Camels and Wheels

I read through Martin Amis’s long piece in yesterday’s Observer, and was struck by one thing in particular: he writes in the third part that

The tradition of intellectual autarky was so robust that Islam remained indifferent even to readily available and obviously useful innovations, including, incredibly, the wheel. The wheel, as we know, makes things easier to roll; Bernard Lewis, in What Went Wrong?, sagely notes that it also makes things easier to steal.

It’s a while since I flipped through a book called The Camel and the Wheel by Richard Bulliet that deals with the fascinating story of the disappearance of wheeled transport from the post-Roman Middle East, but I don’t remember the story there having much to do with the “intellectual autarky” of the Islamic world, and a glance at this article, in which Bulliet summarises his argument, suggests that my memory’s working along the right lines.

So is anyone seriously making the case against Bulliet that Muslim “intellectual autarky” (rather than the good old-fashioned historical materialist reasons of geography, political economy and camels) was a major cause of the collapse in the use of the wheel (whose decline, in any case, predated the rise of Islam), or is this just becoming something people like Bernard Lewis and Martin Amis can say in order to make the Islamic world sound more unreasonable than it in fact was?

6 Comments


  1. To be fair, that essay is full of, well, crap. Try this:

    “I will never forget the look on the gatekeeper’s face, at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, when I suggested, perhaps rather airily, that he skip some calendric prohibition and let me in anyway. His expression, previously cordial and cold, became a mask; and the mask was saying that killing me, my wife, and my children was something for which he now had warrant.”

    How does Amis know this? Because the gatekeeper is a Muslim? Or because Amis is an undeclared telepath?

    What is Amis’ reaction when he suggests that the rules on visiting ought not apply to him and he recieves a similarly frosty look from a porter of a Cambridge college? Does he believe that the porter has internally assumed that he now carries a death warrant for those with the surname Amis?

    Posted 11 September, 2006, 12:28 pm

  2. Oh god, that’s horrible. Somehow I missed that bit.

    Posted 11 September, 2006, 12:35 pm

  3. “calendric”, or maybe he means “calendarial”, or shouldn’t it better be “calendrical”? Whatever. Martin Amis is certainly a Writer, in every sentence that he puts out. At some point it seems he decided that to be a Writer meant also having views about world history. Seems to me that his writing ambitions and the well-wrought sentences stifle anything he might actually have to say. But I’d better read this piece before shooting off like that.

    Posted 11 September, 2006, 4:39 pm

  4. At some point it seems he decided that to be a Writer meant also having views about world history.

    Yes! that’s it, I’d been trying to work out what it was but you’ve put your finger on it.

    In his mind, he is Norman Mailer in the 1960s. In reality; Norman Mailer now.

    Posted 11 September, 2006, 6:38 pm

  5. The Writing does, however, sometimes make you want to throw up:

    “Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta.”

    And then, two short paragraphs later, as we wipe the vomit from around our mouths:

    “Naturally we respect Islam. But we do not respect Islamism, just as we respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta.”

    Posted 11 September, 2006, 6:42 pm

  6. It is a bit icky in places, and lazy too –
    “Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual.”
    Why are Judaism and Christianity allowed different periods, schools and subtleties whilst Islam is somehow monolithic?

    The support for the quoted grand claim is a passage of Khomeini – since when was a scholar representative of the entire tradition of Islamic theology?

    Finally, what Khomeini actually says in the passage discussed seems hardly fundamentalist: that Muslim’s are expected to do more than “observe all the formal pieties”.

    Posted 12 September, 2006, 3:46 am

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