By Ateeb Gul
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
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
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
is senior editor at the Lums Case Research Centre.