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Colm Gillis: The West Owes “an Immense Debt to Islam”

by Hugh Fitzgerald


Dr. Colm Gillis

Boris Johnson’s recently-unearthed observation that Islam kept Muslims centuries behind the West prompted a series of letters to The Guardian taking issue with this, claiming instead that the West owed an “immense debt to Islam.”

The first and most indignant letter, representative of many, was from Dr. Colm Gillis, an “independent scholar” who appears to have no background in Islamic studies:

Johnson is painfully ignorant of the immense cultural, economic, and scientific contributions of Muslims (Islam kept Muslim world centuries behind the west, Johnson claimed, 16 July). Western civilisation owes an immense debt to Islam, whether in the form of algebra, the saving of ancient Greek heritage or the free-market economics of Ibn Khaldun.

Let’s start with “algebra,” which always heads the list of “Muslim” contributions to civilization. The word “algebra” comes from the Arabic “al-jabr.” From that we are expected to believe that “algebra” was first developed by Muslim Arabs. The word “sugar” also comes from the Arabic, (“sukkar”), but this does not mean that Muslim Arabs discovered sugar. Algebra was not invented by Arabs or Muslims, but in India, by Sanskrit mathematicians. Muslims then translated and commented on these Indian works. The  word “al-jabr” was first used in the treatise Book on Addition and Subtraction after the Method of the Indians, written by the 9th-century Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn M?s? al-Khw?rizm?. In the very title of his book we find acknowledgement of the Indian origins of algebra — “After the Method of the Indians.” But this information continues to be ignored by those who still insist on claiming that algebra was invented by Muslims.

Many of those who like to claim “algebra” for the Muslims also insist that “Arabic numerals” were invented by Muslim Arabs, but here, too, it is the Indian mathematicians who came up with these numerals. They were transmitted from India  to the West  by the Arabs — hence their misnomer “Arabic numerals.”

Often cited as examples of the inventiveness of Muslims are paper and gunpowder. But both were invented by the Chinese and then brought to the West by Muslims, who are often credited with inventing what they merely transmitted.

What about Muslims’ “saving of ancient Greek heritage”? That’s a fantastic claim. Muslim rulers, in Baghdad, Toledo, and Cordoba, commissioned the translation of certain Greek works — not the entire “ancient Greek heritage.” Works of rhetoric, poetry, histories, and dramas were not translated into Arabic, since they were viewed as serving political ends which were potentially dangerous in  the eyes of such rulers. Instead, philosophical and scientific works were almost the entire focus of translation into Arabic. The translations were done not  by Muslims, but by Arabic-speaking Christians (including Nestorian, Melkite, and Jacobite monks in Palestine and, later in Baghdad, and by Catholics in Cordoba and Toledo), and Jews in Cordoba,Toledo, and Baghdad. Al-Mansur, the 2nd Abbasid caliph, was the most important Muslim ruler to commission these translations. The most significant  works that were translated were those of Aristotle — but not even all of his corpus. The word “saving” implies that these Greek works from classical antiquity would otherwise have disappeared. But that misstates the case. Translation did not “save” that heritage, but made these Greek texts more accessible, for once they had been translated from Greek into Arabic (sometimes being put first into Syriac, and then from Syriac into Arabic), they were then made accessible to a large Arabic-speaking, but not necessarily Muslim, population. They could then be translated yet again, by these Christian and Jewish translators, from the Arabic into Latin, and these Latin texts would then be transmitted to the West. There was no “debt to Islam” for “saving ancient Greek heritage.” The debt was to those Christian and Jewish translators for first producing  Arabic translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works, and then to still other Christians and Jews who translated those Arabic texts into Latin, thus making them more accessible to scholars in the West.

