For some in the Middle East, the West provides a model for liberalism and prosperity that merits emulation. Many Muslims, however, recoil in revulsion at any Western influence as corrosive and immoral. The former see the West a roadmap for progress; the latter believe that Islam must be purified, purged of all Western influence, and returned to fundamentals. Moderates, by definition, tend to lack a uniformity of thought and approach – a strategic weakness that fundamentalists, with their singularity of purpose, have been able to exploit to their advantage. Yet as fundamentalists look to the past as the means to reclaim greatness, they often overlook a crucial component of early and medieval Islam – namely, its capacity to absorb and incorporate diverse thought as it grew from the faith an irrelevant tribe to global significance in a matter of decades.
The Golden Age of Islam was characterized by a general tolerance for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), and free philosophical and scientific inquiry. Early Islam encountered Greek philosophy with an open mind; the medieval philosopher Avicenna would even reconcile classical philosophy with Muslim revelation, as Aquinas would later do with Christianity. Conquered peoples were made to pay the “jizya” (a tax on non-Muslims), but many, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt, regarded the Arabs as liberators. This new Muslim empire, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa and from the Levant to the borders of China, demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb diverse religious and cultural influences in a manner that served to strengthen, rather than weaken it.