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Islam, Christianity, Classical Civilization, and Modernity
The American Thinker

Western apologists for Islam are wont to say that the Islamic world of a thousand years ago was far advanced of Christendom, militarily, economically, and culturally. This is a curious claim because the implicit standard of judgment is that of modern secularism, a standard that neither the Islamic world nor Christendom could accept, then or now, which, of course, does not prevent Islamists from opportunistically making use of their useful idiots in the West and their useful secular judgments.

In truth, military superiority has alternated between the Islamic world and Christendom in the millennium since Mohammed’s immediate successors conquered most of Christendom. The conquered lands being among the most prosperous and many of the remaining Christian territories being relatively poor, the Islamic world began with a great economic advantage over the European hinterlands, which it proceeded to squander. So now the Islamic world is weak and poor and reduced to living in an imagined past and future.Since Western apologists come from a class that ordinarily associates military and economic strength with evil and since the United States and even Europe are far more powerful militarily and economically than their Islamic adversaries, apologists prefer to celebrate the alleged cultural superiority of the Islamic world to its contemporaries in medieval Europe, especially the vaunted “Islamic philosophy” of the time.

(For) the early Church. . . the most pressing issue was how to respond to the immense legacy of the ancient Mediterranean . With but a few exceptions, Tertullian being the most prominent, the Fathers of the Church took the attitude most succinctly expressed by Saint Ambrose: Christians should “spoil the Egyptians” by using for their own purposes the treasures of the ancient world, including its philosophy.

Despite what opponents of Christianity say and what perhaps most educated people believe, the mainstream of Christianity has always been open to the achievements of the world in which it lives, whether they be the Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greece, the science and mathematics of medieval India and early Islam, the intellectual and political successes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, or the scientific advances of the modern world. That these achievements have often come clothed in philosophy hostile to Christianity has at times provoked a reluctance on the part of Christians to embrace them, but they have always, though generally with some hesitation, taken them into their arms. In this fallen world, who can marry without trepidation even the most chaste spouse?

The legacy of the ancient world was highly problematic for Christianity. Popular religion in ancient Greece and Rome was polytheistic, and in reaction ancient intellectuals developed a sort of denatured, certainly depersonalized, pantheism or intellectualism. Neither was compatible with Christian theology.

Nevertheless, medieval Christianity believed in Plato’s Forms and Aristotle’s Primum Mobile and read Virgil, if not at first Ovid.

When Islam’s warriors stormed out of Mecca and Medina and took over predominately Christian Egypt, Syria , Iraq , the Holy Land, and most of Asia Minor , they took over this problematic intellectual legacy along with the lands and seas and trade routes that were its home. Islamic scholars showed little interest in ancient literary masterpieces, but did appropriate the Hellenistic philosophy of the time, chiefly Neoplatonism. They soon found that the Islamic world was decidedly more hostile than medieval Christianity to this philosophical legacy. Three issues predominated. The philosophers denied that the Koran is eternal, they restricted the knowledge of God to universals, and they thought that the world was perpetual, not created in time. They were quickly routed.

European philosophy was not the same as Islamic philosophy, and Christianity not the same as Islam, but Christianity faced a challenge similar to the one faced by Islam. The response of Saint Thomas was to incorporate Aristotelian philosophy into Christian theology, and the response of the Church was to make him the preeminent theologian. Meanwhile, the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes circulated widely in the West, stimulating “Latin Averroeism,” which became one of the main progenitors of modern secularism. Thus, the Islamic world rejected the Greek philosophical legacy pretty much entire, while Christianity sifted it for elements it found compatible.

As a result of all this, both the traditional and the secularizing tendencies of Western thought received sustenance from ancient Greek philosophy, while Islamic thought, bereft of both tendencies, froze. The Islamic world and medieval Christianity faced a test. Islam failed it. Medieval Christianity, contrary to just about everything said about it today, proved itself resilient, adaptive, and open. The results are with us today. We see it in the closed minds of the terrorists, locked so shut that they could scream “God is merciful” as they murdered the passengers of Flight 93; in the resilience and adaptiveness of the American soldier in Iraq; and in the minds of the anti-war Left and Right, so open that their brains have spilled out.

As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. The child is father to the man. Indeed, the entire world crisis in which we find ourselves is colored by the outcome of these obscured debates of almost a thousand years ago.

Jonathan David Carson