The religion umbrella

But that was then.

Reason probably doesn’t do much good in today’s circumstances. Still, to the extent that there are people who should know better going around and declaring that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, or science, or good things in general, I’d like to recommend a book I read recently: S. Frederick Starr’s “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.” It covers a place and a time of which I knew nothing: the flourishing of learning – among scholars in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy – in medieval Central Asian cities made rich by trade and irrigated agriculture.

As Mr. Starr describes their work, some of these scholars really did prefigure the Enlightenment – they sounded remarkably like Arabic-speaking precursors of David Hume and Voltaire. And the general picture Mr. Starr paints is of an Islamic world that is far more diverse in its beliefs and thinking than anything you might imagine based on current prejudices.

Economic decline and religious fundamentalism eventually shut down this enlightenment. But such tendencies are hardly unique to Islam.

People are people. They can achieve great things, or do terrible things, under many different religious umbrellas. (An Israeli once joked to me that “Judaism has rarely been a religion of oppression. Why? Lack of opportunity.”) It’s ignorant and ahistorical to claim unique virtue or unique sin for any one set of beliefs.