The golden age of Islam reinterpreted

Updated Nov 12 2015

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Asad Q. Ahmed.—White Star
Asad Q. Ahmed.—White Star

KARACHI: One of the laments the Muslim world regularly indulges in is about the decline of the golden age of Islam, an era that saw scientific developments in the Muslim world in the field of science and mathematics, in fact in all rationalist disciplines. Many believe this decline, 1200CE onwards, was caused primarily by Muslim theologian and philosopher Mohammad al-Ghazali. This populist claim was challenged at a talk titled, ‘Islam’s invented golden age and the golden age of Islamic studies’, held at IBA on Wednesday.

Associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Asad Q. Ahmed specialises in early Islamic social history and pre-modern Islamic intellectual history. An undergraduate of Yale, and awarded a Phd from Princeton, Ahmed’s extensive research on rationalist disciplines such as philosophy, logic, and astronomy was a dazzling display in the 50-odd minutes he spoke to an awed audience.

Al-Ghazali, according to Ahmed, is wrongly attributed as the reason behind the decline. “The narrative of decline in the post-classical period of Islam, from the 1200s to the present, is an invention of rather uninformed Orientalist scholarship. In fact, in recent research, we have discovered a rather vibrant tradition sustained well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

With examples of Muslim scholars from the 13th, 14th, 15th centuries, all the way to the 19th, including scholars from the subcontinent, Ahmed argued that science and rationalism in Islam was very much present in the post-classic period, and simplistic narratives rampant need to be “jettisoned”.

The deep slumber of the Muslim world that many referred to as is actually anything but.

Elaborating on the ‘grand golden age narrative’, Ahmed spoke about the initial 400 years of Islam starting from the translation movement when scientific works in Greek, Sanskrit and other languages were translated into Arabic. “It was a time when the rationalist tradition was dynamic, with Muslim scholars absorbing these scientific traditions, naturalising them, appropriating them, and then contributing towards them,” he said.

Some of the popular names of the time include Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi and Ibn Sina. “No one doubts that these scholars made tremendous contributions to the progress of science in the Islamic tradition.”

Ahmed then elaborated on how we are led to believe that “in the 11th and 12th century there were attacks on Islam’s scientific tradition by traditionalist scholars, who are often today also called mullahs.” And chief among these traditionalist scholars is someone called al-Ghazali who everyone believes heralded the sharp decline of the golden age of Islam.

“This version of history is based on a meta-historical attitude that Orientalist scholarship took towards various cultures partly to colonise, partly to write one history against another and without ultimately any analysis of details found in very technical texts in the Islamic tradition.” These texts Ahmed has had access to and thoroughly researched to denounce this narrative.

After summing up this widely-believed narrative, Ahmed then produced textual evidence, in translation, from Ghazali’s Tahafut Al-Falasifah: Destruction of the Philosophers suggesting that Ghazali took issue not with other scientists but only with metaphysicians. This was primarily because of their use of faulty logic, as, in the words of Ghazali himself, there is “neither firm foundation nor perfection in the doctrine they hold; that they judge in terms of surmise and supposition, without verification or certainty.”

However, what does Ghazali have to say when scripture, from the Quran or hadith, clashes with demonstrations of the sciences?

Ahmed says that Ghazali believed that “when the demonstrations of rationalist disciplines differ from the pronouncements of the transmitted religious texts, the scriptural proofs have to be reinterpreted or considered unauthentic.”

“As far as Ghazali is concerned there is no real clash between religion and science,” he concluded.

With the aim that there is quite a bit left to undo this narrative, Ahmed delivered a thoroughly researched talk and this form of scholarly work is a welcome addition to academic circles in Karachi. Unfortunately, due to the highly theoretical nature of his work, some in the audience felt disconnected with the models and frameworks he shared.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2015