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The Rejuvenation of Knowledge in the Islamic World 
 
by Dr Chandra Muzaffar

A summary of a presentation by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President, International Movement for a Just World (JUST), at the World Islamic Economic Forum held in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, from 1st to 3rd October 2005.

 

Our reflections on the rejuvenation of knowledge in the Islamic world will revolve around four questions. One, what explains the unquenchable passion for knowledge and learning within a certain stratum of Islamic civilization between the eighth and fourteenth centuries? Two, what explains the decline in interest in scientific scholarship and research between the fourteenth century and the end of the Western colonial epoch? Three, what are some of the present obstacles in the rejuvenation of knowledge in the Muslim world? Four, how can we overcome some of these challenges?

Question One

We know that within two hundred years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad, individual men of learning from the Islamic world became pioneers of new ideas and innovations in almost every branch of the sciences, from botany and medicine to physics and mathematics. How did this happen? How did a newly emergent religious community without any background in science become the torch bearer of science and civilization in such a short while? There is no doubt at all that for men like al-Biruni and Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Razi and Ibn Sina, Al-Khwarizmi and Omar Khayyam, the Quranic call to understand the universes, the human being's physical environment and even the workings of the human body, provided the inspiration to seek knowledge and to master the sciences. It was the Quranic worldview which energized their creative impulses.

Besides, these and other Muslim men of learning in the early centuries were open-minded, accommodative and inclusive in their attitude and orientation which was why they had no qualms about embracing ideas on science from the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese. In their translation of notable works from non-Muslim sources into Arabic, they collaborated with Christians, Jews and people of other religious affiliations. In fact, one of the most famous translators was a Nestorian Christian, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, while the guiding hand behind the establishment of the Bait-ul Hikmah in Baghdad, one of the greatest libraries in the pre-modern world, was a person of Indian Buddhist ancestry by the name of Baramika.

In this first phase in the growth of knowledge within the Muslim world where the emphasis was upon translations from earlier civilizational sources as in the second phase in which pioneering discoveries were made by illustrious Muslim savants, the critical factor was the patronage of Caliphs and Emirs. It was because of these rulers who had a profound commitment to knowledge and learning --- rulers such as Harun Al Rashid, Al-Mamun, Mohamed Ibn Tukush, Al-Mansur, Abd al-Rahman 111 and Al*Hakam 11 --- that a whole range of scholars from Al-Kindi to Ibn Rushd were able to conduct their research and writing.

Quranic inspiration, open-mindedness and the support of enlightened caliphs then were among the main reasons for the triumph of knowledge and the sciences in the Muslim world for almost six centuries.

Question Two

The decline in science and learning in the Muslim world from the fourteenth century onwards was due to a number of factors. The attack upon some of the fundamental principles of scientific thinking --- observation, experimentation, inductive reasoning and verification*by a section of the ulama which began in the ninth century was one of them. These religious elites felt that rational thinking and the constant attempt to establish cause and effect among Muslim scientists and philosophers would undermine faith and revelation. Though some of these ulama were influential among the masses and enjoyed close ties with certain rulers they could not however stop the study of the sciences in the centers of learning in the Muslim world.

What had a devastating impact upon scientific inquiry were the Mongol invasions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The destruction of Baghdad in 1258 -- the most illustrious center of learning in the world at that time -- was the most traumatic in a series of onslaughts which saw the sacking of other centers of knowledge such as Samarkand, Bokhara and Allepo. It was not just the physical effects of the devastation which crippled Islamic scholarship; the psychological consequences were even more damaging. Scientific creativity shrank and shriveled. The drive for intellectual discovery lost its momentum. Religious conservatism gained strength in both the centers of learning and the courts of the caliphs.

While science was in its death throes in West and Central Asia, a parallel development was unfolding in another part of the Muslim world, noted for its culture of books and learning. In Andalusia, essentially Muslim Spain, Christian armies were re-conquering cities which over a period of a few hundred years of Muslim rule had emerged as oases of knowledge with huge libraries and learned academies. The culmination of this Christian conquest was the victory of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in Granada in 1492. The defeat of Andalusia was yet another massive blow to Muslim science and civilization.

In a sense, it was the beginning of European colonization of Muslim lands. Over the next four hundred and fifty years or so, most Muslim countries were brought under the control of one European colonial power or other. Colonialism meant not only the loss of political independence and sovereignty. It also led to the strangulation of Muslim science and learning. Of course, elements of Muslim civilization continued to find _expression in the Uthmaniyyah and Mughal Empires but scientific innovation was not their forte -- some outstanding achievements in the fields of engineering and architecture notwithstanding.

We can thus conclude that while the antagonism of a section of the ulama was a minor factor, it was the external forces -- Mongol invasions; the re-conquest of Andalusia; and European colonialism -- which were primarily responsible for the decline of science in the Muslim world.

Question Three

Today, the intellectual and scientific hegemony of Washington and some of the other centers of power in the West continues to have a negative impact upon the growth of science in the Muslim world. Of course, many countries in the non-Muslim world are also victims of this hegemony. As a result of rules pertaining to intellectual property rights and through restrictions which impede the industrial development of non-Western countries, hegemonic power is attempting to curb and control the emergence and expansion of autonomous science in Muslim and non-Muslim societies, especially if it is a society which insists upon asserting its political and economic independence.

