By Aftab Zaidi
November 13, 2011
Photo: Zakariya al-Razi, Persian physician, scientist and philosopher. 865-925 ACE.
The 2011 Nobel Prizes were announced recently at a ceremony held in Europe. It is rather sad that no Muslim was able to garner this prestigious award. After all Muslims constitute 21 percent of the total world population and are around 1.57 billion. It is an irony that so far the Muslim world has produced only nine Nobel laureates since the inception of this award by Alferd Nobel in 1895.
This statistic seems even more horrifying if the Peace Prize winners are excluded from this list which leaves it with only two Nobel laureates in the field of science namely Dr Abdus Salam in Physics and Ahmed Zewail in Chemistry. Moreover, Dr. Salam was hounded and persecuted in his home country on account of his Ahmedi faith and is not even considered a Muslim. His numerous achievements were never acknowledged. In fact the word “Muslim” was officially erased from his gravestone. On the contrary, Jews who make up 0.20 percent of the total world population at 13.2 million have had 178 Nobel Prize winners.
This pathetic state of affairs depicts that there is something seriously wrong in the Muslim world. After all Muslims were one of the pioneers of modern science. The period between 9th and 13th century is considered as the golden age of Islam. Although some of the ideas were translated from the Greeks and Romans, there were also original concepts brought up by Muslim scientists. Al Razi made significant contributions to medicine, alchemy, music and philosophy. His work has been recorded in over 200 books and articles. Al Furabi was a cosmologist, logician and musician. Jabbir Ibn Hayyin was a cosmopolitan figure, being an astronomer, astrologer, engineer, geologist, physicist, pharmacist and a physician.
However despite this strong foundation, Muslims lost the tide. During the last 800 years there has been no major invention or innovation brought forward by the Muslim world. Western civilization is to be lauded for conceiving concepts like Quantum Mechanics, genetic engineering, theory of relativity and for creation of antibiotics, electricity, computers and a host of other modern gadgets that has made life comfortable today. Muslims on the other hand have had almost a negligible role to play in formulating such mind boggling ideas.
Zakariya al-Razi, Persian physician, scientist and philosopher. 865-925 ACE.
There has been some introspection to actually decipher the causes of the decline of intellectual vigor in the Muslim civilization. The scholars have come up with two different competing narratives. The conservatives declare the loss of faith and the debauchery, such as drinking and dancing in the Caliphs courts, as the causes for this downfall. Additionally they also lay blame on the invasion of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongol forces of Hulaku Khan whereby a treasure trove of documents and manuscripts related to astronomy, astrology, alchemy, history and on number of science subjects were destroyed.
However this is a faulty hypothesis. Science came into Islam through the spirit of tolerance and inquiry. After all that is the basis of any intellectual discipline. The early Muslim conquerors came upon the scholarly treasures of Greek and Roman civilizations. Those works were not discarded rather they were decoded and translated. Thus they became a source of considerable knowledge. It was not a divine duty but the natural human instinct of curiosity which made them acquire knowledge and wisdom from those sources. Hunan Ibn Ishaq translated Greek scientific and medical works into Arabic and Syriac during the prime of Abbasid caliphate. He was considered the most productive translator of Greek treatises of his time and became known as the “Sheikh of Translators” among the Arabs.
The reigns of Caliph Haroon Ur Rasheed and Al Mammon are still remembered for their liberal outlook and research endeavors. These rulers were the noninterventionists of their time and belonged to the Mutizillah School of Thought. The Mutizillahs believed in rationalism, intellectual inquiry and reason. The application of logic and judgment to resolve theological conundrums was also one of their qualities. In their opposition was the Ashari School of Thought. The Asharis were firm believers inpredestination. They held the view that although humans possess freewill they have no power to create anything in the material world as that is the domain of God alone. The result was that there was a very bloody battle lasting over several years between predestinates and the freethinkers. In the end the Asharis succeeded. Therefore after the 14th century, and especially after Ibn Khuldun, there have been no big names among Muslim intellectuals. This is the misfortune of the Muslim civilization, one that it is yet to recover from.