Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science

Some say that Persian theologian al-Ghazali was solely responsible for the end of the Golden Age of science.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion, Religion

Skeptoid #316
June 26, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Russian

A fact is the measurable, provable observation of something that happens, and a theory is our current best explanation for how and why the fact exists. The fact of the history of science in the Islamic world is that from about 750 CE to 1250 CE, the "Golden Age" of science was led by Arab-Islamic scholars. Following the Quran's advice that "The scholar's ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs", Muslims gave us Arabic numerals, algebra, algorithms, and alchemy; they gave us our names of most of the stars visible to the eye: Aldebaran, the Andromeda galaxy, Betelgeuse, Deneb, Rigel, Vega, and hundreds more; following the Quran's teaching "For every disease, Allah has given a cure," Arab-Islamic doctors furthered the art of surgery, built hospitals, developed pharmacology, and compiled all the world's medical knowledge into comprehensive encyclopedias and the seminal Canon of Medicine; and they advanced art and architecture beyond what even the mighty Greeks and Romans had begun.

And yet, as so many of today's scholars rightly point out, this force of intellect and accomplishment is now all but gone. Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy notes that since the end of the Golden Age, not a single major invention or discovery has come from the Muslim world. In the history of the Nobel Prize in sciences, only two have gone to scientists working in Muslim countries. Typically, every professor at a university will have publications; but in 2011, The New Atlantis pointed out that there are about 1800 universities in Muslim countries. Only about a sixth of universities have even a single faculty member who has ever published anything.

As is often the case on Skeptoid when we discuss specific ethnic groups, definitions are in order. Arabs are not precisely defined, but the word is almost always used to refer to native speakers of the Arabic language. Arab culture is believed to date to around 800 or 900 BCE. Muslims are adherents to Islam, the monotheistic religion defined by the Quran. The Quran was written by the man Mohammed over a period of about 20 years in the early 600s CE, through divine revelation according to Islamic faith. Thus, Arabs and Arabic predate Islam by about 1500 years.

Being an Arab and being a Muslim are two different things, so it technically doesn't make sense to use the term "Arab-Islamic" whether you're talking about science or anything else. About 90% of Arabs are Muslims, but that group of Arab Muslims make up only about 20% of the much larger world Muslim population. So the terminology is a bit loose and not perfectly accurate, but when historians use the term "Arab-Islamic science" they're speaking of what began as the Arab world centered around what's now Saudi Arabia, and has spread out to include countries worldwide that are predominantly Muslim even if they're not Arabic.

As the Golden Age ended, Islam spread, and science within died. The fact of the rise and fall of Islamic science is clear; but the theory of how and why it happened is anything but. Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at one of the more popular of these theories.

The theory is that it was the codification of the Islamic religion, essentially banning scientific research as being the work of the devil and contrary to the teachings of Mohammed, that was the primary cause of this stifling of one of history's greatest intellectual cultures. This abolition of science is said to have been primarily the work of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, an important philosopher, theologian, and mystic from 12th century Persia.

The role of al-Ghazali in Islam is not much different from the role of Socrates in western culture. He was, and still is, considered a giant in the history of philosophy. Many great European philosophers have relied upon al-Ghazali's writings as much as they have upon the Greeks. Al-Ghazali's single most important contribution was in the definition of Sufism, which is difficult to define in brief terms, but it's a rejection of worldliness and outside influences and a focus on inner spiritualism and complete devotion to God. Al-Ghazali's book Revival of Religious Sciences is considered his most important, and is the seminal work on Sufism.

But al-Ghazali's influence was not limited to the elucidation of Sufism; an equally important part of his work was the unification of competing schools of thought. He unified the tenets of Sufism with those of sharia, the moral and religious law of Islam. Sharia governs nearly all aspects of human behavior, including not just religious law but also personal matters and secular matters. Al-Ghazali made these compatible. He also unified Sufism with Sunni Islam, the orthodox version of the religion. By bolstering Sunnism, sharia, and Sufism within a philosophical strongbox, al-Ghazali necessarily drew boundaries that excluded competing philosophies. A large part of this was the rejection of the great Greek philosophers. Their application of philosophy was to understand the world; al-Ghazali's was to understand God.

The Golden Age of Arab-Islamic science ended during al-Ghazali's lifetime. That's a historical fact. Al-Ghazali's philosophy was certainly compatible with the abandonment of science, but was he truly the cause?

To understand why the Golden Age ended, we must first understand why it rose in the first place. Arabs and Muslims were not especially more gifted intellectually than any other societies, but they did have at least one very important asset: their geographic location. The city of Mecca was a major trading hub. Piracy had made trade routes at sea dangerous, and overland trade routes gained popularity. Complex issues of governments, religions, and various wars combined to fortuitously leave Mecca as one of the safer destinations. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, began his career as a merchant, and lived and died during these years of Mecca's early growth. Mecca's influence grew, and it grew by acquisition of knowledge and technologies brought in from all the corners of Eurasia. Those great Arabic numerals were actually based on imported decimal systems from India. The famous libraries in Baghdad, translation capital of the world, consisted largely of books that were imported and translated, making them quite literally the world's central libraries. Trigonometry was refined, having been imported from Greece.

