They were carried by books and scholars as they traveled from school to school across the Islamic world. Given their power and mobility, they became the glue that held Muslim society, separated into different political units, together. Islamic countries were among the most advanced in the medieval period. Art and science flourished and Arabic became a globe-spanning language of learning. Europe, by contrast, stagnated.
It was only in the thirteenth century that it began to catch up with the Islamic world. By the sixteenth century, it had pulled ahead. By the eighteenth century, it dominated. So what was behind this turnaround? Well, Europe experienced revolutionary social transformation that allowed it to surpass all other societies. The key was technological development and capital investment. By leveraging new technologies and reinvesting profits, Europeans were able to overcome natural limits to growth and reproduce their resources indefinitely.
That fuelled an extraordinary age of innovation. Economic growth drove social and intellectual change. People no longer looked to the past or the heavens for guidance. The watchword was progress. The new economic system — capitalism — only worked with an educated workforce on hand to man the metaphorical pumps, and consumers wealthy enough to buy the mass-produced goods it churned out. Literacy fuelled democratization, as workers began demanding more sovereignty. The obsession with efficiency also made life more secular — social development was too important to allow religious differences to get in the way.
That meant one thing for non-Europeans: Colonialism. Europeans needed access to overseas markets and the easiest way of getting that was to control the countries in which they were found. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Morocco were divided among the great powers between and Most of the Middle East and Muslim Central Asia were likewise swallowed up soon after, while formally independent Muslim nations like Iran were basically controlled by Europeans.
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The colonization of the Islamic world was a traumatic experience. European authorities disrupted established customs and hierarchies. What troubled many Muslims most was what this meant for Islam itself. All they had to do, many claimed, was to imitate the West and its societies. Take Muhammad Ali , the ruler of Ottoman Egypt. He reformed the army, adopted Western technology, confiscated all religious property and marginalized religious authorities.
To be modern, he believed, was to be secular. The twentieth-century rulers of newly independent states agreed.
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Every attempt to imitate the West seemed to end in failure. As critics of modernizing governments like the Iranian-born activist Jamal al-Din pointed out, the West had taken centuries to develop its unique culture and had drawn on its own traditions. If Muslims wanted to enter the modern age, they would have to do the same and create an Islamic modernity.
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Both sit uneasily with Islamic ideas. Take democracy. And attempts to create an Islamic democracy have often fallen foul of geopolitical interests. Western governments welcomed the coup that prevented the Islamic Salvation Front winning free elections in Algeria in the s, for example, despite their commitment to democracy.
Secondly, many Muslims found themselves living alongside large Christian populations in new, multi-religious states, such as Lebanon and Sudan, whose borders had been arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, making it hard to construct an Islamic national identity.
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Fundamentalism is often seen as a purely Islamic phenomenon, while Muslim fundamentalists are usually depicted as little more than fanatical opponents of the West. In truth, every religion — whether Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim or even Confucian — has its own fundamentalist movements. What they share is disenchantment with modern society. Take one of the first major fundamentalist movements in the modern world. It appeared in the United States in the s as Protestants attempted to prevent evolution being taught in schools.
Secularism has two faces as far as fundamentalists are concerned: the banishment of religion from public life and the emancipation of women. Virtually all fundamentalist movements share a fondness for old-fashioned gender roles and seek to remove women from public life. Take the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb , perhaps the most notorious twentieth-century Islamic fundamentalist.
In his youth, Qutb was enthusiastic about Western society. Qutb claimed this idea was supported by Islamic sources but it was actually a theological innovation. The Taliban in Afghanistan were inspired by Qutb and similarly disregarded Quranic standards. Islam is a uniquely political religion. After the Islamic world was conquered by European empires, Muslims began asking themselves what had gone wrong.
Ever since, they have attempted to square their faith with a modernity defined by nationalism, secularization and the legacies of colonialism. Between and , Korea granted 16, patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U. A study in found that in one year, the United States published 10, scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four.
This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in , its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. We will turn to this question later, but it is important to keep in mind that the decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations.
While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.
