Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History


Juxtapose the Muslim figures who’s thinking has most benefited mankind with the roster of odious Muslims who’s thinking has done the world the most harm.  Here are ten:

  • Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali of Tus (hyper-dogmatic, vehemently anti-intellectual, Persian theologian from the late 11th / early 12th century)
  • Ibn al-Salah (fanatical sheikh of the Shafi’i school in the late 12th / early 13th century; inspiration for Salafism)
  • Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah of Rum [a.k.a. “Sheik ul-Islam”] (Hanbali fanatic in the late 13th / early 14th century; inspiration for both Salafism and Wahhabism)
  • Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Najd [a.k.a. “Ibn Abdul Wahhab”] (Arabian mullah in the 18th century; founder of Wahhabism)
  • Sayyid Qutb (Egyptian polemicist; post-hoc inspiration for the theology of the Muslim Brotherhood)
  • Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (Pakistani icon of Deobandi militancy; inspiration for the Taliban)
  • Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi (Utaybah Hanbali theologian)
  • Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah of Damascus (Syrian Hanbali theologian)
  • Muhammad abd al-Salam Faraj (Egyptian spiritual leader of “Tanzim al-Jihad”)
  • Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri (Egyptian spiritual leader of “The Base”; a.k.a. “Al-Qaida”)

This is, of course, a small sample set of fundamentalists.  But it’s enough to illustrate the present point. (For more on the major impresarios of Salafism, see my two-part series.)  In each case, we might pose the following query: What is the key difference between this man and any of the world’s progressive Muslims?

Note the juxtaposition represented by two brothers in the early 20th century: Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Gamal al-Banna (a liberal Islamic scholar).  These siblings offer an illustrative juxtaposition of how versions of a Faith can diverge from one another under the same aegis: Islam.

Happily, there have been other instances of this kind of (iconoclastic / heterodox) Muslim figure.  Such anomalies have occurred intermittently throughout Islamic history.  Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, numerous exemplars of secularized Islam have shown that Reform is tenable in the modern era.  The ten most notable Muslim reformers of the 20th century:

  • Indian reformer, Syed Ahmed Khan (d. 1898)
  • Egyptian lawyer and women’s rights activist, Qasim Amin (d. 1908)
  • Lebanese American feminist, Afifa Karam (d. 1924)
  • Turkish statesman, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (d. 1938)
  • Kurdish scholar, Abu Bakr Effendi of Arbil (d. 1942)
  • Iranian reformer, Ahmad Kasravi (d. 1946)
  • Indian (Ismaili) statesman, Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (d. 1957)
  • Pashtun pacifist, “Bacha” Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (d. 1988)
  • Lebanese statesman, Rashid Karami  (d. 1988)
  • Egyptian statesman, Farag Foda  (d. 1992)

There have been other minor figures.

Note that Mohammed Abduh (d. 1905) is difficult to categorize, as he was a chameleon.  That is to say, he was many different things to many different people–morphing into whatever happened to suit his purposes at the time: a Sunni, a Shiite, a Sufi mystic, a Freemason, a pagan occultist, an atheist…an imperialist lackey for the British, an ANTI-imperialist advocating for Arab nationalists…  He was a maestro at redefining himself as needed–modifying his rhetoric as the occasion warranted.  His entire life was an ideological kaleidoscope.

Most disconcertingly, Mohammed Abduh was an acolyte of the Salafi ideologue, Jamal ad-Din “Al-Afghani”.  To discern his true colors, one might reference the Salafi boilerplate that Abduh used in his short-lived Islamic periodical, “The Indissoluble Bond”.  As it turns out, even as he paid lip-service to Reform, science, and modernity (for pragmatic reasons), he envisioned a global (pan-Islamic) caliphate. *

{*  Yet upon reading the Wikipedia entry on him, one would be left with the impression that Abduh was a resolute Progressive. (Zoinks!)  This is yet another reminder that Wikipedia is often a dubious source when it comes to ideologically-charged topics.  After all, how much should one expect from a site that consistently allows the North Korean regime (a totalitarian theocracy; Juche) to be labeled “communist” and the theocratic ethno-State of Israel to be labeled a “democracy”?}


If we were to argue that “Bayt al-Hikma” was emblematic of the so-called “Golden Age” of Islam, we would be forced to ignore two facts.

First: As we’ve seen, it was a rather unique phenomenon in the Muslim world–isolated both temporally and geographically.

