A New Attack


Far from persecution, which goes against the grain of Muslim character, Muslim rulers in the early centuries of Islam have actually been great patrons of science and scientists, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER.

We have been persistently asked to comment on a talk (we have no idea who it is) which is fast and wide circulating on the social media. The speaker alleges that a Mufti (whosoever he may be) has stated that he keeps “science at the tip of his shoes.” Since such statements, and comments of the speaker can negatively influence the common public, we are perforce led to this response.

The commentator/ speaker takes the Mufti and Mullas to task. He moves on to level several charges against the `Ulama-class’ blaming them for the backwardness of Muslims, who, he declares, are miserably behind the rest because of such attitude of the religious leaders (Muftis, Mawlawis, Sheikhs, Scholars, call them whatsoever you will). He airs the opinion that it has been the religious class which prevented science and scientists from flourishing in the Muslim zones.

Most of his statements, however, are either off the track, or altogether wrong. He states that the science of ‘mineralogy’ can predict the position of the moon at any time, even that of 50 years on. We do not think that a ‘mineralogist’ can do that. In fact, we believe that even a ‘cosmologist’ might not be able to accurately spot-place the moon with reference to every region of the global earth, given all the advances in Space Research and super computers. In comparison, sending a craft to the moon is easier, given the ability to correct the trajectory every now and then, as the craft gets closer and closer to the target. If not for this trajectory feature, the craft would miss the target.

The speaker in question thinks that Ibn Rushd was a cosmologist. He seems to be un-informed that Ibn Rushd was a Chief Justice, then, a Physician, and then a Philosopher. He wrote not a line on cosmology.

Along with a few other questionable statements, he alleges that the Muslim scientists of the past have been persecuted. He gives examples. This allegation is incorrect. The truth is that if a few Muslim scientists have been punished (but not persecuted) in the past, it was not because of their scientific discoveries, achievements, or theories. Their scientific achievements were well-recognized and appreciated. Why not, when it were the Muslim rulers themselves who actually invited many of them, gave them audience in Royal Courts, and rewarded them?

Ibn Rushd is cited as one example: a great scientist who, according to him, was persecuted and shamed. The “shamed story” is, perhaps, spurious; but he did undergo some ill-treatment. But why? The speaker thinks Ibn Rushd, a great scientist, was so treated for his scientific contributions. He is 200% wrong.

Ibn Rushd’s story is interesting and an instructive example. Born rich in 1162 CE, into a family of Jurists in Spain, he received sound instructions in his early days, and, like his father and grandfather, became, through his own learning, the Chief Justice of Qurtuba (Cordoba). He was friendly with the Khalifah Al-Mansur.

The brilliant man that he was, Ibn Rushd turned to medical studies after mastering Fiqh. He acquired such learning that he was able to write a commentary on books of Ibn Sina and others. Being friendly with Al-Mansur,the latter appointed him the Chief Physician of the Royal Court. But Ibn Rushd was not to stay quiet. He took up the study of Greek Philosophy through the works of Muslim scholars and translators as well as from the original texts. This was the gateway to troubles.

The Khalifah, who was himself well-versed with ancient philosophies, felt concerned by the spread among Muslim elites, of ideas and philosophies incompatible with Islam. He commissioned him to write a commentary on Aristotle, so that the Greek atheist could be refuted. Ibn Rushd did not write one commentary, he wrote several of them: small, medium, large, for the common folk, for the elite, and so forth. In his commentaries Ibn Rushd offered his own ideas too.

With that, he entered the fourth phase of his life viz., his popularity in the West. The scientist had become a philosopher. His ideas ran like a current among the Jewish and Christian educated class in Europe. They adored him for his free-thinking.

Meanwhile, some of Ibn Rushd’s own ideas began to be questioned in the Islamic world. Some of his philosophical ideas appeared to be weird. He thought the created world was eternal, with no beginning and no end; that it was a manifestation of the Universal Truth; that there is no reason why, rationally considered, there cannot be more than one God; that His existence can be proven both by Revelation as well as philosophical ratiocination, but the philosophical method was more effective and defendable than Revelation. He also wrote a book (Tahafatu al-Tahafah) to refute Imam Ghazali whose own opinion was that philosophers were – in person – not too honest, and that they led a seeker of truth into dark and murky alleys.

In his home country, the masses, the scholars, and the ruling classes were infuriated by Ibn Rushd’s philosophical ideas. His sponsor, the Khalifah, was disappointed and upset. He was asked to quit. Ibn Rushd went away to Morocco. However, after some initial welcome, trouble arose there also. He created divisions, and had to be exiled to a village largely inhabited by Jews. He returned to Spain after two years, where he soon died.

