ISIS's Backwards 'Caliphate' Evokes Crusaders Over Caliphs

In medieval Europe, the Bible--as interpreted by Church--was king. Rather than cherishing their pre-Christian inheritance, many feudal lords branded classical philosophy, especially "pagan" texts, heresy. Skies billowed with smoke--fueled sometimes by heretical works, more often by the mangled bodies of the free thinkers who dared read them. A rich corpus, comprising parchment and scholars, was heaped onto the wood-pile, used to feed fires instead of minds. As late as 1600, the Roman Inquisition dragged cosmologist Giordano Bruno through Rome, strapped him to a stake, and burned him alive before a jubilant "Christian" mob. His offense? Suggesting stars were other suns. Even the philosophy-minded emperor Charlemagne countered heresies like Germanic paganism with a sword instead of a pen.

Whilst countless Europeans wallowed in theocratic dogmatism, desecrating heaps of intellectual capital in spasms of close-mindedness best described as "civilizational suicide," inquisitive caliphs like Harun al-Rashid preserved ancient knowledge--at state expense--subsidizing the translation of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Indian thought while encouraging Christian and Jewish scholars to set up shop in Baghdad alongside Muslim philosophers like al-Farabi.

This cross-pollination quickly ripened. Socratic humility (the intuition that we humans are all ignorant, that admitting this is a spur for knowledge) combined with Quranic injunctions on education to ignite the unmoored curiosity of al-Farabi's contemporaries. A golden age of Islamic science, philosophy, and culture began. Like the European Enlightenment, this was a revolution conscious of the Socratic notion that though "the fool [thinks] he is wise...the wise man knows himself to be a fool." That is, before we can learn, we must admit we don't have all the answers. You can't put anything new into a closed container--a closed mind works the same way.

Unlike Christian inquisitionists, like Socratics, thinkers such as the Mu'tazilites were unafraid to ask questions--even concerning the Quran. Religion was a path, not the path. This tolerance of free thinkers, buoyed by the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates' state-sponsored undertakings à la al-Rashid's House of Wisdom, rendered Baghdad a new Athens--a cosmopolitan hub in an era otherwise hindered by dogmatism.

ISIS is a tragic foil. Despite its presumptuous claim to a "new caliphate," the group--by punishing trifling deviation from its narrow Sunnism, by elevating theocracy over free thought--exemplifies a mentality opposite that which fueled the caliphates of Islam's golden age. Indeed, ISIS's illogical refusal to contemplate the possibility it's wrong--to burn dissenters alive, like the prosecutors-turned-persecutors of the Roman Inquisition did to Bruno and too many others--mirrors tenth-century Christendom more than tenth-century Islam. And in the same way Christian dogmatism mired the medieval West, the conquest of Salafist dogmatism would only widen the gulf between Muslims and others as perennial non-Western civilizations like China and India conduct scientific inquiry with breathtaking speed, and--sometimes slowly yet always surely--embrace freer political inquiry as well.

The reason ISIS offers only stagnation for the Muslim world is, thus, very simple: it exalts ignorance cloaked (as so often) within conformity. Unlike ISIS, al-Farabi's inquiries--as well as the epistemic liberalism of Abbasid caliphs like al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun--rested on the crucial insight that we can all be wrong since we all lack perfect knowledge. Intellectual humility spurred al-Farabi and his contemporaries to cherish others' thoughts, even those fashioned by "infidels" like Greeks and Indians, to use them to firm up the foundations of old intellectual highways while paving new ones in philosophy, science, mathematics, economics, and jurisprudence. Have you ever struggled with algebra? Trigonometry? Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Politics? Astronomy? Largely, you have Islam--specifically, the Abbasid Caliphate of the 8th to 13th centuries--to thank.

Indeed, when the West really started climbing out of its valley of religious dogmatism in the High Middle Ages, it was helped up by Muslims--from al-Farabi to Averroes. Copernicus's revolutionary heliocentrism, for example, sprouted from astronomical discoveries of Muslims.

So what gives? Why is today's Baghdad so unlike al-Farabi's? Why is narrow-minded Islamization, in lieu of Avicenna's skepticism or Abbasid cosmopolitanism, strangling Muslim science and politics? Partly, the Crusades exerted relentless pressure in the 11th and 12th centuries. But the larger culprit arrived from the east in the apocalyptic form of Hulagu Khan's nomadic Mongol army, which sacked Baghdad in 1258 in a perfect storm of theft, demolition, and slaughter. It was as if the Athens of Pericles and Aristotle had been obliterated by a nuclear bomb. Some even compare the impact on Islam to that on Christendom after Western Rome collapsed under pressure applied by similar nomads; that is, the Muslim world--like post-Roman Europe--entered a dark age. Baghdad's survivors recalled the Tigris running crimson-red with the blood of great scholars, murky-black with the ink of myriad lost texts.

