Home > Edits & Columns > Reviving a religion’s scientific heritage Rupa Abdi The Indian Express: Thursday, August 02, 2007 Islam requires a reinstatement of the original meanings of knowledge, reason and consensus
In a recent issue of the scientific journal, Nature, Ziauddin Sardar outlines the historical forces that led to the decline of Islam as a rational world view. He argues that the scientific culture in Islam has changed since the golden era of Islamic science. This, contrary to popular belief, is not because the teachings of Islam go against the scientific temper — Ziauddin quotes the Prophet as having said that “An hour’s study of Nature is better than a year’s prayer”. If this is the case, what slowly robbed Muslim culture of science and creativity?
Islam as a way of life represents a holistic world view. Values such as ilm (knowledge) and ijtihad (the quest for sustained reasoning) were an integral part of classical Islam. A gradual erosion of meaning of the fundamental principles of Islam caused the decline of science among Muslim societies, reducing Islam to a one-dimensional faith and arresting social creativity. Science had played an important role in the rise of Muslim civilisations. Trade routes evolved due to developments in astronomy, geography and map-making. The state was the greatest promoter of science, since it depended on it for engineering its cities and wars. The charitable institution of waqf, too, had a broader framework. It received zaqat, the annual payment required from all, and used it for education and alleviation of poverty.
According to Ziauddin, the so-called age of exploration by European powers in the 15th century was actually an attempt to suppress the rising political and economic clout of the Muslim world. In order to ensure dependence, the colonisers introduced their own system of administration, law, education and economy. Thus began the decline of Islamic science. Western education did not recognise Islamic science. The practice of Islam was reduced from broadly holistic to narrowly religious. Ziauddin laments that while the definition of ilm during the classical period included everything from science to art and the ulema constituted learned men including scientists, under colonialism ilm was reduced to being only religious knowledge and the ulema. Religious scholars thus became the central authority on social and cultural matters.
Ziauddin points out that the democratic concept of ijma (consensus) was central to political life. Before making any decision, the Prophet would invite the entire community to the mosque, and a consensus would be reached. Hence ilm ensured that the majority of the community and the ulema was learned, and ijma ensured that a democratic decision was taken. But with the changed meaning of ilm, ijma was reduced to the consensus of religious scholars.
Ziauddin suggests that science will take root in the present Muslim societies if a conceptual shift is brought about in how Islam is perceived and practised — as an integrated way of knowledge, being and doing. Muslims, he concludes, have pride in their scientific heritage, but it is time they got over the nostalgia for the long-departed golden era of Islam.