And then one day, it was all wiped from the Earth. The Golden Age was ended not by the pen, but by the sword. Destruction came from the west, a wave of iron and blood, and it bore the banner of a rosy red cross on a field of white. Throughout the Golden Age, Muslim Conquests had been stretching the hand of Islam over Asia and Africa, even touching Europe. Indeed, al-Ghazali's homeland of Persia was part of the Muslim world because it had been conquered 500 years before his birth. The growing empire began to crumble under its own weight, as geopolitical factionalization and fragmentation took their toll. Mongols fought back in the east, stretching Muslim armies thin. When the Muslim Conquests reached too far, an enraged Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade at the request of the Byzantine emperor in the year 1095, and overwhelming armies of Christians and barbarians, knights and peasants, overran and destroyed the great Arab centers. The great irreplaceable libraries were burned, the universities leveled, and the Holy Land fell. Muslims and Jews alike throughout the region were killed by the tens of thousands.

For centuries thereafter, Muslim Conquests and Christian Crusades swept back and forth across the land, trading territories. Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, and Muslims saw the death of their Golden Age. But as the skies began to clear in the middle of the second millennium, Europe entered its Renaissance, while the Arab-Islamic world did not. Why did this happen? Historians have puzzled over this for centuries; there is no single Skeptoid-sized reason for it. But when one compares the dominant ideologies, we're back again to the observation that Europe's application of philosophy was to understand the world; al-Ghazali's was to understand God.

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Al-Ghazali may have had little to do with the death of science in the Islamic world, but it's certain that his teachings were compatible with science's failure to stage a revival after the great religious wars.

The reasons why it happened are important, but not as important as solving the problem. Unfortunately, the outlook going forward remains pretty bleak. Brain drain is a major complication; scholars in Islamic countries nearly always emigrate to other countries where the educational and research opportunities are. In 2006, the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology published an article on the subject that concluded as follows:

We are persuaded that the scientific community as well as the public and private funding organizations of Arab countries share the responsibility of increasing the funding for biomedical research and for improving the research infrastructure of each Arab country. Also, increased collaboration between Arab countries and their neighbours will offer a considerable benefit to those involved. Moreover, wealthy nations and regions, such as the USA and Europe, have the responsibility to assist Arab countries in their efforts to increase research productivity. This may be accomplished by incorporating well-trained Arab scientists in international research networks, and by helping them to stay in their home countries, thus increasing the local research productivity. Arabs have a long history of contribution to science, especially during the Arabic-Islamic Golden Age. However, political, social and economic problems have hampered scientists in Arab countries, making it difficult to optimize their capacity in research productivity in most scientific fields.

Whether help from outside is the best way to address a problem that stems from inside is debatable. The seeds planted by al-Ghazali 900 years ago may not have had much impact at the time, but they've bloomed into a deep-rooted system that remains disinterested in scientific achievement. A critical analysis of the theories explaining why science has not recovered is important, but it is only important so far as any interest exists in reviving the spirit of the great Arab-Islamic scholars of the Golden Age.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

al-Ghazali, A. "Revival of Religious Science." al-Ghazali Website. Muhammad Hozien, 11 Jun. 2004. Web. 16 Jun. 2012. <>

Falgas, M., Zarkadoulia, E., Samonis, G. "Arab Science in the Golden Age (750-1258 CE) and Today." Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. 1 Jan. 2006, Volume 20: 1581-1586.

Haddad, F. "Pioneers of Arabian Medicine." Bulletin of the Lebanese Society for the History of Medicine. 1 Jan. 1993, Number 3: 74-83.

Hoodbhoy, P. "Science and the Islamic World: The Quest for Rapprochement." Physics Today. 1 Aug. 2007, Volume 60, Number 8: 49.

Maziak, W. "Science in the Arab World: Vision of Glories Beyond." Science. 1 Jun. 2005, Volume 308, Number 5727: 1416-1418.

Ofek, H. "Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science." The New Atlantis. 1 Jan. 2011, Number 30: 3-23.

Shaban, S., Abu-Zidan, F. "A Quantitative Analysis of Medial Publications from Arab Countries." Saudi Medical Journal. 1 Mar. 2003, Volume 24, Number 3: 294-296.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 26 Jun 2012. Web. 13 Oct 2015. <>


I wonder when and if they'll get their much-needed Enlightenment.

ThorGoLucky, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
June 26, 2012 8:17am

Once those regions get a reliable and uncensored internet connection.

Jerimiah, Boston, MA
June 26, 2012 8:51am

Don't forget, the Islamic World wasn't just fighting in the West. In the13th Century saw what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria and much of Turkey destroyed in the Mongol Conquests which culminated in the siege and utter destruction of Baghdad along with its incomparable library and universities.

