Before the coming of Islam the world was in a state of oppression and injustice. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a dreadful place to live in as the Arabs were a people without any set moral values. Slavery was an economic institution of the Arabs. Male and female slaves were bought and sold like animals, and they formed the most depressed class of the Arabian society. Illiteracy was common among the Arabs, as were alcoholism and adultery. Those with power and money took advantage of the poor by charging 100 per cent interest on loans. Arabia was a male-dominated society, men could marry any number of women and when a man died, his son “inherited” all his wives except his own mother. Women had virtually no legal status, for example they had no right to possess property and had little to no inheritance rights. Female infanticide was widely practiced as they used to bury their daughters alive. I think you can appreciate why this period of Arab history before the dawn of Islam is known as the period of ignorance!
Can you imagine being tasked with reforming such a society? Have a think about how long it would take one person to cure all these social ills. One generation? Perhaps several generations? You may even view it as an impossible task. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the challenge, let’s look at an attempt in recent Western history to eradicate just one of these social ills, alcoholism. In 1920 the United States government passed a nationwide law to ban the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages for moral and health reasons. This is commonly known as Prohibition and although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased and led to other problems such as corruption and organised crime. The law was repealed in 1933. The failure of one of the most powerful governments in the world to tackle just a single social ill should make us reflect on the Qur’an. The Qur’an managed to completely reform not only alcoholism but all the social ills of Arabian society in a single generation, just 23 years! This was a revolution the likes of which the world has never witnessed.
Now perhaps you might be thinking to yourself, these social ills of Arabia were a result of the tribal nature of society and the harsh desert environment the Arabs dwelt in. But the fact is that even the super powers of the world at the time, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, who ruled much of the world between them, were also in a state of oppression and injustice. Pope Gregory I, head of the Catholic Church and a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad, had this to say:
“What is there now, I ask of delight in this world? Everywhere we observe strife; fields are depopulated, the land has returned to solitude…And yet the blows of Divine justice have no end, because among the blows those guilty of evil acts are not corrected…”
Gregory was referring to the oppression and tyranny he was facing at the hands of the Germanic Lombards and he was bemoaning the pitiful condition of his world, the world of the city of Rome. The Pope was not alone in his grief, as almost every society in the world was experiencing some oppression and injustice. Syrian Orthodox Christians were witnessing heavy persecution due to their differences with the ruling Byzantine Church. The Egyptian Coptic Church was also under the persecution of the Byzantines and Jews were on the brink of extinction at the hands of the Catholic Church in Spain.
It was against this backdrop that the Qur’an was revealed, transforming not only Arabia but also the rest of world. One of the reasons for the revelation of the Qur’an was to bring mankind out of this state of oppression and injustice. The Qur’an proclaimed loud and clear:
“[This is] a Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that you might bring mankind out of darknesses into the light by permission of their Lord – to the path of the Exalted in Might, the Praiseworthy.” The Qur’an 14:1
Peace and justice was not only delivered to the Arabs, but the whole world reaped the fruits of this blessing from God. As we will see, the peace and justice emanating from the Islamic system produced some of the most civilised societies in the history of mankind.
