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Security for a Failing World

by Stanwood Cobb

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Chapter 5


Islam Transmits the Classic Culture

THE history of Islam uniquely demonstrates how revealed religion can swiftly change the morals, character, and culture of a people. True, Islam has not yet raised its adherents to that quality of gentle living, refinement, and humanitarianism which characterize the best fruits of Christianity; but considering the length of time that it has been active and the low state of morals of those peoples under whom it arose, one must acknowledge that the moral effect of Islam has been stupendous.

The Arabs, until the advent of Muhammad, were a patriarchal race living in semi-barbarism; illiterate, primitive in their religion which was an idolatrous form of nature worship, and sensual and unorganized in their sex life. It was a race which buried superfluous daughters in the sand and divided wives by lot among the sons at the death of a father. It was a race torn by eternal death-dealing feuds between families, clans, and tribes; and living as much on pillage and robbery as on honest toil.

A famous modern descendant of the race, describing it as of this pre-Islamic period says, "These Arab tribes were in the lowest depths of savagery and barbarism. In comparison with them the wild Indians of America were as advanced as Plato."

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It was to such a race that Muhammad came. Beginning his mission of Prophethood in 607 A. D., he rebuked their idolatry, destroyed their idols, urged them to abandon the practice of child murder, limited them to four wives, and pointed them the way to unity, brotherhood, and peace under the protection and favor of Allah, the One God.

The doctrines of Muhammad spread with amazing rapidly. Before he died (632 A. D.) the whole of Arabia had embraced Islam and had been brought into a strongly cohesive spiritual and cultural unity. Before the end of the century the peoples of western Asia and northern Africa fell one by one into the conquering embrace of Islam-Syria, Irak, Persia, Egypt, and the whole southern littoral of the Mediterranean.


The history of Islam is in truth the fascinating story of one of the most powerful and rapidly accelerated expressions of racial and cultural energy that have been recorded on this planet. We see the extraordinary spectacle of a somewhat primitive race — suddenly spiritually awakened by Muhammad and increasingly stimulated intellectually by contact with the aesthetic and scientific marvels of Greek classicism — become the organizer of scientific culture for the whole region of western Asia inhabited by many races of ancient but stagnant culture.

It is an overwhelming surprise to most of us to

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learn that for the greater part of three centuries Islam was the torch-bearer for the world as regards civilization; that she was the leader in science, in discovery, in the cult of beauty, and in the application of intelligence and initiative to perfecting the arts of life; that her government was on the whole just and beneficent and tolerant of other religions; and that during this period order and peace were established in western Asia and northern Africa, from India to Spain, such as had not been since the Pax Romana. All this was accomplished at a time when Europe was slowly emerging from a semi-barbarism in comparison with which the contemporaneous Muslims seem a people of enlightenment, of education, of wisdom and high culture.


"The democratic teachings of the Prophet everywhere prevented the acquisition of large estates by private owners and promoted the development of a prosperous class of small farmers.

"The ancient canals for irrigation were repaired and restored to use. Many a tract of fertile ground that had been allowed to run to waste was again brought under cultivation, and a method of intensive agriculture was for the first time introduced by the Arabs."[1]

    [1. Dr. Heinrich Schurtz: "Mohammadan Western Asia."]

Immense wealth and prosperity — resulting from conquest, agriculture, and trade — began to express

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itself in elegance of living; in beautiful architecture and gardens; and in patronage of the arts and of learning. One Grand Vizier founded at Baghdad a college which he endowed with an amount equivalent to three and a half million dollars. This college was attended by six thousand students from every class of life, from noble to mechanic. Other schools and colleges as well as free public libraries were founded. The sciences flourished. Astronomy and mathematics reached such a height that in the plains of Sinaar and again in those of Kufa the Khalif Al Mamoun's mathematicians correctly measured a degree of the great circle of the earth, and reckoned the entire circumference of the globe to be twenty-four thousand miles. Yet six hundred years later Europe was to deride Columbus for his belief that the earth was round!


