All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Islam and the Discovery of Freedom

A Message of Liberty for Muslims and Non-Muslims Alike

Mention “Islam” to most Americans and they think of Saddam Hussein or the Ayatollah Khomeini. It is popularly linked to violence and terrorism, which is unfortunate. Far from being synonymous with intolerance and bloodshed, Islam has a history of peace and respect for individual rights. One famous exponent of freedom who knew that was Rose Wilder Lane.

Her original book, The Discovery of Freedom, contains an abundance of information on the golden era of Islamic civilization, particularly the role that free markets played in that remarkably progressive and virtually stateless society. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic free-market think tank, has in Islam and the Discovery of Freedom taken Rose Wilder Lane’s original text and added scholarly commentary.

For the most part, he documents points she makes, but occasionally corrects her writing. By placing his commentary in footnotes, Ahmad is able to strengthen Lane’s argument that Islamic civilization flourished because of its emphasis on freedom and the rights of the individual without detracting from her beautiful writing style.

In an era in which many people expect government to do everything from caring for toddlers to building highways, it is astounding to learn how little government did in the ancient Islamic world. Schools, hospitals, and even roads were built by private foundations.

Islamic universities were especially interesting. They were not established or funded by the state; there were no accreditation boards or required curriculum; no degrees were given. They were simply places where those with knowledge could sell it to those who desired it. Lane writes, “Men who knew (or thought they knew) something, and wanted to teach it, opened a school to sell their knowledge. Success depended upon the demand for the knowledge they had.” She contrasts the Islamic approach to education with the European, writing disparagingly 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.” If you have ever wondered what a true free market in education would be like, this book provides some clues.

Free of the authoritarianism that prevailed in Europe’s Dark Ages, Muslims advanced the sciences and applied new technologies. They developed the vital mathematical concepts of zero and spherical trigonometry, and put them to work in architecture and navigation. While Europeans were blaming disease on demons, the Muslims of the tenth century, notes Lane, “were using the entire American medical pharmacopeia of today.” Ahmad documents the fact that ninth-century Baghdad had 60 drugstores. No Food and Drug Administration stood in the way of medical progress. Surgeons unlicensed by any government performed effective operations with local anesthesia.

One point of disagreement between Lane and Ahmad is over the existence of Islamic law. Lane writes that “the weakness that eventually ended the Saracens’ civilization” was that “there was no civil law.” She continues that “The only safeguards of property seem to have been possession of the property, individual honesty, and public opinion.” Ahmad disagrees, arguing that there was an elaborate civil jurisprudence and that one of the few things the government did was to enforce property rights. He blames the eventual decline of Islamic civilization on the stagnation of the law.

Lane also argues that the West was exposed to the ideas of liberty that would in time lead to its ascendancy through contacts with Muslim traders and scholars. She notes that Spanish Catholics, while welcoming the Catholic kings of the reconquista, nonetheless would not give up the liberty they had enjoyed under Islamic rule (which was tolerant of religious differences). They demanded and got documents guaranteeing their freedoms. Ahmad adds that Magna Carta, to which Westerners trace the beginnings of the idea of limited government, resulted from pressure by English nobles who had returned from the Crusades, where they had learned that the Muslim leader Saladin was bound by the law the same as any other citizen.

This book is not, however, a “warts and all” portrait of Islam, which was quite indifferent to the enslavement of Africans and Europeans and placed non-Muslims on a lower legal plane. For discussion of the dark side of this civilization, one must look elsewhere.

Still, this is a highly readable, well-produced book that has much to say to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It should awaken the world’s Muslims to the great principles of freedom that are a vital part of their heritage and from which their modern leaders have strayed. For non-Muslims, it is a reminder of the universal value of liberty and markets unfettered by government meddling. When human minds and energies are free, people will prosper and progress. That is the message of this intriguing book.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.