The Turks were technologically more advanced than the Europeans during the Middle Ages. One major reason behind the Europeans backwardness was that their freedom of thought was stifled by dogmatic Christianity. The Christian leaders had strong political power and it was dangerous to disobey them. The Ottoman empire also had their politics mixed with religion but to a different degree. Why did religion mixed with politics hold back progress of Europeans but not the Turks?

One underlying assumption behind this question is that religion mixed with politics tends to be bad for progress. Medieval Christian Europe was a good example.

  • 3
    An interesting point. I'm not sure precisely why the Islamic world flowered so spectacularly 700 CE - 1600 CE (1600 CE marking the start of Ottoman contraction). I guess our modern mindset assumes religion and technology are incompatible; but if I recall something I read, early-to-mid era Islamic Caliphates and scholars encouraged maths and scientific exploration as celebration of Allah's creation. While the Roman church was old and powerful; had killed off competing Christian sects; and had settled into stultifying complacency until the fall of Constantinople. Oct 13, 2013 at 10:01
  • 3
    Did they have politics mixed with religion? [Citation needed] for that. That goes directly against everything I've read about it. @LateralFractal: At least during the "golden age" 800 to 1200 or so, the arab empire was quite tolerant to other religions. And most importantly, I don't think they mixed the religion up with their "science" in the same way that was done in Europe up until the Renaissance. Oct 13, 2013 at 11:05
  • 12
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is based on incorrect assumptions. Oct 13, 2013 at 11:05
  • 10
    Interesting paradox. Possibly the answer has nothing to do with religion but with the fact that the Turks (and the Arabs before them) took over the great centers of civilization in the east in a more or less intact condition, whereas Western Europe was rather thoroughly barbarized in the process of the Roman Empire's downfall and the ensuing Dark Ages and so had a tougher climb back. Oct 13, 2013 at 11:49
  • 3
    The dark ages image of medieval Europe is big part a politically motivated bias that was born during the Enlightenment. Significant reasons of technological backwardness of medieval Europe was weak economy and bad geographical position for international trade, too. The Turks were in a very prosperous position to control all the trade coming from India and harvest lot of knowledge from Greeks, Easten Roman Empire, and technologies form India, China etc.
    – Greg
    Feb 11, 2020 at 17:29

7 Answers 7


The question asked seems to presuppose that the Ottoman empire was a source of intellectual and technological progress in the Middle Ages and explicitly states that the Christian religion hindered intellectual progress in the West. This looks wrong to me on all counts. Turkish power only rose in the 14th century, at the very end of the Middle Ages, and the zenith of Ottoman power occurred during the Renaissance so Turkish power is not a phenomenon dating from the Middle Ages. Beside, the Ottoman power, though a major geopolitical, economical and cultural power never was (even at its apogee) a major scientific power. Finally, the Church was the only source of intellectual activity during the Middle Ages, so far from hindering intellectual activity, it was the last refuge of intellectuals and of intellectual progress and there was remarkable technological progress in the medieval West (for instance, in the development of mills)

Nevertheless, there are some truths in the question in that the Islamic world did witness a remarkable scientific development during the period 700-1400, with particularly astounding progress in optics, mathematics, medicine and sociology whereas the West knew very little intellectual progress, and the little it knew was mostly in intellectual realms then heavily under the influence of religion (mostly logic and theology), so arguably outside the scope of what we would consider nowadays scientific inquiries. Why is that?

I think the main reasons are economical, sociological and contingent: namely, the West experienced a catastrophic economical decline after the fall of the Western Roman Empire that the East did not suffer, the Islamic world was politically unified whereas the West was in the state of semi-perpetual warfare and the Islamic world was in close interaction with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Indian world (and from there, the Chinese world), three major cultural powers of the time, whereas the western Europe peninsula was relatively geographically isolated. Because of that, the Islamic world had access to Greeks and Romans texts that were all but lost in the Western world and to paper, allowing for the manufacture of books in large quantity. That said, there was a decisive cultural and political factor.

