What happened to Islamic Science after the ‘Golden Age’?
The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Islam was, as we have seen, a fruitful time for scientific thinking. The 9th to 13th centuries saw important developments in many areas such as the translation of Greek and Indian texts, mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine. Baghdad and Basra (in present day Iraq) were significant centres of civilisation and learning.
But this period came to an end. Why? The climate of thought shifted within Islam and other priorities became important. At the same time, European science was taking off (often using Islamic scientific ideas) and growing into a powerful tradition in its own right. This has had the effect of holding back most Muslim countries from achieving a strong scientific tradition.
What are some of the possible causes for the decline in Islamic science? a. The scientific work during the ‘Golden Age’ was not put to use in practical ways. The theory was not applied in new ways to improve the quality of life for the people. Very often scientific discoveries today lead to new technology which is useful and practical. Was this missing from the Islamic approach to science?
b. Most of the ‘scientific’ thinkers were employed by wealthy patrons. This patronage would have been hard to obtain: in addition, patrons might have wanted a say in the kind of projects that were tackled.
c. Many of those involved in ‘scientific’ thinking were afraid of the religious reaction to their work and kept a lot of their ideas to themselves. Some were worried that religious leaders might condemn them for looking for ‘scientific’ explanations for natural events. The possibility of a conflict became clear during the time when Muslim scholars discussed Aristotle’s teaching that the universe has always existed and was not created.
d. Was there enough ‘scientific’ education on offer within educational institutions? There was certainly an emphasis on the ‘religious’ sciences, where the Qur’an was studied and the traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) discussed…..
e. During the Golden Age, there was a climate of freedom in which Muslims could think about religion and science. The dominant Muslim group were the Mutazilites who believed strongly that reason should be used to work things out. If the meaning of some Qur’anic text was unclear, for instance, they would advocate the use of reason to arrive at the best interpretation. This group lost its influence at some stage, giving those who were wary about their emphasis on reason more influence. For some Muslims, the Qur’an was the only source of explanation – whatever the subject.
It also seems to be the case that, whereas later in Europe it was possible to establish scientific academies that were independent of religious control, there was less opportunity in Islamic societies for independent scientific organisations.
Can you think of any other periods in history where ideas have changed from one extreme to another?