In the Middle East, planning discussions are regularly punctuated by Inshallah—
“if Allah wills it.” The status of a person’s health, wealth, and safety are believed to be inevitable. Interviewees reported, “We don’t plan ahead,” “We only act when a catastrophe happens,” and “If it’s going to come,
then it will come.”
The question of HBD and the Arab might interest Western policy-makers for two reasons: Nation-building and Immigration. Whether we're imposing our political systems on them ('neo-colonialism') or inviting them en masse into our countries ('reverse colonialism?'), the deciders behind these things would do well to have a notion who they're dealing with.
The immigration question is especially salient. Western Europe has invited millions of Muslims (Arabs and others) into her bosom, with a variety of results...
'Australia: Muslim's defense of relationship with eight-year-old girl as culturally acceptable rejected'
...And so forth.
Portuguese and Italians and Swiss and French have been wandering into each others' lands for centuries. Flying in millions of folks from a foreign civilization (cf. Huntington), however, is something new. Who are these people, and what are their chances of assimilating? ['Arab' = 'Muslim Arab' for purposes of this post only.]
Observers may wonder at the apparent gulf between today's Greeks and the titans of two thousand years ago, but it seems to pale in comparison with that of the Arabs. Lauded for embracing science while Europe slept, their present-day allergy to it has become a planetary curiosity:
OIC [Organisation of the Islamic Conference] countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with 139.3 for OECD countries.
Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature [in 1997], whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain alone. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.
No OIC university made the top-500 "Academic Ranking of World Universities" compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates." (1)
Ikram al-Yacoub, Al-Arabiya:
Earlier this year, a debate on how to foster reading habits among Arab youth was prompted after the Arab Thought Foundation’s Fikr released its fourth annual cultural development report in January, saying that the average Arab child reads “six minutes” a year in comparison to 12,000 minutes its Western counterpart spends.
It also reported that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to the 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person.
These highly-reputed scholars of yesteryear, now hostile to learning and innovation? Their love for science seems to have totally dried up. Why? And can the reasons give us clues as to their potential assimilability in the science-driven West?
(1) The conquest explanation
Arabs were never terribly clever or scientific, but were savvy enough to piggy-back on the knowledge of those they conquered (Greek, Persian, Indian).
Philip K. Hitti:
Starting with very little science, philosophy or literature of his own, the Arabian Moslem, who brought with him from the desert a keen sense of intellectual curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning and many latent faculties, soon became, as we have learned before, the beneficiary and heir of the older and more cultured peoples whom he conquered or encountered.
The awakening was due in a large measure to foreign influences, partly Indo-Persian and Syrian but mainly Hellenic, and was marked by translations into Arabic from Persian, Sanskrit, Syriac and Greek.
In three-quarters of a century after the establishment of Baghdād [762 A.D.] the Arabic-reading world was in possession of the chief philosophical works of Aristotle, of the leading Neo-Platonic commentators, and of most of the medical writings of Galen, as well as of Persian and Indian scientific works. (2)
Browsing through the greats of early Islamic science gives us this same flavor--The renowned translator of Galen Ḥunayn ibn-Isḥāq (Syriac), Greek scientific translator Thābit ibn-Qurrah (Sabian), mathematician al-Khwarizmi (Persian), medical encyclopedist Rhazes (Persian), polymath and 'Second Teacher' (second to Aristotle) al-Farabi (Persian), scientific giant al-Biruni (Persian), philosopher al-Ghazali (Persian), geographer Yāqūt (Greek), and of course the great polymath Avicenna (Persian)...This is not to say Arabs did not take part, but one is struck by the ethnic diversity nonetheless. (4)
(2) The philosophical explanation
Ghazali's fundamentalist spirit won out over the rationalism of Averroes.
