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Book Review - Intellectual Achievements of Muslims

Reviewed by Professor (Dr) Nazeer Ahmed, President of American Institute of  Islamic History and Culture, Corcord, California 

Published by Star Publications, New Delhi, India and Islamic-Circle, Qur'an House, Mauritius 

Published  in 2002, 3 Chapters, 133 pages


The book, Intellectual Achievements of Muslims, highlights the intellectual achievements of Muslims in the classical age of Islam and examines the reasons for the decay of science and technology in recent centuries.  As such it pertains to the field of scientific historiography.

It consists of three chapters: Intellectual Achievements of Muslims by Dr. Ibrahim B.

Syed, The Rise and Decline of Science in Islamic Civilization by Dr. Ayub K. Ommayya, and

Causes for the Decline of Scientific Thinking in Islam by Dr. Shaukat Ali.


In the first Chapter, Dr. Ibrahim Syed traces the motivation for intellectual activity in Islam, namely, the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The Qur’an declares: “Verify in the creation of the Heavens and the earth, and in the alteration of the night and the day, there are signs for men of comprehension. Those who standing, sitting or reclining are conscious of Allah and reflect on the creation of the Heavens and of the Earth, saying: “Our Lord! You have not created this in vain”.  The Qur’an enjoins humankind to pray: “My Lord! Enrich me with knowledge”. The Prophet said: “Allah has not created anything better than reason”. Impelled by the Commandments of God and the Sunnah, Muslims created a civilization based on knowledge, built madrassahs and universities and produced great men of art and science. In the first century after Islam, the Prophetic example was the guidepost for knowledge. In the eighth century, Khalifa al Mansur founded the Baitul Hikmah in Baghdad. Books were brought in from the Greeks and the Indians, translated into Arabic and the information therein became the basis for further development in both the pure and the applied sciences.


The book illustrates the contributions made by Muslims by offering specific examples. Al-Khwarizmi, the mathematician invented the regressive method of mathematical analysis and to this day the world pays him tribute by referring to this methodology as “algorithms”. Al Battani discovered trigonometric relations and developed the concepts of sines, cosines, tangents and cotangents. Nasiruddin al-Tusi was one of the greatest of engineers and mathematicians. His contributions to spherical geometry are universally recognized. The Muslims invented the experimental method and as such deserve to be called the fathers of the modern scientific method. Their contributions in the applied sciences and engineering were no less astounding.


Dr. Syed mentions the astronomical observatories in Shiraz, Cairo, Ghazna, Maragha and Samarkand as illustrations of the empirical method employed by Muslim scientists. Nasiruddin al Tusi and Ulugh Bey later expanded the work of earlier astronomers such as Ibn Yunus, Al Biruni and Ibn al Haytham.  Equally noteworthy was work of Ibn al Haytham and Kamaluddin al Farisi in Optics.   But perhaps the most remarkable contributions were made in the field of philosophy. Starting out the work of Aristotle and Plato, Muslim philosophers developed and systematized the science of logic. It is no wonder that Ibn Rushd is referred to as the “greatest commentator” or the greatest philosopher after Aristotle.


The author notes that the Theory of Evolution was first proposed by Muslim philosophers. The observation of John William Draper is offered in support of this position: “Though more than seven centuries part him from our times, the physiologists of this age may accept him (Ibn al Haytham) as their compeer, since he received and defended the doctrine now forcing its way, of the progressive development of animal forms. He upheld the affirmation of those who said that man, in his progress, passes through a definite succession of states”.


The author expresses his concern at the woeful state of science in Islamic countries today. To overcome this handicap, he quotes with approval the proposition of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salaam to form a Commonwealth of Science in Islamic countries:” A new Islamic Commonwealth of Science needs conscious articulation, and recognition once again, both by us, the scientists, as well as our governments. Today, we, the scientists from the Islamic countries, constitute a very small community – one-hundredth to one-tenth in size, in scientific resources, and in scientific creativity compared to international norms….To foster this growth, could we possibly envisage from our governments a moratorium, a compact, conferring of immunity, for say the next twenty-five years, during which the scientists from within this Commonwealth of Science, this Ummat al-ilm, could be treated as a special sub-community with a protected status, so far as internal political and sectarian differences are concerned, just was the case in the Islamic Commonwealth of sciences in the past?”


