Islamic scholars

Did Islamic scholars impede the development of science? A questionable meme

Scholar by Ludwig Deutsch (1895)

Ali Paya (an Iranian professor of philosophy) writes in a 2016 article regarding al-Ghazali’s saying that Islamic jurisprudence is a science that is superior to the non-religious sciences:

Such an attitude, which can be seen both among fuqahā’ and mystics (Ghazzali belonged to both groups) has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem.1

Is it really surprising that religious scholars should think that their field is more important than other fields? And where is the evidence that their attitude “has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem”?

Imagine if there had been no religious scholars at all in the Islamic areas. Would their absence have removed this supposed negative influence on the development of science? I would say the opposite is much more likely. Their activities could encouraged intellectual exploration in the following ways:

  • Since the works of Islamic scholars were by far the largest genre of literary production in the Islamic world, their activities may have been essential for the establishment of a book production culture. This culture, in turn, may have enabled non-religious scholars, philosophers and naturalists to get involved in literary production since, thanks to the Islamic scholars, a market had been established that could help them produce and sell their books.
  • Islamic scholars had a need for linguistic knowledge, helping encourage the creation of the most advanced linguistic literature ever written until Europe caught up in the past few centuries. By helping create an independent, non-religious field of knowledge that gained wide acceptance and respect, Islamic scholars helped make secular knowledge respectable and even desirable.
  • Certain Islamic scholars had a strong interest in logic and philosophy, helping maintain interest in these topics and spreading them through their books. Al-Ghazali himself helped popularize the use of Greek logic in Islamic legal theory and theology.

As far as I can tell, the theory that Islamic scholars held back scientific development is nothing but armchair theorizing. It is obvious to certain type of thinker that religious scholars should have a negative influence in this regard. But without strong empirical evidence, this should be treated as groundless hypothesizing; Islamic scholars may have been essential to all intellectual developments the Middle East enjoyed until recently.

It is true that Islamic scholars have at times opposed philosophy and science. But even more scholars have embraced these things and even promoted them. Without a statistical analysis of the number of scholars who tried to impede intellectual progress versus the number who tried to encourage, we know nothing more than the fact that some scholars tried to impede intellectual progress and some scholars tried to encourage it.

For propaganda reasons, there are many (not speaking of Paya) who like to focus on the rare Islamic clerics who espouse anti-modern attitudes while ignoring the far greater number of clerics who fully embrace modern science and knowledge.

When it comes to history, blaming the presence of a certain influence is always a dangerous business because there is no way to conduct experiments to find out whether the blame is really justified. Unless someone goes back in history, removes all or most of the Islamic scholars, then looks to see if centuries later scientific progress happens earlier or later, they should not presume to voice strong opinions on this matter (unless they find another way of empirically testing their hypothesis). For all that we know, the Islamic world may have been far more undeveloped by 1800 had it not been for the influence of Islamic scholars. And there is good reason to believe this, because there are no sustainable civilizations that lack a strong religious basis. Once the religious influence is removed, the civilization enters a phase of slow-motion collapse (low fertility rates being a very good indicator of the civilization’s unsustainbility, as is the case in all modern secularized nations). The presence and activity of Islamic scholars helped maintain Islam’s relevance through time, helping maintain its power over the Islamic world. Had they not done that, Islam could have fallen into irrelevance as happened to Greco-Roman religion.

Of course, Islamic scholars could have done more to promote science. But we can say the same regarding just about anyone.

The Quran guarantees religious freedom, so why don’t Muslim scholars believe in it?

I would be very thankful if you could answer me on my following question. In Quran is written: "There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing."

But also on other places is talked about punishing or killing people who do things like for example: stopping being Muslim, having sex before marriage, being gay and so on. With punishing I mean punishing on this world, and not when we die. If we have freedom to be Muslims or not, why there is no freedom of doing some things that are against religion but don't hurt other people. I am really confused and i hope you can clear this topic for me. Thank you in advance.

Regarding the issue of religious freedom, you are right that the Quran guarantees it. The scholars, however, had to also reconcile various hadith narrations in which the Prophet Muhammad is mentioned as putting limitations on religious freedom. Another case is that of Abu Bakr in the Riddah wars; when some Arabian tribes wanted to leave Islam and stop paying the zakat, Abu Bakr did not let them but fought them until they were one again part of the Islamic state.

Out of these historical anecdotes, the scholars tried to come up with an interpretation of the religious freedom mentioned in the Quran. The interpretation they came up with was that Islam should not be forced on others, but that a Muslim should not be allowed to leave Islam. From their position of power and authority, it seemed only natural that this should be the case. Islam is God’s chosen religion, so people should be prevented from leaving it for their own good if not for anyone else’s.

