Islam’s Forsaken Renaissance
Posted Jan 8,
by Mahathir bin Mohamad
According to the Koran, a Muslim is anyone who bears witness that “there is no
God (Allah) but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Rasul (Messenger).” If no other
qualification is added, then all those who subscribe to these precepts must be
regarded as Muslims. But because we Muslims like to add qualifications that
often derive from sources other than the Koran, our religion’s unity has been
But perhaps the greatest problem is the progressive isolation of Islamic
scholarship – and much of Islamic life – from the rest of the modern world. We
live in an age of science in which people can see around corners, hear and see
things happening in outer space, and clone animals. And all of these things
seem to contradict our belief in the Koran.
This is so because those who interpret the Koran are learned only in religion,
in its laws and practices, and thus are usually unable to understand today’s
scientific miracles. The fatwas (legal opinions concerning Islamic law) that
they issue appear unreasonable and cannot be accepted by those with scientific
One learned religious teacher, for example, refused to believe that a man had
landed on the moon. Others assert that the world was created 2,000 years ago.
The age of the universe and its size measured in light years – these are things
that the purely religiously trained ulamas cannot comprehend.
So what do we need to do? In the past, Muslims were strong because they were
learned. Muhammad’s injunction was to read, but the Koran does not say what to
read. Indeed, there was no “Muslim scholarship” at the time, so to read meant
to read whatever was available. The early Muslims read the works of the great
Greek scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. They also studied the works
of the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese.
The result was a flowering of science and mathematics. Muslim scholars added to
the body of knowledge and developed new disciplines, such as astronomy,
geography, and new branches of mathematics. They introduced numerals, enabling
simple and limitless calculations.
But around the fifteenth century, the learned in Islam began to curb scientific
study. They began to study religion alone, insisting that only those who study
religion – particularly Islamic jurisprudence – gain merit in the afterlife.
The result was intellectual regression at the very moment that Europe began
embracing scientific and mathematical knowledge.
And so, as Muslims were intellectually regressing, Europeans began their
renaissance, developing improved ways of meeting their needs, including the
manufacture of weapons that eventually allowed them to dominate the world.
By contrast, Muslims fatally weakened their ability to defend themselves by
neglecting, even rejecting, the study of allegedly secular science and
mathematics, and this myopia remains a fundamental source of the oppression
suffered by Muslims today. Many Muslims still condemn the founder of modern
Turkey, Mustafa Kamal, because he tried to modernize his country. But would
Turkey be Muslim today without Ataturk? Mustafa Kamal’s clear-sightedness saved
Islam in Turkey and saved Turkey for Islam.
Failure to understand and interpret the true and fundamental message of the
Koran has brought only misfortune to Muslims. By limiting our reading to
religious works and neglecting modern science, we destroyed Islamic
civilization and lost our way in the world.
The Koran says that “Allah will not change our unfortunate situation unless we
make the effort to change it.” Many Muslims continue to ignore this and,
instead, merely pray to Allah to save us, to bring back our lost glory. But the
Koran is not a talisman to be hung around the neck for protection against evil.
Allah helps those who improve their minds.
Mahathir bin Mohamad was Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003.