A Long Shadow Over Muslim Scholarship?

Science has not been able to shed the hold of the clergy, who continue to throw roadblocks to scientific progress

A Long Shadow Over Muslim Scholarship?

It is unfortunate that Muslim nations have been trailing the Western and the far-Eastern nations in terms of science and technology. Lately, India's investment in education has catapulted her, too, into the position of having a leading world economy. China, Singapore and South Korea have made tremendous progress in the last few decades. Muslim nations, on the contrary, have largely remained low on educational standards, scientific innovation and industrialisation. There are very few, if any, stalwarts in mathematics, basic sciences or medical fields. There are only three Muslims who have been awarded Nobel prizes in scientific field: one in economics and none in medicine-physiology.

One basic cause of this backwardness is that Muslim populations seem to have an aversion for reading. Students don’t read anything outside their syllabi books, very few read history, psychology or philosophy books. Reading novels or short stories is viewed with suspicion and sex education is non-existent. Most believe that recitation of holy books, running of beads with some holy words and a few prayers is sufficient to carry them to success; in this world as well as the next. That is a highly misleading view. There should be a firm belief that there is no shortcut to success in life and the only recipe to respect, prestige and progress is through education and hard work. 

It is possible to argue that many Muslim countries have low research output because they do not apply their mind to original thinking. Most papers written in Muslim nations, with some honourable exceptions, are plagiarised and pertain to shoddy work. With the exception of Turkey and Iran, very few books are produced in Muslim nations on scientific subjects or fiction. In India alone, as of 2020, some 100,000 books are published annually, with market capitalisation of US$ 10 billion. For Pakistan, this figure is about 4,000 per annum, and most are low-quality Urdu novels, biographies of questionable worth or products of local PhD theses. It is only the Muslim diaspora in the West that can claim some achievements in these endeavours. In Muslim nations, with some notable exceptions and due to a variety of factors, education remains neglected, resulting in illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and superstition. Instead of trained specialists, these nations produce ultracrepidarians who offer simplistic and facile solutions to complex issues of healthcare, economy and diplomacy. It is no wonder that on human development indices, Muslim nations hover well below the average.

During the Islamic Golden Age, Muslims became enamoured with the Greek sciences, but, at the same time, realised that the latter were products of a radically different environment where, comparatively for that ancient era, freedom of expression prevailed, democratic values were upheld and religion didn't play an overwhelming role in people's life. In Athens, in particular, and Greek states in general, people followed wherever logic led them. In Islam, however, religion played a vital part in shaping social thought. Whereas thinkers like al-Kindi, al-Razi, Ibn-Sina, al-Farabi, ibn-Bajja, ibn Rushd and many Mutazilah (rationalists) followed Aristotelian logic around religious beliefs, their voices didn't prevail with the masses. On the other extreme, dogmatic orthodoxies of Imam Hanbal, Ghazali, ibn-Tayyamya, al-Suhrawardi and other conformist conservatives carried wider appeal. 

The fact that many Muslims readily accept orthodoxy and abhor the idea of reinterpretations of scriptures helps to explain why logical and scientific thought did not – and in fact does not –proliferate in Islamic nations. The Muslim proclivity to weigh scientific concepts on the scales of what they see as the contents of their holy book hasn't served them well – just as this kind of approach embarrassed the Catholic Church during the early Renaissance. However, the Church recovered by deviating from this flawed path. Muslim religious schools, on the other hand, continue to defy scientific methods and knowledge. They are obdurate in their belief that human logic is inferior to the revelations. 

Perhaps due to the spread of enlightenment through printing presses, the tentacles of the clergy became weak and scientific ideas became largely delinked from religious shackles

Some medieval Muslim thinkers, no doubt, did believe in a logical approach to understand the physical world. Reportedly, Razi claimed that logic itself was sufficient to explain the world and that he saw no need of divinely revealed knowledge to do that. Ibn Rushd pleaded that the conclusions reached by reason and logic should demand reinterpretations of the scriptural texts. These two scholars belonged to a dismal minority of progressive Muslim logicians and scientists, whereas a majority adhered, as they do now, to the pronouncement of poorly educated theologians; with the result that the Islamic world remains mired in ignorance, poverty and servitude. One prime reason for refusing to let science progress as it must, independent of religion, was the unfounded fear among Muslims that some theory or law of science might dethrone the revealed doctrine. This defensive attitude has served them poorly. 

