Why Did the Scientific Revolution Not Take Place in the Muslim World? - 3
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Concord, CA


The Colonial Period

Europe used its technological and scientific advantage to colonize much of Asia and Africa. India was the first great Asian civilization to fall to the West (1757-1947). By the end of the nineteenth century most of the Islamic world with the exception of the core Ottoman Empire and the Iranian heartland had been colonized.

There was resistance to the European onslaught, for instance, from Tippu Sultan of Mysore, who built a navy to patrol the Arabian Sea and rockets to defend his kingdom. But these efforts were too little, too late. By the end of the eighteenth century, the resistance had ended and the scientific and technological sway of the West was unchallenged, both on land and on sea.

The European powers dismantled the educational infrastructure of the colonized lands which had grown over centuries, thereby injecting a discontinuity in the intellectual development of the colonized people. The zawiyas and madrassas which had provided the educational foundation of the Muslim world were either marginalized or disappeared. Their place was taken up by government schools run by the colonial authorities whose purpose was to educate the native population to man the lower echelons of administrative bureaucracies in the colonized lands.

Science and technology, which at best were flickering in the old institutions, died out. The science and technology gap between a colonizing Europe and a colonized Afro-Asia increased.


A Challenging Future

It was only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that the Islamic world woke up to the need to learn the natural sciences from the West. In India, the Aligarh Muslim University was founded by Syed Ahmed Khan (d 1898). It was patterned after European schools and its intent was to educate Indian Muslims in the sciences, arts and technologies of the West.

In the Ottoman Empire, a determined effort was made to cultivate science and technology through the Tanzeemat and technical universities were established in Istanbul and other major cities. Some of the gifted students from these universities went on to study in Europe and acquire more advanced training in science and technology. The trend continues to this day and the few notable Muslim scientists and engineers have been primarily products of American and European universities.

However, in the global picture, the Islamic world continues to lag behind the West in science and technology. Not a single institution of higher learning from Muslim countries is listed among the top 100 science institutions of the world. Of the nine hundred Nobel Laureates since the Nobel Prize was established, only nine have been Muslim. Of these nine, six Noble prizes were awarded for peace. There have been only three Muslim Noble Laureates and all of them were educated and worked at universities in America or Europe. Less than one percent of the names that appear in the database of the United States Patents and Trademarks are Muslim and a similar trend is observable in the respectable scientific journals of the world. Literacy in Muslim lands is among the lowest in the world.

For instance, only 47 percent of women in Kashmir are literate which means more than half of them cannot even write and read their own name. What is more alarming is that the education gap between Muslim countries and the emerging economies such as those of China and India is increasing. War, physical dislocation, extremism and neglect have all taken their toll. Meanwhile, the Muslims continue to be bogged down with arguments over haram, bida’, shirk and kufr, hijab and halal meat. Education is valued only for its monetary benefits. Extremism has taken its toll. In Pakistan, women and girls are attacked for going to school. Religion has been hijacked by professional mullahs. The term a’lim is reserved for one who has studied in a madrasa. Knowledge has been compartmentalized into religious and secular. Scholarship in the sciences is not valued. The ignorant mullahs look down upon the natural sciences as secular and debasing.


What can be done?

A revival of natural sciences in the Islamic world requires, at the minimum, the following:

  • Develop a framework to encourage the pursuit of natural science in conformance with the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet. This is within the reach of the current generation of intellectuals. An attempt in direction has been made by this writer and it has been published in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History, www.historyofislam.com .
  • Encourage a culture of reason and rational discourse.
  • Encourage science education in primary and secondary schools.
  • Establish Centers of Excellence wherein scholars and seekers of knowledge meet and learn.
  • Provide societal recognition and financial support for those who pursue science and technology.
  • Establish peace and stability in the land.

The current bleak situation is a challenge and an opportunity for Islamic civilization. Islam is a great civilization. It has faced many challenges in its long history and has renewed itself time and again to emerge stronger and more resilient. It will once again rise up to the current challenge, renew itself and will march forward with the light of knowledge as enjoined by the Qur’an and confirmed by the Seerah of the Prophet. “Indeed, with every difficulty there is relief”. (The Qur’an 94:6)


  • The Impact of Al Gazzali

Al Gazzali’s dialectic on philosophy had a global impact both on Islamic as well as Western civilization. The Spaniard Ibn Rushd (1128) took issues with Al Gazzali’s conclusion that there was no cause and effect in nature. In his Tahaffut at Tahaffut he stayed true to the teachings of Aristotle arguing 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 by the will of God, Ibn Rushd argued that natural phenomenon followed laws ordained by God.

After the fall of Córdoba (1236), the works of Ibn Rushd became accessible to European scholars through their Latin translations and influenced the scholastic tradition in Christendom which tried to reconcile reason with theology. One of the principal figures in this tradition was Thomas Aquinas. 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 fundamentally different ways. Whereas Muslim philosophers had struggled to maintain the omnipotency of God in nature and human affairs by speculating on the nature of time, the European philosophers separated nature and philosophy into separate domains. Nature, they concluded, was within the preview of reason. Matters of theology were beyond its reach.

Thus the impact of rational thought on the Islamic world and the Latin West was fundamentally different. Both struggled to define the interface between reason and belief. Can reason comprehend revelation? How does the will of God manifest itself in the created world? Does God’s will act only in general and not in particular? These are fundamental questions of philosophy and they related the very basis of rational thought, its limits and the domain of belief.

The first to attempt a reconciliation of reason with belief were the Mu’tazalites. They overextended their reach by applying reaching reason to the divine realm. To preserve the transcendence of God they speculated that the Word of God was “created” in time. In other words, they tried to put God within the fold of reason

Al Gazzali was perhaps the most influential figure in medieval Islamic scholarship. As a distinguished Professor at the university in Baghdad, he was familiar with the arguments and counter arguments of philosophers regarding the nature of things. Basing his powerful dialectic on the earlier works of al Ashari, Al Gazzali advanced the position that there was no cause and effect in nature, and that all natural events happen by the Will of God. 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 science.

Ibn Rushd fought a rearguard action against the Asha rites. Staying true to the tradition of Aristotle, he argued that God acts through natural laws which cause and effect were valid.

The work of Ibn Rushd found a home in Europe. However, the price that was paid for this accommodation was the separation of Church and State. The Latin scholastic philosophers accepted the premise that nature was subject to reason but rejected the notion that it was applicable to theology and belief. This was the beginning of secular philosophy. God was confined to the walls of the Church whereas nature and the world of man was abandoned to reason and hence to secular logic.

Here is a summary of the galactic battles between faith and reason in Islam and Christianity: The Mu’tazalites overextended themselves and placed the Word of God within the prisons of time, space and reason. The Asharites rejected this confinement but in this attempt they went to the other extreme and banished reason from nature. The Latin West reconciled reason with nature but they paid a price for this reconciliation; they banished reason from faith.

(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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