The Renaissance of Islamic Thought and Culture
by Zach Andolini
We have sent down to you a Book. It will give you eminence, honour and nobility. Will you then not be sensible and reasonable and understand it? (Holy Qur'an, 21:10)
The “Golden-Age” of Islamic thought and culture took place during the rule of the Abbasid khalifas. After the downfall of the Umayyad khalifas, the Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. In this new city of beautiful gardens and majestic architecture, the Islamic empire became a thriving center of religious and scientific thought. In the House of Wisdom, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars were able to collaborate in a way that was unseen throughout the pages of history. New advances in technology, astronomy, chemistry and mathematics have caused many historians to coin this era as “the empire of reason” This empire, having expanded from Europe to China, had become the heart of trade throughout the known world. The Abbasids were so hungry for knowledge, that they gathered thousands of book from around the world and translated them into Arabic for circulation among the empire. Algebra, modern Chemistry, Medicine and Engineering can trace their roots back to this early Islamic empire. During this time of prosperity, many great thinkers would ponder the religious implications of their understanding of science along with the nature of God and the humans relationship to Him. The amazing “Scientific Renaissance” that took place during the Abbasid period led intelligent minds to think about the connection between the Creator and His creation. Their conclusion was that Allah (swt) established the scientific rules that govern the universe and the role of the scientist is to observe the universe in order to gain an understanding of His creation. Then, it is possible to refine those theories through experiment. In this sense, the Abbasids were the pioneers of the modern scientific method. The view of the Abbasids was not that religion and science were incompatible, but rather that science is merely our small attempt to understand the vast complexity of an All-Knowing Creator. Even the first surrah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) begins by saying, “Read in the name of your Lord who created (all things)” (Holy Qur'an, 96:1) This verse proved to the Abbasids that it was a command from God to read, understand and interpret the world that He has created. Even the Prophet (pbuh) said, “The ink of scientists is more holy than the blood of martyrs.” This saying shows the importance of knowledge in Islam. The Prophet (pbuh) also taught that being poor in wealth is better than to live in the poverty of ignorance. Through the eyes of the Abbasids, nature was a reflection of God's self in His creation. Scientific thinking was a way to understand the qualities of Allah (swt) Himself. Essentially, every leaf that fell, every blade of grass that grew, and every gust of wind could not have happened without the will of God.
He is the One who gives life and death and alternates the day and the night. Will you not be then sensible and reasonable? (Holy Qur'an, 23:80)
If this was the case, why did terrible tragedies happen to pious people? Thus came the idea of predestination. The conclusion was that God has some higher plan for us that we are unable to comprehend. Allah (swt) is known in the Qur'an as Al-Aleem (the One who knows everything), Al- Baseer (the One who sees everything), and As-Samee (the One who hears everything). This creates some confusion for those who believe in the notion of free will. If our lives our already planned out down to every step we take; then how do we really have any choice at all? The consensus lies in the middle of both ideas. We do in fact have the ability to choose between right and wrong, which is a test from Allah (swt), but at the same time, our choices and our paths throughout life are already known to Him. Therefore, sin was the act of making the wrong choice by disobeying God's laws.
“Is he who is a believer like unto him who is a sinner? They are not alike! For those who believe and do righteous works, for them are Gardens of Retreat, a welcome (in reward) for what works they did. And as for those who do evil, their abode is the Fire. Whenever they wish to leave, they will be forced back into it, and it will be said to them: Taste the torment of the Fire which you used to reject.” (Holy Qur'an, 32:18-20)
It is important to mention that the theological thoughts of the Abbasids were not something entirely new, but rather, an attempt to gain a deeper meaning from the Quran and Hadiths. For this reason, the majority of the Hadith collections were compiled during the time of the Abbasids. They were able to determine which hadiths were genuine by tracing the lines back to the Prophet (pbuh) and also with a new mathematical method called frequency analysis, which gave them insight into which Hadiths were genuine based on the probability that it was the true words of RasulAllah (pbuh). With the newly acquired paper-making skills from the Chinese, it was possible to write down these sayings and produce them on cheap paper. With a collection of these Hadiths available, scholars were able to analyze their meaning more in depth than before and therefore able to make connections between their spiritual beliefs and the physical world around them.
The Abbasid era came to an end after they lost the majority of their military strength. Much of the empire split up into different autonomous regions. Eventually, because this empire focused more on education and thought instead of military or political control; the Mongols were able to invade and sack Baghdad; bringing the Abbasid period to an end. It wasn't until later when the Ottomans took over in Constantinople that we would again see a unified Muslim nation. The legacy left behind by the Abbasids is that of great philosophical and scientific discovery. The close relationship between science and religion that the Abbasids refined is still a major debate in modern Islamic teachings. Their deep understanding of the universe and close spiritual connection to God are what prompted such miraculous achievements in technology that allowed them to enjoy a long period of social and political affulence.