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IslamiCity > Articles > How to Deal with Muslim Predicament in the post-colonial era?
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It is this spirit, the unquenched thirst for knowledge, which made Abu Rayhan al-Biruni to ask a question on inheritance law or some other related issue while he was lying on his deathbed. (Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was a great scientist, physicist, astronomer, sociologist, linguist, historian and mathematician whose true worth may never be known.

How to Deal with Muslim Predicament in the post-colonial era?
3/6/2012 - Science - Article Ref: IV1203-5033
Number of comments: 1
Opinion Summary: Agree:1  Disagree:0  Neutral:0
By: Dr. Habib Siddiqui
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The seventh century which saw the rise of Islam also saw Christian Europe enter the Dark Ages. In the western Europe the invading Goths had almost obliterated the culture and technology of the Romans. In the Eastern Roman Empire, centering in Constantinople, the Church had all but suppressed Greek science and philosophy. India was languishing in a period of stagnation; and China, while blossoming richly in the arts, was almost wholly devoid of science.

It was during this period of decline and stagnation that Muslim Arabs, the followers of Muhammad (S) - the Prophet of Islam, became the torchbearers or vanguards of knowledge in our world. They created an Islamic civilization, driven by inquiry and invention, which was to become the envy of the rest of the world for nearly a millennium.

It is this spirit, the unquenched thirst for knowledge, which made Abu Rayhan al-Biruni to ask a question on inheritance law or some other related issue while he was lying on his deathbed. (Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was a great scientist, physicist, astronomer, sociologist, linguist, historian and mathematician whose true worth may never be known. He is considered the father of the unified field theory by Nobel Laureate - late Professor Abdus Salam. He lived nearly a thousand years ago and was a contemporary of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni.)

The jurisprudent was quite amazed that a dying man should show interest in such matters.

Abu Rayhan said, "I should like to ask you: which is better, to die with knowledge or to die without it?"

The man said, "Of course, it is better to know and then die."

Abu Rayhan said, "That is why I asked my first question."

Shortly after the jurisprudent had reached his home, the cries of lamentation told him that Abu Rayhan had died. (Murtaza Motahari: Spiritual Discourses)

Speaking about the Islamic civilization, Carli Fiorina, the former (highly talented and visionary) CEO of Hewlett Packard, said, "Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories; stories of courage, romance and magic. When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others. While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I'm talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent. Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians."

Truly, there is a hardly a field that is not indebted to these pioneering children of Islam. Here below is a short list (by no means a comprehensive one) of Muslim scientists from the 8th to the 15th century CE:

