The essay below was written as a mid-term assignment for a class I’m doing at MIT. I thought it was worth sharing, so here it is below:
More often than not, it may seem to many as if the world, historically, evolved under the leadership of Europe. As Europe went ‘dormant’ in the Dark Ages, many believe that, with it, History stood still. Certainly this can be witnessed in science and technology as well, where the history of knowledge, invention, and innovation almost consistently begins in Europe with Newton and his local contemporaries. Moving further into the past, one would mainly come across the Ancient Greeks, who, widely, are alone recognized as the “intellectual precursors” to the more recent European intellectuals.
In fact, however, such approach to world history neglects invaluable contributions of the rest of the world in shaping itself. Far East, African, and Islamicate Civilizations all advanced knowledge, culture, and politics, paving the way for the Renaissance, Industrialization, and Global Development.
Consequently, an approach where non European contributions and achievements are downplayed is known as a Eurocentric approach. Eurocentrism stems from ethnocentrism, a perhaps-widespread belief in past eras, where one possessed the belief of preeminence of one’s own culture and civilization over that of the ‘insignificant other’. Eurocentrism, as a prominent and unified belief, started as a response to Europe’s achievements during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment (Goody, 1995, p. 2), which began in the fifteenth century, and lasted well into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Ethnocentrism in Europe in general, however, saw various significant peaks well before the fifteenth century. The prominent form of Eurocentrism referenced above indeed stems from such beliefs, common in Europe centuries ago. The Church’s doctrine constructed a hierarchy of peoples, where those of Europe would “dwell in the tents of” Asians, while Africans were designated as “servant[s] of servants” (Lockman, 2004, p. 18). Such belief was designated by the Church to be the Word of God, a long-lasting attitude used both to espouse and stimulate conquest of other nations (Lockman, 2004, p. 19), but also invigorating a “culture of dominance” in Europe that persisted until modern colonization periods.
The arrival of Islam to Europe was the first major threat to the established doctrine of The Church, and, as such, was eventually portrayed as a blasphemous religion practiced by infidels. Indeed, Pope Urban II said, in his famous speech that fueled the First Crusades in the eleventh century, that Muslims were an “accursed race […] utterly alienated from God”, and designated them “[God’s] enemies” (Munro, 1895). Such descriptions indicate the beginnings of the development of a distorted view of understanding the Middle East and Islam; such misunderstandings are formed as direct implications of a Eurocentric approach. Accordingly, primary European historical accounts often viewed the Middle East as an inferior region with a backwards and stagnating culture and values. It is a common misunderstanding of Middle East history to deem Europe as the savior of the Middle East and Arabia, exporting values, ideals, and systems, such as capitalism and bureaucracy and ‘modernizing’ the region.
Reality, however, is contrary to such views; the Islamic Civilization realized ground-breaking achievements that, not only shaped World History, but also explains the subsequent Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe. Islamic achievements in thought, philosophy, the scientific method, natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering exported to Europe through trade and conquests constitute the direct foundations of the European intellectual movement. Certainly the Islamic Civilization has contributed heavily to the development of the world, and must be taken into account to understand the global propagation of Human Knowledge historically, and the subsequent evolution of civilization and society. Throughout the rest of this paper, the role of Islam in shaping both the history of Europe and the World’s will be discussed.