Islam’s Lost Heritage
By Jahed Ahmed
……It was NOT Islamic (in
) to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. ”You were supposed to say,” Dr. Hoodbhoy recounted, ”that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then BY THE WILL of ALLAH water was created” Pakistan
-New York Times article (
10/30/2001) on effort to “Islamacize” science by portraying Koran as a source of scientific knowledge
Probably the most suitable noun that could accurately describe the intellectual status of today’s Muslim world is ‘stagnancy’. From Science-Technology to Literature-Art-Philosophy and like, the presence of Muslim talents is highly scarce and frustrating. According to an informal survey cited in the book entitled, “Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality”, published in 1991 and written by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy--an internationally acclaimed Muslim Physicist and a professor at Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan--“Muslims are seriously underrepresented in Science, accounting for fewer than one percent of the world’s scientist while they account for almost a fifth of the world’s population”. “
," as Dr. Hoodbhoy reports, “has almost twice as many scientists as the Muslim countries put together!” Israel
Although it contrasts starkly with today’s reality, it’s a well established fact that once Muslims constituted the most enriched societies in the world in terms of pursuit of knowledge and the achievements. For five straight centuries (9th to 13th), Muslims alone kept the light of learning ablaze in whole world. Such time in the history is known as THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM. “Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600,” said Dr. Jamil Ragep1, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, USA. Similar comments have been made by experts such as Dr. David Lindberg, a medieval science historian at the
. Among all the Muslim scholars of the Golden Age, the most famous ones probably include: Al-Razi (865-925), Al-Haytham (a physicist, b. 965, Iraq), al-Sufi (astronomer, 903-986), poet Umar Khayyam (1048-1131), al-Biruni (astronomer, mathematician and geographer, b. 973), Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna, a physician and philosopher b. 981) and poet Al-Ma`arri (973-1058 C.E.). Universityof Wisconsin
One of the prime reasons attributed to Muslims’ intellectual enrichment during middle age is the substantial impact of Greek rationalistic Philosophy on Muslim intellectuals. During seventh & eighth century, Islamic empire was expanded from
to Spain and Muslims gained access to works of such great Greek thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates. Consequently, the core of Greek science, literature and philosophy fell into the hands of Muslims. “The West had a thin version of Greek knowledge,” said Dr. Lindberg2. “The East had it all.” It was the infusion of this knowledge into Persia Western Europe, historians say, that fueled the Renaissance and the scientific revolution3. As a result of the influence of Greek philosophy, the vast majority of the Muslim intellectuals of Middle Ages preferred reason over blind faith as a guiding philosophy. Such groups of rationalistic Muslim thinkers of the time were known as Mutazilites. In an article entitled “Muslims and the West After September 11” published in Washington Post, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy had the following to say about Mutazilites:
“Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because there was within Islam a strong rationalist tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites. This tradition stressed human free will, strongly opposing the predestinarians who taught that everything was foreordained and that humans have no option but to surrender everything to Allah. While the Mutazilites held political power, knowledge grew. “
However, such a rationalistic tradition faced its antithesis at a later stage. Again, in the words of Dr. Hoodbhoy:
“…in the twelfth century Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the cleric Imam al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. He refuted the possibility of relating cause to effect, teaching that man cannot know or predict what will happen; God alone can. He damned mathematics as against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.
Islam choked in the vice like grip of orthodoxy. No longer, as during the reign of the dynamic caliph al-Mamun and the great Haroon al-Rashid, would Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect, and science in the Muslim world. The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman ibn Khaldun, belonged to the fourteenth century.”