As for the third claim, so casually tossed-off, about the “free-market economics of Ibn Khaldun,” there are a handful of articles online — by Muslims — that describe Ibn Khaldun as an economist who prefigured Adam Smith’s “free-market” economics. But there is nothing in ibn Khaldun about the “free market” or the Invisible Hand; he did point out the economic benefits of the “division of labor,” whereby an item is most efficiently and inexpensively manufactured when each worker concentrates on manufacturing only one part. Ibn Khaldun took this observation and applied it not only to what went on in rudimentary factories, but also among countries: hundreds of years before Ricardo, Ibn Khaldun noted that if one country had a comparative advantage in producing a particular good, it made sense for it to specialize in making that good and for other countries to buy it from them. Ibn Khaldun also made some remarks about how increasing taxes could lead in the end to less revenues for the government; some may see this as prefiguring supply-side economics and the Laffer curve. But he did not, unlike Adam Smith, provide a unified and coherent economic theory; his were disjointed observations. But most significant was that they had no effect in the West, were not part of any “debt to Islam,” because these economic observations found in his Muqaddimah remained unknown in the Western world and could not have influenced Adam Smith, David Ricardo, or any other classical economists of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no “debt to Islam” in the West for Ibn Khaldun’s economic writings because they became known only long after Western economists had elaborated their own free-market theories. They made no use of, and therefore had no debt to, Ibn Khaldun.

Colm Gilllis continues his attempt to eviscerate Boris Johnson for daring to suggest, 12 years ago, that Islam is the cause of Muslim lands falling behind the West:

Johnson is correct that many Muslim-majority nations are beset by social and political problems. Yet the same holds true for numerous Christian-majority nations such as Russia, Honduras, Haiti and South Africa. He also makes a “false equivalence” argument in comparing stable western democracies to war-ravaged countries like Bosnia, seemingly blaming Muslims there for being attacked. Curiously, Muslim extremists promote the same arguments as Johnson, albeit for different aims. Neither depiction is true nor helpful.

Gillis is ignoring the fact that it is not “many” Muslim-majority nations are “beset by social and political problems,” but almost all Muslim-majority nations that have been, and are now, beset with such social and political problems. There are civil wars going on in Syria and Yemen, Islamic terrorists are active in Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, sectarian warfare is going on between Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq and Yemen, the Wahhabis suppress Shia in Saudi Arabia, the Sunni ruler of Bahrain suppresses the Shia majority, in Libya a “national government” based in Tripoli is fighting a militia based in Benghazi, there is political intrigue, social unrest, and infighting in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia. In Egypt, the military regime remains engaged in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood; in Tunisia, the secularists led by Caid Beji Essebsi are in conflict with the Islamists of Rachid Gannouchi and the Ennahda party; in Algeria, Berbers, having been suppressed for years, have been demanding that the ruling Arab junta recognize the Berber language and culture. In Nigeria, both the Muslim Hausa in Boko Haram and Muslim Fulani herdsmen continue to burn down churches, kill Christian villagers, kidnap Christian girls.

In Turkey, the Kemalists have been outmaneuvered and crushed by Erdogan, while the Turkish army continues the  war against Kurdish insurgents of the PKK that it has been waging since  1978. In Iran, the majority Shi’a continue to fight the Sunni Baluchi minority in the east.

Yet this author claims, in a bit of tu-quoque, that there are Christian-majority nations “such as Russia, Honduras, Haiti and South Africa” that also are “beset by social and political problems.” But this handful of Christian-majority countries — four in all — can hardly compare with the dozens of  Muslim countries where strife — sectarian, religious, ethnic — is the rule. Russia has no internal conflicts of peoples; there are people trying to undo, through electoral politics, the iron rule of Vladimir Putin, but there are no armed groups fighting each other. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, but that’s the result of gangs fighting for territory and control of the drug trade and other criminal activities; it has nothing to do with the sectarian, ethnic, and religious strife found in Muslim lands. It’s the criminals versus the rest of society that is caught, literally and figuratively, in the crossfire. Haiti is still suffering from the effects of the 2010 earthquake, but also from a decades-old deforestation problem, overpopulation, a lack of sanitation, natural disasters (of which the 2010 earthquake was only the most dramatic example), and food insecurity. These problems, again, are not akin to what plagues Muslim lands, which are conflicts among its groups. Haitians are plagued by environmental problems, some of them unavoidable (as earthquakes), while others are the result of bad stewardship of the land (as deforestation), and still others the consequence of poverty (as a lack of sanitation) and of overpopulation, for Haiti is unable either to sustain, or to contain, its current population.

