Why Did the Scientific Revolution Not Take Place in the Muslim World? - 2
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Concord, CA

The Asharite Response

The intellectual storms created by the Mu’tazalite and anti-Mu’tazalite movements continued to rage long after the eighth century. The Islamic world had come face to face with the Greek rationalism and was trying to reconcile its belief systems with reason. Was there an interface between reason and faith? If there was one, where was it? The major intellectual figures of the Islamic Golden Age grappled with this question and advanced their own views and their own theories.

Among the most influential of the usuli ulema who tried a reconciliation of reason with faith was the Shafi’ scholar Abul Hasan al Ash’ari (d 936). To maintain the transcendence of God and preserve His power over all decisions, Al Ash’ari advanced the thesis that time was discrete and was built up of small increments (atoms). At each increment of time, the Will of God intervenes and determines the outcome of an event. Thus, in the Asharite cosmology, a natural law which appears to follow the logic of cause and effect gets broken up into an infinite series of occasions for the intervention of the Will of God. Those who accepted the philosophy of al Ash’ari were called the Asharites. The Asharite ideas found wide acceptance in the Islamic world and influenced some of the major thinkers of Islamic history, including Al Gazzali and Allama Iqbal.

Al Ash’ari’s thesis was a major step towards a reconciliation of faith and reason. Al Ash’ari rejected the Mu’tazalite position that the Qur’an was “created”. He explained that the divine attributes of seeing, hearing and action are different from those of human beings and must not be understood in anthropological terms.

However, in advancing his own “atomistic” theory of time, Al Ash’ari’s left himself open to a critique from the philosophers and scientists. What is time? Is it linear? Is it discrete? Is it warped? Is it even “real”? The limits of reason are the limits of human understanding of time. The Qur’an offers profound insights into the nature of time to guide humankind in its quest for the Truth. The passage of time, absolute time, perceived time, time as a moment, time as a day and as a mirage are all clarified in different contexts in the Qur’an.

The definition of a natural phenomenon must therefore state, a priori, its assumptions of time within which the phenomenon are defined. Otherwise, observations, theories and deductions that are derived in one time frame become speculative when applied to a different time frame. Al Ash’ari won the debate against the Mu’tazalites of the day. However, his assumptions are insufficient to accommodate modern theories of quantum physics. The search for a satisfactory definition of the interface between reason and faith is perpetual and must continue.


The Approach of Ibn Sina and the Scientists

Ibn Sina was one of the most celebrated scientists of the Islamic Golden Age. His approach to the question of cause and effect in nature was fundamentally different from that al Ash’ari. To preserve the overarching authority of Divine Will in nature, Al Ash’ari conceived of time as moving in discrete, small increments (atoms). Ibn Sina, on the other hand, tackled the more fundamental issues of “change” and the “agent of change”. He constructed a hierarchy of causers of change and distinguished between the “necessary” and the “contingent”. God is “necessary”, he maintained, whereas the created world is “contingent”. In the cosmology of Ibn Sina, the metaphysical structures of necessity and contingency were different. The necessary is “the source of its own being without borrowed existence. It is what always exists”. By contrast, “the contingent being is 'false in itself' and 'true due to something else other than itself… It is actualized by an external cause other than itself.” Thus the theories of Ibn Sina stay close to the guidance provided by the Qur’an. However, his esoteric arguments of the “necessary” and the “contingent” were too complex for the layman and his works remained unknown except among the scholars and the elite.


Al Gazzali’s Tahafut al Falasafa (Repudiation of the Philosophers)

Abu Hamid al-Gazzali (d 1111) was one of the most influential theologians, jurists and skeptical philosophers in Islamic history. Born into a Persian-Arab family in Tus in Northeastern Iran, Al-Gazzali received his early training in Qur’an, fiqh and tasawwuf in the local religious schools and then studied under a well-known scholar, al-Juwayni of Nishapur. The erudition, brilliance and intellectual acuity of the young Al-Gazzali attracted the attention of Nizam ul Mulk, the grand vizier of the reigning Seljuks, who conferred upon him the title of “hujjaatul Islam” (evidence of Islam) and appointed him a professor at the Nizamiya college in Baghdad. His lectures on jurisprudence and tasawwuf attracted a wide following and his fame spread far and wide.

