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Is This the Islamic Dark Age?

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!

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  1. 6 Comment(s)

  2.   By Greg Brown on Jan 20, 2013 | Reply

    On the face of it you would think that as a society develops it would evolve out of the dark ages and become more enlightened. Clearly not the case though Ted because as you point out the dark ages was a step backwards. That would suggest we could again take a leap back into the dark ages. There is evidence in the US at present that suggests this may be happening. As an example, and there are plenty, intolerance to the teaching of evolution is greater now than it was 20 years ago. If the intolerant groups over there continue to grow there may well come a time when US Government policy will resemble Sharia law. Perhaps we should not be too critical of the Moslem states. Maybe they are just a few decades ahead of us.

  3.   By Matt Smith on Jan 22, 2013 | Reply

    In the history of humans, is there a greater failure of humanity than the ideology of the Dark Ages? 1000 years of hell bought about by a misapplied belief in heaven. The miracle was that it lasted for so long. It is very concerning to consider 1000 years of militant Islam is still ahead.

  4.   By Jack on Jan 22, 2013 | Reply

    Your dark ages fable is a bit fanciful Ted, historians are clear that the so called Dark Ages (often called the Middle Ages because of the pejorative nature of the Dark term)followed a weak period in the Roman Catholic Church not a strong one. The Teutonic tribes from the north (we call them the Vandals and the Goths and VisiGoths and others) swept across the declining Roman Empire in waves over hundreds of years and wiped out nearly all the literature (as vandals are wont to do even today). It’s especially evident in England where the language was and is heavily tinted with the Germanic. Our present day western civilization (aka Christian Culture) was kept alive largely in Ireland because the Vandals couldn’t conquer the Celts – see Book of Kells for example.

    The term Dark Ages was promoted, predictably enough, by a particular German scholar of the Lutheran persuasion who is regarded as “…a virulent anti Catholic….”. It’s today regarded as a political fabrication driven by bigotry. But apparently not by you.

    I know you are always trying to be provocative Ted but you’re getting a bit dodgy with this one. Try something that stands up.

    The fact remains that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is the most successful, popular and enduring religion/culture in history. It is uniquely epitomised by forgiveness (with a special sacrament for that purpose), and exhorts its adherents to grow spiritually rather than meterially, and to be tolerant and turn the other cheek/love your enemies etc. Women are given a very high role for repect by Catholicism in the model of Mary – something unique amongst religions/cultures, nést ce pas? But you know all this surely?

    Jack

  5.   By Phil Harker on Jan 22, 2013 | Reply

    The renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, who documented the rise and fall of cultures down through the ages, stated “The equation of religion with belief is rather recent.” ‘Recent’, that is, in terms of the time-frame that he was covering.

    As you have indicated in your blog, when ‘Gnosis’ [that indescribable private ‘knowing’ that is validated by its own inherent beauty in the mind of the ‘knower’] was displaced by describable ‘beliefs’ [propositional statements that can be put into words – allowing for ‘validation’ by the dominant reference group] the despotic control of people’s lives through religious control of the normative ‘belief system’ became absolute. Every fundamentalist literalism is based in the fear that “I will get it wrong” in the judgmental eyes of the dominant and controlling reference group.

    One senses, however, that at least in the West, there is a groundswell – not evident in the popular news media – of a return to a transcendent Gnosis that is shared though dialogue, stories, films, and others metaphorical media, that rejects all attempts of power groups to re-establish mind-controlling boundaries. Needless to say, perhaps, the ‘age of religion’ with its propositional statements will not go down without a fight – even if the ‘fight’ will end up being between the two greatest opposing religious forces still evident today – fundamentalist Christianity, and fundamentalist Islam – for both groups seem to hold the ‘fundamental belief’ that the safety of their evolved fundamentalist belief structures lies in the power of the gun!

  6.   By Matt Smith on Jan 23, 2013 | Reply

    Jack, I refer to your last paragraph.

    The fact you refer to is quite a sad one. It is a fact driven by fear. (as Phil states).

    I hardly think the catholic church “uniquely epitomizes forgiveness”. I think many others outside of this exclusve club also forgive. It is not a value/moral unique to Catholics.

