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Steady Decline in Education and Scientific Excellence in Muslim Society Leads to a Distant Possibility of Renaissance

By Nadeem Khan 

April 21, 2020 

From being accused of separatism, unresponsiveness to change, and even of corona spread, Muslims find themselves in impossible situations in one part or the other of the world. History is witness that from the 7th century till 17th century Muslims had some stake in worldly affairs. After that, they have been side-lined and gradually eclipsed. There are economical and socio-political reasons for it. To add to all this hatred against them has increased manifold in many parts of the world. This issue needs to be understood, and reasons ascertained. Often it is attributed to a steady decline in the importance of education and scientific excellence in Muslim society. 

Reasons for this gradual decline have to be ascertained and analysed in the right perspective. Every civilization owes its development to influence and inheritance it has from earlier cultures. The same was valid for Islamic civilization. They experienced their best time around the 7th century. The golden age of Muslims, i.e., the 7th century with Abbasids in Baghdad, saw large scale translation of works of Greek philosophers, namely Plato, Aristotle, and Galen. Bait ul Hikma (house of wisdom) was established, which involved scholars from all over the world. This house of knowledge reached its zenith during the time of Caliph Mamun, i.e., from 813 AD to 833 AD. These scholars often built on ideas provided by ancient writers. It all resulted in significant advancement in Algebra, trigonometry, decimal, and medical sciences. Ibn Sina wrote Qanun, which was a widely used book of medicine for many centuries. Al Nafisi obtained excellent results on blood circulation and Abu Qasim al Zahrawi in surgery. In this age, the world saw the development of teaching hospitals. They also made significant progress in astronomy, which as per some historians, formed the basis of Copernicus discovery of solar system. No doubt, Hellenistic inheritance had a substantial impact on the development of Islamic civilization 

Big question now comes with everything going on so well then what went wrong ? Why did the Muslim world saw a sudden decline in scientific temper? This decline in scientific temper was evident recently in the Corona pandemic when some clerics refused to cancel congregational prayers in masjids. There are many reasons attributed to this decline. 

Some see the reason in Islamic philosophy, i.e., a debate between reason and revelation. This debate spreads in works of three great Muslim philosophers, who are Ibn Sina, Al Ghazali, and Ibn Rushd. 

Ibn Sina (980 AD to 1037 AD) or Avicenna (as known to the western world) propounded the theory of the eternity of nature and the importance of cause and effect in all-natural events. It was refuted by Muhammad al Ghazali (1058 AD to 1111AD)in Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) in the 11th century who gave the idea that everything is as per the divine will. The seemingly rational philosophy of Ibn Sina was denounced as it was felt it deprived God of many godly qualities. Theologians accepted it readily. Many think that drifting away from science by Muslim society started from here. Later on, Al Ghazali got rebuttal from Ibn Rushd (1126 AD to 1198) or Averroes (as known in the western world) in Tahafut al-Tahafut (“Incoherence of the Incoherence”). There, he ruled that reason is the most important thing. He stated that if the deep meaning of Quranic verses is understood, both philosophy and theology will draw the same conclusion. Ibn Rushd challenged Al Ghazali by saying that if causal relation is secondary and everything is on divine will, then there is nothing in the world left to learn and know. Francois Robinson states that this confusion and subsequent implementation kept Muslim society divided. It made progress of science suffer in a big way. Although few others, such as Prof Frank Griffel, state that Al Ghazali was not anti-science but promoted science. 

Ibn Rushd’s philosophical thought and inherited scientific glory of Islamic civilization are seen as responsible for European renaissance. There is also a view that crusades were the driving force behind the European renaissance as Europe had found its inner self with it. 

Halagu’s invasion of Baghdad also had a devastating effect on the scientific journey of Islamic civilization. Scientific research lost political and economic patronage, and everything went astray. The sponsorship in Muslim lands was depended on the curiosity and support of rulers. Compared to that, a trend had developed in Europe whereby businesses and industry started patronizing research, and it continued for many centuries. 

Another critical reason had its root in the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman Sultan had put a death penalty on the use of the printing press under the influence of some royal clerics. This ban remained for the next 270 years depriving scholars of ease of citation and sharing ideas. It also restricted the reach of knowledge in masses. Another instance of the primacy of theology was the destruction of the astronomical observatory in Istanbul by Ottoman rulers under the influence of the Royal cleric around 1580. He had been advised that the study of skies would bring some devastating calamity on his people. 

It is imperative now to increase the inclination of Muslim societies towards scientific education. Specific steps are necessary so that future stimulus can provide desired results. First and foremost would be the translation of all the works of Muslim and western philosophers and scientists in vernacular language. In South Asia, it can be in Urdu, while in Malaysia, it can be in Malay as an example. English understanding elite is still in the minority in Muslim societies. Knowledge of Arabic is necessary as it is the language of the Quran, plus most of the encyclopaedias of the golden age of Islam are in Arabic. One more measure can be that endowment funds are created by privileged ones to establish a public library in the main masjid compound of every town. Anybody could take its membership for free and experience ease of access to books. With the internet boom, things are a lot easier. This ease has to be exploited to the full extent. Narrative for science education should be developed utilizing masjid congregations. Research has proved that even well to do Muslims appear disinterested in education. The intent level for education can be improved by using the services of motivational speakers. A strong team of volunteers on the lines of Tablighi jamaat can be helpful to entice masses towards education. One can be optimistic that after say 25 years a change can be observed and built upon further. 

Nadeem Khan is an insurance professional based in Toronto. 

Original Headline: Muslim renaissance! A distant possibility 

Source: Countercurrent