  • 701 (died) C.E. - Khalid Ibn Yazeed - Alchemy
  • 721-803 - Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber) - Alchemy (Great Muslim Alchemist)
  • 740 - Al-Asma'i - Zoology, Botany, Animal Husbandry
  • 780 - Al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm) - Mathematics (Algebra, Calculus) - Astronomy
  • 776-868 - 'Amr ibn Bahr al-Jajiz - Zoology
  • 787 - Al Balkhi, Ja'far Ibn Muhammas (Albumasar) - Astronomy
  • 796 (died) - Al-Fazari, Ibrahim Ibn Habib - Astronomy
  • 800 - Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi - (Alkindus) - Medicine, Philosophy, Physics, Optics
  • 815 - Al-Dinawari, Abu-Hanifa Ahmed Ibn Dawood - Mathematics, Linguistics
  • 816 - Al Balkhi - Geography (World Map)
  • 836 (b.) - Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit) - Astronomy, Mechanics, Geometry
  • 838-870 - Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari - Medicine, Mathematics
  • 840 - Abu Kamil ibn Aslam - Algebra, Mathematics
  • 852 - Al Battani Abu Abdillah - Mathematics, Astronomy, Engineering
  • 857 - Ibn Masawaih You'hanna-Medicine
  • 858-929 - Abu Abdullah Al-Battani (Albategnius) - Astronomy, Mathematics
  • 860 - Al-Farghani, Abu al-`Abbas (Al-Fraganus) - Astronomy, Civil Engineering
  • 864-930 - Al-Razi (Rhazes) - Medicine, Ophthalmology, Chemistry
  • 873 (died) - Al-Kindi - Physics, Optics, Metallurgy, Oceanography, Philosophy
  • 880-943 - Sinan ibn Thabit al-Qurra - Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine, Anatomy
  • 888 (died) - 'Abbas ibn Firnas - Mechanics, Planetarium, Artificial Crystals
  • 900 (died) - Abu Hamed Al-ustrulabi - Astronomy
  • 903-986 - Al-Sufi (Azophi) - Astronomy
  • 908 (b.) - Ibrahim ibn Sinan ibn Thabit Ibn Qurrah - Optics, Astronomy, Geometry, Engineering
  • 920 (b.) - Abul Hasan al-Uqlidisi - Mathematics
  • 912 (died) - Al-Tamimi Muhammad Ibn Amyal (Attmimi) - Alchemy
  • 923 (died) - Al-Nirizi, AlFadl Ibn Ahmed (Altibrizi) - Mathematics, Astronomy
  • 930 - Ibn Miskawayh, Ahmed Abu-Ali-Medicine, Alchemy
  • 932 - Ahmed Al-Tabari - Medicine
  • 934 - al Istakhr II - Geography (World Map)
  • 936-1013 - Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahravi (Albucasis) - Surgery, Medicine
  • 940-997 - Abu Wafa Muhammad Al-Buzjani - Mathematics, Astronomy, Geometry
  • 940-1000 (ca.) - Abu Sahl Waijan ibn Rustam al-Quhi (al-Kuhi) - Astronomy, Mathematics, Geometry
  • 953-1029 - Abu Bakr al-Karaji - Mathematics
  • 943 - Ibn Hawqal - Geography (World Map)
  • 950 - Al Majrett'ti Abu-al Qasim - Astronomy, Alchemy, Mathematics
  • 958 (died) - Abul Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi - Geography, History
  • 960 (died) - Ibn Wahshiyh, Abu Baker - Alchemy, Botany
  • 965-1040 - Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) - Physics, Optics, Mathematics
  • 970-1036 - Abu Nasr Mansur ibn Ali ibn Iraqi - Mathematics, Astronomy
  • 973-1048 - Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni - Astronomy, Mathematics, History, Linguistics
  • 976 - Ibn Abil Ashath - Medicine
  • 980 (b.) - Al-Baghdadi - Mathematics, Advanced Numerical Methods
  • 980-1037 - Ibn Sina (Avicenna) - Medicine, Philosophy, Mathematics, Astronomy
  • 983 - Ikhwan A-Safa (Assafa) - (Group of Muslim Scientists)
  • 1001 - Ibn Wardi - Geography (World Map)
  • 1008 (died) - Ibn Yunus - Astronomy, Mathematics
  • 1019 - Al-Hasib Alkarji - Mathematics
  • 1029-1087 - Al-Zarqali (Arzachel) - Astronomy (Invented Astrolabe)
  • 1044 - Omar Al-Khayyam - Mathematics, Astronomy, Poetry
  • 1060 (died) - Ali Ibn Ridwan Abu'Hassan Ali - Medicine
  • 1077 - Ibn Abi-Sadia Abul Qasim - Medicine
  • 1090-1161 - Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) - Surgery, Medicine
  • 1095 - Ibn Bajah, Mohammed Ibn Yahya (Avenpace) - Astronomy, Medicine
  • 1097 - Ibn Al-Baitar Diauddin (Bitar) - Botany, Medicine, Pharmacology
  • 1099 - Al-Idrisi (Dreses) - Geography, Zoology, World Map (First Globe)
  • 1110-1185 - Ibn Tufayl, Abubacer Al-Qaysi - Philosophy, Medicine
  • 1120 (died) -Al-Tuhra-ee, Al-Husain Ibn Ali - Alchemy, Poem
  • 1128 - Ibn Rushd (Averroe's) - Philosophy, Medicine, Astronomy
  • 1130 (b.) - Al-Samawal - Algebra
  • 1135 - Ibn Maymun, Musa (Maimonides) - Medicine, Philosophy
  • 1135 (b.) - Sharaf al-Din - Algebra, Geometry
  • 1140 - Al-Badee Al-Ustralabi - Astronomy, Mathematics
  • 1155 (died) - Abdel-al Rahman Al Khazin-Astronomy
  • 1162 - Al Baghdadi, Abdel-Lateef Muwaffaq - Medicine, Geography
  • 1165 - Ibn A-Rumiyyah Abul'Abbas (Annabati) - Botany
  • 1173 - Rasheed Al-Deen Al-Suri - Botany
  • 1180 - Al-Samawal - Algebra
  • 1184 - Al-Tifashi, Shihabud-Deen (Attifashi) - Metallurgy, Stones
  • 1201-1274 - Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi - Astronomy, Non-Euclidean Geometry
  • 1203 - Ibn Abi-Usaibi'ah, Muwaffaq Al-Din - Medicine
  • 1204 (died) - Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius) - Astronomy
  • 1213-1288 - Ibn Al-Nafis Damishqui - Anatomy
  • 1236 - Kutb Aldeen Al-Shirazi - Astronomy, Geography
  • 1248 (died) - Ibn Al-Baitar - Pharmacy, Botany
  • 1258 (b.) - Ibn Al-Banna (Al Murrakishi), Azdi - Medicine, Mathematics
  • 1260 (b.) - Al-Farisi - Mathematics
  • 1262 (died) - Al-Hassan Al-Murarakishi - Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography
  • 1270 - Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini - Physics, Astronomy
  • 1273-1331 - Al-Fida (Abdulfeda) - Astronomy, Geography
  • 1306 - Ibn Al-Shater Al Dimashqi - Astronomy, Mathematics
  • 1320 (died)-Al Farisi Kamalud-deen Abul-Hassan - Astronomy, Physics
  • 1341 (died) - Al-Jildaki, Muhammad Ibn Aidamer - Alchemy
  • 1351 - Ibn Al-Majdi, Abu Abbas Ibn Tanbugha - Mathematics, Astronomy
  • 1359 - Ibn Al-Magdi, Shihab-Udden Ibn Tanbugha - Mathematic, Astronomy
  • 1369 (died) - Ibn Katina - Medicine
  • 1375 (died) - Ibn Shatir - Astronomy
  • 1380-1424 - Ghiyath al-Din al Kashani - Numerical Analysis, Computation
  • 1393-1449 - Ulugh Beg - Trigonometry, Astronomy
  • 1412 (b.) - Abul Hasan ibn Ali al-Qalasadi - Algebra

