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Why There Is So Much Islamic Terrorism: A History of Thinking in Islamic History

Why There Is So Much Islamic Terrorism: A History of Thinking in Islamic History

By Branehart

Today’s talk of the town in much of the world is Islamic terrorism.  Atrocities in countries all over the world by a multitude of terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, The Islamic Brotherhood, ISIS, and Hamas have almost everyone wondering, regardless of where they are, whether they will end up the next victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Yet as prevalent as Islamic terrorism has become, very few people understand why it is happening – and consequently, the proper response to stop it.

Many liberals including American Democrats and university professors love to state that “terrorism” is no different than street crime, or even socially acceptable behavior under moral standards that can never be fully objective, i.e., that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  But I disagree with that.  As Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu stated in his book Terrorism: How the West can Win, there is a real, objective difference between terrorists and freedom fighters.  Real freedom fighters, e.g., the American Founding Fathers, and the Sons of Liberty of Boston Tea Party fame in 1773 – want freedom, limited government and individual rights.  Terrorists, in contrast, want the opposite: tyranny- either by anarchy or dictatorship.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Moslem world produces so much terrorism.  So much terrorism comes from the Moslem world because there is so much dictatorship and anarchy there.  Some countries like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Oman, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are milder dictatorships while others like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and of course Iran are more brutal.  There are also a lot of anarchies which were once dictatorships, like Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yemen is a country that seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink between dictatorship and anarchy.

Now, the question: why is tyranny – either dictatorship or anarchy – so prevalent in the Moslem world today?  The answer: because the Moslem world is currently in an anti-thinking trend that is comparable to the European Dark Ages – and dictatorship and anarchy are what result when people don’t know how to think.

In my blog “How we get our Values: The Thinking Process” (October 2015), I explain that thinking is what enables people to achieve those things that are valuable for living their lives.  I also go on to say that thinking is not automatic and needs to be learned –and many people do not learn it. In my blog “Why Liberals are such, uh, JERKS (and what to do about them)” (November 2015), I explain that people who do not learn how to think end up hostile toward thinking, and have radically different ethical and political beliefs than those held by pro-thinking people. If people learn to think properly, they will feel competent to produce values and live by their own efforts. They will view their own happiness as a proper ethical goal, without any desire to coercively control other people.  Consequently they will regard the initiation of force or fraud against other people as immoral, and will have no problem with capitalism, individual rights and limited government.

People who don’t learn to think, however, will feel threatened by capitalism, individual rights and limited government and will want a dictatorship or anarchy of some kind.  Because values are necessary to live and nonthinkers are unproductive at producing values, to survive they must seize others’ values. If the rightful owners of the desired values refuse to let the nonthinkers do this, then the nonthinkers feel they should be allowed to take them by initiating force or fraud if necessary. So, central to liberals’ ethical beliefs is coercive control over other people, particularly anyone productive enough to produce what the liberals feel they need to survive. They therefore rewrite ethics to make control over, and initiation of force and fraud against, thinkers by nonthinkers moral.

And they rewrite politics to make this control central to the systems they prefer and proffer. What are these systems?  Either dictatorships or anarchies that have a mafia-type entity in place of the government: Both give the nonthinkers the coercive control over other people they want.  Remember Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: from the (thinking) Bourgeoisie according to ability to the (unthinking) Proletariat according to need.

With the prevalence of terrorism and tyranny in the Moslem world today it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.  Islam was truly a good system gone wrong. It was a good system because it was supportive of thinking. At one time – in particular, from the eight through thirteenth centuries – the Islamic world was extremely pro-thinking and consequently at the forefront of the arts, science and commerce.  It went bad by banishing thinking in favor of mindless behavior as a matter of religious and legal doctrine, for the most part starting in the year 1501. In my blog post “The History of Thinking in Western History” (November 2015), I show how the history of the Western (i.e., European) World’s view of thinking correlated with its golden ages and dark ages.  To see what happened in the Moslem world it would be useful to do the same analysis for it also.

Not surprisingly, Islamic history begins with Islam’s founder, Mohammed.  He has been called many things: a murderer, monster, statesman, prodigy, genius, bigamist, child molester, gangster, mentor and, of course, prophet. Much of the negative was probably the result of him living in the sixth and seventh centuries, where people married very young (because by today’s standards they didn’t live all that long to begin with) and men often had many wives at the same time.  It was also before the advent of individual rights, when people often had no means to resolve disputes other than by openly using force.  The facts about Mohammed actually make him appear to be a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance.  During his life he was a salesman, an intellectual, a warrior, and a statesman. From the record he seemed to do all of these fairly well.

