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In Praise of Islam.

After the “Joseph” post, a post on Islam.

Not in praise of Islam in today’s context (although some people may see some relevant point), but in the context of the world in which it became important and powerful.

This was not the Classical World – the world of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. Where people (in many places – although far from all) were either free or slaves.

Slavery certainly existed in the world in which the Muslims went forth on the path of conquest (just as it existed among the Muslims themselves) – but the world they faced was a world where the vast majority of people were semi serfs. Tied to the land, or tied to their urban occupations (tied from birth).

The first thing to go had been the right to keep and bear arms (the classical mark of a free man – in both Ancient Greece and Republican Rome, just as with the Celtic and Germanic tribes). Octavian (“Augustus”) had got rid of most private ownership of, and training in, arms. Useing the argument that he was saving Rome from the dangers of civil war (the repeated civil wars of the Imperial period – where different factions of the army backed different Emperors somehow do not count as civil wars I suppose).

So the Ancient World abandoned the central principle of that great work of classical literature “Starship Troopers” – “everyone fights” (meaning everyone who is to be considered a citizen must be prepared to fight).n And I am not being, entirely, sarcastic – after all Robert Heinlein (the author of Star Ship Troopers) got the idea from Aristotle. In the “Politics”, Aristotle explains how the idea of the armed citizen is not just Greek, how (for example) the men of Carthage are allowed to vote or stand for public office unless they have first accepted military service (of course this rule was later abandoned by Carthage – with tragic results).

Most “citizens” of the new Rome (which now meant the entire Classical world) had no military weapons and were not trained in their use.

Later more and more regulations and restrictions (and higher and higer taxes) were imposed on these “free citizens” – till, in the time of the Emperor Diocletian, they basically became cattle. Tied to the land (if they were peasants) or to their urban occupations (sometimes in state owned factories).

And it even became acceptable to keep these “free citizens” in chains (physcial chains) if it was expected they were going to run away (i.e. no longer farm the land – but run off to the barbarians, or whatever).

And, of course, flogging and all forms of torture (under the Republic only to be applied to slaves) gradually (over the years and centuries of decay) became accepted ways of relating to most ranks of “free citizens”.

Nor were things fundementally different with Rome’s great enemy – the Persians.

The Pathians seem to have tolerated the Greek and other civilizations they became overlords of. But the new (or restored – depending on one’s point of view) regime of the Persians established a new civilization.

With (yes you guessed it) hereditory castes determining a person’s fate in life from birth (much as in Hindu India – accept under the banner of Zorastrianism).

Under the Persians there was also a de facto religous monopoly (how could there not be – the Magi of Zorastrianism were also the magistrates and officials), apart from in the “land of the King” (basically Babylonia – where the King of the Persians ruled directly) where a wide measure of religious tolerance (for Jews and others) was practiced.

The Romans, after the conversion to Christianity, also moved towards a defacto religious monopoly with the persecution of all other forms of belief.

Some Christian Emperors (such as Valentarian) believed this was unChristian. But Emperors eventually adopted the position that it was their role to discriminate against nonChristians – indeed to persecute even fellow Christians over differences in theology.

Of couse in the 7th century the hatred this persecution of Christians by other Christians produced was to have fatal consequences for the Byzantines in the Holy Land – for many Christians (of persecuted types) went over to the Muslims in the middle of the key battle (the fact that these Christians were ethincally Arab was also a factor of course – but Pagan Rome, and Christian Emperors who did not practice persecution NEVER faced defection in the middle of a battle – not even to barbarians of the same ethnic group as troops on their own side).

Augustine, amongst other theologians, provided useful arguments about how using violence, including torture, in matters of religion was not really anti Christian. How did Augustine refute the Hebrew, Amoraic and Greek texts? Well he could not really read any of these languages, so he did not have to.

Ah dear Augustine – it was, of course, him who was one of the leading theologians to ridicule ancient science. And to mock the idea that people could choose to behave decently, none of this “Pelagian” free will for Augustine (that was as bad as being able to read Greek or Hebrew or Amoraic – you know the langugage that that Jesus bloke spoke, why someone interested in the Amoraic words of the Jesus bloke [or the Greek writings of the people who knew him] might be so absurd as to actually visit the land he lived in, which, of course, the wise Augustine never did ). Predestination, and human efforts are doomed, all the way – that is Augustine (he was a true father of the Dark Age).

