Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History


In enumerating luminaries in the Muslim world, it is important to bear in mind the fundamental distinction between “in spite of”, not “because of”…just as we would in a Christian context.  We don’t thank Lutheranism for the achievements of Johannes Kepler, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and Werner Heisenberg.  Why not?  Because their Lutheran Faith had absolutely nothing to do with their intellectual achievements.  Nor do we thank Unitarianism for the achievements of Joseph Priestley, Anglicanism for the achievements of Robert Boyle, or Catholicism for the achievements of Louis Pasteur. {43}  And what of Presbyterianism?  Are we to attribute the achievements of Thomas Bayes, Lord Kelvin, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell to the proselytization of John Knox (let alone to the fanatical ramblings of John Calvin)?  Of course not.

Let’s start with luminaries outside of Persia.  Here are the twenty most notable (non-Persian) Muslim figures during the era in question (the late 8th century thru 13th century):

  • Wasil ibn Ata of Baghdad (late 8th-century Mutazila founder)
  • Fatima al-Fihri (an 8th-century Shiite, Berber Muslimah who founded the madrasah of Al-Karaouine at Fez, in Morocco) {34}
  • Al-Sabi Thabit ibn Qurra of Harran (9th-century mathematician / astronomer) {35}
  • Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi of Basra [a.k.a. “Alkindus”] (9th-century polymath; a NeoPlatonist who is sometimes referred to as the Father of Arab Philosophy)
  • Abu Abdullah al-Battani of Syria [a.k.a. “Albatenius”] (late 9th / early 10th-century mathematician / astronomer)
  • Abu Kamil Shuja ibn Aslam ibn Muhammad ibn Shuja of Misr [Egypt] [a.k.a. “Abu Quamel”] (late 9th / early 10th century)
  • Abu Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi of Baghdad (10th-century historian)
  • Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Mu’adh al-Jayyani of Cordoba in Andalusia (late 10th-century mathematician) 
  • Abu Hasan al-Mawardi of Basra [a.k.a. “Alboacen”] (late 10th- / early 11th-century political thinker)
  • Abu Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi of Cordoba in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Albucasis”] (late 10th / early 11th-century physician)
  • Abu Ali Hasan ibn al-Haytham of Basra [a.k.a. “Alhazen”] (early 11th-century Fatimid scientist who studied in Cairo, known for his book on optics) {30}
  • Abu Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Said ibn Hazm of Cordoba in Andalusia (early 11th century)
  • Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Naqqash al-Zarqalluh of Toledo in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Al-Zarqali”; “Arzachel”] (11th-century astronomer)
  • Abu al-Salt Umayya of Andalusia [a.k.a. “Albuzale”] (late 11th / early 12 century)
  • Abu Muhammad Abd al-Haqq al‐Ghafiqi al‐Ishbili of Seville in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Ibn al-Ha’im”] (early 12th-century astronomer)
  • Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd of Cordoba in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Averroës” (12th-century polymath) {36}
  • Abu Marwan ibn Zuhr of Seville in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Avenzoar”] (12th-century physician)
  • Abu Muhammad Jabir ibn Aflah of Seville in Andalusia (12th-century astronomer / mathematician)
  • Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl of Granada in Andalusia [a.k.a. “Abubacer ibn Tofail”] (12th-century polymath) {37}
  • “Ala ad-Din” Abu Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi of Damascus [a.k.a. “Ibn al-Nafis”] (13th-century expositor on medicine)

Note the predominance of Andalusians: ten out of twelve between the late 10th and 12th centuries.  (This is a startling geographic concentration considering the Muslim world also encompassed north Africa, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, Transoxiana, and beyond the Hindu Kush.)

The intellectual achievements of NONE of these men could be attributed to religiosity.  Indeed, the most celebrated (Averroës) was held in contempt by the notoriously Reactionary ulema.  Averroës was, above all else, an Aristotelian; and–it might be said–only incidentally a Muslim.  It would be utterly absurd to attribute his intellectual prowess to any orthogonal affiliation he may have had with Islam.