Born in 570 AD in Mecca, Mohammed was an orphan raised by his uncle.  During his early adulthood he worked in Mecca as a businessman.  He became disgusted at the polytheistic tribal society there. Rulers would change the law they would use in warfare, court trials, regulating commerce, or other acts of governing basically because they simply felt like it, using a different God to morally rationalize their behavior with each change; This created massive injustices, such as innocent people being killed, fined, enslaved or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, in large part because of who they were or what tribe they were a member of rather than for what they actually did.

Mohammed realized that this system was ultimately geared towards keeping the aristocracy with wealth and power in a position of power, regardless of merit. He also noticed that people with great ability but without aristocratic connections had little opportunity to advance in their careers, and the wealth they could possibly create for themselves and society as a whole was not being realized.  The ultimate result was a poorer and much more miserable state of affairs than, according to Mohammed, it should’ve been.

Then, in the year 610, while praying in a cave outside Mecca, the angel Gabriel allegedly came to Mohammed and gave him the first of the many revelations he claimed to have received during his life.  The content of his revelations included the idea that all people are basically the same before God, and therefore should only have one set of laws coming from the word of only one God, to govern them; that all people – from the poor to the aristocrats – have a duty to submit to and obey this set of laws if they are to live in the company of other people; and if they refuse, they can be forced to do so or, if they persist, can be killed.  In response Mohammed developed the system of Islam, meaning submission to the order of God.

As developed by Mohammed and consistent with his revelations, Islam included one God whose word is one consistent set of laws, promulgated by Islamic intellectuals, or clerics, and written down in a holy book called the Quran to give everyone notice so they would have a chance to follow them.  Courts would be established where judges were to determine if someone obeyed or violated the Quran and would hand down judgments and carry out sentences accordingly, without regard to one’s stature or tribal affiliation or anything else that was irrelevant.  Taxes would be levied by a bureaucracy to provide a rainy-day fund (similar to the modern western welfare state) for Muslims who faced hard times through no fault of their own, to finance the bureaucratic infrastructure, and pay for a military that would defend places that converted to Islam against hostile infidel forces.

Mohammed started to preach about his system in Mecca publicly in 613, angering the city’s rulers. To protect himself he and a small group of followers fled to Medina, where he had the opportunity to try out Islam for the first time.  He drafted a constitution governing Medina that made peace between the tribes that ruled the city and created a bureaucracy to run it.  As a consequence of Mohammed’s reforms Medina’s economy exploded, resulting in tremendous prosperity.

With his success in Medina as his resume Mohammed set out to spread his system to all the polytheistic towns of Arabia with his warrior hat full-on, threatening to mercilessly kill everyone – man, woman, or child – who failed to submit to Islamic rule.  Then, once Mohammed did conquer a town, he took his warrior hat off, so to speak, and put his salesman’s hat on.  Follow the Quran, he would tell people, and you will achieve a lasting peace and prosperity like you’ve never known.  Then, upon submission by the people to his rule, Mohammed would take off the salesman’s hat and put on his statesman one, establishing the mosques, courts, military and administrative bureaucracy.

Mohammed delivered the goods.  In town after town across the Arabian Peninsula Islamic rule allowed for peace, prosperity and cultural and scientific advances that in less than two centuries enabled people to advance from a largely nomadic, near-barbaric lifestyle under tyrannical polytheistic governments to a golden age.  Word of mouth spreading Islam’s virtues enabled the Islamic empire to become the largest the world had ever seen by that time in a matter of decades.

Mohammed died in Medina in 632 AD, leaving behind a successful empire that covered much of the Arabian Peninsula with its capital in Medina.  His legacy included not only the religion of Islam, with its estimated 1.6 billion followers today, but also two other relevant things. One was the four caliphates, or Islamic states, in order the Rashidun (632- 661 AD), the Umayyad (661 – 750), the Abbasid (750-1517), and the Ottoman (1299-1922).  The other was the split of Islam into its two main sects, Sunni and Shia.

Regarding the Sunni Shia split, upon Mohammed’s death the vast majority of his followers wanted to continue to interpret the Quran (and notes Mohammed made that were outside the Quran)[1] according to his wishes, including regarding the leadership of his empire. One of the most important of Mohammed’s desires- from his business experience in Mecca- was that the empire be governed as a meritocracy, with resumes, job postings and interviews of the objectively most qualified candidates to run it. Muslims who supported Mohammed’s views on these matters became the Sunnis (with “Sunni” meaning “teachings” in Arabic, referring to the teachings of Mohammed and Islam).