HOW THE QUR’AN BROUGHT JUSTICE TO THE WORLD
Just how did the Qur’an and early Muslims go about reforming society? This is the testimony of Ja’far bin Abi Talib, who was a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad. Here he informed the king of Abyssinia about the condition of his people and the positive change Islam had brought for them:
“O King, we were an uncivilised people, worshipping idols, eating corpses, committing abominations, breaking natural ties, treating guests badly, and our strong devoured our weak. Thus we were until God sent us an apostle whose lineage, truth, trustworthiness, and clemency we know. He summoned us to acknowledge God’s unity and to worship him and to renounce the stones and images which we and our fathers formerly worshipped. He commanded us to speak the truth, be faithful to our engagements, mindful of the ties of kinship and kindly hospitality, and to refrain from crimes and bloodshed. He forbade us to commit abominations and to speak lies, and to devour the property of orphans, to vilify chaste women. He commanded us to worship God alone and not associate anything with him, and he gave us orders about prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. We confessed his truth and believed in him, and we followed him in what he had brought from God, and we worshipped God without associating aught with him…”
The people of Arabia were transformed within few decades and they became the torch bearers of a new civilisation in the world, a civilisation that would change the course of human history forever. Prophet Mohammad and his followers liberated not only their own people from tyranny; they also brought freedom to the neighbouring world. The Qur’an stipulated that Muslims must help the oppressed at all cost, regardless of whom and where they are:
And what is [the matter] with you that you fight not in the cause of God and [for] the oppressed among men, women, and children who say, “Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and appoint for us from Yourself a helper?” The Qur’an 4:75
The Muslims were thus charged to help oppressed people of the world. History testifies to the fact that the early Muslims rescued the populations of Syria, Egypt and Spain from a reign of tyranny:
SYRIA RESCUED FROM BYZANTINE EMPIRE
Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, in the reign of the second Caliph, Umar bin Khattab, the Muslim armies began liberating the people of Syria from the Byzantines (Romans). The Christians of Syria were divided in many different denominations, such as Monophysites, Jacobites and Nestorians, and almost all of them were facing severe persecution at the hands of the ruling Byzantine Church. Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, a Jacobite patriarch from 818 to 845 CE, stated in his chronicle that the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius sent an army to expel the Muslims out of Syria and recapture the land. The Muslim forces decided to withdraw from Syrian cities in order to fight an open pitch battle with the Byzantines. Whilst pulling back, the Muslims decided, out of fairness, to refund the money which they had taken as tribute from the Syrian Christians:
Abu Ubaydah, whom Umar had put in command of the Arabs, ordered Habib b. Maslama to return to the Emesenes the tribute which he had exacted from them with this message: “We are both bound by our mutual oaths. Now we are going to do battle with the Romans. If we return, this tribute is ours; but if we are defeated and do not return, we are absolved of our oaths.”
This was an unprecedented demonstration of honesty and justice. The non-Muslims pay a poll tax to the Islamic state so that their lives, religion and property are protected under the rule of the Muslims. In this case the Muslims knew that they were unable to protect the Christians of Syria due to an imminent attack by Heraclius, and therefore it was not fair to keep the money if they couldn’t protect the masses. Also, one must note that this was taking place in seventh century Syria where plunder, robbery and injustice were a common occurrence and the Muslims had shocked the Syrians with their merciful conduct. Another point worth mentioning is that this incident is narrated by a ninth century Christian source, which testifies that the Muslims did not abuse power and they did not betray the trust that the Christians had bestowed upon them. Why did the Muslims return such big sums to the Christians? Why didn’t they keep this wealth when they needed it the most, as they were facing a much larger army than themselves? The response to all these perplexing questions is that these Muslims obeyed God and followed His injunctions in the Qur’an:
“God commands you [people] to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice: God’s instructions to you are excellent, for He hears and sees everything.” The Qur’an 5:58
The Christians of Syria preferred the Muslim rule over the oppressive Byzantines, as the Muslims had brought justice and good governance. Moreover after the Muslims defeated the Byzantine army and returned to Syria, they were welcomed back as heroes. Dionysius confirms this:
“So the Arabs left Damascus and pitched camp by the river Yarmuk. As the Romans marched towards the Arab camp every city and village on their way which had surrendered to the Arabs shouted threats at them. As for crimes the Romans committed on their passage, they are unspeakable, and their unseemliness ought not even to be brought to mind…The Arabs returned, elated with their great victory, to Damascus; and the Damascenes greeted them outside the city and welcomed them joyfully in, and all treaties and assurances were reaffirmed.”
One cannot imagine the conquered welcoming the conqueror “joyfully”. Yet it happened in Syria once upon a time.
EGYPT SAVED FROM BYZANTINE PERSECUTION
Like Syria, Egypt was also governed by the Byzantines. The ruling Byzantine Church was utterly against the existence of any doctrinal dissent. The Egyptians were mostly Jacobite Christians and did not agree with the Byzantine version of Christianity. The result of this disagreement was heavy persecution at the hands of the ruling elite. The eminent British orientalist and historian Thomas Arnold summarised the situation as follows:
“The Jacobites, who formed the majority of the Christian population, had been very roughly handled by the Orthodox adherents of the court and subjected to indignities that have not been forgotten by their children even to the present day. Some were tortured and then thrown into the sea; many followed their Patriarch into exile to escape from the hands of their persecutors, while a large number disguised their real opinions under a pretended acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon.”
