Islam underwent the same debate between faith and reason that occured in the Christain west. At a time that Christian Europe was mired in dogmatic faith and the learning of the classical era had largely disappeared, there was a flowering of a learning and culture in Islam. Islamic scholars made great advances in mathematics, astronomy, geography, archetecture, and other disciplines. To a large extent these advances were based on translations of classical Greek and Roman texts. Just as Islamic learning was about to move beyond the classics a crisis appeared in the Islamic world. Scholars persued both rational thought and reference to the sacred texts to defend Islam. The two approaches, however, collided and it became increasinly evident that scholars would have to chose one or the other. This was the same crisis that occurred in the European Renaissance. Islam chose the path of faith. The great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was the leading theologian which confirmed this choice. Al-Ghazali distrusted rationalistic reason and argued against it to support Islam. The result was a anti-intelectual outlook best seen in Sufi mysticism which had a profound imapct on spreading the faith. Al-Ghazali's classic work, The Destruction of Philosophy was perhaps the most significant Islamic text after the Koran. It was followed by Ibn Rushd's Distructin of the Distruction which questioned some of Al-Ghazali's domatism. Sultan Mohammed II settled the argument permanently. He ordered Hodja Zada's ( -1487) to resolve the debate in Al-Ghazali's favor. He did so with The Destruction of the Distruction of the Distruction. The result was the destruction of Islamic science. Thus just as the Renaissance was leading Europe in to the modern world, Islam decided to perpetually end any real persuit of modern science. The results continued to this day. Since the time of Al-Ghazali there have been no notable Islamic scientists or important scientific discoveries from the Islamic world. The congregational rote reciting of the Koran and other savred texts in the Islamic madrasas contrast starkly with the energetic thought provking debate of the medieval European universities. One scholar writes, "The existence of hundreds of madrasas, sometimes liberally endowed and well staffed, mrely fastened the dead hand of authority more securely upon Moslem minds." [McNeil, p. 504] One ironic aspect of the modern world situation is that while Islamic fundamentalists castigate the West, it is Western science and medicine that saves millions of lives annually throughout the Islamic world.
At a time that Christian Europe was mired in dogmatic faith and the learning of the classical era had largely disappeared, there was a flowering of a learning and culture in Islam. One historian writes, "For some cenbturies (roughly between A.D. 800 and 1200) the lands conquered by the Arabs were the soil from which grew and blossomed one of the most brilliant civilizations in the history of humanity." It is important tonunderstand the nature of this cultural floweing and why bit occurred. Islamic scholars made great advances in mathematics, astronomy, geography, archetecture, and other disciplines. To a large extent these advances were based on translations of classical Greek and Roman texts. The Abbasid Calophate oversaw a flowering of learning that was unrivaled in the world at the time. Bagdad and other major Islamic cities were important centers of learning. Harun al-Rashid (786--) is perhaps the best known of the Abbasid caliphs. This is largely because of the fictional role given him in The Thousand and One Nights. His reign and that of his immediate successors constitute the the Golden Age of Islam. This Golden Age produced the first important work in science since the decline of the Classical world. Islamic scholars revived clasical works, but also did important work in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and chemistry. There were many practical technological advances. Islamic scholars not only collected and corrected existing astronomical data, but they constructed the world's first observatory. It was Abbasid scholars that developed the astrolabe, an indespensible scientific instrument.Islamic scholars were renowned for advances in medicine. They experimented with diet, drugs, surgery, and anatomy. They made many important discoveries in chemistry. Abbasid scholars also worked on agriculture. They worked on water management (wells, canals, and waterwheels), livestock breeding. They promoted cotton cultivation, an almost unknown fabric in Europe. They also began making paper which they learned from the Chinese. There were also important literaary works, including biography, history, and linguistics.
As Christianity and Islam developed, debates occurred in both communities over faith and reason. Islam and the Christian West, however, reached different conclusions and took two different paths. And those two paths had profound consequences. For centuries after Muhammed, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement whilke the West languished in the Dark Ages. The Caliphate was the the foremost military, intelectual, and economic power in the world. Muslims would lead in both the the arts and sciences of civilization. Muslims often fir good reason saw Christian Europe an outer region of barbarism and unbelief that offered little of either economic value or intelectual interest. And then suddenly tghis all began to change. The West began to win first military victories and then began to expand both intelectually and economically. Much of this relates to the debte between faith and reason which occurre in both Muslim and Christian contries. Ironically this shift has been well studied in the West, but Muslim scholars what generally failed to ask the critical question--What happened?