Below briefly discussed are three prominent Muslim (here I am using the word ’Muslim’ in mere cultural context) iconoclasts belonging to the Golden Age of Islam:
AL-RAZI (865-925 C.E.):
Full name- Abu Bakr Muhammad B. Zakariya. P. Kraus and S. Pines, in Encyclopedia of Islam, have mentioned al-Razi as “perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam.” Max Meyerhof4 calls him “the greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the great physicians of all time.” Al-Razi was the native of Rayy (near
), where he studied mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and literature, and, perhaps, alchemy. Later, he went to Tehran to study medicine. It may be mentioned that at that time, Baghdad was reputed in the whole world as a great center of learning. Al-Razi is known to have studied and contributed to variety of subjects. His greatest medical work was an enormous encyclopedia, al-Hawi, on which he worked for fifteen years and which was translated into Latin in 1279. Baghdad
Al-Razi was thoroughly a rationalist thinker. According to Gabrieli, 'he is the greatest rationalist “agnostic” of the Middle Ages, European and Oriental.' The central theme of Al-Razi’s personal philosophy was that no authority was beyond criticism. He challenged tradition and authority in every field to which he turned his attention. Like a true humanist, al-Razi puts boundless faith in human reason and it is reflected in the following excerpt, taken from his book of ethics, The Spiritual Physick:
Reason “is God’s greatest blessing to us….By Reason we are preferred above the irrational beasts,…..By Reason we reach all that raises us up, and sweetens and beautifies our life, and through it we obtain our purpose and desire. For by Reason we have comprehended the manufacture and use of ships, so that we have reached unto distant lands divided from us by the seas; by it we have achieved medicine with its many uses to the body, and all the other arts that yield us profit….by it we have learned the shape of the earth and the sky, the dimension of the sun, moon and other stars, their distances and motions…”
Al-Razi denied the Islamic dogma of creation ex nihilo. For him, the world was created at a finite moment in time, but not out of nothing. Al-Razi believed in the existence of the five eternal principles: creator, soul, matter, time, and space. He had no faith in Quran and the prophets. 'The miracles of the prophets', said Al-Razi, 'are impostures, based on trickery, or the stories regarding them are lies.' According to him, reason is superior to revelation, and salvation is only possible through philosophy. In his political philosophy, Al-Razi believed, one could live in an orderly society without being terrorized, or coerced by religious law.
Al-Ma`arri (973-1058 C.E.):
Full name- Abul Ala Ahmad bin Abdallah bin Sulayman Al-Ma`ari. Because of his magnificent poetic talent and philosophical views, sometimes, he is called The Eastern Lucretius. Born in
, Al-Ma`ari was struck with smallpox at an early age and eventually became totally blind. He studied in Syria , Aleppo , and other Syrian towns before returning his native town of Antioch `arrat al-Nu`man, where lived until his death. For a brief period, he was attracted by the famous center of Ma , but stayed there only for eighteen months. Such was his fame as an erudite man that eager disciples flocked to his native town to listen to his lecture on poetry and grammar. One of the recurring themes of his poetry was pervasive pessimism. Baghdad
Al-Ma`ari was a supreme rationalist who everywhere asserted “the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition and authority.” For al-Ma`aari, religion is a “fable invented by the ancients,” worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses. He clearly puts Islam on the same level as all other creeds, and does not believe a word of any of them. About the prophets of various religions, Al-Ma`ari says:
“Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”
Al-Ma`ari attacked many of the dogmas of the Islam, particularly the Pilgrimage, which he calls, “a heathen’s journey.” Kissing of the black stone, a ritual during Muslim pilgrimage, according to Al-Ma`ari, is a superstitious nonsense. In his opinion, religions have only resulted in bigotry and blood-shed, with sect fighting sect, and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions, as Ma`ari sees them, are contrary to reason and sanity.
Adopting vegetarianism in his thirtieth year, he went against killing of animals, a view, which is reflected in some of his poetry of later age. It is no wonder, Von Kremer has said al-Ma`ari was centuries ahead of his time.
‘Umar Khayyam was born around 1048 in
, and died there in 1131. Although to the world, he is mostly known by virtue of his literary masterpiece Rubaiyat (a collection of short, spontaneous and self-contained poems), Khayyam was, according to George Sarton5, ”one of the greatest mathematician of medieval times.” He also wrote on Physics, astronomy, geography, music, metaphysics, and history. In one of the early sources of his life, Mirsad al-Ibad (the watch Tower of the Faithful), Khayyam is described as an atheist, philosopher, and naturalist. The constant themes of Khayyam’s poetry are the certainty of death, the denial of afterlife, the pointlessness of asking unanswerable questions, the mysteriousness of the universe, and the necessity of living for and enjoying the present. This is clearly reflected in the following verses taken from Rubaiyat: Nishapur, Persia
1) How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting?
