Islam is part of Western civilisation

As the arguments about Western civilisation roll on, I’m struck by the assumption, seemingly shared by both sides of this debate, that the Islam and the Islamic world aren’t part of “Western civilization”.

Islam is an Abrahamic religion, standing in essentially the same relationship to Christianity as Christianity does to Judaism. That is, Islam claims to be the completion of the prophetic mission of Christianity, just as Christianity claims to represent the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah to the Jews. In each case, the older religion rejects this claim [1].

These disputes have occasioned persecution and bloodshed right down to the present day, between and within the religions. On the other hand, all of these religions have promoted learning and encouraged acts of charity. However you weigh up the achievements, follies and crimes of Western civilisation, it is absurd to deny that all three of its major religions have shared in these things.

Ever since Muhammad claimed power as an armed prophet in the 8th century, Islamic states and rulers have been part of the European struggle for control of the Mediterranean and the countries around it. In this context, Muslims appear sometimes as the targets of crusades or the instigators of jihad (the two words have essentially the same meaning), and sometimes in alliance with (further distant) Protestants, such as Elizabeth I, against Catholics.

A striking effect of the exclusion of Islam is that courses on “Western Civilisation” reproduce the discredited notion of a “Dark Age” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. This period coincides almost exactly with the Islamic Golden Age, which carried the torch of Western civilisation for hundreds of years, giving us algebra, universities and much more.

fn1. In fact, Islam was long regarded by Christians as a new form of the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ, rather than as a separate religion

155 thoughts on “Islam is part of Western civilisation

  1. The role of Islam in passing on in translation much of Greek thinking & engagement in Spain with Jews & christians is also relevant here

  2. The Dark Ages didn’t happen.

    Western Europe was a backwater in the Roman empire and remained that way from the Western Roman empire’s collapse until the deep plough and the agricultural revolution of the 800s. During the alleged Dark Ages Western Europe produced the deep plough, vertical water wheels, the Book of Kells, Beowulf, the Chanson d’Orlande, any number of spectacular monasteries like Monte Cassino and Cluny, equally spectacular Romanesque cathedrals, and quite a lot of art.

    If you expanded the argument to Christian countries as a whole you would have to include Hagia Sophia, the Theodosian Walls, the Church of St Vitale at Ravenna, and the whole exercise would start to look more than faintly silly.

    While there undoubtedly was an Islamic Golden Age and some texts were received in translation from Islamic civilisation, many texts were received directly from Byzantium by both Christian and islamic states. One example is the Dioskourides, a medical text that was only incompletely translated. Caliph Abdul Rahman III of Córdoba asked the Emperor Romanos II for assistance with the text because many words had just been transliterated rather than translated as they were technical terms for which no Arabic equivalent existed. A delegation of monks dutifully travelled from Constantinople to Spain, made a proper translation, and trained severals Cordoban scholars in reading and writing Greek.

    The Arab translation project was focused exclusively on ‘useful’ texts. They loved Aristotle but not Plato. No copy of Plato would reach Western Europe until the Council of Florence in 1431 when the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos presented the pope with a complete edition of Plato as a diplomatic gift.

  3. I guess Scientology is also a part of Western Civilization. Be that as it may, both Islam and Scientology give me the willies. FGM, honor killings, jihad, Sharia law and a warlord prophet are not my cup of tea.

  4. We can mention Arabic numerals after all. They’ve had a bit to do with Western progress. That’s, as they say, litotes or understatement.

    “Arabic numerals are the ten digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; or numerals written using them in the Hindu–Arabic numeral system (where the position of a digit indicates the power of 10 to multiply it by). It is the most common system for the symbolic representation of numbers in the world today.

    The Hindu-Arabic numeral system was developed by Indian mathematicians around AD 500 using quite different forms of the numerals. From India, the system was adopted by Arabic mathematicians in Baghdad and passed on to the Arabs farther west. The current form of the numerals developed in North Africa. It was in the North African city of Bejaia that the Italian scholar Fibonacci first encountered the numerals; his work was crucial in making them known throughout Europe. The use of Arabic numerals spread around the world through European trade, books and colonialism.” – Wikipedia.

    Then there is empiricism or scientific empiricism. The idea of empiricism appears in a developed and coherent form in Francis Bacon’s work Novum Organum Scientiarum “new instrument of science”. However, it is clear that ideas of data from the senses, observations with instruments and experiments, came from earlier thinkers in a process of long development. We can note the work of the earlier Bacon, namely Roger Bacon, and his dependence in turn on Alhazen (Hasan Ibn al-Haytham) for the latter’s work on optics. Indeed, Alhazan is a key figure.