Mike, UK
June 26, 2012 8:57am

I liked episode, though i wasn't entirely convinced by your discussion of the end of the golden age. I appreciate the nature of the skeptoid format makes it difficult to go into too much depth, but I think some of the wording used gives a bit of a distorted picture. For one thing, there wasn't much a Muslim 'empire'. By the end of the 11th century there were lots of territories ruled by Islamic rulers, but a pilgrimage from Spain to Persia would have seen you traverse territories governed by a number of competing and antagonistic powers - just as a trip from Edinburgh to Rome would have done in medieval Christendom. Any mention of overarching Islamic empires tends to give a false picture of cultural/intellectual homogeneity and play into some pretty dodgy interpretations of history to boot.

Indeed, though the Mongols and Crusaders played their part (though the former did much more than the latter), it's worth noting that enlightened Islam had more than enough enemies within: a good example of this would be medieval Spain, where the level of support for non-Muslim scholars varied greatly from dynasty to dynasty.

Likewise, I'm not sure you can really get away with referring to the 11th century as the 'dark ages' for Christian Europe: between then and the start of the thirteenth century, populations and urbanisation were to rise, literacy was to spread (within reason,) industrial production would be up and new (and ancient) ideas would trickle back from the east.

Nick, London
June 26, 2012 9:15am

Tiny niggle. Mohammed was illiterate. The Koran and the Hadith (his life)was written shortly after his death.

Bill Birtles, Northampton, UK
June 26, 2012 10:46am

People always say this, but this only shows that nobody does know anything about the Enlightenment other than that it was a time of great philosopheners and artists. Sure, it was a time, where statesmen started to listen to philosopheners more than to the clerigy but the outcomes weren't always very good.
I once heard a great lecture called "The Enlightened State and the small people" which concentrated on the aspect how the new era affected the life of commoners.
It was rarely good. The state started meddling with every issue of life. Bureaucrats told carpenters how to work with wood, noblemen taught pesants how to plow a field - and they all thought it was for progress. But it rarely worked out and destroyed a lot. Even the secularisation of monasteries was a catastrophy: Not only where huge libraries and artworks destroyed, but politicians also neglected that whole villages made a living providing services and food to monasteries and abbeys. Where I live, those effects can still somehow be seen, because some of those affected areas never found a trade to replace their income.
In the end, the power and money that was take from the church went right into the pocket of the nobility, where it stayed for some other hundred years

Felix Hummel, Regensburg, Germany
June 26, 2012 11:03am

It's probably also worth mentioning that the region was devasted by the plague circa 1350. That had profound effects on intellectual development in both Europe and the Middle East.

Anthony T, Philadelphia, PA
June 26, 2012 11:12am

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
— Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

None, US
June 26, 2012 12:59pm

I'm being mean and nitpicky again, I'm afraid:

The Andromeda Galaxy was not named by Arab astronomers, it was first described by them. The name is the name of the Greek constellation combined with "galaxy".

Great topic otherwise =)

Adam C., Edinburgh
June 26, 2012 2:19pm

"In the history of the Nobel Prize in sciences, only two have gone to scientists working in Muslim countries."

Which scientists? Two Nobel Prizes in sciences have gone to Muslims, one of whom worked in Caltech, and the other worked at Imperial College London and left Pakistan after his Ahmadiyya denomination was declared non-Islamic.

By the way, no Muslims have won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

P.S. I think you meant to say "uninterested in scientific achievement" not "disinterested."

Max, Boston, MA
June 26, 2012 2:35pm


Ahmed Zuwail, a muslim Egyptian-American, received the Nobel prize in chemistry.

Haisook, Mansoura, EG
June 26, 2012 2:57pm

Historians, like scientists, bemoan the ignorance of the American populace in understanding the basic principles of their fields. For historians, it is 'context and contingency.' I understand the necessity of brevity in your work, however, my frustration is something like, "Where do I begin?" I suspect you were referring to Prof. Weinberg's NYT article. He may be a great physicist but he is not a historian of science or the Muslim world. His and similar articles rehash 19th and early 20th century writers. I am a historian of the Middle East and Africa, and as earlier posters commented-the area of direct Muslim influence was (and remains) vast, varied, and diverse. The Muslim world (we have to call it something) consisted of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. These male and female scholars traveled, corresponded with, and were influenced (and vice versa) by scholars in Asia and Europe. Commerce encouraged many innovations, and war and natural disasters (along with political upheavals) destroyed many others. A full answer to this particular issue is in Knowledge and Cultures: Crossing Boundaries in History (Joseph and Avery, eds., 2009) I also suggest reading George Saliba, Hugh Kennedy, Michael H. Morgan and M. T. Ansary, and visiting Scientific achievement is not owned by any culture, religion, or ethnicity. BTW-just look at the names of many of the scientific papers being published today with 'Muslim' names. So what if they are American!

sherrykay50, Urbana, IL
June 26, 2012 3:05pm


Right, Ahmed Zuwail is the one who worked at Caltech in California, not in a Muslim country like Brian said.

Engineering and applied science departments have many students from Muslim countries these days.
For example, check out this group at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Max, Boston, MA
June 26, 2012 3:16pm


I'd generally agree with Nick of London.