Better go drunk and begging round the taverns.
Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours
Will make a cup, bowl, one day a jar.
2) When once you hear the roses are in bloom,
Then is the time, my love, to pour the wine;
Houris and palaces and Heaven and Hell-
These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.
3) Drink wine, for long you’ll sleep beneath the soil,
Without companion, lover, friend or mate.
But keep this sorry secret to yourself:
The withered tulip never blooms again.
4) Of all the travelers on this endless road
Not one returns to tell us where it leads.
Long will the world last after we are gone,
When every sign and trace of us are lost.
We were not here before, and no one knew;
Though we are gone, the world will be the same.
It might be interesting to note the striking similarities of the pessimistic theme between Umar Kahyyam and great English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare as we read below:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Sadegh Hedayat, the greatest Persian novelist and short-story writer of the twentieth century was at pains to point out that Khayyam from “his youth to his death remained a materialist, pessimist, agnostic.” “Khayyam looked at all religions questions with a skeptical eye”, continues Hedayat, “and hated the fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, and the spirit of vengeance of the mullas, the so-called religious scholars”.
Another important Muslim rationalist of twentieth century, who was greatly influenced by Umar Khayyam is Ali Dashti6. Born in 1896 to a Persian ancestry at Kerbala (present-day
), Ali Dashti received a traditional religious education. He went to Iraq in 1918 and lived in Persia , Shiraz and finally in Isfahan , where he became involved in politics of the day. Dashti was arrested twice: first in 1920 and then in 1921 after the coup d’e`tat that brought the future Reza Shah to power. His prison memoirs, Prison Days, made him a literary celebrity both at home and abroad. Dashti’s visit to Tehran in 1927 was a decisive point for his later development of skepticism and free thought which is explicitly expressed in his classic Twenty-three Years (the title refers to the prophetic career of Muhammad). In this book, Dashti leveled devastating criticism at some of Muslims’ cherished beliefs. The book was written in 1937 but was published anonymously, probably in 1974, in Russia , since the Shah’s regime forbade the publication of criticism of religion between 1971 and 1977. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Dashti authorized its publication by underground opposition groups. The book may well have sold over half a million copies in pirated editions between 1980 and 1986! In this book, Dashti chooses reason over blind faith since “belief can blunt human reason and common sense,” even in learned scholars. What is needed is more “impartial study”. Dashti strongly denied so called miracles ascribed to Muhammad and didn’t acknowledge the popular Muslim view that Koran is the word of God himself. Instead, he favors through and skeptical examination of all orthodox belief systems. Dashti points out7 that- Beirut
Koran “contains nothing new in the sense of ideas not already expressed by others. All the moral precepts of the Koran are self-evident and generously acknowledged. The stories in it are taken in identical or slightly modified forms from the lore of the Jews and Christians, whose rabbis and monks Muhammad had met and consulted on his journeys to Syria, and from memories conserved by the descendants of the peoples of ‘Ad and Thamud………In the field of moral teachings, however, the Koran cannot be considered miraculous.
Muhammad reiterated principles which mankind had already conceived in earlier centuries and many places. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus had said similar things……..Many of the duties and rites of Islam are continuous practices which the pagan Arabs had adopted from the Jews. “
Unfortunately, Dashti’s passion and courage to speak the truth put his life in great danger, and he had to pay a big price! Ali Dashti died in 1984 after spending three years in Khomeini’s prisons, where he was tortured even though he was eighty-three at that time. He told a friend before he died: “Had the shah allowed books like this to be published and read by the people, we would never have had an Islamic revolution.” The tragic fate of Dashti reminds us of great Greek philosopher Socrates who was forced to drink lethal poison to death for having spoken his mind.