(References: Hamed Abdel-Reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science, University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and Director of Science Heritage Center, http://www.frcu.eun.eg/www/universities/html/shc/index.htm ; See also the books: 100 Muslim Scientists by Abdur Rahman Sharif, Al-Khoui Pub., N.Y; Muslim Contribution to Science by Muhammad R. Mirza and Muhammad Iqbal Siddiqi, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1986.)

With such a train of Muslim scholars, it is not difficult to understand why George Sarton said, "The main task of mankind was accomplished by Muslims. The greatest philosopher Al-Farabi was a Muslim; the greatest mathematicians Abul Kamil and Ibrahim Ibn Sinan were Muslims; the greatest geographer and encyclopaedist Al-Masudi was a Muslim; the greatest historian, Al-Tabari was still a Muslim." The Oxford History of Technology sums it up as follows: "There are few major technological innovations between 500 A.D. and 1500 that do not show some traces of the Islamic culture." Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann, an ex-German diplomat and author, similarly writes, "The European intellectual exploits of the Renaissance would have been unthinkable without Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, al-Biruni, al-Khawarizmi, ar-Razi, lbn al-Haytham, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun." [9]

History before Islam was a jumble of conjectures, myths and rumors. It was left to the Muslim historians who introduced for the first time the method of matn and sanad tracing the authenticity and integrity of the transmitted reports back to eyewitness accounts. According to the historian Henry Thomas Buckle 'this practice was not adopted in Europe before 1597 AD.' Another method: that of historical research and criticism - originated with the celebrated historian Ibn Khaldun. The author of Kashfuz Zunun gives a list of 1300 history books written in Arabic during the first few centuries of Islam. That is no small contribution!

The rise of Muslim rule was dramatic. So also was its decline to the point where in 1492 the Caliph Abdullah abandoned Granada to the conquering Spaniards, "weeping like a woman for what he could not defend like a man."