Islam underwent the same debate between faith and reason that occured in the Christain west. Just as Islamic learning was about to move beyond the classics a crisis appeared in the Islamic world. Scholars persued both rational thought and reference to the sacred texts to defend Islam. The two approaches, however, collided and it became increasinly evident that scholars would have to chose one or the other. This was the same crisis that occurred in the European Renaissance. Islam chose the path of faith. The great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was the leading theologian which confirmed this choice. Al-Ghazali distrusted rationalistic reason and argued against it to support Islam. He insisted on the metaphysical superiority of knowledge revealed by Islam over experimental and rational sciences. Al-Ghazali was a toweing figure in Islamic intelectual thought. The result was a anti-intelectual outlook best seen in Sufi mysticism which had a profound imapct on spreading the faith. Al-Ghazali's classic work, The Destruction of Philosophy was perhaps the most significant Islamic text after the Koran. It was followed by Ibn Rushd's Distruction of the Distruction which questioned some of Al-Ghazali's dogmatism. Many in Arab and Muslim countries are not familar with these works today unless they have pursued advanced religious instruction. The impriunt of Al-Ghazali on Muslim intelectual development, however, has been profound.
Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. Humanism began to replace Schlolaticism as the philosophical foundation of European intelectual thought. The precise time is difficlt to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook. The Humanist scholars used their clasical work to assess Church practices and Biblical scholarship. The Renaissance is probably most associated with stunning developmens in the visual artse, especially Italian and Dutch-Flemish painting. The Renaissance is also associated with advances in music, especially the brilliant polyphonic music. Another major achievement during the Renaissance was the birth of modern European drama.
The rise and fall of science in Islmic societies, as in the West, can not be assessed in purely religious terms. There were several other important factors which undermined the cultural vitality of the Islamic world, including science. There appear to have been at lest five major developments outside theological trends that adversely affected the Muslim world. Scholars may debate the list of these non-religious factors and the relative importance of each, but there is no doubt that there were some non-religious factors tht led to the decline of the Muslim world's cultural brilliance.
First was the gradual end of a long perios of peace in the Muslim world, sometime reffered to as the Pax Islamica (11th century). The Christians appeared from the West (1095). The Banu-Hilal rose in Morocco. The principal challenge came from nomadic riders out of Centrl Asia. This included the Turkomans and Seljuks. By far, however, the most significnt of these nomadic raiders were the Mongols (13th century). Important Muslim cities including Bangdad weee sacked and destroyed. This invluded the famulous libaries, an enormous cultural loss. [Saunders]
Second, the vitality of urban life declined. This development was related to the nomadic raiding. The foundation of Arab society was urban life and the vigorous economic life generated by trade. [Saunders]
Third, with the Arab outburst from the Arabian Peninsula and spread of Islam, Arabic was also spread. And within a centuey two, Arabic could be spoken and undrstood through out the Muslim world. It was a lengua franca connecting diverse regions and peoples and creating an intelectual monopoly. The resurgence of first Persian cultures and then the Ottoman Turks affected this intelectual mononpoly and gradually reduced Arabic to only the Arab areas of the Muslim world. And outside thise areas it became seen as a language important primarily for religious purposes. [Saunders].
Fourth, imprtant commercial trends trends led to stagnation of Muslim economies at the same time that the economic life of Christian Europe began to quicken. Nomadic raiders began to affect trade,cespecially the Silk Road, Arab rulers were forced to find other sources of income. This led to the Ikta system, similar in many ways to European feudalism. [Saunders] Thus just as feudalism was beginning to decline in the West, it was founded in the Muslim world. The decline of feudalism in the west led to a quickening of commerce. And as banks began to appear in the West and the Church'sprohibition on interest charges (usury) began to weaken, the foundation for capitalism began to strengthen. The inflexibility of Islam toward interest poaymebts meant that capitalism which so strenthened the West never developed in the Muslim world. The decline of feddalism, the quickening of commerce, and the rise of capitalism was noot just an economic matter, it fed into intelectual inquiry clearly seen in the appearance of universities. In essence themodern world began to take shape in the West. In contrast the rise of Ikta (feudalim) in the Muslim wirld was related to the contraction of commerce and the continued rejection of interest prevenbting the rise of capitalism and with it intelectual minquiry and science. Important scientific achievements come from societies with vibrant economies, and the economies in the Muslim worls began a long steady decline.