To me it is no accident that the first theologian in England in the Middle Ages to stress the study of Greek and Hebrew, Roger Bacon, was also interested in submarines, aircraft (and so on) – contray to what is often thought there is no contradiction between a love of ancient learning and hopes for a better future. On the contrary it is the book burners (those who wish to destroy the learning of the past) who tend to be the people who strangle the future.

Of course the Western Roman Empire had collapsed by the time of the comming of Islam (although the Byzantines ruled in most of what had been Roman Africa – as well as in Sicily and other parts of Italy). However, the Germanic regimes that had taken over the rest of the Roman Empire in the West had kept the Roman sytem.

Most of the population reduced to de facto serfdom – a population where the “everyone fights” rule (of free citizens of the Classical World, or of the Germanic world itself) was ignored. Is it really any wonder that the Muslims found it fairly easy to conquer vast populations – even thought their own numbers (at first) were small?

The populations the Muslims took over had been treated as cattle for centuries – both in the East and the West, so conquest just meant a change of masters (not a loss of the freedom they did not have anyway).

And the Persians?

With them it was even worse. Insane social/religious experiments (for example trying to share out “all goods and women”) had almost destroyed the Persian Empire (torn it apart into chaos and civil war) long before the Muslims arrived.

The followers of Muhammed (a member of family of traders) might plunder the goods of other people – but they had no truck with denying the rights of private property amongst themselves.

At least where it came to goods – Islamic law as concerning LAND is more contested, which was to prove a major weakness in Islamic civilization, in comparision to that of the emerging “Feudal” law of the West. Such as the Edict of Quierzy of 877 which restated that even a King of France could not take a fief of land from the children of the person who held it, and give it to someone else – which meant that a Western King was a different sort of thing than a Roman Emperor or an Islamic ruler.

Western Kings might rob. rape and murder people – but these remained CRIMES even if the King did them (as King John was to discover), just as a Western King might have mistresses, but not a “harem” and his heir was expected to be from a marriage (not a slave girl).

A Western King might be a terrible hypocrite and criminal – but there was an objective standard to judge them by (unlike a Roman Emperor) and (again unlike a Roman Emperor) independent land holders with large numbers of armed (and trained) men, to hold them to account. “The Emperor’s will is law” would be an outrage to a mind of the Middle Ages.

And as for the powers of the “barons” themselves – a lord who overstepped the mark with free peasants might well get a longbow arrow in his face, at least in later period England (but other forms of death in other places). Remember even in England at the hight of the “Norman Yoke” only half the population were serfs (which means the other half were not). And the Kings of England (and the various lords) were desperate for armed (i.e. free) men to increase their own power, at home and overseas (that is the whole point of “bastard feudalism” – but it goes back a lot further). As early as the time of Henry the first (son of William the Bastard) the King was already desperatly reaching out to Englishmen to fight his Norman brothers (litterally his brothers) and marrying a direct decendent of Alfred the Great to bolster his claim to the throne.

So indeed “everyone fights”. And the Black Death meant the de facto end of what serfdom there was in England – whatever the demented statutes of Parliament said.

But Islam in the 7th century did not face the Kingdoms of the Middle Ages.

It faced the Persian despotism (desperatly trying to recover from its own madness), the despotism of the Byzantines (really the late Roman Empire – although after their defeat by Islam, what survived of Byzantine civilization was to change…) and the recently (well a century or so) arrived Germanic overlords of places like Spain – where the old Roman system (i.e. most people are cattle – unarmed) remained basically in force.

The Muslims were in a way a throw back to the Classical World – “everyone fights” (indeed believers had a religous duty to train and fight). And, amongst themselves, believers (at least in the early stages of Islam) had rights – they could not be treated as cattle (as the “free citizens” of the late Roman world, or of the Persian world, were).

There was even, again in the early stages, an intense Islamic interest in Classical learning and science – and scholars (Christan, Jewish and Muslim) made progress in these areas (although progress rather over stressed by BBC programmes) that was unmatched (at that time) in the Byzantine Empire or the Western Kingdoms.

For the Muslims (at least at first – and for the most part, there were nasty exceptions such as the ruler who burnt what was left of the library of Alexandria) did not know they were supposed to reject the learning of the ancient world (not build upon it), whereas too many of the Christians and too many of the Magi did reject it – because they thought it represented the civilization they had replaced.

Of course, within a few generations the Islamic world started to reject Classical learning and science more than the folk of the Western Kingdoms did.

However, the story of how that came to pass will have to wait for another time – or another person to tell it.


