How Europe “Got Ahead”

Untying the historical revisionism and false narratives of Western colonialism and the industrial revolution.

When you study the Islamic tradition, then go back and re-study Western history, everything starts coming together. Sense is in the making. Clarity sets in. Popular narratives (which are rarely accurate) are finally corrected.

Deceiving the Masses – The Common Narrative

The common, orientalist narrative (fable?) is that the Western world “got ahead” via their virtuous, innate, superior traits of intelligence (note the racial undertones). The “white man” invented, innovated, and developed faster than those “savages” overseas. It then became their duty to “civilize” these poor, backwards, darker-skinned folks who can’t get anywhere without Europe (again note the racial undertones). Cue France’s mission civilizatrice, their “civilizing mission” to colonize the backwards peoples abroad and Westernize them, especially indigenous peoples.

To justify their brutality, Europeans clung to Christian narratives as their God-given duty to convert the heathens abroad. Various fables were invented about Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, and others to dehumanize them. They even invented stories about Muslims and Native Americans engaging in frequent, prolific acts of homosexuality. To them, this warranted a “holy war” to legitimize the destruction of the Native Americans and laid the groundwork for orientalism and for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conquest of Mediterranean Islam.

Theyre [Turks] mannor of liuinge in priuate & in generalle is moste vnciuille & vicious; & firste, for theyre vices they are all pagans & infidelles, Sodomittes, liars, & drunkardes, & for theyre Sodommerye they vse it soe publiquelye & impudentelye as an honest Christian woulde shame to companye with his wyffe as they doe with theyre buggeringe boyes.

Matar, Nabil. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery

English writers seemed to believe that Muslims regularly held homosexual orgies, involving thousands of men and boys, in full public view in major cities. Yet the Shari’a forbids homosexual acts quite clearly (though many English writers believed the opposite). Establishing a cognitive dissonance to justify your own brutality was a necessity to further colonialism, genocide, and the slave trade. In essence: the elite effectively deceived the masses.

As Christianity came under scrutiny in the Enlightenment era, they then turned to pseudoscience. Robert Bernasconi stated that Kant “supplied the first scientific definition of race.” Kant is a major Enlightenment thinker in the history of racism and is one of the central figures in the birth of modern “scientific” racism.

humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race… The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.

Immanuel Kant

Where previous figures such as Carl Linnaeus and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach had supposed only “empirical” observation for racism, Kant produced a full-blown theory of race. Using the Four Temperaments of ancient Greece, he proposed a hierarchy of four racial categories: white Europeans, yellow Asians, black Africans, and red Amerindians. This “scientific” justification manifested in the form of phrenology and later social Darwinism, including Charles Darwin himself.

 I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), Volume I, Chapter VI: “On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man”, pp. 200–01
John Bull (Great Britain) and Uncle Sam (U.S.) bear “The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)”, by delivering the coloured peoples of the world to civilization. (Victor GillamJudge magazine, 1 April 1899) Reality, of course, is in reverse.

In phrenology, by comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved. This was used to justify slavery and misogyny. The “natural inequality” of people could be used to situate them in the “most appropriate place in society.” Women were thought to have underdeveloped organs necessary for success in the arts and sciences while having larger mental organs relating to the care of children. While phrenologists did not contend the existence of talented women, this minority did not provide justification for citizenship or participation in politics. This is in stark contrast to the Muslim world where racism was denounced by the prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself and emphasized in his last sermon, and women played prominent roles throughout Islamic history, especially in education and religion. Fatima Al-Fihri, for example, established the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding university in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco in 859 CE.

Industrial Revolution

By the time of the industrial revolution, slavery and colonialism was gaining full steam and providing a positive feedback loop for development and conquest. The colonizers actually found more advanced civilizations in many of their subjects, like in East Africa, North Africa, and India. Many African cities were actually more sophisticated, cleaner, and advanced than Western Europe. The Portuguese were shocked when they found Sofala and Kilwa, Mozambique far more civilized and they had no products to offer the locals, whose goods were already superior. India actually held over 24% of the entire world GDP under the Islamic Mughal Empire when the British arrived. The East India Tea Company lied that they wanted to export the superior Indian products to Britain and asked for concessions from the Mughal emperor, who kindly obliged them. This was merely a trick, and two centuries later Britain controlled several provinces of India. There are many more examples. To put it simply, Europe found the rest of world already way ahead of them in everything but brutality and warfare.

Exports played a crucial role in the industrial revolution

As nation after nation was destroyed under colonialism and slavery deepened, raw domestic produce increased. From the 1750s a new industry emerged in Britain: cotton cloth production. Wool production, Britain’s previous major industry, was quickly outstripped by cotton due to one major advantage: machinery could process cotton fibers better than wool. The industrial revolution was thus sparked by cotton production in Manchester. This cotton was mostly imported from slave plantations, and 3/4 of the world’s cotton was coming from the American south. Even still by the outbreak of the American Civil War in the 1800s, two-thirds of the world’s cotton factories were in England. The livelihood of about a fifth to a fourth of the population relied on this industry and one-tenth of all British capital was invested in it. Close to half of all exports were cotton yarn and cloth.