After teaching at the College for four years, Al Gazzali went through a profound internal crisis. Outward ritualistic observances of religion and esoteric philosophical discourses brought him no inner peace. He quit his prestigious professorship and embarked on a journey to Damascus, Jerusalem and onto Mecca and Madina for hajj. His introspections during this period brought him the conviction that true faith resided in the heart and it was only through a cleansing of the heart and constant remembrance of God that man ascends to Divine presence. Al Gazzali returned to Nishapur (1098) where he founded and taught at a Zawiya, a college structured after Sufi teachings. In 1106 he returned to the Nizamiya College and continued to teach there until his death.

Al Gazzali lived in a period of great political turmoil. The Islamic world was divided between the Fatimids in Cairo and the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Sunni Seljuqs backed the Abbasids and were engaged in a military struggle with the Shia Buyids of Iraq for control of Baghdad. The Crusaders, taking advantage of the Fatimid-Abbasid rivalries, were successful in capturing Jerusalem in 1099. The assassins, a band of disgruntled Fatimids, were active throughout the Islamic world, causing havoc with their targeted killings of Sunni leadership. Nizamul ul Mulk himself fell to an assassin’s dagger in 1092. On the intellectual plane, the turbulence generated by the injection of Greek philosophy continued to roil theological debates. It had been four hundred years since the Mu’tazalite movement had first enjoyed and then lost the patronage of Abbasid courts in Baghdad. Though these centuries, the intellectual genius of Muslims scholars had struggled to accommodate the challenge of Greek ideas. The work of Al Ash’ari (d 936) had brought a degree of calm to this intellectual landscape but the undercurrents of a perceived disharmony between faith and reason persisted.

Al Gazzali injected himself headlong into the Fatimid-Sunni and philosophy-theology debates. His dialectic reflects the political and intellectual turmoil of the age. He argued eloquently against the esoteric doctrines of the Fatimids as well as the deductive approach of the philosophers. In his treatise Tahaffuz al Falasafa (Repudiation of the Philosophers), he contended that the metaphysical arguments of the philosophers did not meet the test of reason. Basing his powerful dialectic on the earlier works of al Ash’ari, Al Gazzali argued that there was no cause and effect in nature, and that all natural events happen by the Will of God.

“The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary….. For any two things, it is not necessary that the existence or the nonexistence of the one follows necessarily from the existence or the nonexistence of the other. Their connection is due to the taqdir of God, who creates them side by side, not to its being necessary by itself.”

Al Gazzali supported his argument by offering the combustion of cotton an example:

“We say that the efficient cause of the combustion through the creation of blackness in the cotton and through causing the separation of its parts and turning it into coal or ashes is God—either through the mediation of the angels or without mediation”.

In modern language, Al Gazzali’s position can be stated as follows: The laws of nature are not deterministic. Cause and effect are not necessary consequences of each other; they exist “side by side”. The outcome of a natural phenomenon is a moment of God’s grace.


The Legacy of Al Gazzali

Al Gazzali’s dialectic on philosophy had a global impact both on the Islamic as well as Western civilizations. Although Al Gazzali’s thrust was against the arguments of the philosophers rather than philosophy itself, his encyclopedic works had a chilling effect on the pursuit of philosophy in the Islamic world. In essence, it eliminated reason from the realm of natural phenomenon.


