Rebuilding the Muslim Empire

Today, every thinking mind wonders what caused the severe moral and intellectual downfall of the Muslims - and more importantly, how can we stop this decline?

Umer Latif September 05, 2010
An inhabitant of today's civilized Western democratic state, while alluding to human barbarism and fanaticism, always recalls the medieval ages. For a Muslim, however, the medieval ages are among the gloriously shining eras of history, when Muslim scientists and philosophers made monumental advancements for the benefit of mankind in almost all major fields of knowledge.

Today, every thinking mind wonders what made those giants fade into history without being followed by men of similar standing? What caused the severe moral and intellectual downfall of the Muslims? Leaving aside the political turmoil and dictatorships which happen to be an inevitable part of history, I want to devote some attention to the social and intellectual perspective of the medieval age Islam.

A time of prosperity

Unlike their Christian counterparts, Muslims devoted some serious attention to the "infidel" philosophies and in the process, they not only translated and thoroughly preserved the valuable philosophical Greek heritage of science and philosophy, they were the reason behind this philosophy being transported to the medieval West, which proved to be one of the prominent factors behind the renaissance.

With the Muslim advent in Iran and India, the wide philosophical heritage of these areas also enjoyed patronage by the Muslim philosophers. The basic purpose of most of the philosophers was to reconcile reason with Islamic principles and philosophers and political jurists like Ibn Rushd made considerable contribution in this regard. Ibn e Rushd(Averroes) is considered among the fathers of Secularism and is one of the most highly revered scholarly figures in Islamic history. Although his "Incoherence of the Incoherence", which was a rebuttal to Ghazali's "The Incoherence of Philosophers" and in which he defends Greek philosophy against the Ghazalian attacks, wasn't as widely accepted as the book it responds to, it nonetheless, is considered one of the cornerstone works in Muslim philosophy.

Other people who tried to harmonize Greek philosophy with Islamic principles included such big names as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn al Haytham (Alhacen) and Abu Rayhan Al Biruni. Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi and Ibn e Sina, due to their highly unorthodox philosophical interpretations and defense of Greek philosophy were even considered as non-Islamic philosophers by many. Ibn e Sina, other than his influence in the Muslims world, exerted a wide influence on European philosophical, theological and scientific though and is considered by any historians as “the most famous scientist of Islam” (Brickman, 1961).

Yet, despite their highly nonconforming philosophy and unconventional attitude, they were highly revered figured in the Islamic world. Their philosophy was debated and discussed in intellectual discourse and valued by students of philosophy.

Respect for non-conformity

Another openly professed atheistic philosopher was Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī, who like other scholars of his age, contributed widely in diverse fields of knowledge, and went on to challenge both Greek and Islamic dogmatic ideas in a rational manner. In his prolific life, he wrote over 200 books, including Kitab al-Mansuri, ten volumes on Greek medicine, and al-Hawi, an encyclopedia of medicine in 20 volumes.

Besides purely scientific pursuits, he published and advocated his radically atheistic philosophy throughout his life, yet his philosophy was not banished and he was not persecuted. Instead, the path of intellectual debate was chosen, which further flourished the gardens of knowledge. The principles of logic and the arguments presented by the Muslim philosophers echo time and again in Western philosophical thought. One even finds the roots of modern Western existentialism in the philosophy of Ibn e Sina and more eloquently, in the work of Mullah Sadra.

Among various non-Muslim names, Saadia Garon, an Egyptian Jew Rabbi, contributed in the Jedeo-Arabic medieval theological philosophy. The famous House of Wisdom, in Baghdad, Iraq, was the center of knowlege where philosophers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, translated knowledge from other languages into Arabic while making their own important contributions. This process is known as the Translation Movement in history.

Philosophy aside, Muslims preserved the heritage of previous nations in other fields like medicine, mathematics, astronomy and physics. Ibn Al-Haytham was known as "The Physicist" in the medieval Europe due to his immense contributions in the fields of physics, optics, engineering, medicine, philosophy, psychology, anatomy and astronomy. Greek and Indian mathematics was preserved and further developed to new heights by these scientists.

Hence, the culture of intellectual discourse and scientific and philosophical discussions and debates was encouraged by the rulers and flourished through the efforts of the scholars. Thomas Aquinas famously used to call Ibn e Rush "The Commentator" while Michael the Scot translated several of his works from Arabic within fifty years of his death, such was their intellectual worth for those who valued it. Professor Abhishek Gandh, in his book "Preservation and Transmission of Greek Philosophy in Middle Ages" notes:
"On of the Rulers of Muslim Spain, Al-Hakim II, made an effort to gather books from all over the Arab world, creating a library which would later become a center for translation into Latin, (Lindberg, 1978). As books were gathered, so were many Arab scholars who had studied Greek ideas in the east. For example, Muhammad Ibn 'Abdul’ and 'Abdul’ Rahman Ibn Ismail came to Spain and introduced many ideas about medicine as well as several of the works of Aristotle and Euclid. Ibn Bajjah (known as “Avempace”) and Ibn Rushd (known as “Averroes”) were among the other famous philosophers of Spain who furthered the expansion of Greek ideas in medicine and philosophy, (Laughlin, 1995)."

The downfall

With the unfortunate and eventual intellectual decline of the Muslim world, moral and social decay closed in. The cherished culture of tolerance towards intellectual discourse, diverse ideas and the patronage of knowledge gradually vanished into the annals of oblivion.

Muslims imposed on themselves a stagnancy that could only breed intolerance and fanaticism emerging out of rigid dogmatism which needs critical intellectual modification through the exquisite process of "ijtihaad". They revelled in the lost glories of the past while living in a present that was in severe clash with that past and hoping, in vain, for a bright future.

Finally, Western colonialism proved to be the fatal blow in our region. However, this intellectual and moral stagnancy is certainly self-imposed, for if Islam is meant to be for all places and all times, it has much greater potential to expand and generate new knowledge, the common heritage of all mankind. It isn't meant to decay in the abyss of dogmatic sternness and literal rigidity, because that is against established human nature - and if Islam prohibits us from anything, it's going against this very human nature which must take us out of a state of stagnancy.
Umer Latif A student of telecommunication engineering, a cinema fanatic and a blogger.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Amira | 13 years ago | Reply Can some explain why we as Pakistanis always conflate everything with religion? The history of the Arab muslims who transmitted the Greek and Indian science to the west were not our ancestors. They were co-religionists. But, their history is not our history. Rather, we should be proud of the scientific history of our ancestors. Like Panini who was born in Attock whose Sanskrit grammar from 2500 years ago set the foundation for modern linguistics and also modern computer languages. Why do we not learn the real history of our peoples? Greeks don't feel proud of "christian" history. Do they? But, rather, they feel proud of their pagan ancestors such as Aristotle and Socrates. Amira
parvez | 13 years ago | Reply A rather complex undertaking and I feel you have not done justice to the topic, especially with your ending "the downfall". Your views on this particular aspect would have been interesting. I totally agree with @Safia's comments. Today we as Muslims are obsessed with 'form' i.e the height of our shalwar, length of our beard and do you say Khuda Hafiz or Allah Hafiz etc etc instead of "substance" i.e being honest, truthful, respectful to humans and animals and to be clean etc.etc. and this is our downfall. I just love what Edhi Sahab said in an interview "My mother never taught me much about religion but she taught me about humanity and how to be a good person." - what a giant of a man.
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