When the Muslims arrived in Egypt, lead by ‘Amr bin al-‘Aas, a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad and close companion of his, they were greeted as liberators and the Egyptian Coptic Christians even supported their intervention. John of Nikiu (690 CE), a Coptic bishop in Nikiu (Egypt), asserted that one of the reasons for the Muslim success in Egypt was the hatred of the masses for the Byzantines and that the Egyptians not only refused to fight the Muslims, they actually supported the conquest:
“When Muslims saw the weakness of the Romans and the hostility of the people to the emperor Heraclius because of the persecution wherewith he had visited all the land of Egypt in regard to the orthodox faith at the instigation of Cyrus the Chalcedonian Patriarch [in office 631/2-41], they became bolder and stronger in the war…And people began to help the Muslims.”
It is to be noted that these are contemporary Christian sources testifying that the Muslims were actually supported by the Egyptian Coptic Christians against the Byzantine Christians. If the Byzantines had treated the masses justly, then wouldn’t the Coptic population of Egypt have fought alongside the Byzantines against the Muslims? It was the tolerant attitude of the Muslims and the barbarity of the Byzantines which facilitated the rapid downfall of the Byzantines in the land of the Pharaohs.
If the oppression and injustice as exhibited by the Byzantines was just the norm for ruling powers, then why didn’t the Muslims act in the same way? Like with all matters in life, Muslims are bound to act according to the code of conduct laid out in the Qur’an, and war is no exception. If Muslims happen to be at war, then even when they might be facing severe opposition, Muslims must be righteous and are prohibited from going to extremes:
“Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.” The Qur’an 2:190
For example, Muslims are not allowed to harm innocent men, women and children. This can be seen in the instructions given to the Muslim army by their leader Abu Bakr, the first successor of Prophet Muhammad:
“I advise you ten things: Do not kill women or children or an aged, infirm person. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy an inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except for food. Do not burn bees and do not scatter them. Do not steal from the booty, and do not be cowardly.”
The Qur’an also instructs Muslims with regard to those non-Muslims who do not fight them:
“God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just.” The Qur’an 60:8
Muslims are not supposed to fight anyone who desires peace and co-existence and in the absence of any religious hostility and persecution, they are commanded to be kind to all. Alfred J. Butler, whose work on the Arab Conquest of Egypt is to this day an authoritative reference point, studied the relevant chronicles and made many profound statements pertaining to the Islamic leadership’s tolerance and protection of the Christian population in Egypt:
“After all that the Copts had suffered at the hands of the Romans and the Patriarch Cyrus, it would not have been unnatural if they had desired to retaliate upon the Melkites [the Romans]. But any such design, if they cherished it, was sternly discountenanced by ‘Amr, [the Muslim conqueror of Egypt] whose government was wisely tolerant but perfectly impartial between the two forms of religion. Many facts might be cited in proof of this contention…two forms of Christianity must be imagined as subsisting side by side under the equal protection of the conquerors.”
This is exactly what had occurred in Syria as we saw in the previous section. The Syrians preferred the rule of the Muslims, just like the Egyptians. It was the justice of Islam that appealed to both populations. Moreover the Coptics not only welcomed the Muslims, they facilitated the conquest by joining the ranks of the conquerors.
SPAIN LIBERATED FROM TYRANNY
Muslims landed in Spain in 711 CE and many sources testify that they were welcomed by the population, as their reputation preceded them. This was, again, due to the severe persecution certain communities were facing therein. Under the Catholic Church’s rule, the Jewish community, in particular, was severely oppressed. The Catholic hierarchy in Spain held many councils to solve political and religious disputes and in these councils, severe edicts were issued against the Jews of Spain. One of the clauses in the text of the proceedings of the Fourth Council of Toledo (633 CE) states:
“We decree that the sons and daughters of the Jews should be separated from the company of their parents in order that they should not become further entangled in their deviation, and entrusted either to monasteries or to Christian, God fearing men and women, in order that they should learn from their way of life to venerate the faith and, educated on better things, progress in their morals as well as their faith.'