The Riposte of Ibn Rushd

As interest in philosophy waned, the Spaniard Ibn Rushd (1128) took up the defense of philosophy. Considered a giant among philosophers, Ibn Rushd wrote extensive commentaries on the works of Aristotle. He took issues with Al Gazzali’s position that there was no cause and effect in nature. In his Tahaffut at Tahaffut (Repudiation of the Repudiation) he argued that reason was a valid tool for understanding both nature and revelation. Whereas Al Gazzali had questioned the validity of cause and effect in nature, arguing that phenomenon happen only by the will of God, Ibn Rushd argued that natural phenomenon followed laws ordained by God. Thus the sway of Divine Will over all affairs is preserved both through the natural laws and their outcomes. However, the Islamic world chose the mysticism of Al Gazzali over the rationalism of Ibn Rushd. Reason was marginalized, whereas mysticism thrived.

As Spain fell to the Christian Conquistadores (1086-1248), Latin translations of the works of Ibn Rushd and other Muslim philosophers became available in Europe and were a driving force for the rise of the scholastic tradition in Christendom. Universities sprang up all over Europe. Those at Bologna 1088, Paris 1150, Oxford 1248, Cambridge 1209. Rome 1303, Florence 1321, Prague 1348, Vienna 1365, Venice 1470, and Valencia 1499 are well known. European scholasticism, having arrived at the same point in philosophy that Muslim philosophy had arrived at three hundred years earlier resolved the apparent tensions between philosophy and religion in a fundamentally different way. One of the principal figures in this tradition was Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Muslim philosophers had struggled to maintain the omnipotence of God in nature and human affairs by speculating on the nature of time and advancing the idea of “the necessary” and “the contingent”, the European philosophers separated nature and philosophy into separate compartments. Nature, they concluded, was within the domain of reason; matters of theology were beyond its reach.


The Interaction of Faith with Reason in Europe and the Islamic World, a Contrast in Outcomes

To recap, here is a summary of the galactic battles between faith and reason in Islam and Christianity: The first to attempt a reconciliation of faith and reason were the Mu’tazalites. They overextended their reach by applying reason to the divine realm without a sufficient grasp of the limits of reason. To preserve the transcendence of God they speculated that the Word of God was “created”. In other words, they tried to contain God in the confines of reason and were summarily rejected by Islamic orthodoxy. The Asharites advanced an “atomistic” theory of time. This view did gain wide traction and became a part of Islamic thought. The Muslim scientists used a different approach by suggesting that the domain of the Divine was “necessary” whereas that of nature was “contingent”. This view was too esoteric for main street Islam to absorb. Al Gazzali stood on the shoulders of the Asharites and the scientists but in his attempt to repudiate the philosophers, he went too far and banished reason from nature. The Latin West accommodated reason with faith but they paid a heavy price for this accommodation. They banished reason from faith and made the natural sciences secular.


The Simultaneous Mongol Invasions and the Crusades

The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century (1219-1257) devastated much of the eastern Islamic world. The great cities of Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv, Nishapur, Ghazna, Esfahan, Tabriz and Baghdad were destroyed. A vast swath of territories extending from the Amu Darya to the hills of Jerusalem was decimated. The nomadic Mongols had no use for agriculture. Dams were levelled and canals filled in. Libraries were burned. Men of learning were slaughtered. In short, the curtain fell on the classic Islamic civilization that had nurtured science and philosophy for five hundred years.

While the Mongols ravaged the eastern provinces of the Islamic world, the Crusades were active in the West. When the Caliphate of Cordoba disintegrated in 1031 and al Andalus broke up into warring principalities, it was a signal for the Christian powers to enter the fray. Toledo, the ancient Visigoth capital, fell in 1086 and Lisbon in Portugal in 1147. After the disastrous defeat of Muslim armies at the battle of Los Novas de Talosa (1212), the Conquistadores rapidly overran most of Spain. Córdoba, the seat of the Spanish Caliphate fell in 1236, followed by Seville in 1248. Only the Southern tip of Spain around Granada and the hills of Pujara held out until 1492.

Thus, within a span of a generation between 1219 and 1258, more than half of the Islamic world was either destroyed or occupied. The areas ravaged by the Mongols included what is today Uzbekistan Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan up to the river Indus, Iran, Iraq, Eastern Anatolia and Syria. In the West, the province of Spain was lost.

