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
June 26, 2012
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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 Islamic saying 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this attributed the saying "The scholar's ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs" to the Quran, but it does not appear in that text. - BD
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 dictated 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this said the Quran was written by Mohammed, but it is more accurate to say it was dictated by him to his followers who recorded it. - BD
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Jun 2012. Web.
23 May 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4316>
References & Further Reading
al-Ghazali, A. "Revival of Religious Science." al-Ghazali Website. Muhammad Hozien, 11 Jun. 2004. Web. 16 Jun. 2012. <http://www.ghazali.org/site/ihya.htm>
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.
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