Another pathetic observation by the next British PM concerns the Ottoman empire. Johnson takes one oddity of the Turkish dawlah – the resistance to the printing press – and passes over achievements of the sultans such as religious tolerance and the architectural feats of Sinan. He claims this one act of backwardness negates the entire history of Islam, although resistance to technology is apparent even in British history, the luddites a classic case in point.

The failure to introduce the printing press for Muslim use in the Ottoman Empire until 1727 was not an isolated “oddity” at all, but reflected a more general mistrust among Muslims, especially clerics, of innovation, or bid’a. Another example of this reluctance to innovate, in another domain, was the continued use by Ottoman armies of stone cannonballs, long after those made of iron had been in use everywhere else. Muslim clerics reasoned that if new ways of doing things, or thinking about things, were to be permitted, this could conceivably lead some Believers to question aspects of the faith.

Dr. Gillis then complains that Boris Johnson passed over the “achievement of the sultans such as religious tolerance.” The treatment of Christians, mainly Greeks and Armenians, was not what we in the West think of as “religious tolerance.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, a myth arose of “Ottoman tolerance.” This was akin to, and even perhaps prompted by, the myth of a tolerant “convivencia” (coexistence) in Islamic Spain that was promoted by such writers as Washington Irving in The Alhambra, and by Chateaubriand in Les Aventures du dernier Abencérage; that view has been thoroughly demolished by the most recent scholarship, especially that by Dario Fernandez-Morera in his study The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain.

Another possible explanation for claims made for an Ottoman Empire more “tolerant” of non-Muslims than other Muslims is that when the Ottomans began slaughtering their Christian subjects in earnest, beginning in 1821 with the anti-Greek massacres in Constantinople, which then led to attacks on Greeks all over the Ottoman Empire, and then widened into the series of attacks throughout the 19th century on the three groups of Christians — Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians — some in the West may have thought an appeal to the Ottoman authorities, making reference to some  “tolerance” in the past, might possibly shame the Ottomans of the late 19th century into behaving better. If that was the hope, it failed.

From the 15th,16th, and 17th centuries, the reports that Christian envoys to the Ottomans sent home painted a grim picture of the treatment of Christians in the Empire. Paul Rycaut was the most important of these historian-diplomats. As the British consul at  Smyrna in the 1660s, he wrote several of the most important studies of the Ottomans, including The Present State of the Ottoman Empire and The Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches, Anno Christi 1678 Written at the Command of His Majesty. In his study of the Greek and Armenian Churches, he describes what the two Christian communities endured. They were allowed to live, and to practice their religion, but they could  do so only as dhimmis, subject to a host of onerous conditions, including payment of the Jizyah. And there were sometimes other financial burdens to bear, for when an Ottoman sultan felt he needed to raise more money, he could always squeeze the Christians. In 1568, for example, the Sultan confiscated all of the property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church throughout the empire. That meant not just every  Greek Orthodox church, but also every monastery, that were even more important, in educating monks, for the continuation of the Greek Orthodox community. Having taken away all that property, the Sultan then graciously allowed the Greeks to buy back their own property, of course at exorbitant prices.

The Ottomans were hardly  being “tolerant” when, beginning with Murad I in the 14th century, they instituted the infamous devshirme system, whereby Christian boys in the Balkans were seized, enslaved, and converted to Islam;  they were later employed either in the Janissary military corps or the Ottoman administrative system.

And then there were the massacres in the 19th century, of hundreds of thousands of Assyrians, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, and hundreds of thousands of Greeks, with more killed in the early 20th century; these massacres culminated in the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.

As for the Greeks, ever since the Greek War for Independence in 1821, the Ottoman Muslims had been engaged in massacring Greek civilians, while beheading and hanging their senior clerics, in a dozen parts of the Empire.

