Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why Latin Christendom overtook Islam (and Orthodox Christendom)

Scholars and others write about the golden age of Islam, how it created a brilliant, urban and urbane, sophisticated and scientifically curious civilisation when Latin Christendom was sunk in a Dark Age.

This is broadly true. Islam was the crossroads civilisation, the one in touch with all the other major civilisations of Eurasia, and so able to mix and match ideas. It had access to the achievements of Greek science. It had a common language of scholarship (Arabic). It used these advantages in a flourishing period of Classical Islam. Then Islam declined into a spreading stagnation—intellectual, scientific, technological, economic. So, the question arises, as Bernard Lewis famously asked, what went wrong?

What did not go wrong was the West. With exception of the Reconquista, Islam spent a thousand years generally advancing against Christendom until the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The stagnation of Islam was not caused by the West: on the contrary, it was the stagnation of Islam that allowed the West to counter-attack successfully and conquer most of Islam, to the extent that, by 1942, the only Islamic countries which were not protectorates or colonies were Turkey and Afghanistan. Even in 1453, when Sultan Mehmet II was about to take Constantinople, he was using guns which relied on infidel gunners.

So, what advantages did Latin Christendom, perched on a bunch of peninsulas on the edge of the Eurasian landmass, have?

The key factors are:
A range of political forms.
A range of legal forms.
Stronger use of the hereditary principle.
Effective competitive jurisdictions.
Belief in an ordered cosmos.
Ability to harness talent.

Most of these applied to also advantage Latin Christendom over Orthodox Christendom, which had the further disadvantage of suffering far more from Islamic and Mongol depredations.
A range of political forms
Islam essentially only had one political model: autocracy. The autocrat might merely be a warrior king, or he might be able to claim extra religious sanction, but all Muslim rulership was autocratic. By contrast, Latin Christendom had republics, self-governing cities, hereditary monarchies and elective monarchies that varied notably within themselves and typically came to incorporate the representative principle, as it spread from the innovations of Alfonso IX of Leon and Castile. This political variety meant that Latin Christendom had far more institutional possibilities for the selection processes of history to work on.

A range of legal forms
Although Islam has a variety of schools of jurisprudence, it has only one basic set of laws, Shar’ia. While Islamic law was taken to come from God, in Latin Christendom, all law was human, even canon law. Latin Christendom had a wide range of legal system and laws, all of which were alterable. Latin Christendom had far more possibilities for the selection processes of history to work on plus the capacity to engage in legal experiments far more easily.

Stronger use of the hereditary principle
Not only was the hereditary principle much more widespread in Latin Christendom, applying strongly throughout the political and social structure, so much more stable across the society (since those who might attack hereditary suzerains were themselves holding their lands and service on the basis of the hereditary principle). It was also, with the evolution of primogeniture, much more stable in its internal operation within dynasties and landed families.

In Islam, warriors held tax farming rights, not lands, and these rights were revocable at any time, and were not heritable, being allocated according to the whim of the ruler. Amin Malouf contrasts the situation where peaceful succession occurred moderately regularly in the crusader states with the surrounding Muslim states thus:
Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war … Let us note that in the Arab world the question is still on the agenda, in scarcely altered terms, in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Being landlords, the warrior elite of Latin Christendom had, compared to the Muslim warrior elite, much more interest in the long-term productivity of land and peasants, since that preserved (and hopefully expanded) their children(s) inheritance (what economists call longer time horizons).

Muslim traveller and chronicler ibn Jubayr noticed the difference, again contrasting the crusader states of Outremer with their Muslim neighbours:
Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.
Incentives make a difference. There will be more investment in the creation and maintenance of productive assets, and better relations with people working those assets, the longer the time horizon of those controlling said assets. Over centuries, even a marginal difference in such things generation after generation will add up to major differences in economic outcomes and institutional development.

Effective competitive jurisdictions
Rulership in the Muslim world was autocratic. It was also unstable. The pattern of pastoralist conquest of settled river valleys establishing regimes which decay and are then replaced, as described by ibn Khaldun—and whose dynamics have been further explicated by more recent anthropological work, particularly by Phillip Carl Salzman—created fluctuating and unstable rulerships. This was not a good basis for institutional evolution. In particular, it was not a good basis for competitive jurisdictions to operate effectively in driving institutional development. Particularly once most of the Muslim Middle East became dominated by Ottoman rule.

Contrasting with the Middle Eastern pattern of isolated river valleys and coastal plains constantly threatened by nomadic hinterlands, Europe—as a mountainous peninsula of peninsulas, which inhibited unification ambitions while promoting the flow of ideas, goods, people and capital—had greater continuity in polities and in jurisdictional divisions. Competitive jurisdictions operated over time to develop institutions that embodied social learning including stronger defense of private property, more dispersed power arrangements driven by competition amongst jurisdictions to attract capital (financial, human, etc).