    “He (Alhazen) was also an early proponent of the concept that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence—hence understanding the scientific method five centuries before Renaissance scientists.” – Wikipedia

    “Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was an Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist of the Islamic Golden Age. Sometimes called “the father of modern optics”, he made significant contributions to the principles of optics and visual perception in particular, his most influential work being his Kitāb al-Manāẓir, written during 1011–1021, which survived in the Latin edition. A polymath, he also wrote on philosophy, theology and medicine.” – Wikipedia.

    The problem with guns is that it took many scientists and technologists to create them originally (from all the contributory technologies) but it only takes one idiot to use one.

  5. Sure, and Chinese civilisation merged with Indian civilisation largely via religion, so what?

    Religions divide and delineate civilisations and populations through their co-option by rulers, schisms, convoluted nuance, culture, memes, magical thinking, power plays, and ancient unremitting grudges and struggles over turf such as, for example, between catholic and orthodox.

    The Islamic Golden Age and the Renaissance, all well and good, are neither the Reformation in Western Europe, nor the counter reformation. Western civilisation proper is born out of the blood and treasure spent on the struggle to reform. It’s also born of the Enlightenment and the accepted placing of religion aside as far as is possible in an appropriate room with it’s civilisational mandates contained. Western civilisation is a modern ideal, fresh and secular. Even so in the West it has often been a difficult ideal to maintain. It is not the only way to do civilisation, but it is the way it’s attempted in a western country in current times. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L.P.Hartley). And we’d be well to leave them to it.

  6. Svante:

    You say “Western civilisation proper is born out of the blood and treasure spent on the struggle to reform.”

    You do realise don’t you that a lot of that blood and treasure came from foreign climes? Or have you forgotten the plundering of the New World, the theft of two continents there, the plundering of Africa, the plundering of the Middle East and India and China and S.E. Asia, all the colonial empires, the theft of the Australian continent and the murdering of millions of people in the process.? Western Civilization is not the only civilization to plunder and murder, of course. Even so, we would do well to remember how much of that we actually did and not to become arrogant and proud. If you try to stand higher than others, remember you are standing on bones.

  7. JQ you “tener muchos cojones”.
    – you have a lot of bottle.

    As with racism and many other topics, your concise OP’s are a good dose of sunlight.

    I appreciate particularly the direct comparison of crusade and jihad. Both bloody & stupid.

  8. “The Way of Liberation.”
    “For example, one of the gimmicks in Sanskrit, upaya used to quiet the thinking mind and its compulsive chattering is known as mantra – the chanting of sounds for the sake of sound rather than meaning. Therefore begin to “float” a single tone on the long, easy outbreath at whatever pitch is most comfortable. Hindus and Buddhists use for this practice such syllables as OM, AH, HUM i.e. HUNG}, and Christians might prefer AMEN or ALLELUIA, Muslims ALLAH, HOO, and Jews ADONAI: it really makes no difference, since what is important is simply and solely the sound. Like Zen Buddhists, you could use just the syllable MOOO. Dig that, and let your consciousness sink down, down, down into the sound for as long as there is no sense of strain.”

  9. The key pivot seems to me to be the Enlightenment. Islam has been influenced by both Athens and Jeruslam – often cited as the founding influences for “Western Civilisation” – as much as Western Europe. Jews and Christians are People of the Book – their scriptures are part of the sacred canon of Islam ( subject to different interpretation, of course, but with no more variation that other groups such as Mormons who are considered Christian). Mohammed is considered just to have finished the job started by Abraham. Similarly, Aristotle was embraced by Muslim theologians well before he was taken up in Western Europe, and natural science flourished in Islam for a long time. Theology was adapted to fit, as it was in Europe. The pivot seems to me to be the Enlightenment and European colonialism. By that time Islam was dominated by the Ottomans – a regime that Enlightenment Europe considered it’s ‘despotic other’. Subsequently, modern Islamic conservative theology has been shaped as a reaction to colonialism (and the espoused values it carried) as much as anything. This includes hostility to Jews – which is relatively recent in Islamic history. However, given that the liberal Enlightenment in Europe was largely a reaction to or outcome of intra-Christian religious conflict, it makes me wonder why the Sunni-Shiite dispute never resulted in any kind of political accommodation that stressed civic religious tolerance (the founding value of secular liberalism). That seems to me to be an interesting question. So in that sense, when people talk of Islam not being part of “Western Civilisation”, they actually mean something more like “Modernity”. Islam could be said to be the branch of Western Civilisation that (largely) rejected the political values of the Enlightenment. Understanding why would seem to be be important.

