The rising wealth of Islam, in its early years, could be measured not just in dinars but also in the knowledge the new rulers absorbed from their conquered territories. Some of the new Muslim rulers welcomed classical learning with open arms, searching out Greek manuscripts and establishing new scholarly centers to translate the intellectual treasures of the Greeks into Arabic.
The Muslim scholars who directed these magnificent centers of learning were not just translating the wisdom of the past – they also grappled with its unresolved problems, creating their own Islamic tradition. The greatest of these, Abu al-Kindi, directed the House of Wisdom for many years, and was himself responsible for advances in astronomy, optics, medicine, and mathematics.
With this remarkable intellectual tradition spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles, it’s no wonder that historians frequently ask why Islamic learning didn’t follow the trajectory European science would eventually take.
A precarious existence
The intellectual achievements of the early Muslim scholars, known as faylasuf (or "philosophers"), tended, however, to emerge in particular opportune circumstances, usually under the protection of a strong royal patron.
Without such support, the faylasuf led a precarious existence, often subject to attacks and denunciations from religious leaders. Even al-Kindi was dangerously vulnerable to the vicissitudes of shifting patronage. After enjoying the protection of two caliphs, his luck ran out with the next caliph who was persuaded by religious scholars that he held dangerous philosophical beliefs. His personal library was confiscated, and worse was to follow. At the age of sixty, this distinguished Muslim philosopher received fifty lashes in public before a large crowd, which reportedly roared their approval with every stroke.
In spite of their precarious standing, the faylasuf still achieved remarkable intellectual breakthroughs. However, the writings of al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111), commonly viewed as the most influential Muslim philosopher in history, spelled the beginning of the end for the faylasuf tradition.
Al-Ghazali’s killer blow
Al-Ghazali’s philosophical works searingly assaulted the faylasuf, primarily through a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali argued that man had been created to seek only the kind of knowledge that brings him closer to God. Religious knowledge is thus highest in value, with all other forms of knowledge holding a subordinate position.
When natural science was used to aid religious observance, such as establishing the religious calendar, that was fine. When, however, it was used to determine general properties of the natural world, this was a waste of one’s time which should be spent in worthier religious pursuits. One of al-Ghazali’s favorite aphorisms was: “May God protect us from useless knowledge.” Finally, there was another category within natural sciences that was worse than useless: whatever might lead to a contradiction of the tenets of Islamic faith.
It was here that al-Ghazali produced his most devastating attack on the faylasuf. He saw mathematics as dangerous because of its reliance on logical proofs to demonstrate whether something is true. He worried that someone might become so impressed with the precise techniques of mathematical logic that he might use it to try to prove the existence of God, and being unable to, reject religion altogether. “Few there are,” he wrote, who devote themselves to the natural sciences “without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads.”
The ramifications of this were chilling. He asked: “Now that you have analysed the theories of the philosophers, will you conclude by saying that one who believes in them ought to be branded with infidelity and punished with death?” This is inevitable, he concludes, accusing them of “blatant blasphemy to which no Muslim sect would subscribe.”
The blasphemy of reason
Al-Ghazali’s evisceration of rational thinking had a profound and lasting effect on Islamic culture. The 13th century religious leader, Ibn as-Salah, for example, issued a fatwa proclaiming that “he who studies or teaches philosophy will be abandoned by God’s favor, and Satan will overpower him. What field of learning could be more despicable than one that blinds those who cultivate it and darkens their hearts against the prophetic teaching of Muhammad?” He declared menacingly that “it is the duty of the civil authorities to protect Muslims against the evil that such people can cause. Persons of this sort must be removed from the schools and punished for their cultivation of these fields.”
The later development of Muslim society reflected the undisputed victory of al-Ghazali and his followers over scientific thought. The word for innovation, bidaa, acquired the same kind of pejorative association as “heresy” in the West, especially the kind of bidaa that involved imitating the infidel.
This aversion to innovation had profound social consequences. Within three decades of the publication of the first printed books in Europe in 1455, the most powerful Muslim ruler, the Turkish sultan, banned the publication and possession of any printed material. The ban was repeated and enforced by later sultans, with such success that the first Arabic language books were printed in Europe by Christians in the early 16th century, and it was only in the 19th century that the ban was finally lifted in Muslim countries.
The reason, then, that the scientific achievements of Islamic civilization never caused the revolution in thought that occurred in Europe, becomes apparent. Muslim breakthroughs in scientific thought, impressive as they were, tended to be sporadic and clustered in communities that protected scientific thinkers from the mainstream culture. The thrust of Islamic cognition was aimed towards following the divine words of the Quran and submitting unquestioningly to faith whenever it might conflict with the findings of reason. It was focused in an opposite direction from the relentless querying of natural phenomena that was required for a revolution in scientific thought to occur.