That way of thinking went unchallenged until the last century or so. The new reality that Muslims found themselves in (being in a position of weakness rather than strength) forced the scholars to re-examine their interpretation of the idea of religious freedom. In the 20th century there was also a new movement to take the Quran more seriously than before. In the past, the Quran was treated as just a piece of historical evidence that stood side-by-side with hadith. In the 20th century, various new thinkers (Mustafa Mahmud, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sayyid Qutb, Said Nursi, Ahmad Moftizadeh) arose who rejected this way of thinking and considered the Quran’s teachings superior and more authoritative than hadith. And with this came a new interpretation of various issues within Islam.

Out of this atmosphere came people like Mahmud Shaltut (Grand Imam of Al-Azhar from 1958 to 1963) ruled that apostates are only punished if they try to fight the Muslims and plot against them, that mere apostasy is not punishable, and more recently Ali Gomaa (Grand Mufti of Egypt from 2003–2013), who also says that apostasy is not punishable in Islam unless the apostates try to make other Muslims leave Islam. While this is not perfect religious freedom and not perfect freedom of speech, it is an important step in the right direction. Many clerics have yet to update their thinking on this matter, but that might happen within the next 50 years.

Regarding the death penalty for things like adultery and homosexual sex, this too, like the issue of apostasy, went unchallenged until the 20th century. The Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra, one of the greatest scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, rejected execution of adulterers saying that the historical evidence could be interpreted in a different way. Abu Zahra is not a liberal modernist, he was one of the religious scholars (ulema), and his opinion is highly significant.

Ideally, there should be a constitutional law that all Muslims and non-Muslims follow (as in Malaysia, although the Malaysian system has serious issues). Islamic law would be something that all Muslims willingly choose to live under, and anyone who wants to leave Islam should have the right to do so, so that they stop being subject to Islamic law and will only be subject to constitutional law that Muslims and non-Muslims agree upon.

In summary, the things you mentioned (killing apostates, adulterers and homosexuals) are all issues that have already been solved by respected scholars. What remains is for the rest of the scholars and preachers to catch up.

On sexism and misogyny in hadith narrations and the books of scholars

Salam. This thing has bugged me for a while and I try to not care but it's an important topic . Basically many scholars, many ahadith, are very sexist. The work of bukhari, ibn abbas, alkatherr , it feels like I can't escape it and no matter how much I try to think that woman have rights in Islam I still feel as if my being is worth noting. I genuinely feel bad. I already deal with misogynism on daily basis in the country im from It's like being a woman is a bad thing.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

It is true that since the beginning of Islam until modern times most men had a low opinion of women. The same is true of non-Muslims throughout history. Women generally had less access to education and fewer interactions with other people, so that they appeared naive and unintelligent to men. Therefore when a historical personality says women are inferior or foolish, for them this seemed to be the truth, since they rarely met intelligent women who could think on the same level as men. For them it was an obvious fact of life that women are unintelligent, and anyone who doubted that could simply go and talk to some women in their society and verify that this was true.

Things only began changing in the past few centuries, when women in both Europe and the Middle East started to be more involved with their societies and started to get an education. Even in the United States, the universities only started admitting female students in the latter part of the 19th century. Cornell admitted its first female student in 1870, and its alumni, who were some of the best educated men in the country, strongly opposed letting in females.1

When it comes to sexism in hadith narrations, you should keep in mind that only a very small subset of hadith narrations reach the authenticity of the Quran. The overwhelming majority belong to a spectrum of authenticity. Some have a 99% likelihood authenticity, some 95%, and so on. Even highly authentic narrations can be rejected if the case can be made that they describe an earlier policy of the Prophet that may have been superseded by his later practice or by a Quranic revelation. For Imam Malik’s rejection of authentic narrations despite admitting their authenticity see Wymann-Landgraf, Mālik and Medina. For the issues surrounding hadith authenticity, see Brown, The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim and idem, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, London, 2014.2

The Quran is our only 100% reliable source for God’s opinions, therefore you should base your thinking on it. It nowhere teaches that women are unintelligent and foolish, it rather stresses the equality of the worth of men and women, guarding their dignity and prohibiting various abuses that were common in the pre-Islamic era (such as forced marriages, selling them as slaves, not letting them get a share of inheritance). If you find a hadith or scholarly opinion that teaches to view women as inferior, instead of thinking that this is Islam, you should think the opposite, that this is not Islam, and you should do the research necessary to find out the truth. If one hadith teaches a negative thing about women, you will find others that teach positive things. If one scholar voices a sexist opinion, you will find others who reject it, and in fact there are scholars who can be described as feminist in that they think women are better and more moral humans than men.

Islam is simply a tool for you to know God better and to worship Him in the possible way. This is the purpose of this religion, everything else is a side issue complicated by the vagueness of the Quran, the unreliability of hadith narrations and the sexist cultures of the past. Rather than letting these things color your understanding of Islam, make your own understanding out of the Quran and the best opinions of the people of the past and present.