The Crusaders were certainly murderous thugs, however they cannot take the blame for the disappearance of Islamic science. The psychological effect on the Islamic world was enormous as Moslems had been the aggressors for the previous 450 years. However, in strategic terms, the Crusades were of minor importance. Outremer, the Crusader occupied area of the ME was never more than a narrow, precariously held, coastal strip.

The Crusaders never occupied Egypt and they can't be blamed for the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, both great intellectual centres.
The term 'Dark ages' refers to the few centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire-- the period was 'dark' because there are very few contemporary historical records.

I'd have to say I'm skeptical in regard to the "Destruction from the West hypothesis', the thousand year torpor of Islamic civilisation is due to the Islamic ideology itself.

Russell W, Warragul Australia
June 26, 2012 7:14pm

This came to my email as "The most evil man in history". I'm assuming this was just a mistake, perhaps the title of the upcoming episode, but I figured I'd bring it to your attention.

Brian Ward, Waterford MI
June 26, 2012 7:51pm

Hi Russell,

Even in psychological terms, the effects of the crusades are overstated. The fall of Jerusalem itself was a blow, but the crusades themselves left no lasting impression - There isn't even a contemporary Arabic word for crusade.

The problem with the Crusades is that it is very difficult to see them in their own context. Thanks to pro-colonialist nationalist 19th century historians like Joseph Michaud, they are forever entwined with the politics of modern colonialism (British Historian Christopher Tyreman has a good chapter on this in 'The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction')

Nick, London
June 26, 2012 10:59pm

Brian is completely wrong and is in the pay of Big Semitism and Big Science.

Abu Khalid, Cairo
June 27, 2012 1:05am

I'm fairly certain thatthe period of Western history commonly referred to as "The Dark Ages" was ending by the time of the Crusades, not beginning, so it makes no sense to say that the crusade "plunged Europe into the Dark Ages".

Febo Troilo, Manchester
June 27, 2012 5:47am

This article of Skeptoid is a real disappointment. While Brian does present an interesting case about the lack of scientific achievement in the Arab world, his reasons offered to account for the lack of achievement neglect considering any outside modern influence on the Arab world.

Michael, USA
June 27, 2012 6:09am

Sadly there seem to be many fundamentalist Christian groups that would love to see science and scientific discovery follow a similar path in the Western World.

Walter, Clifton Park, NY
June 27, 2012 6:16am

I really liked this episode for a number of reasons, since the downfall of Islamic science has intrigued me for years. I don't think the Crusades were exactly "to blame" either, but I do think they contributed to a "siege mentality" in the Arab world. There are parallels with the situation in Israel today: the knowledge that your land is the target of foreigners, who would happily exterminate you to get to it, is naturally going to affect your global outlook.

Brian Thomson, Dublin, Ireland
June 27, 2012 7:01am

I would say Brian is about bang on. Form where I'm standing a certain religion (we hardly dare speak it's name in the Uk for fear of censorship and been accused of racism) is rather like a plague of locusts, sweeping through the world. Taking and adding nothing.

Peter, Plymouth, Devon, England
June 27, 2012 8:00am

I'm not afraid to name the religion Peter doesn't dare to: it's called ALL OF THEM.

H. Tiberius Miser, Secret Underground Lair, Earth
June 27, 2012 8:38am

"The most evil man in history?" is what I read in the subject line....where's that article?

hurfner, detroit
June 27, 2012 9:37am

I hope Abu Khalid is either a) joking; or b) some non-Arab (probably European or American) guy claiming to have an Arab name and to be from Cairo.

His statement did not address the issues raised in the article.

Both Islam and Christendom have a love/hate relationship with science. There are times when the leaders approve and allow scientific investigation of the world; then there are times when the leaders declare the Bible or Quran the sole source of accurate knowledge, so scientific inquiry is unnecessary (or even evil).

One person can hardly halt a culture in its tracks, but one person can codify, defend, and argue in favor of already-existing trends in such a way that those who agree feel heartened and take action. 'Our holy book has all the answers' is deeply reassuring for those who feel uncertain or threatened. Scientific knowledge, by acknowledging ambiguity and uncertainty, and by revealing the world beyond what we can immediately see, touch, and hear, is not so reassuring.

Brynhild, Macon
June 27, 2012 10:47am

It is wrong. You mistake history of arabic world - especialy middle east. There was many "wars" between muslims same and too expansion over many countries. Islam work only if is support by expansion. Then can gather knowledge. Next thing is problem of Islam self. Who deny that quaran is not from God must die or be punish.

Crew, Czech
June 27, 2012 12:24pm

I agree with the article but I think Mohammed was illiterate so he didn't actually write the Quran; in fact the Suras were passed on by memory until about 600 years later the first written Quran surfaced.

