22 October 2007
Many Muslims, depressed by the current state of the Muslim world, look back to the golden age when Muslims ruled the regional superpower in Europe and the Middle East. We should indeed look back: to learn how to build our future as Muslims, but not to wallow in nostalgia.
The wrong message from the past is a focus on religious purity, to think that Muslims were great because they prayed more often. Practicing Islam is what makes us Muslims, but Islam is about much more than overt religious practices. Islam teaches you how to live your entire life; it is a religion that is expressed in the real world, not in a cloistered monastery.
When Arab armies poured out of Arabia to conquer Persia, Egypt and the Byzantine Empire, they encountered knowledge that had been accumulated through millennia by pagans, Jews and Christians. When they reached India they found Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. They embraced all of this knowledge, recognising that a scientific statement about the world is either accurate or inaccurate, but that the religious views of its proponent are irrelevant.
Muslims learnt from everyone, and then built upon that knowledge by their own research. They created an empire in which Jewish and Christian scholars flourished alongside Muslims, free from the persecution of Jews and dissenting Christians that prevailed throughout Christian Europe.
What I see today are many Muslims who shut their eyes and their brains to everything that does not come from another Muslim, preferably one who shares their own brand of religious purity. For an example, look at how many Muslims react to palaeontology and evolution. Cutting oneself off from the knowledge, creativity and ideas of the 80% of mankind that is non-Muslim guarantees that Muslim societies will continue to fail.