Also of note were the three “Banu Musa” brothers of Baghdad, who were known for writing the “Kitab al-Hiyal” [“The Book of Tricks”] in the 9th century (a catalogue of designs for various handy gadgets). {38}

In the late 14th century, the historian, Abu Zayd Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami of Tunis (a.k.a. “Ibn Khaldun”) made contributions in philosophy of history and sociology (ref. his “Muqaddimah”).  Another notable thinker in Dar al-Islam was the polymath, Taqi al-Din of Damascus–an engineer from the 16th century who’s research was eventually stopped by the chief mufti of Istanbul.  Also from the 16th century was the cosmopolitan Mughal statesman, Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Akbar of Sindh (a.k.a. “Akbar The Great”).

Even during Islam’s so-called “Golden Age”, non-Muslim thinkers of the Orient thrived.  In 10th-century Baghdad, some of the most notable writers were Jewish–as with Sa’adiah ben Yosef “Gaon” and Dunash ben Labrat.  One of the most renown Arab thinkers of the Middle Ages was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who was not Muslim.  (His son, Abu Ya’qub Ishaq [ibn Hunayn ibn Ishaq] was a well-known translator.)  Another notable non-Muslim was the Syriac poet / philosopher, Abul al-Ala of the Banu Sulayman in Maarra (a.k.a. “Al-Ma’arri”), who lived during late 10th / early 11th century.  Al-Ma’arri was was a freethinker who spent most of his life teaching in Aleppo.  A vociferous critic of dogmatism, he prized Reason over claims of tradition and authority.  Reason, he held, was the ultimate moral guide (no need for divine command).  He held that virtue was its own reward; no need for the enticements of an afterlife paradise to motivate good people.  Al-Ma’arri was a critic of the notion of prophets in particular, and of religion in general.  (He not inaccurately referred to the “Hajj” as the pagans’ sojourn.)

Al-Ma’arri is thought to have once quipped that “the inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”  His collection of homilies, the “Fusul wa al-Ghayat” [Paragraphs and Periods] could be considered a parody of the Koran.  Despite his status as a “kafir”, Al-Ma’arri was permitted to write and teach under the (Shiite) Hamdanid regime, who held him in high esteem.  In fact, he was revered as the best poet of his time in the Arab world.

To get a more complete picture of luminaries during Islam’s “Golden Age”, let’s look the most notable PERSIAN intellectuals between the late 8th and 13th centuries.  There are sixteen worth mentioning:

  • Abu Muhammad Abdullah Ruzbeh ibn Daduya of Fars [a.k.a. “Ibn al-Muqaffa”; who spent most of his life in Basra] (late 8th-century author)
  • Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan of Tus / Khorasan [a.k.a. “Geber”; “Gebri Arabis”] (late 8th- / early 9th-century polymath; who is now credited for pioneering work in chemistry, yet was primarily concerned with alchemy and distilling alcohol)
  • Mohammad ibn Musa of Khwarezm [a.k.a. “Al-Khwarizmi”] (9th-century mathematician)
  • Ali ibn Sahl Rabban of Merv / Tabaristan [a.k.a. “Al-Tabari”] (9th-century physician)
  • Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Zakariyya of Rey [a.k.a. “Al-Razi”; “Rhazes”] (10th-century polymath, medical pioneer) {39}
  • Abu Wafa of Buzhgan / Khorasan (10th-century astronomer / mathematician)
  • Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi of Isfahan [a.k.a. “Azophi”] (10th-century astronomer)
  • Abu Nasr al-Farabi of Khorasan [a.k.a. “Alpharabius”] (10th-century polymath)
  • Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmed al-Biruni of Bukhara / Khwarezm [a.k.a. “Alberonius”; a cohort of Avicenna] (late 10th- / early 11th-century polymath)
  • Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn al-Husayn of Karaj (late 10th / early 11th century)
  • Ibn Sina of Bukhara [a.k.a. “Avicenna”] (11th-century Persian intellectual)
  • Ghiyath ad-Din Abu’l-Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam of Nishapur / Khorasan [a.k.a. “Omar Khayyam”] (late 11th- / early 12th-century polymath) {41}
  • Seljuk astronomer, Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Khazini of Merv (12th century)
  • Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hasan of Tus / Khorasan [a.k.a. “Nasir al-Din Tusi”] (13th-century polymath, pioneer of trigonometry) {42}
  • “Mevlana” Jalal ad-Din Muhammad of Balkh / Khorasan [a.k.a. “Rumi”] (13th-century Sufi, Persian poet / humanist)
  • Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr of Isfahan was known for his enhancements of the astrolabe (13th century)

Each of these men further illustrates the distinction between “in spite of” and “because of” when assessing their intellectual achievements vis a vis any association with a religion.  For Muslims to take credit for the intellectual achievements of these luminaries is absurd, if not mendacious.