Alessandro Martin, Venezuela
June 27, 2012 1:18pm

Sunni Islam is not “the Orthodox version of the religion”. there are MANY branches of Sunni Islam, some are are secular, the most Orthodox are Salafists.
The Christian Crusades were not the catalyst that ended the Islamic Golden Age. This centuries long conflict weakened the Islamic world, but it was sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols that was most destructive. It is not coincidence that the sacking of 1258 is usually cited as the official year in which the Islamic Age of Science ended.Baghdad was the center Scholarship in the Islamic World. The sacking of Baghdad brought about the destruction of the then world’s largest Library, the House of Wisdom. Its destruction by the Mongols can only be compared to the burning of the Library of Alexandra in the Ancient world, Though many volumes survived countless works were lost, and numerous scholars that lived in worked in Baghdad were slaughtered. Many that survived fled the city and settled elsewhere, and were separated from their colleagues with no great single institution to fill the void by the Tigris where all the great scholars had gathered and compiled their works. The Holy Lands did possess centers of learning, but the great centers of the Golden Age were Baghdad, and Cordoba Spain. The Crusaders bled the Islamic world, but it was the Mongols who decapitated it and ended its Golden Age.

Neil McGettigan, New Brunswick NJ
June 27, 2012 4:01pm

Hi, Nick

Yes. What I meant to say is that the idea of ferocious Crusaders attacking peaceful, defenceless Moslems is a powerful psychological technique used by Islamic propagandists today.

The West has recovered from invasion and collapse on two previous occasions and the emerging cultures surpassed their predecessors. Why couldn't Islamic culture recover in the same way? I'm still a skeptic.

Russell W, Warragul Australia
June 27, 2012 6:19pm

HI Russel,

Yes - I think that's a fair question. When you look at the parallels between the East and the west, the many similarities to the points people are making above are striking. Brian Thompson mentions a siege mentality in the Islamic world, for example, but actually this was probably much more true of the Western world - and well into the modern era to boot: Aside from the real threats posed by the likes of the Ottoman Turks, it was the West that was always looking for the 'reds under the bed', be they Cathars, Jews, Muslims, Lepers, Witches or (like this fascinating example: an imagined combination of the above.

Likewise, I think Neil is right to point out that the effects of the destruction of Baghdad shouldn't be underestimated, but this is more of a what than a why. The dispersal of scholars isn't necessarily a bad thing - Cambridge University (currently ranked in the top 5 globally) only exists because angry townsfolks forced scholars out of Oxford in the early 13th Century, and there's a compelling argument that Greek scholars fleeing the fall of Byzantium played a key role in kick starting the Renaissance - so there was potential for the fall of Baghdad to be just as much a beginning as an end.

Coming back to the original topic, Brian is definitely essentially correct that the situation is far too complicated to blame solely on poor old Al-Ghazali.

Nick, London
June 27, 2012 10:18pm

I too agree with the premise that the situation is much too complex to blame on a single figure, and of course the Skeptoid format requires a fair bit of generalisation, but having studied this subject for a number of years, I think it certain that the impact of the Crusades on the region has been massively overstated. While much of what Brian says is in essence correct, in this case over-simplification is simply reinforcing an anachronistic modern and Euro-centric view of the Crusades. For example, it is true that the Byzantine Emperor requested help from the Pope, but he probably neither wanted or expected the large force that eventually arrived (and subsequently challenged Byzantine interests as much as Muslim ones.) Moreover, it is clear that intra-Muslim rivalries (most notably between the Orthodox Sunni Seljuk Turks and the Ismaili Shia Fatimids of Egpyt, as well as internal Abbasid/Seljuk rivalries) played a much more important role in the events of the region during the 11th-13th centuries than the Crusaders, playing as they did (and as contemporary Muslim sources note) a relatively insignificant role in a region containing a multitude of rival factions. To stick my neck out I would suggest that the decline of Arab-Islamic science did result from the dominance of Sunni Orthodoxy, but that this dominance was more the result of the internal subjugation of non-orthodox alternatives within the Muslim community than from outside intervention.

Jim, UK
June 28, 2012 4:20am

Whats going to happen to the Arab world in the next 50 - 100 years when their oil disappears and the millions that depend on its export for food?

Guy, Regina, Sk, Canada
June 28, 2012 7:53am

Al-Ghazali’s application of philosophy was to understand God? That’s very interesting, given that less than 20% of the Quran deals with religion and spirituality; most of it describes methods of conquest, the political system of Shari'a, and how to treat non-believers.

Les Barker, Reading, PA
June 28, 2012 11:10am

Hi Brian. I think you have a mistake Andromeda galaxy's name has a greek origin not Arab.

Giancarlo Rotunno, Caracas, Venezuela
June 29, 2012 3:03pm

Had Religion not stepped in the way the Declaration of Independence would have been written on a lap top computer.

steven, yuma
June 30, 2012 6:56pm

It's a scary thought, an advanced culture that values and progresses in science, succumbs to war and chaos, then recovers and goes scientifically "dormant" for centuries. Could it happen again, this time in Western culture?

Ely, Tim, St. Louis
July 1, 2012 5:48pm

As far as I am concerned its happening in western culture as we read.

You need only see the plethora of anti science comments that are trotted out in skeptoid.

Mud, Out to pasture, Oz
July 2, 2012 12:33am

My thoughts. ADD as they are...

Jim, Excellent post. The subject is a bit broad to fit into such a short podcast. That said the Author did quite well given the limited time. The only thing I could find fault with was the citation of the crusades as a factor. While war and chaos are relevant there were better examples such as (cited by others)the destruction of the Grand Library of Baghdad by what became the Ilkhanate.

