By Davi Barker, M4L
June 8, 2011
I read the entirety of “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom” by Rose Wilder Lane on a direct flight from San Francisco to New York. I literally cried as she chronicled the great liberty of the past being eclipsed by tyranny. In my heart I found a new love for my friend and teacher Imam Suhaib Webb whose islamic literacy class Monday nights gave me the tools necessary to better grasp the meaning of the commentary by Dr. Imad-ad-Deen Ahmed.
Born in 1886, Rose Wilder Lane is regarded as one of the founding mothers of the libertarian movement. Her book “The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority” is said to have been written from beginning to end in “a white heat” and consequently contains numerous historical (but not philosophical) errors. Dissatisfied, and perhaps embarrassed, by these errors she withdrew it from publication, but in her wisdom she devoted a chapter to islam’s contributions to the philosophy of liberty. Now that chapter is available with commentary provided by Dr. Imad-ad-Deen Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute. He corrects her minor historical and theological errors, but further bolster her thesis that the golden age of islamic civilization was the product of it’s abundant liberty, and it’s downfall was the result of its decline into tyranny.
Lane begins by summarizing Abraham’s message as, “there is only one God, who has blessed mankind with freewill. They bear accountability for their righteous or evil actions. The pagan gods do no exist, and do not control the affairs of mankind.” She regards this as the first great attempt to liberate mankind from illegitimate authority, and describes history as a struggle between this conviction, that human beings are self-controlling and individually responsible, and attempts by earthly authorities to make themselves into false gods over mankind.She regards Muhammad’s message as the second great attempt to establish liberty on earth. I found her description of the prophet as a practical, humorous, friendly business executive to be utterly refreshing. In Muhammad’s view, according to Lane, priests corrupted the pure message of Abraham, Moses and Jesus when they assumed authority to control mankind. It was therefor incumbent upon mankind to establish a direct relationship to God without priests. This recognition of mankind as individually volitional beings laid the foundation for what Lane calls the world’s first scientific civilization in the modern sense. She writes, “whenever authority is weak, men opened schools of science” because in the islamic world view there was no distinction between sacred and profane knowledge. All Truth is from God.Lane describes the earliest islamic universities as marketplaces of knowledge like the bazaars. Men of knowledge came to sell their instruction in open forum and students were free to wander about listening. When they decided upon a teacher they met privately to establish a curriculum and agree upon fees. These universities were privately funded and virtually without state regulation. They were regulated by reputation. A teacher’s success or failure hinged upon the market demand for the knowledge he sold. If the student was dissatisfied, he simply left to find another teacher, and when he’d had his fill of education he left school to apply his knowledge.Lane writes, “Europeans were not able to impose upon that university any tinge of the European belief that minds acquire knowledge, not by actively seeking to know, but by passively being taught whatever Authority decides that they should know.” The result was an explosion of human energy that lead to advanced mathematics, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, cosmetics, hygiene, art and philosophy that appeared like utter magic to medieval Europeans.
Beyond schools, hospitals, libraries, paved roads and whole water irrigation networks were built and maintained by similar private foundations. All institutions and infrastructure which might characterize an advanced civilization was produced without state intervention. Even law was developed by scholars independent of the government. Law was not legislated but discovered the same way that natural scientists discover the laws of physical, chemical and biological systems. A judge, or qadi, was independent of the state. To keep his reputation for wisdom he had to find ways to settle disputes that satisfied everyone’s sense of justice. No single organization, religious, social or political extended over the whole civilization. No monopoly means no state by modern definitions.
Lane makes the argument, quite effectively in fact, that through Italy the muslims gave Europe the enlightenment, and through Spain the muslims gave Europe the maps, the navigational tools and the love for freedom that drove them to the New World. In muslim Spain generations of European Christians and Jews experienced freedom of thought and conscience unprecedented anywhere else in Europe. In the century after Granada fell and Spain returned to Catholic rule the Spaniards were less submissive to government than any other Europeans, and it was during that century that Spaniards explored and conquered the New World. Lane suggests it was the love of freedom learned from the muslims that drove free thinking Europeans away from tyranny and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Most muslims fled to muslims lands, but those who stayed in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism and came to be called Moriscos. There was doubt about the sincerity of their conversion when they persisted in their islamic customs such as reading… and bathing. The state responded by burning libraries, and prohibiting them from bathing secretly in their homes. The Spanish Inquisition began in large part to expose secret muslims in Spain, and uncover the “Apostasies and Treasons of the Moriscos.” In 1602, among the charges against the Moriscos was that they, “commended nothing so much as that liberty of conscience in all matters of religion, which the Turks and all other Mohammedans suffer their subjects to enjoy.” What the investigation found was that freedom of thought, skepticism of government and passion for freedom had infected Spaniards who had never been muslim. So, naturally, those Christians accustomed to this freedom, who could not abide such religious persecution fled to the New World.
According to Lane muslims “forgot the God of Abraham” sometime in the 16th century, and rejected the personal responsibility of freedom. Islamic civilization began to resemble the rest of Europe as a static society of controlling authority. But the mantle of liberty had been passed to the Americans directly from the muslims in Spain. Lane regards the American Revolution as the third and most current attempt to establish a free society on earth, where political conditions would not hinder mankind’s natural inclination toward scientific progress.
Many muslims will speak of the islamic golden age as an invitation to non muslims to challenge their stereotypes of islam. This is not my aim. I aim to look to this glorious past and imagine what progress we are capable of if only we demanded the freedom from tyranny they had in those days. Unfortunately, Lane offers virtually no explanation why the muslim world changed. But if we’re ever to reclaim the liberty we have lost it’s important that we don’t try to manage the symptoms and instead diagnose the disease. It’s important that we acknowledge that the success of the past was not achieved by central authority but by living in conditions where human energy was free from control.