Review: The Mohammedan-Arabic cultural epoch - Karl Kautsky

August Bebel (1840–1913)

Kautsky recommends the 1884 book of socialist leader August Bebel, Die mohammedanisch-arabische Kulturperiode, Stuttgart: Dietz. 144 pp.
Source: Die Neue Zeit 2 (1884), 5: 236–37.

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 16, 2017

Christian Europe is fond to look down on the Mohammedan Orient with contempt and smugness. Only a few unprejudiced scholars – Gibbon in his magnificent History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire ranks first among them – have recognised the importance of the Islamic culture; among the people the view still dominates that Mohammedanism signifies barbarism. And yet it was an element of culture with an importance that can not be overestimated.

When the Roman Empire collapsed in on itself, depopulated and exasperated by the latifundia, slavery, the division of the free into immeasurably rich, full of haughtiness and arrogance, and lumpen-proletarians without honour and power, there flowed in the virtually emptied region the surrounding peoples in whom primitive equality still prevailed, full of power and rapidly multiplying population, in a way that is as natural as the water flows from a sea to where a lowland has formed. This flow was the migration of the peoples. This was not limited only to the German tribes. From all sides surrounding tribes had to flow in, for so long until the gap was filled and the balance of the population restored. Huns, Bulgarians, Slavs pushed in from the North-East, the Persians from the East, finally the Arabs from the South. From this weaving and waving, eventually three cultural spheres were formed, each of whom in a singular manner shaped and advanced the established remainder of mired Roman culture: the Romano-Germanic, the Greco-Slavic and the Egypto-Syrian-Arabic. The spiritual expression of the former was the Roman Church, of the second the Greek Church, while the views of the third cultural sphere took the form of Islam. The culture that was adopted by barbarian tribes was a declining one; the result of the mixture was also accordingly: the Middle Ages.

Much higher than the Romano-Germanic, or even the Greco-Slavic, stood the Mohammedan cultural sphere. Not Rome, nor Athens or Constantinople, but Alexandria had been the center of the science of the Roman Empire. What the Germanic and Slavic peoples received from the Roman empire was not so much the science, as the priesthood, the kingship, the latifundia-system with the colonate, which combined with German institutions, gave the feudal economy. The Arabs, on the other hand, took over the whole knowledge of the ancient world in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, mechanics, medicine, which had been preserved in Alexandria. It were they who, with all the mental power of an in democratic society organised natural people, took up these sciences, and carried them further on their own and in this way fostered a culture, which surpassed the contemporaneous Christian one by far. First under the influence of their culture has the development of Europe once again taken a more rapid pace. By conquering Spain and Sicily, the Arabs came into contact with the Christian peoples and gave them the whole treasure of their knowledge. In Italy it was the in the eleventh century under Arab influence first European medical school of Salerno, and the likewise under Arab influence flourishing industry of Amalfi, which placed the seed to that movement, which is known as the Renaissance, which was then further encouraged by the meeting with Islam during the crusades and which got its ultimate character by the revival of ancient paganism. The expulsion of the with Arab culture filled Jews from Spain and Portugal by the Christians also contributed to the spread of this culture in Europe, since many of the expelled turned to Holland and England. Spinoza and Ricardo, among many other less important ones, came from such families. Our whole modern life, our immense mastery over nature, the technological and consequent social and political upheavals, they all can be traced back to the impetus of the Mohammedan culture. We have admittedly come further, than the Islamic cultural sphere, the original village community, which still today forms the social element of the Orient, has among us been dissolved in a class-society, but our development does not stand on the shoulders of Christianity, but rather on the shoulders of classical antiquity one the one side, and the shoulders of Islamic culture on the other.

Important scholars have long recognised this, but it still has been kept secret from the people. It is therefore a praiseworthy work, which Bebel has undertaken, to acquaint the people in an attractively written study with the historical truth about this point. The author's standpoint is materialist: he assumes that the intellectual products of a people, its religion, its jurisprudence, its art, do no determine its material circumstances, but are determined by the same. Bebel rightly opposes both the shallow 'Enlighteners', who see fraudsters in the religious founders, just as those who regard them as special 'god-favoured' men.

As popularisation the book is to be counted among the finest works of its kind.