For the next five centuries while the Islamic civilization declined - politically, economically, socially and culturally, it set all Christendom aglow. Thus, the same period that saw a dawning of the Christian West, sadly, for the vast majority of Muslims living (outside the Ottoman and Mughal Empires) in Asia, Africa and Europe it has been a period of doom and gloom. By the mid-19th century, the Christian West had colonized all Muslim territories except what was left by then of the once powerful Ottoman Empire, setting in motion a process that not only saw the great plunder of immense natural resources but the utter decimation of former Islamic institutions. Nowhere was this destruction or strangulation felt more severely than in the intellectual sector. Consequently, when the former colonizers either had left on their own volition or were forced out in the post-World War II era, Muslims in the newly emerged nation states found out that they have become a nation of zeros. Their excellence in science, arts and literature -- a matter of much national pride -- has vanished and become only a matter of fond memory about a distant and glorious past that has nothing in common with the current harsh reality!

Some years ago a published UN report on Arab development noted that the Arab world comprising of 22 countries had translated about 330 books annually. That is a pitiful number, only a fifth of the number of the books that (tiny) Greece (alone) translates in a year! (Spain translates an average of 100,000 books annually.) Why such an allergy or aversion from those whose forefathers did not mind translating older works successfully to regain the heritage of antiquity, analyzing, collating, correcting and supplementing substantially the material that was beneficial to mankind? Why is the literacy rate low among Muslims when the first revealed message in the Qur'an is 'Iqra (meaning: Read)?' 

How do Muslims get out of this predicament? What strategy should they follow?

Solutions to present-day predicament:

Muslims must look into their past to search for solutions to their current predicament. How did those desert Arabs of Muhammad's (S) time, one of the most unlettered people on earth, technologically far inferior to their counterparts in Persia and Byzantine, once become the proud ancestors of Islamic civilization dominating for centuries half the known world? What characteristics defined them? What attitudes did they have? What did they learn and what skills did they acquire? 

Before Islam, those desert Arabs were the ignored bunch in history left to live a life of ignominy. The cultural transformation in those desert Arabs was brought about by one man - the most remarkable figure in history - Muhammad (S), the Prophet of Islam. The first word of his prophecy was - Iqra. As he preached pure monotheism in Allah, breaking all artificial barriers between men, he taught his people religious ethics and morality -- to shun falsehood, to be just, to do what is virtuous (ma'ruf) and forbid what is evil (munqar). He taught them accountability for their deeds. He taught them how to live a wholesome noble life, and how to die nobly. Thus, like a good teacher, he molded their character. 

The influence of the religion which Muhammad (S) preached to his people did not diminish after his death in 632 CE (11 A.H). On the contrary, it increased year by year through the Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam. Though caliphs came and went, though military commanders were capable or inept, the power of the Qur'an kept the Muslims true to their course and maintained that spirit of unity for which Muhammad (S) had laid the foundations. Racial energies which had been wasted in internecine warfare were turned into channels which led to prosperity and progress. 

As the Islamic empire expanded, conquering newer territories, the Muslim rulers offered better social and economic conditions than those which prevailed. In accordance with the teachings of Muhammad (S), the armies of Islam were careful to abuse neither the countryside nor its inhabitants. In fact, the orders later given by the Caliphs Abu Bakr and Ali (RA) regarding merciful treatment of non-combatants were the first humanitarian steps taken in the history of warfare. Arab rule introduced a more stable situation than any previously known in the Middle East. The condition of the peasants was improved by means of new and more democratic land division and less stringent taxation. Many of the conquered peoples enlisted in the armies of Islam, becoming even Muslims to further advance their social standing. Within a few decades from the death of its Prophet (S), the Arab nation ruled from the gates of India to the Straits of Gibraltar. [6]

As noted by historian Stanwood Cobb, this seeming miracle was the result of various factors, some of which have already been discussed. 'But more than anything else, it was due to the religious zeal which possessed the Muslims.'

The dawn of Islamic culture and technology broke first in the newly founded city of Baghdad, which became the model of an urban civilization that began to spread throughout the Muslim world. Its location on the banks of the Tigris was ideal for Islam's capital city. Profiting by the peace and protection of Islam, merchants traveled safely between India and Egypt, making Baghdad an unrivaled commercial hub. The city grew rapidly. A new and wealthy class of merchants, some of whom attained huge fortunes, came into existence. Their prosperity soon seeped down to even the humblest citizens. The "Kadi", or judge, was available to the lowliest citizen, as in fact even the caliph was at times. A new taxation system, more equitable than that under Roman rule, helped to stabilize the economy. A general exuberance and atmosphere of adventure pervaded the life of Baghdad, which soon came to be known as the land of opportunity, much like what is today promoted in places like the New York City. It was a city that integrated people of all races, creating synergy for greater good for all. Its caliphs were zealous patrons of education and invited scholars from all parts of the world. 'Persians, Greeks and Armenians jostled elbows with Arabs. Christians and Jews were as welcome as Muslims. These scholars were kept busy translating and codifying works of science from the Greek and Aramaic languages. Their emoluments were generous and their prestige great.' [6] 

