The Muslim Age of Enlightenment was a period of educational, cultural, economic, scientific and intellectual flourishing in the history of Islam. Muslim civilization produced great achievements and an intellectual legacy of a faith that transformed the world. Spanning a greater geographic area than any other, across the eastern hemisphere from Spain and North Africa to the large part of Asia, it became the epitome of scientific development and intellectual influence in the history of human civilization.
Often termed as “The Golden Age of Islam”, needless to say, the concept itself is an outcome of the Western colonial mindset, structured exclusively around the project of Orientalism aimed at dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient. The occident have relied solely on the subjective benchmarks of the Islamic civilization by recognizing only the material dimensions of intellectualism, sciences, art, architecture, and economic prosperity while at the same time divorcing the immaterial and humanising underpinnings of Islamic morals, values, ethics and spirituality. However, in reality, the true golden age of Islam was the period of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his immediate successors wherein every aspect of Islam, as the guidance and framework for ultimate success and happiness in this world and the Hereafter, was most genuinely accomplished, regardless of how its material displays were conceptualized and deciphered by subsequent generations.
Nonetheless, this article would figure out the prosperity achieved in varying fields in the history of Muslim civilization by considering this feat merely as a period of enlightenment than outrightly terming it as the golden age of Islam.
Period and extent
Scholars broadly agree that for much of the medieval period, Islamic societies led the world in both technology and science. While the factors that led to this surge in intellectual output remain a topic of debate, its timing is reasonably well known. From the rise of Islam in the seventh century until the start of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE, the nascent Islamic world produced relatively little scientific output. However, in general, it should be thought of more as a process rather than a discrete period of years with sharp beginnings and sharp endings.
If one is to focus on military and political leadership, for example, the heyday spans at least seven and a half centuries. For them, the period of the enlightenment begins around 750 CE and continues through the inauguration of Bait el Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad in the Second half of the 8th Century CE until the destruction of the latter city by the Mongols in 1258 CE. Other historians extend the period to the 16th Century CE and some even include the period of Mughals as well as Ottomans as well but most regard this timeline as being overreaching and call for a return back to earlier periods of intellectual and scientific accomplishments.
The Islamic Dynasties of the Enlightenment
Many cultures and societies contributed to the flowering of Islamic enlightenment. Central among them were the Persians, the predecessor people of modern day Iran. Persians were the main force behind the creation of the Abbasid Dynasty (750 CE-1258 CE), one of the most culturally sophisticated societies that gave birth to the scientific community. The Berbers of North Africa, a non-Arabic population, played a major role in the scientific development of Islam as did the Fatimid Dynasty (909 CE –1171 CE ) which were contemporaneous with the Abbasids. The Andalusian Dynasties (711 CE to 1492 CE) of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) also played a prominent role. Indeed, the architectural achievements of the Andalusian dynasties made some of the most remarkable, longest lasting, and internationally recognized Islamic contributions even today.
Each of these dynasties and their contribution remains unfathomable. The Abbasid Caliphate built on the Umayyad military, cultural and administrative heritage, but gained more political maturity and was militarily sufficiently powerful and stable to turn its attention to creating scientific and cultural prosperity.
Bait al Hikma or The House of Wisdom
Caliph Al-Mamun is best known for the House of Wisdom, which he is said to have founded and patronised. This solemn conclave or majlis was used to discuss fine points of mathematics or metaphysics and is often portrayed as a kind of Academy of Sciences where scientists and scholars could pursue fundamental research without constraints, thanks to generous support from the throne.
The House of Wisdom (Bait al Hikma) was the starting point of this revolution wherein all the existing knowledge was brought into a single system and was then translated into Arabic and later on disseminated widely across the entire Islamic empire. It gradually became a renowned model to follow across all the Islamic territories, a model that Europeans also imitated later on. Some major cities became intellectual centres for jurisprudence, education, Islamic theology, poetry, literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and techniques, mainly Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Fez, Samarkand, Bokhara, Córdoba and Granada. With the spread of Islam, Arabic became a prominent language of scholarship and religious devotion. Starting from the last centuries of the 1st millennium CE, Arabic language became the vehicle for research work in sciences. Arabic, thus, became the lingua franca of the time.
