When the subject of civilization arises, there is a question that is frequently asked, especially in Western literature. “Why did the Islamic world lag behind?” Many different methods are used to try and answer these and similar questions. British biochemist Joseph Needham’s answer is quite remarkable. In a book chapter titled “East’s Knowledge, West’s Science” that was translated into Turkish many years ago, Needham, an expert on the history of science and China, says the Chinese knew what fire was and they also invented gunpowder. But they could not combine both to invent a weapon of mass destruction, a weapon designed to hit anyone, because they had the Taoist worldview in their mindset.
According to Needham, because of this Taoist worldview, the Chinese were unable to invent something so cruel and unscrupulous in design. That is, their way of thinking influenced their actions. Unlike weapons of mass destruction, they combined fire and gunpowder to produce fireworks for their religious holidays. In essence, they created a product for their entertainment and rituals.
With Needham’s approach, we can find an answer to the question of “backwardness” in the Islamic world. Indeed, there must be a reason for such a great civilization that has contributed to the common heritage of the world in countless fields, from mathematics to astronomy, from optics to sociology, to “lag behind.” Considering the global contributions of the Ottoman Empire, which was the strongest representative of the religion of Islam for many years, for example, this question loses its meaning.
How did polymaths like al-Ghazali, al-Khwarizmi, Euclid, Ibn Sina, Ismail al-Jazari, Omar Khayyam, and many others emerge in Islamic civilization? Well, can we say that the societies of Western civilizations, which we consider “advanced,” have “gene superiority?” The answer is a big no when employing basic scientific data.
In the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, individual warfare tools such as bows and arrows, the most advanced tools of the period, were produced. However, this know-how did not evolve into the creation of weapons of mass destruction over time. However, it is widely accepted that Western civilization was ahead in the invention and spread of weapons of mass destruction. From this perspective, we can clearly see a gap forming between the two civilizations in the arms industry. This development, which we can almost call a breaking moment, is one of the most fundamental reasons for today’s question.
From this perspective, to say that Islam is backward would only be telling the truth. Because the essence of Islam, which prioritizes concepts such as compassion and conscience, goes against the production of weapons of mass destruction. This “backwardness” has become one of the biggest factors in changing the destiny of an entire civilization. Yes, Islam is “backward,” but in a positive sense, of course. Islam could not be merciless. Islam could not be without conscience. Islam could not kill the innocent. Islam could not harm nature. Islam could not enslave people.
During my tenure as ambassador in Indonesia, I read and listened to many horrifying historical anecdotes. Indonesian people have been subjected to many tortures in their history. The Netherlands, which came to the Indonesian region to increase spice imports, enslaved and tortured the Indonesian people. We are also all familiar with the slave trade and enslavement activities in Africa. Western countries, which needed cheap labor for mining, exploited the lives of African people, regardless of whether they were children, old or sick. It would not be wrong to say that these and similar exploitation activities, which lasted for many years, contributed to the “advancement” of Western civilization. Yes, this is “progress,” in a way. When we think about it on the physical and material plane, it is indeed extraordinary progress. When you think of the skyscrapers in New York or London’s subway that has been operating for centuries, it is difficult not to describe the point the West has reached today as “progress.”
Such progress could never have been made in the Islamic thought system. For example, Yunus Emre, one of the most prominent names in the Islamic world, says, “First of all, it is important to win hearts.” That motto summarizes why this religion is hindering “progress.” There is also the belief in Islam that an employed worker must be given what he is owed before the sweat on his forehead dries. That is, an employer must give their worker their wages as soon as their work is finished. Of course, such norms are perceived as irrational by today’s capitalist and unconventional structures.
In fact, when looking back at the traditional religious roots of Western civilization, you will once again come across similar values. However, with the Age of Enlightenment, the West manipulated its religious roots and turned secularism into a God. Secular man has postponed divine references and has no value to account for. If we speak in the language of the Quran, the expression “nefsi emmare” can be used to describe the Western-created secular man, a phrase used to describe the dark side of a person. This feature that always encourages evil, immorality, and wrongdoing is present in everyone. Sigmund Freud describes this aspect of a man very well. Freud, who especially studied the depressions experienced within the Vienna bourgeoisie of the period, almost revealed the psychological structure of the secular man in his works.
Likewise, Karl Marx revealed the economic ambitions and actions of this new human typology. Marx’s effort to organize the working class against oppression was perfectly just and innocent. However, of course, Marx’s continuation of this war by directing it to metaphysics and God caused him to deviate from his main purpose. It can be said that there are basic problems in Marx’s philosophy, not his understanding of economics.
An Inevitable End
From a philosophical and theological point of view, therefore, Islam’s “backwardness” was inevitable. If we are to call it a defeat, then it is a very noble defeat. Well, in the meantime, have there been any benefits from all the “progress?” Some technical progress has been made for the common good of humanity. However, we need to bring these and similar advances under the control of the human value system. Otherwise, we cannot prevent a monster from being created. Under a value system that does not fight with the sacred and puts the human and aesthetic in the foreground, technical progress benefits all of humanity. Otherwise, life becomes more unlivable by the day in a world without borders populated by a human type with no restrictions. The strong crush the weak and injustice becomes colossal.