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The Rise and Fall of “Islamic” Golden Age – OMER GHAZI

In his 2002 book, What Went Wrong, historian Bernard Lewis commented that "for many centuries, the world of Islam was at the forefront of human civilization and achievement". And yet, in his 2007 Physics Today article, Pervez Hoodhboy observed that Muslim countries have 9 technicians, engineers and scientists per thousand people, compared with a world average of 41. Out of 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, only 2 have won Nobel Prizes in Science. 46 Muslim countries provide just 1% of world's scientific literature. Nobel laureate Physicist Steven Weinberg says that "for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or an astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading".

Which begs the following questions: What led to the sudden rise of "Islamic" Golden Age? And what factors contributed to its demise? Can the Golden Age be called Islamic? If it were truly Islamic, then why has the Muslim world produced so little of value in last 1000 years? And finally, what could be the way forward? 

This write-up attempts to answer these and similar questions in detail.

"Islamic" Golden Age is the myth that is used as a diversion tactic by Muslims today when they are confronted with uncomfortable questions about producing almost nothing scientifically useful in centuries. It is a feel-good tale concocted to resent the scientific growth of other cultures while also taking credit for it at the same time. An average Muslim is convinced that Islam is a scientific religion that produced thinkers like Ibne Sina and Ibne Rushd at a time and whose works was plagiarized by the West for their scientific growth and development. As can be deduced from the following write-up, nothing can be farther from the truth. Like the Renaissance happened despite Christian faith, Islamic Golden Age too happened despite Islam, not because of it.

 

The Thread: 

What is usually referred to as the beginning of "Islamic" Golden Age is actually the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) who inaugurated House of Wisdom (Bayt al Hikma) where thinkers from all over the world used to translate scholarly works of other cultures into Arabic. Since Islam is an expansionist ideology, within 200 years of its inception, Muslims had invaded and overrun countless cultures and assimilated their existent knowledge. The biggest reason for the rise of the Golden Age was that the Islamic Imperialism provided a tool for the ancient knowledge of numerous ancient civilizations to be conglomerated at one place. That tool was Arabic language. Caliph Harun al-Rashid was a rationalist who promoted free thinking and inquiry. It was on his orders that the knowledge of Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian and Phoenician civilizations was translated into Arabic.

 

The Thinkers: 

The second reason for the rise of the Golden Age was the philosophical ground prepared by the Greek thinkers like Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Epicurus etc. Throughout the Golden Age, Islamic thinkers have cited and referred to Greek thinkers, countless times in their works on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics etc. The most notable of Golden Age thinkers, Al-Farabi was named The Second Teacher after his master of Hellenistic Philosophy, Aristotle. Ibne Rushd, another Golden Age thinker, was nicknamed "The Commentator" for his extensive commentary on Hellenistic Philosophy and Aristotle and who later became the link between the Arab and Western World.

But the primary reason why the term "Islamic" Golden Age is a misnomer is that the scientists and thinkers presented as the torchbearers of that era were neither Muslims nor Arabs. They were freethinkers and philosophers from different parts of the world who got connected because of Islamic Imperialism and Arabic language.

Al Razi, the greatest physician of the Islamic World and one of the greatest physicians of all times, was also a philosopher, chemist and a pioneer of paediatrics and ophthalmology. Al-Razi writes: "The Prophets cannot claim any intellectual or spiritual superiority. They pretend to come with a message from God, all the while exhausting themselves in spouting their lies, and imposing on masses blind obedience to the words of master. The miracles of the Prophets are impostures, based on trickery, or the stories regarding them are lies". He writes: "If the people of this religion are asked about the proof of the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed". (Reference: Why I Am Not A Muslim, Ibn Warraq https://books.google.co.in/books?id=7RQwAQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=Why%20I%20am%20not%20a%20Muslim%2C%20Ibn%20Warraq&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=Why%20I%20am%20not%20a%20Muslim,%20Ibn%20Warraq&f=false)

Ibne Sina, father of modern medicine, has written on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, theology, logic, mathematics, physics and poetry. He was influenced by Aristotle and Plato, and he denied the concept of God who takes interest in the daily life of an individual. He also rejected the Islamic idea of resurrection, revelation and creation of world in time. He was deemed as a heretic by Muslim scholars and Al-Ghazali ordered any follower of Ibne Sina to be killed.

