now we have reached a point when economic activity has changed from being merely one aspect of human existence into its central focus. Every single person in the world is now born hopelessly in debt and interest rates and market prices have become almost the most significant factors in our lives.
These developments have been inextricably bound up with the changing political landscape. Any remaining influence of the Church, with its traditional prohibition of usury, was first marginalised under the absolutism of Henry VIII and Louis XIV and then totally discarded as these regimes, in their turn, were replaced by the myth of democracy. First came the so-called “glorious” revolution in England, then much less glorious one in America, then a frankly appalling one in France and finally the absolute disaster of the Russian revolution. The only tangible result of each of these was the accelerating economicisation and technicisation of the world and the gradual accession to world power of a new extra-national elite exercising increasingly dictatorial control through financial structures beyond the reach of any national government. The First and Second world wars enabled this elite to consolidate their power under the name of globalisation. The World State is no longer the projection of visionary writers. We are living in it.
Every one of these political developments, which have enabled the present situation to come about, has had its theorists and philosophers. However, rather than being the source and inspiration for what happened, they in most cases merely acted as apologists for it, justifying at each stage the new status quo. We might name among them Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Marx, and Sartre. All of these in their time and in their way justified and supported the political, economic and technical developments going on around them together with the ever greater restriction of true human freedom that these things brought with them.
Finally and equally importantly we come to the practical exponents of the new thinking who turned the idea of man‘s control of the world around him into an ever more destructive reality. Building on the speculations of Copernicus and the experimentation of Galileo, Newton, with his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, in which he formulated the laws of mechanics and gravity, constructed a model of the universe which formed the foundation for the technicisation and structuralisation of the world that has been taking place ever since. Using the laws he discovered, scientists have come up with technical applications of them which have been wielded with increasing effectiveness by those in power to ensure a measure of control and domination never before experienced in the whole of human history. However, as we know, this very technical expertise has created a Frankenstein, which is now out of control and from which there is apparently no escape.
While this has necessarily been a sketchy and generalised overview, the basic perspective it puts forward is in no way revolutionary and can be found demonstrated and clarified in the writings of many well-known and respected historians.
Here we are, then, in 2008 living at the receiving end of all this, in the world that has resulted from it. A world ensnared in a web of unpayable debts of unimaginable magnitude whose reality is no more substantial than impossibly high numbers flickering as electronic signals between one computer screen and another and yet by which whole populations are controlled. A world polluted almost beyond the possibility of clean-up and subject to the vagaries of the untried science of genetic modification whose consequences may well prove catastrophic to the natural world. A world whose natural resources have been plundered to the point of exhaustion by the demands of a rapacious system of consumption which the present power structure, for all its protestations to the contrary, does everything to encourage. A world hypnotised by the myth of democracy where people vote in ever decreasing numbers to elect puppet governments for states that are, in fact, no more than colonies of a financial oligarchy who have no national loyalties and are elected by no-one. A world whose inhabitants are free to do little other than consume as much as possible in whatever way is open to them as drugged and pacified dependants of a World State.
This may appear to be an excessively bleak portrayal of the world we live in but if you remove the gift-wrapping and look behind the surface glitter of our consumer paradise you will find it to be the stark truth. There are certainly some aspects of the European project which have run counter to this general nihilistic trend but time constraints do not permit me to elaborate on them on this occasion. What is certain, however, is that both the negative process I have outlined, and the few positive elements contained within it, all lead to one conclusion: that it is time for the re-emergence of Islam after its five hundred year absence to lead the way into a much brighter future.
To understand why this is the case it is first necessary to understand what Islam is and, indeed, what it is not. Most Europeans see Islam as a foreign religion. It is not. Islam is not Arab or Turkish or Pakistani. Islam has nothing to do with ethnic origin or eastern culture. No, Islam is, and always has been, categorically universal, equally valid for any people in any part of the world.
There is, and always has been, only one authentic spiritual tradition which is at once the birthright and raison d’etre of every human being. All the various great world religions constitute manifestations at various times throughout human history of this primordial natural religion. Christianity, for instance, is simply the penultimate version of this great tradition. Islam is it in its final form. We must put out of our minds all geographical and cultural preconceptions. All that is involved is recognition and worship of the One God, whom all of us in our heart of hearts and times of greatest need knows to be there; the Source and Creator of the Universe; Reality itself; that Unique Power on which everything else is totally and continually dependent but which is Itself beyond need of anything.
Early in human history it is clear that awareness of God and living in harmony with the laws which govern existence were almost instinctive to people. However as time went on, human beings became more and more opaque and people began to more and more overstep their natural limits, causing increasing corruption and discord within the human situation. But because the Divine nature is fundamentally merciful and compassionate, Divinely inspired men appeared periodically to remind people of their true nature and to guide them back to the path of belief, balance and justice which they had abandoned.
The final Divine reminder to the human race came in the form of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be on him. It was specifically and explicitly intended to be a universal message to answer the spiritual and social needs of every human being from that time on. By the time he died, he had fulfilled his task by establishing, under Divine guidance, a flourishing human community with a just political, economic and legal structure. It produced a radiant, compassionate social reality and permitted the flowering of as deep a spirituality as has ever been witnessed on the earth’s surface.
