The Rise and Fall of Muslims
Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed
President, Islamic Research Foundation International
For nearly one thousand years Muslims led the world in knowledge and affluence. Today the Muslim Ummah, in most respects, lags far behind the others. What factors are responsible for the rise and fall of the Muslims? Is the West to blame for the relative poverty of Islamic societies or did the Muslims themselves contribute to the present situation?
In its early years, Islam spread rapidly. Within a century, Muslims had conquered the Middle East and swept across North Africa and into India and Spain. The reasons for this expansion were the fervor and the spirit of the Mujahideen, and especially the role of the Umayyad caliphs, who ruled from Damascus.
The main factor for Islam’s success was its ability to transcend nations and races, a common language and its moral code which provided ascendancy over tribal culture, and paved the way for supporting commercial relations, trade and trust between traders. Other important factors were its monetary and accounting systems and legal code, as they were useful in arbitrating financial contracts and disputes. Expansion in trade, as well as the open intellectual environment and freedom of expression of early Islam, precipitated the rise of the Islamic civilization.
The religion’s ability to reconcile monotheism and science heralded for the first time in human thought that theology, philosophy, and science were finally harmonized in a unified whole. The advancement in the sciences was due to God’s commandment to explore the laws of nature. The idea is to admire Allah’s creations for their complexity - to cherish the Creator for the ingenuity. Holding to this belief, Islam’s contributions to science had covered many disciplines including mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. When the Europeans were slumbering in the Dark Ages, the Muslim scholars excelled in philosophical and scientific discourses and development. Compared to other Muslim dynasties, the Abbasid Dynasty, which ruled from Baghdad from 750 CE to 1258 CE, saw the pinnacle of advancement of the Islamic civilization. Muslim scholars made major contributions to mathematics, algebra, astronomy, trigonometry, chemistry, physics and medicine. This was a civilization that had outshined all others in its terms of accomplishments.
Introduction of Arabic numerals provided a pivotal advance over the cumbersome Roman numerals. This more convenient number system accelerated progress in science, accounting and bookkeeping. Key to this progress was the use of the number zero, a concept unknown to the Romans. These numerals were adopted by the Arabs, starting around 750 CE. Around 820 CE the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi used them in calculations. Al Khwarizmi originated “algebra”. He applied this knowledge to contracts, surveying and tax collection. The use of this number system spread throughout the Muslim world over the next two centuries, to serve as a fillip for the development of science. It was fully accepted in Europe after it was adopted by the Italian traders during the Renaissance of the 16th century. They followed the practice of their Arab trading partners.
Decline of Muslims
Muslim scholars argue that Qur’an advocates quest for knowledge of nature by observation, and this inspired the development of scientific enquiry by Muslims. However, in the 12th century when Muslim philosophers began to suggest that truth itself may be revealed by empirical observation as well as from the Qur’an, there was a religious crackdown, the gate of ijtihad was closed, and scientific research largely ceased to exist in the Muslim world. The beginning of the 13th century saw the beginning of the relative decline of the Islamic civilization. This decline was not caused by outside forces, nor due to lack of dedication to Islam. It was caused by Muslim rulers and the Ulema who practiced obscurantism. This is because rejection of science and scientific method, was rejection of what was later to become the main driving force for boosting industrial wealth and prosperity.
Scientific research in the Muslim world declined and the intellectual environment became inhospitable to the open exchange of ideas. There was a feeling in the Muslim world that improvement was unnecessary, except perhaps in the technology of warfare. Gradually, all the advancements known to the Muslim world passed to Europe, where the knowledge was eventually utilized to greater effect.
Another invention of the Muslims, stemming from their advantage in the numeral system, eventually also proved of great benefit to Europe. This was the accounting innovation of double-entry book keeping. It was originally devised to reduce bookkeeping errors.
The bookkeeping system, and its numerical basis became known to Italian merchants through their contact with Arab traders, and later spread through Europe. The innovation of double-entry bookkeeping led to other financial innovations such as promissory notes and bills of exchange in the 13th century. Lesser merchants found that by depositing funds with prominent trading families, they could obtain drafts, which were credible money in distant places. Others found that they were able to purchase at a discount, bills redeemable at a later date. This was an implicit interest rate that for the Europeans did not violate the prohibition on usury.
Prohibition on usury has always been recognized in Islam, where any borrowing or lending of money for interest is considered usury. Western scholars argue that the prohibition of interest in Islam prevented the development of financial markets and institutions that later became essential to the provision of private investment beneficial to the community.
In Islam, the receipt and payment of interest is immoral and is prohibited. However, in later Christian philosophy it was considered that if a person was to lend a sum of money, and forgo any claim on it until a certain future date, then that person was entitled to some monetary reward for that sacrifice. That reward, in relation to the sum, was interest. It was thus considered that only an excessive rate of interest, rather than all interest, could be considered usury. Such an interpretation is prohibited in Islam.
The tax environment in Europe allowed capital assets and also large-scale private investments were then possible. This provided great advantage to European merchants over their counterparts in the Islamic world, as well as in India and China.
In 1258 CE Baghdad fell to the invading Mongols and the Abbasid Empire collapsed. Soon however, three separate Islamic empires rose to replace it - the Iranian Empire, the Mughal Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Islam retained its military prowess for many centuries but it never regained its technological or economic supremacy. Eventually it fell victim to Western imperialism and colonialism. The Muslims simply ignored the technological advancement of the west and were happy with a reaffirmation of Muslim values. While there was resentment of western influence, intensified due to the generally non-Islamic colonial elites imposed on them, there was little desire to emulate the European urge to explore and exploit. Muslims meanwhile, contented themselves with their Islamic sense of moral superiority.
The colonial administrators of Muslim countries often viewed Islamic culture as inimical to development and progress. In the analysis of Western thinkers, Islam’s attitude to material values, to work, thrift, productive investment, honesty in commercial relations, experimentation and risk bearing, and to equality of opportunity, were all unhelpful to growth and development. The choice for Muslim leaders was between “Deen” and “Duniya” or “mechanization”. Mechanization is the act of implementing the control of equipment with advanced technology; usually involving electronic hardware; automation replaces human workers by machines. It appears the Muslims concentrated on “Deen” at the expense of “Duniya”.
The first printing press to serve Muslims was not established until nearly three centuries after its use began in Europe. It was suggested that the Islamic education system with its emphasis on rote learning, inhibited the development of inquiring minds devoted to problem solving. But for too long, the real problem has been avoided and ignored. It has been suggested that the Muslim rulers and the Ulema are the problem. Rote learning does not provide knowledge but rather suppresses the quest for knowledge. In doing so, it does not encourage prosperity but discourages it. It does not benefit society but harms it. Muslims desperately need to break out of the strait-jacket.
Modern prosperity and welfare are indebted to science and technology. In the last two centuries especially, science has delivered better lives for people, longer lives, and provided bliss to larger populations. The key to unlocking the source of these benefits was the scientific method, the relentless search for truth through observation, theorizing and experimentation.
In the 13th century the Muslim world, with its breathtaking advances in the sciences led the world. The Muslim world once possessed in its hands the keys to the future prosperity that technology could deliver. Not only that, but with the invention of double entry bookkeeping, it possessed in its hands the blueprint of the plans for the modern corporation. Eventually, after several hundred years, Europe was able to absorb this knowledge and overthrow the dark constraint of its own religion to unlock the mysteries of science and discover the path to prosperity. If the Muslim world had been able to continue on the Qur’anic commands on scientific research, the cause of human progress would have been advanced by about five hundred years.
(The writer is an eminent speaker and scholar on the interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah in the light of modern knowledge and an Islamic Renaissance activist.