After Mohammed’s death, however, a small group of Islamic converts wanted the empire to be governed not as a meritocracy but rather as a monarchy of sorts, with the leaders of the empire chosen by lineage from Mohammed’s son in law. Those who wanted to follow this path became the Shia Muslims or Shiites (with “Shia” meaning “partisan” in Arabic). [2]

Much of the reason for Islam’s turn against thinking and consequent downfall is attributable to the philosophy of Shia Islam.  In contrast with Sunni Muslims, who feel bound by the laws of Mohammed, Shia Muslims feel they have free license to speak on Mohammed’s behalf and create Islamic law however they feel like as they go along.  They see no conflict in this because, as partisans of the Prophet, they are the heirs to his authority.  As Mohammed’s heirs Shia leaders can implement whatever measures they want, including those favored by non thinkers that would create tyrannical rule and terrorism.[3]

Throughout Islamic history the Sunnis have been the overwhelming majority, constituting about 85% of the worldwide Muslim population today.  For much of  that history until the sixteenth century they were also intellectually dominant, and in high positions in the private sector in large Moslem cities like Baghdad, Tabriz, Isfahan, Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Alexandria and Cairo. They were also the leaders of Islam’s four caliphates.

The first of the four caliphates after Mohammed’s death, the Rashidun, had four caliphs or rulers, in order Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. All were chosen for their positions on the basis of merit rather than lineage (and consequently were never recognized as legitimate leaders of the Caliphate by Shia Muslims). The capital of the Caliphate was Medina. During its short rule the Rashidun leaders continued to militarily spread Islam, from Arabia into northeastern Africa and Persia.  The economic prosperity that resulted from the stability Islam provided in Arabia over tribal polytheism spread into these areas as well after conquest.

The second of the caliphates, the Umayyad, succeeded the Rashidun after the First Muslim Civil War.  Its leaders moved the capital to Damascus and installed as caliphs the Umayyad dynasty. They were descendants of the Rashidun Caliph Uthman.  The Umayyad caliphs continued to spread Islam, this time into what is now Turkey and all across northern Africa into what is now Spain and Portugal, creating the largest empire in history up until that time.  The Umayyad Caliphate, however, lasted less than ninety years because its leaders handled administrative issues poorly.  For example they gave tax exemptions to Jews and Christians who converted to Islam, but lifelong Muslims received no such benefits.  The Umayyads were also very Arab-centric and discriminated against Muslims who were not ethnic Arabs, in particular the Persians.

Anger and frustration at the Umayyad’s rule opened the door to their defeat by the Abbasi family of Persia, who became the caliphs of the Abbasid Caliphate. Lasting longer than any of the other caliphates at over 760 years, the Abbasid Caliphate was not only Islam’s Golden Age but the undisputed “main event” of Islamic history. It was essentially a loose confederacy, with its capital in Baghdad and a lot of control retained by local leaders and non-religious clerics throughout the empire.  Much of western Africa and Spain remained in Umayyad hands and were never even under Abbasid control. Likewise later in the Caliphate’s history Persia was controlled by the Mongols. Despite not being under Abbasid political control, however, these areas remained allied with the Abbasid Caliphate culturally.

What made the Abbasid Caliphate the Muslims’ Golden Age was the pro-thinking writings of Plato and Aristotle, which were translated into Arabic not long after the beginning of the Caliphate and accepted and promoted as central to Islamic culture. Abbasid rulers and the Islamic public developed a respect for the thinking process, including identifying things by their essential characteristics and using logic to check the validity of abstract ideas. Typical of the pro-thinking views that were dominant during the Abbasid Caliphate were those of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who lived in Spain, Morocco and Egypt. According to Maimonides the use of logic is the correct way to validate ideas, and there can be no contradiction between the truth as revealed by God and the truth resulting from thinking.

In my post “The History of Thinking in Western History” I noted that the pro-thinking ideas of Aquinas and the Enlightenment philosophers led to scientific advances, most importantly those of Isaac Newton.  As it was true in Europe so it was in the Moslem world, with tremendous advances during the Abbasid Caliphate. Muslim scientists improved the scientific method of analysis and designed much of the laboratory equipment used today.  In astronomy they discovered the actual length of the solar year and made important observations of the movements of celestial bodies, laying the groundwork for European scientists like Galileo centuries later.  In chemistry they discovered calcification, evaporation and the medicinal effects of different herbs and chemicals, many of which became the ingredients of now widely used medicines. They discovered and used the first disinfectants.  In medicine they discovered the nature of the respiratory and circulatory systems. Muslims were also the first to develop hospitals and the principles of the patient-physician relationship.

