O B S C U R A N T I S M
Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D., D. Sc.
Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Louisville, KY 40292
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462
The rise of the Muslims to the zenith of civilization in a period of four decades was based on Islam’s emphasis on learning. The Qur’an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (SAS) are filled with references to learning, education, observation, and the use of reason. These teachings drove many Muslims to their great accomplishments in Sciences and Medicine and Technology. Some of the best and most eloquent praises of science ever written came from the pens of Muslim scientists who considered their work to be acts of worship (ibaadah). The same motives led to the establishment of Al-Azhar (800 CE), the first university in the world (l). There is nothing in the teachings of Islam that contends against learning, against science, and against technology.
Today one can find that Muslims have become increasingly marginalized. The literacy among Muslims is about thirty to thirty five percent on the average and among rural women it is only about two to four per cent. The status of Muslims in the present world is at the bottom. Economically Muslims are poor, in education they are backwards and in science and technology they are marginal. There must be a deep examination of what has gone wrong. Why non-Muslims particularly in the West have achieved supremacy in every field of human endeavor.
What is the reason that the Muslims have fallen from a position of top of the civilization to the bottom of civilization? One of the reasons or a major reason is OBSCURANTISM. What is obscurantism? Obscurantism is the act of obscuring, or striving to prevent enlightenment, scientific advancement, modernity or to hinder the progress of knowledge and wisdom.
Obscurantism in Christianity (2)
Galileo and the Holy Inquisition
Many scientists in the West believe religions to be irrational, obscurantist and anti-scientific The problem goes back to Galileo, who discovered that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice-versa as stated in the Bible. When he publicized his findings he was arrested by the church on a charge of heresy and threatened with torture and burning at the stake unless he withdrew them. He offered the chance for his accusers to confirm his findings by observation through his telescope. They refused - if the facts were contrary to holy scripture then the facts must be wrong.
The burning times
During the centuries when the church held political power, numerous other investigators of the natural world were tortured to death or burnt at the stake for their curiosity. The early pioneers of biochemistry and pharmacology paid a heavy price. Anyone who was adept at herbal healing (herbology or phytopharmacology) was particularly likely to attract the attention of the church as if he/she practiced Wicca—one variety of witchcraft . Successful practitioners of Wicca were in league with the devil. In most rural communities throughout Europe such expertise was in the possession of elderly women, who were persecuted mercilessly by the Inquisition and other ecclesiastical authorities. These witch-hunts continued until the eventual triumph of reason over obscurantism during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (a period known as the Enlightenment).
A very famous example of obscurantism is the use in medieval Europe of Latin (an otherwise dead language) as the tongue of religious and intellectual discourse both verbal and written. This avoidance of the vernacular allowed the Catholic Church, and its approved adjuncts such as the cathedral schools and the universities, to retain an effective monopoly on the inherited knowledge of the Classical era. This control over the writings of the Greco-Roman philosophers, mathematicians and theologians allowed the authorities to maintain a stranglehold on higher education, scientific inquiry and the direction of European political and moral thought up until the advent of Humanism during the intellectual revolution known to us as the Renaissance. It may seem unlikely that a simple control over whom could read which book allowed the Church to maintain a leading position in Europe for several centuries. However the idea becomes less infeasible when it is remembered that there were quite simply no other sources of information on the wider world available at the time. No one in medieval Europe could gain an education that was not colored and constrained by the doctrine and taboos of the Church. Anything, which disagreed with doctrine, was likely to be either hidden away or destroyed as the work of the Devil. The Church, as keeper of the wisdom of the ancients was final arbiter over truth in medieval Europe and, as in the case of Galileo, could stifle entire ‘unacceptable’ schools of thought if it chose.
The intellectual monopoly of the Catholic Church over Europe is only the most famous example of obscurantism in action. During the same period the presentation of cases in courts of law commonly had to be made in the language of the learned (ie: Latin). This served not only to make cases involving peoples of different nations possible, but also to lend an air of majestic mystique to what was often little more than petty wrangles over money or land. Both the religious and the secular usage of Latin in medieval Europe serves to illustrate something about the nature of obscurantism: namely that it plays upon the ignorance of the person watching, or upon the feeling of superiority he may feel over the ignorant.
