Dawn – Islam’s ‘golden age’

Ateeb Gul

Op/Ed, 30 December 2016. In discussions on history, philosophy, and even policymaking, one often comes across references to Islam’s ‘golden age’, a period that saw groundbreaking progress in rationalist disciplines including logic, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, etc, emanating from the Islamic world.

The popular narrative about this period assumes that it came to an end around the 12th-13th century. However, it is wrong to assume that what we call Islam’s ‘golden age’, a category that is itself problematic to begin with, ended around that time.

Recent scholarship has shown that while different disciplines enjoyed varying careers at different times, on the whole, a serious and prolific rationalist enterprise in the Islamic world survived well into the 16th and 17th centuries; in some cases well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

It survived not just through independent works but also through commentaries and glosses, two sources that have started to receive proper attention relatively recently.

The works of Asad Q. Ahmed are instrumental in this regard.

A recent issue of the prestigious journal Oriens, which Ahmed co-edits and to which he also contributed, featured articles by Robert Wisnovsky, Walid Saleh, Jon McGinnis, Nahyan Fancy and other historians on the role of commentaries and glosses in Islam’s intellectual history.

Efforts like these have now laid to rest the myth that no worthwhile progress was made in rationalist disciplines in the Islamic world after the 13th century. And the evidence against the myth is compelling.

For instance, in 1396, Ibn Ilyas published his Tashrih-i Mansuri, a Persian text famous for its coloured anatomical illustrations.

Its other merits aside, just the illustrative characteristic of the work compelled historian Lawrence Conrad to claim in The Western Medical Tradition that since “one of the greatest problems in mediaeval surgery was the rather rudimentary knowledge of the internal systems of the human body”, the “emergence of anatomical illustration on such a scale is in itself a development of great importance”.

While it is true that within the field of medicine different sub-disciplines like ophthalmology or anatomy experienced different trajectories, the picture that emerges from the works of Emilie-Savage Smith, Syed Nomanul Haq, Nahyan Fancy, Andrew Newman and others attests to the fact that the study of medicine flourished even after the 13th century.

The case of astronomy, too, presents us with a similar picture. The works of George Saliba, David King, F. Jamil Ragep, Ahmad Dallal, Robert Morrison and others have made available mountains of evidence demonstrating this.

Astronomical works by Ibn al-Shatir, al-Shirazi, al-Qushji, al-Khafri etc, all appearing after the 13th century, proved of vital importance to the study of astronomy in the subsequent centuries.

Ibn al-Shatir, whom historian David King calls “the most distinguished Muslim astronomer of the 14th century”, is someone whose astronomical model is believed by historians to have been taken over by none other than Copernicus.

Arguably, the best evidence against the ‘decline’ narrative comes from the history of logic, a field that has lately benefited from the works of Tony Street, Asad Q. Ahmed and Khaled El-Rouayheb among others.

In his Relational Syllogisms and the History of Arabic Logic 900-1900, the latter writes that the idea of the decline of the study of logic in the Islamic world “seems to be rooted, not in a careful study of logical works written in Arabic after 1300 (or 1550), but in a number of a priori assumptions, for example, that Islamic civilisation declined in general after the 13th century”.

At one place he claims that while one may speak of Arabic logic as a coherent tradition before the 17th century, a close reading of Arabic logical texts renders it “appropriate to speak of distinct traditions of Arabic logic after around 1600: the North African, the Ottoman Turkish, the Iranian, and the Indo-Muslim”.

It makes no sense, then, to claim that the study of logic suffered a major blow around the 13th century when entire sub-traditions of the field started to appear only in the 17th century, in some cases continuing into the 20th century as in the case of the Khayrabadi school of logic in pre-Partition India.

These and other data compel El-Rouayheb to conclude: “the history of Arabic logic did not come to an end in the 13th, 14th, or 16th century”. And the same is true, by and large, for the study of rationalist disciplines in the Islamic world in general.

Far from being just an exercise in historical pedantry, an accurate portrayal of this historical period has real ramifications for the Islamic world today.

Actual recommendations are made by educationists and policymakers based on the now-rejected myth of post-13th century decline. If we are to learn from history, as the old adage goes, we need to first get it right.

The writer is senior editor at the Lums Case Research Centre



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