Ateneo de Davao University

Ateneo de Davao

A closer look at Islamic civilization

Everytime I see in the news the things that Muslims from different parts of the world commit acts of war in the name of Allah (SWT), I no longer react. I just simply get a pen and write or open my netbook and write more about Islam as a religion of peace.

The Islamic faith is a basic guidance for humankind. A Muslim may approach the Holy Qur’an directly and put its principles into daily practice. This is a faith that instructs us to use reason and intellect when we view the reality around us.

When Islam developed in the world, it was a period of golden age. One historian said that, “at one point in time, Islam was a powerful force for change, expanding throughout the world and winning the hearts of the multitudes. Historians tell us that Islamic civilization was the richest and most advanced civilization in the world during the early Middle Ages, particularly in the mid-eighth through the mid-eleventh centuries, and perhaps reached its peak during the ninth century. In comparison,  the culture of Europe crept far behind” (Taslima Nasrin, 2010).

Milestone during the period of Islamic civilization

Most of the libraries in Europe were preserved during this period. Contributions of Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit knowledge available to Arabic-speaking scholars at that time. Scholars know that “medieval Europe received the Hellenic classics that made the Renaissance possible mostly through Arabic translations.

In the field of medicine, Muslim scientists established medicine as a science based on observation and experimentation, rather than on conjecture. The framework for scientific method were also developed.

Moreover, scholars admit that “seventy-five years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), the first of many free public hospitals was opened in Damascus. Asylums were maintained throughout the empire for the care of the mentally ill. In the early 10th century, Spanish physician Abu Bakr al-Razi introduced the use of antiseptics in cleaning wounds, and also made the connection between bacteria and infection. Al-Hasan published a definitive study on optics (the science of light and vision) in the year 965.

Thirteenth-century Muslim physician Ibn al-Nafis discovered and accurately described the functioning of the human circulatory system long before Ambroise Paré. Islamic veterinary science led the field for centuries, particularly in the study and treatment of horses” (Matthews, 2012).

In terms of knowledge production, the Islamic civilization had its own high value contributions. Like in chemistry, “Muslim alchemists (early forerunners of modern chemists) in the 10th to 14th centuries, inspired by ancient chemical formulas from China and India, are famous for the endless experiments they performed in their laboratories. Their goals ranged from pursuit of a chemical elixir bestowing enhanced life, to the transformation of base metals to gold. Although they never succeeded in their ultimate goals, they did make numerous valuable discoveries — among them the distillation of petroleum and the forging of steel”. (Matthews, 2012).

In math, astronomy, and architecture, it said that “Islamic mathematicians refined algebra from its beginnings in Greece and Egypt, and developed trigonometry in pursuit of accurate ways to measure objects at a distance. Muslim scholars also made important and original contributions to astronomy. They collected and corrected previous astronomical data, built the world’s first observatory, and developed the astrolabe, an instrument that was once called “a mathematical jewel.” Islamic architects borrowed heavily from the Byzantine Empire which used domes and arches extensively throughout their cities. An example of this use can be seen in the Dome of the Rock, a famous mosque in Jerusalem”.

In terms of religious tolerance, this period showed how different faith lived together peacefully. The behaviour toward other religions was in keeping with the principles laid down in the Quran.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error.” (Al-Baqarah 256)

(If you are interested to know more please check Encyclopedia Britannica for further details about Islamic civilization)

Most of us may ask, “why did it all end?”

Why did Islam’s Golden Age come to an end? What were the causes that change the socio political landscape in Europe and Middle East? It cannot be answered in one lineal or monolithic view of history. The explanations are complex. However, just a brief over view, “With the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the beginning of the Turkish Seljuk Caliphate in 1057 CE, the centralized power of the empire began to shatter. Religious differences resulted in splinter groups, charges of heresy, and assassinations. Aristotelian logic, adopted early on as a framework upon which to build science and philosophy, appeared to be undermining the beliefs of educated Muslims. Orthodox faith was in decline and skepticism on the rise”.

The world within was controlled by erring theologians turned the tide back, declaring reason and its entire works to be bankrupt. A complete opposite was practiced, “experience and reason that grew out of it were not to be trusted. As a result, free scientific investigation and philosophical and religious toleration were phenomena of the past”. Madrasahs limited their teaching to theology. Worst of it all was that, scientific progress came to a halt.

Some of us may know the story of the Crusades. The European Crusades (1097-1291) assailed Islam militarily and took over Jersusalem. Cordoba, a province in Spain, fell to Spanish Christians in 1236. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1256 (or 1258) the Islamic Empire never recovered. Individual communities drew in upon themselves in feudal isolation. Science and philosophy survived for a while in scattered pockets, but the Golden Age of Islam was at an end.

Well, in terms Mindanao context, during this period was the time of Islamic influence from 13th century onwards. Thus, when we view Islam, we need several different lenses of knowledge. We need to look at it in terms of philosophy, science, and theology to understand its history.