Baghdad became the focal center of the world's learning. Its caliphs built modern universities, attracting the most brilliant minds, who would later become the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of that Islamic civilization. They erected observatories, thus enabling Muslim mathematicians to correctly estimate the circumference of the globe as 25,000 miles. As these Muslim scientists and engineers resurrected the forgotten or neglected sciences, they also expanded them. 

Those caliphs were a perfect example of practicability. Their zeal for abstract learning did not lessen their concern for the welfare of the humble peasant, the "man with the hoe", upon whose shoulders has always rested fundamentally the burden of civilization. For, they fully realized the importance of the soil and its tillage both as a source of state income and as a means of prosperity and happiness to the masses. Scientific horticulture became a flourishing and progressive practice in all the Muslim caliphates. The whole known world was scoured for new varieties of plants, and the art of irrigation was intelligently utilized to increase production.

In the words of Stanwood Cobb, "Prosperity and culture were not peculiar to the wealthy class alone. For this rapidly growing Islamic civilization was built upon the broad foundations of the welfare of the common people, in accordance with the precepts of the Islamic brotherhood founded by Muhammad (S), upheld by the Koran [Qur'an], and practiced by all the early caliphs. Probably never in previous centuries had the well-being of the masses been so deeply and intelligently considered as it was in all these Islamic caliphates. The new socio-economic pattern in religious and political life gave a dynamic unity to all phases of Muslim activity. The extraordinary rise of the Arabic-Islamic culture cannot be viewed separately from this factor of unity which, beginning on the spiritual plane, reached down to dominate all aspects of secular life." He continues, "All of these factors combined to create a seemingly more harmonious and universally prosperous economic pattern than had existed before the coming of Islam. A proof of the satisfactory condition of the masses during the first few centuries of Islamic rule is that practically all of the Middle East and Persia, ninety percent of the population of Christian Egypt, and all the peoples of North Africa became Muslims. This they did of their own choice, for conversion was never forced upon the conquered."

The cultural progress of Baghdad was copied into all other major Muslim cities. In all these Islamic centers libraries and universities were founded, and schools for the common people were established. Learning and scholarship were highly honored. The new common language enabled scholars to move from court to court in search of career opportunities. Thus a constant exchange of ideas stimulated the focal centers of Muslim culture; scientific advances and discoveries were quickly spread from caliphate to caliphate.

The end result was a glorious Islamic civilization that we are so proud of. Throughout the Islamic Empire education, art and science were unified by a common faith, a common language and common customs. Muslim scholars could travel freely between Bukhara and Xinjiang in the east to Cordova in the west. The extent of this Islamic civilization, as well as the progress and achievements of its component parts proved an inspiration to Muslim scholarship and creative arts.

As Baghdad had been the first of many such Islamic centers to arise in glory, so it was the first to fall into that decay. As in the case of Rome, the corruptions of luxury and the selfish grasping of power by rival political elements contributed to her decline. The justice which had characterized the rule of the early caliphs yielded to an inequitable system of taxation and to corrupt government.

As Muslims search answers to their predicament, so must they retrace their roots and dig those values that were responsible for their glorious past and discard or weed out all those that are harmful. History can again make them wise if they know how to read its truths. If they are to learn from Arnold Toynbee [7], here are some lessons from the Islamic civilization:

  1. Peace is a necessity for cultural advance.
  2. The prosperity of all peoples springs from the soil. Thus, serious attention must be given to agriculture.
  3. The spirit of Žlan or confidence (the 'can do' attitude) under which science can flourish. It is always in periods of enthusiasm and zeal that civilization advances most rapidly.
  4. Devotion of the people to a common language and religion.
  5. Lastly, the establishment of civilizations requires unifying forces. The more unifying the force, the more stable the civilization.
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