November 22, 2003


THE MYTH OF AN ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE (Srdja Trifkovic, Speech to the Highland Park-Highwood Lions Club, November 6, 2003)

The task facing a narrow segment of urban intelligentsia in the Muslim world that seeks to reform Islam into a matter of personal choice separated from the State and distinct from the society is frankly impossible. This has always remained a minority view in the world of Islam, and even its apparent triumph in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal remains tentative at best. If and when Turkey becomes a true democracy, that instant it will become Islamic and anti-Western.

The predominant response of the Muslim world to the crisis caused by western superiority has been the clamoring for “Islamic solutions.” Both traditionalists and fundamentalists postulate the superiority of their faith and its divinely ordained world leadership, and both regard the early success of Islam as a natural result of the strict and uncompromising observance of all tenets of that faith. The subsequent decline and the temporary superiority of the unbelievers is both resented—creating the culture of anti-Western otherness—and feared. The failure of the umma was understood as a consequence of the failure of the Muslim world to be “truly Islamic.” The revival of the model of early Islam in a modern form absolutely mandates the reaffirmation of uncompromising animosity to non-believers and the return to violence as a means of attaining political ends. Islamic terrorism, far from being an aberration, became inseparable from modern-day jihad. It is legitimized by it, and it is its defining feature.

While it would be simplistic to claim that Islamists routinely cheat in representing their history to the rest of us, it is closer to the mark to say that they are prone to construct an invented reality for themselves. To understand the reality of Islam’s record with its non-adherents, one should not compare it to Judaism or Christianity but match it against modern totalitarian ideologies, notably Bolshevism and National Socialism. Each explicitly denied the legitimacy of any form of social, political, or cultural organization other than itself. In the name of Allah and Islam, more people were killed in one year of Khomeini than during the preceding quarter-century of the Shah. It is easy to eliminate enemies who have been dehumanized, like when Khomeini announced, “In Persia no people have been killed so far, only beasts.” Hitler’s or Stalin’s forma mentis was different from that of Khomeini only in quantity, not in quality. The latter’s statement that the Muslims have no choice but to wage “holy war against profane governments” until the conquest of the world has been accomplished—an eminently orthodox and “mainstream” statement of Islamic world outlook, different only in its frankness from the pitch of Muslim apologists in the West—had a familiar ring to it. It was Nikita Khrushchev’s “We shall bury you” wrapped in green instead of red. The Kremlin ruse called “peaceful coexistence” was but jihad under another name.

Always reliant on the plunder of its neighbors and robbery of its non-Muslim subjects, Islam was unable to create new wealth once the conquerors had run out of steam and reduced the vanquished to utter penury. Pre-Islamic Egypt was the granary of Europe, just like the pre-Bolshevik Ukraine; now both have to import food. Pre-Islamic Syria and Asia Minor suffered a similar fate under Caliph Umar to the highly developed and prosperous East Germany and Czechoslovakia after 1945. Both Islam and Communism oppose the preconditions for successful economic development in principle as well as in practice. In both cases, attempts to copy Western methods of production failed because they were not accompanied by the essential changes of social, political, and legal structure; the problem of Ottoman experiments with modernization were remarkably similar to the tinkering with various “models of socialism” a hundred years later.

This analysis recurs too often, from Karen Armstrong (unintentionally) to Bernard Lewis to Paul Berman--of Islamicism as a rather standard variant of totalitarianism--to be dismissed.

-ESSAY: The Golden Age of Islam is a Myth (Srdja Trifkovic, November 15, 2002, Front Page)

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 22, 2003 6:19 AM

The relevant comparison would be with medieval Christianity, with Japanese Buddhism during the Pure Land phase and such like.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 22, 2003 4:03 PM

Ironically, ten years ago, if I'd read this speech, I might well have dismissed it as Serbian propaganda (racist of me, I know, to my shame, but "Trifkovic" does sound like a Serbian name to me), what with Bosnia and everything - back in that time, I had a hard time seeing Serbs as anything other than fascist murderers - but in this day and age, and knowing what I know now (and being, perhaps, sadder, wiser, and older), I agree; Mr. Trifkovic raises several serious and cogent points about the role of Islam as an obstacle to modernity.

Posted by: Joe at November 22, 2003 5:50 PM

A load of bull.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 22, 2003 7:40 PM

Mr. Choudhury-

Why? The most striking thing about the Koran, at leats to this reader, was its misreporting and misreading of both the Old and New Testament. The sociology of the rise of Islam looks like a reaction to and misunderstanding of the theology of Christianity. If there was a need to create a mythology regarding Christ and the Christian movement of the time, why not a self-justifying need to mythologize its own history which can be seen as a failure in comparison with the west as a further reaction? The fact is that radical Islamists are a product of the faith and they are violent and totalitarian when in power.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at November 23, 2003 12:38 PM

Islam's burden is that its founder was simultaneously prophet, general, and king. The result is a detailed recipe for all facets of life.

A wonderful thing if truly divinely revealed throughout.

Less so, otherwise.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 23, 2003 2:50 PM

Most of the ideas we hold here -- even if they now seem as opposed to each other as mine and Orrin's -- had their origins in western Asia.

It seems to me that, broadly speaking, each new way of thinking was a composite of the ancient styles of the region, invigorated by something new -- Greek skepticism or Jewish morality or Assyrian ruthlessness etc.

The extraordinary success of Islam seemed to repeat the process. Illiterate poets from Arabia made use of Persian, Syrian, Greek and Egyptian "technocrats."

Then, something (apparently the unusual comprehensiveness of the religion as judge of daily affairs) caused the community (ummah) to deliberately reject syncretism.

There have been a few such instances in world history. In China in the 14th century and, in our own times, in Burma.

In Orrin's terms, in the 13th century the ummah ratified a social acceptance that had been forming for centuries and chose stability and order over freedom. (The murder of the technocrats had begun as early as the 9th century.)

In other words, it was a self-inflicted wound, and the results, in daily life, have been about as we would expect from similar, smaller scale actions -- the Old Christians in Russia, say.

But I'd like to know what Mr. Choudhury thinks in detail.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 23, 2003 4:24 PM

I've got to cut and run but I think an obvious criticism of Trifovic's speech is that if Islam was so destructive, how come the new lands which came to Islam in the first few decades stayed Islamic instead of collapsing into penury like the Soviets and rejecting this new religion for the polytheism of their forefathers?

Its' also rather silly to blame Islam for the state of Egypt's economy when that's the result of an attempt to create a secular socialist state.

Tom C: Christianity simply wasn't a big enough force in Arabia for Islam to have primarily been a reaction to it.

Jeff G: It's not nearly as detailed as you think.

I'd agree to a certain extent with Harry's analysis although I think a degree of xenophobia and the heavily centralised nature of a lot of Islamic lands (not surprising given how they depended on irrigation) which severely weakened the power of private property holders and deadened commerce and trade were also significant factors.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 24, 2003 1:45 AM

Chritianity was not common in Arabia but Muhammed was aware of it and the busiest trade routes through the region were dominated by those from the west and thus Christian. Was Muhammed reacting to Christianity? He certainly seemed a bit pre-occupied with it.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at November 25, 2003 1:08 PM