By Hisham El-Fangary
The Golden Age
There was a time in the history of Islamic civilization that is affectionately called “The Islamic Golden Age” by Muslims and historians alike.
Scholars would argue about the exact dates that constitute the Islamic golden age, but the general consensus is that it started shortly after the rise of the Islamic empire – early 7th century – and lasted until sometime between the 13th and the 15th century.
This was a time when Muslims, Jews, Christians, and even Pagans and Unbelievers, lived together harmoniously under Islamic rule, in accordance with the Quranic scriptures that state “Let there be no compulsion in religion” [Qur'an 2:256] and the Prophet’s (pbuh) own teachings of tolerance, evidenced by the declaration of what was and is considered to be the first modern written constitution in history: The Charter of Medina (دستور المدينة) in 622 A.D.
This constituted the birth of the very first Muslim state, and instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Pagan communities of Medina, bringing them within the fold of one community (the Ummah), and granting them equal rights.
In accordance with the charter, non-muslims were granted the following freedoms:
- The security of God is equal for all groups
- Non-Muslim members have equal political and cultural rights as Muslims. They will have autonomy and freedom of religion.
- Non-Muslims will take up arms against the enemy of the Ummah and share the cost of war. There is to be no treachery between the two.
- Non-Muslims will not be obliged to take part in religious wars of the Muslims.
The Rise of the Islamic Civilization
But perhaps the most enlightened period of Islamic civilization took hold by the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad by the middle of the 8th century, it was then when the Muslim world became an intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education.
The Abbasids were influenced by the Qur’anic scriptures and Hadiths such as “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr”, stressing the value and importance of knowledge.
Such sayings of the Prophet as “Seek knowledge even if it were in China”, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”, and “Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets”, have echoed throughout the Islamic golden age and incited Muslims to seek knowledge wherever it might be found.
They championed this cause and established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to gather all the world’s knowledge. During this period, the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from all other ancient civilizations, such as the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Byzantine civilizations, just to name a few.
The Muslims took the best that each system had to offer, then not only streamlined it into a unified scientific model that became the basis of today’s modern science, but also added to – and expanded greatly on – each distinctive field of study.
The Muslim universities of those days led the world in learning and research. All knowledge was their field, and they took in and gave out the utmost attainable in those days. They did not discriminate between different cultures and their collective bases of knowledge, and rarely banned any discussions of ideologies or cultures because they were deemed “Un-Islamic”. All knowledge was worth studying, even if their importance was not yet clear, and even if this study was purely out of scientific curiosity, and disagreed with their own religious beliefs.
Perhaps nothing is more proof of this nondiscriminatory attitude than the study and translations of Western philosophical classics, including the works of Aristotle and Plato – whose ideas were deemed blasphemous by religious scholars of most faiths.
A Caliph’s Dream
Perhaps we can find it ironic, and quite amusing, that this embrace of Greek philosophy, and the championing of this nondiscriminatory attitude towards knowledge, can be attributed to a simple dream!
As the story goes, one night in Baghdad in the middle of the 9th century, Caliph Al-Mamun (الخليفه المأمون) was visited by a dream. In his dream, he saw the philosopher Aristotle, who told him that the reason of the Greeks, and the revelation of Islam, were not opposed.
The Caliph asked Aristotle: “O Wiseman, what is good?”
“What is good is what’s in the mind!” answered Aristotle.
“Then what?” the Caliph asked
“Then, the Law” answered Aristotle.
“Then what?” the Caliph demanded
“Then, the people” answered Aristotle
“Then what?” the Caliph demanded
“Then nothing!” replied Aristotle.
