The Muslim Myth

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It was a typical libertarian conference. The hotel ballroom was packed with people eager to share ideas. The four-member panel was deftly fielding questions. But as I sat there, enjoying the discussion, I knew it was coming – the Question, the one that comes up at every libertarian conference. It makes no difference what the major topic of discussion may be; the Question is bound to be asked.

And it was. A pleasant, intelligent person rose to his feet and said, “Isn’t it true that medieval Islam was practically an anarchist society? I mean, they really had no state, did they? That’s what I’ve heard. Tell me – is it true?”

Sometimes, when this happens, one of the panelists confidently assures the questioner that he has been misled: Muslims had states, and laws to boot. Sometimes, one of the panelists says yes and another panelist says no. And sometimes, no one on the panel is willing to vouchsafe an opinion. Just because you’re an expert on the American Revolution or the European economy doesn’t mean that you know, or should be expected to know, the history of everything in the world.

Yet these days, one would like to know as much as possible about the history of Islam. And libertarians are always curious about the degree and kind of individual freedom that existed at various times and places in the past. But how is it, you may wonder, that so many libertarians have acquired the impression that a thousand years ago, Islam was a paradise of freedom?

I’ll tell you how. It’s because of Rose Wilder Lane, the apostle of libertarianism who in 1943 published a theory of history and politics called “The Discovery of Freedom.” This book has influenced many thousands of libertarians, firsthand or secondhand; and a very large proportion of it is devoted to a lyrical description of the accomplishments of Islamic civilization during the period that Europeans came to call the middle ages.

By Lane’s account, the founder of Islam was a deist and rationalist who was, for all intents and purposes, a libertarian. The civilization that he inspired was also essentially libertarian. It was as close to anarchy as a civilization could come: “There was no Authority. There was no State. There was no Church.” It was a “scientific” civilization, “constantly increasing and using scientific knowledge.” It was “tolerant.” It was “humane.” Its “essential function [was] not war, but production and distribution of goods.” At every point it presented a healthy contrast to the ugly and intolerant civilization of its Christian neighbors:

“During the stagnation of Europe that is called the Dark Ages, the world was actually bright with an energetic, brilliant civilization, more akin to American civilization and more fruitful today for everyone alive, than any other in the past. Millions upon millions of human beings, thirty generations, believing that all men are equal and free, created that civilization and kept on creating it for eight hundred years. To them the world owes modem science – mathematics, astronomy, navigation, modern medicine and surgery, scientific agriculture.”

Rose Wilder Lane was a good writer. She loved a good story. But sometimes her stories weren’t true. To see what’s wrong with her story about Islam, and to get a basic idea of the real problems and accomplishments of Islamic civilization – no, Islamic civilizations,

By Rose Wilder Lane’s account, the founder of Islam was, for all intents and purposes/ a libertarian.


because a common religion doesn’t automatically create a common culture or even common ways of interpreting the religion – you may want to look at some of the books listed above. They show, in general and in detail, that the human interest of Islamic history is considerably greater than its interest as an ideological prop.

A place to start is Bernard Lewis’ standard text, “The Arabs in History,” a brief and elegantly written summary of medieval history from the Arab and Islamic point of view. A place to end is perhaps Lewis’ more recent work, “What Went Wrong?” This is a much more polemical book, and one with some direct bearing on libertarian thought. It attempts to answer the question, Why did the Christian West modernize and liberalize itself, while, for the most part, the Islamic Middle East did not? Lewis is concerned not with the Middle’s East’s adoption of automobiles and tennis shoes, but with its hesitancy about certain ideas that libertarians regard as fundamental to a free society – limited government, the separation of government from religion, and open and rational inquiry into all subjects, both civil and religious.

This hesitancy came from somewhere. It came as a heritage from the old civilizations of the Middle East, civilizations in which the state was never separated from religion, government was never effectively limited, and rational inquiry was often curtailed, either by religious and customary prohibitions or by simple lack of interest in philosophical investigation and dispute. For various reasons, similar conditions ceased to obtain in western Europe, but change didn’t go far enough or fast enough in most parts of the Middle East.

The picture that Lewis paints is therefore fundamentally opposed to the picture that many libertarians have derived from Lane. There is a difference between improving mathematics and navigation, as medieval Muslims certainly did, and conducting philosophical inquiries into the nature of human freedom. Richard Fletcher’s book on Islamic Spain – a very specialized book that is nevertheless clearly and attractively written – emphasizes a point that Lewis also mentions: when translating Greek texts into Arabic, Islamic scholars avoided the philosophical and “merely literary” ones, and went for the mathematical and medical works. They wanted practice, not theory; and thus scorned the kind of theories, or literary experiences, that can lead to a new and better practice of life. When it came to understanding their Christian neighbors, they did exactly what the Christians did. To the greatest extent possible, they avoided informing themselves about what their neighbors believed. They had little or no interest in translating or reading Christian texts, just as the Christians had little or no interest in reading or translating the Quran or other Islamic religious works. On both sides, ignorance and bigotry were profound.

The composition of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammed, who was simultaneously a civil, religious, and military leader, will always be of absorbing historical interest. A place to begin with the study of the Prophet is F.E. Peters’ “Muhammed and the Origins of Islam.” Peters is sympathetic to his protagonist, but his array of facts allows readers to make their own judgments, too – judgments that, pro or con, are not likely to coincide with Lane’s. Whatever else he was, the Prophet was not a nice, 20th-century libertarian.

