Thursday, May 7, 2009

Follow-Up on the Fall of Islamic Civilization

A reader from Bangladesh posted a comment to my post "The Rise and Fall of Islamic Civilization" in which the reader thanked me for my article and asked me to write more about the Fall of Islamic Civilization, which provides me the opportunity to expound on this topic.

My post was a brief explanation of of the late Father Stanley Jaki's treatment on this subject, in which he describes the influence of the ideas of the medieval Islamic philosopher, al-Ghazali, on Islamic science, in particular. I refer readers to Fr. Jaki's writings, which suggest that al-Ghazali's assertion that God is above reason inhibits the development of Islamic science because modern science is dependent upon the acceptance of the idea that God created a rational universe that can thus be observed and understood rationally. I would refer Muslims especially to Avicenna, another medieval Islamic philosopher, who wrote a refuation of al-Ghazali's beliefs about the degree of God's incomprehensibility. The lack of a clear successor to Muhammad as the unchallengeable human authority for the interpretation of the Islamic scripture, the Quran, apparently precludes the definitive settlement of the dispute between al-Ghazali and Avicenna, but it might be worthwhile for Muslims nevertheless to debate the matter, for it could lead to a return of the development of science and technology in Islamic Civilization.

For a civilization as magnificent as Islamic Civilization to decline to such a degree, more than one factor must be necessary, but Fr. Jaki at least explains the decline of Islamic science, which, in turn, allowed the West to gain technological superiority in warfare.

There were likely other contributions to the decline of Islamic Civilization, including many minor issues that those more expert on the subject could identify. I have observed that all empires face the challenge of maintaining control of territory, which is especially difficult in areas where the population is unwilling to be subject to foreign rule. The challenge was made all the more difficult in Spain, for example, where Arab Muslims failed to live up always to their reputation as tolerant of other faiths.

Another contribution to the decline of Islamic Civilization is infighting among Muslims, especially Arabs. In contrast, the Christians were able to unite at critical moments, such as when they formed the Holy League under Pope Pius V in order to prevent the Ottoman Turks from seizing Rome, which the Christians accomplished by a spectacular naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, whereas the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, assisted famously by the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War, led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

The return of the development of science and technology in Islamic Civilization would benefit not only Muslims, but also the West, just as Muslims have benefited from Western technology. But the West would further benefit from an improvement in the quality of life for Muslims if Muslims feel less dependent on Western technology, and less full of despair and inferiority. As the Muslim standard of living rises, trade with the West would increase, which, in turn decreases the likelihood of armed conflict between the two civilizations.

Peaceful coexistence between Islamic and Western civilizations is possible. A successful example is the agreement reached between the Muslim leader Saladin and Christian leader King Richard the Lionhearted during the Crusades, in which to this day a Muslim family maintains the key to the holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and allows Christians access to them. In turn, the local Muslims gain from the commerce generated by the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.

I hope that my discussion about the decline of Islamic Civilization promotes better understanding of the theological foundation of modern science, which would benefit both Islamic and Western civilization.

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