The  Constantinople massacre of 1821 came first. The full horror of it deserves to be described:

The Sultan requested a fatwa allowing a general massacre against all Greeks living in the Empire[ from the Shaykh al-Isl?m, Haci Halil Efendi. The Shaykh obliged; however, the Patriarch managed to convince him that only a few Greeks were involved in the uprising, and the Shaykh recalled the fatwa. Haci Halil Efendi was later exiled and executed by the Sultan for this.

The Ecumenical Patriarch was forced by the Ottoman authorities to excommunicate the revolutionaries, which he did on Palm Sunday, April, 15 [O.S. April, 3] 1821. Although he was unrelated to the insurgents, the Ottoman authorities still considered him guilty of treason because he was unable, as representative of the Orthodox population of the Ottoman Empire, to prevent the uprising.

Although the Patriarch found himself forced to excommunicate the revolutionaries, he still failed to appease the Ottoman rulers. Later, on the same day as the excommunication, the Sultan ordered the execution of the Grand Dragoman, Konstantinos Mourouzis. He was arrested at the house of the Reis Effendi and beheaded, while his body was displayed in public. Moreover, his brother and various other leading members of the Phanariote families were also executed, although in fact only a few Phanariotes were connected with the revolutionaries.

Despite the efforts of the Orthodox Patriarch to profess his loyalty to the Sultan, the latter remained unconvinced. One week after the excommunication, on Easter Sunday, April, 22 1821, he was grabbed by Ottoman soldiers during the liturgy and hanged at the central gate of the Patriarchate.Thus, although he was completely uninvolved with the Revolution, his death was ordered as an act of revenge. On the day of the hanging of Gregory V, three bishops and a dozens of other Greeks, high officials in the Ottoman administration, were quickly executed in various parts of the Ottoman capital.  Among them were the metropolitan bishops, Dionysios of Ephesus, Athanasios of Nicomedia, Gregory of Derkoi, and Eugenios of Antilles.

Moreover, the execution of the Patriarch signaled a reign of terror against the Greeks living in Constantinople the following weeks, while fanatical Muslims were encouraged to attack Greek communities throughout the Ottoman Empire.Thus, groups of fanatical Turks, including janissaries, roamed the streets of the city, as well as the nearby villages. They looted Greek churches and property, initiating a large scale pogrom. Around 14 Christian Churches suffered heavy damage, while some of them were completely destroyed. The Patriarchal complex also became one of the targets. Eugenius II, the newly elected Patriarch, saved himself at the last moment, by escaping to the roof. During this period, the Ottoman authorities sought prominent Greeks from all over Constantinople: in government service, in the Orthodox Church, or members of prominent families and put them to death by hanging or beheading. In addition, several hundred Greek merchants in the city were also massacred.

By May 1821, restrictions on the local Greeks increased, while churches continued to be assaulted.On May 24, Patriarch Eugenius presented a memorandum to the Ottoman authorities, begging them to be merciful towards the Greek people and church, claiming that only a few Greeks revolted and not the entire nation. Eugenius also repeated the excommunication of Gregory toward the revolutionaries. Nevertheless, public executions of Greeks were still a daily occurrence in Constantinople. On June 15, five archbishops and three bishops were executed. Additionally, in early July, seventy shared the same fate. Additionally, 450 shopkeepers and traders were rounded up and sent to work in mines.

The same state of affairs also spread to other major cities of the Ottoman Empire with significant Greek populations. In Adrianople, on May 3, the former Patriarch, Cyril VI, nine priests and twenty merchants were hanged in front of the local Cathedral. Other Greeks of lower social status were executed, sent to exile or imprisoned.

In Smyrna, numerous Ottoman troops were staged, waiting orders to march against the rebels in Greece. TheyC entered the city and together with local Turks embarked on a general massacre against the Christian population of the city which amounted to hundreds of deaths. During another massacre in the predominantly Greek town of Ayvalik, the town was burned to the ground, for fear that the inhabitants might rebel and join the revolution in Greece. As a result of the Ayvalik massacres, hundreds of Greeks were killed and many of the survivors were sold as slaves.

