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The golden age of the Arabs and its intellectual collapse

“It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution.”
Robert Briffault

Observing the condition in which the Arab world is today it’s very difficult to realize the bulk of the intellectual work it produced a millennium ago. But it was them that, while Europe suffered under the asphyxiating theocracy of Christianity, managed, not only to preserve the creations of antiquity and pass them on, but to also create new roads of investigation and discovery. Many works of the ancient Greeks were saved by the passing of time by them, while we also owe them the discovery of how disease spreads and how it could be countered, as well as inventions such as the magnetic compass and navigational tools. This picture is, literally, ages afar from the modern reality, in which the field of scientific research in the Arab world looks like a desert.

The caliphate at the end of the 8th century
The caliphate at the end of the 8th century

One and a half century after the founding of Islam by Mohamed (in 622 AD), caliphs who claimed to be his successors pursued the conquering of the world and managed to advance, in a short time, all around the Mediterranean, from Medina up to Spain and today’s Afghanistan (their subjects reached 60 million people or a third of the world population). Those peoples in their path, who were not proselytized, were simply forced to submit to Islam. The atrocities that accompanied these conquests are usually discarded from accounts of the imperialistic expansion of the Caliphate, or they are undermined; but they can easily be compared to those of the western Crusaders of later centuries. For lack of space, they will be ignored here as well, so that we can examine more closely the intellectual achievements of the Arabs, as well as the reasons for the empire’s intellectual decline.

The empire recognized that political power grows hand in hand with science; medicine saves lives, technology wins wars and superior scientific knowledge constitutes proof of spiritual superiority of the nobility that holds it and of the empire to which it belongs. Through the holy text of Islam, the Quran, it spread the Arabic language throughout its dominion and, in this way, all the peoples that it consisted of had a common code for communicating and exchanging ideas. The traditions of ancient Greece, China and India became accessible to an unprecedented large number of people who had every motive and opportunity to expand and develop them.

The caliphate promoted, to some degree, religious tolerance; for example with the founding of the Nur Al-Din hospital in Damascus (the best hospital of its time) where patients and doctors of all religions and denominations could be hospitalized or practice medicine. The institution of majlis (similar to the ancient Greek symposium) was established in the 9th century, which meant the gathering of philosophers, theologians, astronomers and magi in houses where they could have discussions on a variety of subjects, without inhibitions and restraints; no attendee was expected to preserve a particular line of thought but could freely discuss his ideas, as long as he used reasonable arguments and the elegant Arabic language.

Words like algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol and dozens more come from the Arabic language and the Arabic scientific tradition, while roughly two thirds of the stars in the sky have Arabic names. In poetry, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) stands out, whose famous Rubayat (Quatrains) have survived; a work that brings together philosophy, faith, the contestation of piety and submission, and the joy of wine and friendly company. Apart from being a great poet, Khayyam was also a mathematician, an astronomer and a philosopher; like many of his contemporary intellectuals he was a polymath and shined in various areas of thought.

The Arabs’ understanding of the importance of medicine and its practical use, as well as the thorough astronomical observations, the development of cartography and, mainly, of mathematics (and also the propagation of the decimal system) changed the world and gave, later on, the tools the Renaissance men needed to bring Europe out of the Middle Ages. It’s difficult to undermine their offerings to the human progress, but the Westerners never seemed ready to recognize their gifts, and as soon as history passed over the Arabic bloom, the Europeans made an effort to forget their legacy.

A characteristic example of this is Copernicus, to whom the starting of the scientific revolution is attributed, who in his book De revolutionibus makes an almost hidden reference to an Arab astronomer, Al-Battani, with his Latin name Machometi Aracenfis. Without Al-Battani’s observations Copernicus could never have proved his heliocentric model, but the Arab was ignored by historians for centuries. Moreover, without the Arab alchemists’ revelations on alloy formation alchemy would not have evolved into chemistry, using the technique, the terminology and the laboratory methods we use today, to some degree.

An astronomer calculates the position of a star using an astrolabe (photo)
An astronomer calculates the position of a star using an astrolabe (photo)

But the most important influence of the Arabs is surely the discovery and evolution of the scientific method itself. Alhazen published his book Optics in 1021, where he studies the nature of light and proved that light beams travel in straight lines, explained how mirrors work and described how the light beams bend when passing through differing substances, like water. But he didn’t just illustrate his theories; he wanted to show how he reached to his conclusions. Whoever read the book would find instructions on how to repeat each of his experiments. It was as if he was saying: “Don’t believe me. Figure it out for yourself”. A precursor of skepticism and critical thinking, he deemed disbelief to be the guide of searching for knowledge and peer review a necessary condition to recognize the validity of any scientific position. But he, too, fell victim to western chauvinism and indifference; it’s usually the British Roger Bacon who is attributed as the father of the scientific method.

