Islamic Perspectives

Is renaissance possible in the Islamic World today?-i

Why have I put a question mark? Is there doubt about it? Yes, very much. It would be too simplistic to assume that the potential for such a change already exists and that it is only a push that is needed to bring about renaissance in the Islamic world. It did not happen even in the 19th century when conditions were more favourable, if not outright congenial.

Very complex forces are working in the contemporary world to allow this kind of change. Any simplistic assumption would not help. I myself stand for renaissance and would like to be in the forefront of any such movement but I refuse to yield to oversimplifying things which later will only lead to frustration.

 What is renaissance? Renaissance was, to begin with, a literary and architectural movement which began in Florence, Italy in early 16th century. The classical forms prevalent in early Greek period were adopted and they became quite popular. Soon it spread to many European cities. It was forms adopted from pre-Christian period, in fact from Roman period when humanistic philosophies were prevalent and no doctrinal constraints prevented free thought and expression.

 It was so because Christianity, under Roman influences, became more superstitious and became an organised church. Catholic church had become highly authoritarian. It imposed so many doctrinal constraints; hence renaissance movement came as a great relief, especially for creative writers, painters and architects. It was a period when a new consciousness was emerging in Europe and great writers, painters and architects were involved in ushering in this movement.

The conditions were very different in Islam and Islamic world. Islam came to create a new consciousness, almost revolutionary in approach, with great emphasis on justice and equality. It brought an era of knowledge so much so that the leading thinkers of the time described everything that existed before Islam as an era of ignorance and darkness. The conditions obtaining in Rome before Christianity were very different from the one that obtained in Arabia before Islam.

The Arabs hardly had knowledge of philosophy or science or arts or architecture before Islam. Most of them could not even count beyond a hundred. In all, there were not more than 12 persons in Mecca who could read and write. They were highly proficient only in one form of art, i.e., poetry and they had developed their oratorial skills. That is why when Islam came into existence with its great emphasis on knowledge, the pre-Islamic era was described by Arabs as an era of darkness and ignorance.

 Thus they had hardly anything to learn and revive from the pre-Islamic Arab traditions except poetry and oratory. It was done during the Umayyad period when pre-Islamic poetry was revived in the form of Kitab al-Ghina’ in several volumes. There was noting else to learn from or revive from pre-Islamic knowledge. There was no formal philosophy or paintings or architecture as fine architecture in desert was not possible, Thus renaissance, as far as Arab society was concerned, was not possible.

Yes, we all know the great impact of knowledge that was borrowed from Greek sources during the early Abbasid period which had on the Muslim mind. A House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) was established in Baghdad. As there was nothing to revive from pre-Islamic history, the Abbasids, when they came to know about Greek knowledge of philosophy, mathematics and other sciences, they bought the books giving the Roman rulers tons of gold loaded on several camels and brought these books for translation into Arabic, loaded on hundreds of camels.

 For Romans of that time these books were of not much use as they were not interested in knowledge. Their condition was very similar to that of pre-Islamic Arabs who were interested only in either shajarah, tree, of their clans and tribes which they could recount orally or in poetry. They could neither read nor write. Now the Arabs as well as non-Arab Muslims were part of the greatest empire of the world and hence ignorance would be a shame. They must acquire as much knowledge as they could, if not from indigenous sources then from foreign sources.

 Also, Qur’an had laid great emphasis on ‘ilm (knowledge) and so they discovered rich inheritance of knowledge from Greek sources and they decided to acquire it and translate it into Arabic. Thus when knowledge is needed it is acquired from whatever sources it is available, great universities came into existence with libraries spread over buildings running into several kilometres. It could be the envy of any learned people in the world.

 Again it was during this period that a large number of people adopted what came to be known as I’tizal, a word which is said to be derived from Hasan Basri’s pronouncement of the words I’tazil minni (i.e., get away from me) when someone persisted in asking a question. Thereafter the followers of this man came to be known as mu’tazilah, i.e., those asked to get away from Imam Basri.