The examples cited above were not the only occurrences of obscurantist behaviour in European history however. Aping their social and intellectual betters the trade guilds of the same historical period also resorts to obscurantism as a means of hiding valuable trade secrets from both competitors (ie: non-guild tradesmen) and from ambitious journeymen lower down the guild pecking order. This obscurantism often took the form of classical allusion, mythological or linguistic riddles, which the uninitiated would often not recognise for what they were. For example, an instruction to add the metal of Hermes to a mixture to achieve the desired effect would only become comprehensible if one was aware that in Classical mythology the Greek deity Hermes corresponded to also corresponded to the Roman god Mercury.
Over time self-referentiality within the writings and speech of intellectual associative groups has the interesting side effect of resulting in the creation of new languages (both as linguistic constructs and as written notations). For example, the adoption of various Greek alphabetical symbols to represent constants or unknown quantities in mathematical notation uses these symbols in a fashion which makes no sense if taken in the context of written Greek. However, this is a subject, which can be returned to another time.
At a period somewhat later than the medieval guilds the various alchemical colleges, which arose in Europe in the wake of the Reformation, adopted the same expedients as the Catholic Church and the guilds in order to preserve the anonymity and secrecy of their associations. Like these other organizations they also used language as a means of keeping their knowledge a secret from outsider. In the case of the always contentious and often subversive Rosicrucian and Masonic Orders however the use of heretic language and structured initiation was partially a defense mechanism against infiltration and partly a holdover from the heritage of obscurantism and mysticism within the learned circles of Europe.
It would appear then that there are several causes for the prevalence of obscurantism in various historical periods. The primary reason was the desire to retain certain knowledges within limited circle of people for political, economic or ideological reasons. In an unstable age, where knowledge of certain processes was either a tradable commodity or a source of political and social power, it made sense to make one’s knowledge incomprehensible to anyone not part of your own interest group. Those who had access to a certain body of knowledge thus became able to use that knowledge as either a bargaining chip or a weapon against those who lacked it. The essential motive of obscurantism would thus seem to be exclusion: one is either a member of a charmed circle of Illuminati (enlightened ones), or one is an outsider. Those ‘in the know’ have a vested interest in keeping their knowledge secret, and have the delightful feeling of being party to knowledge no one else understands.
OBSCURANTISM IN HINDUISM (3)
That the Sanskrit language- the language of Gods, has fallen on evil days in modern India is inevitable for, it started in ancient times with evil. The ancient unspoken but perfected language in which all the ancient arts and sciences, literature and liturgy, were enshrined, was religiously made the monopoly of the Hindu priesthood and denied on pain of severe punishment to the layman. It has been stated that if a Sudra (untouchable) attempted to learn Sanskrit, molten lead must to poured into his ears and his tongue cut. …... The monopolistic knowledge of Sanskrit obtained by the priestcraft was used only to maintain religious orthodoxy, Superstitious rituals and ceremonies, and for exploiting the huge masses of ignorant Sudras. We are being told that Sanskrit is the abode of the great Indian heritage and the vastly superior culture. ….. For example, Latin is now limited to some religious services and learnt mostly by the Catholic priesthood. Similarly Sanskrit has been used all along for religious and superstitious purpose and never for the advancement of science, socialism or secularism. It has been used as a mysterious language brought from heaven to exploit the ignorant masses and keep them as low caste Sudras. Kannada and other languages of India stood denigrated and belittled as barbaric native vernaculars.