It is this total picture, containing within its compass the correct functioning of every aspect of human existence, which is Islam. It is this complete model of Divine guidance in action in every sphere of life that we need now, that we must have, if we are to survive as a human community. At its core is the relationship between each individual and his Creator but this cannot survive and flourish in isolation. It can only grow if people stay within the moral limits that in fact constitute their natural form. These parameters in their turn need the laws and economic restraints prescribed by Divine Revelation if they are to remain in place. Only Islam still contains all these elements.
It is astonishing how, in each area where this society is sick and troubled, the specific cure is to be found in the teaching of Islam, although in fact it is not so surprising when one remembers that it was revealed as a universal guidance for this last period of human history by the One who knows exactly what His creatures need. Let us take a few examples.
Usury, particularly in its most prevalent form of lending money at interest has already been mentioned. One immediate effect of it is ever-increasing consumer debt which has now reached unprecedented levels. The human cost of this is increasing distress and discord in a great number of families and for many absolute despair at not being able to make ends meet, leading to a growing number of suicides. On the international scene, the situation is even worse. In some countries the gross national product is not enough to pay even the interest on the money that has been borrowed. This means that everyone in those countries is in effect working for foreign banks.
The underlying effects of usury have corroded every aspect of human life. There is no time now to go into this subject in detail but much work has been done on it and is available for anyone who wishes to find out more. Suffice it to say that usury is a poison which pollutes all it touches. Its prohibition in the Qur’an, the use of forms of business contracts which preclude it and the re-introduction of gold and silver coinage which they require mean that Islam truly provides the means to escape this curse which has all but enslaved the whole world.
It is generally recognised that a large proportion of the crime, which has reached such epidemic proportions in our time, is closely related to the consumption of alcohol and drugs. If you add to this the vast percentage of alcohol induced accidents, the growing incidence of alcoholism with its attendant social problems and the unprecedented number of people dependant on drugs of all kinds, the Qur’anic injunction forbidding intoxicating substances clearly provides an urgently needed radical solution to a pressing social problem.
It cannot be denied that the spread of the scourge of AIDS which still threatens so many millions of lives has been almost exclusively due to sexual promiscuity on a scale never before witnessed by the human race and, more particularly, to homosexual practices which were until very recently recognised as unnatural and illegal by every society in the world. Alongside this there are the terrible crimes of rape and incest whose regular and increasing occurrence has made them seen almost commonplace. Again, in this vital area of life Islam holds the key.
Far from being suppressed, sexuality is explicitly encouraged within Islam and ample space is given for its expression. However its limits have been made clear and the penalties for overstepping them extremely severe. At the same time opportunities for sex outside the prescribed limits are kept at a minimum. Because extended families and the giving of hospitality are part and parcel of Islam, Muslim family life is full and open and the dangerous emotional currents, which frequently lead to crime in the nuclear family situation, are far less prevalent in Muslim society.
The last and perhaps most important way in which Islam can heal the sickness of our society is by means of the incalculable effect of the physical act of prayer which punctuates the day of every Muslim. This act puts the worship of God back where it belongs at the centre of the life of every human being and ensures the health of society as a whole. It gives people a correct perspective on existence so that they do not become totally engrossed in the life of this world. It is a continual reminder of the insubstantial nature of this life, that death is inevitable and that what follows it depends on the way we live and goes on forever. The acceptance of accountability implicit in this attitude makes people prone to live within the limits rather than wantonly transgress them. It creates a situation where people see that immediate self-gratification is not necessarily in their best interests and that generosity and patience and good character have real and tangible benefits in them.
For all these reasons and many more which have not been mentioned here Islam has been growing in strength in Europe as a whole and in Britain in particular over many years now. Goethe, Carlyle and Bernard Shaw were among many clear-sighted Europeans in the past who saw that it is precisely this guidance that is needed if Western civilisation is to be turned back from its present self-destructive course. Over the past half-century literally thousands of British people have become Muslims and swelled the ranks of the great number of other Muslims who have come here mostly from ex-British colonies.
This phenomenon was acknowledged recently by what might be considered as a slightly unlikely voice: Norman Tebbit. Lord Tebbit said in an article he wrote considering the demise of the Church of England: “So who is left? Watch out for the challenge from the mosques. An Islam with a modern face will soon begin to present itself as the natural home for those who long for moral certainty and a new sense of discipline within society… And with no other options on the table, they may soon find that they have an awful lot of fellow travellers with whom to bolster their ranks. The task for the imams will be to… replace a Christian church that has lost its sense of history and direction with a mosque that has a strong ingrained sense of both.”
He is right. If what is desired is for each individual to have the maximum possibility of fulfilling their true human potential within the context of a compassionate and just human society then Islam can truly be said to hold the key to the future of Britain in particular and indeed to Europe as a whole.
Shaykh `AbdalHaqq Bewley