Rise and Fall of Islamic Scholarship

By Syed Aslam

The trend against philosophy and science started well in the in the ninth century by Imam Ibn Hanbal (d 855 CE) and al-Ash’ari (d 936 CE). Imam Hanbal denounced learning and science and waged a holy war against rationalism, so much so  that the streets of Baghdad sometimes  became the scene of rioting and bloodshed. Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari was a strong opponent of Mu’tazili school of thought who supported ‘Ijtihad’ (Innovation) and rationalism. He  also  strongly supported the ideology of Imam Hanbal.  Not many Muslims at that time  accepted them as a  hero and saint and  this  is the reason why the Islamic golden ages of science and philosophy extended another three hundred years.

In the eleventh century al-Ghazali  (d 1111 CE) appeared at the scene who gave rationalism and free thinking the final blow. He divided knowledge into three categories; praiseworthy, permissible and blameworthy which he has discussed in his book Ihya Ulum-id-Din. All learning connected to religion is praiseworthy but any other learning when mixed with other than religion, sometime becomes blameworthy.

His position on the subject  of acquiring knowledge fluctuated with time. In his book al- Mustasfa which he wrote towards the end of his life,  stated that arithmetic and geometry are pure rational sciences and as such not recommended for study. They fluctuate between false and true knowledge that yield no practical application. He saw no usefulness  in the study of physics and said some part of the subject contradicted the Shariah (Islamic Laws) and thus  useless or blameworthy.

As we can see al-Ghazali was very cautious in dealing with mathematics and exact science. During his time every student used to study  all branches of knowledge  both religious and non-religious. He was afraid that a student might be deceived by the accuracy of mathematics and exact science and then generalize and consider all subject  including philosophy and metaphysics of the Muslim philosophers like al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina and others  to be accurate, which he had so vehemently apposed. Thus al-Ghazali set the epistemological course of Islamic thought, both in metaphysics and  in education.

After al-Ghazali  science and learning and rationalist attitude towards ancient Greek philosophy came under bitter attack by the religious orthodoxy. A century later Ibn Rushd (d 1298 CE) an Andalusian thinker and philosopher made a counter argument against al-Ghazali’s idea but could not succeed.  By the end of 12th century anti-rationalist and Ash’arite school of thought had completely routed the Mu’tazili influence and rationalism from Islamic thought. The ancient knowledge, Ulum-al-awa’il (knowledge of  antiquity) were equated with heresy. Many orthodox scholars  referred the knowledge of antiquity by new name, Ulim-ul-mahjura (repudiate sciences). The prominent among them was  Ibn Taymiya (d 1328 CE). He argued that knowledge only can be derived from Qur’an and Sunnah,  everything else is useless or no science at all, even though it might look like science.  Aslamsyed1@yahoo.com


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