By midcentury (1800s), cotton had become central to the prosperity of the Atlantic world. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier called it the “Hashish of the West,” a drug that was creating powerful hallucinatory dreams of territorial expansion, of judges who decide that “right is wrong,” of heaven as “a snug plantation” with “angel negro overseers.”

…Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, noted that Manchester’s and Liverpool’s “opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.”

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, the Atlantic

This industry brought great wealth to European manufacturers and merchants, and meek wages for hundreds of thousands of mill workers. It also launched the United States into the center of the world economy: cotton exports alone put the United States on the world economy map, accounting for 61% of the value of all U.S. exports. Whereas prior to America’s cotton boom in the 1780s, North America was marginal in the global economy.

After intentionally collapsing the economies of their colonial subjects, Europe then exported these manufactured goods, such as cloth, to their colonies in Africa. This was a major goal behind colonialism: to trade on as unequal terms as possible. The colonial subjects have their economies rooted out, they are then forced to produce cash crops for export to Europe, and Europe in turn exports the final products back to the colonies at inflated prices. Whereas previously, these people produced both their own domestic products and exports for centuries and fared well before Europe arrived. In our era, centuries later, we have the “developing world” and the “developed world” as a result, whereas this poverty and inequality never existed before in history.

There are several other specific examples. The opium for tea trade between India and China rested on the British East India Tea Company’s exploitation of Indian peasantry, building a profitable monopoly in narcotics for Britain at the expense of everyone else involved.

Misconceptions and Postcolonialism

A common misconception about the industrial revolution is this image of an aristocratic genius inventing some novel machinery. The reality is technology was the product of many people working together making incremental changes over years. Industrial spies helped with every development in the industrial revolution because other regions were far more advanced than Europe. For instance, cor fast dyes and heat-resistant dishware, fine weaving and spinning, or even metallurgy. For example, Richard Arkwright (d. 1792) mostly copied designs from imported textiles. It was those cotton textiles that caught the imagination of consumers and filled pockets, first of the people who imported textiles from India and China, and then the daring manufacturers who were successful at copying the lightweight, colorful, and washable cotton clothing.

Another common misconception is that without European genius, the world would have never gotten ahead. This is highly inaccurate. China, India, and the Ottoman Empire (among others) typically had already invented similar machines and products as Europe. Europe borrowed from them or improved upon an already known invention, typically. If it weren’t for Europe, other nations would have developed similar or the same technology anyways, without the brutalities of colonialism and chattel slavery. The concept of vaccines actually came from China, for example.

The Circassian women have, from time immemorial, communicated the small-pox to their children when not above six months old by making an incision in the arm, and by putting into this incision a pustule, taken carefully from the body of another child,” he wrote. “This pustule produces the same effect in the arm it is laid in as yeast in a piece of dough…I am informed that the Chinese have practiced inoculation these hundred years, a circumstance that argues very much in its favor, since they are thought to be the wisest and best governed people in the world. The Chinese, indeed, do not communicate this distemper by inoculation, but at the nose, in the same manner as we take snuff. This is a more agreeable way, but then it produces the like effects; and proves at the same time that had inoculation been practiced in France it would have saved the lives of thousands.

1742. Voltaire. Letters on the English

This brutality left behind systems built only for the extraction of resources rather than the improvement of communities. Rebuilding infrastructure was exceptionally difficult, still affecting the “developing world” today (perhaps “recovering world” is a better term?). Europe preferred to leave behind brutal, tyrannical dictators who executed the will of their puppeteers rather than Republics where the people could get in the way of foreign domination. To this day, America and Europe continue to exploit the “third world” and brutally quash any dissenting voices, albeit secretly. For more on this check out John Perkin’s book and this article about Thomas Sankara.

Yet another common misconception is the idea that the West brought “education” and “advancement” to the “developing world.” I think we’ve quashed the “advancement” part already, it is very clear that Europe brought the opposite. In terms of education, this is also false. The rest of the world already had their own education systems, and we Muslims today still believe our systems were far superior. They beautifully blended the empirical sciences with religion. Scholars were encyclopedic, writing not only about religion but also math and the sciences. Islam never contradicted science, the two never butt heads; rather, they flowed naturally. Operational waqf funds, basically endowments donated by pious people over the centuries, provided a steady flow of revenue to keep education free or affordable for everyone. The wealthy paid tuition for their kids, which covered the tuition for the poor who could not afford it. Racism and segregation not only never existed but the mere notion of it is an absurdity. The idea that they were better as colonies is not even remotely supported by data. Average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa in 1953 was under 40 (!). By 1980, it was over 50. Rates of malnutrition declined and far more children learned to read and attended school for longer. The same is true in South Asia and East Asia. It is clear that Europe destroyed their subjects and continues to abuse them economically. Before colonialism, these nations were doing fine and many were highly educated.

