In light of the current political and social turmoil in the Middle East and many episodes of violent attacks carried out by Western-born Muslims in various countries of the West, many Western scholars and anti-Islamic polemicists have questioned Islam’s cultural ideals and civilizational attributes.
This is not a new Western attitude towards Islam. The relation between Islam and the Christian West has always been in a roller coaster state. Thus, in contemporary political discourse and media accounts Islam is conceptualised as an alien, archaic, and a doctrine of death whose hallmark is violence and the law unchanging, sacrosanct, and inhumane.
Islam is discerned as a creed of moral regression and human rights neglect and empty of characteristics that make an enlightened cultural tradition. Caricatures of Islam include enslaving of women, having a propensity to militant proselytizing, and inspiring a fusion of fanatical frenzy and a fatalistic indifference.
Those who think about Islam in this manner describe it as anti-modernity, anti-science, anti-progress, and failing to face the challenges to evolve and adjust to modernity.
In their view, Islam is bereft of civility, humanity, and equity and lacking the capacity to adapt to civilization embodied in the West as it has given up any urge for progress and put a stop to the evolution of society in the Muslim world. Thus, Islam finds itself under constant pressure to renew, change, and reform.
Although there is some truth in these representations of Muslims as a cultural block, they are generally fraught with exaggerations, distortions, falsities, and are extremely misleading.
With such an attitude towards Islam and juxtaposing Islam with the West as polar opposite has led to the demonization of Islam as the “internal other” and the “external enemy”.
I want to identify some of Islam’s key achievements and contributions to humanity over the centuries and discredit Western scholarship in which Islam is understood as uncivilised, malign, and inhumane cultural tradition.
Islam’s Key Achievements and Contributions to Humanity
The process of Muslim scholars thinking freely and independently started with predestiny-freewill dialectic and gradually led to the development of multiple schools of thought such as Kharijism, Murjism, Mu‛tazilism, and Ash‘arism.
These schools continuously engaged in discussions in which a combination of reason and theology was used helping make the way for Reason to eventually become an independent discipline.
Thus, Reason became a tool for resolving even many socio-political issues and debates within the broader theological-philosophical context. Several of these schools survived for centuries undergoing change and reform over time.
The initial scholastic theology which was stimulated by 8th century Arabic translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works took on multiple forms and grew into a robust and accomplished movement of scientific and philosophical thought which progressively shaped and produced valuable and original intellectual materials from the 9th to the 16th centuries (Rahman, 2002).
These works helped build a philosophical system for Islam in which the metaphysical boundaries were reconciled with corresponding religious metaphysics of Islam giving the system a brilliant originality.
“Great urban cultural centres in Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo, Nishapur, and Palermo emerged and eclipsed Christian Europe, mired in the Dark Ages. The activities of these centres are reflected in the development of philosophy and science.
The result was Islamic philosophy, indebted to Hellenism but with its own Islamic character” (Esposito 2005: 53). A new civilisation was formed based on Islamic teachings and doctrine (Esposito 2005).
In the era of “Islamic Golden Age” Muslims not only emerged as leaders in science and philosophy but masters of applied knowledge. They openly shared their knowledge and applied in practice making important contributions to social processes, institutional developments, and the overall enhancement of the society.
Much of their applied knowledge spread to other cultures and societies some of which continues to be used in the current period.
For example, ingenious large-scale irrigation techniques to harvest underground wells were developed as water was scarce in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula.
Farmers used sound water allocation and management techniques to water the gravity-fed canals (Rapoport and Shahar 2012). Dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts were constructed throughout the Muslim world as early as the tenth century.
Muslim scholars made great advances in zoology during “Islamic Golden Age”. Muslim lifestyle and economy were very much dependent on animals for both trade and travel, thus, the interest in the study of animals.
Al-Jahiz was the foremost scholar in the 8th century to study zoology. His Kitab Al-Hayawan (Book of Animals) was based on the knowledge about animals derived from the Qur’an and contained important scientific theories and information including the explanation for extracting medicines from animals (Lunde 1982).
The literature on Islamic economics shows that early forms of market economy and merchant capitalism existed as early as the 8th century (Gaudiosi 1988; Kuran 2005) and a robust monetary economy developed grounded on the broad circulation of a common currency – the dinar – and the amalgamation of previously independent monetary sectors.
New business techniques and forms of business organisations emerged which employed contracts, bills of exchange, and long-distance international trade.
There were also mufawada (partnership) such as mudaraba (limited partnerships) and forms of credit, debt, profit, loss, al-mal (capital), and nama al-mal (capital accumulation) (Banaji, 2007).
In addition, there were circulating capital, capital expenditure, revenue, cheques, promissory notes, waqf (trust), saving accounts, transactional accounts, loaning, exchange rates, bankers, money changers, ledgers, deposits, the double-entry bookkeeping system, and lawsuits (Lopez and Raymond 2001; Labib, 1969).
Muslim scholars of the “Islamic Golden Age” were very focused on advancing the developments of the ancient Greeks in mathematics. The science of algebra as we know it today was introduced, first to the Muslim world then to other parts of the world, by Muslims (Boyer and Merzbach 1991).
Muhammad ibn Musa Al Khwarazmi (780 – 850) introduced algebra to the world (Hill 1994). The word algebra comes from the Arabic “al jabr” which means “the bringing together of separate parts.” Generally speaking, algebra is the study of mathematical symbols and the rules for manipulating these symbols, thus, mathematicians substitutes symbols such as x, y, or z for numbers in order to solve mathematical problems.
Al Khwarazmi popularizing treatise on algebra “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”, expounded the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations (Sardar et al. 2012).
In the area of optics, it was Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham (965 – 1040) who led the way. An Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist during the “Islamic Golden Age”, Al-Haytham is often referred to as “the father of modern optics” who made remarkable contributions to the principles of optics and visual perception (Simon 2006).
His Kitab al-Manaẓi (Book of Optics), written during 1011–1021, was his most influential work and it survived in the Latin edition.