Interview with Rodney Stark, Part V

V.  Islam and the "Dark Ages"


(Here there’s a short technical lacuna in the transcript. I asked about reviews; Dr. Stark said most reviews have remained generous, even as he moved toward Christianity. He then noted that he is presently working on a book in which he defends the Crusades. I responded:)


Oh … boy.  I’m sure you'll get a negative review of that! 


Sure I will. But the point is, I'm able to demonstrate, I think, that the so-called "famous Muslim or Arab culture" was in fact the culture of the dhimmis; that is to say, of the various Christians and Jews and what-not they were sitting on[2]. In the 1300s, when they started to kill all these people, their culture went away. Suddenly, in 1500 the Arabs are all so backwards. How did that happen? Well, they were always backward!  I’ve got all kinds of material that shows that, throughout Arab lands, all the bureaucrats were Christians!  Every once in a while, they’d kill them all, and they couldn’t replace them, and they’d hire Christians back again. 


They might bring back witch-hunting. 


Yeah, well, I don’t give a damn. The fact of the matter is that Arab culture is pretty much nonsense. I mean, Arabic numbers are in fact Indian numbers. 


All the inventions that are accredited to the Muslim civilization, you would say basically came from Jews and Christians? 


The whole medical thing (was from) Nestorian Christians. No, it’s pretty much a myth. There were some universities at that time. They were Nestorian! 


Is there some essence to Arab culture that causes it to be backwards? Or is it Islam that is the cornerstone? 


They started out being a very backwards culture; I mean, they were desert Arabs. They never had any intellectual elite, they were almost all Christians and Jews and Syrians and Persians and Hindus. 


(Hasn’t) it changed at all?


I was going to say the 12th Century, the 13th Century. At the Battle of Lepanto, which is 1571, the Muslim fleet is sunk. What's interesting is that the admirals on both sides were Christians. And the boats were built in Venice. They never had a navy.  


I don’t know if you’ve read Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize writing travel books about going through Arab lands?  A quarter of the Muslims in the world are Arabs. He makes the case that Arabs are trying to impose their culture on other Muslims around the world. 


That’s probably true.  But the culture that we all talked about being so superior really wasn't. 


This is the problem that Bernard Lewis talks about: What went wrong?[3]   


My answer to Bernard Lewis really is, nothing went wrong.  It was an illusion in the first place. 


What went wrong was they converted and killed off all the Christians and Jews. And with the demise of the dhimmis was the demise of the delusion! When they build Bagdad, or when they built the big mosque in Jerusalem, it was Byzantine architects.  So it's not clear there ever was an Arab architecture, as a matter of fact. It was paid for by Arabs but ….


But isn't that true of Christianity, too? I mean, we borrowed Greek and Roman architecture. 


Well, sure! But this is not borrowing, this is like having Greeks and Romans come back and build them for you. 


So you're saying what the Saudis are doing with Filipinos and Indians today ….


Oh, I don’t know about today. I’m talking about back when this famous Arab culture was so superior to Europe, so-called. The 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Centuries, when Europe was in the Dark Ages, which never happened. I’m saying, "But hey! That wasn't an Arab culture at all!" It was a continuation of the Christian and Jewish culture of North Africa and the Middle East – and the Persians. 


I can see some of the strands of those ideas in some of your earlier books. 


Well, I had to sit down and read all this stuff. (When I got) about to chapter three in this book on the Crusades, I had to face the (question): How was it that these … "ignorant savage Middle-Age (Crusaders)" could travel 2,500 miles, lose about 75% to 80% of their numbers on the way ….


And still take Jerusalem. 


And kick butt when they got to the other end! The fact is, they had much better weapons, and they had better armor, and better strategy, and they were more advanced! So how does that work? Gosh, maybe I’d better start looking back here. And you've got (the) thesis that Europe went down the drain because the Arabs took control of the Mediterranean.


You go back and look, and the Genoese and the Venetians and what-not are raiding Arab coastal towns throughout the entire so-called Middle Ages. The Byzantines can land troops anywhere they want. Where is this control of the sea? And the answer is, it wasn’t there! 


The Muslims are landing in Italy and Switzerland,[4] too. 


They were in Sicily and Italy, absolutely. And they got kicked out, because they couldn't reinforce by sea, as a matter of fact. 


Byzantium was in fact a corrupt nightmare. For the Arabs to run over part of it – not a big surprise. But then the first time they faced the Franks, bam! They really got kicked. 


But (as for) the term the Dark Ages, at the very least, even if the lifestyle of the people in Europe was better as you say, isn't it true that the Muslim world had huge libraries, while most people in Europe couldn't read or write? 


Well, but isn't it interesting that Saladin, the famous wonderful liberal, destroyed the biggest library in Islam, gave the books away. It's not at all clear and clean. 


You could make a case for the Dark Ages just from the fact that there wasn't much reading and writing going on in Western Europe. 


There was enough. No. I think the Dark Ages was a complete fraud. The fact that you may not be too familiar with the early Greeks, that you may not in fact write such good Latin, what's that got to do with the price of eggs? They were building dams and windmills and things that the Romans couldn't have imagined.

And they were much healthier, and much better-fed. And I'm sorry, science was going forward. Science doesn't just suddenly jump out of the wall in the 1400s and 1500s. It was there in the 10, 11, 1200s. The university is a Dark Ages institution. And it was very sophisticated. 


Spending some time in Oxford, walking around and looking at the history – a lot of it is legendary, you don't know exactly how it started – is a real education. I’m amazed that someone like Richard Dawkins has managed to be such an anti-Christian bigot in a place like that.


And an ignorant bigot. His attacks are 3rd grade. I have a student who has written a wonderful book that you might like. I don't like the introductory chapter, but everything else is wonderful. It's called The Plot to Kill God. It's by Paul Froese. It's about the seventy-some year attempt in Russia to get rid of religion, and how after seventy years they got nowhere. He points out that one of the problems is the people who were planning the atheist curriculum were all guys like Richard Dawkins; they didn't know diddle about religion! And they didn't have enough respect for it to think they needed to know anything. And so they're always aiming these "killer arguments" that demonstrated the falsity of religion that half the peasants knew the answers to!  (Laughter)


I guess Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich is a pretty good picture of the sort of person ….


Exactly. You’ve got it.  (Laughter)  It’s a good book, I recommend it.



[2] This term seems to have been popularized by Egyptian scholar Bat Ye’or, author of The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam. It refers to Christians and Jews who paid a “poll tax” to traditional Muslim governments in the Middle East, which Muslims were not required to pay – among other restrictions and regulations. 

[3] See my review of Lewis’ What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.

[4] Dr. Stark assumed I misspoke, but not in this case. For Muslim incursion into modern Switzerland up to Lake Constance, see Paul Fregosi, Jihad, p.24.