Don't blame it on al-Ghazali

Academics are correct in pinpointing the exact period in which Muslims began turning away from scientific innovation – the 11th century – but in Abu Hamid Al Ghazali they have identified the wrong person. By Hassan Hassan

By Hassan Hassan

Much has been said about the Golden Age of Arabic science (800–1100), when the Muslim world was the beacon of innovation and triggered Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. Today, the contribution of the contemporary Muslim world to science is in a dismal state. India and Spain each produces more scientific literature than all of the Muslim countries combined. The 57 states' contribution to science globally amounts to no more than 1 per cent and is generally of lower quality.

The question of what went wrong is particularly relevant now as the role of religion in the Middle East is again being pushed to the fore in the wake of the Arab Spring and the consequent rise of Islamists.

Al-Ghazali's remarkable intellectual shift

Academics have long maintained that the great Islamic theologian, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who lived from 1055 to 1111, single-handedly steered Islamic culture away from independent scientific inquiry towards religious fundamentalism.

Al-Ghazali was a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic. His work marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of the 'falasifa', a group of Islamic philosophers who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Pictured: Supposed mausoleum of Al-Ghazali in Tus, Iran

​​In a remarkable intellectual shift, he concluded that falsafa (which literally means philosophy but included logic, mathematics and physics) was incompatible with Islam.

After writing his book, The Incoherence of Philosophers, Algazel as he was known in medieval Europe, is said to have "stabbed falsafa in such a manner that it could not rise again in the Muslim world". Thanks to his unparalleled mastery of falsafa and Islamic theology, he injected repugnance among Muslims for science that ultimately led to its decline and, in the process, the decline of Islamic civilisation.

Or at least, this is what academics and Orientalists have argued for over a century. I believe this assessment is misinformed.

Cherchez Nizam al-Mulk

Academics are correct in pinpointing the exact period in which Muslims began turning away from scientific innovation – the 11th century – but they have identified the wrong person. Abu Ali al-Hassan al-Tusi (1018–1092), better known as Nizam al-Mulk, the grand vizier of the Seljuq dynasty, was in fact the driving force.

Nizam al-Mulk had created a system of education known as "Nizamiyah" that focused on religious studies at the expense of independent inquiry. For the first time in Islamic history, religious studies became institutionalised and religious studies were seen as a more lucrative career path. Previously, sciences and Islamic law were intertwined.

The "true culprit": Nizam Al Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire, had created a system of education known as "Nizamiyah" that focused on religious studies at the expense of independent inquiry

​​Not only did Nizamiyah colleges focus on religion but they also adopted a narrow Sunni interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence as the source of curricula: the Shafi'i school. The choice was not arbitrary. The Shafi'i school focused on the fundamentalist principles of Sharia and disdained the rationalist approach that had gained momentum during the reigns of Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty and the Baghdad-based Abbasid dynasty.

Academically countering non-Sunni currents

Shia Islam was gaining prominence and Batiniyya (groups that adhered to esoteric interpretations of Sharia) began to take root in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. The purpose of Nizamiyah colleges, where al-Ghazali taught but later left, was to counter those growing non-Sunni currents. Nizamiyah colleges were established in major cities under the control of the Abbasids or Seljuks (rulers who were nominally loyal to the Abbasids), including Baghdad, Isfahan, and areas where Shiites formed majorities at the time such as in Basra and the Syrian region of al-Jazira.

Scholars at the time noted the tendency of students to leave their traditional schools to study religion at the colleges. Some Sunni clerics also complained that many had adopted the Shafi'i school as their religious affiliation. Graduates were given priority in key government jobs, namely in the judiciary, hisbah (Sharia enforcement or police) and fiqh (jurisprudence). Nizamiyah colleges were the Ivy League colleges of the 12th century. Scholars graduating from the colleges were armed with argumentative skills to battle the Batiniyya whenever they found them.

Abbasid guardians of science

It was the Nizamiyah colleges which operated for over four centuries, together with the financial and political backing of the powerful Seljuq dynasty, that diverted Muslims towards religion. Dynasties that came after the Seljuqs followed suit, in supporting a specific strand of Islam. Other factors played a role. The Abbasid dynasty, which was the guardian of science, was in decline and the Islamic world splintered into several kingdoms. Religious intolerance started to entrench and scientific inquiry declined.

Al-Ghazali's critique of falsafa was in fact meant to encourage critical thinking. He is arguably the earliest scholar to advocate separation of social sciences from natural science. He argued that some fundamentalists, who perceive falsafa to be incompatible with religion, tend to categorically reject all views adopted by "philosophers", including scientific fact like the lunar and solar eclipse. And when that person is later persuaded of a certain view, he tends to blindly accept all other views held by philosophers.

The medieval Arab 'Ivy League': Under the Abbasid dynasty, the arts and science flororished. But under the Seljuq dynasty, Nizamiyah colleges repudiated rationalism and independent inquiry

​​Al-Ghazali, in the introduction of the book, described this type of people as "believers by imitation, who rush to accept falsehood without verification and inquiry". He added that the purpose of the book is to "pinpoint the incoherence of [the philosophers'] creed and the contradiction of their words, with regard to theology, and to point out the vicissitudes and shortcomings of their way of thinking".

Religious colleges impeding progress

He distinguished between philosophy and logic on one hand and physics and mathematics on the other. That is the "incoherence" in falsafa that al-Ghazali set out to dissect in his book. The idea that al-Ghazali created repugnance among Muslims to science has been put forward by modern academics. No Muslim scholar at the time had advocated views against science because of al-Ghazali's thesis.

On the contrary, even his contemporaries noted that al-Ghazali remained loyal to philosophy till the day he died. They noted after his death that "our master swallowed philosophy and could not throw it up".

The colleges, on the other hand, stifled scientific innovation by focusing on religious studies to achieve a political end. Their legacy continues today. They are widely praised by Sunni clerics for their role in restraining the influence of Batiniyya and the dominance of Sunni Islam. Those in the contemporary Muslim world that disdain innovation share a distinct quality with the Nizamiyya colleges: being sectarian who obsess about cleansing Islam of any newfangled practices.

There is no one reason for the decline of Islamic scientific inquiry. But it is important to highlight the colossal role the Nizamiyya colleges played in impeding progress, as the role of Islam is yet again under scrutiny and religious intolerance rising to the surface.

Hassan Hassan

© 2013

Hassan Hassan is a columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and a contributor for The Guardian, Foreign Policy and Carnegie Endowment. He graduated from the University of Nottingham, the UK, with MA in International Relations.