Some argue that Islam's intellectual flourishing was due to its embrace of Hellenism, and its decline began the moment it abandoned Greek thought:
The apogee of Greek influence was reached under Al-Mamūn [786-833]. The rationalistic tendencies of this caliph and his espousal of the Mu'tazilite cause, which maintained that religious texts should agree with the judgments of reason, led him to seek justification for his position in the philosophical works of the Greeks. The way the Fihrist expresses it is that Aristotle appeared to him in a dream and assured him that there was no real difference between reason and religious law. In pursuance of his policy al-Mamūn in 830 established in Baghdād his famous Bayt alḤikmah (house of wisdom), a combination library, academy and translation bureau which in many respects proved the most important educational institution since the foundation of the Alexandrian Museum in the first half of the third century B.C. (2)
Al-Mamun [...] imposed an inquisition, under which those who refused to profess their allegiance to Mu’tazilism [Greek rationalism] were punished by flogging, imprisonment, or beheading. (3)
A promising beginning, despite its violent edge. What changed?
But the Islamic turn away from scholarship actually preceded the civilization’s geopolitical decline — it can be traced back to the rise of the anti-philosophical Ash’arism school among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim world.
The greatest and most influential voice of the Ash’arites was the medieval theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (also known as Algazel; died 1111). In his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali vigorously attacked philosophy and philosophers — both the Greek philosophers themselves and their followers in the Muslim world (such as al-Farabi and Avicenna). Al-Ghazali was worried that when people become favorably influenced by philosophical arguments, they will also come to trust the philosophers on matters of religion, thus making Muslims less pious. Reason, because it teaches us to discover, question, and innovate, was the enemy; al-Ghazali argued that in assuming necessity in nature, philosophy was incompatible with Islamic teaching, which recognizes that nature is entirely subject to God’s will.... The Ash’ari view has endured to this day. (3)
(3) The geopolitical explanation
The modern resistance to Western ideas has been a reaction to Western meddling in Muslim countries.
Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy:
Religious fundamentalism is always bad news for science. But what explains its meteoric rise in Islam over the past half century? In the mid-1950s all Muslim leaders were secular, and secularism in Islam was growing. What changed? Here the West must accept its share of responsibility for reversing the trend. Iran under Mohammed Mossadeq, Indonesia under Ahmed Sukarno, and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser are examples of secular but nationalist governments that wanted to protect their national wealth. Western imperial greed, however, subverted and overthrew them.
At the same time, conservative oil-rich Arab states—such as Saudi Arabia—that exported extreme versions of Islam were US clients. The fundamentalist Hamas organization was helped by Israel in its fight against the secular Palestine Liberation Organization as part of a deliberate Israeli strategy in the 1980s. Perhaps most important, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US Central Intelligence Agency armed the fiercest and most ideologically charged Islamic fighters and brought them from distant Muslim countries into Afghanistan, thus helping to create an extensive globalized jihad network. Today, as secularism continues to retreat, Islamic fundamentalism fills the vacuum. (1)
(4) The institutional argument
Islam itself is incompatible with secular statehood, and thus its believers are unable to be assimilated into a secular state.
The Church’s acceptance and even encouragement of philosophy and science was evident from the High Middle Ages to modern times. As the late Ernest L. Fortin of Boston College noted in an essay collected in Classical Christianity and the Political Order (1996), unlike al-Farabi and his successors, “Aquinas was rarely forced to contend with an anti-philosophic bias on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. As a Christian, he could simply assume philosophy without becoming publicly involved in any argument for or against it.” And when someone like Galileo got in trouble, his work moved forward and his inquiry was carried on by others; in other words, institutional dedication to scientific inquiry was too entrenched in Europe for any authority to control.
After about the middle of the thirteenth century in the Latin West, we know of no instance of persecution of anyone who advocated philosophy as an aid in interpreting revelation. In this period, “attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable,” explains historian Edward Grant in Science and Religion, 400 b.c. to a.d. 1550.