The Abbasid interpreted the Islamic faith as encouraging the quest of knowledge so they had an official policy of pursuing intellectual developments. They invested highly in the establishment of institutions of higher learning (libraries, research center, proto-universities...). For instance, the Caliphs directly impulsed the creation of the library of Baghdad: an institution that became in less than a century the largest library and translation center of the world. The Islamic authorities then considered objective, provable and experimentally sound knowledge to be the most direct reflection of the benevolence of God, and thus especially encouraged the pursuit thereof, in direct contrast with the dominant theology of the Christian church of the time, which valued faith, rejected the physical world as inferior to the spiritual world and emphasized the inherent unknowability of the mind of God. As perhaps the logical conclusion of this general attitude, the Abbasid Caliphate was very open to the incorporation of foreign knowledge and relatively tolerant towards foreign people, independently of their cultural and religious origins. In contrast, one of the greatest intellectual of the Christian Middle Ages, Pierre le Vénérable of Cluny, could read Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic so did translate the Coran and significant part of the Jewish literature, but only for his own benefit and he advised explicitly in Contra Sarracenos (Against the Sarassins) and Adversus judaeorum (Against the Jews) against reading Jewish and Arabic texts, as they were bound to disorient and confuse (we are talking here of a period as late as the mid-12th century).

To conclude, the intellectual development of the Islamic world in the 700-1200 period, compared to the mostly non-existent one of the Christian West during the same period is probably mostly due to economical and socio-geographical factor, but was also the result of a strong official and religious policy of advancement of objective knowledge about the physical world, in direct contrast to the dominant theology of the Church of the same period.

This last paragraph is unrelated to the rest of the answer, but in view of the answers of Pieter Gerkens and Anixx, I think it is necessary to recall that the Islamic world of the 700-1400 did increase knowledge, in fact in stupendous proportions, and did not simply preserve accumulated knowledge. So here follows a short list of scientific achievements of the Islamic world which went far beyond comparable Greek knowledge (and which were typically incorporated in the West only in the 15th century). Most items in this list were completed by 1100, a time by which the scientific achievements of medieval Europe are essentially nil.

  • Use of the digital system in order to streamline arithmetical operations, and hence first systematic methods of solving algebraic equations (hence of course the words algebra and algorithm).

  • First solution of all cubic equations with positive roots using conic sections.

  • Introduction of spherical trigonometry.

  • First proof that Venus is between the Sun and the Earth.

  • First correct anatomy of the eye.

  • Foundations of modern optics, proof that light travels in straight lines and determination of the size of the atmosphere.

  • Outstanding progress in medicine, especially in the scientific description and isolation of a number of afflictions.

  • First correct computation of the longitude span of the known world (from the Canaries Island to India).

  • First attempts at a rigorous formulation of historical and sociological inquiries.


You are badly confusing rate of progress with state of knowledge. Yes, the Turks in the Middle Ages had greater technological prowess than Europeans, but they were already woefully under-achieving in terms of progress. The origins for this state of affairs lies in the different progressions of collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the East.

In the West, numerous diverse tribes overran the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE and promptly set to squabbling over the spoils amongst themselves. At this same time (possibly in consequence) there was also an agricultural collapse in the West that for a few hundred years delayed the restoration of a middle class with the leisure time to pursue scientific research and engineering development.

By the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century the [monastic and cathedral schools that evolve into] universities are being established across Western Europe, and the underpinnings of the Renaissance are being laid. Bell-making is being perfected, which will provide great returns when the (comparatively) simpler metallurgy of cannon-making must be mastered. Rapid advances in iron-working are sowing the seeds of knowledge that will allow iron as well as bronze cannons to be cast reliably, and the development of iron-barrelled firearms. Double-entry bookkeeping is developed, allowing the formation and management of share-equity corporations to finance exploration as well as scientific development and insurance. Although starting from a much retarded base, by the early middle ages scientific and engineering progress in Western Europe is already out-stripping what is occurring in the Middle East, rapidly incorporating and expanding on all Eastern ideas that are encountered.

In contrast, the wave of Muslim conquest in the 7th ad 8th centuries that dismantled all of the Eastern Roman Empire (except Anatolia and the Balkans) was not followed by an agricultural collapse. The middle class continued in existence in its conquered countries, carrying forward the accumulated knowledge of Roman, Greek and Parthian civilization. However, from a starting point a few hundred years in advance of Western Europe, in barely as many years the Muslim world stifles all research and finds itself a scientific backwater, with the Ottoman Empire rapidly being identified as the sick man of Europe from its total incompetence in governance, science, engineering and military capability. By this time, in the 15th and 16th centuries and extending to the modern day, it is the Muslim world of the Middle East that is seemingly incapable of incorporating any Western ideas and technologies into its culture.