Mu’tazilah are also known as rationalists of Islam as they believe in accepting any thing only if it satisfies intellectual criterion. They maintain that something is good not because Shari’ah says so, but because reason says it is good and something is bad not simply because Shari’ah says so, but because reason established it to be bad. The tradionalists maintain just the opposite: something is bad just because Shari’ah says it is bad even if reason says it is good.
It is important to note that Muslims did not simply adopt this knowledge from Greek and Roman sources superficially but enriched it through their own creativity and produced great philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians and medical experts and so on.

The traditional ulama were not happy by the acquisition of this knowledge as for them anything outside Qur’an was mere heresy. Thus, during this period, heated debates took place and one of the great theologians, Imam al-Ghzzali, who wrote a remarkable book (Ihya’Ulum al-Din, i.e., Revivification of the Knowledge of Religion) which till today is an important source of traditional thought.

 Once Ghazzali wrote a book, Thafut al-Falashifa (i.e., Bewilderment of Philosophers) to ridicule Ibn Rushd, a great philosopher from Spain. Ibn Rushd immediately responded by writing another book Tahafut Tahafut al-Falasipha, i.e., Bewilderment of Bewilderment of Philosophers.

 Thus it will be seen that there was great debate during those centuries between rationalists (philosophers) and traditionalists. It was thus that ‘Ilm al-Kalam came into existence. ‘Ilm al-Kalam stands for dialectics and the traditional ulama used rationalists’ own weapon, i.e., reason, to attack them. Even in Europe, same thing happened. After Reformation, Counter-Reformation movement was launched by Church.

 In the beginning of this essay I had raised the question: is Renaissance possible in the Muslim world today and answered this question saying that it is a most difficult and most challenging task. In fact, the Islamic world has already seen the era of renaissance. This is the contrast between the Islamic world and the western world. Islamic world began with renaissance and fell into an era of darkness whereas western world began with jahiliyah (era of ignorance) and launched its renaissance in early 16th century. And once it launched its renaissance, it continued with it, so it does not need another one now.

 Unfortunately, the Islamic world began with it, Europe inherited it and now it is the Muslim World which is in need of knowledge from Europe. A lender is a borrower now. During the Abbasid rule, the rulers fully patronized renaissance. They spent great fortune to transfer knowledge into Arabic, the then lingua franca and people had to learn Arabic to acquire advanced knowledge in all sciences.

So the most important question was: why the Muslim world lost its initiative while the Western world seized it? There are a number of reasons. While the traditional ulama were taking control of the Islamic world, the rationalists in Europe were rebelling against the Church and trying to seize control. In the Muslim world, the mullas seized control as civil wars among Muslim rulers seriously weakened the Abbasid rulers and the Fatimid rulers - a Shi’ah dynasty ruling over Egypt - was weakened by the machinations of the Abbasids.

The Abbasids were finally destroyed by the Mongols of Central Asia in 1258 CE when lakhs of Muslims were killed in most barbaric manner. Now for the Muslim world, not only its glory was destroyed but security itself became the main problem and in such uncertain conditions conservative forces took over and maintained that doors of ijtihad were closed for ever. Ibn Taymiyah issued his famous fatwa on jihad in those days. Thus ijtihad was replaced by jihad and the sword destroyed the pen.

 After Abbasids, many regional powers came into existence with great glory but none could match the resources of the Abbasid regime. Noted historian Toynbee describes Abbasid state as the universal state of Islam and most of the regional states paid their tribute to Abbasids. The Abbasids had given not only a sense of security but also a sense of pride to all Muslims. Such conditions are required to achieve great heights of knowledge. Today, we see same thing in the western world: political stability and abundant resources to put a part of it in research and enrichment of knowledge. 

To be continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2012 on page no. 20

We hope you liked this report/article. The Milli Gazette is a free and independent readers-supported media organisation. To support it, please contribute generously. Click here or email us at

blog comments powered by Disqus