Of course, the most significant Islamic achievement was the Arabic base ten numbering system with the digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.  Unlike the archaic Roman numeral system, where the values of numbers was not self-evident because people often to had to add or subtract to figure out the correct value of a given number, the Arabic system made the value of any number self-evident.  This made possible arithmetic, algebra, and accounting, all of which were also Muslim inventions, which in turn made structural design and business management tremendously easier.

The Abbasid Caliphate began to decline in 1258 when Baghdad was sacked by Hulagu Khan, a Mongol leader in Persia and grandson of Gengis Khan.  He burned the city to the ground, murdered the Caliph (by horse trampling) and killed tens of thousands of people. Most importantly, however, the viciously anti-intellectual Hulagu destroyed Baghdad’s libraries, throwing their documents – which contained many of the Abbasid Caliphate’s scientific and technological innovations – into the Tigris River. The brutality of the attack took the Caliphate by surprise because, even though the Mongols had ruled Persia to the east of Baghdad for some time, many Mongols were sympathetic to Islam and actually helped spread it throughout central Asia. And in fact Hulagu’s cousin Burke Khan opposed the sack of Baghdad so much he helped the Abbasids to keep Hulagu from marching to Egypt and taking over the entire territory of the Caliphate, enabling the Abbasids to establish their new capital in Cairo.

But while the Abbasid Caliphate won the battle against Hulagu, it ultimately lost the war.  Because even though the Caliphate would continue until 1517, when it finally merged into the Ottoman Caliphate, its leaders were looking for ways to indefinitely extend their power and were secretly becoming Shia Muslims to justify ruling however they wanted.  These rulers quietly encouraged clerics to forget about thinking and Aristotelian rationality.  Corruption increased, the Caliphate’s economy slowed as a consequence, and the Islamic Golden Age slowly came to an end.

The Ottoman Caliphate was of little help in turning things around. Not only did Ottoman scholars contribute very little to Islamic philosophy and culture.  By the time the Ottoman Caliphate achieved any real power Europe was on the ascendancy, in the midst of the Renaissance and on its way to a golden age of its own with the Enlightenment. Consequently European merchants were sailing all over the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, trading with Africa, India and China the way Muslims once had. With European trade so lucrative, many merchants in the Ottoman Caliphate became content to in essence work as laborers and middle managers for European bosses.

With its culture declining, its economy slowing and its rulers increasingly power hungry and corrupt, the Moslem world was by the sixteenth century vulnerable to a cultural and political descent into hell.  That descent happened in 1501.

In that year the radically Shia Muslim Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) invaded Persia from what is now Azerbaijan. The first Safavid ruler and first Shah, Ismail I, took power at the age of 13(!) and ruthlessly set out to turn Persia into a Shia Muslim state.  Ismail demanded conversion of all Sunnis and killed anyone who did not comply, often massacring entire towns to show he meant business.  Realizing the importance of intellectual leaders in shaping the dominant ideas of a country’s culture, Ismail especially wanted a corps of Shiite clerics who would guide Persia away from Sunni Islam toward Shia Islam.  When he found virtually none in Persia (which was over 70% Sunni Muslim in 1501), he had them imported from Shia strongholds such as Bahrain and southern Lebanon. Meanwhile Sunni clerics were given the same choice all Sunnis were: convert or die.

With the takeover of Persia by Ismail I, thinking was out of the picture in the Moslem world.  It had been replaced by mindless hedonism on the part of rulers who claimed some partisanship through lineage with Mohammed, which gave them the authority of the Prophet and imprimatur to rule however they wanted to; and by mindless obedience on the part of these rulers’ subjects.  Most importantly, because of Ismail I’s emphasis on loyalty to Shia Islam on the part of Moslem clerics, he changed the dominant philosophy of Islam’s scholars and, with them, the entire Muslim culture from pro-thinking to anti-thinking – as it remains to this day.

Subsequent Safavid rulers of Persia, including Shah Tahmasp I and Shah Abbas I, publicly tried to appear more lenient than Ismail I, allowing the economy to operate more freely.  The result was a minor cultural renaissance in Persia, though nothing like the Islamic Golden Age under the Abbasid Caliphate.  Behind the scenes, however, Safavid rulers continued to push for total Shia dominiation of Persia and, eventually, the entire Moslem world by establishing Madrasahs, or academies, to train clerics, and by encouraging clerics to become more involved in Persian politics.[4]

