– HG Wells
Islamic civilisation, from approximately 700 AD to 1600 AD, grew out of a need to adapt the complete and immutable values of the religion with the realities of the various cultures with which it came into contact. There was naturally a period of adaptation and change during which the glories of earlier civilisations were appropriated and naturalised into an Islamic mould. Two related remarkable aspects of this civilisation bear mentioning here: the integration of all different areas of study under the matrix of religious unity and intense innovation and genuine development in almost every scientific and social discipline.
The integrality principleâ€ as one scholar of Islam calls it, is Islam’s capacity to draw many aspects of study with their inherent tensions and allow them to coalesce into a dynamic unity. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) the various branches of religion, like jurisprudence and spirituality, were contained in a seamless unity and all religious needs of the young Muslim community were addressed by the direct instruction of the Prophet (peace be upon him). As the community grew and the Muslim lands expanded, the resources, needs and intellectual maturity created a new state where the religious sciences were systematised and consequently crystallised into distinct disciplines. Islamic spirituality (ihsan, tasawwuf), jurisprudence (fiqh) and theology (aqida, kalam) were now treated as distinct subjects as were the new fields of Arabic syntax (nahw) and morphology (sarf), Quranic exegesis (tafsir), Hadith analysis (ilm al-hadith) and Prophetic history (sira). As a result of the temperament and environment of certain intellectuals, their religious education lead them to different paths, formulating different groups of elites like the traditionists (muhaddithun), dialectical theologians (mutakallimun), spiritualists (sufis) and jurists (fuqaha). Despite the inherent tensions between these groups they each had to grapple with the Islamic genius of integrality allowing them to fuse, often within a single individual integrating the various religious sciences. This is perhaps the best explanation of Islam’s peculiarity as a world religion in being unified doctrinally across the board with very few exceptions, historically and demographically. As one scholar of Islam put it, â€œninety percent of the ummah
The effort to maintain this unity via the integration of all religious disciplines moved beyond simply the religious and into broader â€œsecularâ€ subjects. Here, although the process was slightly more convoluted the result was the same: new sciences found its home in a broader and more enriched Islam. Initially because of needs related to record-keeping, calculation for the detailed Islamic rules regarding inheritance, for Salah timings and Qibla direction (of Prayer), the rulers appointed scholars of other cultures trained in astronomy and mathematics to translate works in these fields. From this early period Khalid b. Yazid (d. 843) and al-Khawarizmi (d. 850) and various other astronomers made their early and lasting contributions. The Prophetic medicine that grew out of the hadith literature was paralleled by intellectuals who wished to use resources of antiquity to learn medicine; and the Quran’s fascination with the ant, the bee, the spider, the cow after which suras are named may have contributed to the vast literature on zoology, particularly in al-Jahiza’s (d. 869) Book of Animals. The most advanced medieval chemistry also took root in this period with the works of Jabir b. Hayyan (d. 815). Furthermore, Islam’s superb architecture and civil infrastructure was not without theoretical considerations, and in this early period the Banu Musa brothers of the ninth century produced ingenious compilations on engineering. Due to the resourceful nature of Greek and to a lesser extent Persian and Syriac science, the rulers patronised scholarly activity directed at recovering texts of antiquity, translating and developing them. During this period of appropriation many non-Muslim scholars were employed in the translation movement. Following the eleventh century, however, after the institutionalisation of the madrasa, the sciences took on a more Islamic and mature form, creating the culture with the most advanced science of its time until the sixteenth century, when it had influenced the European civilization during its renaissance. These later scientists were men of religion (theologians) first and foremost and many were mosque time-keepers (muwaqqits). One historian of Islamic science summarised Whether it was in mechanics, with the works of Jazari (1205); or in logic, mathematics and astronomy, with the works of Athir al-Din al-Abhari (c. 1240), Mu’ayyad al-Din al-Urdi (d. 1266), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1311), Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), al-Qushji (d. 1474), and Shams al-Din al-Khafri (d. 1550); or in optics, with the works of Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (d. 1320); or in Pharmocology, with the works of Ibn al-Baitar (d. 1248); or in medicine, with the works of Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288), every one of those fields witnessed a genuine original and revolutionary productionâ€ (George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 2007, p. 21). The decline of Islamic civilisation was characterised by a movement away from the core values of the religion, aggravated only by the onslaught of the West which had now become economically affluent through its adventures in the New World. Nonetheless, Islam’s success in producing such a vast and fruitful civilisation which went on to influence Europe, bears testimony to its uniqueness as a complete and universal faith capable of embracing and enhancing all useful human endeavours.