    In purely theological terms, it would seem to me to have something to do with the fact that Islam has always defined itself theologically as much as a unified political community as much as a faith community (even though it has never been entirely clear on the precise institutional arrangements that should give effect to this understanding). Christian political thinkers have never really had to face this limitation: faith could be defined as a ‘private’, rather than ‘public’ matter, allowing first for for toleration, and subsequently, a separation of Church and State. For Islam, faith has always been a public matter. That doesn’t mean that tolerance is impossible in an Islamic State. Indonesian Pancasila is a good example. But it does suggests that issues of religious toleration may be far more sensitive to the strategic political considerations of those who lead the faithful. And those considerations aren’t always driven by theology. On the contrary.

  10. Before deciding on your favourite crusade…
    “The Way of Liberation.”
    “For example, one of the gimmicks in Sanskrit, upaya used to quiet the thinking mind and its compulsive chattering is known as mantra – the chanting of sounds for the sake of sound rather than meaning. Therefore begin to “float” a single tone on the long, easy outbreath at whatever pitch is most comfortable. Hindus and Buddhists use for this practice such syllables as OM, AH, HUM i.e. HUNG}, and Christians might prefer AMEN or ALLELUIA, Muslims ALLAH, HOO, and Jews ADONAI: it really makes no difference, since what is important is simply and solely the sound. Like Zen Buddhists, you could use just the syllable MOOO.”


  11. Ikonoclast, sure there were guns, germs, and steel. Today there’s dysfunctional globalisation market ideology, a huge killer. The point though is that in the first place the Reformation was a reform struggle in Western Europe on which vast amounts of blood and treasure were spent/invested/thrown/wasted until exhaustion set in on all sides leading to a lasting accommodation through force of common circumstance with no warring religionist side winning other than that from it came a win for the masses of all sides, an altered civilisation, a new way of running things, a new type of peace, and, secondly, the blessed Enlightenment. Hindus and Buddhists, for example, have each had various reformations resulting in one religionist side winning with no equivalent to the Enlightenment. Islam hasn’t even got to first base and, frankly, looks as if it never shall due to extrinsic and intrinsic factors in any time period worth contemplating.

    Western civilisation, new as it is, an ideal based on Enlightenment values destined for continual development, has proved able to learn from past errors. It is held to account by its masses of heirs, and that is allowed, indeed it is required! It endeavours to improve and clean up its act, and importantly it allows/requires structures for doing so. Again, it is a difficult ideal to maintain, yet when it has wobbled it has come back improved, strengthened, and more valued.

  12. Svante,

    I think that’s an account which historically is grossly over-simplified and at the same time over-idealising and self-serving. It is indeed Western triumphalism with a superiority complex. Yes, with my biases I would prefer to live in a Western scientific humanist society as per certain enlightenment values. However I don’t. I live in a Western society run according the precepts of Capitalist Fundamentalism.

    Given what we do and how we do it, we have no right to call ourselves enlightened. I can say this without idealising or exonerating other cultures. Our first duty is to look to ourselves and correct ourselves, not to judge others. There is much which needs fixing in Western culture. As Westerners this is our primary business. The rest is not our primary business. We only cause harm when we interfere in other cultures which we understand even less than our own.

  13. If you start with the Enlightenment, you pretty much wipe out the idea of a specifically Western civilisation. The Enlightenment (as the name implies) was a universalist reaction against religion. It posed universal human rights against the idea that rights were specific to particular cultures and history.

  14. First, the separation of church and state in Europe is more an ideal than a practice. Britain defined itself as Protestant well into the 19th century, and the churches were extremely influential well into the 20th. There were explicitly confessional parties in most European states – still are in many – and we had the DLP. Religious disabilities were mostly legislated away in the late 19th century, not in the Enlightenment era. And then there’s the US.

    A second point is that Islam has had a range of reactions to modernism – Ahmadiya, Bahai, the Nakshbandi movement, a great deal of debate in the Shi’a community. The most visible ones externally are reactions comparable to US evangelicalism, but there are a lot of others which don’t get much attention but are as influential. It’s very much an ongoing discussion. Islam is neither monolithic nor static.

  15. Ikonoclast –

    “I think that’s an account which historically is grossly over-simplified” – I wasn’t writing a book, or volumes covering the subject.

    You’d prefer to live in a society as per certain Enlightenment values, you say? Me too.

    But it’s run “according the precepts of Capitalist Fundamentalism” – I largely agree that it currently is, and wrote as much.

    “we have no right to call ourselves enlightened.” – name another civilizational paradigm, past or present, that has anywhere near as much right to do so.

    “Our first duty is to look to ourselves and correct ourselves,” – Again, I wrote as much.

    “There is much which needs fixing in Western culture. As Westerners this is our primary business.” – Ditto.

    A ‘yes and no’ from me to your last sentence dependent on the particularity under consideration. There are many.