Until the current (post-war) era, that just about covers it. {19}

After c. 1300, the incidence of scholars in the Muslim world diminished markedly.  There were sporadic figures–such as (Hanbali) jurist, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah of Damascus and French polymath, Levi ben Gerson of Occitania [a.k.a. “Gersonides”] (14th century); then Egyptian polymath, Jalal ud-Din al-Suyuti (15th century).  But on the whole, there was a drastic deterioration in the intellectual activity within Dar al-Islam that occurred just as Europe was beginning to emerge from the dogmatic slumber of the Dark Ages (during its “Renaissance”).

Make no mistake: It is proper to recognize the (fairly limited) contribution of this handful of men from the Muslim world–especially given the circumstances in which they lived (not exactly an incubator for intellectual blossoming).  Meanwhile, we should avoid the temptation to exaggerate their importance.  Indeed, we can appreciate them without indulging in hyperbole.

Let’s be clear: The aforementioned Muslim luminaries were men who put down the Koran / Hadith for long enough to think for themselves (that is: to engage in critical inquiry).  Theirs is a legacy of Progressivism within the Ummah.  It is a legacy that can be continued in the present era pursuant to the ushering in of a Reform Islam.

One thing to remember about Islam’s fabled “Golden Age” is that whatever headway WAS made within the Muslim world–by men who were Muslim by accident of birth–bested the headway made in Europe during the Dark Ages BY DEFAULT.  That is, free-thought (i.e. science and philosophy) was suppressed MORE in the Roman Catholic dominion than it was in Dar al-Islam; therefore the latter fared better in certain respects.  The fact that free inquiry was not suppressed AS MUCH in the Muslim world as it was in the Holy Roman Empire (between the 8th and 14th centuries) does not warrant accolades for Islam PER SE.  (“A was not as bad as B during the Dark Ages” does not constitute an argument for A.)

Many of the men listed above were Muslim simply by dint of the fact that Islam was the only game in town.  That they managed to do what they did is more a testament to them than to any Faith with which they may have been affiliated.  Suffice to say, their enterprise had nothing to do with striking terror into the hearts of non-Muslims (per 3:151 and 8:12/60 in the Koran).  Nor were they concerned with hoarding war booty.  Nor were they spending their time acquiring sex slaves (per 33:50).  They had other things on their mind (thank god).  To what might we attribute this laudable (heterodox) “din”?  There is no simple answer, as the explanations probably vary from case to case.  But one factor that certainly played a role in ALL cases was an emancipation of the mind.  Such stalwarts were not tethered to the dictates of ANY sacred texts.  Not a single worthwhile insight offered by any of them required the Koran or Hadith.  They looked away from religious dogmas for long enough to think for themselves.

The Middle Ages came and went. Francis Bacon wrote a landmark disquisition on the scientific method in 1620: “Novum Organum”. Also in the 17th century were Italian Jesuits like Francesco Maria Grimaldi of Bologna and Giovanni Battista Riccioli of Ferrara.  English scientists like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke made key discoveries.

It is instructive to look at what occurred over the course of the two centuries spanning from the 1660’s to the 1860’s (a.k.a. “the Enlightenment”).  For by the mid-17th century, the European Enlightenment was gathering steam.  In the wake of Spinoza’s earth-shattering disquisitions (esp. “Ethics” in 1677), Michel of Montaigne’s anti-dogmatic essays, René Descartes’ bold forays into rationalism, and Nicolas Copernicus’ “The Harmony of the World” (as well as Galileo’s empirical validation of his heliocentric model), the stage was set for a major sea-change.  Robert Boyle published “The Skeptical Chymist” in 1661. Starting in 1665, the world’s first scientific journal, the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” was published in England.

Fast-forward two centuries; and we find that human knowledge had advanced significantly.  In the advent of Darwin’s disquisitions on natural selection and Mill’s publication of “A System of Logic”, James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz pioneered the science of electromagnetism.  John Stuart Mill published “A System of Logic” in 1843.  Charles Darwin published “On The Origin Of Species” in 1859. By the time Claude Bernard published his “Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine” in 1865, the scientific revolution was well underway.  (It is safe to say that, in proffering his medical insights, Bernard was not using sacred doctrine as a jumping-off point.)