The simultaneous loss of the prosperous cities of Persia and Spain was a blow from which the Islamic civilization never recovered. With the rulers gone, the pursuit of philosophy, which depended heavy on patronage from the top, suffered a mortal blow. It was the end of the Golden Age of science in Islam.

The Islam that emerged after the Mongol-Crusader onslaughts was a spiritual Islam, less empirical and exoteric and more esoteric and spiritual. The destructions tested the metal of Islamic civilization. In its darkest hour, the inner spirituality of Islam rose up to the challenge. Islam renewed itself through tasawwuf and was successful in converting the Mongols. Astronomy, architecture and artisanship won the patronage of the new rulers and continued to flourish. However, the emphasis of Islamic civilization shifted decidedly towards the sciences of the soul. Whereas the archetype of the Golden Age were philosophers and scientists like al Razi and Ibn Sina, the archetypes of the Sufi age were Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani of Baghdad, Shaikh Shadhuli of Cairo, Ibn al Arabi of Spain, Mevlana Rumi of Anatolia and Shah Naqshband of Samarqand. It was this Sufic Islam, syncretic in its tendencies, open and inclusive towards other faiths that spread to the India-Pakistan subcontinent, Indonesia, Malaysia, sub Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe.

Out of the political turmoil of the Mongol-Tartar invasions, there emerged three strong land empires in Asia- the Ottomans, the Safavids and the great Mughals of India. All three of these empires patronized art, architecture, astronomy and artisanship but neglected the natural sciences. The Ottomans, for instance were strong in metallurgy and cannon manufacture. However, the design and manufacture of guns and engines of war was more driven by superb artisanship than a basic understanding of the physics of armaments. This trend continued for four centuries. For instance, the Mysore rockets that were used during the Anglo-Mysore wars (1770-1799) had twice the range of anything used in Europe at the time. However, there is no indication that the master artisans who produced them had a deep understanding of Newton’s laws of physics well known to European scientists of the era.

Neglect of science, naval technology and the printing press

As was observed earlier, although art, architecture, literature and poetry flourished and artisanship and craftsmanship were valued, the post-Mongol period was characterized by a marked decrease in scientific activity. The era produced architects like Mimar Sinan and Ahmed Lahori, poets like Rumi, Hafiz and Amir Khusroe, astronomers like Ibn al Shatir but no scientific figures of the stature of Ibn Sina. So, when Europe embarked on a scientific revolution (1600-1800), the Islamic world was found napping and finally succumbed to European military onslaught.

Most noticeable was the delay in the introduction of the printing press which was introduced into Europe in 1439 and spread throughout Europe by the end of the fifteenth century. In Italy alone, there were no less than 77 printing presses in the year 1500.

The printing press made possible the spread of knowledge. It was one of the main engines for the Renaissance which produced the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was only in 1728 that the printing press was introduced into the Ottoman Empire and into Mughal India at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In both cases, what held back the introduction of this technology was the opposition of the ulema who held that the Word of God would be defiled by contact with wooden presses.

Equally disastrous was a neglect of naval technology. After the Battle of Lepanto (1571), there was a steady and exorable decay in the naval prowess of Muslim empires. By the year 1700, the Ottoman Empire spent as much on its navy as it did on the royal kitchens. The result was that the Muslims who had controlled the trade between Asia and the Mediterranean worlds surrendered it to Europe.

Control of the seas also meant that the balance of global power shifted inexorably in favor of the West. Europe went on to discover America and circumnavigate the horn of Africa bypassing the trade routes through the Middle East. Europe thrived while Muslim lands sank into poverty.

Concurrent with the loss of technological edge and political power, there was a regression in intellectual activity as well. While new universities sprang up all over Europe, embracing the pursuit of science and philosophy with vigor, the Muslim world was content to recycle what it had learned five hundred years earlier. There was no innovation in education. The Madrasas and Zawiyas of the Muslims encouraged learning by rote while the European universities encouraged critical thinking and scientific education.

