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Flogging a Dead Horse? Revisiting the Question of Intellectual Decline in Muslim Societies

a talk by

Professor Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq,
Professor and Advisor, Department of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts,
Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, Pakistan

Venue: IAIS Malaysia, Jalan Elmu, Off Jalan Universiti, 59100 Kuala Lumpur. [location map]

Date: 26th August 2013 (Monday)

Time: 10:30am

Talking yet again about a general “decline” of rational thought, in particular that of science, in latter-day Muslim societies seems almost like flogging a dead horse. The standard discourse gives us a very simple story—that after “orthodox attacks” on Greek sciences in the twelfth century, following a “golden age” of Arabic intellectual culture, an irreversible decline set in and scientific activity degenerated into a moribund commentary-writing tradition. We are told that the reason is the self-forged “Islamic” as opposed to “secular” outlook of Muslims in scientific maters. On historical grounds, the speaker challenges both prongs of this narrative: One, to look more closely into this very decline thesis—was there really a wholesale decline? And if so, what is the nature of this decline? Secondly, he questions the diagnosis offered by the standard story—was it a question of secular vs. religious? Or does one need to open new historical windows to explain the phenomenon?

Professor Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq is currently Professor and Advisor in the Department of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, Pakistan. He also holds a faculty appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA and serves as General Editor of Oxford University Press book series, Studies in IslamicPhilosophy. Recently, he shared the prestigious Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association for his work in the Cambridge History of Islam of the Cambridge University Press. His writings have also been published by Harvard University Press, Routledge, Blackwell, Ashgate, Brill, among others. He is a Senior Visiting Professor at ISTAC.

Admission is FREE, all are welcome to attend.

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On 26 August 2013, IAIS Malaysia hosted Professor Syed Nomanul Haq of Pakistan to deliver a lecture on, “Flogging a Dead Horse? Revisiting the Question of Intellectual Decline in Muslim Societies”. Prof Nomanul Haq revisited the standard narrative about the “intellectual decline” in Muslim societies, i.e. the thesis that the translation of Greek texts into Arabic marked the beginning of intellectual creativity in Islam, flowering for centuries to produce notable luminaries such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Haytham, only to fall prey in the 12th century to the rise of “orthodox Islam” as exemplified by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s critique of the philosophers in his Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers).

Nomanul Haq offered a different story: intellectual enterprise in the Islamic world did not begin with the translation movement. In fact, that specialised and technical vocabularies in Arabic were available at the disposal of the translators is indicative that a vibrant intellectual culture already existed when the translation began. Indeed, it was the very presence of this knowledge culture that prompted the need for translation, not the other way around. Moreover, it is a serious mistake to think that “translation” is a mere act of transmission—regurgitation if you like. Instead, it involved interpretive and creative exercise on the part of the translator. The rendition of Diophantus’ Arithmetica into Arabic as Kitab al-Jabr (from which the word ‘algebra’ is derived), despite lacking any lexical justification, is but one proof that there has been more than mere transmission at work, but also a “conceptual shift”, reconceptualisation and reconfiguration of the subject matter in question.

Equally spurious is the argument that al-Ghazali’s critique of the philosophers marked the end of philosophy and science. More specifically, critics invoke Ghazali’s supposed “denial” of causality as the very culprit responsible for crippling and paralyzing scientific research by endowing skepticism with theological veneer. But if criticizing philosophers alone is enough to establish guilt, then why blame Ghazali alone—for he was hardly a lonely crusader in his critiques? Why, for one, the halo of respectability over Ibn Khaldun when he too, like Ghazali, was critical of the philosophers, even penning rebuttals in the Muqaddimah itself? Or to take a more “modern” example, David Hume denied causality in far stronger terms than al-Ghazali—why did this not “end” science in Western civilisation?

Ghazali in reality was supportive of reason and rationality, and even wrote on the so-called “rational” or “intellectual sciences”, such as logic and anatomy. What he did censure, however, was the metaphysical suppositions of the philosophers derived from the Greek thinkers for these in the final analysis proved to be unsustainable by their own standards of rational proof and logical demonstration. Ghazali was even known to have asked for our interpretations of scripture to be revised if these conflict with rational thought. Nor did he deny causality, as can be seen from his Alchemy of Happiness.

There is ample evidence to suggest that even after al-Ghazali’s critique of philosophy, Islamic civilization continued to witness numerous contributions. A study by a young scholar, Asad Ahmed on “Systematic Growth in Sustained Error” ably reconstructs the narrative and reveals the richness of post-classical Islamic intellectual history. The works of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, for example, according to George Saliba in Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance, formed the mathematical basis for Copernicus’ theory. Ibn al-Shatir’s model of Venus and Mercury (later taken verbatim by Copernicus), Ibn al-Nafis’ discovery of the lesser or pulmonary circulation of blood, to say nothing of the philosophical works of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) and Sharif al-Jurjani all took place after al-Ghazali. Thus his “attack” on philosophy and causality did not end science and philosophy.

The madaris (singular: madrasah), contrary to widespread myth, taught the rational sciences even up till the 20th century. Yet lack of familiarity with the way in which the sciences were classified partly contributed to such ignorance. Who today would expect geometry to be studied—as it had been—under usul al-din (literally, “the principles of religion”; a variant of theology)?

And this points to an important clue behind the popularity of the aforementioned myths, namely that we have lost our tradition of accessing manuscripts, of engaging primary works instead of relying on secondary opinions and sources. This philosophical tradition includes the glosses, commentaries and super-commentaries which have now become overshadowed and obscured. This has partly to do with technology, but also with the advent of colonialism, which according to Edward Said, creates “epistemological dislocation” in the community of the colonized subjects. Colonialism changes the system of patronage so that local rulers who had hitherto patronized scholarship later became disenfranchised and consigned to the periphery. Colonialism also triggered education “reforms” which transformed Islamic educational theory and practice along European lines. In other words, explanation has to be found outside the realm of thought and ideas, in social and political conditions, rather than in presumed representations of “orthodoxy” if not the whole religion itself.


Contact Information

International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia
Jalan Elmu, Off Jalan Universiti 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +603-7956 9188  Fax: +603-7956 2188 / +603-7956 2966  Email: reply@iais.org.my

Quotable Quotes

The sweetness of life lies in dispensing with formalities. - (Sayyidina Ali ibn Abi Talib)

Humour Without Malice

A bedouin joined the Imam for Fajar Salah. He had an appointment after the prayer but the Imam decided to recite Surah Baqarah (The Cow). As a result of the length of this Surah, the bedouin was delayed and missed his appointment. The next day he arrived early and joined the Imam again, who this time began to recite Surah Feel (The Elephant). As soon as the bedouin heard the word Feel (Elephant), completely angry, the bedouin broke his Salah and left the mosque immediately, shouting "Yesterday you read The Cow and took almost an hour to finish; today you are reciting The Elephant, you will probably finish at midnight."


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