Hence, the children of the Jews were to be forcefully converted to Catholicism. Jews weren’t the only ones facing tyranny but they were easy targets due to them being a minority and having a way of life that was distinct from their Christian persecutors. So, when the Muslims arrived, Jews were the first people to greet them as saviours. Zion Zohar, a Jewish American historian, confirms the appreciation that Jews felt for the Muslim arrival:
“Thus, when Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar from North Africa in 711 CE and invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Jews welcomed them as liberators from Christian Persecution.”
This was the beginning of the Golden Age as far as the Jews were concerned. The behaviour of the Muslims in Spain was no different to their conduct in Syria and Egypt. They facilitated freedom of religion for all people regardless of any differences. This was a golden opportunity for the Jews to flourish and make progress. Prior to the Muslim arrival, the Jews couldn’t imagine having religious freedom, as they were facing extinction at the hands of the Catholic Church. Zion Zohar summarised the benefits Jews reaped from the Muslim protection as follows:
“Born during this era of Islamic rule, the famous Golden Age of Spanish Jewry (circa 900-1200) produced such luminaries as: statesman and diplomat Hasdai ibn Shaprut, vizier and army commander Shmuel ha-Nagid, poet-philosophers Solomon Ibn Gabriol and Judah Halevi, and at the apex of them all, Moses Ben Maimon, also known among the Spaniards as Maimonides.”
Heinrich Graetz, a nineteenth century Jewish historian expressed similar sentiments regarding Islamic rule:
“It was in these favourable circumstances that the Spanish Jews came under the rule of Mahometans [Muslims], as whose allies they esteemed themselves the equals of their co-religionists in Babylonia and Persia. They were kindly treated, obtained religious liberty, of which they had so long been deprived, were permitted to exercise jurisdiction over their co-religionists, and were only obliged, like the conquered Christians, to pay poll tax…”
Thus the Islamic rule proved to be one of the best things in the history of Jewry. The Spanish Jews reached such a high level of learning and progress that they could now claim to be the leaders of the world Jewry. The Jews were certainly saved from extinction by the Muslim conquest of Spain. Moreover for the first time the three Abrahamic faiths were able to co-exist alongside one another in peace and harmony. Maria Rosa Menocal, one of the authorities on medieval European literature, authored a book to pay her respect to the peaceful co-existence between three Abrahamic faiths in medieval Spain and she titled it the “Ornament of the world”. Indeed, Spain had become an Ornament of the World but sadly this ornament was destroyed upon the departure of the Muslims, as Spanish historian Ulick Burke puts it painfully:
“The institutions that had flourished under the Moslem, died when the Moslem departed; and after four centuries of light and learning, Andalusia fell back, under the Christian rule, into a condition of ignorance and barbarism , nearly, if not quite, equal to that of the north western provinces of the peninsula…”
This culminated with the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, an edict issued by Catholic Monarchs of Spain ordering the expulsion of Jews from the lands. From the 13th to the 16th centuries many European countries expelled the Jews from their territory on at least 15 occasions.
It is abundantly clear from the evidence seen above that the Muslim conquest of Spain initiated one of the brightest periods in the history of man. The darkness of oppression and injustice reigned over Spain prior to the Muslim arrival and it was the mercy of Islam that liberated the Jewish population. This behaviour of the Muslims was not accidental; the previous examples of Syria and Egypt serve to demonstrate the consistency of their conduct in different lands and in different times. Thus the laws of the Qur’an are a mercy from God to mankind, Muslim and non Muslim alike, when they are implemented as intended by God, in accordance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad:
“And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.” The Qur’an 21:107
THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUSTICE, TOLERANCE AND PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE
Much of Western philosophy and science finds its basis in the thoughts and teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers. In the 6th century BCE the ancient Greeks broke away from a mythological approach to understanding the world, and it initiated an approach based on reason and evidence (what we call “rational thinking” today). It is defined largely by three great thinkers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, in around 387 BC which helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. The Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years as a beacon of higher learning, until it was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 CE in an effort by the Catholic Church to suppress the heresy of pagan thought. The Greek ancient chronicler John Malalas recorded:
“During the consulship of Decius [529 CE], the Emperor issued a decree and sent it to Athens ordering that no one should teach philosophy nor interpret the laws.”