I think the point here is that conventional wisdom is that his outlook was something of a sea-change. You comments regarding Quran is accurate. Islam is a personal surrender to the will of God and is not just a religion in the western sense but a comprehensive plan for ones personal existence. Again there is not enough space in this podcast to do more than scratch the subject.

How is that relevant in any way other than to change the subject?

You are correct regarding Andromeda.

Were you going anywhere with the inflammatory comment?

While we live in the most scientific society in history you are correct to be concerned. Non-science is being given equal time as most of us can't readily tell the difference. (don't get me started on public education)

Dan Hillman, Seattle WA
July 3, 2012 4:26pm

Dan, I just got through a discussion with someone on acupuncture,

"Its good because its ancient but I wont argue it because I hardly know anything about it".

This is the same tack my alma mater took when accepting acupuncture as a program in 1990.

But at least, UTS received the funding excess from a fake science enrolment for real science..

One would hope.

"we dont know how it works but we damn well like the money or professional recognition...even tho it probably doesnt work" is a mantra that involves many philosophies.

My continual question here there and on every site I lambast over anti science is..

"Wow, so what have you guys done for science?"

In acupuncture, technologists gave them a better needle..even a standard for the needles...That would be embarrassing right?

No, its a different "philosophy".

On Galaxies? The first observable (other than the magellanic clouds) was within the life time of some folk today from recall..

Surely Brian made a linguistic boob and a discovery listing boob? I didnt notice it in the Podcast.

To belabor this, andomeda is a constellation (as cepheus, scorpio and libra) the ancients had a constellation system wheras the medieval islamic society went around naming stars (thankfully!)

Maybe there is a perception mistake that Brian may think important.

I didnt notice any and still am perplexed..

Mud, Out to pasture, Oz
July 5, 2012 11:54pm

Dear Brian

Your quote : " The scholar's ink ..." is not in The Quran. Not sure where you got that information.

As for your reader claiming that only 20% of the Quran deals with religion, while the rest deals with conquest, etc. Again, clearly he needs to read The Quran, or again.

Nick Stavros, Dubai
July 6, 2012 4:52am

"A critical analysis of the theories explaining why science has not recovered is important, but it is only important so far as any interest exists in reviving the spirit of the great Arab-Islamic scholars of the Golden Age."

... Or if we're interested in making sure that this history won't repeat itself in our Western world.

I think it's clear that valuing spiritual, unearthly, religious matters over real, substantial, material matters is the reason behind the downfall. When faith is more important than truth, truth gets sacrificed.

Abby, Austin, TX
July 6, 2012 2:08pm

As someone with a very good understanding of this period, I must say that your account falls short in several respects (though your main conclusion regarding the unique personal culpability of Al-Ghazali is certainly correct). The main problem was that Islamic states always relied on nomadic mercenaries to maintain themselves, and in the course of the 10th century these nomads showed increasingly simplistic understandings of their faith, mainly due to the sorts of missionaries who were converting them. These nomads (Turks in the East, Berbers in the West) regarded the cosmopolitan and pleasure-loving rulers who hired them with the contempt of new-converts. This resulted in a long succession of fractured, warring garrison-states. Such states were either disinterested in secular thought, or found that patronizing it undermined popular support, so that the overall basis of intellectual achievement in the Muslim world eroded. As for the role of the Crusades, you are certainly way off base. The Crusades captured the southeastern littoral of the Mediterranean and its hinterland, not "the great Arab centers"-Cairo was not captured by the Crusaders, nor Baghdad, without even mentioning Persia and central Asia. In the west, the Christians did begin making progress against the Muslims in the 12th century, but this was more a symptom than a cause of Muslim decline. The truth is, it would be as difficult to explain why Islam declines as it would be to explain why Western Europe ascended.

jim, san antonio, tx
July 6, 2012 4:03pm

Can it be said that Mohammed "wrote" the Quran? No more than Jesus wrote the New Testament, I would think. Certainly it should be said that his teachings were recorded in the Quran. Wasn't he illiterate?

Kate, London UK
July 8, 2012 2:08pm

A very sad example of your topic, rejecting incorrect science, like Nazis outlawing "jewish" physics.

Lynn, St. Louis, MO
July 9, 2012 10:21am

While it wasn't a bad episode, i couldn't help but think that skeptoid format might be too short for this particular issue, since we are talking about trend spanning on centuries, which often over simplify things.Everything between the middle-ages and now seem to passed very quickly.

Brian Dunning does seem in this article to want to give the proper nuance required when presenting information, along with a certain self-critic.Like I said I don't think it is because I think the author botch his job there simply that he had to cover too much ground for 10 minutes to handle)

Philippe Laroche, Jonquière, Canada
July 12, 2012 2:56pm

"Whether help from outside is the best way to address a problem that stems from inside is debatable."

It is not help from the outside which is needed, but a firebreak and a quarantine. Simply stop empowering them with the fruits of science from afar, and the problem will solve itself (one way or another) almost immediately.

