Golden Age of Islam and lessons for today — I


By Akbar Ahmed

The great philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) almost single-handedly restored Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato and Aristotle. Thereby filling in the black hole of knowledge that surrounded Ancient Greece in Europe.

St Thomas Aquinas, the famous Italian Dominican friar, offered a philosophic maxim influenced by Ibn Rushd: “God would never give us reason, then give us divine laws that contradict such reason.” St Thomas respected Ibn Rushd so much so that he simply referred to him as The Commentator and cited him over 500 times. While Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), the great Italian painter, included him in his celebrated School of Athens alongside Socrates and Plato. One American philosopher called him, “the Islamic scholar who gave us modern philosophy”. Contemporary scientists have honoured Ibn Rushd by naming a crater on the moon after him.

Ibn Rushd was just one of the philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam.

Although my article reflects on a time long since past — it still holds much relevance in today’s modern world. After all, we face three global crises which affect each and every one of us. Firstly, there is a global virus that is constantly mutating and re-emerging just as we think we have conquered it. It has already cost millions in lives lost and is poised to remain a source of fear for some time to come. Secondly, the climate change crisis poses an imminent global threat and scientists believe that we may have already reached the tipping point. Thirdly, there is the out-of-control confrontation and violence among different communities and religions across the world. This is not to overlook the growing tension on the world stage between the US and China, which experts warn will lead us into a “dangerous decade”.

All that being said, my article focuses on a remarkable period of world history that historians refer to as the Golden Age of Islam. I need to also point out the irony of how contemporary western culture knows this era as the Dark Ages. World history is understood in the following linear manner: first came the great civilisation of the Greeks and then the Romans; second, the Dark Ages; third, the Renaissance leading to the Enlightenment which created the conditions for America to emerge and shoot ahead like a rocket with its emphasis on science, innovation, and democracy.

The Muslim world of yesteryear that I am looking at stretched from Andalusia in the West, across North Africa and the Middle East, to Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan in the East. As for the time period, this spanned from the reign of Harun al-Rashid in the 9th century to the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongol armies.

Great philosopher Ibn Rushd

A man could travel from Córdoba across North Africa into what we now call the Middle East through Syria and Iraq and arrive in Bukhara. That is, crossing three continents while speaking the same language and broadly encountering the same culture. Similarly, a man could be a Jew, Christian or Muslim and find a home from home in a distant land.

Our philosophers were not scholars isolated in ivory towers. Most of them were men and women of the world and held office while dealing with practical day-to-day matters. The purpose of their studies was to discover ways in which men and women of different religions and backgrounds could live together in peace and harmony. There are excellent books, biographies and videos on these scholars for anyone interested in further research.

The philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam were polymaths and Renaissance Men. They were physicians, engineers, architects, physicists and scholars of the universe; some were accomplished poets. Not only were they producing high quality work— but doing so in quantities that continue to amaze us in our age of high-technology computers. Ibn Arabi was supposed to have written 7-800 books many of them still untranslated and Ibn Sina some 200.

There was high public respect for our scholars in and outside the Muslim world. Roger II of Sicily would not take his throne until his advisor, Al Idreesi, was seated. Elsewhere, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had immense respect for Islamic scholarship. It allowed him to win the contested holy city of Jerusalem without battle as the Muslim rulers held him in such high regard. That incident in the middle of the Crusades provides an example which diplomats and think tanks should today study. For it demonstrates how showing respect and affording dignity to the opponent can win the game.

But what, you may ask, did these scholars achieve?

Here are just some examples of the hundreds of scholars who were writing and researching at the time. Al Ghazali wrote his magnum opus, The Revival of Religious Sciences, of which it was said if all the books of Islam were lost and this alone survived Islam would be secure; Ibn Rushd established the compatibility of faith and reason; Ibn Arabi was hailed as Sheikh al Akbar or the Greatest Sheikh; and Rabbi Maimonides wrote his seminal Guide for the Perplexed, which is still influential in the Jewish community and has much wisdom to share with those outside the community; while St Thomas Aquinas completed his great work the Summa Theologica during this period.

In addition, there were dozens of world-changing scientific breakthroughs like algorithm and algebra and the discovery of the planets, which is why there are so many planets with Muslim names. One of the first men to attempt flight was the Andalusian Ibn Firnas. To honour him there is a bridge in the shape of wings in Cordoba and a crater on the moon bears his name.

Ibn Al-Haytham — known in the West as Alhazen — is widely credited for the invention of the camera obscura, the precursor to the pinhole camera; an idea that would lead to the creation of modern cinema. Al-Zahrawi’s magnum opus is a thirty-volume encyclopaedia of medicine which was translated into Latin and used in Europe for centuries. His pioneering methods in surgical procedures and instruments are said to be still used to this day. The works of Ibn Sina, another physician, were used for centuries after him. Ismail al-Jazari is commonly known as the ‘father of robotics’ and pioneer of hydropower automatons. He invented, among other things: different ways of raising water through pipes; the earliest water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower; as well as the earliest known automatic gates, which were driven by hydropower.

This was an age when good rulers patronised scholars and were often seen in the local central mosque; sitting in the corner after prayers while engaging in earnest conversations with scholars and students alike. Of course, what I am describing is an ideal situation. Some rulers behaved like tyrants and showed no respect for scholars.

One of the great characteristics of that age was the prevalence of what I call the ‘ilm ethos’. Respected scholars were treated like celebrities or even pop stars of our day. It is said that when Al Ghazali spoke — thousands would be in attendance. The ilm ethos came directly from the Holy Quran that exhorts Muslims to acquire knowledge throughout life. Ilm is the most used word in the Quran after the name of God. When I look at the Muslim world’s shamefully low education budgets, I wonder whether the rulers understand the true message of their holy book.

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC and author of, most recently, ‘The Flying Man, Aristotle, and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam: Their Relevance Today’