Arabian civilization more advanced than European civilization during the Middle Age?

von: Dr. Heiko Kallweit [Tertium datur]

The secret of the rise of the Islamic civilization during the medieval period was rooted in a major difference between early Christianity and early Islam:

Early Christianity restricted science purely to the Clerus, the religious elite of monks and high ranking bishops, archbishops and other heads of the church itself. On purpose, the bulk of the people, farmers, early citizens and even the knights, was kept as illiterates, unable to read and write, left unaware about the valuable knowledge inherited from the antique civilizations.

Subsequently, only a thin layer of people was able to contribute further to the universal knowledge of the society. Eventually, it turns out to become a statistical problem:

the smaller the total number of literate, educated intellectual people, the smaller the pool of creative and inventive minds. At the end, the innovative and creative power of a society suffers from that.

Additionally, the church demonized systematically knowledgeable people who were not part of the church itself in order to protect her own power, meaning the power of the pope himself and his subordinates.

The famous novel “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Ecco, is exactly referring to that phenomenon. Knowledge was reserved to the leaders of the church, in order to protect their own power. They channeled and censored knowledge effectively.

In opposite, Islam didn’t have any such religious class. By default, the relation between God and his believers was defined as an immediate, personal relation. No institution, such as the church in Christianity, was intercalated. The believer talks to God directly.

At second, in order to be a real believer, Islam demands to be able to read the Quran. That means, to be literate was actually compulsory. Although Islam never achieved a fully literate community, a large number of members of the “Umma” remained illiterate. However, a much larger number of literate people were present than in contemporary Christian communities.

Even more so, medieval Islam had no hostile attitude towards science. One obligation of human beings, even written down in the Quran, was to learn more about Gods creation. This meant, to study natural phenomena was never condemned, as it was in medieval Christianity. We may refer to early Baghdad, the city of Mansour as an example of a medieval hub of knowledge. A governmentally supported positive environment for intellectuals, engineers and inventors was created. Naturally, such a society produces new ideas, social, scientific and technological progress, even so, not all of the avant-garde was Muslims. It’s just essential, the positive environment existed, protected by the institution of the Khalifat.

Only gradually, early medieval Europe learned from that example. A major person to represent that learning process was the medieval Emperor Frederic II., ruling Sicilly, Germany and the Roman Empire. Raised as a child among the Saracenes of Southern Italy and fluent in Arabic, the grand son of the of Frederic Barbarossa of Suebia was an exceptionally educated Christian ruler. Consequently, the church maintained a hostile relationship towards him, who was called „stupor mundi“, somewhat translated as one who shocked the world by his unconventional, intellectual approaches. During his reign, we notice a first wave of advanced ideas in Europe.

The real historical turning point was eventually the European era of enlightenment.

Starting already during the 16th century by the attempts of Martin Luther to reform the church, we notice the rise of the ideal of education. Luther translated the Bible on purpose to German language, in order to provide access to its words and ideas by more people. The recent invention of printing books by Johannes Guttenberg allowed an easy reproduction of books, further opening the gates of knowledge to more people.

The church and its elite more and more lost their power over the people and their status of education during this period, the Renaissance.

Meanwhile, Islam lost its educational advantage, and we notice the retreat of Islamic societies into hyper-religious ideology. As an example, we may refer to the fundamentalist ideology of Wahabism, which was founded exactly during the European era of enlightenment during the 18th century AD.

Since than, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the last remaining political power of Islam, added to the political and social marginalization of Islamic countries in general. The race with western societies was lost by losing the race on innovation, science and engineering. We note, that since about the 15/16th century AD, no major invention nor intellectual contribution of major importance was delivered by the Muslim world. In contrast, we could name legions of scientists and philosophers of Europe. The only remaining challenging power to Europe, China, was eliminated in the course of military conflicts and was politically hibernating for about half a century later on.

Today, the Muslim world remains in political agony. Failure of democratic political systems and fall back into medieval-like communities reigned by autocratic rulers are the hallmarks of the Islamic community. The retreat into religious ideology and the almost total lack of modern, secular political systems prevent any adequate development of the society; a waste of a considerable potential unfortunately. Economically stable countries of the Muslim world do not exploit their full potential into the development of the society. Instead, resources are wasted on prestige projects or even political agenda.

None of the countries with Muslim population achieved a secular constitution, except Turkey. The economic growth and potential of Turkey, unless jeopardized by autocrats, demonstrates the superiority of a secular organization of a nation.

Europe with its originally largely Christian population took the step into secular constitutions about 200 years ago during the Napoleonic era. Being as well far away from ideal living conditions, the western world as the succeeder of the previously Christian dominated occidental world, provides at present the best environment to unfold an individuals potential.

This in actual fact, is the result of the history expanded in the paragraphs above. By that, executing a 180 degrees turn of the political conditions of, let’s say the Fatimid era around 1100, when the Islamic world provided the most tolerant environment to an individual, granting enough freedom to unfold potential.

This answer to the question naturally simplified some complex phenomena of historical social developments. However, it is supposed to explain the diverse development of Christianity and Islam throughout the centuries.

Many other answers on this question focus on the fact, that the Muslim world inherited territory plastered with the countless cultural remains of centuries old literate antique civilizations. They argue, the Muslim world benefitted from those predecessors.

It is true, that early Islam was founded within this rich cultural heritage. However, antique Rome was inheriting the sum of all of these cultures itself – but this heritage seem to have been poorly exploited, or why did we find this considerable difference?

The rise of early Islamic civilizations is not to explain by simply referring to the rich cultural heritage of the southern Mediterranean and beyond.

Any good offer needs an open mind to use it!

This is exactly, what I tried to expand in the paragraphs above.


Dr. Heiko Kallweit hat von 1986 bis 1992 an der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Volkskunde, Soziologie, Mineralogie und Geologie studiert.


Er war Stipendiat des Deutschen Akademischen Austauschdienstes.


Heiko Kallweit lebt und arbeitet vorwiegend freiberuflich im Orient (Jemen, Vereinigte Arabische Emirate, Katar) und ist seit 1996 promovierter Archäologe.

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