About two months ago, I received an invitation from the American Islamic Congress, an NGO based in Washington DC and Boston, to participate in a panel on Islam and science. I was told that I would be joined by a Pakistani public speaker, who had an interest in Islamic intellectual history and who was a popularizer of science and rationalist disciplines in the Muslim world. The invitation piqued my interest, given that I specialize in the study of the rationalist sciences - philosophy, logic, astronomy, etc. - of the pre-modern Muslim world (800-1900 CE).
Over the past few years, I have slowly and meticulously been peeling away at the layers of Muslim rationalist discourses, in order to construct a responsible narrative of the fate of science in Islam; some of my colleagues - singly and in teams - have also been devotedly involved in this scholarly endeavor around the globe and have contributed much to my own understanding of the past. And though we have yet a massive amount of trans-generational work to do, on the basis of our discoveries thus far, we have unanimously come to reject the longstanding narrative of the Golden Age and subsequent decline of Islamic rationalism.
Since some important work has already been done on the subject, I considered the invitation of the American Islamic Congress to be a welcome opportunity to share the current state of research with a non-specialist audience.
My co-panelist was the first to speak and he began with two assertions with which I agree: that the state of science and rationalist disciplines in the contemporary Muslim world is generally pitiful and that it is a desideratum of the utmost urgency that the situation be remedied. This was a heartening start, but the aetiology of the current situation that was offered thereafter was deeply flawed. We were told - amidst amusing personal anecdotes - that the reason for the failure of rationalism in the Muslim world must be traced back to the emergence of a neat break between the world of flourishing freethinkers in the classical or Golden Age of Islam (ca. 800-1200) and the Dark Ages (ca. 1200-2013) that followed with the ascendancy of mainstream Islamic orthodoxy.
In the wake of the death knell of philosophy and rationalism sounded by the Sunni theologian, al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the story went, Muslim rationalism fell into a deep slumber. Philosophers were persecuted; miracles became the sole explanation of natural phenomena; angels were taken to be the cause of celestial motions; and Muslims could no longer do science because they denied causality. It is therefore not surprising, so the audience was told, that no Muslim made any contribution to the world of knowledge from this point onwards. And so what we are witnessing in the Muslim world today is only the natural outcome - indeed continuity - of a history of the persecution of reason and of a lack of intellectual curiosity that stretches back several centuries.
But I am afraid that this is not how things happened. To begin with, al-Ghazali’s attack in his famous Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) is not aimed at reason or philosophy (despite how the title sounds). He takes issue, as he clearly outlines in his multiple introductions to the work and in the main body, only with metaphysicians, insofar as they use faulty logic - incoherent formal syllogisms, arguments with internal contradictions, premises that are unrelated to the conclusions, etc. - to argue about matters that pertain to the Muslim creed (such as the issues of bodily resurrection, that God knows particulars only in a universal way, etc.). Beyond these creedal matters, al-Ghazali is in fact rather explicit in stating that on matters pertaining to scientific demonstrations, Muslims should not argue with philosophers. Indeed he goes so far as to claim that when a scientific demonstration contradicts a hadith (Saying of the Prophet), it is more suitable to reject the latter as unsoundly transmitted; similarly, when any other scriptural proof text fails to conform to the demonstrated conclusions of reason, the former must be interpreted allegorically. In other words, there is practically no doubt that al-Ghazali gives authority to reason over transmitted sciences. His other works, including those on law and legal theory, include sentiments such as “reason is the source of transmitted knowledge” and sharp attacks against the blind imitation (taqlid) of authority.
In the world that came after al-Ghazali, this same attitude towards reason continued to flourish - authors such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1311), Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 1355) , al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1413), and Muhibballah al-Bihari(d. 1707) are a few among an innumerable host that come to mind. In fields ranging from astronomy to metaphysics and well into the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars generally took the attitude that reason provided scientific models for understanding the universe and that these models were conceptually and mathematically real, though one could not necessarily prove the validity of one over another. In other words, they adopted precisely the kind of attitude toward the scientific enterprise that has been embraced and consistently modified in the western tradition since David Hume (d. 1776), who, incidentally, also raised important questions about the metaphysical commitments in one’s assumption of causality and in one’s adherence to methods of induction. A rather large number of works from the period after al-Ghazali explicitly state that scientific investigations do no harm to one’s creed.
Now lest the reader should be skeptical, let me point out that the rationalists that I am referring to and whose attitudes I am reporting here were not marginal figures in Muslim societies: they straddled multiple fields of expertise, ranging from Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and Sayings of the Prophet (hadith) to astronomy, medicine, mathematics, etc. In other words, they served multiple functions in a complex pre-modern society. And this makes perfect sense too, given that the curriculum of the madrasa up until at least the beginning of the twentieth century had more books in the rationalist sciences than it did in the transmitted. Indeed a scholar was expected first and foremost to master such disciplines as logic, rhetoric, and even medicine, in order to be equipped to handle scriptural sources responsibly and intelligently. Thus even at this early stage of research, it has become apparent that simple and naïve binaries, such as reason vs. revelation, rationalist vs. scripturalist, Golden Age vs. Dark Ages, and philosopher vs. mulla, must simply be discarded - to say of course nothing of the conceptually ill-equipped and displaced categories such as orthodoxy, cleric, and seminary in the Muslim context.