Fifth, was the declining religious diversity in the Muslim world and with it rising religious intolerance. The early Arab conquerors did not impose Islam on the conquered people. The initial impulse was toward toleration and taxation. And the exciting mix of cultures and religion were an impotant factor in the brilliant Islmuc culture. Over time the majority of the population became Islamicized abd as this occurrec there were more forced conversions as well as rising intolerance toward non-believers. This is not the atmoshere in which culture including science thrives.
While economic and other non religious factors affected the pursuit of science in the Muslim world, it was primarily Islamic theological constructs that doomed sceience in the Muslim world. [Saunders] And Islamic theology continue to impair the pursuit of science in the modern age. theologica; Sultan Mohammed II settled the argument in Islam over faith and reason permanently. He ordered Hodja Zada's ( -1487) to resolve the debate in Al-Ghazali's favor. Hodja Zada did so with The Destruction of the Distruction of the Distruction. The result was the destruction of Islamic science. Thus just as the Renaissance was leading Europe in to the modern world, Islam decided to perpetually end any real persuit of modern science. The results continued to this day. Since the time of Al-Ghazali there have been no notable Islamic scientists or important scientific discoveries from the Islamic world. The congregational rote reciting of the Koran and other savred texts in the Islamic madrasas contrast starkly with the energetic thought provking debate of the medieval European universities. One scholar writes, "The existence of hundreds of madrasas, sometimes liberally endowed and well staffed, merely fastened the dead hand of authority more securely upon Moslem minds." [McNeil, p. 504]
There appears to be a general lack of intelectual inquiry in the Arab and larger Muslim world beyond relgious inquiry. There are various ways of measuring this. One important indicator of intelectual inquiry is book publishing. Here the actual statistics are staggering. There are a variety of statistics to consider. It is difficult to isolate Muslims by language, but one languafe stands out in the Middle East--Arabic. This is a language cspoke by about 220 million people. Persian is more complicated, but also important to consider. One is the number of books publihed in Arabic
Two are the books traslated into Arabic. There are more books translated into Greek, a language spoken by about 0 million people than in Arabic ans available to the entire Arabic world. These statistics are of mnore than scholarly interest. We all watched the dramatic events unfold in Egypt and Tunisia (January-February 2011). The TV commentators over and overreferred to the high unemployment rates and blamed corupt government. Few also mentioned how the economic problems wre also due the level of socialist governmentb involvement in the economy. And even fewer mentioned how poorly educated many of those youngvpeople are, includung the young people with degrees. The academic standards even at the besr know universities like Cairo University are incredibly poor. This is especially true in technical areas.
One ironic aspect of the modern world situation is that while Islamic fundamentalists castigate the West. It accuses the West of waging war on Islam and killing Muslims. Yet it is Western science and medicine that saves millions of lives annually throughout the Islamic world. The Islamic world which once led the world in medical science today has not one university or institute doing cutting edge research on medical science. We see instead a region that is totally deoedent on the West for its medicine and medical procedures. Islamicists who charge that Western powers are waging war on Islam, ignore the actual truth, that Western medicine has saved millions of Muslims from cripling diseases and deathg. This lack of medical innovation might be understandable for a small poor country. It is mind boggling for a region which includes an important part of the world population and some of the richest countries in the world. A Pakistani reader has written to us charging that we are defaming Islam, commiting blasfemy and lieing about both Islam and his country. He tells us that Pakistan produces its own drugs and does not import pharmecutical from the West. We had to point out that actual manufacturing is the easiest step in producing drugs. What is difficult is the research and development steps. We are suerprised that we had to explain this to our reader. We suspect his message was motivated by the desire to dfend Islam rather than logical thought. We asked him to name one drug of any importance that had been actually reserched and developed by Pakistani scientists and compoanies. He was unable to name even one.