  • Al Khwarizmi dies about 850 CE and Al Hazen dies about 1040 CE. University of Bologna is teaching students starting in 1088, and Oxford is teaching students by 1096. If the strongest argument against my case is that the highpoint of Islamic intellectual achievement was over 900 years ago, I rest my case.
  • While universities as government chartered institutions granting advanced degrees only rise about the midpoint of this timeline, the cathedral and monastic schools from which they arise, as centres of learning where academics and scholars gathered to teach, debate, and advance their own learning are much older.

  • From The Origin of Universities (my emphasis):

    Note that because the awarding of academic degrees for advanced studies was historically a European custom, and the modern definition of a university includes the ability to grant degrees, the oldest institutions of higher learning that have always satisfied the modern definition of a university were in Europe. If, however, the definition is broadened to include ancient institutions that did not originally grant degrees but now do, then some European and non-European institutes predate the University of Bologna (for example, Nalanda University had been established by the 5th century BC in India [now in ruins], Nanjing University founded in 258 in China, and Al-Azhar University founded in 988 in Egypt).

    Because of the above definition, there is some controversy regarding what is the world's oldest university. If we consider university simply as a higher education institution, then the choice is between Takshashila, Nalanda and Al-Azhar University, but if we consider the original meaning of the word (from the latin "universitas": a corporation of students), then universities would be a medieval European phenomenon with the oldest university being the University of Magnaura in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), founded in 849 by the regent Bardas of emperor Michael III.

  • The phrase sick man of Europe may be a 19th century one, but the sentiment and thought was not. The ability of the Ottoman empire to positively influence its own destiny was in rapid decline following Ahmed I's reforms of 1603 to 1617.

  • At least one Florentine banker is known to have been using double-entry bookkeeping by 1211. The absence of proof of earlier use is not proof of absence of use. As a significant competitive advantage, by way of making embezzlement more difficult for starters, there was every reason for users to keep this knowledge proprietary as long as possible.

  • Let's take the Middle Ages to be the millennium from the fall of Rome in fifth century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. By 670 Western Europe is an intellectual backwater in consequence of the agricultural collapse of 200 years earlier, while The Eastern Roman Empire is at its political and intellectual zenith. By 770 the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain has moved the intellectual centre of the East to Spain, Egypt and Iraq, and Islamic intellectual capital is probably 300 years ahead of Western Europe. By 1100 when the First Crusade conquers Palestine, one cannot but argue that the two cultures, whilst exhibiting different strengths and weaknesses, are roughly equal in capability and intellectual capital. The East has all but stood still for three hundred years while Western Europe advanced.

  • 3
    This answer seems to imply that Al-Khwarizmi and Al-Hazen were "under-achievers" merely "carrying forward" knowledge compared to the hypothetical scholars in the universities being re-established sic) under carolingian rule. If this is so, then it is a truly terrible answer (if only because the oldest european university was established a century after the death of the last carolingian).
    – Olivier
    Oct 13, 2013 at 14:32
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    Some points to address: "rapidly being identified as the sick man of Europe"? This phrase wasn't used until the mid-19th Century, by Tsar Nicolas II. The earliest evidence of double-entry book-keeping is in the 13th century, far after the time of Charlemagne.
    – James
    Oct 13, 2013 at 15:39
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    Sorry but your rebuttals are very weak, and indeed confirm how inappropriate this answer is to the question being asked: your answer now clearly claims that in between 800 and 1100, Western Europe advanced and the Islamic world stood intellectually still ("By 770 Islamic intellectual capital is probably 300 years ahead of Western Europe. By 1100 [...] the two cultures [...] are roughly equal in capability and intellectual capital"). So you've singled out roughly Islamic golden age as a period of intellectual immobility. Words fail me, but I'll just note that one of the very early [continued]
    – Olivier
    Oct 13, 2013 at 19:29
  • key players in the rise of prestige and importance of universities in the West (Pierre Abélard) rose to prominence because he understood that the study of islamic science was crucial to rekindle the flame of knowledge in the West. Other than that, your long quotation about universities only confirm what I wrote-universities started in Europe well after the carolingian dynasty-and your remark about Al-Hazen and Al-Khwarizmi is truly weird[continued]
    – Olivier
    Oct 13, 2013 at 19:40
  • : whether or not this was the highpoint of Islamic intellectual achievement, the point is that the West has no one even remotely comparable to these figures in the period you yourself define as the Middle Ages (in fact Al-Hazen and Al-Kwarizmi scientific achievements probably exceed the West total production of that time combined).
    – Olivier
    Oct 13, 2013 at 19:46