But that is not the only, or even the most serious, obstacle to the rejuvenation of scientific knowledge in the Muslim world. Muslim elites in a number of countries have given scant attention to scientific research or to the fostering of a scientific spirit in their societies. Indeed, the allocation for research and development (Rand D) even in wealthy Muslim countries is low compared to the amount set aside for this purpose in a country like South Korea, for instance, which is more than 2 percent of the nation*s gross domestic product. There isn't a single Muslim leader in power today who displays the passion for knowledge that was the hall mark of rulers like Harun Al-Rashid and Al-Mamun. Let alone a commitment to science, there are Muslim societies around today where the vast majority of the populace are still illiterate and without rudimentary education ! One is prepared to grant that some of these countries are so poor that they do not have the resources to educate their people.

On the other hand, there are oil rich Muslim states that have become so complacent that they do not bother to raise the level of skills and competence of their people. Their rulers would rather use their petrol dollars to purchase skills from abroad. Consequently, these societies remain underdeveloped from a scientific and technological perspective in spite of a veneer of wealth and sophistication. Once again, it is the failure of the ruling class to appreciate the importance of a creating one's own scientific base in order to propel one's economic development which is the root of the problem.

There are other reasons too why there has been no revival of the sciences in most contemporary Muslim societies. Some of the ulama continue to be somewhat skeptical of the role and significance of science in society. While they never cease to laud the stupendous 'Islamic scientific achievements' of the past, they do not seem to understand that there was a certain mental outlook among the Al-Khwarizmis and Ibn Sinas -- an outlook which placed a high premium upon the objectification and verification of data -- which was responsible for their accomplishments. It is this outlook which is synonymous with the scientific spirit that many of the present ulama are uncomfortable with. Like some of their predecessors they erroneously believe that it will lead to an erosion of faith.

To complicate matters further, some Muslims who are part and parcel of the current Islamic resurgence have become proponents of what they describe as 'Islamic Science' which is to be distinguished from what they perceive as the dominant Western secular science. The epistemology of Islamic science they argue is premised upon the fundamental axioms of the religion such as Tauhid (oneness of God), Khalifah (the vicegerency of the human being), Ad'l (justice) and Amanah (trust). While it is true that these concepts shape the Islamic worldview, it is wrong to suggest that they would ipso facto transform the nature of science itself. The principles of scientific inquiry which we have alluded to -- observation, experimentation and verification---are in no way incompatible with this worldview. They function at a different level of reality. This is why there is no need to propound 'Islamic Science' as a distinct science. Though this sort of confused thinking about Islam and science has a limited following, it has, in recent years, created some opposition to 'Western secular science' in certain circles and consequently emerged as yet another barrier to the absorption of the scientific spirit among some young Muslims.

From our analysis it is apparent that there are at least five obstacles to the rejuvenation of scientific knowledge in the contemporary Muslim world : the Washington helmed global intellectual and scientific hegemony; the failure of Muslim ruling elites to emphasise science in their national agendas; the complacent attitude towards an autochthonous drive towards science in certain wealthy Muslim societies; the negative orientation of a section of the ulama; and the superficial dichotomization of science into Islamic science as opposed to secular science.

Question 4

To overcome these obstacles, Muslims should adopt a number of approaches. Muslim governments should work with like minded non-Muslim governments to challenge some of the intellectual property rules and other restrictions imposed by Washington and some of the other powerful states upon the rest of humankind. There is already some cooperation through the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and other similar fora. But a lot more has to be done. Muslim Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who are by and large lukewarm on issues of this sort should also join hands with their non-Muslim counterparts.

Muslim NGOs should also persuade their governments to change drastically their national priorities. Governments should accord the highest importance to science and to education as a whole. Muslim elites should develop a passionate commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) should monitor the budgets of national governments to see how much and in what ways they are spending money on science and scientific research. The OIC Secretary-General should whenever appropriate remind national leaders of their obligation to promote science.

If national ruling elites are committed to science in deed rather than in word, they would also encourage their ulama to develop a more positive attitude towards science. Programmes should be formulated to assist the ulama to understand what science is and why the scientific spirit of inquiry is in harmony with the Islamic worldview. Indeed, the ulama should realize that it was mainly because of the pioneering work of the early Muslim scholars that the modern scientific method itself---of observation, experimentation, deduction and verification --- emerged as a mode of inquiry. It is this method which is the foundation of modern science. This is why the European philosopher, Robert Briffault, once opined that modern science owes its very birth to Islamic civilization.

Making the ulama aware of science in the real sense of the word should be part of a larger endeavour to educate the Muslim masses about science. Educating the masses about science is more than teaching science subjects in schools and universities. It is about developing a scientific mentality among the people. It is about applying reason and rationality to various aspects of living. It must lead inevitably to the strengthening of a rational outlook on matters pertaining to religion itself. Of course, as one emphasizes rationality, one should also recognize the limits of reason. By so doing one would be locating rationality within the parameters of an Islamic worldview.

The rejuvenation of science and knowledge in the Muslim world would depend, to a certain degree, on Muslims and non-Muslims working together to check global scientific hegemony. But whether science flourishes or withers in the Muslim world will be determined in the ultimate analysis by Muslim governments themselves. More specifically, will they emphasize science in their national agendas, raise the awareness of their ulama about the significance of science and strengthen a rational, scientific outlook within the populace as a whole? Or will they -- the majority of them --- continue to drift without direction?

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