On waking, the Caliph demanded that all of Aristotle’s works be translated into Arabic, and offered to pay for each book that was translated in its own weight in gold. He founded the famous ‘Bayt al-Hikmah’ (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad and personally presided over discussions on logical, theological, and legal matters. Caliph Al-Mamun was interested in every aspect of science, philosophy and especially in astronomy. He himself conducted, on the plains of Mesopotamia, two astronomical operations intended to determine the value of a terrestrial degree. (A terrestrial degree is the length on land of one degree of arc in the sky. With this information, Muslim Scientists could determine the size of the Earth, which in turn, indicates that there was a generally accepted belief of the roundness of the Earth). The crater Almanon on the Moon is named in recognition of his contributions to astronomy. His court was also an hospitable place for Jews and Christians.
Over the next 300 years (about 800 A.D. to 1150 A.D.) major works in philosophy, medicine, engineering and mathematics in Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit, Pahlavi and other languages were translated into Arabic. This endeavor became known as the ‘translation movement’, which undoubtedly fueled the entire Islamic Renaissance.
Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew and Latin.
Amongst the most impressive contributions of this period in Islamic history to humanity as a whole was the establishment of algebra, by Al Khawarizmi (who coined the name Algebra, also, the word “Algorithm” was named in his honor), and the advancements in optics, as well as astronomy and trigonometry. But perhaps the most notable achievement was the incredible advances in the field of medicine, drawing on, and improving upon, the works of Greek Physicians such as Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen.
Before Islam, the accepted wisdom was that God would provide cures for all illnesses. And so, healers were frequently hired to perform religious ceremonies on the sick and dying, and medicine was classified under the umbrella of natural philosophy, which was the medieval, non-scientific precursor to science and the scientific method. Chemistry was called alchemy, astronomy was astrology, and so on. None of them required proof or experimentation, and most of them relied on mere superstition and theatrics.
The Scientific Method, and the Advancement of Medicine
Then came the Islamic Renaissance, and perhaps motivated by the belief of Muslims that “God has not sent down a disease except that He also sent down its cure.” (Hadith), Muslims started a furious search for cures, and regarded the study of medicine as a holy endeavor.
Muslim scientists and professors were more than just teachers of young Muslim scholars, they were the teachers of modern Europe. Most European renaissance figures reference the works of the great Islamic scientists. It was one of them, a famous chemist, who wrote: “Hearsay and mere assertion have no authority in Chemistry. It may be taken as an absolutely rigorous principle that any proposition which is not supported by proofs is nothing more than an assertion which may be true or false. It is only when a man brings proof of his assertion that we say: Your proposition is true.”
This sentence was – in fact – at the very heart and core of the modern scientific method, popularized by Galileo many hundreds of years later, and remains its main dominant principle: The requirement of scientific proof. Muslim Scientists had laid the groundwork for the scientific method through their empirical, experimental and quantitative approach to scientific inquiry.
Many Islamic scholars – too numerous to be listed here – made invaluable contributions to the scientific community. People like Al-Razi, Al-Biruni, Ibn-Al-Haitham, Al-Gabratti, Al-Tussi, and Al-Khawarizmi, are widely regarded as the best scientific minds of their era. But in the field of medicine, perhaps no one was more influential than Ibn Sina (10th Century A.D).
Ibn Sina was a polymath (a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas), and was way ahead of his time. He is credited with many varied medical observations and discoveries, such as recognizing the potential of airborne transmission of diseases, recognizing over 130 eye conditions, providing insight into many psychiatric conditions, recommending use of forceps in deliveries complicated by fetal distress, distinguishing central from peripheral facial paralysis and describing guinea worm infection and trigeminal neuralgia.
But most importantly, his most famous book: The Canon of Medicine (القانون في الطب), which catalogs the world’s entire medical knowledge, became the standard text for the study of Medicine all over the world for more than a millennium.
Moreover, Islamic Ophthalmologists invented many subtle and advanced techniques for performing surgery on the eye, vastly improving the quality of life for thousands of people. Not only did Islamic scholars study the eye in detail, but they linked these studies with their work into optics and the physics underlying vision and the very nature of light.
