A World Without Islam

In the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Graham E. Fuller, former Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, engages in an interesting thought experiment.

Imagine, if you will, a world without Islam—admittedly an almost inconceivable state of affairs given its charged centrality in our daily news headlines. Islam seems to lie behind a broad range of international disorders: suicide attacks, car bombings, military occupations, resistance struggles, riots, fatwas, jihads, guerrilla warfare, threatening videos, and 9/11 itself. Why are these things taking place? “Islam” seems to offer an instant and uncomplicated analytical touchstone, enabling us to make sense of today’s convulsive world. Indeed, for some neoconservatives, “Islamofascism” is now our sworn foe in a looming “World War III.”

But indulge me for a moment. What if there were no such thing as Islam? What if there had never been a Prophet Mohammed, no saga of the spread of Islam across vast parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa?

Given our intense current focus on terrorism, war, and rampant antiAmericanism—some of the most emotional international issues of the day—it’s vital to understand the true sources of these crises. Is Islam, in fact, the source of the problem, or does it tend to lie with other less obvious and deeper factors? For the sake of argument, in an act of historical imagination, picture a Middle East in which Islam had never appeared. Would we then be spared many of the current challenges before us? Would the Middle East be more peaceful? How different might the character of EastWest relations be? Without Islam, surely the international order would present a very different picture than it does today. Or would it?

The entire article can be viewed here.

If readers would like to ask any questions of Professor Fuller, they can send them to FP by this Friday, January 25, and the magazine will publish his answers here on January 31.


#1 Yakoub on 01.23.08 at 7:40 am

They’d be blaming Zoroaster instead.

#2 Saifuddin on 01.23.08 at 11:20 am


as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Fuller writes,

“admittedly an almost inconceivable state of affairs given its charged centrality in our daily news headlines.”

What drivel! OK… yes lets imagine a world without Islam and while we are at it lets imagine how computer programming is going to work with Roman numerals…

a = (X)
b = (II)
a + b = x AND
IF x = XII
THEN print = WTF!



#3 Andrew Reynolds on 01.23.08 at 1:51 pm

With respect, the numerals we call “Arabic” were in fact an Indian invention and are (correctly) known in the Arabic world as “arqam hindiyyah”.
The real difficulty for computer programmers would lie in another part of your program – the use of letters to represent unknown numbers – algebra – which at the very least was given a good kick along by Muslim scholars.
Number theory was also very usefully expanded.

#4 thabet on 01.23.08 at 4:44 pm

Hmmm. I thought this was a way of actually arguing against the sort of “analysis” that is popular on the American right which attributes All The Problems In The World Ever to “Islam” (think of the readership of FP too). What Fuller seems to be saying is: religion (Islam) is a factor alongside, but one factor along a dozen other factors (race, politics, economics, etc etc) which have to be considered too.

#5 Amir on 01.23.08 at 8:33 pm

Exactly, Thabet.

Fuller makes a compelling case that, even if Islam was removed from the equation and Orthodox Christianity had dominated in the Middle East, things would be pretty much the same.

He writes:

This, then, is the portrait of a putative “world without Islam”. It is a Middle East dominated by Eastern Orthodox Christianity–a church historically and psychologically suspicious of, even hostile to, the West. Still riven by major ethnic and even sectarian differences, this Middle East possesses a fierce sense of historical consciousness and grievance against the West. It has been invaded repeatedly by Western imperialist armies; its resources commandeered; its borders redrawn by Western fiat in conformity with the West’s various interests; and regimes established that are compliant with Western dictates. Palestine would still burn. Iran would still be intensely nationalistic. We would still see Palestinians resist Jews, Chechens resist Russians, Iranians resist the British and Americans, Kashmiris resist Indians, Tamils resist the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and Uighurs and Tibetans resist the Chinese. The Middle East would still have a glorious historical model–the great Byzantine Empire of more than 2,000 years standing˜with which to identify as a cultural and religious symbol. It would, in many respects, perpetuate an East-West divide.

And concludes, responding to the people who blame Islam for all of the world’s ills:

Some today might wish for a “world without Islam” in which these problems presumably had never come to be. But, in truth, the conflicts, rivalries, and crises of such a world might not look so vastly different than the ones we know today.

#6 Muslim_perth on 01.24.08 at 12:35 am

Imagine a world without islam? i can olny i see a world of darkness…… no hospitals, no schools, no universities, rampant evil and no one to oppose oppression….

Thank God for the light of Haq

#7 touchstone on 01.24.08 at 6:40 pm

No hospitals, no schools?

Are you serious?