Adherents of Islam, the Moors, also created in Spain a remarkable civilization. They not only restored the Roman culture of Spain but they also brought an infusion of new and invigorating blood, a capacity for progress, and a few specific arts of civilization which immensely increased the prosperity of Andalusia. Most important of these was the art of irrigation, practiced from the earliest times in Mesopotamia but hitherto unknown to the dry and unproductive plains of Spain. Under the application of the agricultural science of the Arabs,

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the deserts of Andalusia now began to blossom as the rose. Many new and useful plants were introduced by the Moors and agriculture thrived as never before.

Moorish Spain, having now become a part of the great Islamic Empire, developed an extensive and profitable commerce. In the towns a flourishing trade was rapidly built up on the remains of the Roman civilization. The products of Andalusia not only sold in Spain, but also were exported to the markets of Africa, Irak, and Persia. Spain found itself revived and invigorated by the mighty pulse of the great Organism of Islam which was driving fresh blood through the choked-up arteries of so many ancient civilizations.

The arts and sciences also profited by this interflow of cultural life. The remotest districts of Islam were now united by a common faith and a common language. Scholars, poets, architects — all traveled freely about this cosmopolitan Islamic area, seeking their fortune or further learning in the various rich and luxuriant centers of the new Arab civilization. Thus from lands so far distant as Turkestan, Persia, Arabia, men of genius gravitated to Cordova; and from Cordova occasionally the Spanish philosophers or theologians would visit the Near East to continue their studies at the Universities of Cairo, Baghdad, Samaracand, and Bokhara.

Thus, prospering through basic and efficient application of the arts of living to their environment, the rulers and leaders of Cordova rapidly built up their city till it became a dazzling center of Muslem

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culture, second only to Baghdad in wealth and power, in advancement of learning and in architectural beauty.


The University of Cordova, the first university to be established in Europe, drew its audiences from among the graduates of numerous public schools, and attracted numbers of eager students from Asia and Africa, and even Christians from all nations of Europe. Mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and medicine were taught, as well as Muslem theology and jurisprudence. The quality and extent of scholarship here were far superior to any existing elsewhere in Europe. Thousands of pupils filled the halls of the mosques in which the favorite professors lectured. Learning and the sciences flourished, and the art of medicine became so perfected that princes from European kingdoms came to Cordova for treatment.

The rulers, both khalif and nobles, fostered and promoted the cause of learning. Reading and writing were universal accomplishments among the common people. The Khalif Chakam especially made himself patron of learning and of science, aiming to make Cordova the most brilliant center of the intellectual life of Islam. He had an intense fondness for literature, and he employed agents throughout the East to purchase scarce and curious books. He himself wrote to every distinguished author for a copy of his work, for which he paid handsomely.

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And whenever he was unable to purchase a book he had it copied. His library ultimately contained four hundred thousand volumes, an enormous number for a collection consisting of manuscripts only.


Not only did agriculture — with the Moorish introduction of sugar, rice, cotton, in addition to indigenous products — flourish now as never before or since in Spain, but manufacturing was undertaken on a large scale for that epoch. Factories for the weaving of silk, cotton, woolen, and linen employed tens of thousands of the people. Moorish plate and jewelry, steel and leather goods, and the famous process of damascening gold on silver, sold all over the then known world. Their carpets and silks, their gold and silver embroidery, were long unrivalled.

The Moors proved themselves enlightened and efficient appliers of science to the arts of life. They were also industrious. Under their rule Spain enjoyed a greater degree of prosperity and a higher civilization than at any previous period.

The broad religious spirit of the Moors was shown not only by their tolerance and generous treatment toward their Christian subjects but also in their attitude toward the Jews. Under the Muhammadan dominion the Jews in Spain passed their happiest period in Europe and the Jewish medieval literature there attained its highest development.