They established eye hospitals in some of the major cities of the Islamic world, including Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. In a structure common to Islamic medicine, these centers incorporated teaching and research facilities alongside the treatment of patients, which is a model that continues to be followed up to this day in medical schools all around the world.
But the Islamic Golden Age wasn’t just characteristic for its knowledge, it was also characteristic for its arts, music, and culture.
One traveler once wrote of Baghdad: “There is none more learned then their scholars, more cogent than their theologians, more poetic then their poets, or more reckless than their rakes!”
This was the time described in One Thousand and One Nights, this was the time where stories of magic carpets and fantastic voyages were set, this was the true cultural center of the old world.
The Ulama, the True Guardians of Civilization
This was a time when the Arabic word “Ulama” (“علماء” mentioned repeatedly in Quranic verses and Hadith) meant university professors, educated men, and men of science.
You must not think of them as what Muslim imams now call “Ulama”, by courtesy. The proper Arabic term for the latter is “Fuqaha”, and it had hardly come into general use in those days when religious study – what is known as “Fiqh” – was still in its infancy.
Back then, the Ulama were no blind guides, no mere fanatics, no fatwa releasing Imams.
The Ulama were the most enlightened thinkers of their time, they were well versed in the Islamic Religion, but much more importantly, they were well versed in the scientific knowledge of their day.
They regarded science, civilization, and culture as God-given gifts, and in strict accordance with the Prophet’s teaching, it was they who watched over the welfare of the people and pointed out to the Caliph anything that was being done against the rights of man as guaranteed by the Qur’an. It was they, indeed, who kept down the fanatic element, discouraged persecution for religious opinion, and saved Islamic culture from deterioration.
This was a time when people of the Muslim world not only had political freedom, but also intellectual freedom, since it dispelled the blighting shadow of the priesthood and religious zealotism from human thought.
The German Professor Joseph Hell, in a little book on Arab civilization which has lately been translated into English by Mr. S. Khuda Bukhsh, thus writes of them:
“It is to the credit of Islam that it neither slighted nor ignored other branches of learning; nay, it offered the very same home to them as it did to theology – a place in the mosque. Until the 5th century of the Hijrah [12th century CE] the mosque was the university of Islam; and to this fact is due the most characteristic feature of Islamic culture “perfect freedom to teach.” The teacher had to pass no examination, required no diploma, no formality, to launch out in that capacity. What he needed was competence, efficiency, and mastery of his subject.”
The writer goes on to show how the audience, which included learned men as well as students, were the judges of the teacher’s competence, and how a man who did not know his subject or could not support his thesis with convincing arguments could not survive their criticism for an hour, but was at once discredited.
The well known American writer, Draper, wrote: “During the period of the Caliphs, the learned men of the Christians and the Jews were not only held in high esteem but were appointed to posts of great responsibility, and were promoted to high ranking positions in government. Haroon Rasheed appointed John the son of Maswaih, the Director of Public Instruction and all the schools and colleges were placed under his charge. He (Haroon) never considered to which country a learned person belonged nor his faith and belief, but only his excellence in the field of learning.”
Sir Mark Syce, writing on the qualities of Muslim rule during the period of Haroon Rasheed said: “The Christians, the idolaters, the Jews and the Muslims as workers running the Islamic State were at work with equal zeal.”
Liefy Brutistal wrote in his book: “Spain of the Tenth Century: So often the scribe writing out the terms of a treaty was a Jew or a Christian. Just as many Jews and Christians were holding charge of important posts in the State. And they were vested with authority in the administrative departments, even in matters of war and peace. And there were several Jews who acted as the ambassadors of the Caliph in European countries.”