By this time, it was clearer than ever that such prodigious headway was a matter of breaking free from religiosity (that is: bold thinkers who managed to extricate themselves from the dogmatic quagmire that was the Dark Ages).

During this propitious period (between the 1660’s and the 1860’s), we might ask: What, exactly, had occurred in Europe that had not occurred in the Muslim world?  In a nutshell: The Enlightenment.  While Newton (England), Hume (Scotland), Bernoulli (Switzerland), Diderot (France), Kant (Prussia), and Gauss (Germany) proffered a further understanding of our world, Dar al-Islam languished in a sort of intellectual torpor.

And so it went: In the span of two centuries (from Bacon to Darwin), the Occident had made stupendous progress–and was continuing to make progress at an astounding rate.  The progress was enabled by man’s emancipation from institutionalized dogmatism.  Even when it occurred within in a religious milieu, headway was made IN SPITE OF–not because of–any given person’s incipient Faith.

The “in spite of” vs. “because of” distinction is crucial–lest we start attributing Newton’s accomplishments to his fascination with alchemy.  When the devout Anglican, Florence Nightingale composed her “Notes On Nursing” in the 19th century, she did not base her insights on religious dogmas…any more than had Gregor Mendel derived his insights into genetics from his time at an Augustinian abbey.

The Enlightenment was–if nothing else–a process of secularization.  During the same period, Dar al-Islam effectively underwent a retrenchment of religiosity–a doubling down on antiquated principles.  Instead of creative destruction, leaders opted for reconstruction-ism (which is to say: they were regressive rather than progressive).  At the time, a revitalization of Mohammedanism–primarily in the service of Ottoman aggrandizement–was seen as the best way to re-invigorate Dar al-Islam.  Such revanchism was essentially an UN-enlightenment.  Hence it would have been inconceivable for there to have been, say, a Voltaire in the Muslim world during this period.

During the Dark Ages, Christendom stagnated due to being submerged in a dogmatic (read: religious) quagmire. The Islamic “Golden Age” (what I call its Pyrite Age) was a time when the Muslim world triumphed over Christendom BY DEFAULT.  This was not an indication of how intellectually-stimulating Islam can; it was a thunderous reminder of how intellectually-stifling Christian theocracy has been.  For a few centuries, the Orient looked positively marvelous when juxtaposed against the intellectual torpor of the Occident.  After all, mediocre can appear positively stellar when compared to downright awful.  While the Roman Catholic imperium was busy burning most books, Muslims were allowing many ancient texts to be curated.  Such disparities indubitably leave the latter in a far superior light.

However, things don’t appear quite as impressive when Islam’s Pyrite Age is juxtaposed against, say, Song China.  China had been championing rational thought (in both science and law) since the Mohism of Classical Antiquity.  

By the 3rd century B.C., the Chinese had pioneered water irrigation.  The Sichuan engineer, Li Bing of Qin, designed the Dujiang-yan irrigation system–the largest planned public works project the world had ever seen–in the year 268 B.C. {55}  By the 2nd century A.D., the Chinese were using paper.  During the period with which we are concerned here, Chinese technological innovations included gunpowder, water-pumps, the pound lock, the suspension bridge, the cross-bow, the magnetic compass, and–most importantly–the movable-type printing press.  The Song Dynasty surpassed the Abbasids in State-support for public works as well as for research in the natural sciences.

The stagnation of the Muslim world was attributable in large part to hidebound religiosity.  It should have come as little surprise that the Ottoman Empire–addled by an abiding beholden-ness to religious impresarios–would collapse at the beginning of the 20th century…in the face of secularism.


The bucolic, intellectually-vibrant candy-land of Islam’s heyday is a risible farce peddled by the most delusive apologists for hyper-traditionalism in Dar al-Islam. 

