Skip to main content
For Whom Is the Medieval Era Dark?
Apr 1, 2003

In elementary school, we learned about various eras: Prehistoric, Antiquity, Medieval, the Renaissance, and Modernity. But we were not told that these designations, in fact, were relevant only in the West. For example, while analyzing the medieval era, a glaring omission appears: the brilliant flourishing of Islamic civilization. Breakthroughs in world history are not political events, but rather civilizations created by the people's intellect and talent. This is reflected even by Western historians, who designate different eras by the rise and collapse of civilizations ... based upon their own civilization.

The various eras

The prehistoric era is considered an unknowable time inhabited by primitive and brutal humans. This era ends with the beginning of Antiquity, which saw the rise of ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. However, the West downplays them, as if they somehow damage its ego and pride.

Then comes late Antiquity, the era of classical Greece and Rome, a sort of golden age during which the West was enlightened by such philosophers as Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, as well as by beautiful artistic and literary creations. However, these people worshipped deities, did not obey any moral codes, and also had a great thirst for stories about bandits. The Greeks of this time, however, failed to comprehend the reality of the miraculous incidents in nature and so worshipped the sun, wind, fire, and forests. Rome, a civilization based upon law, categorized people into social classes varying from superior to slave. In 380, it adopted Christianity as its official religion. Antiquity ended after the empire's division into two and the collapse of its western portion not too long after the division.

The next approximately 1,000 years are known as the medieval era. It started off by destroying Antiquity's intellectual and artistic works and forbidding independent thought. The Christian church, after closing down Athens Plato Academy in 529, turned toward monasticism and rejected Greek philosophy. Monasteries soon gained a monopoly over education, thought, and meditation. This is why the times became dark, for the clergy monopolized science, culture, art, literature, and thought. Religion, which provides people with peace, happiness, and security, was distorted and, assuming a personalized form, became a means of torment, oppression, and harassment through the above-mentioned bans, church taxes, and the Inquisition.

During this era, which considered such moral values such as equality, justice, love, and respect outdated, people were classified as clergy, which produced nothing but confiscated and controlled everything; nobles, who owned and exploited the land and treated the peasants as serfs; peasants who worked but could only silence their hunger; and slaves. The medieval era ended with the advent of the Renaissance (rebirth or revival), which began in northern Italy in the late fourteenth century and spread north thereafter. Antiquity's thought, art, and culture were revived, and people tried to free themselves from feudalism and church authority.

What really happened during the dark ages?

The Dark Ages are often ignored. However, this was the time when Europe rediscovered Antiquity's accomplishments and thought due to its contacts with Muslim Spain and Byzantium. Given this reality, why does the typical timeline skip over this period, especially since it was far from dark outside of Europe? One case stands out: the Arabian peninsula, where a new religious movement (Islam) and the beginnings of its civilization had appeared by 610. In stark contrast with Europe, it proclaimed that people were obligated to seek knowledge, fight ignorance, and improve their condition in life.

Islam's Prophet, Muhammad, accepted Judaism and Christianity as true and set about re-establishing belief in God's Oneness. He preached the freedom of conscience and religion by declaring there is no force in religion and that people should embrace Islam only if they sincerely believed in its truth. The Qur'an rejected all humanized angels and rejected Original Sin by stating that people would be rewarded or punished only for their own deeds in the afterlife.

The security of life, goods, and honor were accepted as basic human rights, and thus guaranteed protection. All people, without exception, had specific property rights. Each person's rights were guaranteed by being considered halal (lawful) or haram (unlawful), with various gradations in between. Social solidarity was ensured by zakat (obligatory charity) and sadaqah (voluntary charity). This also prevented the formation of social classes and any possible class hostility. Addressing humanity as O people to show their equality, the Qur'an rejected medieval Europe's social stratification by proclaiming that superiority depended upon belief, God-consciousness, good conduct, and helping others.

In the pre-Islamic period, women were viewed as property and daughters were considered a source of shame for their fathers. Islam made them revered spouses and beloved daughters, superior to men in being mothers, and equal in obtaining property and justice. Islam sought to abolish slavery, a universal norm at the time, gradually by introducing various sanctions. First of all, it recognized slaves as full human beings who had to be treated according to the dictum Let them eat what you eat, and let them wear what you wear. Moreover, God ordered the freeing of slaves to atone for some sins.

Islam emphasized the wrongness of medieval Europe's social stratification by stating that everybody was equal before law. The principle of freedom from obligation, which states that everybody is essentially innocent until proven guilty, was also established. All of these practices, which have existed from the first day of Islam, have not been cancelled just because many Muslims have not observed them.


While Europe remained in the dark on all of the above issues, the sun of Islam was beginning to illuminate many other areas of the world. Thus, humanity's progress toward real civilization was led by Islam during an era that was supposedly dark. As Islamic history shows, that classification betrays some obvious personal or civilizational bias.

Europe's Dark Age was a time of great intellectual ferment in the Islamic world. Many philosophical, mathematical, medical, astronomical, and medical works produced by classical Greece and Rome, as well as India and other civilizations, was translated into Arabic by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Among them were the works of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Hippocrates, Euclid, Galinos, Ptolemy, and Archimedes. Such translations had a major impact upon Europe when they finally reached its shores, for they were instrumental in starting the Renaissance.

The present division of history into certain eras is based upon a Western view of history and what is important. The church rejected Antiquity's accomplishments and caused it to be forgotten in Europe for many centuries. However, religion cannot be condemned for this, for the people who did such things deviated from its teachings. While Europe was lost in darkness, Muslims were busy creating an Islamic civilization that first enlightened their own lands and then spread outwards Spain (Andalusia). Muslim Spain eventually became a bridge between the Islamic world and Christian Europe.

Greek civilization established the beautiful, Romans established the law, and the Semites contributed religion. The Chinese actualized the useful, India gave humanity its imagination and mysticism, and Europe gave science. Islamic civilization assumed its rightful place among the world's civilizations by exhibiting an intrinsic and original style in areas such as thought, science, art, culture, and literature. Such a magnificent civilization, if it is to be divided into eras, should be divided according to its own history, and not by the West's criteria. Just as the West arose again, thanks to Islamic civilization, so will the Islamic world rise again, God willing.