The modern Islamic world has universities and students studying science. These universities are variously funded. Some such as the ones in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states are reasonably well funded. None of these universities, however, are producing world class scientists. We know of no major scientific study that emerged from a university in the Muslim world during the 20th or 21st century. Here it is not a matter of not producing very many scientific discoveries, but we do not know of any. Here perhaps our Muslim readers can correct us. Of course categorizing an "important" discovery is subjective. But more quantifable measures such as patents or Nobel prize winners also show a dismal record. A Muslim reader wrote us and accused us of an anti-Muslim bias. Thus we have taken pains to try to measure the success of science in the Muslim world in non-subjective terms like patents issued and Nobel prize awards. We suspect that other indicators such as the publication of scholarly articles would yield similasr results. A Pakistani reader has replied, telling us that his country has been talented scientists and have many important accomplishments such as building atomic bombs. Now it is absolutely true that Pakistani scientists have built atomic bombs. (Iraqi scientists were on the verge of doing this and Iranian scientists are about to accomplish this as well.) The only problem here is that we are taking about 1940s technology. American, British, and Soviet scientists developed this technology in the 1940s. It is hardly an impressive achievement to master a technology that other countrues worked out nealy 60 years ago. We asked our reader to name one unique scientific achioevement of any importance. He was unable to do so.
A Pakistani reader has taken issue with this page. He tells us that it diverges far from 'Truth'. As we are qiute willing to subject our work and scholarship to debate and scruity, we are pleased to present his objections to this page and consider them. One comment that struck us, is that our reader writes that the HBC page is 'out of line with Truth'. This of course means that he and Islam are in possession of Truth. That is something we would never say. We never prentend to be in "possession of Truth". Our HBC website is in part an academic quest to learn more about the world in whivh we live. But we certainly do not say that the positions we take are 'Truth'. That is part of our problem with Islam as we begin to study it, it seems to teach its followers that they are uniquely in possession of 'Truth'
A good example of why Islam does not produce science is the Islamic objection to evolution. A Muslim reader writes to us about a book written by a leading Muslim intelectual from Turkey, Harun Yahya. [Kutlu] Harun Yahya is the nom de plume of Adnan Hoca. He is a leading figures in Turkish creationism and a leading Muslim advocate of creationism. Notavly he is also a Holocaust denier. Along with the Holocaust he also denies the Stone Age and claims to have scientific proofs.
The book is A Historical Lie: The Stone Age. The page link here explains that "The book reveals scientific proofs that the 'evolution of human history' concept is a falsehood, and we shall show how the fact of creation is now supported by the latest scientific findings. Mankind came into the world not through evolution, but by the flawless creation of God, the Almighty and Omniscient." It is interesting to note how much theology Islamic and Christian fundamentalists share with each other. Yahya's book is a confused mixture of poor science and religious doctrine. As with much Muslim writing, the author BEGINS with his conclusion and then goes on selectively compile suposed facts to support his thesis. This of course is not real sciebce or history. It is theology and poor theology at best. Of note here is that Muslim scientists who might disagree have to be cautious about publishing the other side of this issue. Scientists, journalists, and novelists who publish works questioning the Koran put their lives in danger. Science by its very nature is the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. Most Westerners know hoe the Catholic Church limited scientific research for several centuries. The persecultion of Galileo is the besr example. This very same thing occurs today in the Muslim world. The book here is what goes for science in Muslim countries. Islam limits science because scholars who might question the author here lay themselves
open to charges that they are questioning theKoran and Islam--a very dangerous charge in Muslim countries. This can result in gornment judicial procecutions or extra-legal violence. Like Galileo found, persuing science honestly can be very dangeous in socities domitnated by clerics. The basic proof here is very simple. If Islam does not discourage scholarship, why is no important science done in the Muslim world. Why do Muslims rely in their daily life on scientific and medical discoveries from the West? Where is all the important scientific discoveries from the Muslim world? The answer is of course that the Koran and the Islamic religion based on it is a 7th century vision of mankind which when applied by 21st century man inhibits the development of scientific knowledge.
We note many early photographs from the Middle East and Central Asia which coud have been taken centuries if not millenia earlier. This led us to a discussion of science and technology in the Muslim world. Here are some discussions with Pakistanis. Similar discussions could be had with people in many other Muslim countries.
Kutlu, Derin. E-mail message, April 10, 2007.
Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong?
McNeil, William H. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1991), 828p.
Saunders, J.J. A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge, 1978).
Yahya, Harun. A Historical Lie: The Stone Age.
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