The other Muslim rationalists of Middle Age who did not subscribe to the popular views of Islam, besides the prominent three (i.e. Al-Raazi, Al-Ma`ari & Umar Khayyam) discussed above, include but not limited to, Al-Rawandi (B.C. 820-830 C.E.), Al-Sarakhsi (executed 899), and Al-Mutanabbi (915-965). For Al-Rawandi all religious dogma is contrary to reason and therefore must be rejected. 'Any knowledge acquired by the so called prophets', according to Rawandi, 'can be explained in natural and human terms.' Al-Sarakhsi was an admirer of Greek philosophy and was the tutor of the caliph al-Mu’tadid. He was executed for discussing heretical ideas rather openly. Al-Mutanabbi, considered by many Arabs as the greatest poet in the Arabic language, regarded Islamic dogmas as “spiritual instruments of oppression.”
It should be obvious from the above discussion that rationalism was a pivotal trend among many famous Muslim intellectuals of the Medieval Islamic period. Unlike majority of today’s Muslim intellectuals, those thinkers were more led by their own conscience than any provincial dogma, belief system they might have inherited from their ancestors. It’s an irony that the Muslim thinkers of the later age clung to bigoted Islamic clerics such as Al- Ghazali for inspiration while ignoring many great Muslim rationalists of the past.
Before I end, I would like to say few words about the current unfortunate status of the freedom of expression prevailing across today’s Muslim world. It would be probably no exaggeration to say no where in Muslim world intellectuals are allowed to speak their mind when it comes to Islam. Worse still, in countries like Pakistan, Iran, any open critical views (be it however logical and true) of Islam may lead to execution and death sentence by virtue of the existence of inhuman and barbaric Blasphemy law (also widely used as a political instrument of oppression). Other Muslim countries are also not any safe heaven in allowing intellectuals/writers/journalists to express themselves freely on religious issues. Some of the well known examples of intense harassment and persecution of writers/intellectuals of Muslim origin by the respective governments and the Muslim reactionary forces include but not limited to, Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasrin who has been on exile for more than ten years; late freethinker/intellectual Prof. Ahmed Shariff (of Dhaka University, Bangladesh); Sheikh Muhammed Yunus (a college teacher from Pakistan; was declared death sentence by blasphemy), the prominent Egyptian feminist writer Nawal al-Saadawi; Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd (a university professor in Egypt); novelist Salman Rushdi (was declared on death sentence by a fatwa issued by Iranian chief clergy late Khomeni) and many others. Mahmud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese theologian and reformist, was hanged publicly at the age seventy-six in January, 1985, when he tried to minimize the role of the Koran as a source of law. Witnessing such crude and barbarian examples in the name of Islam one cannot help wondering: are we indeed living in 21st century? It seems to me, either the Muslim countries are not aware of human rights declaration made by UNO (which is very unlikely to be a case), or they are totally indifferent toward such concept as freedom of expression. It must be stressed that according to Article-19 of UN Universal Declaration of Human rights “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion & expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interferences & to seek, receive & impart information & ideas through any media & regardless of frontiers.”
Muslims love to preach 'Islam is the greatest and truest religion' and Islam alone can lead the civilization toward enlightenment. However, if we look at current Muslim countries, it becomes hard to find a single example that stands out by virtue of universal civil values such as coexistence of all citizens based on tolerance, plurality and freedom to believe or not believe in a doctrine. As a result, Muslims are not only alienating themselves from rest of the civilizations, they are also forcing their new generations to follow the same path of denial and illusion. This is a bad news both for the Muslims and the mankind.
(Revised on January 14, 2007)
1. The New York Times, “How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science”, by Dennis Overdye on
4. M. Meyerhof, “Thirty-three Clinical Observations by Rhazes,”
Isis23, no.2 (1935): 322 f
5.G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Washington, D.C. : Williams & Wilkins, 1927), vol. 1, pp. 759-61.
6. In Search of Omar Khayyam, the compilation by Ali Dashti , translated into English by Elwell Sutton; (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), pp.187-99
7. Ali Dashti, Twenty-three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985)
(Note for the readers: In addition to the sources mentioned above, the article --to a significant extent--has been an adaptation of a few chapters from the book LEAVING ISLAM: Apostates Speak Out, (2003 edition) edited by Ibn Warraq, and published by Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 14228.)
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