Similar massacres against the Greek population during these months occurred also in the Aegean islands of Kos and Rhodes. Part of the Greek population in Cyprus was also massacred. Among the victims was the archbishop Kyprianos, as well as five other local bishops.

Other Ottoman massacres of Greeks occurred at Chios, on Crete, where tens of thousands of Greeks were killed in 1822.

Ottoman forces destroyed the entire  Greek population — approximately 7,000 people — on the island of  Psara in 1824.

During the Hamidian massacres (1896-1898), 800 Greeks at Candia, on Crete, were massacred, by irregular Muslim troops.

From 1914 to 1922, Greeks in Ottoman Turkey were subject to massacres, forced deportations involving death marches, summary expulsions, arbitrary execution, and the destruction of Eastern Orthodox cultural, historical, and religious monuments. According to various sources, several hundred thousand Ottoman Greeks died during this period. More about the genocide of Greeks at the hands of the  Ottomans  can be found here.

It wasn’t just Assyrians, Greeks, and Armenians who suffered from Muslim attacks. Bulgarians were also victims. In 1876, Ottoman irregular troops destroyed the Bulgarian community in Batak, with 7,000 killed. This led to Gladstone’s famous thundering against the savagery of the Turks in his essay “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.”

Armenians suffered from pogroms in a dozen Armenian cities during the “Hamidian massacres” of 1894-1896; 400,000 Armenians were killed in those years. In 1909, there was another attack on Armenians in Adana, with 20,000-30,000 killed during a series of pogroms in that province. Smaller attacks continued until, in 1915, the greatest massacres of the Armenians took place, with 1.5 million Armenians murdered. More on the genocide of Armenians can be found here.

Assyrians started to be massacred by irregular Muslim troops in 1843 and 1846 at Hakkari, where 10,000 were killed. A series of small-scale attacks during the last half of the 19th century kept Assyrians in a permanent state of fear, which turned out to be warranted, for far worse was what  happened to them in 1894-96, when not only Armenians, but 300,000 Assyrians were killed by Muslim troops. More details about the Assyrian genocide can be found here.

Has Colm Gillis read Paul Rycaut on the treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire  in the 17tn century? Is he aware that Christians were “tolerated” only because they were dhimmis, who had to fulfill a number of onerous conditions in order to be allowed both to stay alive and to practice their faith? Does he know what the Jizyah is, and how burdensome at was? Has he heard about the seizure of Greek property by a greedy sultan who then sold it back to its original owners? Has he heard of the devshirme system? What does he know about the many massacres and pogroms of Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians by Ottoman Turks, from 1821 on? Questions for study and reflection.

Colm Gillis also mentions, in his excoriation of Boris Johnson, as “an achievement of the sultans,” the architectural feats of Mimar Sinan (“the great architect Sinan”). But those feats were not achievements of the sultans — they merely paid the bills. They belonged to Sinan himself, as his personal achievement. And Sinan, it might be noted, was born a Christian — whether Armenian or Greek is still disputed — and raised in a Christian milieu. He only became a Muslim when, at the age of 22, he was drafted into the Janissary Corps. Surely the fact that the leading mosque architect in the Ottoman Empire was born and raised a Christian is worth noting, even if it undermines Colm Gillis’s claim that Sinan’s buildings should be considered “an achievement of the [Muslim] sultans.”

Finally, in a fit of tu-quoque, Gillis offers, by way of a riposte to Boris Johnson’s observation that the Muslims did not make use the printing press until nearly 400 years after it had been introduced in the West, that the West had its “luddites,” too. But the Luddite movement as a force to be reckoned with lasted only from 1811 to 1816. it was not an expression of societal hostility to everything new, but only reflected the opposition of workers in a few industries, opposed to those machines that necessarily led to a loss of jobs, or to the use of lower-paid workers who would operate the machines. There was no general suspicion of innovation in England, as the cascading inventiveness of its industrial revolution amply demonstrates, nothing comparable to the unwillingness of the Ottomans, for many centuries, to make use of the printing-press.

