Islam and Intellectual Advance
Islam came into the world in the bosom of one of the most backward of peoples. In a very short time it had raised those tribes to pre-eminence in every field.
Its greatest miracle was its appearance as a fullgrown adult of the spirit in so degraded and poverty -stricken an environment.
Its second miracle was the raising of that environment, by sheer force of inspiration, without any extraneous aids, to an unmatched destiny.
Its third was to create a cultural focus from which strong waves radiated, stimulating renascence in other peoples of every background throughout the world.
The changes it wrought compose history’s greatest revolution so far, a revolution in sense and sensibility, in thought and intellect, in relations of individuals and communities, and indeed in every department of human life.
By the end of its first millennium Islam stretched from the Atlantic coast of Africa in the west to the Great Wall of China in the east, from the Mediterranean to the Sahara in Africa. In Spain its troops took first Andalusia, then all Spain up to the Pyrenees, and even penetrated the south of France as far north as Tours. All the “Jezirat-ul’ Arab” was of course Muslim. From Muslim Iran and Afghanistan other troops took Sind, the Punjab and the Gobi – and this within a few short centuries.
In all its dominions the principles worked out in the Arab homeland were applied to the new societies under its sway. In particular its justice, equality and brotherhood, humane fruits of its meticulous care for the individual and his place in society, which are the distinguishing marks of Islam, set their stamp on the communities over this entire vast area.
The first task was the overthrow of tyrannies : the second was the establishment of sound Islamic rule and respect for human rights : the third was the illumination of intellect, research and thought: the fourth was the propagating of the faith by its calm appeal to reason and logic and by its profundity and breadth of vision: the fifth – and perhaps the most glorious because the most anonymous-was the infection of other nations, of all creeds and none, with its own superior moral, mental and spiritual outlook.
This last achievement not merely raised the general level of peoples of every religion throughout the world, but also drew many proselytes to itself from the idolaters of Arabia, the animists of Africa, the Magians and Zoroastrians of Iran, and the Christians of Egypt and Syria.
Pre-Muslim Arabia had no trace of culture, no science, no erudition, no economics; for geographical reasons Arabs lived in penury and squalor, the prey of superstitions, isolated from world currents. Islam changed all that, and went on to open the hearts and brains of men everywhere to new possibilities.
In far-off Andalusia a school of scholars, writers, mathematicians, scientific researchers and philosophers arose, inspired by Islam to revive the level of thought reached by the Greeks 1500 years earlier, and to move on up from there to heights never before touched by man.
Modern scholars in every country,. even those whose prejudices would make them prefer to maintain a critical and hostile attitude to Islam, more and more draw attention to the speed of the spread of the Muslim faith, to its beneficent results for mankind’s prowess in thought and study, and the progressiveness of the ideas which it brought to other stagnant civilisations.
It should be noted by all our “progressives” everywhere, that this brilliant advance for all humanity was the concomitant of a moral self-discipline, of an eschewing of the dissipation which follows upon loosing the reins of passion, and of a deliberate control of the creative instincts, which channelled them into works of artistic, intellectual, and social creativity worthy of mature human beings. This inner discipline, which man needs, promotes the inner freedom he desires; and it is one cause of Islam’ s wide dominion over the minds of men of the early Middle Ages. For it offered not merely sounder outward forms of living but reassurance to the inner core of the spirit. It abolished the wild persecutions brought about by purblind bigotry and by narrow-minded fanaticism.
It was for this reason that the Sultan Kemal-ul-Mulk, nephew of Saladdin, talked as man to man, and as scion of the same spirit, to Francis of Assisi when the Saint crossed the lines from the camp of the Crusaders under King Louis, whom the Muslims had halted before Damietta. It was the same universal humanity which caused the vast contrast between Omar’s merciful treatment of the Christians in Jerusalem when he conquered it, and the barbarous massacre of Jerusalem’s Muslim inhabitants by the European Crusaders who took it back for a brief period 300 years later. Islam replaced such savagery with a constitutional rule, a humanely regulated society, an overarching philosophy embracing all mankind.
In Europe’s Dark Ages, while the Church established its power over the different nationalities, and fettered them in restraining bonds in a status quo, Islam was building up a many-sided culture which laid the basis for that flowering of science, knowledge, and artistic and technological creativity which is called the “Renaissance”. This was while the Church was condemning Galileo for confirming Copernicus’ theory of the orbiting of the earth round the sun, and forcing him to his famous recantation: “I, Galileo Galilei, in the 70th year of my age (1633 AD), on my knees before your Reverences (the Pope and Bishops) with the Holy Scriptures before my eyes, take them in my hands and kiss them while repenting and denying the foolish claim that the earth moves, and regard that claim as a hateful heresy,” even while he muttered rebelliously sotto voce “Eppure si muove”.
Yet 500 years previously our own great astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam of Nishapur (floruit 2nd half of 11th century AD, when William the Bastard was conquering England) had provided Iran with the Jalali Calendar which to this day enables us to start our new year not merely on the day, but on the exact hour, minute, and second that the earth terminates one orbit and starts another round the sun at the vernal equinox! How few Westerners know this! They think of him as a poet, though he was an indifferent one, but do not realise that if they had picked up his wisdom they might have avoided all their Gregorian alterations of the Julian calendar, and the loss of their “11 days”!
Roger Bacon (1214-1292 AD) the Franciscans’ “Doctor mirabilis”, was in the reign of Edward I of England compelled to give up the experimental research into science to which his lectures in Paris on Aristotle’s works and in particular on the ” Liber de Causis” had led him’, and was driven out from Oxford back to Paris to be kept under the Church’s eye-an eye too narrow and bigoted to see the wealth of the scientific treasures he was offering them. He was arraigned as a dabbler in devilish and satanic alchemy: and the mob was incited to yell for this sorcerer’s hand to be cut off and this Muslim’ (!) to be exiled.”
Nowadays European and American historians and scholars all recognise and relate the fundamental contributions made by Islam to all modern advances in science, mathematics, technology, philosophy, in many ways of which this brief chapter has only been able to touch the fringe.