Several verses of the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions already urged Muslims to seek science and knowledge. For instance:
“Allah will raise in rank (darajat) those of you who have faith and those who have been given knowledge.” – (Surah Al-Mujādilah)
“Say, are those who know equal to those who do not know? Only those who possess intellect take admonition.” (Surah Az-Zumur)
Seeking knowledge is one of the most noble ways of spending time. Abu Darda reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Whoever travels a path in search of knowledge, Allah will make him traverse a path to Paradise. Verily, the angels lower their wings in pleasure for the seeker of knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and earth, even the fish in the depths of the water, seek forgiveness for the scholar. The virtue of the scholar over the worshiper is like the superiority of the moon over the stars. Verily, the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets. The Prophets do not leave behind gold or silver coins, but rather they only leave behind knowledge. Whoever takes it has taken hold of an abundant fortune.”
One of the Prophet’s (Peace be upon him) famous prayer was:
“Allah grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things.”
Fields of Study: Discoveries and Innovations
It is worth mentioning that the scholars produced by the West from the European Renaissance till date have excelled only in a single branch of the study while almost every Muslim personality who contributed to the varying development fields was a Polymath- an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects ranging from astronomy, linguistics, philosophy, natural sciences, mathematics, to theology and spirituality.
In the field of Mathematics and Astronomy, during the 9th and the 10th centuries, Greek scientists such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius were incorporated with Indian sources such as Aryabhatta. Such intellectual encounters led to important developments, such as the decimal place-value system to include decimal fractions, the first systematized study of Algebra (named for the work of scholar Al-Khawarizmi, a scholar of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad), and also many other advances in the study of geometry and trigonometry.
In 770, the Abbasids adopted the decimal system and created ‘Arab’ numbers. They used the zero (sifr: empty) which enormously facilitated operations in comparison to the Roman numerals. The word algorithm came from the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi who published in 825 CE in Baghdad his famous treaty on Indian calculation known by its Latin name, Algorithmide numero Indorum. Then, he published his famous book, “Kitab al Jabr”, which made him the “father of algebra” in which he gave the solutions of quadratic equations. These discoveries had direct practical applications. Al-Khwarizmi himself declared that people need these concepts in operations aimed at evaluating a surface, raising the course of a river, to draw the plan of a building and other practical methods of all types and in all fields.
Political leaders actively supported scientific efforts. For instance, Caliph Al-Ma’mun, passionate of philosophy and science, built an observatory within the framework of the “House of Wisdom”. Islamic astronomy later had a significant influence on Byzantine and European as well as Chinese astronomy. Muslims’ efforts also made extraordinary advances in Optics and Mechanics. For instance, Ibn Al-Haitham, known as Al Hazen in Latin, authored a treatise in optics that influenced subsequent scholars and studied the phenomena of reflection and refraction. He was the first to advance the idea that the celestial bodies emit their own heat.
Islamic Medicine is one of the most famous and best known facets of Islamic civilization, being one of the branches of science in which Muslims excelled the most. Their medical sciences and techniques were part of the curricula of medical schools throughout the world until about a century ago. Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, had a life dominated by the period of great political instability. When he reached the age of thirteen, he studied medicine and mastered that subject. Three years later, he began to treat patients. He then studied logic and metaphysics. His two most important works are The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine. The first is a scientific encyclopaedia covering logic, natural sciences, psychology, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music and the second is the most famous single book in the history of medicine.
Another famous name in the list of Muslim polymaths was Al-Farabi, who contributed considerably to other field of knowledge, but his major additions were related to Philosophy, Logic and Sociology and for which he stands out as an Encyclopaedist. Al Farabi was the first scholar to separate philosophy from Theology in the Middle Ages. He believed in a ‘Supreme Being’ who had created the world through the exercise of balanced intelligence. He also asserted this same rational faculty to be the sole part of the human being that is immortal, and thus he set as the paramount human goal the development of that rational faculty.