The renown of the so-called “House of Wisdom” was based more on the curation / cooption of extant knowledge than on the generation of new knowledge.  As we’ve seen, SOME headway was made (most notably, in formalizing algebra); but few major REVOLUTIONARY ideas emerged.  After all, there was not a single subversive element to be found in that institution’s history.  The boldest thinking in Dar al-Islam ended up occurring in Persia (Avicenna) and Andalusia (Averroës). {13}

Bayt al-Hikma performed a valuable service in preserving some of the works of Antiquity.  Alas.  While curation is a laudable enterprise, it is not the same as creation.  In any case, whatever headway WAS made in the Muslim world, it turns out, was severely circumscribed by doctrinal concerns.  Marked advances were made in optics; yet instead of being used to make telescopes (to further astronomy) or to make microscopes (to further biology and chemistry), such advances were put in the service of more accurately calculating the beginning / end of Ramadan (and the precise timing of daily salat) and for more accurately determining the direction of the qibla (as attested by the use of so-called “zij” guides).  And so much of the intellectual capital that WAS garnered by a handful of stalwarts was heedlessly squandered on sacralized inanities.  It should come as no surprise, then, that, even during its Pyrite Age, Dar al-Islam was still languishing in a geo-centric worldview.

Meanwhile, improvements were made to the astrolabe for marine navigation.  But the nautical device was primarily used to better undertake acts of piracy in the Mediterranean Sea–replete with the largest slave-trade the world had ever seen.  Up until the 19th century, corsairs were attacking ships and bringing booty–including captured humans–back to Al-Jazaʾir (“Algiers”) for sale.

Interestingly, even as Andalusia was the region in which intellectual activity primarily flourished during Islam’s “Golden Age” (pace the “Bayt al-Hikma” in Bagdad), the universities now there were not established until AFTER the “Reconquista” of the 15th century.  That is: Spanish Universities did not emerge until after Islam was expurgated from the Iberian peninsula.  The University at Granada was founded in 1531.  A university would not appear in Toledo until the late 19th century.  And Cordoba would not have a university until 1972. (!)

Tellingly, institutions of higher learning in Baghdad and Damascus would not appear until the 20th century.  The first major school of higher learning founded in the Muslim world was the Ottoman Imperial School of Naval Engineering at Istanbul–established by Sultan Mustafa III in 1773.  The school was dedicated to ship-building and cartography, primarily for military purposes.  There was no other science–let alone philosophy–in its curriculum.

In the 19th century, Egyptian reformer, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi introduced Egyptians to Enlightenment ideas such as secular government, civil rights, and individual liberty; championing ideas of the public good as integral to civil society (in the tradition of European Enlightenment philosophers).  His work catalyzed what has been dubbed the “nahda” (the short-lived, pseudo-Renaissance in the region). {52}

There are inordinately FEW intellectual achievements that came out of the Muslim world during Islam’s heyday–considering its geographical expanse and its duration of time.  In a sense, then, what is conventionally referred to as Islam’s “Golden Age” may be more accurately called its “Pyrite Age”.  After all, it transpired during what is accurately referred to as the DARK AGES.  The epoch’s primary claim to fame concerned imperial power (i.e. territorial conquest). {53}

From MoM’s lifetime to c. 1900, there were under forty noteworthy (intellectual) luminaries in the Muslim world.  Their work occurred in the span of the six centuries–the six centuries leading up to the High Renaissance (at which point, such occurrences within the Ummah virtually cease). {54}  Each of these figures illustrates an important point: Religiosity can transcend the contents of a holy book.  It is important to distinguish between “because of” and “in spite of” when we view people in a religious context.

Religious fundamentalism–Islamic or otherwise–has always stifled the cultivation (and obstructed the procurement) of arete.  The history of Judaism demonstrates this.  The history of Christianity (esp. Roman Catholicism) demonstrates this. {28}  And the history of Islam demonstrates this. {29}  Fortuitously, the rare luminary in the Muslim world looked up from his sacred scriptures for long enough to actually figure a few things out.  Such insights were gleaned primarily on the shoulders of those who “got the ball rolling” from outside Dar al-Islam.

A Reform Islam would enable Muslims to rise above the benighted intellectual morass inaugurated by Al-Ghazali and the Asharites. {3}  However, one cannot work to solve a problem that one does not admit exists.  As I hope to have shown in this essay, one elides the diagnosis for the dissolution of Islam’s “Golden Age” by shifting the blame from an incursion of doctrinal Islam (at the time of the dissolution) to invading foreigner armies (centuries later).  It was fundamentalist Islam, not “Mongol hordes” or a DEPARTURE FROM the Sunnah, that explain the demise of “Bayt al-Hikma” in particular, and the deterioration of Dar al-Islam in general.

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