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Catching up
The Muslim world at the threshold of the third millennium

By Fereydoun Hoveyda
October 5, 1999
The Iranian

At the end of the first millennium, the Muslim world was the most advanced and prosperous part of the planet. Its many achievements were the envy of Western academics who flocked its boundaries in Spain, to acquire manuscripts and learn science. Indeed, at the time the West was backward and poor.

In the year 2000, all Muslim nations, Arab or not, rich or poor, are lingering far behind the West and even some developing non-oil producing countries in Latin America and Asia. How can one explain such a total reversal of fortune? To answer this question, one must first understand how and why a very limited number of Bedouin horsemen were able in less than half a century (late 7th-early 8th) conquer a vast empire that became the cradle of a great civilization. Persia and Byzantium, the two superpowers of the era, were exhausted by endless battles; their regimes had become authoritarian and repressive. So it was no surprise that Arab invaders were greeted by natives as "liberators".

Lacking administrative skills, the Arabs adopted local institutions and introduced no change whatsoever in the way of life of the people. Moreover, being a tiny minority they could not establish strict censorship or widespread repression. In the ensuing atmosphere of relative freedom, people resumed their interrupted intellectual activities. Science and philosophy which had languished under the previous regimes flourished anew.

At the same time the Arabs opened themselves to the alien cultures: Greek philosophy; Persian thought; Indian mathematics, etc. For almost two centuries, several philosophical and religious schools existed and their members debated freely. The intellectual effervescence lasted for a couple more centuries. Then, suddenly, by the end of the 11th century in the East -- and the 12th in Andalusia and North Africa -- this great civilization began to lose its vitality.

Many economic, political, social and cultural reasons have been advanced for this interruption. But they had one common denominator: the triumph of ultra-fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran, around the 12th ­13th centuries. A telling example of such interpretations is Asha'ri's thesis (8th century) echoed by Ghazali (11th century ) which can be summed up as follows:

Natural phenomena reflect an order instituted by God who can change it at will at any moment; it is therefore useless and even sacrilegious, to study the laws of nature; life on earth is a provisional station imposed by God as a test; the aim of life is, in fact, the hereafter. One should avoid anything that contradicts that aim and reject poetry, most sciences, and philosophy, and concentrate on theological studies that would aid us in the next world. One can imagine the negative impact of such thinking on the intellectual and scientific life of a nation.

Ghazali condemned thinkers such as Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) while in Andalusia half a century later, the fundamentalist clerics branded philosophers such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) heretics and burned their books. Fortunately, many of their books were carefully gathered by European universities whose scholars pursued the work of now condemned Muslim thinkers and scientists. The famous Italian historian Geoffredo Quadri goes as far as to assert that the Renaissance would not have been possible without Averroes's ideas! In other words, if not for the rising influence of fundamentalists, the scientific and industrial revolutions could have developed in the Muslim world, not in the West.

What had happened in the 12th-13th centuries was tantamount to a collective cultural suicide. The anti-scientific zeal of Muslim theologians reminds one of the ardor of the Christian clerics of the 3rd (and later, the 15th) century in destroying whatever they considered contrary to the Bible and the Gospels. To them only the scriptures ­ not reason -- could save humanity. All truth was contained in the revelations. They burned books, including the writings of ancient Greece. In the 4th century, Emperor Theodosius authorized the burning of Serapeion library.

In the following eight centuries the Muslim world never regained its splendor. There were, to be sure, some notable exceptions. In the 14th century, the North African historian Ibn Khaldun laid down the foundations of modern sociology; in the 15th century the mathematician Ibn Massud made striking advances in calculus; and, as the scholar Marshall Hodgson once noted, a Martian arriving on Earth in the 16th century would have concluded that the world was on the verge of turning Muslim. Indeed, three Islamic empires were shining: the Mogul (India), the Safavid (Iran) and the Ottoman (Turkey). But the Turks in spite of their military victories in Eastern Europe, did not produce any intellectual achievements comparable to those of their predecessors. And the two others fell prey to decadence.

I am therefore baffled when I see fellow Muslims take pride in the contributions of Islamic thinkers in the development of Western science. They forget that these thinkers had been condemned as heretics and rejected by Muslim clerics. The truth is that these condemnations are still in place. The efforts of Ibn Rushd and other philosophers to mend reason and faith are still considered against the will of God. At any rate, the Muslim world has missed the scientific and technological revolutions of the 18th-20th centuries. If it doesn't rid itself of the nefarious influence of fundamentalism, it will remain far behind in the 21st.


Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site ... TO TOP

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