At the heart of Al-Farabi’s political philosophy is the concept of happiness in which people cooperate to gain contentment. The Farabian epistemology has both a Neo-platonic and an Aristotelian dimension. The best source for al-Farabi’s classification of knowledge is his Kitab Ihsa Al-Ulum. Al Farabi also participated in writing books of early Muslim sociology and a notable book on music entitled Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music).
Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, known as Al-Ghazali or Algazel to the Western medieval world, was a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic. In Sunni Islamic societies, Al-Ghazali has been referred to by historians as one of the most influential Muslim and named the Mujaddid or renewer of the comprehension of faith or the “Proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam). Al-Ghazali’s critique of twenty positions of falsafa in his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’ (Tahafut al-falasifa) is a significant landmark in the history of philosophy. Others such as Ibn Rushd have cited his opposition to certain strands of Islamic philosophy as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress. Montgomery (1953) explained that he was so successful in criticizing Neo-Platonism that Philosophy never recovered again in Islamic societies. He also brought orthodox views of Islam in close contact with Sufism.
The field of Arts and Poetry also gained trajectory, notably with the contribution of great poet as well as mathematical genius, Omar Khayyam. He became a philosopher of everyday human existence and a lover of the ecstatic. His most notable work includes Sharah-i Mushkil min Kitab al-Musiqi, dealing with the mathematical structure of music.
Meanwhile, other Muslim polymaths such as Yaqut al-Hamawi, Abu Rayhan Biruni, Ibn Battuta, and Ibn Khaldun provided detailed accounts of their journeys and the geography of the regions they visited. One of the earliest geniuses during the Abbasssid Dynasty was al- Balkhi who founded the “Balkhi School ” of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad. Also, the Muslim geographer, Mahmud al-Kashgari drew a world map on a linguistic basis.
Many external invasions such as from Crusaders and Mongols as well as political mismanagement along with other socio economic factors led to the slow decline of an unprecedented multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Islamic civilization. The destruction of Baghdad and the House of Wisdom by Hulagu Khan by the Mongol leader in 1258 CE has been seen by some historians as the end of this Islamic Age. Al-Hassan drawing on the work of Ibn-Khaldun extends the Islamic era of enlightenment up to the 16th century, noting that the scientific activity continued until then. However, some scholars have even challenged these interpretations, instead claiming that Islamic sciences did not decline in the medieval period and pointing to colonialism as the main culprit.
The afore-mentioned works represent only a very small number of illustrations of the triumphs made during pinnacle of Muslim civilization. The 1903 Nobel Prize awardee in Physics, the French physician Pierre Curie, once said, “we splatted the atom only with the thirty books left us from Andalusia. If we could have the chance to examine the hundreds of thousands of books, which had been burned by Hulagu Khan, we would be now playing football between the galaxies.” The uniqueness of this epoch is to be found in its cosmopolitan nature and its diversified sources which culminated in huge advances in all walks of life under the auspices of many enlightened caliphs and visionary intellectuals.
Islam’s forgotten enlightenment was an authentic one and was revolutionary in virtually all segments of human interaction—the justice and tolerance, the arts and humanities, the natural and physical sciences, architecture, jurisprudence, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and many others. These centuries of unparalleled human development occurred while other nearby nations were engaged in internal wars, political conflict, and physical destruction of all things ancient and foreign. The legacy of Islam’s forgotten enlightenment continues to be with us today, albeit little credit is given to Islam and its scholars and scientists for these innovations and discoveries. Thus, it is the responsibility of every sincere Muslim who reminisces the lost legacy of the Islamic civilization to seek true knowledge that concerns the life both in this world and the Hereafter to bring about the Muslim Renaissance.
Ahmed Essa’s Studies in Islamic Civilization: The Muslim Contribution to the Renaissance.
Ahmed Renima’s The Islamic Golden Ages: A story of the Triumph of the Islamic Civilization.
Eric Chaney’s Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Sciences.
Frank Griffel’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Fredrick Starr’s The Lost Enlightenment.
George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance.
M.H Morgan’s Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Scientists.