There was a time in the history of medieval Islam when that comparatively tolerant, thoughtful, enlightened, and wealthy civilization, at that time probably the leading civilization in the world, subtly broke down, and began the long, slow absolute or relative cultural decline that persisted until the early 20th century or perhaps to the present day. An excerpt from an essay on that moment in history:
Present day clergy rarely wants to talk about this Islamic renaissance or encourage an inquiry into why Islam's Golden Age came to an end. What forces shifted both political power and learning from the Islamic Empire to Christian Europe? Like all historical trends, the explanations are complex; yet some broad outlines may be identified, both within and without Muslim lands. With the end of the Abbasids Caliphate and the beginning of the Turkish Seljuk Caliphate in 1057 CE, the centralized power of the empire began to shatter. Religious differences resulted in splinter groups, charges of heresy, and assassinations.
Aristotelian logic, adopted early on as a framework upon which to build science and philosophy, appeared to be undermining the beliefs of educated Muslims according to theologian Imam Ghazali turned the religious tide back to orthodox belief. Until that time Gustav Lebon wrote that "For five to six hundred years, general books in Arabic language and particularly on various disciplines have been almost the only source of learning and teaching in the European universities. And we can safely assert that in certain disciplines like medicine the impressions of the Arabs are still at work in Europe. The medical writings of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) have been explained about the close of the last century in Monabiliah. Roger Bacon, Leonard, Erno Al Felquni, Raymond Lot, San Thomas, and Azfonish X Qashqani have solely depended on Arabic Books."
The appeal made by theologian Imam Ghazali turned the religious tide back to orthodox belief. In a masterful philosophical argument, most clearly stated in his book, The Destruction of Philosophy, Imam al-Ghazali declared reason and its entire works to be bankrupt. Experience and the reason that grew out of it were not to be trusted; they could say nothing meaningful about the reality of Allah. Only direct intuition of God led to worthwhile knowledge. In a direct rebuke to Al-Razi, who was a philosopher and a mathematician as well as a physician, and al-Kindi, the first Muslim philosopher to use Aristotelian logic to support Islamic dogma, and leading Islamic Golden Age philosopher, Al-Farabi, who wrestled with many of the same philosophical problems as al-Kindi and wrote The Perfect City, Imam Ghazali declared that "Philosophy was a snare, leading the unwary to the pits of Hell". By the time of his death in 1111, free scientific investigation and philosophical and religious toleration were phenomena of the past. The schools in Baghdad limited their teaching to theology. Scientific progress came to a halt.
When I listen to the debate over Iraq, I am sometimes reminded of medieval Islam's fatal turn to fanaticism. Here, The Economist quotes Chuck Hagel:
THE war in Iraq has been pursued with “an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam” and is “destroying our military”. Young American soldiers are “kicking down doors [in Baghdad] with a bull's eye on their back”. The administration is demanding “lemming-like” obedience from Congress. Senator Chuck Hagel will have none of it. “We tried a monarchy once,” he growled on March 27th. “It's not suited to America.”
If the "bull's eye on their back" is more than a weird paraphrase of the truism that yes, soldiers at war sometimes get killed, it can only be a complaint about casualty rates being abnormally high. This is false: the 2,646 US soldiers who have died in Iraq, as a share of the over 200,000 (sorry, can't find exact figures) who have served, is a lot lower than in most wars past. The falsehood of Hagel's implication that Bush is trying to found a monarchy is so obvious that it seems hollow somehow to state the refutation of it, namely that Bush is certain to step down in 2008 in accordance with the Constitution.
A commonsense reaction to Hagel's speech is to (a) compare Hagel's claims with the facts, (b) note the opposition between the two, which shows that Hagel is either mistaken or lying, and (c) conclude that since Hagel is undoubtedly aware of the facts which his claims contradict, "lying" is the appropriate logical categorization of his utterances. There is something about the current climate of opinion that makes this commonsense approach seem too crude, demanding that we regard Hagel as brave and heroic, and look for deeper truths behind his superficially false statements. The more I think about it, the more mysterious and ominous that something seems to be.
Objectively, these are the best of times. Mankind is more numerous; more prosperous, literate and better-nourished; enjoys more political freedom; and indeed is more at peace than ever before. (I glean this little-known fact from the Human Security Report; if it sounds implausible, recall that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are much less bloody than the recently-quelled war in the Congo.) But golden ages often contain the embryo of the ideas that will destroy them.
What's frightening about Hagel is that he's disinterested. Politicians often sin against the truth, and we are used to it, and dismiss it. But Hagel's words cannot be dismissed as partisanship. Like al-Ghazali, the philosopher attacking philosophy, Hagel is a Republican attacking Republicans. And like al-Ghazali, he is a spokesman for a deep popular angst. The neocons questioned the traditional notion of sovereignty, the notion that all authorities are legitimate, and that people must bow to the masters they are born under. In doing so, they made the world more complicated, harder to understand. Thus they provoked the wrath of the ignorant, pious, newly-confused masses, and paved the way for demagogues like Imam Chuck Hagel al-Ghazali.