The Golden Age of Islamic Learning

This is a repost of a September 2014 article

This week, ad-Dawlah l-ʾIslāmiyyah, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL in the West, banned the teaching of social studies, mathematics, freedom, democracy, and other things in schools within their occupied areas.

Some of you would say, “Well, they did that because they are Muslims”, and you would be showing your own ignorance of Islam. They did not do it because they are Muslims; they did it because they are Fundamentalists.

Today’s writing will be about what is called the Islamic Golden Age. As you will see, much of the basis of modern knowledge of the sciences comes from that time.

With the founding of the first Islamic state in 622, like many new movements, the participates were filled with a new energy and zeal. Armies and individual missionaries spread across the Middles East, deep into Africa, to the Pacific Ocean, and even into France for a short while. Merchants traded their goods everywhere their ships could go. The caliphate grew rich and powerful.

Arab leaders were influenced by the words from the Qur’an and hadiths such as “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.” The government fully funded vast numbers of scholars. Unlike their Christian counterparts, no topic of investigation was forbidden by religious dogma or decree. (As an example, the Vatican did not officially adopt the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun until 1992!!!) It was believed that God had filled the universe with secrets, and it was one of our duties to discover them, to His greater glory.

The Muslims were very careful to preserve the knowledge of areas they entered, saving the discoveries of ancient Greece and Rome from the flames of Vatican censure. The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was founded in Baghdad in the 8th century, and was the first modern university in the world. Scholars were invited from all over the world to come and share their knowledge and to learn from each other.

The Kalam cosmological argument (everything has a beginning and therefore a cause), so favored by creationists, comes from the Ilm al-Kalam, or “science of discourse”, developed by Islamic scholars, and is itself a Muslim idea.

Not only did the sciences flourish, but also art, literature, and all of the cultural ideas. Biology and medicine were light years ahead of the West.

Arab women from this period would be horrified to see the state that so many of their modern descendants live in. Wealth, knowledge, and freedom were typical for females, with only some suffering under unenlightened husbands or fathers.

When the space shuttle Columbia exploded, President Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” Two thirds of the stars we know of have Islamic names, due to the fact that it was the Muslim scholars who first discovered and named them.

As often happens with nation states, as the expansion slowed the infighting started. Civil and sectarian conflicts arose, and disturbed Islam’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Spain had become a battleground, to which young Christian and Muslim men traveled to seek fame and fortune. That war would rage for 800 years.

For over 450 years, pilgrims of all faiths had been protected as they journeyed to Jerusalem to pray. The Muslim civil wars were used as a premise to allow Pope Urban II to declare the First Crusade in 1095. The invaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 and set up a number of Crusader States along the coast. They would last for 200 years.

In the Crusades, as in Spain, the Christians were shocked to discover how much they did not know. Technologies, inventions, plants, animals, and books were shipped home to be studied and incorporated into daily life. As just two examples, the Catholic rosary and the roses you get on Valentines Day were things brought back by the Crusaders.

The Islamic forces soon rallied. The Fundamentalists had always seen their culture as too decadent, and used the success of the invaders as an excuse to force others to their religious orthodoxy. (This same idea can be seen in several places in the world today). They said that too much time had been wasted studying the stars instead of swordplay. The fundamentalists fought back, and their victories seemed to reinforce their view of the world. Nine Crusades were launched against the Middle East, with less and less success.

At the same time, the Mongol Empire hit the Muslim states from the other direction, and in 1258 Baghdad fell to siege. The House of Wisdom and all of the city’s libraries were destroyed. 400,000 manuscripts had been evacuated and smuggled to Persia before the siege. For hundreds of years, Mongol armies would attack the Muslims again and again, and military skills took precedence over education.

The Muslims lost in Spain, where they, like the Jews, were expelled in 1492. Christians captured their libraries, and the Renaissance began.

Other peoples had been in the same situation before, so the Golden Age could have continued, maybe on a smaller scale. What brought it to a true end was the replacement of ijtihad (free thinking) with taqlid (imitation) in learning. Basically, creative reasoning was out and rote memorization without questioning was in. It was better to ignorant and obedient then to think on your own and possibly question authority.

As religious power decreased in the West, the increasingly secular nations there sought to use the things they had learned to learn even more things, and their empires covered the globe. Muslim states, technologically inferior, saw their countries invaded and occupied again and again. China and Japan, also obedient orthodox states, were forced to submit to the Western nations. Once they turned their backs on “the old ways”, they shook the world.

This is not a unique story, and it happens today. ISIS is repeating the same failing policy of their ancestors. It would be better to let them fight among themselves once they stop expanding, rather than defeat them in battle and allow them to become martyrs for future generations.

Even in the United States, there are voices screaming about “culture wars” and demanding religious orthodoxy, and if you just do everything they tell you things will be perfect. For most people here, science means only technology, not realizing that expansion of knowledge improves all human lives.

So, take your kids to the science museum and the zoo. Put books in their hands and answer their questions honestly. If you don’t know, discover the answer together. Look at the stars, smell the roses, and dream great dreams. Let them know that God has filled the universe with secrets that they can discover.

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