  1. NickM says:

    Wow! Two monsterances in a row. I have a lifeboat you know… A “parked” website that I got without figuring what to do with it. When I get round to hacking through WordPress templates and making it look how I want I have now figured a use… Think of it as a sort of Sunday supplement to Cat’s as a daily. Your large pieces are the sort of thing I may be looking for. Yeah, I know that is caveated but it ain’t up yet so… Keep you posted.

  2. Paul Marks says:

    I did warn you they were comming Nick – they have been in my mind for days.

  3. CountingCats says:


    Are you certain Augustus abolished the right to bear arms? I would have sworn it was Diocletian. At the very least, it is Diocletians style, whereas I would have thought it ran counter to Augustus.

    My understanding as that at the time of Augustus, and after, the army was still a citizen force.

  4. CountingCats says:

    Nick, just stick a ‘read more’ tag into em. I quite like having Pauls stuff here. It raises the tone…..

  5. CountingCats says:


    Not sure the latter Roman Empire, renamed Byzantine in the C19th, was as dismissive of the classical past as you suggest.

    The last of the pagan institutions were abolished by Justinian, true, but they kept alive Greek learning and philosophy regardless.

    When the Arabs took over the Greek middle east they were invading the wealthiest and most civilised lands in the entire ancient world, and that rubbed off. They didn’t destroy what they found, they sought to keep it intact and rule it – just as the British did in India. As you point out, a lot of the scholars were Jewish and Christian, even if working in an Islamic context, and even many of the nominally Muslim scholars were precisely that, nominal, not devout.

    Anyway, the Roman Greeks kept their literature and culture, bringing it to Italy when the Medici, and other Renaissance dignitaries, started promoting cultural links with Constantinople, and later when they fled, with much of their libraries, following the final fall.

    Methinks you belittle the Greeks a little to much. Don’t forget, there never was a dark ages in Eastern Europe, thanks to them. Compare two of the great military figures of the time. We hold only legends of Arthur, but have solid historical records of the campaigns of Belisarius, despite their being near contemporaries.

  6. NickM says:

    Correct. I have been to Mystras – the very last stand of the Roman Empire in the C15th. It’s gorgeous. That is after Constantinople fell (I think). I’ve also seen where the walls were breached in what is now Istanbul. There is no blue plaque or anything but I pretty much figured out that was where Constantine XI led the final charge. Much learning from the Byzantines fled to Italy and bish-bash-bosh we have a renaissance going on and the Ottomans get their soft furnishings handed back to them on a plate at Lepanto not that long after when the Spanish tercios displayed their mettle and then Admiral Ali Pasha’s head on a pike. And the rest is history.

  7. John Galt says:

    But isn’t this the whole problem with Islam.

    It was perfectly suited to a time and a place between the drowning of Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas (or at least up to the repulse of the Ottoman’s in the Balkans).

    However, it’s very rigidity has left it stuck in place, like Miss Havisham’s mansion in Great Expectations, static with reflections of old glories, but fundamentally just the dusty and rotten remnants of the past.

    I can understand why many in the West (especially amongst the Afro-Caribbean community) find strength in Islam as it gives certainty against the more liberal forms of Christianity. During a crisis of faith, sometimes it must feel good to “nail your colours to the mast”.

    Not for me though, I’d rather move on to the stars than live in a tent in the desert looking after my goats.

    That is why I am an atheist.

  8. Paul Marks says:

    It was (sadly) Augustus who hit the right to keep and bear arms – the Empire was corrupt from the start. From Augustus himself – the ultimate RINO (Republican in name only) who cut his hair short like a Republican, who dressed like a Republican (shades of Richard Nixon saying his wife did not have a fur coat – just a “plain Republican cloth coat”) and talked like a Republican (oh so respectful to the Senate and so on) – but was, in fact, a despot.

    “King” is wrong – not for a good reason. A king has a defined role, Octavian (“Augustus”) did not – he (rather like Cromwell) basically made it
    up as he went along. Still for an ordinary, free, person the Roman Empire was no worse than modern Britain – at least till (yes) the time of Diocletian.

    Of course the Republic was corrupt itself – those New Zealand series on “Sparticus” may be full of P.C. messages about gender and ethnic equality, but they are not a million miles from the truth. We all talk (and quite rightly) about the corruption of “bread and games”. But the heart of corruption was slavery – and the first (full time perminant) slave market is supposed to have opened in Rome just after the start of the first Punic War – slavery became a normal part of life, and that corrupted a Republic that had traditionally been dominated by small scale independent family farms.

