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The Factors behind the Scientific Decline

Opposition to science and undermining the significance of scholars has been a plight that has visited upon many societies. In the Islamic world, from early days, there was an undercurrent of opposition to ancient sciences, i.e. Greek science, which considered their pursuit as futile and even harmful. The exponents of these sciences, in spite of the praise accorded to knowledge in the Qur’an and sunnah, were faced with many enemies. Among the superficial traditionalists, Ash`arites in particular, there were those whose opposition to philosophy spilled over into mathematics, astronomy and alchemy as well. Even medicine toward which they adopted a more lenient position was not always spared their venom. It is also an undeniable fact that some Muslim commanders did engage in book burning, an activity which was occasionally practiced by the likes of the Ghaznavid Mahmud who thus discarded of books on philosophy and astronomy. In a letter by a 3rd-century AH scholar we read about his hatred for geometry and his invocation from God to keep him safe from the effects of this evil science whose pursuit he solemnly forswears. Even if the words of our scholar are not uttered from inner conviction and are meant as a means of deflecting accusations of heresy again him and his family, or, as has been claimed, are forgeries of later centuries, they none the less provide a more or less accurate sense of the view of science held among certain circles of the period.

Abu Rayhan Biruni complained about the people of his day in terms of the way they prided in their ignorance and showed animosity towards men of knowledge whom they made the objects of their persecution. These are said to have praised evil and ignoble traits as virtue and deemed knowledge as ignorance, so as to belittle its value in the eyes of the foolish; the same people who affected an air of even-handedness and wisdom while questioning the value of the various branches of science. These, according to Biruni, are those who fail to discern the distinction between humans and animals. Ghazzali, the instructor of the school of Nizamiyyah and the imam of the Shafi`ites who for many centuries after his death was still referred to as sayyid al-fuqaha’ (the master of faqihs) and who is a key figure in Shafi`ite school, dares to issue a fatwa condemning the pursuit of the science of Euclid and the Almagest as well as that of arithmetic and geometry since in spite of their quality of strengthening the mind they are claimed to be evil because they are among ancient sciences and are capable of wooing their students to corrupt religions. He offers a different argument in another of his works: “Mathematical sciences, namely arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, give rise to two evils, the first has to do with their clear arguments which tend to create a positive view of philosophers in the mind of their students – since these sciences form the basis for philosophical activity, and the second evil is that those who embrace these ideas follow them blindly and turn into infidels, and I have seen many who have lost their faith in this way.” Ghazzali sets forth many such arguments in deprecation of mathematical learning.

Of course, during a certain period, like many other faqihs, Ghazzali harborded a positive view of medicine which he considered as necessary to human well being. However, later he decided that “nothing but infidelity results from medicine.” Opposition to knowledge and provoking the masses against it moved apace with the expansion of literalist tendencies. Some portrayed science as among the temptations of the devil. In many instances this anti-scientific tendency was backed by the temporal power which threw its weight behind the literalists. A society dominated by ignorance is one that turns into a domain for the charlatans, where men of knowledge find themselves stifled and bereft of opportunity.The period of scientific florescence eventually came to an end, a florescence that was the result of the long-standing and indefatigable resistance put up by men of science against the superficial attitude of literalists and one which transferred the Islamic society into the focal point of the scientific research for many centuries and provided the ground for future discoveries. In other words, the science whose benefits are enjoyed today by all mankind is the fruit of the sacrifices of those Muslim scientists who mounted a great resistance against the guardians of ignorance and their powerful backers.

When we think of the days of those great men we are reminded of Bayt al-Hikmah and Dar al-Hikmah and of the schools and libraries in Baghdad, Cairo, Jundishapur, Balkh, Bukhara, Qartabah (Cordoba), Gharnatah (Granada), as well as the observatories in Shamasiyyah, Qasiyun, Niyshabur, Maraqah and Samarqand. We conjure up many bitter and sweet events, such as the withering to death of Hunanyn b. Ishaq, the crucifying of Ishaq b. `Imran, the death of Abu Sahl Masihi while escaping the Ghaznavid Mahmud, the wondering and imprisonment of Ibn Sina, the doleful Khwajah Nasir, the shattered dreams of Biruni and how he could foresee the darkness looming in the horizon: “the signs of the period of flourishing of sciences are the eagerness of people for knowledge and their respect for scientists, something that is lacking in our day, when the case is the opposite, and the few sciences that still exist are the remnants of the days when those signs were still in existence.”

* source: Molavi , Mohammad Ali "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.461 - 462

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