If this is what we call “getting ahead,” meaning rapid economic acceleration via brutality and enslavement of basically everyone else on Earth, I find that disagreeable. This is more of a rapid backsliding into unchecked barbarism, using pseudo-Christianity and pseudoscience to “justify” horrifying injustice. The cognitive dissonance it required, even demanded, still remains in millions of minds around the world to this day.

Arianism and Islam in Europe

The Roman European propaganda also deprecates the good part of their own heritage. For example, the Visigoths and vandals were extremely noble, sophisticated tribes. They were Arian Christians early on, exhibiting a low Christology (adoptionistic). The transition from Visigothic Christian doctrine to Islam was easier, as well. Roman writers mention that they were chaste & didn’t commit fornication. But the Roman-focused history always suggests Rome was conquered by “barbarians.” And to this day “vandal” and “goth” carry quite negative connotations.

It seems like the elites of the Romans worked hard to root out Arianism. Ireland was probably the last place where there was a remnant of the older Arian doctrine. You see that in marital property laws even, Europe tends to be completely patriarchal and misogynistic – the wife owns nothing & is owned by her husband – except Ireland and Spain. Even in America you can find this in states with Spanish heritage, like California, Texas, and Louisiana. Once they had crushed Arian Christianity in northern Europe, and convinced everyone that Islam was the enemy, they started the crusades.

Islam and Economics

Interestingly, when Islamic states were able to place roots in Europe, they tended to root out feudalism. Feudalism was rooted in the land-holding patterns of Greek and Roman society–large slave farms surrounding villa complexes. Heavy taxation and unfair laws were quite the burden on the peasantry. As a result, European peasantry rarely had a chance to get ahead in life, economic mobility was nonexistent, thus prompting immigration to Muslim lands where you could own property and your basic freedoms were guaranteed. Some stayed Christian, but many converted to Islam. Both had great opportunities, either way. Some joined the corsairs and sought wealth on the high seas.

Regular Europeans throughout history have often converted to Islam, when they see it clearly. For example, in the first centuries of al-Andalus the Irish and the Vikings both converted in significant numbers. This of course threatened the elites, who in turn spread vitriolic propaganda about Muslims and Islam. Thousands were immigrating to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, so the elite called them “renegades.” Thus came the field of Orientalism: European elites studied Islam to demonize it and keep people away from the truth while seeking ways to manipulate Muslims for colonial purposes.

Many Muslims today still espouse very self-hating views in our postcolonial world, that their own religion is uncivilized and Westerners are “forward thinking.” They think Muslim scholars are a bunch of “backwards” bearded men who can’t get with the times. The reality, of course, is the complete opposite: Islam was always a civilizing force, but it threatened the European elite. It brought peace and prosperity to people all over the world. It treated slaves far better than any European peasant–Muslim slaves could buy their freedom, many were highly educated, and they often went into high-paying and influential careers: governors, generals, admirals, scholars, officials, etc. A slave could take his master to court if he was abused. A slave ate first from any food he cooked. He wore the same clothes as the master and his/her children, often born free, were of their master’s social status. The list goes on. Even American military officers who observed slavery in the southern Philippines opined that it shouldn’t even be called “slavery,” given the American experience of it and how marginal it was compared it being the central economy of the United States.

Not to mention treatment of children and orphans. Wealthy businessmen basically enslaved orphans as a source of cheap labor to work in their factories. Over 200,000 homeless children were shipped out West to work on farms on what came to be known as “orphan trains.” Islam quite explicitly forbids mistreatment of orphans and threatens the afterlife of believers who dare to abuse them.

Lewis Hine/The U.S. National Archives
Many children worked at mills. These boys here at the Bibb Mill in Macon, Georgia, were so small they had to climb the spinning frame just to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins. January 1909.

Islam mainly spread through trade and preaching at an individual’s volition and personal ambition, as Sir Thomas Arnold observed a century ago, never through forced conversion or organized, manipulative evangelizing like in Christianity. When you study Islamic history then re-study the West again, you’ll find that Islam offers a beautiful comparison. It didn’t have to be this way, if only the West would open their eyes.

For more on this, be sure to read The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

The Same Old Story

This all sounds eerily familiar in light of the “War on Terror.” I am sure we’re all familiar with the various Islamophobic websites, news, and public speeches throughout the two decades after 9/11. Not to mention Israel’s active colonization of Palestine. It sounds like an old, recycled tactic to dehumanize a people and justify war and bloodshed which Western history is so notorious for. Just make sure you don’t fall for it yourself, as so many Muslims have. Self-hate is not the solution, getting educated about history and religion is.

والله أعلم

Further Reading


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