How the decline of Muslim scientific thought still haunts

Theologian Abu Hamid Al Ghazali has long been blamed for the decline of Islamic civilisation because of his authoritative critique of science. But, as the role of religion is being pushed to the fore in the Middle East, it is important to know the real cause.

Powered by automated translation

In a recent essay, The New Atlantis, a US-based science and technology journal, drew a grim yet accurate picture of the state of science in the Muslim world. It reported that India and Spain each produces more scientific literature than all of the Muslim countries combined; Muslim world contributions to science amount to no more than 1 per cent and is of lower quality. The spirit of science in the Muslim world, the magazine added, is as dry as the desert.

It is a sad fact that sharply contrasts with the Golden Age of Arabic science (800-1100), when the Muslim world was the beacon of innovation and triggered Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. What went wrong?

Academics have long maintained that the great Islamic theologian, Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, who lived from 1055 to 1111, single-handedly steered Islamic culture away from independent scientific inquiry towards religious fundamentalism. In a remarkable intellectual shift, he concluded that falsafa (which literally means philosophy but included logic, mathematics and physics) was incompatible with Islam.

After writing his book, The Incoherence of Philosophers, Algazel as he was known in medieval Europe, is said to have "stabbed falsafa in such a manner that it could not rise again in the Muslim world". Thanks to his unparalleled mastery of falsafa and Islamic law, he injected repugnance among Muslims for science that ultimately led to its decline and, in the process, the decline of Islamic civilisation.

Or at least, this is what academics and Orientalists have argued for over a century. But I believe this assessment is wrong. Getting it right is important, as the role of religion in the Middle East is again being pushed to the fore.

Academics are correct in pinpointing the exact period in which Muslims began turning away from scientific innovation - the 11th century - but they have identified the wrong person. Abu Ali Al Hassan Al Tusi (1018-1092), better known as Nizam Al Mulk, the grand vizier of the Seljuq dynasty, was in fact the driving force.

Nizam Al Mulk had created a system of education known as "Nizamiyah" that focused on religious studies at the expense of independent inquiry. Not only did Nizamiyah colleges focus on religion but they also adopted a narrow Sunni interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence as the source of curricula: the Shafii school.

For the first time in Islamic history, religious studies became institutionalised - sciences and Islamic law were intertwined - and religious studies were seen as a more lucrative career path.

The choice was not arbitrary. Shia Islam was gaining prominence and Batiniyya (groups that adhered to esoteric interpretation of Sharia) began to take root in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. The purpose of Nizamiyah colleges, where Al Ghazali taught but later left, was to counter those growing non-Sunni currents. The Shafii school focused on fundamentalist principles of Sharia and disdained the rationalistic approach.

Nizamiyah colleges were established in major cities under the control of the Seljuqs or the Abbasids, including Baghdad and Isfahan (in modern Iran), and cities where Shiites formed majorities at the time such as in Basra and the Syrian region of Al Jazira.

Nizamiyah colleges were the Ivy League colleges of the 12th century. Some scholars at the time noted the tendency of students to leave their traditional schools to study religion at the colleges. Some Sunni clerics also complained that many had adopted Shafii school as their religious affiliation. Scholars graduating from the colleges were armed with argumentative skills to battle the Batiniyya whenever they found them. Graduates were given priority in key government jobs, namely in the judiciary, hisbah (Sharia enforcement or police) and istifta (jurisprudence).

It was Nizamiyah colleges, which operated for over four centuries, together with the financial and political backing of the powerful Seljuq dynasty, that diverted Muslim minds towards religion.

Dynasties that came after Seljuqs followed suit. The Abbasid dynasty - which was the guardian of science - was in decline and the Islamic world splintered into several kingdoms. Religious intolerance had been entrenched. And scientific inquiry suffered.

Al Ghazali's critique of falsafa was in fact meant to encourage independent inquiry. He argued that some fundamentalists, who perceive falsafa to be incompatible with religion, tend to categorically reject all views adopted by "philosophers", including scientific fact like the lunar and solar eclipse. And when that person is later persuaded of a certain view, he tends to blindly accept all other views held by philosophers.

Al Ghazali sought to dissect such "incoherence" within falsafa; he effectively differentiated between philosophy and logic on one hand and physics and mathematics on the other. His students later noted: "Our master swallowed philosophy and could not throw it up."

It is difficult to know how the Muslim world would have been different had it not been for the Nizamiyah colleges. What is not in dispute is that the colleges stifled scientific innovation by focusing on religious studies to achieve a political end. The colleges singularly succeeded in that task, with Sunni clerics often praising them for their role in restraining the influence of Batiniyya and in the dominance of Sunni Islam.

Defending Al Ghazali is not a purely intellectual exercise. Pinpointing the exact reason for the decline of Islamic culture is important for today's Middle East, where the role of Islam is yet again under scrutiny in the wake of the Arab revolts and religious intolerance rising to the surface.

Follow on Twitter hhassan140