Second: It was not a unique phenomenon in the world-at-large.  We might note the educational institutions elsewhere in the world during the relevant period (c. 800 to c. 1300).  To name 42 (in order of founding):

  • The Sammatiya “migadaya” at Isipatana [Sarnath] (India)
  • The (Kushan / Buddhist) schools at Gandhara and Mathura (Bactria)
  • The “daneshgah” [academy] at Gondishapur (Persia)
  • The “Sarough” [alt. “Sarouyeh”; library] at Isfahan (Persia)
  • The Neo-Platonist school at Apamea (Syria)
  • The Nestorian schools at Edessa, then at Nisibis (Syria)
  • The Pandidakterion [i.e. University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura] at Constantinople (Byzantium)
  • The (Carolingian) Urbs Regale at Aachen (Germany) 
  • The imperial (Tang) “Small Wild Goose Pagoda” at Chang’an (China)
  • The maha-viharas at Pushpa-giri [Odisha / Orissa in Utkala], Uddanda-pura [alt. “Odantapuri”], Telhara, Vikram-shila, Kuruk-shetra, Taxsha-shila [alt. “Taxila”], and Nalanda in Bihar (India)
  • The maha-vihara at Vallabhi in Saurashtra [Gujarat] (India)
  • The maha-vihara, “Somapura” at Pahar-pur[a] (Bengal)
  • The Preslav literary school; later the Ohrid literary school (Bulgaria)
  • The medical school at Salerno [“Medica Salernitana”] (Italy)
  • Bologna (Italy)
  • Oxford (England)
  • Parma (Italy)
  • Salerno (Italy)
  • Paris [alt. “La Sorbonne”] (France)
  • Modena & Reggio Emilia (Italy)
  • Cambridge (England)
  • Salamanca (Spain)
  • Padua (Italy)
  • Naples (Italy)
  • Vercelli (Italy)
  • Toulouse (France)
  • Montpellier [primarily known for its law and medical schools] (France)
  • Studium Senese at Siena (Italy)
  • Valladolid (Spain)
  • Murcia (Spain)
  • The Mongolian school of astronomy and medicine at Tabriz (Persia)
  • Lleida (Spain)
  • Alcala de Henares (Spain)
  • The school of astronomy and mathematics at Kerala (India)

By the 8th century, the Byzantine Pandidakterion in Constantinople had become defunct pursuant to the Muslim conquests.  Founded c. 425, it had been a school of medicine, philosophy, and law.  Alas, along with most of the Indian maha-viharas, it would be razed by those who insisted that any non-Muslim activity needed to be eradicated.

By the 10th century, the Benedictine monastery at Cluny (France) was a center of civic activity, and served as one of the great storehouses of Europe’s ancient manuscripts.  The institution started admitting female students in the 11th century.  By 1100, Peter Abelard had established a school at Melun (then at Corbeil) in France.

By the 14th century (the first century of the Ottoman Empire), “Bayt al-Hikma” had been long defunct.  At this time, the only active center of learning in the Muslim world was in the Malian Empire under Mansa Musa–specifically in Timbuktu, where he had commissioned the Djinguereber and Sankore masjids (which served as madrasahs). The University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, Morocco may have continued to serve as a madrasah as well; though it is difficult to ascertain exactly what sort of “education” may have been occurring within its walls.

Even then, the great Kannada pedagogue, Madhava of Sangamagrama founded a major school of astronomy and mathematics at Kerala, where major works in astronomy (Jyestha-deva’s “Yuktibhasa”) and even precursors to calculus (Nilakantha Somayaji’s “Tantra-samgraha”) would be composed.

Meanwhile the following major universities were founded over the course of the 14th century:

  • The Guo-zijian [Imperial Academy] at Bei-jing (China)
  • La Sapienza at Roma, Macerata, Perugia, Florence, Camerino, Pisa, Pavia, Lucca, and Ferrara (Italy)
  • Avignon, Orleans, Cahors, Perpignan, and Angers (France)
  • Coimbra (Portugal)
  • Huesca (Spain)
  • Heidelberg, Cologne, and Erfurt (Germany)
  • Vienna (Austria)
  • Charles at Prague (Bohemia)
  • Jagiellonian (Poland)
  • Pecs (Hungary)

By the time the Renaissance went into full swing, institutions of higher learning were opening throughout Europe.  During the 15th century alone, major universities were founded in:

  • St. Andrews, Glasgow, and King’s College at Aberdeen (Scotland)
  • Leipzig, Rostock, Greifswald, Freiburg, Ingolstadt / Munich, Trier[s], Tübingen, and Mainz (Germany)
  • Leuven [Louvain] (Belgium)
  • Lund and Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • Uppsala (Sweden)
  • Aix-en-Provence, Dole, Poitiers, Caen, Bordeaux, Valence, Nantes, and Bourges (France)
  • Basel (Switzerland)
  • Barcelona, Zaragoza, Siguenza, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands (Spain)
  • Turin[o], Catania [Sicily], and Genoa (Italy)

Notable was the (neo-Platonist) Florentine Academy, which spurred an efflorescence in humanist thought in the 15th century–as demonstrated by its esteemed alumni, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Thereafter (during the 16th and 17th centuries), university-foundings across Europe went into overdrive.  I count over SEVENTY more major European universities established during that time–24 in Germany-Austria alone. *  In addition, there were over a dozen others established in the European colonies in the “New World” (listed below).  Meanwhile, major scholarly activity in the Ottoman Empire was dormant–as the Muslim world languished in a sort of religion-induced intellectual torpor.

Also during the 1500’s, the Bibliotheca Palatina was established at the University of Heidelberg and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana was established in Florence.  At this time, pace what little might have remained of the “dar al-kutub” at the Nizamiyah in Baghdad, there were no major libraries in the Muslim world. **

Regarding the 16th and 17th centuries (i.e. the time leading up to the Enlightenment): We might note that there was no equivalent to Michel de Montaigne or Nicholas Copernicus or Rene Descartes or Francis Bacon or Baruch Spinoza or Justus Lipsius or John Locke or Isaac Newton or Gottfried von Leibniz or Leonardo Da Vinci anywhere in the Muslim world.  The (already stark) juxtaposition between Dar al-Kufr and Dar al-Islam was further magnified pursuant to the Enlightenment.

DURING the Enlightenment, if we were to survey Dar al-Islam, there could not be found any equivalent of a Daniel Bernoulli, David Hume, Denis Diderot, the Marquis de Condorcet, Charles-Louis de Secondat [a.k.a. “Montesquieu”], François-Marie Arouet [a.k.a. “Voltaire”], Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, or Thomas Paine.

In sum: Pursuant to the Dark Ages, while intellectual activity in the non-Muslim world was burgeoning, the Muslim world (namely, the Ottoman Empire) was languishing.  It’s safe to assume that while Ottoman Sultan Selim III was attempting–and failing–to enact reforms, not many people within his vast empire were reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Paine’s Rights of Man.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, several universities were founded overseas in European colonies–notably:

  • Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (at Lima) and San Antonio Abad in Peru
  • Thomas Aquinas at Santo Domingo in Hispaniola [Dominican Republic]
  • Benemerita Universidad Autonoma at Puebla and the Royal / Pontifical University in Mexico
  • Thomas Aquinas, Pontifical Xavier, and the College of Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Columbia
  • Francis Xavier in Bolivia
  • San Carlos in Guatemala
  • Laval in French Canada
  • Harvard as well as William & Mary in the British colonies of North America
  • Santo T[h]omas in the Philippines

In other words, during the High Renaissance, intellectual activity flourished more in Europe’s colonies overseas than in the heart of the Muslim world.

{* During the 16th and 17th centuries, the following major universities were founded in Germany-Austria: Wittenberg, Viadrina, Marburg, Strasbourg, Königsberg, Dillingen, Jena, Helmstedt, Altdorf, Wurzburg, Graz, Giessen, Bremen, Hamburg, Paderborn, Rinteln, Salzberg, Bamberg, Duisburg, Kiel, Innsbruck, Halle, and the Prussian Academy of Sciences.  (The University at Fribourg was Swiss.)  The University at Gottingen was founded in 1734; Erlangen-Nuremberg in 1742; Münster in 1780.  Jena in particular was arguably the preeminent University during the Enlightenment.  More intellectual activity likely occurred within its walls than transpired throughout the entire Muslim world.}

{** Some libraries were established in the Balkans and Anatolia during the reign of Murad II (in the 15th century).  During the reign of Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481), Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512), Selim I (r. 1512-1520) and Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), palace libraries were kept at Edirne and Istanbul.}

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