So, when Europe entered the early modern period based on scientific discoveries and technological innovation and produced Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Bacon, Newton and Pascal, the Islamic world just could not compete with the West. For almost three hundred years Europe enjoyed a near monopoly in scientific discourse and scientific advancements. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that scientific knowledge was diffused through Asia, starting with Japan and later spreading through China and India.


Salafism, Shia, Sunni, the raging controversies

While religious schisms were not unknown in Europe and the Protestant-Catholic rivalries sometimes erupted into armed conflict, the pursuit of scientific endeavor managed to transcend these divisions. Science had become a secular endeavor open to all shades of religious opinions. The printing press made possible the widest dissemination of knowledge. More than a million books were printed in Europe in the seventeenth century. There were respected scientists among the Protestants as there were among the Catholics and they built an edifice of science as a cooperative enterprise.

By contrast, the post-Timurid period (1400-1700) in the Islamic world was characterized by sharpened conflicts between Shias and Sunnis, Sufis and Salafis. The Safavids in Persia were Shia and they were engaged in continual conflicts with the Sunni Ottomans. Iran acted as a wedge between the Ottomans and the Moguls of India, preventing any effective military coordination between the two Sunni powers. For example, the Ottoman sultan Suleyman II asked the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb for assistance against the Grand Christian Alliance during the wars of 1683-1699. Aurangzeb could not and did not send a relief column to the Ottomans because he was occupied in a prolonged conflict with the Shia kingdoms of the Deccan in southern Indian. A second example is the appeal of Tippu Sultan of Mysore to Amir Zaman Shah of Afghanistan in 1798 for military help against the British. Zaman Shah was disposed to help but was prevented from doing so because of a British inspired Shia uprising in Herat in Western Afghanistan.

A new schism arose in the Islamic world in the mid-seventeenth century which had a profound impact on the development of science and civilization in Islam. The post-Mongol-Tartar era was dominated by Sufic Islam. It was inherently syncretic, open to absorbing the cultures of the lands into which it made inroads. Thus the Hindus of India and the Buddhists of Indonesia found it easier to walk into the fold of Sufi Islam. This syncretic Islam produced great rulers like Akbar (d 1605) of Mogul India. However, the very success of Sufi Islam, generated a counter reaction, starting with India. Aurangzeb (d 1707) ascended the throne of Mogul India after Shah Jehan and embarked on dismantling the inclusive syncretic culture built by his great-grand father Akbar. Akbar had included the Hindus as people of the book, marrying Hindu princesses and abolishing discriminatory taxes against them. Aurangzeb reinstated the jizya and replaced the Sufi South Asian culture, which he viewed as deviationist, with a juridical Islam codified in Futuhat e Alamgiri. The Hindus and the Sikhs rebelled, starting the long process of political disintegration. The political decay was reflected in the arts, architecture, artisanship, science and culture.

A harsher, uncompromising version of Islam was introduced by Abdel Wahab of Arabia (d 1792). Proclaiming that all practices which were not in strict conformance with the practices of the earliest Muslims were bida’ (innovation), Abdel Wahab waged a relentless struggle against the Bedouins of Arabia, forcing them into conformance with his views. The stern creed of Abdel Wahab was adopted as the official dogma by Saudi Arabia. With the discovery of oil in the Middle East, and the enormous wealth that accrued with it, the reach of Wahhabi ideas extended to the entire globe. The word “Wahhabism” carried a connotation of extreme rigidity in religious matters. This rigidity extended to science and culture as well. For instance, until recently, the major universities in Arabia were opposed to photography and videos. Only recently has the Saudi religious establishment made an about-turn and now the students in Saudi universities openly carry mobile phones with video features.

The raging controversies over sectarian differences drained the intellectual resources of the Islamic community. Bogged down over questions of what was permissible and what was not, science and philosophy were marooned. The controversies persist to this day. (To be continued)

(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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