The same processes operated in the mountainous archipelago of Japan, but with less variety in law, political forms and cultural influences to work with. The Reformation—with its creation of greater religious variety—and the global break-out with the age of exploration making Latin Christendom the crossroads civilisation—the one in contact with all the others so able to mix and match ideas and capacities—magnified the effectiveness of competitive jurisdictions in driving technological, commercial and institutional development.

Belief in an ordered cosmos
From the C11th to the C13th centuries, all three of the Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) struggled with the impact of Aristotelian philosophy on the tradition of scriptural revelation. In Judaism (as epitomised by Maimonedes) and in Christianity (as epitomised by St Thomas Aquinas) Aristotelianism—and the belief in an ordered creation—won.

Not so in Islam. There the Aristotelianism of Ibn Rushd aka “Averroes” (whose writings were very influential in Latin Christendom) was decisively defeated by the occasionalism of al Ghazali. Mainstream Islam turned its back on the notion of an ordered cosmos, without which the further development of science is impossible. Even in contemporary Islam, there are continuing difficulties with science and a low rate of research and development.

I would argue that this outcome in Islam was significantly driven by the context of tribal society and predatory autocracy encouraging a particular conception of God whereby to suggest He was bounded in any way was a slight on His honour. Conversely, the notion of God—as the ultimate Good Authority—creating a structured order rather than being an arbitrary tyrant fitted in with Classical, Germanic, Celtic and (ultimately) Christian and Jewish notions of proper authority. Though, in both Christianity and Judaism, there were adherents of untrammelled Godly authority, these have always tended to lose out over time.

This belief in an ordered cosmos, assisted by the religious diversity after the Reformation (where priestly control over printing in Catholic Europe encouraged printing of banned books in Protestant Europe), the reaction against the Wars of Religion, plus the wealth of information brought back by the voyages of discovery and by exploration of the cosmos undermining Aristotelian physics, set the stage for the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and—coupled with the long-term effects of competitive jurisdictions and the diversity and forces for productiveness feeding into that—to Western economic, technological, intellectual and (for a while) territorial domination of the globe.

Ability to utilise talent
‘Islam’ literally means ‘submission’. A Muslim is ‘one who submits’. That is, submits to the word (and rule) of God. The trouble is, Islam is a system of layered submission, which turns it into a system of domination: believers dominate non-believers under the dhimmi system, men dominate women. In Latin Christendom, women were rulers and generals (Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, Mathilda of Tuscany), intellectual figures (Hildegard of Bingen), saints (Theresa of Avila), writers (Marie de France, Christine de Pizan) and so on in ways that were simply not true of Islam at the same time. There were far more women rulers in Middle Eastern history before Islam conquered the region than after.

Germanic law, Celtic law, Roman law before Christianisation all treated women much better than did Sharia. Even after Christianisation, Roman law and canon law were still better for women than Sharia. Which meant that Latin Christendom was better at harnessing the skills of its women than was Islam. As George Patton observed:
To me it seems certain that the fatalistic teachings of Muhammad and the utter degradation of women is the outstanding cause for the arrested development of the Arab. He is exactly as he was around the year 700, while we have kept on developing.
Latin Christendom used female talent much more than did Islam, an advantage that has accelerated over time.

In embracing new knowledge and technology, Latin Christendom became Western Civilisation. As a result of the Enlightenment, Western Civilisation also began to harness the skills of its Jewish population in ways that Islam had long since abandoned and far more than Islam had ever done. Consider simply how many Jews have won Nobel Prizes, particularly in science.

Islam as a system of domination
Classical Islam was far more tolerant (at least outside Arabia), and far better at harnessing the talents of conquered dhimmis, than later Islam. That was due to the shift in the costs of intolerance. When Muslims were a small ruling layer over a majority non-Muslim population, the costs of intolerance were high. As Muslims became a larger and larger proportion of the population, the costs of intolerance fell and its level rose. The long-term tendency of Islam has been to become less tolerant, not more. Ottoman rule was the most murderously intolerant at the end of its rule, not the beginning. Just as the Jews fled the Muslim Middle East after the creation of Israel, so Christians have also been leaving.

Which means that Islam is less and less able to harness the talents and perspectives of non-believers (except as guest workers).

One can see similar patterns within Latin Christendom of intolerance increasing as its costs fell (Norman-cum-Hohenstaufen Sicily; Reconquista Spain with the expulsion of the Jews and the Moriscos) but the dominant long-term tendency in Western civilisation has been very much the other way.