Johnson’s authority for his ignorance is Winston Churchill. If Churchill said it, it must be true. However, Churchill was neither a historian nor a sociologist. He was a myth-maker whose literary skills were devoted to “demonstrating” the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over all others. To achieve this sleight of hand, Churchill had to simultaneously denigrate other cultures, including Islam. It seems that Great Britain under Johnson will be beset by similar doses of myth, fantasy and supremacist doctrines.

Johnson was not mindlessly endorsing everything Churchill said. He was referring to Churchill’s by-now celebrated observations on Islam and Muslims that appeared in The River War. That particular quote was one of the most brilliant analyses of Islam, and its effect on its adherents,  that anyone has yet produced, and Johnson was right to allude to it.

But what is positively fantastic is the claim by Colm Gillis that Churchill was not “a historian.” Churchill was not an academic historian, he never had to pass a Ph.D. exam or labored over a doctoral dissertation that few would wish to reread. He was something far better than that. In his life, Churchill was an army officer, a journalist, a government official, a politician, and a historian. He studied history by constant reading. One of his most famous remarks was his advice to a young man: “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.” Till the end of his life he remained a student, as well as a writer, of history. He was always a keen observer of men and events. And for more than half a century he was a direct participant in the most important events in British, and even world, history.

No other historian has ever held so many, so various, and such important, positions in his own government, and engaged in so many occupations — journalist, writer, lecturer — outside of it. He reported on British imperialism as a military man and journalist, in Sudan, India, and South Africa. During World War I, he was again at the center of things, as First Lord of the Admiralty. In the 1920s, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the 1930s, it was Churchill, though in the political wilderness, who alone warned the British elite, and through his journalism the  British public, that Germany was rapidly rearming, that Hitler was an unprecedented threat, that Europe would almost certainly be engulfed, because of relentless Nazi aggression, in a Second World War, and that Britain had itself to rearm to counter Hitlerism. As British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945, he was at the very center of world events. In 1945, he then resumed his career as a historian, working on his mammoth History of the English-Speaking Peoples, until he returned again as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955.

The distinguished historian Professor H. C. Allen of London University once suggested that when we consider the total bulk of Churchill’s  historical work, “judged as an historian alone, and setting aside all his other manifold and in some cases greater achievements, Sir Winston Churchill’s fame would be secure.”

He wrote many kinds of histories; about his own life, about his distinguished ancestors, about World War II. The Oxford historian A.L. Rowse thinks his masterpieces are his  4-volume Life of Lord Marlborough and his  4-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a history of Britain and its former colonies and possessions throughout the world, covering the period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain (55 BC) to the beginning of the First World War (1914). It’s hard to imagine that one man could have written a work that seamlessly covers nearly 2000 years of history, and that has earned the respect of such distinguished historians as H. C. Allen, A. J. Rowse,  Andrew Roberts, and Martin Gilbert, among many others. Churchill was, in the writing of history as in so much else, a one-man multitude.

When Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values,” he was only the second Nobel winner who was given the literature award primarily for his works of history; the first was Theodor Mommsen in 1902, for his History of Rome. No doubt those who awarded Churchill the Nobel for his historical works did so only after learning from eminent historians about Churchill’s achievements as an historian.

But perhaps we should instead listen to Colm Gillis. Why should the opinions of Professors A. J. Rowse, H. C, Allen, Andrew Roberts, Martin Gilbert and a hundred other historians of similar distinction, matter? And what do those unnamed historians who nominated Churchill for the Nobel Prize, or those who were later consulted by the Literature Prize committee as they made their choice, know about history? They’re all part of a credulous cult of Churchill-worship. Why should we care what they think? Colm Gillis knows better; he dismisses Churchill, who he claims was “neither a historian nor a sociologist,” but a mere spinner of “myth, fantasy and supremacist doctrines” who exalted the white, English-speaking peoples above all others. Gillis mocks the attitude he attributes to Boris Johnson that “If Churchill said it, it must be true.”

“Question authority!” is the ipse-dixit message of Colm Gillis. To whom many of us will want to reply: “Why should we?”

First published in Jihad Watch here, here and here.


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