From “In a Tunisian Oasis” (1936)
Talking to an Islamically educated Arab is like talking to a pious European of the fourteenth century. Every phenomenon is referred by them to its final cause—to God. About the immediate causes of things—precisely how they happen—they seem to feel not the slightest interest. Indeed, it is not even admitted that there are such things as immediate causes: God is directly responsible for everything. “Do you think it will rain?” you ask pointing to menacing clouds overhead. “If God wills,” is the answer. You pass the native hospital. “Are the doctors good?” “In our country,” the Arab gravely replies, in the tone of Solomon, “we say that doctors are of no avail. If Allah wills that a man die, he will die. If not, he will recover.” All of which is profoundly true, so true, indeed, that is not worth saying. To the Arab, however, it seems the last word in human wisdom. For him, God is the perfectly adequate explanation of everything; he leaves fate to do things unassisted, in its own way—that is to say, from the human point of view, the worst way.
It is difficult for us to realize nowadays that our fathers once thought much as the Arabs do now. As late as the seventeenth century, the chemist Boyle found it necessary to protest against what I may call this Arabian view of things. “For to explicate a phenomenon,” he wrote, “it is not enough to ascribe it to one general efficient, but we must intelligibly show the particular manner, how that general cause produces the proposed effect. He must be a very dull inquirer who, demanding an account of the phenomena of a watch, shall rest satisfied with being told that it is an engine made by a watchmaker; thought nothing be declared thereby of the structure and coaptation of the spring, wheels, balance, etc., and the manner how they act on one another so as to make the needle point out the true time of the day.”
The Arabs were once the continuators of the Greek tradition; they produced men of science. They have relapsed—all except those who are educated according to Western methods—into pre-scientific fatalism, with its attendant incuriosity and apathy. They are the “dull inquirers who, demanding an account of the phenomena of a watch, shall rest satisfied with being told that it is an engine made by a watchmaker.” The result of their satisfaction with this extremely unsatisfactory answer is that their villages look like the ruins of villages, that the blow-flies sit undisturbedly feeding on the eyelids of those whom Allah has predestined to blindness, that half their babies die…
From Religion and Temperament (1948)
Mohammedanism…in its primitive form…is hard, militant, and puritanical; it encourages the spirit of martyrdom, is eager to make proselytes, and has no qualms about levying “holy wars” and conducting persecutions. Some centuries after the prophet’s death it developed the Sufi school of mysticism—a school whose strict Islamic orthodoxy its theologians have always had some difficulty in defending.
From a Letter to Norman Douglas, June 26, 1925
One winter I shall certainly go and spend some [more] months there [in Tunisia], about the time of the date harvest—tho’ I have no doubt that the site of the Arabs picking and packing the dates would be enough to make one’s gorge turn every time one set eyes on that fruit for the rest of one’s life. How tremendously European one feels when one has seen these devils in their native muck! And to think that we are busily teaching them all the mechanical arts of peace and war which gave us, in the past, our superiority over their numbers! In fifty years time, it seems to me, Europe can’t fail to be wiped out by these monsters. Intanto…