Islam putting countries ‘literally centuries behind’? John Locke disagrees
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Thursday July 25 2019
Last week, it was highlighted that in 2007 the now newly elected Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, claimed that Islam had resulted in the Muslim world being “literally centuries behind”. A bodacious claim, which Mr Johnson supported by arguing that the printing press was not introduced into the Ottoman Empire until the mid-19th century, centuries after the printing press had already been introduced in mainland Europe. He then seeks to highlight that it was because of Islam that there was “no spread of democracy” amongst Muslim countries leaving them “literally centuries behind”. Such attacks are wildly inaccurate and somewhat obviously so considering that the Islamic civilisation gave rise to inventions from clocks to cameras, universities, algebra and maps. The Islamic civilisation was also paramount in preserving, translating, and contributing to Western understandings of ancient Greek philosophy that was all but forgotten in the ‘West’.
It is often forgotten in modern times that the Islamic civilisation for many centuries was the hub for scholarly thought, a pioneer of scientific discovery, and agents of engineering marvel. The example of the printing press is interesting in particular as the Islamic civilisation was paramount in its production. Indeed, the very production of paper was an art that was practiced in Baghdad 1,100 years ago, circa 751 CE (133 AH). The first paper mill in Egypt was introduced in 850 CE (236 AH), 459 years prior to the first paper mill in England (1309 CE, 709 AH). It was not that the ‘Muslim world’ was adverse to paper, or even the printing press (indeed, Evliya Çelebi, a 17th-Century discusses the implications of the printing press in his work), rather the knowledge about the role of the Islamic civilisation has been forgotten. The first printing press, belonging to Muslims, was established by Ibrahim Müteferrika in 1727 only 36 years later than the first printing press in New York. The reason why it did not gain the popularity that it garnered in other parts of the world was because, within Ottoman culture, calligraphy and the hand-production of books was considered an esteemed and highly valued art that encompassed a thriving workforce. Thus, it was a culmination of socio-economic factors that meant the printing press, whilst present within the Ottoman Empire, was not popularised; despite the Islamic civilisation playing a paramount role in founding the paper revolution.
Further, Mr Johnson’s idea that Islam restricted the spread of democracy is another narrow and unsubstantiated claim. John Locke, widely considered the father of liberal democracy, studied under an oriental expert of Islamic political science. John Locke, in his biography noted that one the most influential people in his life and academic thought was Professor Edward Pococke, at the time a teacher at the University of Oxford for Arabic and Islamic Studies. Pococke in 1630 CE (1039 AH) moved to Aleppo, Syria, as an English Chaplain where he resided for five years mastering the Arabic language, immersing himself in Islamic political and theological thought, and translating works of creeds such as the of Al-Ghazali. The 400 or so manuscripts he collected during his time in Syria are still available at the University of Oxford, ranging from works in biology, history and philology. In particular, Pococke translated the work of Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufayl, ‘The life of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan’, from Arabic to Latin. This would later inspire John Locke to produce “An essay concerning human understanding” (1690 CE, 1099 AH). Therefore, John Locke not only absorbed the Islamic knowledge passed down by Edward Pococke but actively engaged with it. Indeed, Islamic political science, and the works of Muslim scholars, significantly contributed to modern society – the knowledge of which is currently amiss in modern discourse.
The erroneous claim that Islam has resulted in stagnation of development of some countries is a symptom of a colonialist and orientalist mindset that assumes the West has solely and uniquely developed modern political thought. The revitalisation of populist narratives, and pseudo-historical Islamophobic discourse, must be challenged with the increased highlighting of all the various manners in which the Islamic world has contributed to Western society. The Government must ensure it supports academic freedoms and initiatives to decolonise education, whilst giving greater emphasis within the national curriculum to shared histories and the contributions of minority communities in building our society.