That was then, this is now
As we undergo another period of what is being dramatically labelled by world media as “Muslim Rage”, news of violent mobs attacking embassies, fighting with security forces, claiming the lives of 49 of their own (24 in Pakistan alone according to the latest death toll), and demanding that Western countries start censoring their own population in violation of their own charters of freedom of thought and expression, has further cemented the image of the unreasonable and violent Muslim. As many in the non-Muslim world are growing ever more fearful of physical attacks from Muslims over what they view as offensive and blasphemous to Islam, a Pakistani minister stirred controversy by offering 100,000 dollars for whoever kills the makers of the offensive film that ignited the protests.
In the realm of Science, the area in which Muslims excelled in the past; the statistics would be laughable, if they weren’t so sad.
Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid them out in a 2007 Physics Today article:
There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
Out of all the Universities in the 57 Muslim states of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries), none of them made it in the Top 500 “Academic Ranking of World Universities” list.
Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction.
In addition, a number of Fuqaha, some of them partially educated, still cast a shadow of doubt on the scientifically proven model of the solar system, insisting on the medieval Geocentric model instead, and using Quranic scripture to support their claims that the Sun revolves around the Earth, not the other way around, while – ironically – talking on their cellphones, posting articles on the internet, and using GPS to find their location on a map, all of which principally work through the transmission of signals carried by Satellites that were launched into space and put into orbit by these same physicists with which they disagree, who wouldn’t have been able to do any of this had they not understood the laws of planetary motion and Gravity to a very high degree of accuracy. Some even mistake the Quranic verses talking about the separation of salt water & fresh water “by a barrier” as scientific proof that water of different salinity don’t mix, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
In further sharp contrast to the Islamic Golden Age, a surprising number of Fuqaha – incorrectly labeling themselves as Ulama – believe that non-Muslims in general shouldn’t be afforded the same rights and freedoms as Muslims. They believe in restricting the building of Churches, while freely allowing the building of Mosques. They believe that unbelievers should not be tolerated, and many believe that they should be put to death.
So what happened to the Muslims? How did such an advanced, cultured Civilization end up in such a sorry state?
The Destruction of Baghdad, and the Bastardization of the Ulama.
It was during the Islamic Renaissance, that the armies of Genghis Khan (13th Century), in their terrific inroad, entered the Arabian Peninsula from Asia, and destroyed the most important universities and massacred the learned men. This happened at a time when the eastern boundaries of the Empire were but lightly guarded, the forces of the Turkish rulers having been drawn westward by the constant menace of the Crusades. Once the frontiers were passed, there was practically no one to oppose such powerful invaders.
The Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.
The Ulama who sought for knowledge “even if it were in China” were no more. In their place stood men bearing the same high name of Ulama claiming the same reverence, but who sought knowledge only in a limited area, the area of Islam as they conceived it – not the world-wide, liberating and light-giving religion of the Qur’an and the Prophet, but an Islam as narrow and hidebound as religion always will become when it admits the shadow of a man between man’s mind and God. Islam, the religion of free thought, the religion which once seemed to have banished priestly superstition, and enslavement of men’s minds to other men, had become priest-ridden!
And with this paradigm shift in thought, new books started emerging, abandoning the scientific reasoning of the Islamic Renaissance, and adopting religious scripture as a sufficient alternative to scientific proof.
Ibn Sina’s “Canon of Medicine” disappeared off the bookshelves, and in its place came the book of “Prophetic medicine” (الطب النبوي), by Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (14 Century), which suggested – for example – that physicians like Ibn Sina and Galen were ignorant when describing Epilepsy as a sickness of the Brain, because the real cause – according to Ibn Qayyim – was possession by evil spirits!
The Incident that brought an end to the Islamic Golden Age
But it wasn’t even that tragedy that caused the death of the Islamic Renaissance. This was merely the catalyst for the main cause of the downward spiral that was to follow.
The Empire was apparently still progressing, even after the onslaught, but it was progressing on the wave of a bygone impulse.
The real reason behind the decline, was an incident that took place towards the end of the 15th Century.