Winston Churchill, in his book on the Sudan campaign of 1898, The River War, famously wrote:
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries.
Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.
The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.
No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.
There is something in what Churchill says. Islam is a universal monotheism without the softening factors of “love thy neighbour”, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and natural law theory. The things that saved Christianity from itself do not operate in Islam. One will search in vain for a text in Islam of similar sentiments and similar authority as Pope Paul III’s 1537 encyclical Sublimus Dei:
… to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
It is clearly in the intellectual tradition that fed into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Something that has not escaped the attention of, for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran:
In his 7 December 1984 statement to the UN General Assembly's Third Committee, the Iranian representative, Mr. Rajaie-Khorassani, again put on record his country's position on the UDHR:
In his delegation's view, the concept of human rights was not limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Man was of divine origin and human dignity could not be reduced to a series of secular norms [...] certain concepts contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needed to be revised. [Iran] recognized no authority or power but that of Almighty God and no legal tradition apart from Islamic law. As his delegation had already stated at the thirty-sixth session of the General Assembly, conventions, declarations and resolutions or decisions of international organizations, which were contrary to Islam had no validity in the Islamic Republic of Iran.[...] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions, since it had to choose between violating the divine law of the country and violating secular conventions.
Islamic countries have felt the need to adjust the Declaration, issuing the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. It is precisely the universalism of the Universal Declaration (identified as “Judaeo-Christian”) that is objected to on Islamic grounds. (That there is an Organisation of Islamic Conference is revealing in itself: no one thinks to have an organization of Christian, Catholic or Buddhist states, for example.)

It is worth noting that as soon as the “love thy neighbour” precept is subverted, the behaviour of Christianity converges with that of Islam as the dynamics of universal monotheism—of supporting a (masculinized) divine sovereignty against which no human claims have standing—take over. Hence the Christian origins of dhimmitude, Georgian and Regency England and C18th Netherlands killing men for having sex at about the same rate as that of contemporary Iran as well as common law denial of property and other legal rights of married women.

Or sometimes even more so than in Islam. Consider the famous reaction of the Ottoman Sultan regarding the tens of thousands of Jews whose wealth and skills were now his to benefit from after Ferdinand and Isabella's expulsion of the Jews:
How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?
(Note the Sultan apparently does not consider Isabella worth noting as a ruler in her own right.)

Still, in its purest form, gospel Christianity bans one from using God to oppress one’s fellow human beings. In its purest form, the Islam of the Qur’an and the hadith permits, indeed requires, believers to use God to oppress their fellow human beings. People being people, Christians have often done precisely that, while many Muslims have failed to do so. But the underlying logics remain what they are.

Indeed, the most important dynamic in Christian history is that priests are the means by which Christianity is propagated but priests get their power from being “gatekeepers of righteousness”, from subverting love thy neighbour so that they can say who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down. Hence it is very apposite that the patron saint of preachers was a queer-hating, Jew-hating misogynist. That dynamic of propagating-but-subverting is at the heart of Christian history. Christ, after all, was crucified for subverting and denying priestly authority—what were the moneylenders in the Temple if not use of God to oppress one’s fellow humans?

The Quakers rejection of priesthood may not be coincidental to their very positive reputation. [Just as the oppressive history of the Catholic Church owes so much to its very elevated notion of priesthood.]

Plague and knowledge
The point is sometimes made that Islam suffered particularly from the effects of the Black Death. But, of course, so did Latin Christendom. The difference was that the Black Death in Middle Eastern Islam led to the undermining of commercial vitality and increased autocratic domination. Conversely, the Black Death in Latin Christendom had reverse effects: leading to more technological dynamism, commercialisation and mercantile power.

Similarly, Latin Christendom made massively more use of becoming the cross-roads civilisation than Islam had when it was so. Indeed, the exploration efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator, and Isabella’s sponsorship of Christopher Columbus, were both specifically aimed at outflanking Islam. At which they were spectacularly successful. (Henry and Isabella both being crusaders.)

The only reason the Muslim Middle East matters nowadays is because of oil: itself parasitic on Western technology. There are a lot of reasons for the long-term failure of Islam, but they are internal to Islam—to Islam as a religion and to the geography that created and moulded it. And oil itself is a curse as much as a blessing, since it entrenches autocratic rule and funds religious obscurantism in the same way silver flows undermined Iberian parliamentarism and entrenched autocracy and funded religious obscurantism in Spain and Portugal.

What is Middle Eastern Islam without oil? Try Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Pakistan, or Egypt. An American soldier makes the point very bluntly:
Had the Crusades not been waged; had the Habsburg Monarchy not turned back the Ottoman tide at the end of the 17th Century; had Isabel of Castile not driven the Moors from Grenada, you would not be reading this diatribe. You would be illiterate, ruled by a tyrant, and squatting on the dirt floor of a mud-brick shack picking your nose.
Perhaps the prospect of Muslim domination of Latin Christendom was not quite that much a near run thing. But its consequences would have been fairly grim. I doubt geography would have been enough, on its own, to counteract the other factors. As V.S.Naipaul observed, Islam is very thorough in its colonising of conquered lands.

