And continues to do so, as the world is witnessing, today. Excerpted from How Islam Set Back Western Civilization. By Matthew Hanley
The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne asked a related question: what, in fact, caused the Dark Ages? In his posthumous Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), Pirenne contested the conventionally accepted explanation for the fall of classical civilization: the formal dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in 476, following its descent into decadence, paved the way for a barbarism that led inexorably to the subsequent Dark Ages of the 7th to 10th centuries.
Pirenne observed that the governing barbarians did not obliterate the Roman infrastructure, and that the overall modus vivendi carried on much like it had, prior to its fall, because the “barbarians” adopted the prevailing Roman ethos. They did not foist their own language, laws, or customs on Rome.
Pirenne stressed that the source of the Roman Empire’s vitality cannot be disassociated from its essentially Mediterranean character and orientation; that clearly remained intact for quite a while. Western trade flourished as before, connected with the great cities of the East – where prosperity, population, and learning were concentrated. The overall features of life throughout the region in 600 were similar to what they had been in 400.
It was not until the advent of Islam in the 7th century, precisely then and only then, that destruction really arrived. Recurrent Islamic raids altered the very orientation of the littoral peoples; they fled the Mediterranean and for the first time looked to the north. East was severed from West, and the previously unified Mediterranean, “having become a Musalman lake, was no longer a thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it always had been.”
Unlike the German invaders, wherever the Arabs went they ruled. This was a dimension of their religious claims. They sought not conversion per se, but demanded subjection, creating an insuperable barrier between the conquered and the Muslims: “What a contrast between them [the Arabs] and Theodoric, who placed himself at the service of those he had conquered, and sought to assimilate himself to them!” The whole region was thereby transformed, as the Arabs ushered in “a complete break with the past.”
Egyptian papyri, which had been widespread in the West (and a solid indicator of literacy), disappeared, as did distinctive coins that were in use right up until the Arab conquest – leading to the barter system.Despite the literary and archaeological sources, however, Pirenne’s arguments were dismissed in favor of the view that Islam had been (unlike “repressive” Christianity) an enlightening force.
In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012),Emmet Scott has taken up Pirenne’s thesis. Though he is primarily interested in the controversy it generated, he does not shy away from rendering a verdict: “scholarship has now arrived at several conclusions which are really beyond dispute, and which tend to offer definitive support for Pirenne.”
In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, classical civilization was intact and humming along, even expanding. In fact, some regions were “flourishing as never before”; Spain in particular, as well as Gaul, was enjoying a resurgent late classical culture.
Scott points to the hundreds of known Visigothic-era structures, even noting that by the early 7th century architects had brought back meticulously cut stone; these structures, Scott observes, were “far superior, technically and artistically, to their successors of the tenth century Romanesque.” In fact, the rich Visigothic architectural legacy stands in conspicuous contradistinction to the “virtually complete absence of all archaeology from the first two centuries of the Islamic epoch.” Only in the mid-tenth century do artifacts reemerge.
The great cities of the East – in Syria and Asia Minor – suffered violent destruction at the hand of the Arabs in the early seventh century. Sudden ruin during war, it might be objected, is one thing; these cities, however, were never rebuilt. In fact, significant archaeological remains in the entire Mediterranean as well as Middle Eastern regions (beyond Roman influence) seem to have entirely vanished for the next three centuries.
Construction – to say nothing of preservation – was not nurtured by Islam. Indeed, “almost all knowledge of these countries’ histories disappears, and does so almost overnight.” Of Egypt, Scott writes that the change imposed upon them in the early 7th century “can only be described as catastrophic.”
Islamic lands, as Naipaul recounts with personalized detail, have tended to experience a measure of what Egypt did so acutely: the effective loss of her own history. Moreover, another highly significant feature is now part of the archaeological record: a layer of sediment found throughout the Mediterranean known as the “Younger Fill.” This stratum of subsoil, which is not confined to the Mediterranean but is found in all the shores occupied by Muslims, represents the “geographical signature of the end of Graeco-Roman civilization.”
This subsoil was deposited between the mid-seventh and mid-tenth centuries, precisely coinciding with the deafening archaeological silence. It can be explained by the wholesale abandonment of irrigational and agricultural systems when the littoral peoples abandoned coastal settlements for hilltop fortifications in response to unremitting Muslim raids.
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