This fear of science overthrowing religion is common to all religions, as witnessed embarrassingly in the case of the denunciation of Galileo by the Catholic Church. In the case of Europe, perhaps due to the spread of enlightenment through printing presses, the tentacles of the clergy became weak and scientific ideas became largely delinked from religious shackles. 

In Muslim societies, though, science has not been able to shed the hold of the clergy, who continue to throw roadblocks to scientific progress. Allied to this issue have been the themes of predestination, which gave rise to Ilm-ul-Kalam or, in modern thought, Speculative Theology (concerned with supernatural claims that cannot be proved in the physical world); as is evident in the works of al-Kindi, the first acknowledged philosopher and Aristotelian of Islam. This concept aimed at unifying the dialectic (conflicting thoughts) concepts of preordained and free-will which had far-reaching effects on sin and punishment. Later Muslim scholars struggled to grasp and rationalise these contradictions. 

This intellectual revolution has, however, largely bypassed the Muslim world, who continue to cling to meaningless absurdities of archaic theories

Similarly, the concepts of eternal and created universe failed to find common ground, and did not let science move forward on some of the key issues. Imam Ghazali, with immense intellect at his command, was beset by these questions and his only safe but illogical solution was to stop raising questions that undermined religious dogma. As stated earlier, orthodoxy in Islam didn't allow delinking of science and theology. 

Modern Western – especially German – philosophers occupied themselves with these same issues. In his Philosophy of Revelation, Schelling investigated the relation between reason and revelation. Hegel examined the metaphysical (nature of reality, ie of time and space, cause and effect, mind and matter), issues of epistemology (nature of knowledge) and ontology (study of being). However, such philosophical exercises lost their meaning with the discovery of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. 

With a better understanding of origin of life, acceptance of evolutionary processes, discovery of life in Permian and Jurassic ages and mastery over genetic processes, mind (soul) and body (life) have become chemical and biological phenomena rather than spiritual miracle. The ethnic diversity of human beings is not unique. Biodiversity is equally reflected in plants, birds and animals. In-vitro fertilisation, surrogate pregnancies and cloning have reduced the miracle of birth to a laboratory process. Scientific clarity has reduced dependence on abstract doctrines. This intellectual revolution has, however, largely bypassed the Muslim world, who continue to cling to meaningless absurdities of archaic theories. 

Islamic history of scholarship has been a story of barren landscape with isolated and individual attainments

One unfortunate outcome of these conceptual struggles has been that Muslims didn't move beyond certain essential ideas that the Greeks had formulated. Hanbalis in particular stressed on conformity in the Abbasid era, with the threat of public ire in case of noncompliance, reduced the space for radical thinking. One glaring failure has been in the field of astronomy. Muslim scholars gathered a great deal of data on astronomical observations, but the fact of a heliocentric system escaped them because it required an intellectual somersault that only a non-conformist mind was capable of. Similarly, the Muslims were aware of the Fibonacci series but failed to enunciate it. It is now well known that both Copernicus and Fibonacci benefitted a great deal from works of the Islamic Golden Age.

The Muslims of Golden Age remained enraptured with Greek scholars such as Socrates (Sukraat), Plato (Aflatoon) and Aristotle (Aristu) in philosophy, Euclid (Aqleedus) in geometry, Archimedes (Aarshmedus) in mathematics, Galen (Jalenoos) and Hippocrates (Abqrat) in medicine and Ptolemy (Batlemoose) in geography. The Greek scholarly works cast a long shadow on the Muslim research. Some Muslim scholars of Islamic Golden Age made great continuations in medicine (ibn Sina, al-Razi), mathematics/geometry (al-Khawarzmi, Omar Khayyam, al-Tusi, Ulugh Baig), optics (ibn-Haythem), astronomy (al-Tusi, bin-Battani, Thabit bin al-Qurra), history (al-Tabari, ibn-Khaldun) etc.

However, there were very few breakthroughs except for al-Khawarzmi in mathematics (Algebra, algorithm), Al-Razi (pediatrics, measles/chicken pox differentiation) and ibn-Sina (encyclopaedia ‘Canon of Medicine’) in medicine, al-Tusi (Tusi couple) in astronomy and a few others with their original contributions. Their work, however, didn’t proliferate. Islamic history of scholarship has been a story of barren landscape with isolated and individual attainments. 

Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular have to make a serious assessment of their low investment in education. A worldly-wise education that prepares the youth for the technical challenges of the modern era needs to be imparted in our colleges and universities. If the nation wants to progress and compete with the world, education and religious dogma must be delinked; only then thinking minds can be nurtured. There is a direct link between good education and progress.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com