#8 Burnum on 01.25.08 at 12:14 pm

Are you serious?

Too be fair, Muslims did invent the concept of modern hospitals.

#9 George Carty on 01.25.08 at 7:51 pm

With respect, the numerals we call “Arabic” were in fact an Indian invention and are (correctly) known in the Arabic world as “arqam hindiyyah”.

Indeed, but the specific forms of the numerals used the West were developed in al-Andalus.

#10 Shadower on 01.27.08 at 3:47 pm

In a world without Islam, Christianity or Judaism would be the Haq, so there would still be light to guide the way. :)

People seem to be really worked up over this world that doesn’t exist.

#11 Joel on 01.28.08 at 3:54 am

Burnum said: “Too be fair, Muslims did invent the concept of modern hospitals.”

To be even more fair, it could also be said that Arabs invented the concept of modern hospitals. Arabs that happened to be Muslim. Could the technology have emerged in the same area had Islam not existed? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t remember reading any instructions about modern medicine in the Qu’ran. I could be wrong since I can’t read Arabic, though. I had to make do with a paltry English translation which may have mistranslated or misconstrued the relevant passages.

#12 antish on 01.28.08 at 1:31 pm

It’s a bit of a silly thought experiment, but there IS something which is unique to Islam which affects international relations – the concept of the invalidity of any nation state which isn’t a ‘true’ Islamic state (or pays tax to the ‘true’ Islamic state). That was OK as long as there was a Caliphate and the Caliphate was contained, but as there are now NO states recognised as valid by a billion Muslims, chaos and violence isn’t surprising.

#13 Saifuddin on 01.29.08 at 3:54 am


as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Antish wrote something quite interesting, however I would like to take it a bit further in another direction. He wrote,

“…there are now NO states recognised as valid by a billion Muslims, chaos and violence isn’t surprising.”

The Ottomans whom ruled correctly for approximately 700 years held together the Caliphate to which Antish is referring. With the emergence of the Young Turks and developing European interests in the Middle East the stage was set for the destabilization of the Sultans hold over the Caliphate. The Sultan was undermined and the Caliphate was toppled. This could never have occurred without convincing the Ottoman citizens that it was in their best interest. All one has to do in order to see and understand the present state of affairs is look 100 years back, around the time many of our Grandparents were being born to understand exactly what went wrong with respect to the front runners of the Allied States and Muslims. Why do people make it more complicated than it really is?

A second thought relating to the lead statement of the citation was quite disturbing. The author wrote,

“Imagine, if you will, a world without Islam—admittedly an almost inconceivable state of affairs given its charged centrality in our daily news headlines.”

But when I actually though about this deeply, I realized that if this were the case, I most likely would not exist. In fact my entire ethnic group, The Fula People… Peul or Fulbe, would not exist. Because ultimately our ancestry is the result of ethnic mixing during the Western Campaign of Hazreti Muawiyah (RA). And as it stands according to our history it was ‘Ubah ibn Amir who established a friendly exchange of religion culture and intermarriage with Futa Jallon and Futa Touro during the Military expeditions to Tripoli and eventually Italy.


#14 James on 01.30.08 at 12:44 pm

It is next to impossible to think of a world without Islam. Iran would be Zoroastrian redoubt and North Africa would be a tumult of heretical Christianity. Manicheanism would inform Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Without the “threat” of the armies of Islam would Charles Martel and his son ever occurred?

What would the Pacific east look like? Would all of Indonesia be a Hindu polity? Would Buddhism rule over Afghanistan? What would the subcontinent look like without Mogul rule? Would Tibetan Buddhism eventually become the dominate religion in Central Asia or would the Mongols remain pagans? Would the holy cities of Mecca and Medina find god via the Jews in their midst or would the people of Arabia still slumber in polytheism?

What is called Western Civilization owes so much to Islam, especially the glorious flower of 12th Century Islam. What the Irish monks failed to save, the people of Muslim Spain preserved. Hiding in nooks of the great Cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris are Islamic inventions of Architecture.

Even that great European misadventure of the Crusades has roots in Islam. What is Papal dispensation other than a perverted form of Jihad? Before Islam struck Christendom there were no forms of Militant Christianity. Look at the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights, the Knights of St John, etc., etc., etc. Lest we forget the Orders founded in Spain that founded the Reconquista in Spain and Portugal. Not to get too Hegelian here but the push of Islam, the push of the Prophet armed, lead to the shove of the Christian Military Orders. Before Islam Spain was a collection of heretical Visogothic small states. After the Reconquista Spain was more Catholic than the Pope.