Abul Ala' al M'arri was a rationalist and a poet, who is celebrated for his contribution to literature. He writes: "Do not suppose the statements of the Prophets to be true. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The 'sacred books' are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce". (Reference: The Poetry of Abu'l-Ala Al-Maarri https://books.google.co.in/books?id=rbqOAQAACAAJ&dq=%E2%80%9CThe+Poetry+of+Abu%27l-Ala+Al-Maarri%E2%80%9D&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjPy7bMgtDjAhXJuI8KHTroD0oQ6AEIKjAA)

Omar Khayyam was a celebrated mathematician, astronomer, poet and philosopher whose works are translated in numerous languages and read all over the world. He rejected the idea of resurrection, afterlife, judgment day and notion of an all-knowing God causing events on earth. He was a naturalist, an epicurean philosopher and a freethinker.

This poem by Omar Khayyam shows his love for scientific inquiry and his apprehension towards faith:

"If Madrasahs of those drunks became the educational institutes

Of teaching philosophy of Epicures, Plato and Aristotle;

If Abode and Mazars of Peer and Dervish is turned into research institutes,

If men instead of following blind faith of religion should have cultivated ethics,

If the abode of worships were turned into centres of learning of all academic activities,

If instead of studying religion, men would have devoted to develop mathematics - algebra,

If logic of science would have occupied the place of sufism, faith and superstition,

Religion that divides human beings would have replaced by humanism…

Then world would have turned into haven, the world on other side then would have extinguished

The world would then become full of love-affection-freedom-joy,

And there is no doubt about it."

(Reference: The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam By Mehdi Aminrazavi https://books.google.co.in/books?id=cTnNAQAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1&dq=The%20Wine%20of%20Wisdom%3A%20The%20Life%2C%20Poetry%20and%20Philosophy%20of%20Omar%20Khayyam%20By%20Mehdi%20Aminrazavi&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=The%20Wine%20of%20Wisdom:%20The%20Life,%20Poetry%20and%20Philosophy%20of%20Omar%20Khayyam%20By%20Mehdi%20Aminrazavi&f=false)

Ibne Rushd, perhaps the most influential thinkers of the Golden Age, had impeccable command over philosophy, jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, music, medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics. He was a freethinker and a liberal who lamented that "women are kept like domestic animals or house plants for purpose of gratification"(Reference: Beyond Jihad: Critical Voices from Inside Islam https://books.google.co.in/books?id=RlzoCz83O7IC&lpg=PR1&dq=Beyond%20Jihad%3A%20Critical%20Voices%20from%20Inside%20Islam&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q=Beyond%20Jihad:%20Critical%20Voices%20from%20Inside%20Islam&f=false).

He was persecuted by Muslim scholars and his books were burnt by the Caliph. When his works reached Europe, his books were banned by Christian and Jewish clerics too as it threatened their faith.

Similarly, numerous freethinkers, philosophers and rationalists who are appropriated and celebrated by Muslims today were either killed, persecuted or ordered to be killed by Muslim scholars of that time. It is also interesting to note that barely anyone of these thinkers was Arab. 

Al-Razi and Omar Khayyam were Persian.

Ibne Sina, Al-Biruni and Al-Khwarizmi were Uzbek. 

Al-M'aari was Syrian. 

Ibne Rushd and Al-Zahrawi were Andalusian. 

Al-Farabi was Kazakh.

Throughout history, not a single philosopher or scientist has cited a single Quranic verse or Hadith that has led to a single useful invention or discovery ever.

 

The Fall:

When the Muslim World was producing such luminaries for centuries despite all the opposition, what suddenly lead to its abrupt demise?

There are two big factors responsible for the fall of the Golden Age, one, trial of blasphemy against Caliph Al-Mamun and two, Al-Ghazali.

Caliph Al-Mamun was a revolutionary and the driving fuel behind the Golden Age during its last days. He championed critical thinking, scientific aptitude and free exchange of ideas. He would later be accused of blasphemy and heresy because Islam as an ideology does not tolerate critical thinking, scepticism and inquiry.

