In ‘The Scientific Muslim’, Mohammad Aslam writes on the rise and fall of scientific temperament in Islam.

There was a time when Baghdad was the centre of the scientific world. The Mutanabbi Street had more than 200 shops selling books ranging from the Holy Qur’an to those on astronomy, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, etc. People used to have personal libraries; scholarly meetings used to be held off and on; serious deliberations were held on the Holy Qur’an in the light of new discoveries and new sciences. Today, one would hardly find the works of al-Razi, Jabir ibn Hayyan or Al-Kindi in the library of any Muslim institution, shop or personal library. In the words of Syed Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi, it is one of the most ironical and unfortunate turning points in history that Muslims, who gave tremendous contributions to the scientific world, forgot their painstaking researches and scholarly attributes, and became a victim of emulation and traditional mindset.

Today the common factor amongst the Muslim masses, already fragmented on the basis of colour, race, country, language, religious school, sect and belief, is the lack of scientific temperament, scientific and logical consciousness and scientific knowledge, together with a diminishing interest towards these virtues. The growing lack of scientific inclination amongst the Muslims in general and particularly those from the Indian subcontinent, is a serious issue and worthy of foremost attention and analysis.

It is indeed a well-established fact that our disposition, its positive and negative aspects, is a result of the education and upbringing we receive. Now, the question which comes before us is that which type of education are we talking about. Is it the education given in our schools or the ‘secular’ education being imparted in other academic institutions? If we term this latter system of education as deficient and worthless, then how come our other fellow countrymen, getting this very education, are surging ahead in different scientific fields? On the other hand, if by ‘education’, we mean the religious and Islamic education imparted in our madrasas and call it defunct then the major question which pops up is that if the Islamic teachings did not inculcate a scientific temperament and inclination in the Muslim mind, then how can we explain the endeavours of Muslim scientists and their technological breakthroughs made between the seventh and twelfth centuries which laid the foundations of contemporary science?

The human history has been witness to such periods wherein education meant merely religious education. People in those days believed that by religious education they imbibed all those things which were supposedly the ultimate aim of human beings. Such characteristics were incorporated in humans that were necessary for their spiritual, physical, individual as well as collective welfare and prosperity.

When early Muslims began moving into India, they established madrasas initially to preserve their religious identity, where only the basic education was imparted and nothing else. However, the system of purely religious education did not last for long. Gradually but steadily, contemporary subjects also came to be a part of the syllabi apart from the religious ones.

To be frank, the government had no control over education during the period of Muslim rulers in India. In fact, even in the Islamic countries, education remained beyond the control of the government during this era because the establishment and the management of madrasas were of a purely independent nature. In the beginning, the mosque in each locality served the purpose of a madrasa as well or there used to be a religious school attached to the mosque for imparting basic education. Children were provided education from the age of six. The teacher was appointed by a well-to-do person of the locality or by a committee. Children belonging to less well-off sections of society were also provided education in these schools.

The education of Muslims in India also started on a similar note. The system of education of Muslims during the periods of Pathans and Mughals was also the result of individual efforts. At times, the educational institutions used to receive huge grants and assistance from rulers and patrons of education. It was Akbar whose government for the first time took interest in education. A separate department for education was established which made arrangements for providing education to people from all religions and communities. The Hindus and Muslims received education under one roof, although their syllabi of education were different. However, certain subjects like mathematics, science, etc., were common to both. Stress was also laid upon scientific and technological education during the Pathan and Mughal regimes. The field of medicine, in particular, made rapid advances in this era and both the Muslims as well as the Hindus benefited from it. A new inclination and a distinct tendency towards education became quite evident during the last leg of the Muslim rule.

The endeavours of some Muslim rulers of Hyderabad (Deccan) in the field of education deserve special mention here. A college of oriental education called Darul-Uloom was established in the city of Hyderabad in 1853-54. It may be regarded as the first step towards general education. Arabic, French, Marathi, Telugu and English languages, and their classical literature were taught there. Not only was education free here, but the students were also given scholarships and awards to motivate and encourage them further. During 1859-60, a Persian and a vernacular language school was set up in each Taluka. Apart from these languages, subjects like mathematics, history and geography were also taught. These institutions were open to one and all, irrespective of religion, caste or creed. In 1878, a public school came up on the lines of those in England, where the children of both Hindu and Muslim elite received education together.

George Sarton, the famous science historian, has unhesitatingly accepted the fact in his book The History of Science that if we divide the period between the seventh and twelfth centuries into 50-year spans and attribute one span to an eminent scholar, we are bound to conclude that all these timespans are swarming with the names of Muslim scientists. On another occasion, he wrote, ‘The fundamental and basic needs of the mankind were fulfilled by the Muslims. The topmost mathematician of this period, the topmost philosopher and the greatest historian were all Muslims’. Social anthropologist Robert Briffault has even gone to the extent of saying, ‘There was hardly any existence of science before the advent of Islam.’ He also gave evidence of the fact that it was Muslims who gave medicine the status of knowledge, dignified and fostered it. He writes, ‘Medicine was more of magic than medicine before Islam.’ One of the greatest steps was the introduction of experimentation by Muslim scholars. Before this illustrious Muslim period, the world was virtually in the dark about proper, systematic and investigative experimentation and their utility. Muslims alone taught the world the importance and relevance of experiments.

The spirit of acquiring knowledge and insight, along with that of conducting researches and investigations, just after the renaissance of Islam is a point to be noted. The aspirations and endeavours of the devoted companions of Prophet Mohammad and the ardent followers of the Qur’an are clear and explicit evidence to the fact that the thirst for knowledge and awareness amongst Muslims had been rekindled by the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet of Allah. By treading on the path shown by the Holy Qur’an, the Muslims were not only successful in acquiring knowledge in a short span of time, rather, they added stars to it.

If we classify the period between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries as the first leg of Islamic culture and civilisation, and that from the 14th century till the present day as the second segment, we can deduce that the condition of Muslims from the point of view of knowledge and learning changed dramatically. In the first segment, the Islamic world was enlightened with knowledge while Europe was trapped in the dungeons of ignorance, superstitions and suspicions. In the second segment, things went topsy-turvy. This period was a mute witness to the Muslims breaking off from science and submerging deep down into blackened waters of ignorance, false beliefs and polytheism, while Europe was illuminated with the torch of knowledge gifted by none other than Muslims.

An interesting study of the first segment was made by American historian of science Charles Coulston Gillispie. He prepared the list of those scientists from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries who contributed to the field of science and laid the foundations for a scientific revolution of the present era. This list includes 132 scientists out of which 105 were from the Islamic world while 10 of them belonged to the non-Islamic world, that is, Europe. However, most of them received their education from the universities of Muslim Spain (Cordova, Granada, etc.). In other words, about 90 per cent of the scientists hailed from the Islamic world. Similar were the statistics for scientific inventions and work. In the last phase of the second segment, that is the 20th century, a survey conducted in 1981 noted that there was no Islamic country featuring in the list of the first 25 countries publishing the largest number of scientific magazines and journals. In 1996 all over the globe, the percentage of Muslim writers was not even one. It is inimical that when the Muslim population was merely 15 per cent of the total world population in the first segment, their involvement in scientific activities was more than 90 per cent and now when the Muslim population has risen to 22 per cent, their representation in the fields of science has plummeted down to less than 1 per cent!