It is really hard to imagine Charlemagne without the clear and present danger of Muslim Spain. Would the Pope be so desirous of the creation of a New Rome if it wasn’t for the threat of Damascus? And it was Charlemagne that set up the kingdoms that eventually became the great European states of France, Germany and Italy.

We forget that Islam and Christendom not only conflicted they also cross pollinated. It was the Ottomans who pushed the Europeans out of the warm confines of the Mediterranean and into the harsh Atlantic. Think about it, the crazed idea of Columbus was to bypass the Ottoman control of the spice and silk trade a go directly to the source. I say crazed because his notion of the world was literally too small. Lucky for him there was a whole continent where the Greeks thought there was open ocean. Australia is an English speaking, European culture because of Ottoman domination in the 15th century.

Don’t forget the more prosaic gifts of Islam, where would we be without the Islamic transmission of paper to the Western world? Islam has acted as a transmission belt between Asia and Christendom long before Alan Watts first drew breath.

These kind of what-ifs really drive historians to drink or at least hair pulling for tea-totalers. Europe might still be wallowing in mystical ignorance if not for Islam. A weird, debased, possibly gnostic Christianity would occupy most of the now Muslim maghreb. This could have penetrated father south creating and even more bizarre and heretical mish mash of African Polytheism and Gnostic / Manichean Christology. Muslims forget how inventive Christians can be in their ideology.

Islamic knowledge and logic curbed Christian enthusiasm for Platonic excess. Islam re-introduced Aristotle and other hard-headed Greeks to Christendom. Islam re-introduced the scientific method to Europe. It is impossible to say that Europe could have rediscovered these things without Islam providing a scholarly nudge in the right direction. The glory that was and is the Alhambra has echoes in so much of what is called the Gothic in Europe. Even the Troubadours of France and the great art of courtly romance they created may have its roots in Al-Andalus. With out Islam we might be bereft of Arthur and his Knights. Remember much of the story of Arthur rest in the stories and songs of the Troubadours. Odd to think of something seen as so typically British may actually have part of its roots in the harems of Al-Andalus. But that is what happens when you really try to think of a world without Islam, it is like pulling a thread from a sweater, if your not careful you might end up with a rather small wool potholder.

#15 James on 01.30.08 at 1:28 pm

Saifuddin ,

1 Love your blog

2 What did in the Ottomans was the Columbian exchange. Very quickly the rediscovery of the Americas wildly shifted the center of power and trade away from the silk road and the Mediterranean. Plus the Americas introduced whole new products and food stuffs to the world. One example the humble spud.

No seriously the Potato is perfect example. It helped fuel the industrial revolution by expanding the agricultural base. European populations exploded thanks to calories and nutrients provided by this Andean import. While Islamic scholars scratched their beards trying to figure out whether this tuber was halal or haraam Europe gabbed the spud and ran with it.

So it went with Maize and Tobacco and other items. The Americas became part of the European world. All that trade, all those products, all those people eventually shifted the world away from the Ottomans.

By the 19th Century the Ottomans were a shell of their former selves. The Sultans barely controlled their own palaces, never mind their former possessions. The European Imperialists were hungrily looking at the Sultan’s domains as their next meal. As the sultans were unable to rise to the defense of the empire; the Young Turks did. They made the mistake of backing the wrong horse in WWI. But even that may be a canard. The real failure was the Ottomans response to the challenge of modernity that the Columbian exchange started.

#16 Sam on 01.30.08 at 1:42 pm

According to at least two of the several theories on the subject, a world without Islam would also be a world without croissants :) If there was no Battle of Tours, the Poles wouldn’t have invented the bread to celebrate.

#17 Cinna on 01.31.08 at 9:42 am

The battle of Tours took place in France some nine hundred years before Viennese bakers invented the croissant.
Otherwise accurate, Sam.

#18 Amir on 01.31.08 at 11:01 am

To be fair to Sam, I think there are two competing theories amongst the scholars of pastry as to the origins of the croissant. There is one theory that it was created by the Poles to celebrate the victory of Christendom in the Battle of Tours and the other, as you point out, is that the Viennese invented it to celebrate their victory over the Turks during the Siege of Vienna.

Regardless of who and when it was invented, I think there is a consensus that the croissant is meant to resemble a crescent (a symbol associated with Muslims and Islam).

#19 James on 01.31.08 at 5:27 pm

Croissants, yum! Thanks for that one too!

#20 George Carty on 02.02.08 at 7:32 pm

What did in the Ottomans was the Columbian exchange.

Don’t forget Vasco da Gama too, who closed the trap around the Ummah by setting in motion the Portuguese blockade of the Indian Ocean…

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