Sanskrit has functioned all these ages only to encourage religion and its sister, superstition. Sanskrit scholars, including the Shankaracharyas, Jagatgurus, Bhagavans and Swamies were never liberal minded. They saw the finality for everything in its ancient literature and found no need whatsoever for reforms. They never lifted a little finger against the terrible evils of Hindu society. In fact they did everything in their power to keep the evils alive. Nobody gave a thought to abolish inhuman untouchability, sinister caste system, female degradation that included child marriage, unequal marriage, unlimited polygamy and compulsory widowhood. Sanskritist gloated over the denial of education, property and independence to women and Sudras who have been clubbed together for certain purposes in the shastras. There were ‘avatars’ in Sanskrit literature for saving an Aryan Princess or an Aryan family or an Aryan mendicant, but never an avatar to abolish any one of the evils noted above. Even the outrageous custom of Sati, infanticide, human and animal sacrifices, ever excited Lord Vishnu to come down in an avatar to abolish any one to them. In short, Sanskrit has served the purpose of sustaining inequality, division and discrimination. India had to wait for the English educated Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the British Governor General to initiate the first reform in Hindu society and that had to be done in the teeth of severe opposition of Sanskritists.
Sanskrit is a live force for reaction and obscurantism and it must therefore be properly contained. Let me end this articles by quoting Sardar K. M. Panikkar again, He said, “Unless we win this battle against the forces of reaction and obscurantism, of cow worship and astrology, of pasu puja and panchanga puja, we will remain for all our vaunted independence a backward and ineffective nation.”
OBSCURANTISM IN ISLAM
The seeds of obscurantism were laid as early as in 700 CE when a movement of Muslim scholars, known as Mutazillites (748 - 827 CE or 131 - 212 A.H.) who believed that both the mysteries of nature and the religious belief could be explained and expressed in terms of human reason. This provoked the emergence of countermovement called the Asharites who emerged in 900 CE (873 - 935 CE or 260 - 324 A.H.)(4,5). They contested the over-zealous use of reason and condemned it as bidah or innovation in religious belief. In the end the Asharites won, but gave rise to taqlid—the tyrannical attitude of passive paradigm or inertia. Islamic science and medicine truly became a matter of history and the practice of Islamic science disappeared.
Although there were both external and internal causes for the decline of Muslims from their glorious heights, now it is clear that internal factors played a major role. It all started with the suppression of intellectual freethinking, freedom of expression, intellectual growth, unfavorable prejudice against philosophy and other non-religious subjects. The year it started was 1150 CE. In that year Caliph Mustanijid of Baghdad ordered the burning of all the philosophical works of lbn Sina and the Brethren of Sincerity (Ikhwanul Saffa). In the year 1194 CE the Emir Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, then at Seville in Spain ordered the burning of all works by lbn Rushd except a few on natural sciences. After the year 1200 CE, Muslims shunned speculative thought in areas of philosophy, mathematics, science, etc. As the political power of the Muslims declined, they sought that power through the assistance of the Ulema (religious scholars) and traditionists (Muhadditheen) and jurists (Fuqaha) of Islam. They received the needed assistance, but in return demanded the suppression of independent thought. Inspite of all the needed help, it was not sufficient enough to save the Islamic State (6).
As examples of the Muslim religious establishment’s resistance to Science and Technology in the later centuries, one may cite the following (7):
1) The opposition to printing. This opposition succeeded in retarding the introduction of printing (and literacy) into the Islamic World till the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt in 1798 CE - full three hundred and fifty years after Gutenberg’s first printing and dissemination of Bible. In Turkey (apart from a short period between 1729 CE and 1745 CE) printing could not be introduced till 1839 CE for secular books and not till 1874 CE for the Noble Qur’an on account of the opposition of the religious establishment (for details see D.J. Boorstein, THE DISCOVERERS, Vintage Books, New York, 1983). A copy of the Glorious Qur’an printed in Venice towards the end of the sixteenth century, is preserved in the University Library of the Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, India.
2) The blasting of the last observatory in Islam- the Istanbul Observatory in 1580 CE
3) So strong was the opposition of the religious establishment to scientific thought (from 1,000 CE onwards), that one is reminded of Al-Biruni, who was accused by a contemporary divine of heresy when he used the Byzantine (solar) calendar for an instrument he had invented for determining the times of the prayer. Al-Biruni retorted by saying, “The Byzantines also partake of bread. Will you now promulgate a religious sanction against bread?”