Anonymous, Internet
July 12, 2012 4:32pm

Jim Al-Khalili writes an interesting introduction to science in the Arabic world:
I just finished it and recommended it. See review:

Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejer, Odense, Denmark
July 16, 2012 12:14am

Good Call
I read this not long ago, This is available for Kindle if anyone is interested.

The author is able to show the transition from the classical world to the Caliphate. Something that is usually left out. (This is a fascinating time in history and dark if you are a classicist like me) The author is obviously proud of Islamic civilization and presents this is an appropriate manner, without the Europe=bad everyone else=good claptrap that is becoming common in some contemporary history books as well as the publishers description of the book.
A good, well written read for amateurs . I would recommend that if you really like this period of history you begin with “Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance” by George Saliba.
He is a bit of an Arab apologist and a .. but he has the best understanding of pre-Islamic arab history and is one of the few who can navigate the shattering changes of the advent of Islam and its subsequent conquests as well as its assimilation of classical Persian, Greco-roman and Indian knowledge.

Dan Hillman, Seattle WA
July 18, 2012 5:12pm

Enjoyed the podcast. I think you may have understated the impact of the Mongols on the 'fall' of Arabic culture. They sacked the Caliphate and swept over the entire Central Asian Islamic territories. This the same time period associated with the end of the Arab intellectual age.

Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
is a great reference.

Scooter, Houston TX
July 19, 2012 3:27am

And yes, of course, the crusades along with the Catholic Church once again puts out the lamp of learning!!!
And, of course, the crusades can never be considered a defensive war; Islamic people are all blushing innocents!

Paul S, Brooklyn, NY
July 24, 2012 12:05pm

@Dan, I think Guy raises, maybe by accident, a good question.

GCC countries spend lot of energy talking about the need to diversify their economies from oil. Given that they can not go the route of cheap labor (this is quite obvious) they need to look into high-added value industries. I think we can all agree that this can only be done with an educated population.

This is simply not going to happen with the current standards in the region, education (culture, science, you name it) is simply not something highly regarded. They may be spending a lot of money sending kids to study in the US, but certainly the have little to show for it.

You are writing about a historic event, but those of us living in this region can see its impact everyday. This should serve as a warning to all of us.

Luis, Dubai
July 31, 2012 6:58am

@Paul S. -- Brian said no such thing. If that's what you think he said, you seriously need to spend such time making comments working, instead, on your issues.

Richard, Dallas
September 29, 2012 7:24am

I have always wondered what happened after the Golden Age, why the Arab world was so far ahead in science and thinking and then - well....

As far as I can make out the Qur'an has all the answers so Muslims don't need science, some clerics look through the book and see if they can find support for new discoveries in it,

I was debating/arguing with an Afro-centric Muslim recently about the Moon landings and what we have found out about the solar system - the guy started denying that "pink-genetic-mutants" {his words lol} ever walked on the Moon and that the Qur'an already explains how the Moon came from the Earth and left behind the Pacific ocean, that the west didn't have to spend billions on science because it was all in his book - the difference in science and his version of the Moon events is about 4 billion years lol !!

He told me how the west stole all the knowledge of better peoples and burnt down the library of Alexander - I then pointed out that the last time that library was burnt down was by Muslims in the conquest, when it was decreed that the Qur'an had all the knowledge they needed and so the books and scrolls should be burnt - to heat the bath water if I recollect correctly.

Revisionist history keeps blaming the west of the past for all the ills of today and bury their heads from the reality. As mentioned above by folks, what happens when the oil is gone? Will the home of Islam just become another dust covered ruin?

They really need to embrace modernity...

David "sheeple" Healey, Maidenhead, UK
October 13, 2012 6:11am

1250, the end of the golden age is about the time that the Mongols came in and wiped out the Khwarezmian Empire and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate. They also destroyed numerous large population centers and sacked Baghdad and burned the great library to the ground. I think it is likely a combination between Al-Ghazali and the utter devastation the Mongols brought.

Andrew Pennock, Peoria, United States
October 29, 2012 12:06pm

The new generation of Muslims is educated, curios, and hungry to renew the spirit of Islamic discovery into the Muslim world. The mystic brand of Islam has lost its sway, and what remains of it is struggling to embrace a more modernistic world-view. However, without comprehensive political reform in the Muslim world, nothing good will come.
By this I do not mean an imposition of Western secular democracy in the Muslim world. The Muslim world has never accepted this model of government, not even in its heyday. Instead, a just and representative government that both embraces the modern world while embodying the values of Islamic tradition is necessary for the cultivation of a second golden age. I think even Ghazzali wouldn't find that too objectionable.

Khan, Hamilton, Canada
February 4, 2013 2:02am

So the concept of secular democracy hasnt caught on with the "new generation of Muslims that are educated, curios, and hungry to renew the spirit of Islamic discovery into the Muslim world".

Things really haven't changed much have they?

Mud, Sin City, Oz
February 26, 2013 6:01am

If you spend the rest of your life just by reading Al Ghazali; it won’t be a life wasted. ( Hamza Yusuf ) ;

ahmet, karachi
June 30, 2013 5:45am

"They really need to embrace modernity....."