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Nevertheless, while the decline of Arabic civilization is not exceptional, the reasons for it offer insights into the history and nature of Islam and its relationship with modernity. Indeed, most of the greatest thinkers of the era were not ethnically Arab. This is not surprising considering that, for several centuries throughout the Middle East, Muslims were a minority a trend that only began to change at the end of the tenth century.
Pre-modern science, while not blind to utility, sought knowledge primarily in order to understand philosophical questions concerned with meaning, being, the good, and so on. Modern science, by contrast, grew out of a revolution in thought that reoriented politics around individual comfort through the mastery of nature.
Whatever modern science owes to Arabic science, the intellectual activity of the medieval Islamic world was not of the same kind as the European scientific revolution, which came after a radical break from ancient natural philosophy.
Still, there are two reasons why it makes sense to refer to scientific activity of the Golden Age as Arabic. The first is that most of the philosophical and scientific work at the time was eventually translated into Arabic, which became the language of most scholars in the region, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. This is in part because very little is known about the personal backgrounds of these thinkers. But it is also because of another caution we must keep in mind about this subject, which ought to be footnoted to every broad assertion made about the Golden Age: surprisingly little is known for certain even about the social and historical context of this era.
Abdelhamid I. That said, the field has advanced far enough to convincingly demonstrate that Arabic civilization contributed much more to the development of science than the passive transmission to the West of ancient thought and of inventions originating elsewhere such as the numeral system from India and papermaking from China. For one thing, the scholarly revival in Abbasid Baghdad that resulted in the translation of almost all the scientific works of the classical Greeks into Arabic is nothing to scoff at. But beyond their translations of and commentaries upon the ancients, Arabic thinkers made original contributions, both through writing and methodical experimentation, in such fields as philosophy, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, physics, optics, and mathematics.
Perhaps the most oft-repeated claim about the Golden Age is that Muslims invented algebra. This claim is largely true: initially inspired by Greek and Indian works, the Persian al-Khwarizmi died wrote a book from whose title we get the term algebra. The book starts out with a mathematical introduction, and proceeds to explain how to solve then-commonplace issues involving trade, inheritance, marriage, and slave emancipations.
Its methods involve no equations or algebraic symbols, instead using geometrical figures to solve problems that today would be solved using algebra. Despite its grounding in practical affairs, this book is the primary source that contributed to the development of the algebraic system that we know today. The Golden Age also saw advances in medicine. One of the most famous thinkers in the history of Arabic science, and considered among the greatest of all medieval physicians, was Rhazes also known as al-Razi. Born in present-day Tehran, Rhazes died was trained in Baghdad and became the director of two hospitals.
He identified smallpox and measles, writing a treatise on them that became influential beyond the Middle East and into nineteenth-century Europe. Rhazes was the first to discover that fever is a defense mechanism. And he was the author of an encyclopedia of medicine that spanned twenty-three volumes. What is most striking about his career, as Ehsan Masood points out in Science and Islam , is that Rhazes was the first to seriously challenge the seeming infallibility of the classical physician Galen.
He found that it did. Rhazes provides a clear instance of a thinker explicitly questioning, and empirically testing, the widely-accepted theories of an ancient giant, while making original contributions to a field. Breakthroughs in medicine continued with the physician and philosopher Avicenna also known as Ibn-Sina; died , whom some consider the most important physician since Hippocrates.
He authored the Canon of Medicine , a multi-volume medical survey that became the authoritative reference book for doctors in the region, and — once translated into Latin — a staple in the West for six centuries. Like the later European Renaissance, the Arabic Golden Age also had many polymaths who excelled in and advanced numerous fields. One of the earliest such polymaths was al-Farabi also known as Alpharabius, died ca.
Another great polymath was al-Biruni died , who wrote treatises totaling 13, pages in virtually every scientific field. His major work, The Description of India , was an anthropological work on Hindus. Another of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age was the physicist and geometrician Alhazen also known as Ibn al-Haytham; died Although his greatest legacy is in optics — he showed the flaws in the theory of extramission, which held that our eyes emit energy that makes it possible for us to see — he also did work in astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.
The 20, pages he wrote over his lifetime included works in philosophy, medicine, biology, physics, and astronomy. W hat prompted scientific scholarship to flourish where and when it did?
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What were the conditions that incubated these important Arabic-speaking scientific thinkers?
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