What’s astonishing about that incident is that we wouldn’t have known about it, had it not been for a simple discovery that was made in Venice as recently as 20 years ago!
The story of this discovery started when Professor Angela Nuovo, from the University of Udine in Italy, was browsing through a library in one of the Islands of Venice, and found a very peculiar version of the Quran.
This version of the Quran was 500 years old, but what made this particular version stand out from the rest, was that it was a printed version of the Quran in Arabic, printed 42 years after the invention of the printing press, during a time when it was thought that the printing press and any printed books were banned from Muslim Lands.
As is widely known, the first printing press was built by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.
This changed everything. Until its invention, books had to be hand written. Copies were very hard to find and only a certain class of people were able to get their hands on them due to their scarcity and the difficulty of making copies.
But with the advent of the printing press, books became readily accessible, knowledge spread throughout the world like wildfire, and the usually uneducated masses all of a sudden had cheap, easy access to books of any subject. This happened almost everywhere around the world, ushering in a new age of enlightenment and education.
Everywhere, that is, except in the Islamic World.
Historians talked about a ban on printed books and the printing press under the Ottoman Empire, but for a long time, nobody really understood why – until now.
As the story goes, someone in 1492 had the idea of building a printing press for the Arabic language. A perfectly sound idea, if you take into consideration that at that time, most of humanity’s collective knowledge was available in Arabic, thanks to the Islamic Renaissance.
But the printing press owners quickly ran into problems, the most menacing of which was the fact that European Languages were easy to print, while Arabic, by contrast, is incredibly complex and notoriously hard to setup. Every letter changes according to ligatures and position, and the language has enormous amounts of tashkil (marks used as phonetic guides), not to mention the typography and complicated Calligraphy that was standard practice for written Arabic texts at the time.
As a first test, the printing press owners decided to print the most widely distributed book in the Islamic World: The Quran.
From a business point of view, how could they go wrong, they figured?
But since the printing press owners weren’t native Arabic speakers, the first batch of the Quran came out rife with mistakes, specifically in the tashkil. And when these books hit the markets in the Islamic world, the response was catastrophic!
Muslims everywhere, fueled by the fuqaha, quickly caught on to the mistakes, mistook them as an attempt to bastardize the Islamic religion, and immediately started burning the bad copies in the streets, as the entire Muslim world raged against this blasphemy.
The result? A blanket ban on all printing presses throughout the Muslim world, in an attempt to contain the religious fervor from growing.
Some historians now argue, that the fuqaha might have additionally fanned the flames in an attempt to save their principle source of income: Handwriting copies of the Quran, and saw the printing press as a threat to their own livelihoods.
Whatever the reasons, the rejection of this new technology caused the Islamic world to remain largely disconnected from the scientific & cultural advances that followed out of Christian Europe, and the very thing that started the Islamic Renaissance: the free mixing and exchange of scientific knowledge, was now being rejected, and eventually caused its demise.
As Europe was undergoing its very own renaissance, Muslims doubled down on the ban on printing presses, and also banned any translated copies of European books, in the face of what they deemed as an unholy threat to the Quran and their culture and way of life. They regarded the Renaissance and the printing press as agents of the Devil, and even though the ban was eventually lifted in the 18th century, Muslim scientists never caught up. Ottoman society crumbled. The Ottoman Empire became a dank, dark backwater.
There is no single event in Islamic History that was more damaging to the Islamic Civilization than this one incident, fueled by ignorance and misunderstanding, and of course, supported by the new Ulama, who unfortunately, still wield considerable influence over the everyday life of Muslims, up to this very day.
In the 19th century however, the European Enlightenment inspired a wave of modernist Islamic reformers: Mohammed Abduh of Egypt, his follower Rashid Rida from Syria, and their counterparts on the Indian subcontinent, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, exhorted their fellow Muslims to accept ideas of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Their theological position can be roughly paraphrased as, “The Qur’an tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
- BBC’s “Science and Islam” Series