Following the closure of the Greek schools of philosophy, Europe entered into a 1,000 year period of intellectual slumber. Thus the “lights went out” on rational thinking and Europe entered into the Dark Ages. Indeed, Europe’s creative energies and inventiveness are acknowledged much later, only from the dawn of the “scientific revolution” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A good example that is characteristic of this era is that of the astronomer Galileo. In 1610 he published a work which promoted heliocentrism, which is the idea that the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the centre of the Solar System. Today science has confirmed that this model of the universe is correct, however at that time it conflicted with the prevailing theological belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth, known as geocentrism, a view which the Catholic Church held due to its literal interpretation of the Bible. Galileo’s discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Church formally declared heliocentrism to be heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas. Later the Church found him “gravely suspect of heresy”, sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.
This intellectual slumber of Europe is in stark contrast to the Islamic world. The coming of the Qur’an in the seventh century not only transformed Arabia but also the lands that were under the control of the Muslims. The peace and sense of security that Islamic rule brought about consequently produced one of the most successful civilisations in the history of the world. While Europe was in the Dark Ages it was the Muslims that produced some of the best known scholars and work. Victor Robinson, a historian of science, eloquently summed up the contrast between medieval Europe and Islamic Spain:
“Europe was darkened at sunset, Cordova shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Cordova built a thousand baths; Europe was covered with vermin, Cordova changed its undergarments daily; Europe lay in mud, Cordova’s streets were paved; Europe’s palaces had smoke-holes in the ceiling, Cordova’s arabesques were exquisite; Europe’s nobility could not sign its name, Cordova’s children went to school; Europe’s monks could not read the baptismal service, Cordova’s teachers created a library of Alexandrian dimensions.”
Some examples of Muslim advances in science are the mathematician Al-Khawarizmi who played a significant role in the development of algebra. He also came up with the concept of algorithms which is why he is called the grandfather of computer science. The physician Az-Zahrawi is considered the greatest medieval surgeon and is described by many as the father of modern surgery. He made pioneering discoveries in surgical procedures and instruments, for example the material he utilised for internal stitching is still used in surgery today. The astronomer Al-Sufi made the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy. This was the first galaxy other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. The philosopher Ibn Sina is considered one of the greatest thinkers and scholars in history. He provided the first descriptions of bacteria and viral organisms. He also discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases and introduced the concept of quarantine to limit the spread of disease. He has been so influential in medicine that he is referred to as the father of modern medicine .
You may be surprised to learn that many of the scientific words and terms we use today are taken from the Arabic language; this is a legacy of the discoveries of Muslim scientists. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr”, taken from the title of one of the books by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi. The word “algorithm” is taken from al-Khwarizmi’s name itself. The word “alchemy” comes almost unchanged from the Arabic “al-kimya”. One of the greatest contributions made by Arab scholars was their development of the science of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, you’ll find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Finally, we owe the decimal number system that we use for counting to Arab mathematicians. In fact the most common symbolic representation of numbers in the world today (1, 2, 3 etc.) are actually Arabic numerals.
You may be wondering, what is it about the Qur’an that inspired Muslims to go from the depths of ignorance of the pre-Islamic era to being leaders of the world in the sciences? Many of these scientists were excellent Islamic theologians and it was the Qur’an which drew their attention to inquire into the natural world and showed them the path to knowledge and enlightenment:
“Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.” The Qur’an 96:1-5
These verses make up the first passage revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It is interesting that of all the things which God could have began His revelation with, the actions of reading and writing were chosen. Notice how the very first word revealed was a commandment to “read”. Thus the Qur’an attaches great importance to knowledge and education.