"In truth, the northern inhabitants of Europe, living

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as they did in gloomy city alleys or miserable village hovels clustered around the castles of rude, uncultured nobility, would have thought themselves in fairyland could they have been transported to this joyous, brilliant world. But that which would have especially surprised them, which would have brought a flush of shame to the cheeks of anyone with a spark of Christian feeling in his heart, was the noble spirit of toleration and of intellectual freedom which breathed over the happy plains of Andalusia. They would have been forced to admit that the religion of love might receive from the followers of the hated Muhammad instruction in that generous toleration of creeds with which the Founder of their faith had sought to inspire them by word and example: Herein lies the fascination which today impels us to look back with yearning and regret upon the too rapid flight of that happy period when Cordova and Toledo guarded the sacred fire of civilization upon European ground, a fascination which still throws its glamour around the halls of the Alcazar of Seville or the pinnacles of the Alhambra."[2]

    [2. Dr. Henry Schurtz: "The Pyrnaean Peninsula" in "The World's History." London, William Heineman.]


During the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries the civilization of Europe compared very poorly with that of the Muslem world.

A large number of the scholars and writers of the

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Saracenic civilization were in the habit of wandering from city to city, from court to court. The whole Muslem world was open to them, regardless of their race or religion, and if they had something worth while to give, they were always certain to be received everywhere with enthusiasm. Not until the present century has the Occident become such a cultural and commercial unity as was the Islamic Empire under the Abbassides. And in certain respects — as in the use of Arabic as the universal language of culture, science, and commerce — the Abbasside State was in many ways more unified than is modern Europe.

The Arabs have the distinguished honor of having created the university out of schools dependent upon the mosques. Their universities became great centers of learning, attracting scholars from every quarter of the globe, powerfully advancing the progress of science and learning, and serving as inspiration and models for the subsequent universities of Europe.

The early Muslems everywhere were remarkably tolerant of other religions. Christians and Jews flourished side by side with the Muslem populations, and individuals of these religions had free opportunity for advancement in the world of scholarship or in the bureaucracies.


"Let us compare the two civilizations," says Seignobos in his Histoire de la Civilization au Moyen

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Age, "which in the eleventh century divided the Ancient World. In the West — miserable little cities, peasant's huts and great fortresses — a country always troubled by war, where one could not travel ten leagues without running the risk of being robbed. And in the Orient — Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad — all the cities of the 'Arabian Nights,' with their marble palaces, their workshops, their schools, their bazaars, their villages and with the incessant movement of merchants who traveled in peace from Spain to Persia.

"There is no doubt that the Mussulman and Byzantine worlds were richer, better policed, better lighted than the Western world.

"In the eleventh century these two worlds began to become acquainted; the barbarous Christians came into contact with the civilized Mussulmans in two ways — by war and by commerce. And by contact with the Orientals the Occidentals became civilized."


The remarkable civilization which resulted from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad has been described here somewhat at length because it furnishes a very striking example of the way in which religion lays the foundation for civilization.

What was it that made possible that extraordinary blazing forth of learning, science, and culture throughout the Islamic world? This remarkable progress was plainly due to a new security

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which had entered into human living, from the banks of the Ganges in India to the banks of the Guadalquiver in Spain.

Scattered throughout this vast region were the slumbering ashes and sparks of ancient civilizations. But these ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and of western Asia had lost order and stability. Nation was set against nation; people against people; creed against creed. Races had become corrupt and degenerate. Sensualism, greed, brigandry, war destroyed all security of living. Populations were harassed. No general prosperity could exist in such a chaotic situation. Sciences could not flourish; the arts of living could not prosper; progress was impossible in a world of such disunity, disruption, and disintegration.


Into this miasma of moral infection and decay blew the clean fresh wind of Islam, sweeping away with some of the violence of a cyclonic blast the old debris of mutual distrust, hatred, chronic violence, and degenerate morals.

