The Decline of the Muslims

This is an extract from the introduction to my upcoming book on Philosophy and Islam.



There is no greater example of an empire expanding and moving forward by science and reason, and then collapsing by shunning the same science and reason than that of the Islamic Empire from 750 AD to 1300 AD. It is of great sadness that Islamic science and philosophy was curtailed so early on, yet in the short time it was allowed to flourish, Maths, Geometry,Literature, Medicine, Philosophy, Optics and Astronomy were explored and written about for the world to benefit from. The first university in the world was established in Cairo, the Azhar University in 970 AD, it was a centre of formal learning in all the known sciences and logic and philosophy, however as the Muslims changed their ideology, they shunned learning and burned most of the books.


In Muslim Spain the city Córdoba in 978 AD housed the biggest library in the world, having around 1 Million books, the city was a known as the example of the Islamic Golden Era, where all faiths lived peacefully, and society prospered with free public baths, library and open economy. Again as the Muslim views changed, science, reason and philosophy became a trait of the Non-Muslims, and the library was burned, philosophy was not taught anymore, all the gains in science and medicine was halted, the progress was keenly taken on by the Europeans who continued the work and overtook the Eastern cultures. The Islamic world never recovered.


Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article : Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.


There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists  from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed , “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”


Hillel Ofek “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” The New Atlantis, Number 30, Winter 2011, pp. 3-23.




This aggression against science and reason was personified in Ibn Taymiyyah who has said :


”There are no philosophers upon right guidance”

‘’Islam does not have philosophers’’


Naseehat Ahl Eemaan Fee Radd alaa Mantiq al Yunaan. (page:157)


In contrast to what we find in the Quran :


8|22|The worst of animals to God are the deaf and dumb—those who do not reason.


It is certainly a major problem, which continues even to today, even fairly recently Weather reports were suspended in a Muslim country as it was claimed that using science to predict the weather was blasphemous. (The Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy observes, almost in despair:  “Many, if not most orthodox ulema [Islamic scholars] contend that prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully known to man, and infringes on the supernatural domain.  Consequently, between 1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were quietly suspended by the Pakistani media, although they were later reinstated.”  Causality, the foundation on which science rests, is meaningless in such a philosophy.)


So what changed that caused this great empire to collapse?


The early groups of Muslims which established the Golden Era were mainly of the Mu’tazilah and Shia ideology, unfortunately the Mu’tazilah ideology was influenced more and more by recently translated Greek texts and some of the Muslim scholars were worried that Islam and God Himself would be reasoned out of existence for the masses. So what was so intimidating about the Greek text’s? Firstly they had great thinkers, Aristotle for example, however what really scared the Muslim scholars was the conclusions that some of the Greeks had arrived at based on seemingly sound methods of the new thinkers, an example of this was who, or rather what was God? The Greeks had realised that everything on our planet was subject to change, therefore must be created, so they assumed a creator, however instead of agreeing with the classical religions, they looked to the heavens and thought, there appears to be no change in the “heavenly bodies” such as the Sun and the Planets, therefore they must be uncreated, eternal and the source of the universe and Gods.


A counter ideology was created to combat Mutazilite thought, called Asharism which rejected not only the Greek forms of logic and rationalism, but infact any form of reason and even thinking itself. The new ideology concentrated on the Holy texts of Islam and only accepted their literal meaning with no value to exploring the non religious sciences. Ash’arism not only did away with concepts such as cause and effect, but also morality, free will and even justice. Hillel Ofek summarises the situation concisely in the article “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” The New Atlantis, Number 30, Winter 2011, pp. 3-23. :


It can be traced back to the rise of the anti-philosophical Ash’arism school among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim world.

To understand this anti-rationalist movement, we once again turn our gaze back to the time of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun. Al-Mamun picked up the pro-science torch lit by the second caliph, al-Mansur, and ran with it. He responded to a crisis of legitimacy by attempting to undermine traditionalist religious scholars while actively sponsoring a doctrine called Mu’tazilism that was deeply influenced by Greek rationalism, particularly Aristotelianism. To this end, he imposed an inquisition, under which those who refused to profess their allegiance to Mu’tazilism were punished by flogging, imprisonment, or beheading. But the caliphs who followed al-Mamun upheld the doctrine with less fervor, and within a few decades, adherence to it became a punishable offense. The backlash against Mu’tazilism was tremendously successful: by 885, a half century after al-Mamun’s death, it even became a crime to copy books of philosophy. The beginning of the de-Hellenization of Arabic high culture was underway. By the twelfth or thirteenth century, the influence of Mu’tazilism was nearly completely marginalized.

In its place arose the anti-rationalist Ash’ari school whose increasing dominance is linked to the decline of Arabic science. With the rise of the Ash’arites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life. While the Mu’tazilites had contended that the Koran was created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ash’ari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Ash’arites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God.

With the background to the history of reason and philosophy out of the way, hopefully we can push forward and understand its subtleties and benefit from its skillful use. Its also a timely point to note that there is nothing intrinsically Un-Islamic about science, reason or logic, it is a great shame that those scholars at the time could not differentiate between good things that were discovered outside Islamic lands, and the ideas or beliefs that were incompatible with Islam. It is also very fortunate that this idea has not continued, as it would be disastrous for the Muslim world to reject modern medicine or technology on the basis that it had been developed outside the Muslim world.

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3 thoughts on “The Decline of the Muslims

  1. If we look at alternate history for a moment and imagine that Ali Ibn Abi Talib was chosen the first caliph of Islam, what do you think would have been the status of Islam and Muslims today or let us say 200 years after his caliphate?

  2. Hussain,

    Its an interesting thought.

    However, it may have meant that the rebellion against the Muslims led by Muawiya and Aisha could have started earlier rather than later, causing more damage that it did.

    If there was a utopia, it would mean little value in the concept of Al Mahdi. One could take your thought further and say, what if Isa AS was successful in his time? or Musa AS etc? if everyone had believed and lived in a decent manner, there would have been no need for further Prophets. It seems the master plan is all about trying to get us to implement what is obviously right when those who are obviously wrong commit their wrong doings.

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