I do not know what measure you use to determine technological advancedness, but it to speak about Italy, it was much more scientifically advanced than the Muslims up until renaissance when other European power such as France, England and Germany catched up.

Just count the number of books published in Italy in in the Muslim world so to get rid of any illusions: this number was much higher for Italy even before printing press was invented.

  • Do you have evidence for this? I was under the impression that the fallen Western Roman Empire (proto-Italian feudal states) singularly failed to preserve ancient Greek and Roman texts in the same fashion that the Arabs did. And the profusion of mathematical innovation from Arabic scholars is difficult to ignore. Oct 13, 2013 at 23:06
  • Are you OK? All knowledge after the Middle ages had came to Europe from Islam countries. Even the earlier European knowledge. "Lux from the Orient" - haven't you heard?
    – Gangnus
    Oct 14, 2013 at 6:35
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    @Gangnus this is wrong.
    – Anixx
    Oct 14, 2013 at 13:28
  • @Gagnus This is 100% wrong. There were plenty of Latin texts that never made their way east, but were kept alive in monasteries in Ireland, Italy, and France.
    – cmw
    Jan 26 at 21:06

I appended the clause "but to a different degree" to your statement "The Ottomans' also had politics mixed with religion." And therein lies the heart of the issue.

The Ottomans were "somewhat," although not totally tolerant of other religions. That is to say that the degree of religious intolerance, and its related drag on progress was "much less" in the Ottoman Empire. For instance, "forced conversions" were frowned upon, at least officially (although they may have occurred unofficially).

On the other hand, parts of Europe were very intolerant. For instance, the Spanish Inquisition was mainly about forced conversions, and controlling the resulting "conversos." Not surprisingly, Spain suffered more than most European countries (after the end of the 16th century) from "lack of progress," even though she had been in the forefront earlier.

So to the extent that religious intolerance is a hindrance to progress, the effects of one on the other were far milder in the Ottoman Empire than in Europe.

  • Yes, the Sultans, for example, even sometimes participated in building the Christian churches. Muslims churches in Europe were not even allowed to be.
    – Gangnus
    Oct 14, 2013 at 6:38

See here: Conflict thesis

The conflict thesis is the proposition that there is an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science and that the relationship between religion and science inevitably leads to public hostility. Although the thesis, in its contemporary form, remains generally popular, the original form of the thesis is no longer widely supported among historians


Why did religion mixed with politics hold back progress of Europeans but not the Turks?

Religion didn't hold back European science (much), but something did. Something being the opposite of nothing. Nothing being zero.

The Arabs/etc had more advanced mathematics based on the number 0. This allowed them to work out all their other advances faster than the Europeans who were still saddled with Roman numerals. Maths is important for understanding scientific observations and discovering patterns, and sharing those discoveries with others.

Other things:

  • Newer religion of Islam was less fractured/varied at that stage and required less suppression of heretical/competing beliefs like science was believed to be.
  • They also fought fewer wars among themselves.
  • Religion was decentralised unlike Catholicism.
  • Had connections to India, China and scientific advances there.
  • Access to Roman/Greek concepts and tech that weren't destroyed by barbarians.
  • People in those times in colder places needed to spend more time on survival, less time to study. They do tend to make scientific advances related to survival needs though.

Let's reexamine the wording of this question:

"Why did religion mixed with politics hold back the progress of the Europeans but not the Turks?"