So how did we get here from there? And why is any of this historical disquisition important? Let me take up the latter question first, since it is the easier one to answer. If the narrative presented by my co-panelist -one that is routinely rehearsed by open-minded, liberal commentators on Islam - is correct and explains anything at all, then the current state of rationalist disciplines in the Islamic world is the direct result of the attitudes of mainstream Islam toward reason and rationality; and if this is true, then I would advise Muslims to abandon their religion. For in my view, no religion that suppresses this primary, essential, and defining faculty of humans can be true. Indeed this immediate consequence of the Golden Age and decline narrative - i.e., to abandon Islam - is precisely one that is also adopted by right wing Islamophobes in our own county. It is the fault, so we are told, of mainstream “orthodox” Islam that rationalism has had no home among Muslims for 900 years! The religion must be deeply flawed, they say, and so it must disappear in the modern age. Paradoxically, the same narrative breeds another kind of radicalism - one that is characteristic of militant fundamentalists within the fold of Islam. Much like the other side, they argue that Islam was gloriously successful during the first centuries of the religion’s existence and it is to this Golden Age of Islam that they intend to return. The rest of us find ourselves in the middle, struggling to find a space for reason, while hard pressed by extremes on both sides.
Fortunately, the current and pervasive narrative, which is utterly dangerous, is also abysmally uninformed and incorrect. Now that we are beginning to take a few drops from this vast ocean of unexplored manuscripts in Islamic rationalism, none of us in western academia believes it. So what did happen to the rationalist disciplines in the larger part of the Muslim world? To be very frank, we are some ways from relating the counter-narrative with full confidence. In my own work, I have discovered that a number of factors played a role in bringing about a collapse of disciplines like philosophy, astronomy, and medicine. I mention only a few of them here; the more complete picture must await further research.
For example, the religious scholars, who were trained in a curriculum with a high dose of rationalism, faced an entirely transformed and impoverished system of princely patronage, staring at them in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the rationalist scholars belonged to the establishment; they not only sat as judges in the courts or passed fatwas, but they also served as court poets, tax collectors, diplomats, personal physicians, and cartographers. With the rise of the British Raj and the collapse of the institutions that sustained them, many of these scholars became disenfranchised and the vacuum was increasingly filled by a class of popular preachers, trained in a very different curriculum and connected with an emergent trans-regional reformist network of scholars.
Then at least in the context of South Asia, another factor for the decline in the rationalist disciplines was the growth of Urdu as the primary literary language among Muslims. Prior to this period, practically every single text in the rationalist sciences was written in Arabic (and sometimes in Persian). These two languages contained within them an advanced technical vocabulary that had developed over the longue duree of rationalist disciplines. With the loss of languages and the lack of systematic investment in translations into Urdu, the rigor of the rationalist disciplines was also compromised, since the technical baggage of the disciplines was lost with the language that carried it.
Finally, one may mention that, though counterintuitive, the introduction and growth of print technology had a negative impact on rationalism as well. Prior to the growth of this technology, Muslim scholars regularly wrote commentaries and glosses on various texts of the rationalist disciplines by hand and in the margins of manuscripts. This produced a diachronic and synchronic tradition of an internal dialectic with texts that was directly responsible for progress within a discipline. The introduction of print technology fundamentally changed the way one did scholarship in the context of the madrasa. There were no manuscripts and margins, no reproduction and living engagement with a tradition of argumentation.
These and a number of other social, political, cultural, institutional, and technological factors appear to be the more suitable explanations for the current state of affairs. And if this is the diagnosis and if there was no fundamental clash between mainstream “orthodox” Islam and rationality, as we are told, then the solutions must lie elsewhere. I leave the reader to fathom what they might be and how they may be implemented.
Let me end this essay with a statement about why the Golden Age vs. Dark Age narrative came to exist in the first place, without the analysis of the vast body of literature from the so-called Dark Ages; and let me also supply a statement about why the narrative still persists and will likely survive in the future, despite what we academics share with the world.
Here my own words cannot match the eloquence and directness of Sheldon Pollock, the Arvindh Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. In an essay on Indian intellectual history, “Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern South Asia,” he writes:
“With respect to science and scholarship, however, especially during this critical early modern period, in-depth research in most disciplines is virtually non-existent… whole libraries of manuscripts… remain unread today. The factors contributing to this indifference would be worth weighing with care. One is certainly the diminished capacity of scholars today to actually read these materials, one of the most disturbing, if little-remarked legacies of colonialism and modernization. But there are other factors. These include the old Orientalist-Romantic credo that the importance of any Indian artifact or text or form of thought is directly proportional to its antiquity… Equally important is the colonial-era narrative of Indian decline and fall before 1800, so central to the ideology of British imperialism and its civilizing, modernizing mission… one salient example… is the disdain with which the remarkable achievements of Hindi literature and literary science… were dismissed by colonized Indian intellectuals no less than by their colonial masters” (emphasis mine).
The narrative began as colonial Orientalist lore and has taken hold as a kind of neo-Orientalism among individuals who have lost access to their past. Given this, I am afraid that Muslims really have one of two choices: they may continue to perpetuate a hackneyed and essentialist Orientalist narrative, misdiagnose the problem, and even enable all kinds of extremists with the power of a fanciful story.
Or they may rediscover their lost languages, produce historians who would penetrate the sources, and cultivate philosophers who would go beyond simple binaries and take control of the discourse in a sincere and sophisticated manner. Then perhaps they may be able to revise their received histories and find some real solutions to a complex situation.
Get our weekly email