Interestingly, while in the Islamic world his philosophy waned, his eminence suffered; but in the West, his ideas were hot cake. Writings of the Greek philosophers had been kept away from the Western educated public by the Church. Their works were in Latin and had never been translated into European languages. But when Ibn Rushd was translated from the Arabic into European languages, the tired and frustrated elite and the educated classes of the West fell on his books like flies on sugar. Known there as Averroes, his philosophical ideas gained him followers in tens of thousands. His books were Bible for the European thinkers.Soon the Church realized the dangers inherent in the liberalism loaded in his books, condemned them for spreading heretical beliefs, began to persecute his followers, and burnt his books.

So, that is the story of Ibn Rushd. The speaker in our discussion is completely wrong to claim that Ibn Rushd suffered persecution because of his scientific achievements. Nothing of that sort. The truth is, he suffered banishment because he held ideas that were thought heretical even by the Christian world, let alone Muslims. Had he been in Europe, he would have suffered the same treatment as reserved for their heretics. The Islamic world was soft with him.

The speaker in question next cites Al-Kindi (whom he pronounces as Al-Kandi), as another who suffered persecution because of his scientific endeavors. Wrong again. Ibn Is-haq al-Kindi (d. 252 H), known in the West as Alkindus, a son of the Governor of Kinda (a Yemeni tribe) lived in Basrah, later on moving to Baghdad. He was a contemporary of three Abbasi Caliphs: Al-Mutawakkil, Al-Ma’mun and Al-Mu`tasim. All three endeared him because of his learning in every discipline of science then known. He wroted some 300 books. Because of being from an eminent family, a man of various achievements, respected by the scholars as well as the common folk, he enjoyed a chair in the Court of Al-Mutawakkil. But, he seems to have fallen victim to machinations of some courtiers.What was the basis? History leaves us to guess the reason: was it his belief that the Muslim world would end in the year 693 H (perhaps, his cosmological studies led him to this prediction). Of course, Muslim scholars would not accept such a prediction. Or, as some scholars have said, he was thought to have become a Mu`tazili. Or was it something else?

We can keep guessing, but in all appearance, it was an ‘Al-Mutawakkil-Al Kindi’ episode. The Khalifah had him whipped and ordered his books confiscated. A short time later, the two settled the issue and Al-Kindi’s books were restored to him.

Later caliphs, Al-Mu`tasim and Al-Ma’mun, however, had no quarrel with him. In fact, they were pretty fond of him. Al Ma’mun bestowed on him the office of “Director-in-Chief” of the famous and prestigious Royal Academia: ‘The House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-Hikmah).

So, had Al-Kindi been persecuted? Never. The Caliph was angry and ordered a few lashes, but restored his honorable position soon. Did the Caliph punish him for his scientific learning? Absolutely not! He was perhaps punished over a false report concerning a religious issue. It was by a Caliph who – Trump-like – could get agitated at someone coughing in his Court.

Another persecution story cited by the speaker of the short speech sent to us for comments, is that of Abu Bakr al Razi (d. 320 H). He states that the Abbasid Caliph ordered that he be struck on his head with his own books, until either the books were torn or his head was torn. What about this story? The answer is that it is a complete fabrication. Writer of over 200 books, a household name in the vast Islamic world covering half of the known world, a director of the ‘Beemaristan’ in the city of Ray, Razi never had any problem with anyone in his life. He was more a scientist than a philosopher and so, did not enter into controversies. More. He was a philanthropist doctor who treated the poor at no cost.

We do not know who the concerned speaker is. But listening to his fabricated stories of persecution that the Muslim rulers and public subjected their top-class scholars, and not finding any of the fabrications in Arabic sources, one wonders what his sources could be. One guess is that his sources are Urdu books translated from Persian. Anti-Sunni endeavor over the centuries has been to distort Islamic history by interpolation or outright fabrications to demonstrate that the Sunni history has been that of a morally corrupt people. Arabic source books are free of these fabrications. In fact, English books written by non-Muslims, on the contributions by Muslim scientists are also free of these fables.

Far from persecution, which goes against the grain of Muslim character, they(i.e., Muslim rulers) have actually been patrons of science and scientists.

If there has been persecution, it has been of the `Ulama.’ Three of the four Imams (Ahmad b. Hanbal, Malik and Abu Hanifah), were publicly whipped for their refusal to obey Caliphs of their times on one religious issue or another. No scientist was ever persecuted for his scientific ideas or inventions. They were rewarded.

There remain other issues: The Mufti’s statement (“science on his toes”), the allegation by the speaker that the scholars of Islam have prevented advancement of scientific studies, and, his accusation that the present backwardness of the Muslim world is the doing of the religious class.

Each of these, however, requires to be looked into critically to dig out the truth. We hope to offer a few lines on them in the next issue, Allah willing.