“And Allah has extracted you from the wombs of your mothers not knowing a thing, and He made for you hearing and vision and intellect that perhaps you would be grateful.” The Qur’an 16:78
God created man and provided him with the tools for acquiring knowledge, namely hearing, sight and wisdom. Thus the Qur’an reminds us that we should be grateful to God for these tools which give us the means to obtain knowledge.
“…How can those who know be equal to those who do not know? Only those who have understanding will take heed.” The Qur’an 39:9
Here the Qur’an highlights the noble status of the one who has knowledge; they are superior to those who lack knowledge, as one who is knowledgeable has greater understanding. This encourages Muslims to continually seek knowledge.
“Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? And at the sky – how it is raised? And at the mountains – how they are erected? And at the earth – how it is spread out?” The Qur’an 88:17 – 20
The Qur’an draws our attention to many natural phenomena by encouraging us to observe the world around us.
“There truly are signs in the creation of the heavens and earth, and in the alternation of night and day, for those with understanding, who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down, who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth…” The Qur’an 3:190-191
Moreover this observation of the world around us should not be aimless but rather we should ponder and reflect on what we see.
“If you have doubts about the revelation We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a single chapter like it– enlist whatever witnesses you have other than God– if you truly [think you can].” The Qur’an 2:23
The concept of putting ideas to the test is encouraged by the Qur’an. So too is the use of witnesses in order to validate conclusions. It must be noted that no other religious text challenges its reader in such ways; the use of falsification tests is unique to the Qur’an.
Let’s summarise these concepts that the Qur’an puts forward with regards to knowledge: using our senses to observe the world around us, thinking and reflecting on what we observe, putting ideas to the test and providing witnesses to validate our conclusions. If these concepts seem familiar to you it’s because they resemble the modern scientific method. Today, it is understood to students of science that everything must be proven. You cannot make claims about scientific theories based on assumption without experimentation. The scientific method is the process by which science is carried out and involves observing some natural phenomenon, making a hypothesis based on the observations and then putting the hypothesis to the test by carrying out experiments to determine whether the original hypothesis is correct. If the hypothesis turns out to be correct then it becomes a theory (a proven hypothesis), and if it isn’t correct then further observation will be performed, the original hypothesis will be updated and the whole process will repeat itself. For example, a fun anecdote we are taught in school is that an apple fell onto the head of the scientist Sir Isaac Newton when he was sitting under a tree. Based on this observation he then came up with the hypothesis that there must be some force or attraction that makes the apple fall to the ground, he tested his hypothesis and this is how he devised the law of gravity.
Now whether or not an apple really did fall onto Sir Isaac Newton’s head isn’t important, what matters is that it is the scientific method which allowed him to validate his ideas about how gravity works. Now you can appreciate why this experimental approach to science is perhaps one of the greatest ideas ever conceived of by mankind, it is the basis of all scientific progress and without it we wouldn’t have devised laws of physics such as gravity. It is theories such as this that have allowed mankind to create the automobile, computer and travel into space.
You may be wondering, who came up with such an important idea? Before Islam, the ancient Greek philosophies of science were predominant in Western civilisation. The Greeks believed that knowledge should be advanced through deduction, which means that you rely on reason alone without taking evidence into consideration. The development of a scientific process resembling the modern method was developed by the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham. He is regarded as the father of the scientific method and was the first scientist in history to insist that everything be proven through induction which uses observations and experimentation to challenge previously held theories. His process involved the following stages:
- Observation of the natural world.
- Stating a definite problem.
- Formulating a robust hypothesis.
- Test the hypothesis through experimentation.
- Analyse the results.
- Interpret the data and draw conclusions.
- Publish the findings.
Ibn al-Haytham first studied theology, the Qur’an, and he stated that it was the Qur’an that inspired him to study philosophy and science:
“I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.”
Using his revolutionary scientific method, Ibn al-Haytham made leaps and bounds in the field of optics. In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works and using dissections he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focussed and is projected to the back of the eye.
The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to understand the way light works and devices such as eyeglasses, magnifying lenses, telescopes and cameras were developed. Without Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific method, we may still be living in a time when speculation, superstition, and unproven myths are the basis of science. It is not a stretch to say that without his ideas, the modern world of science that we know today would not exist.