    You write that my account was “over-idealising and self-serving. It is indeed Western triumphalism with a superiority complex” – is this subliminal de rigueur virtue signalling, conflicted thought, or an artifact of brevity or terminology, for you do then go on to more or less write mostly in agreement as I’ve outlined above.

  16. I’m sorry but this definition of Western civilisation reeks of virtue signaling. All you have done is demonstrate that adjacent civilisations are not cocooned from each other, which is unsuprising in a Captain Obvious kind of way. You might as well argue that India is a part of Western civilisation because of gypsies, yoga, curry and Hare Krishnas.

    I surmise that if you applied for a professorial visa to Saudi Arabia or Iran in order to educate the locals about your plan to appropriate their civilisations Western civilisation you’d be given the bum’s rush before the ink dried on your applications.

    Another rascal term that is currently in vogue is Judeo-Christian. As I understand it, this term was only gained currency a couple decades ago. The term is absurd and borderline ofensive given the West’s horrific treatment of Jews until approx the end of World War Two.

    I also note that you did define what you mean by Western civilisation, which should have been your starting point.

    ps sorry about my terse tone. I am finger pecking this response on the phone which is infuriatingly difficult

  17. Prof Quiggin –

    “If you start with the Enlightenment, you pretty much wipe out the idea of a specifically Western civilisation. The Enlightenment (as the name implies) was a universalist reaction against religion.”

    Was not the project begun in Western Europe and subsequently propagated and developed mainly there and abroad in societies predominantly of Western European complexion? [1]

    Pedro of PNG wrote above: “when people talk of Islam not being part of “Western Civilisation”, they actually mean something more like “Modernity”.”

    Pedro draws attention to the possible equivalence and tensions existing between some terms in use, the ambiguity, and, these aside, the general imprecision. I like ‘modernity’, but feel it does not readily solve the terminology problem due to significant overlaps with tech, fashion, lifestyle, global consumerism…

    ‘Western values’ might be another substitute term, but also carries a lot of baggage. ‘Enlightenment values’ carries a sense of being fixed in time. I think then it must remain something like ‘Western civilisation born of an ongoing Enlightenment’, or ‘Western civilisation borne on Enlightenment ongoing’. Both too long, I know. How about ‘Enlightenment civilisation’? Lose the capitals? Yet ikonoclasts may still find fault on grounds of the term being “over-simplified and at the same time over-idealising and self-serving”.

    [1] second sense:

  18. I stand to be corrected, but western “civilisation” never allowed the preaching of Islam within its borders. The only faith it tolerated was “Judaism” (when it was not flat-out persecuting Jews).

    As regards Muhammed claiming power as an armed prophet in the 8th century (you mean, the 7th), there is now considerable scholarly controversy about whether Muhammed actually exist.

    One group of scholars, for instance, think the early references to “Muhammed” were actually references to “Jesus” and Islam was a Christian anti-nestorian sect. I am in no position to judge their work, of course, but it is quite fascinating and matches my general cynicism about religion.

  19. @Hugo I make it a rule to stop reading the moment I see the phrase “virtue signalling”. It’s a strong indication that the writer knows they are defending the indefensible.

  20. Hugo, not so sure about the much-vaunted superiority of western civilisation after the NSW results.

  21. I understand there is agreement about the religious relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the Abrahamic religions. A reliable source told me Free Masons require members to belief in one God and therefore Jews, Christians and Muslems are potential members of a Lodge, provided they are male and have a profession of some kind. In the more recent history, a female version of the Lodge has been created. Gender separation is upheld as it is in the traditional places of worship of the said religions. (I venture to hypothesise it will be either to unite these three religions than to achieve gender equality.)

    But religion is only one element of civilisation. I surely don’t know what the experts would include in the description of this term but I am sure agriculture, architecture, art, customs, dress, food, laws, traditions, … technologies of various kinds belong to it and more than one of these elements is influenced by the geographical location of people.

    The term Western civilisation has a pretty clear meaning from the perspective of any European country due to the prior terminology of Orient and Occident; Istanbul can be taken as a geographical separation point. Any location to the North-West is Occident and any location the the South-East is Orient. But where does this leave Australia?

    Earlier on, the eastern coast of Italy was considered to be the border of the Occident until, it appears, someone remembered the Greeks and their philosophers.

    JQ juxtaposes science with religion to put the cat among the pigeons (or for some other reason). Then as now science is universal although its advances are unequal any time interval.

    Western civilisation without science?

  22. Every Islamic country without exception is a sh1thole, which is why anyone with any sense leaves those countries. Even relatively moderate Indonesia persecutes athiests and

    Maybe Prof Quiggin can point us in the direction of the Muslim scholars who agree with his claim that the Islamic world is a part of Western civilisation.

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