This needs to be corrected in terms of historical geography and demography:

  1. The Turks, were not on the world stage during the Middle Ages; that is to say, the burgeoning Ottoman Empire does not really emerge as a consequential Power until the 1300's-(at the very END of the Middle ages and shortly after the Crusaders left Constantinople after a 50 year occupation during the first half of the 1200's). So to associate the Turks with the Middle Ages, is just a historically erroneous. The Ottoman imperial heyday, was during the Modern Age...and NOT during the Middle Ages.

  2. A better question might be asking, "Why did religion mixed with politics hold back the progress of the Europeans but not the Arabs-(or perhaps the Persians). The cultural achievements of the Moors and other Arab Muslims during much of the Middle Ages is well documented....especially in cities, such as, Toledo, Cordoba, Fes, Cairo and Baghdad-(but also in the cities of Uzbekistan in Central Asia).

  3. There was never a separation of Mosque and State within Medieval Islam...in particular, Medieval Arab Islam. Religion, was very much, at the Center of daily life throughout the Medieval Islamic world and the laws that Muslims adhered to-(both civilians and elites), were religiously based laws. So to even imply that Arabian Islam or Persian Islam during the Middle Ages, was somehow, a quasi-forerunner to the 1st Amendment/(specifically, The Establishment Clause) in the U.S. Bill of Rights, is just an absurdity.

  4. With regard to Christian Europe-(that is to say, Catholic Europe) during the Middle Ages, yes, throughout much of the Middle Ages, religion played a significant role in the lives of everyday people, so much so that it probably contributed to the stagnation and even the reversal of intellectual inquiry and creativity. One must remember though that during the Early Middle Ages-(500 AD/CE-1100 AD/ CE), the Greco-Roman literatures and texts were concentrated in a handful of Universities and Libraries far from the towns and small cities of Northern Europe. It was in the bigger cities, such as Constantinople, Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Fes and Cairo where Classical learning (as well as the medical, mathematical and scientific advancements which accompanied it), was largely present. The Papacy-(which pretty much controlled most of the North European lands during the Early Middle Ages), did not necessarily "hold back progress" deliberately or purposefully; rather, it was an emphasis on piety and spirituality that was at the center of daily life. And such an emphasis on the outer worldly did not necessarily have to incorporate advancements in esoteric and scientific ideas......that would arrive in Northern Europe during the Late Middle Ages-(1100-1400/i.e. Thomas Aquinas).

  5. There was one exception during the Early Middle Ages.......Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance in Aachen, Germany. For a very short while-(during the second half of the 700's), Northern Europe did experience a mild cultural advancement under the rule of Charlemagne-(King of the Franks). Charlemagne did employ Artists, Architects, Musicians, Writers and Scholars within his Palatial Court at Aachen. However, the Carolingian Renaissance, was, short lived and did not have such a consequential impact on Early Medieval Northern Europe, though it did serve as an important forerunner and blueprint to the more scholarly based Late Middle Ages. When looking at Charlemagne's Carolingian Renaissance, one would not and should not accuse Charlemagne as deliberately "holding back progress".

So overall, the question needs to be seriously reexamined both chronologically, as well as ethnographically.

  • 1
    I've edited to remove what looks like personal attacks without (I hope) dulling the point too much. Also changed "Dark Ages" reference to "Middle Ages" since the former is a very contested term. If you don't like the edits, feel free to tweak, but the personal attacks should not reappear.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 26 at 19:57
  • My apologies if there were any perceived "personal attacks"-(though I must admit that I myself have been, at times, though luckily not too often, piercingly attacked by some Commentators on this site). I agree with you that the anachronistic sounding phrase...."Dark Ages", is a "very contested term". However, despite its anachronistic phraseology, The "Dark Ages" still refers to a particular period in World History that can juxtapose some of the more enlightened civilizations with some of the more unadvanced civilizations of that same time period.....(with a greater emphasis on the latter).
    – Alex
    Jan 26 at 21:01
  • Feel free to put back the "Dark Ages" bit if you really want. Seemed like a good improvement while I was already editing, but its not vital. As for what's wrong with the term, that probably deserves its own question because the answer is going to be longer than 500 chars, and I know lots of people besides me have their own strong opinions on the matter. Suffice to say it appears to be effectively a deprecated term among professionals. Its the term I grew up with too, but we live and we learn.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 26 at 22:26

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