THE ORIGINS OF THE EUROPEAN ENLIGHTENMENT AND RENAISSANCE
In the thirteenth century the seeds of Muslim learning began to germinate in Europe. Thus Europe awoke from the Dark Ages and entered a new era of enlightenment known as the Renaissance. Translations of Arabic works on science were made for almost three centuries starting from the tenth to the thirteenth century and gradually spread throughout Europe. Professor George Saliba penned a book on this very topic and stated that:
“there is hardly a book on Islamic civilization, or on the general history of science, that does not at least pretend to recognize the importance of the Islamic scientific tradition and the role this tradition played in the development of human civilisation in general.”
Professor Thomas Arnold was of the opinion that the European Renaissance originated in Islamic Spain:
“…Muslim Spain had written one of the brightest pages in the history of Medieval Europe. Her influence had passed through Provence into the other countries of Europe, bringing into birth a new poetry and a new culture, and it was from her that Christian scholars received what of Greek philosophy and science they had to stimulate their mental activity up to the time of the Renaissance.”
The classical Greek works referenced in the above quote were lost to Europe during its Dark Ages. It was Muslim scholars who rescued these works by translating and preserving them in the Arabic language, and they subsequently found their way back into Europe by being translated from Arabic into Latin. Moreover Muslims didn’t just preserve them; they built upon them by studying the ancient Greek works in detail, carried out experiments, wrote commentaries on them and corrected the theories where necessary in the form of their own independent works. A few such examples are Al-Biruni’s criticism and correction of Aristotle’s philosophy in a work called “Questions and Answers”; Al-Khwarizmi’s correction of Ptolemy’s geography in his work “Face of the Earth”; Ibn al-Haytham’s correction and refutation of Galen’s optics based upon practical experiments; Al-Khazini’s work on measures of weights and densities surpassed his Greek predecessors .
In fact Europe took far more from the Muslim world than this book can do justice. Among other things: windmills, soap, perfume, sugar, irrigation, spices, universities, street lights, the paper industry, mass literacy, freedom of thought, architecture, poetry, hygiene, libraries and ceramics. New Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…) in particular revolutionised the mathematics of Medieval Europe and consequently had a lasting effect on architecture. Cathedrals, castles, palaces, gardens and many more structures were built in medieval Europe by the help of Islamic Spain’s architectural techniques.
Finally, let’s perform a thought experiment: if the Qur’an had never been revealed, then what would be the likely state of the world today? Let’s think this through step by step. From the Qur’an emerged the justice of Islamic law; from that justice came peace and co-existence; with that peaceful co-existence came free intellectual activity in Muslim lands and from this freedom of literacy originate the knowledge that took Europe out of the Dark Ages and ushered in the Renaissance. Thus isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the modern world, with all of its advanced technology like the internet and mobile phones, is a direct consequence of the revelation of the Qur’an?
 Pope Gregory I quoted by Mohammad Farooq Kemal, The Crescent vs The Cross, Lahore, 1997, p. 7.
 The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, tr by A. Guillaume, (1955, 2004), p. 151-2.
 Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, Liverpool, 1993, p. 156-7.
 Ibid, p. 157.
 Arnold, Preaching, p. 102.
 John of Nikiou, quoted by Petra M. Sijpesteijn, Egypt in the Byzantine World, Cambridge, 2007, p. 442.
 Muatta Imam Malik, Kitabul Jihad.
 Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, 1902, Oxford, p. 447-8.
 The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages, edited by Amnon Linder, New York, 1997, p.488.
 Zion Zohar, Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewry, New York, 2005, p. 8-9.
 Ibid, p. 9.
 H. Graetz, History of the Jews, London, 1892, v 3, p. 112.
 Burke, Spain, p. 288.
 John Malalas’s Chronicle 18.47
 Victor Robinson, The Story of Medicine, New York, 1936, p. 164.
 For details see the encyclopaedic work by George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Washington, 1927-48, 3 volumes.
 Steffens, B., Ibn al-Haytham: first scientist, 2007.
 George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007, p.1.
 Arnold, Preaching, p. 131.
 For details see S. E. Al-Djazairi, The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation, Oxford, 2005. Also, George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007.