In our fast-paced, secular, technologically charged Western world, it is easy to look around and find good examples of how rational thinking apparently conflicts with religion, spirituality and traditional values and approaches to life. Indeed, the whole of modern Western culture is founded on the idea that religion is a form of evil.
Religion is treated as a way of deluding oneself in order to hide from the hard reality of the world, leading only to blind obedience and brutality. Islam, in particular, has taken much flak of this kind over the past few years. It only got worse after September 11.
However, this pitting of Rationality against Religion is horribly simplistic, and completely misses the point of what both rationality and religion really are.
Islam, as any lover of history knows, is actually a shining example of how the values that the Western world holds so dear (rationality, knowledge and science, individuality, and discipline) can be maintained by a religious culture that also understands the value of wisdom and faith. The value of peace is also important—the word “Islam” has the same linguistic root as “Salam,” Arabic for peace.
About 1500 years ago, the Roman Empire pretty much fell apart. Around the same time, Muhammad was born in Mecca, and eventually founded a new religious movement smack in the middle of the ancient world, which spread throughout the Middle East, Southern Europe, Northern Africa and neighbouring regions.
After the fall of the Romans, Islamic culture flourished while Northern European culture languished in a dark age.
For various reasons, including the geographical and political situation at the time, Islam became the cultural heir to the technical and philosophical tradition that had once belonged to the Roman Empire and all the states it had conquered.
This tradition was continued and expanded, until centuries later, when trade between Europe and Muslim nations increased, suddenly the Europeans discovered that the Muslims had incredible knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, literature—you name it.
A quick web search or look at an encyclopaedia shows us just how much European culture benefited from contact with the Islamic world.
We just have to look at the impact this meeting of worlds had on the English language to illustrate the point: the word “algorithm” comes from the name of Al-Khwarizmi, one of the greatest Muslim mathematicians. The title of one of his books gave us the English word “algebra.”
Other Islamic words that came into English include alcohol, alkali, elixir, alchemy—the list is quite extensive.
We won’t even get into how European medicine was like witch-doctoring compared to Islamic medicine, or how Europe got to know classic Greek literature and philosophy through Arab translations into Latin.
It is sufficient to say that there would have been no Renaissance, no scientific revolution and therefore no industrial revolution and no capitalism, perhaps not even a “new world,” if not for the influence of Islam on Europe.