To be sure, Arab science and philosophy lumbered on--yet never with equal vigor. Forgetting the roots of Islamic civilization's greatness, Muslim rulers increasingly suppressed ijtihad (independent reasoning) for uninspired, dull, risk-averse taqleed (imitation). This change actually commenced before Baghdad's fall; whereas caliphs al-Rashid and al-Ma'mun worked tirelessly to collect foreign works for the House of Wisdom, al-Mutawakkil--not a Mu'tazili and therefore less inclined to support broad-minded inquiry--feared and therefore shunned the questioning ethos of Greek philosophy, labeling it "anti-Islamic." Imitating their medieval Western forebears, but during a time when Westerners had begun eroding their walls against secular knowledge, Muslim authorities increasingly suppressed scholars with minds too broad for the four corners of a Quran. Al-Mutawakkil's science-phobia contributed to a long stagnation that, at worst, produces maniacs like ISIS--people so certain they are right, yet (tellingly) so frightened they could be proven wrong, that like Catholic inquisitionists they are eager to kill others not only for providing answers, but for even posing questions.

Giordano Bruno was not permitted to live in sixteenth-century Christendom; al-Farabi and Avicenna, indeed the bulk of Islam's philosophers, would not be allowed to live in the "Islamic" State's so-called "caliphate."

Let's make the irony clearer: Young men joining ISIS are partly inspired by a yearning to make the Islamic world as great as it was in 1257, before the Mongols sacked Baghdad. Yet theocracy anchored to static dogma is not the vehicle towards greatness, but--as the medieval contrast between the dissent-suppressing West and dissent-permissive Islam revealed--the vehicle away from it. Such narrow theocracy can't even yield a "golden age of conquest" because, in the modern era, military supremacy is premised on technology created by scientists.

ISIS holds values antithetical to those that sparked Islam's golden era--foolish certainty over wise uncertainty, conformity over free thought, oppression over tolerance. Unlike Averroes, unlike Avicenna, unlike al-Farabi, unlike the Prophet himself--who possessed both religious and philosophical knowledge--ISIS makes ignorance its idol and conformity its religion. When confronted with a dissenting opinion, al-Farabi inquired further. For he knew that he--not just they--could be mistaken. ISIS kills the dissenters, suppresses their literature, or--rather like an angry preschooler--buries its head.

This regression is tragic--for the world but for Islam, too. Civilizational progress comes from recognizing how little we know--from recognizing that acknowledged ignorance is a prerequisite to wisdom. The wisest things wise men like Socrates and al-Farabi knew were (1) just how much they didn't know and (2) that even their strongest beliefs could be wrong, premised on faulty assumptions. This dyad spurs one (1) to take truth as authority rather than authority as truth, which--naturally--elevates questions over answers and sparks the moral, epistemic, and technological advancement necessary for a golden age and (2) to respond to dissent with cool inquiry rather than hot violence--after all, the other side might be right. The West only left the Dark Ages for good when a critical mass rediscovered Greek skepticism, which encouraged scholars to use uncertainty to fuel new questions--thereby receiving new answers--rather than simply reading, re-reading, re-re-reading, and re-re-re-reading the Bible.

Ignorant fool, serial murderer, rapist, and ISIS head al-Baghdadi fancies himself a "caliph"; but the real caliphs of the past, from al-Rashid to al-Wathiq, would condemn this man's overconfidence in his rightness, so extreme as to render dissent a capital offense, as a formula for civilizational failure.

Constantly referencing its bizarre, anachronistic desire to battle the increasingly secular "Rome," including the peaceful foil that is Pope Francis, ISIS claims to oppose "Crusaders." Yet within the medieval context, ISIS resembles the most violent Western Crusaders much more than it does the open, cosmopolitan heritage that marked Islam's Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Like the Crusaders during the Rhineland massacres (where zealots massacred German Jews), ISIS destroys religious minorities instead of, like Abbasid caliphs, protecting them. Indeed, whereas Caliph al-Rashid enticed Christian and Jewish philosophers to his House of Wisdom, to learn and to teach, "Caliph" al-Baghdadi won't let anyone else do the talking, even if they fully embrace his anti-religious resurrection of might makes right.

ISIS is not fighting Crusaders. No--Islamic State fighters are Crusaders. Modern, less tolerant ones. And like the most fanatical Western knights, ISIS is obsessed with forcing everyone else to trash their capacity to reason and to instead buy into their narrow worldview, dismissive of the right of any brain holding another version of "truth" to function. The main difference is that ISIS purports to be exporting another religion: Sunni Islam rather than Christianity.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, these modern Crusaders have modern weapons.