The precepts of Muhammad brought about simple living even on the part of rulers. They brought about honesty, fraternity, and a powerful cohering unity in the name of Allah. All who accepted the simple Muslem creed — "There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet" — become enrolled into the brotherhood of Islam regardless of race, color or previous creed.

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Order was thoroughly established and robbery suppressed, so that it became possible for caravans to travel from India to Spain by way of Northern Africa in perfect safety — a thing which had never been possible before in the history of the world.


As long as the teachings of Muhammad continued to powerfully motivate the common people and their leaders, this remarkable culture of Islam continued to prevail.

In the course of time, however, prosperity bred pride, greed and sensualism. Too much luxury weakened and made effeminate both rulers and people; the low and humid climate of Mesopotamia had its debilitating effect; and luxuriant city-dwelling (always disastrous to the finer qualities of Semitic races) gradually weakened the moral fibre.

The decline of Islamic culture after the eleventh century cannot be ascribed to any flaw in the religion itself as revealed by Muhammad, but rather to the well-known tendency of human nature to sag and decline from heights to which it has been lifted by a great inspiration.

Mankind simply cannot hold itself up continuously on lofty heights of living. The stimulation, the inspiration for moral and spiritual living has to be periodically renewed.

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But in spite of the decline of Islam — its fast-growing obscurantism, scholasticism, and bigotry--we see even today certain great moral traits directly the result of this religion.

Honesty is a leading characteristic of all the Muhammadan peoples. The severe punishments prescribed by Islam and the general conscience as regards stealing have kept the Muslem people very free from petty thieving. One can see in towns the population of which are completely Muhammadan the remarkable sight of shops left entirely open and unprotected during the noon hour of prayer on Fridays, while the owners and clerks are attending the Mosque services. It has been a common saying among missionaries in Asia Minor that if an object is lost while passing through a Christian village nine times out of ten it will never be returned; whereas on the contrary an article lost in a Turkish village will nine cases out of ten be honestly returned to the owner.

Islam, in spite of prejudicial ideas of Americans regarding the evils of polygamy, has had a remarkably purifying effect upon the sex life of its adherents. When one recalls that the Muhammadan peoples live, for the most part, in climates tending strongly to stimulate the passions and sensual qualities of human nature, one can appreciate the powerful effect of the Muhammadan code in preserving its men and women from sexual laxity. Prostitution as

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an institution is unknown in purely Muhammadan districts. It exists only on the fringes through contact with European culture. Any form of sexual laxity is very rare throughout the Muhammadan civilization, except in latitudinarian Persia.

As regards abstention from alcohol Muhammad abolished with one stroke of the pen, so to speak, a social evil which the rest of the world has been combating for millenniums and still are in a mess about. Alcohol was prohibited by the Qur'an and until very recent years that prohibition has been absolutely effective in Muhammadan countries, except in certain groups of intelligentsia who expressed latitudinarianism in every attitude toward their religion, and in certain rare sects which interpreted away this injunction. But for the most part prohibition is absolutely enforced among the adherents of Islam today. Thus alcohol, with all its train of open and hidden vices and disasters, has been for thirteen centuries eliminated from the Islamic world.

How can one measure the beneficial results upon the health and vigor of the race, of so many centuries of freedom from the taints of sexual diseases and of alcoholism?


Thus we see in the history of Islam much the same cycle which Christianity, Buddhism, in fact all the great religions, have passed through. Christianity, for instance, served to spread the civilization

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of the Mediterranean world through the barbarous tribes of northern and eastern Europe. Then it passed, during the Middle Ages, into a stage of scholasticism and obscurantism such as Islam has been in for the last few centuries. The effect of scientific discovery, and of the enlightenment and prosperity which have followed in its train has been destructive both to the obscurantism and to the fervent faith which characterized Medievalism. Islam is now passing through this same stage of intellectual advancement, with commensurate spiritual decline.

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