At the turn of the 9th century, Islamic World was divided into two schools of thoughts: Ash'arites and Mu'tazilites. Ash'arites preferred blind faith, God's omnipotence and mysticism, while the Mu'tazilites espoused scientific aptitude and freethinking. The Golden Age continued till the time Mu'tazilites were in power under Caliph Al-Mamun, until the emergence of Al-Ghazali – the biggest proponent of Ash'arite school of thought.

Al-Ghazali almost single-handedly brought the entire movement of scientific thought in the Muslim world to a standstill.

Ghazali, in his book “The savior from Straying” (المنقذ من الضلال), states his position towards the math and philosophy, using this preface:

“There may occur negative points from the mathematics:When someone starts to learn it, step by step, he will be interested in philosophies, and he will think that all other matters will be as clear as the math, so, when he sees the unhallowed speaking of the philosophers from the others, unintentionally, he will start to obey the unhallowed behavior of the philosophers, and will say: if the religion was right, so these great scholars would follow it, and when he hears that they (philosophers) deny the religion, he will say that the right path is to reject the religion…

After a detailed discussion, he concludes that:

To prevent ones from this big risk, we should prevent student from studying the mathematics. Although this knowledge (math) is not related to the religion directly, but because it is the starting point to getting stray, it (math) is forbidden.” (Reference: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=SG5HtgEACAAJ&dq=The+savior+from+straying+ghazali&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwji5Py3g9DjAhUEOI8KHbOtAL4Q6AEIKjAA)

As per Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “These are three teachings from Avicenna's philosophy, namely (1) that the world has no beginning in the past and is not created in time, (2) that God's knowledge includes only classes of beings (universals) and does not extend to individual beings and their circumstances (particulars), and (3) that after death the souls of humans will never again return into bodies. In these three cases the teachings of Islam, which are based on revelation, suggest the opposite, al-Ghazâlî says, and thus overrule the unfounded claims of the falâsifa. What's more, these three teachings may mislead the public to disregarding the religious law (sharî’a) and are, therefore, dangerous for society (Griffel 2000, 301–3). In his function as a Muslim jurisprudent al-Ghazâlî adds a brief fatwâ at the end of his Incoherence and declares that everybody who teaches these three positions publicly is an unbeliever (kâfir) and an apostate from Islam, who can be killed (al-Ghazâlî 2000a, 226).(Reference: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/al-ghazali/)

Ibne Rushd tried with all his might to reverse his influence by vehemently attacking his ideas in his refutation, Incoherence of the Incoherence, but it was too late. As per Stanford Encyclopedia, “Averroes compares Anaxagoras and Empedocles with the Ashʻarite theologians, who introduce the Divine will instead of Nature as the moving agent, “they establish a voluntary mover” (LC 349I). The discussion goes at length (LC 349I–350L) and parallels that of the First Question in the Incoherence of the Incoherence. Averroes denies that an eternal will can originate a temporally initiated action (actio nova). If the will is eternal, the willed object has to be eternal, and vice versa.” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ibn-rushd-natural/) The Golden Age had ended. The Dark Age of the Muslims had begun.

 

The Future:

It would be preposterous to assume that Muslim World today is incapable of producing such luminaries and polymaths today. The misfortune of Islamic World is that Ash'arites won the battle of ideas over Mu'tazilites and they remain the dominant school of thought today. Islamic schools and Madrasas today teach Al-Ghazali and his jurisprudence but ignore Ibne Sina and his scientific aptitude.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who was a follower of Mu'tazilite school of thought, is a very good recent example. He rejected the concept of angels, afterlife, miracles, prophethood, revelation and instead, embraced philosophy, science, scepticism, naturism and Darwinian evolution. He met the same fate as that of the thinkers of Golden Age. While alive, he was deemed as a heretic, a blasphemer and fatwas were issued to kill him by Muslim scholars and today he is appropriated by the same masses under a strange practice that tends to ostracize prominent thinkers while they are alive and worship them after they are gone. 

Muslim scholars today spend their time either reminiscing their golden past or searching for Quranic verses which they can claim as the source of some modern scientific discovery. If they embrace the Mu'tazilite idea of freethinking and reject the infallibility of their obsolete scriptures, they can again come back in the mainstream and make those discoveries themselves.

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