Bertrand Russell believed that the Arabic science, even though it was admirable on a technical level, was inadequate in ingenuity and ability to innovate, and that their greatest accomplishment was that they preserved and transferred the ancient knowledge to the medieval Europe, that led to the Renaissance. Later scholars, however, considered the science of that time to have been implemented to a peerless degree and that the moving force behind their achievements was Islam, as both a religious and a political system, which led them into a scientific revolution. There was an emphasis, during the golden age, on certain verses of the Quran and the Hadith where Mohamed promoted the hunting of knowledge wherever possible.

Richard the Lionheart in the first Crusade (photo)
Richard the Lionheart in the first Crusade (photo)

So, what went wrong? The attack of the Crusaders from the West and the Mongols from the East marked the end of the Arabic bloom of culture. The discovery of America (1492), that offered mythical riches to Europe, in relation to the evolution of typography, that did not benefit the complex Arabic writing (70 different ways of writing each letter and a plethora of symbols) and moved the usefulness of a common language as a means to exchange knowledge to Latin, dropped the curtain for the golden age of the Arabs. But there was also an inner, preceding, regression –a backwardness that proved fatal for its intellectual world.

In his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) criticized philosophy as a way of thought. “Philosophy”, at the time, included the sciences, mathematics, politics and logic (the Arabic word he used was “falsafa”, which incorporated all the above). He believed that it was wrong to assume there are natural laws that define the observable phenomena, and, as an example, he used the “delusion” of cotton burning because it comes in contact with fire. Even though it seems like there is such a cause-and-effect relationship, that it is the flame that burns the cotton, in reality, he said, it is the hand of god that burns the cotton every time it touches flame. Al-Ghazali vehemently rejected Plato and Aristotle, while the Islamic Neo-Platonism was so successfully criticized by him that it never recovered. Nothing, he thought, could be known other than god and Islam, and that to think differently was futile. “Few there are who devote themselves to this study [of philosophy] without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads”, he writes in another book, Deliverance from Error. The hypothesis, he believed, that there is necessity in nature is incompatible with Islam, since nature is completely answerable to god and his will.

Some believe that al-Ghazali, in reality, tried to synthesize theology with philosophy, not to cause a schism between the two (one and a half century later, the Christian theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas admitted a debt to him). To a degree this is certainly correct, since al-Ghazali never abandoned the areas of research we now ascribe strictly to science. But his way of synthesis included the removal from science of some of its basic principles (like the necessity in the relationship of cause and effect) and the presence of divine will in every observable phenomenon, which certainly does not belong in scientific thinking. He did support logic, but only in the sense that it can be used to make theological questions and as a tool against philosophy. “Nothing in nature can act spontaneously and apart from god”.

There were some, like Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), that criticized al-Ghazali countering his regressions in the area of thought. Ibn Taymiyya considered that, for all his brilliance, al-Ghazali “ended up in a state of confusion and resorted to the path of those who claim to find out things through dreams and spiritual methods”, while Averroes wrote (in his book that replied to al-Ghazali’s on the Incoherence of the Philosophers) that “to say that philosophers are incoherent is itself to make an incoherent statement”. Despite these polemics by adversaries, his influence was not obstructed and he managed to be considered “the most outstanding Muslim scholar of his time” and “the greatest Muslim after the Prophet Muhammad”. Sunni Muslims embraced his teaching so much that to refute philosophy solidified to the point that independent investigation became a ‘tainted’ endeavor.

To attribute the fall of an empire to one thinker is, obviously, a hyperbole. However, the elevation of intellectuality in any society demands, or is at least helped by, peace and wealth. The presence of external enemies, creating an existential threat to a civilization, constitutes on its own a factor for the prevalence of conservatism or even backwardness, with the hindrance of thought refueling the economic and political decline and vice versa, in a vicious circle; and the caliphate was no exemption. If, therefore, the Crusaders and the Mongols resulted in the end of the golden age of the economic and political rule of the Arabs, the usurpation of thought by the religion, that is personalized in al-Ghazali’s figure, became the end of the golden age of the spiritual life of the Arabs. Moreover, given the fact that the caliphate began to lose lands by the Spaniards and the Mongols more than one century after al-Ghazali’s death, we can say that the decline of philosophy preceded the geopolitical recoil and the economic shrinking that followed it.

From the time of the great Translation Movement of foreign scientific textbooks into Arabic (8th–10th centuries), we are met with the following sad statistics by the UN (ascertained by Egyptian academics): Every year Spain translates into its language as many books as the entire Muslim world in the last one thousand years into its own…


You can also try BBC’s documentary Science and Islam, a beautifying version of history.

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One comment

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    He consistently kept talking about this. I ‘ll forward this post to him.
    Quite sure he’ll have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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