4) As an example of obscurantist faith today, note an astonishing publication from a religious scholar (no less than the President of the Council for Guidance and Religious Sanctions of a leading Islamic country) who declared recently in 1982 that any (Muslim) who believes (presumably with Galileo) that the sun is stationary and that the earth is moving around it must be excommunicated and declared a heretic, that he/she should be hunted to death, and his/her property confiscated.
Here Religious Establishment does not Include the great Imams- like Abu Hanifa, Imam Ghazali or Imam Jafar Sadiq, who strongly stressed the value of scientific knowledge for the Islamic community (8). Here it refers to a class of people who arrogated to themselves the mantle of the Noble Prophet (PBUH), without possessing a knowledge of even the rudiments of their own great and tolerant religion (9).
The rediscovery of Islamic science, technology and medicine in the twenty first century is an intellectually formidable task requiring a sustained effort over several decades. The Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. located in Louisville, Kentucky is one of the think-tank organizations deeply concerned and involved in this Herculean task. The first step to be taken for scientific rebirth or revival of Islamic renaissance is ijtihad, to exert the utmost effort, to struggle, to do one’s best to know something. Ijtihad after the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, is the third source of Islamic law. For several hundred years, Muslim countries were colonial countries ruled by foreigners. The Muslim masses were without education and without natural resources and lacked inspiring and guiding leaders who could be compared to the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Without these they could not struggle and could not compete and keep pace with the rest of the world, which has been developing fast. Fortunately, Allah (SWT) has given a bounty to many Muslin countries, an income over 200 billion dollars per year. Hence Muslim countries have the opportunity and resources to make Islamic science, medicine and technology Number one in the world, once again, Insha’Allah. Let us ignite the spark of our great achievements to be materialized in the near future. North America has attracted the most brilliant Muslims scientists, engineers, physicians and other intellectuals from all over the world. Let us contribute to the health and welfare of our less fortunate brothers and sisters living in the Muslim countries by contributing and exchanging our ideas and expertise. The Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc., offers every Muslim intellectual, the platform of discourse and encourages freethinking. The Muslim countries are well advised to communicate their needs: intellectual, scientific, technological and medical to the various Islamic Organizations located in North America including the Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. Through TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals) operated by the United Nations Development Program, visiting professors, scholars, consultants and other exchange programs the Muslim countries can wisely tap the cream of the Islamic intelligentsia, as a beginning or the very first step.
(Excerpted from the book “INTELLECTUAL ACHIEVEMENTS OF MUSLIMS” by Ibrahim B. Syed. 2002 ©, published by Star Publications, New Delhi, India and Islamic Circle-Quran House, Mauritius ).
1) SARDAR, Z.: Can Science Come Back to Islam. Muslim World League Journal, Muharram 1407 A.H./ 1986 p. 24
2) Obscurantism, Archaism and Anachronism at www.Fortunecity.com
3) Dharmalingam, A. M. Sanskrit: A Language of Obscurantism. Dalitstan Journal, Volume 2, Issue 5, October 2000
4) GLASSE, C.; THE CONCISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAM, Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., New York, 1989.
5) SARDAR, Z. Can Science Come Back to Islam? The Muslim World League Journal, 14(1): 22-26, Oct. 1986 (Muharram 1407 AH)
6) DURANT, W.: THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION, VOL. 4: The Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1950
7) SALAM, A.: Scientific Thinking between Secularization and the Transcendent: An Islamic viewpoint, MAAS J. Islamic Sci. Vol. 5(1): 133-150, Jan-Jun. 1989/1409 AH
8) SALAM, M.A.: Islam and Science, Al-Tawhid Vol. IV (4): 61-83, 1407 AH) 1987 CE.
9) Ibid pp. 64, 82.