But what is really at issue is the degree of openness, the degree of scientific and progressive spirit, the degree of trust in rational judgment and respect for the rights of individuals, that may have prevailed in one Islamic culture or another, after Muhammed’s creation of an Islamic community. On this subject, inquiries into origins can never be decisive, and generalizations can never be complete. Individual times and places must be inspected in detail. Here are the conclusions that Fletcher reaches as the result of his essentially generous, warm-hearted study of the culture of Islamic Spain, which has often been represented as a pinnacle of medieval civilization:

“None other than Mr. Anthony Burgess wrote that after the fall of Granada [to Christians, in 1492], lithe magnificent Emirate of Córdoba, where beauty, tolerance, learning and good order prevailed, was only a memory.” Indeed it was. But had they ever prevailed? Beauty? Yes, a fair amount of it, here and there. Tolerance? Ask the Jews of Granada who were massacred in 1066, or the Christians who were deported by the Almoravids to Morocco in 1126 (like the Moriscos [Moorish families who lingered in Christian Spain] five centuries later). Learning? Outside the tiny circles of the princely courts, not a great deal of it to be seen. Good order? Among the feuding Berber tribesmen? Or the turbulent muwallad rebels like Ibn Hafsun? Or the taifa statelets of the eleventh century? Or the Moroccan fundamentalists who succeeded them?”

As a close study of another Islamic time and place, Andrew Ehrenkreutz’s life of Saladin also repays attention. Not that the book is hard to understand; Ehrenkreutz is always brisk and lucid – although his performance in print is nothing compared to the performance I saw in person, when I took his class at the University of Michigan. He talked without any notes whatever, and when he referred to some event, he didn’t cite it in a vague or general way, but as something that happened “on the beach near Damietta, on April 3, 1173.” He used no tricks. He developed no rhetoric. He was never theatrical. He never tried to entertain. But he was the best teacher you could have. The subject of his book is the greatest Islamic leader of the 12th century, the soldier and statesman who united Egypt, Syria, and most of Mesopotamia under his rule and expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem.

Ehrenkreutz admires Saladin’s brilliant talents. Yet to him, Saladin’s career is an example of constant, predatory, and ruthless ambition, similar in nature

Why did the Christian West modernize and liberalize itself, while the Islamic Middle East did not?


though greater in stature than the ambitions of many other Islamic leaders of the time. Muslims didn’t lack a government; they had hundreds of them, fiercely competing with one another, with hardly a hint of tolerance. As in Spain, so in the Middle East: they constantly fought one another, allied with one another, and betrayed one another. Saladin spent his whole life marching armies back and forth across the Middle East; and when he got the drop on his opponents, he did not hesitate to behead them, crucify them, or just start hacking away at them with the first weapon that came to hand. They were pleased to do the same to their own opponents, when they got the drop on them. I don’t need to tell you that the Christians did the same. There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.

Religious freedom? Saladin had no compunctions about executing Islamic mystics, once they became popular. Commercial freedom? Saladin experimented with lowering taxes and firming up the currency, but when he found that these expedients didn’t bring in enough money to fund his military adventures, he came up with new ways of taxing and exploiting people. One of his associates, an intelligent man named aI-Qadi al-Fadil, complained that

“in the district of Damascus the abuses oppressing the farmers are so outrageous that one wonders whether the rain still waters their fields; oppression . . . exceeds all imagination. At Wadi Barada and at al-Zabadani disorder reigns permanently, the sword causes streams of blood, and nothing appears to stop the excesses…. It is further imperative to promote collection of taxes and to adjust expenditure accordingly, for expenses without revenue – as any enterprise without solid grounds – are nothing but absurdity.”

Well, try another place and another Islamic culture. In their book on the Berbers, Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress follow the history of North African civilization from its beginning to the present day, using whatever resources – archeology, literary remains, contemporary interviews – can bring its many epochs to life. What are Brett and Fentress’ conclusions about “the type of government which had grown up in North Africa under Islam” during the medieval period? Their summary is blunt. It was “dynastic and elitist in its constitution; populist in its appeal to the Muslim community; and Shakespearean in the instability of power.” Whether at Fes, Granada, Tlemcen, or Tunis, Islam was “ceaselessly, and inconclusively, at war.”

Islamic or Christian, the best of medieval politics was ugly and futile. Commenting on the difficulties of his own attempt to get the facts straight, and then find someone interested January-February 2010 enough to read them, Fletcher says, “Medieval Spain in a state of nature lacks wide appeal. Self-indulgent fantasies of glamour or guilt do wonders for sharpening up its image.”

Yet Fletcher mentions something of greater interest than people’s appetite for fantasies. He mentions the fact that we still don’t know very much about the lives led by people like us during the Islamic middle ages. To put this in a libertarian way, we still don’t know

As in Spain, so in theMiddle East; they constantly fought, allied with, and betrayed one another.


enough about the spontaneous order of individual life that persisted beneath the burdens of official violence and intolerance. But there are clues. Studying the records of the time, Fletcher finds references to the scandal caused to the rulers of Spain by Muslim bands providing music at Christian vigils, and Christian monasteries serving wine to Muslim tipplers. It’s too bad, he says, that history, so far, has had to be told from the viewpoint of the official classes:

“The religious history of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages may be summarized, from one point of view, as the persistent and wilful failure of two faiths and cultures to make any sustained attempt to understand one another. Human enough; pretty bleak. The trouble with such a judgement is that historians in making it have to rely on the testimony of those who could write. Formost ofthe period discussed in this book that meant a small intellectual elite. Intellectuals are not renowned for their grasp of everyday reality, nor for cheerfulness and optimism. Judgements might have been rosier if one had found oneself spending the Easter vigil at a Mudejar pop concert in the local cathedral; or downing a few bottles of Valdepenas with like-minded Muslim pals at one of Toledo’s monastic wine-bars.”

Now, that’s something that Rose Lane would like to hear.

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