They are - because the West is stupid enough to bestow it upon them.
They're using 21st century Western technology to try and drive the whole world back to the 8th century with all its evils, including "the rule of kings".

If we, in the West, keep ignoring the elephant in the living room, it'll soon crush us.

Of course, if we withold modern weapons and/or technology from them, they'll get "offended", and the lib-left will feel guilty about it and continue to appease them - probably with more and better weapons to make them love us.
I call that High Treason.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
November 1, 2013 12:50pm

@Mud - Considering that the concept of secular democracy didn't contribute at all to the successes enjoyed during the Golden Age, and in addition to the destruction of the Mongol horde, was felled with the ridiculous philosophy suggesting humans can somehow "know God," it was the changes from what they knew in the earliest days of Islam that was primarily responsible for the downfall.

M. Rasheed, Raleigh, NC
March 18, 2014 6:26am

I acknowledge that Islamic scientific interest and curiosity declined as wars and distress forced Muslims to adhere to more urgent matters. But Europe too had its own Ghazalis and similar wars.

So I don't think science in Islamic world just plainly stopped but was instead increasingly on decline and overshadowed by rising European Renaissance due to Gutenberg's invention of mechanical printing which was suitable for latin alphabet, hence enabling the wide spread of learning to the Europeans and created a critical mass of scientists in Western world who started a chain reaction of progress completely avoiding the uneducated Muslim populations.

Anis Matar, Jordan
March 27, 2014 12:44pm

In the golden age of Islam, Muslim leaders encouraged progressive thinking (this is also why Renaissance began in Muslim Spain-and moved on from there after the onslaught of Catholic fundamentalists Ferdinand and Isabella).
Spain became major colonial power under Ferdinand and Isabella;but did not nurture science and other breakthroughs because of fundamental mentality. Spain has been entrapped since then so today it is one of the basket cases of Europe-outside the Basque and Catalonia regions, where entrepreneurial spirit is there in some form (far from area where Renaissance began and led Europe).

Winston, Greenwich
April 7, 2014 12:10pm

How many muslim arabs contributed to the so-called 'Golden Age'? Not many. This should put you out of your intellectual misery:

And the next time someone starts talking about the 'Dark Ages', remember it's a myth:

Muslims like to throw the phrase around because it makes them feel slightly superior, poor things.

VJayJ, London
May 27, 2014 9:19am

Yes, Islam must embrace modernity and it is increasingly apparent that many Muslim are doing so. More and more of today's leading, scholars, scientists, doctors, business leaders, etc., are Muslims, but primarily those living in the west.

For the Islamic world to once again become a major contributor to civilization, Muslims must return to the spirit of their faith as conveyed by their Prophet, Muhammad. During his time and that of Caliph Umar, Islam was a religion of liberation, tolerance, forgiveness, female liberation and above all, it emphasized the absolute necessity of acquiring education and proven knowledge. In short, Islam should connect with the modern world and at the same time, rediscover its true roots. BTW, another factor that must be overcome within the Arab world is the monstrous legacy of western colonialism, including the dispossession, expulsion, occupation and oppression of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs.

David, Toronto
May 27, 2014 10:00am

The Quran does not say that "The scholar's ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs." Please see the following link for an explanation

Glenn Elert, New York
May 27, 2014 5:21pm

"Arab-Islamic" makes complete sense if you want to say that someone is a muslim of arab origin!

Gerry, Portland, Oregon
June 5, 2014 5:14pm

The libraries of Baghdad were not destroyed by Christian hordes -- that is a lie. Christian hordes rushed to Jerusalem. Yes, they did destroy everything in their path, but much of Islamic science was stored far away, in Baghdad.

The libraries of Baghdad were destroyed by Hulagu Khan -- just to teach the Abbasid Caliph a lesson. A trivial ego issue -- the Caliph, Al-Mutassim, refused to pay the right tribute to Hulagu, who destroyed the city, killed the Caliph, razed its libraries to the ground, and killed the thousands of scientists, mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers that the city had accumulated from around the world.

Baghdad did not recover for centuries. Neither did Islamic science. By then, Europe had raced ahead.

If Chengiz had travelled 1000 miles further west, the world's history would be different today.

JustMyself, Springfield, IL
June 26, 2014 7:31pm

It's good to find a more skeptical article about the decline of science in the Muslim world - but a lot of assumptions are still left unturned, and some facts left out. For example, it was not merely the physical sciences that declined - Muslims will straightforwardly point out that the religious sciences of Islam also fell into decline after the tenth century, around the time of the religious wars. Geopolitical factors and 'the weight of an empire' which became riddled with warfare are the major reason of decline - the photographer of HONY recently remarked that in the absence of security, the rest of the breadth of the human experience is unreachable. Not to mention, al-Ghazali himself inveighed against those who rejected the physical sciences (math, etc) - he saw knowing the world and understanding it as a means of knowing God.

Thanks for the read!

Razan, Chapell Hill, NC
January 11, 2015 12:41pm

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