    But the combination of forgiveness, tolerance, and turn the other cheek is particularly not something the catholic church should boast about. The fundamental issue with child abuse in the church is that the perpetrator can do the crime, confess in secrecy, and be forgiven and still go to heaven. Do you see the issue and why this keeps happening in the church? In the mind of the perpetrator – I can abuse this child, I will be forgiven by god in the confession box, and the church will not report it, and now I can go understand again.

    The dark ages was when we failed to think for our selves under the threat of Christian and catholic repression and atrocities.

  7.   By Phil Harker on Jan 24, 2013 | Reply

    The ‘problem’ with religious sectarianism is not just its failure to understand the difference between ‘belief’ (proposition statements said to be ‘the truth’ itself and that therefore can be enforced through a regime of ‘fear’ – “you will go to hell if you don’t agree with these propositions that we have the authority to establish as ‘truth’”) and ‘knowing’ (that ‘awareness’ of an unseen and unbreakable connection with the “I am” that is the very ‘ground of our Being’ and is therefore a ‘living’ Truth itself.

    Sectarian [bounded] religious fail to understand their own source material! For example [John 14:6] “Jesus said to him, I am [i.e., the Christos is] the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father [i.e., becomes ‘aware’ of their unbreakable connection with the source of their real Life], but by ‘their connection with] me [i.e., the “I am””. Sectarian religious belief systems also fail to read and understand [John 8:32] that the words “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” does not say or mean “and you shall agree with a set of propositions and the propositions will make you free” but that you shall have ‘gnosis’ or a knowing/awareness that goes beyond mere belief, and that your real life always remains – whether I am ‘aware’ of this or not – in the unbreakable connection with its source in the ‘ground of being’ can be referred to as “I am”!

    When the religious systems sought to focus attention on the ‘salvation’ OF those visible, body based, identities call, ‘myself’, rather than on the ‘salvation’ FROM such separated, fear driven, unchosen egoic identities, it paved the way for religious ‘in-groups’ to be established with their great ‘dividing lines’ and sectarian ‘wars’. The ‘in-group’ will be ‘saved’ and the ‘out-group’ will be lost!

    The entire idea of ‘bounded specialness’ reflects a failure on the part of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the RC Church) to actually understand (or accept) the words written in their own source material, that clearly indicates that ‘God’ is simply the ‘ground of our very being’ and that the only division is whether we are ‘awake’ [or ‘aware’] to this unchangeable fact, or not – Ephesians 4:6 “one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” So, what is ‘outside’ of ALL?
    As the Buddha [One Life] stated when it arose in ‘awareness’ in a ordinary man named Siddhattha Gotama; “I am aware”, and as the Christos [“Christ is ALL AND IN ALL” [Colossians 3:11] indicated when ‘awareness’ arose in a ordinary man named Jesus of Nazareth (be it a literal event or story is irrelevant to the concept) around six hundred years later “I AM”! He did not say “I am Jesus” because he had become ‘aware’ that his true Life is not in his separating physical identity, but rather in that non-physical Identity that is shared by “all” — indicated that he understood the unbounded nature of real Life. Therefore, any ‘bounded’ sectarian system that holds that ‘salvation’ is ‘salvation of my separated, body based, bounded, self’ fails to understand the very words of the source material upon which they seek to establish their legitimacy.

    The pre-sectarian St Paul also made it clear that all boundaries to One’s identity were illegitimate once the realisation that “It is the Spirit has life, the flesh add nothing” and stated [Colossians 3:11] “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ [NB: Not ‘a man’ called Jesus, but that indivisible Life that is “above all, through all, and in all”] is all, and in all.”

    Sectarian religious systems that gradually overturned this original ‘gnosis’ of the inseparability of One Life – referred to in many different terms such as ‘Buddha’ or ‘Atman’ or ‘Christos’ – and returned it to the former egoic illusions that ‘flesh and blood’ (body based identities) are our true identities and that being ‘sinful’ are in need of ‘salvation’ through agreement with the religious creeds! This change in understanding allowed the hierarchical systems of religious control to return – and this became the true ‘dark ages’, because the “light of Life” was again ‘hidden’ behind the veil of material identity. The ‘enlightenment’ – return to ‘gnostic’ understandings of spiritual metaphor – is the greatest ‘threat’ to the established sectarian religious systems.

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