In recent essays I have referred somewhat to the birth of Christianity and its emergence from previous Pagan religions. The countries of the Middle East were reasonably tolerant of a range of such religions. Christianity itself seems to have been a derivative of the various mystical religions that had developed in the preceding centuries.
Initially there were two competing belief systems built around the life of Jesus. The Gnostics adopted a mystical approach to the life of Jesus and like the followers of Mithras, Dionysus, Adonis and other gods of the Pagan mystics believed that the Jesus story was an allegorical myth. Embedded in the myth were essential truths that when understood at the spiritual level could lead one to “Gnosis”, that is a direct knowing of God through personal experience. Indeed initially the Gnostics taught at two levels. They taught the literal history of Jesus but for the initiates the deeper spiritual underpinnings embedded in the parable were revealed.
But after a time a break-away movement formed which concentrated only on the story of Jesus as literally true and it was this movement that developed into Christianity as we know it. Once Christianity became integrated into the Roman Empire by Constantine in the fourth century the literalness of the Jesus story was imposed by the force of the State and alternative beliefs were discounted and their adherents persecuted.
In its obsession to remain untainted by alternative thinking the Church ordained what was to be believed and brooked no alternatives. In terms of knowledge this was a hugely retrograde period when as Christianity spread across Europe, books were burnt and much of the ancient understanding of mathematics, science and medicine were lost. No wonder this became known as “The Dark Ages”. The acquisition of knowledge was discouraged by the authoritarian, reactionary church.
By the fourth century St Augustine was triumphally announcing:
“Nothing is to be accepted except on the authority of scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind.”
This perverse logic caused a decline in European civilisation. Whilst in the first Century the Greek Stoic philosopher Posidonius had built a reasonable mechanical model of the solar system representing the orbits of the planets, by the fourth century Christian Europe believed that God placed the stars in the heavens each night. In the second century the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes had with reasonable accuracy calculated the radius of the earth. By the fourth century it had become a heresy not to believe that the world was flat. Despite their previous knowledge of the marvellous building feats of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, by the fourth century many areas in Europe had forgotten how to make mud bricks!
Fortunately the Arabs were largely spared from this phenomenon. They continued to teach the assembled knowledge of the classical scholars prior to Christianity. During the Renaissance Period much of this was “rediscovered “by the Europeans. But essentially for a thousand years or more, Europe languished under the iron fist of the Catholic Church.
Isador of Seville, the great polymath and and encyclopedist of late antiquity, and a contemporary of Muhammad, summed up a Christian viewpoint of the Arabs:
“The Saracens live in the desert. They are also called Ishmaelites, as the book of Genesis teaches, because they are descended from Ishmael (son of Abraham). They are also called Hagarenes because they are descended from Hagar (Abraham’s slave concubine, mother of Ishmael). They also, as we have already said, perversely call themselves Saracens because they mendaciously boast of descent from Sarah (Abraham’s legitimate wife).”
In the eyes of Christians the Arabs tended to be marginalized as enemies of the human race by their tainted descent, or as we would say today, by their ethnicity. Besides this, in the viewpoint of Christians they had the unappealing habits of nomads and therefore were deemed to be not of the civilized world. And to add to this God had declared (in the bible) that the Arabs would be outsiders forever.
The canonical account of early Islam has Muhammad receiving the supposedly divine revelations embodied in the Koran from 610. By this time the Arabs were known by their neighbours as “dangerous people, unsavoury people, but useful so long as kept at arm’s length.” Despite this they were more tolerant than their Christian counterparts. Even after the “revelations” to Muhammad, they were solicitous towards the “people of the Book” (ie Jews and Christians). There is evidence also that initially they held women in reasonable status, in contrast with their Christian contemporaries. And of course, supporting the principle theme of this essay they were the receptacle of classical knowledge that had been lost to the West.
Spurred on by the initial successes under Muhammad of military expansionism by the eleventh century Islam had expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula to conquer North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and large parts of Asia Minor.
Today, Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East, in sub-Saharan Sahel, in the Horn of Africa and northern Africa, and in some parts of Asia. Large communities of Muslims are also found in China, the Balkans, and Russia. Other parts of the world host large Muslim immigrant communities; in Western Europe, for instance, Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity, where it represents 6% of the total population.
The problem confronting the non-Islamic world is that many Islamic communities are no longer tolerant and open-minded. They seem to have regressed to the same fanatical fundamentalist religious fervour that their Christian counterparts displayed in the “Dark Ages”. They turn to the Koran for guidance and its various interpretations. Some such interpretations are reactionary and dangerous. They will brook no dissent and silence opposition by violence or threats of violence. Their “Allah” has taken on the fragile ego of a human suffering severe psychological maladjustment who takes offense at the most trivial slights which are again met with violent retribution.
Added to this is the attempt to enforce Sharia Law on many of the communities such fundamentalists occupy. With this comes the threat of harsh punishments (eg flogging, stoning, amputation, execution) for such crimes as theft, adultery or the renouncing of Islam. And of course these laws are particularly misogynistic treating women as vastly inferior to men.
In the West The Dark Ages were followed by The Renaissance and finally by The Age of Enlightenment. This facilitated major developments in art, literature, science and medicine and provided the platform for the development of our modern democracies and industrial development. It is difficult to imagine that this progress could have been made without abandoning a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. It seems to me that this Islamic Dark Age which is confronting many of our societies will not pass until the Koran and its various interpretations are also recognised as the spiritual outpourings of fallible men writing for a naïve audience fifteen hundred years ago!