The spirit of enquiry

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Shahid M Amin
THERE was a time when Muslims led the world in practically all fields of knowledge. During the Golden Age of Islam, from 8th to 13th century, and even later, Muslim scientists and philosophers contributed enormously to human civilisation. Thereafter, the Muslim world went into an intellectual decline. The torch of learning passed into the hands of Europeans. The West has ever since been in the ascendant. The bottom line is that knowledge is power. In recent times, we have seen that many countries that were behind Pakistan in economic development have passed us by. South Korea had sent its officials to Pakistan in 1960s to study Pakistan’s notable economic progress under President Ayub Khan. South Korea decided to place the maximum emphasis on education and, since then, it has gone so far. Many other countries in Southeast Asia have also done well in economic development. The explanation again is education, learning of science and technological progress.
Let us look at the reasons why Muslims had advanced so much during the Golden Age of Islam. There was a willingness to learn. Translations were made of the works of ancient Greeks in science, medicine, philosophy and geography. Knowledge in arithmetic and astronomy was gained from Hindu India. There was a thirst for knowledge. Schools and Madaris flourished. The institution of college was introduced for the first time and the world’s first university was established. An enormous number of books were written. Authors, philosophers, poets and artists were patronized by rulers and well-to-do people alike. Huge libraries were set up in various parts of the Muslim world.
The spirit of enquiry permeated the scholars. This was particularly so in Baghdad where the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) was founded by Caliph Mamun in 832, especially as a centre of translation and mastery of foreign sciences. The Muslims synthesized, elaborated and made their great contributions to human knowledge. Cordoba in Spain became the most shining centre of Muslim learning. At a time when Europe was in the Dark Age, Cordoba was the centre of light and knowledge for Christian Europe as well. For a thousand years, Arabic remained the language of science. Modern learning owes much to the Arabic numerals and the concept of zero.
The decimal system was introduced by Muslims to Europe and became the basis for the scientific revolution. Avicenna was the medical giant, Alkhwarizmi the mathematical genius, Jabir ibn Hayyan the father of chemistry, Ibn al-Haytham the founder of optics, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was the Cordovan philosopher who wielded the greatest influence on Europe. A number of terms used in science today are of Arabic origin: alcohol, alembic, alkali, elixir. Some terms are named after Muslim scholars or their books: algorithm, algebra, etc. Most scholars agree that the renaissance in Europe would not have been possible without the Muslim contribution to the latter’s knowledge.
So what happened that brought an end to the Golden Age of the Muslims? The political reason was the loss of power following the Mongol invasions that also destroyed great centres of Muslim culture like Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. The Crusaders gained control over Jerusalem. The Christian re-conquest ended Muslim power in Cordoba and in the rest of Spain. The cultural and intellectual decline was even worse. Religious orthodoxy became dominant in Muslim societies. With the loss of political power, the traditional religious leaders were left with no influence in any sphere, except religion. They became increasingly dogmatic and strict in their control of religious life. Such orthodoxy destroyed the spirit of enquiry.
Indeed, even before the Mongol invasion, the attack on modernity had begun in Baghdad when the seekers of new knowledge were condemned as bearer of foreign patrimony. A leading Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi explains: “The Muslim world rumbled on towards obscurantism, with its enlightened intellectuals being systematically condemned and people reduced to intellectual apathy.” The Mullahs preached that learning the Quran and Islamic theology was the only knowledge worth acquiring. All other subjects were superfluous or alien to Islam. They were unaware of many verses in the Quran calling on Muslims to think, as well as an injunction of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to “seek knowledge even if it means going to China.” The stifling of Ijtihad (independent reasoning) in favour of taqleed (imitation in thinking) was a key factor in the intellectual decline.
The lesson of history is quite clear. Education is the key to progress. Acquisition of science and technology are the ticket to progress. The world today is like a moving train. The option is either to get on board or be left behind on the platform. This was the message of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He changed the lot of Indian Muslims by imparting modern education, with emphasis on science. Judged by mere numbers, Pakistan has made a lot of progress in education. The literacy rate in 1950 was 14% while in 2012, it was 58%. (But the criterion of literacy is low.) We had one university in West Pakistan in 1947 while there are 73 universities now. But not one university in the whole Muslim world is included in the top 100 universities in the world. Only three Muslims have so far won Nobel Prize for sciences. This is the unhappy state of affairs of education in the Muslim world. The solution lies with us. Make education compulsory and give priority to the study of science. Above all, encourage the spirit of enquiry.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
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