    Byzantine civilization – I was indeed a bit unfair.

    Justinian was a monster – perhaps closing the academy in Athens was the least or his crimes, but was a terrible thing to do. However, it is true that wealthy private individuals kept Classical civilization alive – they did not really add to it (but then they did not have the easy access to India that Islamic civilization did – so concepts like the new, Indian, mathematical numerials came late to the Byzantines), but these wealthy individuals did keep the old culture alive.

    Also, yes, contact between the West and Byzantine civilization was a lot greater than was once supposed – although the P.C. elite with their “all knowledge of the Classical World came to Europe via Islamic Spain” would have it otherwise.

    The new universities emerged in the West – why the Roman Catholic church created such things and the Orthodox Church (the Eastern Church) did not is an interesting question – one I am NOT going to answer here (even if I could).

    However, to me a sign that the West was (in some ways) going to exceed the old world can be seen in BUILDINGS. For example the Gothic cathedrals that start appearing in Western Europe – there is nothing like them in the Ancient World (they make pagan temples look like nothing in comparison), where do they come from? They come from clergy desperate to reach up into the sky – and from free craftsmen who were building new traditions from the ground up.

    Even when Westerners “do Classical” they do it in a new way. For example Filippo Brunelleschi stared weeping (as one does) at the ruins of the Ancient World.

    But it came to how the Romans “must” have built their great domes and so on.

    With the use of cunning machines that the Romans “must” have used.

    Actually it is now generally agreed that the stuff Brunelleschi created was far superior to anything the Romans had (they relied partly on machines – but also a lot on slaves and whips).

    In trying to “recreate” Classical Civilization Brunelleschi had, in fact, helped create something new.

    City states such as Florence where slaves were rare (if they existed at all) were quite different to the Classical World.

  9. zack says:

    Paul, concerning the development of Universities in Medieval Europe, I always suspected that that it had to do with the fact that there [i]wasn’t[/i] a continuous record going back to ancient Rome – that they knew that they were missing the knowledge of ancient Rome. That maid all of the little bits and pieces that they [i]did[/i] have more valuable – the universities were created to preserve them and pass them along.

  10. zack says:

    john galt: I’d rather move on to the stars than live in a tent in the desert looking after my goats.

    That is why I am an atheist.
    you seem to be implying that going to the stars and being religious are incompatable – why? Many of our greatest discoveries and scientific advances have come from very religious people.

    I’m a devout Catholic, and I look at it this way: we, as individuals, are called by God to have a personal relationship with Him, to know Him and His works. The Universe was created for us, it is His gift to His children – I personally believe that exploring the stars in eternity **is going to rock so hard**

    But that’s just my take on it.

  11. zack says:

    PS: the rest of your post is spot on John. I think that the main reason that the West advanced while the Muslim world has been stuck in the mud is that the West believed that it was fallen, both theologically (part of Christian dogma) and materially (from the ‘glory of Rome’, as they saw it), while Islam saw/sees itself as perfect. The West saw that it had room to improve, and many sought to do it. Islam thought it was as good as it could get and stagnated; these behaviors have become cultural habits at this point, so I don’t see things changing in our life time.

  12. CountingCats says:


    Trebizond fell about a year after Mystras, and that was that…

  13. Andrew Duffin says:

    Thanks for a succinct summary; one could argue with a few details, and one could point out that you haven’t exactly “praised” Islam, but never mind.

    Thought-provoking stuff, and the though it provokes in me is the old one about “those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it”.

    Unarmed people treated as cattle by their rulers…ready meat for any new overlord…unable to do anything to influence their fate?

    Now, what does all this remind me of? Think, think…

  14. Paul Marks says:

    On the university thing you may be right Zack.

    When people know they have lost something they (sometimes) try and recover it – and they (also sometimes) end up building more than they have lost. Whereas people in the “Rome” that had not fallen…..

    As for John Galt thing – the theological battle I will stay out of (God does not need me to defend Him).

    However, Islam did change – it became more like the despotic regimes it replaced – perhaps under Persian cultural influence (no offence to Persian culture meant).

    Even Muslims often lost the rights that there forefathers had (had in the early days).

    Nor is the political side of this (and this is a political blog) outdated.

    “Everybody fights” (armed citizens) is the mark of any free people.

    We have become like the late Roman Empire – or the Persian Empire.

    State control and a caste of fighters – with everyone else kept helpless (like cattle).

    Not good.

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