By Irfan HusainFouad Ajami, the Lebanese academic who died recently, once aptly described the general Muslim outlook as “A political tradition of belligerent self-pity”.This pretty much sums up our attitude as we blame the world for our woes while feeling sorry for ourselves. The long decline of Islamic civilisation is placed at the door of scheming Westerners, and our backwardness is the fault of our colonial experience.
But the reality is that much of North Africa and the Middle East was colonised by Ottoman Turkey, a Muslim empire. And our fall into despair and irrelevance began long before the heyday of European colonialism in the 19th century.
The chaos in Muslim states makes us wonder when the rot set in.
As we look around at the increasing chaos and violence that is wracking much of the Muslim world, many of us wonder when and how the rot set in. After all, Islamic civilisation had, until a millennium ago, been a beacon to the world in the sciences and the arts. In a period of great bigotry in Europe, Muslims had been tolerant of other faiths and had nurtured — and built upon — ancient Greek learning.
The siege and destruction of Baghdad by the Mongol army under Halaku Khan in 1258 only hastened the decline of the caliphate as its power had dissipated long ago.
But the decline had begun earlier when Muslim rulers and clerics turned away from reason and internalised a rigid dogma. Before this hinge moment in Islamic history, the Mu’tazilah movement had influenced thought and policy with its emphasis on reason between the eighth and tenth centuries.
It was in this glorious period that philosophy, science and the arts flourished. Based in Basra and Baghdad, adherents of the school argued that “Sacred precedent is not an effective means of determining what is just, as what is obligatory in religion is only obligatory by virtue of reason.”
Gradually, this enlightened view was challenged by the orthodoxy. Led by Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari in the 10th century, this school argued that “Human reason in and by itself is not capable of establishing with absolute certainty any truth with respect to morality, the physical world, or metaphysical ideas”.
They also insisted “Nothing in nature can act spontaneously and apart from God.” As Robert Reilly says in The Closing of the Muslim Mind: “The fatal disconnect between the Creator and the mind of his creatures is the source of Sunni Islam’s most profound woes.”
This mindset soon took a firm grip on Muslim thinking, education and ethos. The result was that anything new and out of the ordinary was condemned as ‘innovation’, and its creator ostracised or punished. At around this time, the gates of ijtihad, or independent reasoning, were firmly shut.
Thus, while the printing press came into use in Europe in 1460, the Islamic world waited until 1727 before permitting its introduction. Pervez Hoodbhoy, the physicist and author of Muslims and Science, an incisive study of the decline of science in the Muslim world, has documented some depressing facts: with a population of 1.6 billion, Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in the sciences. Forty-six Muslim countries contribute a mere 1pc of scientific literature.
And startlingly, Spain — hardly an intellectual heavyweight — translates more books in one year than the entire Arab world has done in a millennium.
Considering that it was the Arabs who translated Greek texts, and thus kept this ancient learning alive, this trend is deeply disturbing.
While the Muslim world was at the start of its decline, Europe was shooting ahead. Islam had no tradition of independent institutions of learning as madressahs were mostly funded by waqf, or religious endowments, and imparted instruction in various aspects of Islam.
Meanwhile, scientific enquiry in Europe, nourished in the mediaeval universities in Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and elsewhere, made steady progress. The advent of the printing press made books more accessible, and ideas spread quickly in the scholarly community.
In Islam, no distinction exists between religious and political ends. In an article titled ‘Why the Arabic world turned away from science’, Hillel Ofek argues that the main reason science flourished in the early Abbasi period was that Greek learning was assimilated and disseminated. But with the rejection of the Mu’tazilah, this precious tradition was lost, and reason and logic abandoned.
None of these views are new: Muslims have long been aware of why we are where we are. The ongoing militancy from Nigeria to Iraq to our tribal areas is basically a violent repudiation of the modernism and globalisation that have left the Muslim world even further behind.
But while Europe went through its Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, we are still locked into our Ashari mindset, determined to stick to a literal interpretation of the faith, and unable to restore ijtihad to its rightful place. Until we can learn the lessons of the past thousand years, we are doomed to fall even further email@example.com
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2014