In Chapter 2, The Rise and Decline of Science in Islamic Civilization, Professor Ayub Omayya presents an incisive historical analysis of science and culture in Islamic societies. He observes that “the rise of science in the Islamic civilization was the direct consequence of the unique transformation of human minds by Islam”. The decline of science, he notes, was due to both external and internal causes. Among the historical external causes, he notes the Mongol invasions, the Crusades and tribal and internecine warfare amongst Muslims themselves. The more recent external causes include the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon, of the Moghul Empire by the British, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Balkanization of the Middle East. But it was the internal mechanisms themselves that resulted in the death of a scientific culture in Muslim lands. Noteworthy among the internal reasons were: the appearance of incompetent Sultans among the Ottomans, the rise of a centralized, despotic and severely restrictive orthodoxy, the discouragement of innovation in the trade guilds, conspicuous consumption among the ruling elite, an exploitative tax structure, the disappearance of the spirit of Ijtihad, and ignorance about the science and its relation to religion. Professor Omayya correctly makes the astute observation: “The greatest potential asset of Islam is the frank sense of history that from the start has been a dominant fact in its discussions, even though some modernizing Muslims have displayed a romantic disregard of historical facts”.


In Chapter 3, Professor Shaukat Ali presents a brilliant analysis of the decline of science in Islamic civilization. Going beyond the disappearance of Ijtihad as a tool for continuously shaping human society,  Professor Ali presents a detailed analysis of the rise of the ulema “as a very closed and powerful elitist group”. He observes that during the first hundred years of Islamic history, the ulema did not enjoy any significant role in the Muslim society. Indeed, Islam frowned upon the emergence of a priestly class. This pattern changed with the introduction of Greek learning. The complexity of philosophical enquiry required the institutionalization of learning. Madrassahs and universities emerged in the far-flung corners of the Islamic world. The acquisition of knowledge became the privilege of a few while the masses grew increasingly ignorant of the changes sweeping the educational landscape. The acquisition of knowledge by a privileged few brought them close to the ruling classes. Corruption followed. Barring a few notable exceptions, the ulema became sycophants in the courts of tyrants and imbeciles.  This pattern continued down to the eighteenth centuries, when a technological backward Islamic world came up against an expansionist Europe and came out second-best in the contest for power.


Professor Ali notes correctly: “Another possible cause for the decline of scientific enquiry in Islam could be the ultimate triumph of the science of theology over other sciences”. Even at the zenith of its classical civilizations, Muslims remained suspicious of philosophical enquiry, a hangover from the excesses of the Mu’tazilites. Imam al Ghazzali’s diatribe against the philosophers won over the Islamic world and withstood the rearguard defense of Ibn Rushd. Kalam, rather than philosophy became the most important subject in the madrassahs. Bereft of the precision of logic and mathematics, the sciences withered and finally made an exit through the back door as the sciences of fiqh filled the emerging vacuum. Where the scholars once pondered the nature of man and nature, the latter day scholars indulged in endless debates about esoteric and inconsequential legalisms.


Among the other reasons advanced by the author for the decline of science, mention should be made of the dependence of scholars on royal patronage which rose and fell at the whim of the ruler, the disappearance of critical research and the degeneration of scholarship into acquiring some information about the works of bygone writers and the absence of the printing press. As quoted by the author, “the inevitable result of such a system, over which no quickening breath had blown since the beginning of the sixteenth century, was to intensify both the narrowness of the educational range itself and its narrowing effect on the minds of the educated”.


A great deal more work remains to be done in this field. The book is a timely contribution to the history of science and culture in Islam and would benefit the youth who are hungry for knowledge about the own past so that they can charter their course for the future.

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