The Cultural and Intellectual Decline Destroyed the Spirit of Enquiry

The Muslim world rumbled on towards obscurantism, with its enlightened intellectuals being systematically condemned and people reduced to intellectual apathy.

By Shahid M Amin

There was a time when Muslims led the world in practically all fields of knowledge. During the Golden Age of Islam, from 8th to 13th century, and even later, Muslim scientists and philosophers contributed enormously to human civilisation. Thereafter, the Muslim world went into an intellectual decline. The torch of learning passed into the hands of Europeans. The West has ever since been in the ascendant. The bottom line is that knowledge is power.
Let us look at the reasons why Muslims had advanced so much during the Golden Age of Islam. There was a willingness to learn. Translations were made of the works of ancient Greeks in science, medicine, philosophy and geography. Knowledge in arithmetic and astronomy was gained from Hindu India. There was a thirst for knowledge. Schools flourished. The institution of college was introduced for the first time and the world’s first university was established. An enormous number of books were written. Authors, philosophers, poets and artists were patronized by rulers and well-to-do people alike. Huge libraries were set up in various parts of the Muslim world.
The spirit of enquiry permeated the scholars. This was particularly so in Baghdad where the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) was founded by Caliph Mamun in 832, especially as a centre of translation and mastery of foreign sciences. The Muslims synthesized, elaborated and made their great contributions to human knowledge. Cordoba in Spain became the most shining centre of Muslim learning. At a time when Europe was in the Dark Age, Cordoba was the centre of light and knowledge for Christian Europe as well. For a thousand years, Arabic remained the language of science.

Renaissance in Europe
The decimal system was introduced by Muslims to Europe and became the basis for the scientific revolution. Avicenna was the medical giant, Al-Khwarizmi the mathematical genius, Jabir ibn Hayyan the father of chemistry, Ibn al-Haytham the founder of optics, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was the Cordovan philosopher who wielded the greatest influence on Europe. A number of terms used in science today are of Arabic origin: alcohol, alembic, alkali, elixir. Some terms are named after Muslim scholars or their books: algorithm, algebra, etc. Most scholars agree that the Renaissance in Europe would not have been possible without the Muslim contribution to the latter’s knowledge.

Religious Orthodoxy
So what happened that brought an end to the Golden Age of the Muslims? The political reason was the loss of power following the Mongol invasions that also destroyed great centres of Muslim culture like Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. The Crusaders gained control over Jerusalem. The Christian re-conquest ended Muslim power in Cordoba and in the rest of Spain. The cultural and intellectual decline was even worse. Religious orthodoxy became dominant in Muslim societies. With the loss of political power, the traditional religious leaders were left with no influence in any sphere except religion. They became increasingly dogmatic and strict in their control of religious life. Such orthodoxy destroyed the spirit of enquiry.
Indeed, even before the Mongol invasion, the attack on modernity had begun in Baghdad when the seekers of new knowledge were condemned as bearers of foreign patrimony. A leading Moroccan scholar, Fatima Mernissi explains: “The Muslim world rumbled on towards obscurantism, with its enlightened intellectuals being systematically condemned and people reduced to intellectual apathy.” The Mullahs preached that learning the Quran and Islamic theology was the only knowledge worth acquiring. All other subjects were superfluous. They were unaware of many verses in the Quran calling on Muslims to think, as well as an injunction of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) to “seek knowledge even if it means going to China.” The stifling of ijtihad (independent reasoning) in favour of taqleed (imitation in thinking) was a key factor in the intellectual decline.
(Extracted from newageislam.com)

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