Outside Persia Safavid rulers (and their successors after the end of Safavid rule in 1736) succeeded in turning parts of Azerbaijan and southern Iraq into Shiite strongholds.  They failed to spread Shia Islam anywhere else overtly. They spread it covertly, however, by requiring Muslim clerics to become Shiites, thereby making Shiite ideas dominant in universities across the entire Moslem world.[5] The result was many Sunnis who would, never in a million years openly declare themselves Shiites unwittingly accepting Shiite ideas. The intellectual spread of Shia ideas to Sunnis in other countries is evidenced by the anti-thinking, pro-totalitarian thought of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia (which is basically Shiite principles flavored with a little pro-Sunni, pro-Rashidun propaganda thrown in to make Shia Islam palatable to unsuspecting Sunnis) and the existence of Sunni Jihadist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIS. Today Shia ideas are ubiquitous and all-dominant in the liberal arts departments in universities throughout the Muslim world.

The rise of Shia Islam had a profound and negative effect on the Persian people. The British, who during the 1600’s were very interested in trade with India, frequently stopped in Persia on the way there.  French-English author John Chardin, who spent many years in Persia, commented on the character of Persians.  He noted that while on the surface they were polite, pious and charming people, deep down they were lazy, emotional, hedonistic, hypocritical and dishonest.[6]  And later, in 1935, Persia renamed itself Iran to honor Adolph Hitler, the newly elected Chancellor of Germany (“Iran” means Aryan in Persian).

The anti-thinking attitude of Iranians has thwarted efforts to turn the country into a modern western society.  For example the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who ruled from 1941 until 1979) tried to free the Iranian economy from oppressive regulations and created close economic ties with Israel, the United States and several Western European countries. He was hostile to the Soviet Union and radical Shiite clerics (including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) whom he often spied on with SAVAK, the Iranian secret police.  The vast majority of the Iranian public in 1979, however, regarded the Shah as an illegitimate leader with policies they did not like, so they supported his overthrow and the rule of Khomeini in the Iranian Revolution.

Today Iran is a fully statist dictatorship as committed to Shia Islam as it probably ever has been and is the world’s largest sponsor of international terrorism.  But even more importantly, it is the intellectual center of the Moslem world, spreading its hate-filled, anti-thinking ideas to universities everywhere.  The country lowers its profile by working through surrogates, especially ones across the Sunni-Shia divide to hide its tracks like Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, to whom it gives intellectual support.  No doubt, though, that philosophically today Iran is truly the heart of anti-thinking darkness, as it has been since 1501.

So where does this leave us today?  Iran and its terrorist progeny want a new caliphate? Let’s give ‘em one!

They can have the Abbasid Caliphate, only new and improved – to accommodate the new ethical and political advances made by the Europeans during our most recent golden age. The Caliphate would have to respect social compact theory, limited government and the individual rights of everyone, including women.  Hey, the fact that these ideas are European shouldn’t be a problem. I mean come on now, Plato and Aristotle were loved by the Abbasids and they were European!  Why shouldn’t the ideas of more recent Europeans like Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith (and Ayn Rand) be accepted also?

I guarantee you the caliphate they want is nothing like the old ones, particularly the Abbasid.[7] The cold water of the Abbasids’ Aristotelian rationality would have the ayatollahs melting like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. No, they may say they want a caliphate, but what they really want is the Third Reich.


[1] Mohammed’s notes became supplemental texts interpreting the Quran called the Haditha, with the Haditha of Gabriel – named for the angel that gave Mohammed his revelations – being the most important.

[2] Shia Islam is also called Twelve-er Shia Islam, to honor a little boy who supposedly drowned in a well and will return to the earth in the future as the twelfth Imam, a messianic figure, as part of Shia Islam’s folklore.

[3] Not surprisingly, Shia Islam in time had its own interpretations of the Quran and drafted its own Hadithas, often causing heated and violent conflicts with Sunnis.

[4] In addition to political involvement, Persian Shiite clerics additionally had immense power because Persian landowners, to secure their holdings, would donate an interest in their properties to particular clerics to protect these properties against seizure by overly avaricious rulers. This ultimately made many clerics immensely wealthy landowners who could wield incredible political and economic clout in making Shia Islam the only religion viewed as legitimate by the vast majority of the Persian population.

[5] The only intellectual opposition to clerics adopting Shia ideas was from the Ottoman Caliphate’s clerics, who were Sunnis but did not know how to out-argue the Shiites and consequently lost influence.

[6] R.W. Ferrier, A journey to Persia: Jean Chardin’s portrait of a seventeenth-century empire, pp. 110-11.

[7] I’ve read that some “moderate” Muslims want to go back to the Umayyad Caliphate.  But nobody ever says today they want the Abbasid one; I wonder how many pieces they’d be cut up into if they did.





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