All of which makes modernity very confronting for contemporary Islam. Hence the rise of Islamism and jihadi terror as modernising revolts against modernity both within Islamic countries and among Muslim émigré communities. Just as fascism and Nazism were modernising revolts against modernity in the period 1919-1945. Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, the Iranian regime are the equivalents of the NSDAP and similar movements.

No Islamic country has comparable power now to that of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the 1930s, but the organising and destructive capacities of modern technology provide their own level of threat. And there are far less bases inherent within Islam both for a full embracing of modernity, or to oppose said modernising revolts against modernity.

The reasons why Islam stagnated and Latin Christendom did not—indeed, came, as Western Civilisation, to dominate the globe—still operate. And continue to generate policy dilemmas.

ADDENDA This post has been edited to clarify and extend (but not change) arguments.


  1. Oh, I just spotted this. This could keep us busy for a few days. St least there's no possibility of any sniffiness re then deaths and lives of the prophets, this time. ;)

  2. There's a never ending information on Islam community and Christian community, and their differences.. But it's actually a good thing that there are information on these over the internet, at least people will get to know Muslims, who they are and what they believe in..

  3. Very interesting post. I agree with PP, this could keep us busy for days...

  4. Only if people actually pick points to disagree with, query or elucidate :)

  5. I read Irshad Manji's book The Trouble With Islam recently: she makes similar points. It is hard not to agree, especially from a feminist (or equalist) point of view!

  6. I was thinking of the ways in which Judaism has gotten around some of their more silly rules. For example, in regard to the death penalty, they didn't actually overrule it and say, "The Torah was wrong." Instead, they made it really really hard for anyone to decided on the death penalty. Quoting from Wikipedia:
    Rabbinic tradition describes a detailed system of checks and balances to prevent the execution of an innocent person. These rules are so restrictive as to effectively legislate the penalty out of existence. The law requires that:

    * There must have been two witnesses to the crime, and these must conform to a prescribed list of criteria. For example, females and close relatives of the criminal are precluded from being witnesses according to Biblical law, while full-time gamblers are precluded as a matter of Rabbinical law.
    * The witnesses must have verbally warned the person seconds before the act that they were liable for the death penalty
    * The person must then have acknowledged that he or she was warned, and yet then have gone ahead and committed the sin regardless.
    * No individual was allowed to testify against him or herself.

    Do you think that Islam could get around the less savoury bits of its religion in this way - not by overruling it, but by basically making it really really hard for anyone to decide on that particular law?

  7. The short answer is yes it can. Two examples: the Ismailis, who have turned Islam into a religion of community rules, not a territorial religion aspiring to run the state. Secondly, medieval Islam developed various techniques to soften the effect of Sharia.

    The trouble is, the Ismailis took that route for the same reason Judaism did--small minority which was never going to capture state power. While medieval Islam never really developed a stable structure on that basis--there were forever "purifying" eruptions. With mass literacy and the search for portable global identities, returning to the "purity" of the original texts becomes even more attractive.

  8. This post will be confined to the pre-Ottoman period. If I were to face an examine question, which asked

    What was the most important cause of latin christendom overtaking Islam

    I would risk the wild card answer, which examiners often love, and argue it was the establishment of the corporation as a legal entity and of the major European universities from the 11th to 13th centuries (Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Padua, Salamanca, and many others) establishing and governing themselves as such.

    The universities' legal sorporate status gave them an independence from both prince, and more importantly church - including the Vatican - which did evolve in Islam.

    For example, not even the Pope could interfere with the what the universities were teaching, per se, but he could threaten to excommunicate individual scholars, which was still a big deal.

    The best example of this was the hullaballoo over "The Condemnation of 1277" directed at the University of Paris' Arts Faculty. The Condemnation was issued by Paris' Bishop Tempier following a letter of concern from Pope John XXI's, who had heard whispers about the heretical goings on in the Arts Faculty. Tempier's Condemnation listed 219 condemned Propostions.

    But the source of the condemnation was not the Vatican or the Bishop. It was the rivalry between U. Paris' Arts Faculty and Theology Faculty, where both themselves searate corporations.

    The dispute was over Aristotle's ranking of Metaphysics (Thoeology) and Natural Philosophy (Phyics). By the 11th century, European scholars had hunted down those Greek writing, which existed outside Byzantium (with whom they were not too chummy), particularly in Sicily and Spain. They had translated in Latin, Arabic translations from Syriac and Persian translations of the Greek. The result was not pretty.

    (TO be continued after dinner! :) )

  9. Is that not a manifestation of the "wider variety of legal forms" and "effective competitive jurisdictions"? After all, al-Alzhar, which has operated since the C10th, is self-governing. While Judaism accepted the notion of an ordered cosmos without any university structure.

  10. See also my review of Bartlett's The Making of Europe