The success of the West is a topic that could fill — indeed, has filled — many large books. But some general comparisons are helpful in understanding why Islam was so institutionally different from the West. The most striking difference is articulated by Bassam Tibi in The Challenge of Fundamentalism (1998): “because rational disciplines had not been institutionalized in classical Islam, the adoption of the Greek legacy had no lasting effect on Islamic civilization.” In The Rise of Early Modern Science, Toby E. Huff makes a persuasive argument for why modern science emerged in the West and not in Islamic (or Chinese) civilization:
The rise of modern science is the result of the development of a civilizationally based culture that was uniquely humanistic in the sense that it tolerated, indeed, protected and promoted those heretical and innovative ideas that ran counter to accepted religious and theological teaching. Conversely, one might say that critical elements of the scientific worldview were surreptitiously encoded in the religious and legal presuppositions of the European West.
In other words, Islamic civilization did not have a culture hospitable to the advancement of science, while medieval Europe did.
The contrast is most obvious in the realm of formal education. As Huff argues, the lack of a scientific curriculum in medieval madrassas reflects a deeper absence of a capacity or willingness to build legally autonomous institutions. [...] And madrassas nearly always excluded study of anything besides the subjects that aid in understanding Islam: Arabic grammar, the Koran, the hadith, and the principles of sharia. These were often referred to as the “Islamic sciences,” in contrast to Greek sciences, which were widely referred to as the “foreign” or “alien” sciences (indeed, the term “philosopher” in Arabic — faylasuf — was often used pejoratively). Furthermore, the rigidity of the religious curriculum in madrassas contributed to the educational method of learning by rote; even today, repetition, drill, and imitation — with chastisement for questioning or innovating — are habituated at an early age in many parts of the Arab world. (3)
(5) The HBD explanation
The Arab environment has long been selecting for certain character traits, such as low future time orientation, low trust, fatalism, etc.
Those who follow Arab marriage practices have speculated that their peculiar brand of cousin marriage, FBD (where 'ego' marries his Father's Brother's Daughter), has left them with a suite of character traits incompatible with Western mores.
HBD Chick has helpfully put together charts to show the genetic 'recycling' that tends to occur in FBD cousin-marriage versus the more common MBD (Mother's Brother's Daughter) variety:
Mother's Brother's Daughter cousin-marriage
Father's Brother's Daughter cousin-marriage:
As we have seen, Arabs today are associated with character traits such as fatalism, low future orientation, a strong shame-honor reflex, extreme out-group suspicion, 'big-man' syndrome, inability to compromise, and, most importantly for immigration policy deciders, a reluctance to embrace Western humanist ideas. English women, for example, have been free to choose their own spouse since at least the 1300s. Many Arab groups still do not allow their women this choice today. Could all these values and traits be somehow linked to their reticence towards science? And if they are largely a question of genetics, with what speed could a host population hope to see them change into something recognizably Western?
* * *
It has become fashionable to pooh-pooh those worried about Arab immigration by arguing yesteryear's assimilation: 'Portuguese immigrants ended up melding into French society seamlessly, so cut the xenophobia.' But if Huntington's 'civilizational fault lines' exist, then it is not on its face absurd to wonder if absorbing folks of language, religion, and culture as foreign as the Arabs' is qualitatively different than those of a Christian, European people.
One or a combination of the above factors may help explain the Arabs' insularity and resistance to Western values today. The pressing policy question is, Can any of these things be expected to change in the near future? Via new marriage practices, via out-group marriage, via cultural pressure from the outside? Perhaps. But on the chance that they cannot, Westerners would be advised to think twice about welcoming in millions of such people with open arms.
Previously: The Voice of the People II: Arab Democracy,
(1) Amirali Hoodbhoy, Pervez, 'Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement,' Physics Today, August 2007 online edition.
(2) Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. London: Macmillan, 1956.
(3) Ofek, Hillel, 'Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,' The New Atlantis, Winter 2011 online edition.
(4) Lewis, Bernard, The Arabs in History. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1950.