“Seek knowledge, even if you have to go all the way to China!”
The above is one of the most well-known and oft-quoted statements of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Even though its origins are questionable and not entirely verifiable, it has served as an inspiration for scientific thought and rational ideas in the Islamic world for centuries. Sadly, present-day Muslims seem to be detached from that very rational and scientific learning that once was a hallmark of the Islamic world. According to Science Watch, out of the top 20 countries in terms of overall scientific output, Turkey is the only Muslim representative, with a modest rank of 19. A civilization that had a humble beginning but soon reached the pinnacle of scientific and social learning seems to have come full circle. What exactly has gone wrong?
Pre-Islamic Arabian tribes had their own share of superstitions and lame beliefs: a solar eclipse occurred when a prominent personality died; birds flying in a particular direction signified an impending omen; certain numbers had mystical prowess; and so on. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) announced his Prophethood to the world, he also declared such beliefs as irrational and incorrect. As a result, with the rise of Islam, superstition took a back-seat and eventually, scientific learning became the way of the world. Yet, shortly after the decline of the Islamic Golden Age, Muslims went back to the superstitious and irrational lifestyle that they had abandoned in favor of Islamic iconoclasm. The spirit of inquiry was replaced by blind beliefs, and the result can be assessed from the dismal state of contemporary Muslims when it comes to scientific learning.
Can We Really Blame al-Ghazali? Many scholars have tried to blame al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111) for this shift towards irrational ideas. It is often mistakenly claimed that al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of The Philosophers had a negative impact on Muslim thought. While it is true that al-Ghazali did criticize contemporary philosophers and their modus operandi, he was not against scientific learning as a whole. Basically, al-Ghazali was trying to defend Muslim theology from what he felt was the unjustified encroachment of science and philosophy. Although he criticized the methods and works of philosophers and experts such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Ghazali also insisted on the importance of scientific learning and did not refute empirically valid claims. He did criticize the undue importance that was being attached to the works of Aristotle and Plato, but he also accepted the fact that Greek Classics had paved the foundation for further research and learning.
The claim that al-Ghazali was responsible for the scientific and intellectual decline of the Islamic world is plain speculation and a one-dimensional argument. Blaming an individual for the collapse of learning in an entire civilization is outright oversimplification. As such, by incorrectly holding al-Ghazali liable for the downfall of scientific learning in the Islamic world, we fail to see the real causes behind the issue.
The Real Cause? Towards the later part of the Islamic Golden Age, people started seeking scientific opinion from folks who were not professional scientists. The trend continues even today: when it comes to understanding the Islamic position on affairs such as the Theory of Evolution, most Muslims turn not towards biologists or anthropologists, but instead, they focus on professional debaters and theologians who appear on television. Similarly, when it comes to questioning the Big Bang Theory, or say even comprehending matters such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, the majority of the populace in Islamic lands seeks answers from clerics who give online and television sermons, or at best, from the average newspaper article. Consulting experts and/or reading journals of repute is unknown territory.
What makes matters worse is that most (not all) Muslim theologians refuse to acknowledge the limit of their expertise and repeatedly discuss scientific matters that they know little about. It is pretty common nowadays to see Muslims in mass turn religious figureheads into scientific authority. As a result, it is not surprising that scientific output drops and rational thinking is nowhere to be seen. It is ironic that al-Ghazali, falsely accused of having imposed religion over science, did warn against using religious discourse in scientific spheres. In fact, al-Ghazali compared religious discourse to medicine (needed for good health and sanity), and scientific learning to food (required for sustenance, but harmful if overdone). All al-Ghazali wanted to say was that excess religion could kill scientific aspirations, whereas excessive science could kill humanitarian traits.
When it comes to scientific theories, there exists no ‘Islamic’ position, no matter what your local cleric might put forth. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite: miracles in The Quran have, time and again, stood the test of science and proved to be in assonance with rational learning. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are just an amalgam of hypothesis and experimental data. Science surely does not have all the answers, but religion does not imply that science should be ignored. Running away from logic and rational inquiry is not a mark of one’s faith.
The Universe is indeed vast, and it is only after questioning and unraveling its secrets can one truly acknowledge the Magnificence of The Almighty.