The Rise and Decline of Scientific Productivity in the Muslim World: A Preliminary Analysis

Recently I published an article in the Journal of Islam and Civilisational Renewal entitled “The Rise and Decline of Scientific Productivity in the Muslim World: A Preliminary Analysis”. Below I have provided the abstract and a brief excerpt of the article. For further reading, please subscribe to the journal. Enjoy.

Abstract: Scientific productivity has been in decline in the Muslim world since as early as the 15th century and is only now reviving. Many factors have been attributed to the rise and decline, falling under two broad categories: external and internal influences. The popular understanding of scientific decline in the Muslim world, known as the ‘classical narrative’ promulgated by orientalists, suggests that only external influences – mainly the synthesis of Persian and Greek elements of civilisation into the Arab imperialist project – were the reasons for the sharp rise of the sciences within Islamic civilisation. Simultaneously, this narrative also suggests that internal influences, exemplified in the impact of Al-Ghazālī’s thought towards a more conservative religious approach — as opposed to the more ‘rationalist’ elements of the Mutazilite School of theology – played the most significant role in decline. This paper shows that the classical narrative is invalid, that there were more legitimate factors at play in both the rise and decline of science in the Muslim world, and that the contemporary stagnation in scientific productivity is a result of this misunderstanding.

(pp. 239-242)

Decline and the ‘Age of Dependency’

If the classical narrative cannot account for the rise of science in Islamic civilisation based on the poor assumptions of a ‘conflict between religion and science’, then it certainly cannot account for its decline. Evidence already points in the direction that, rather than restricting scientific thought, the more conservative elements of Islamic tradition allowed for it to thrive freely without much limitation.

However, the model of the European experience with the Church was transferred fluidly onto Islamic history without concern for the differences in culture or ideology, thus making it far easier for the West to essentialise, and ultimately demonise, many aspects of Islamic civilisation without the faintest clue of the realities or the need to study them. As such, it remains a convincing myth that only seems to cultivate a complex of superiority in the internal influences of a particular culture; that is the West.

Saliba notes that one of the main targets of the promoters of the classical narrative is al-Ghazālī, whom they lay the burden of the decline of science. Al-Ghazālī is often blamed in this respect because of his refutation of the Aristotelian philosophers within Muslim society during the 12th century CE, through his now famously known work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-Falāsifa). It is argued that al-Ghazālī’s treatise would eventually become popular, therefore buttressing more traditional and mystical elements of the faith at the expense of the more ‘rational’ and scientific variations of Islamic thought. His main argument, as many Orientalists would have one believe, was his refutation of one of the foundational concepts of scientific inquiry: the necessity between cause and effect, although such a necessity is doubtful in certain sciences today, such as Quantum Physics.

Al-Ghazālī’s apparent disregard for causality, for the sake of undermining the philosopher’s heretical theological beliefs of an eternal universe, would eventually lead others to abandon the scientific enterprise all-together, thinking that because God is in control of all things cause and effect – known as ‘occasionalism’ –there is no need to pursue scientific knowledge. Despite this being a clear non-sequitur,[1] especially in light of contemporary science, it is an objection that holds no merit because scientific productivity continued to thrive long well after the publication of al-Ghazālī’s treatise, up until the 16th century.

Saliba catalogues several important scientific discoveries, well advanced beyond previous generations, which occurred centuries after The Incoherence.  Although these discoveries are at the individual level and don’t appear to be brought about by any institutionalised initiatives, they still reflect a scientific mentality prevalent within society and one which had no real restrictions.  For instance, Saliba notes the discoveries of scholars such as Ibn al-Nafīs, the 13th century medical practitioner who discovered the circulation of blood,[2] or Kamal al-Din al-Farisī of the 14th century, who advanced beyond the science of optics of his more famous predecessor, Ibn al-Haytham – also known as the “father of the scientific method.”[3] Al-Farisī was the first person to understand how the colours of a rainbow were produce by creating his own instruments to observe the phenomenon.[4] However, perhaps the greatest discoveries were made in astronomy, leading to a thorough critique of the Ptolemaic system, which would pave the way for Copernicus to create a necessary paradigm shift in the understanding of the revolution of the planets and our solar system. All of this is evidenced in the sophisticated commentaries produced by the likes of the 16th century astronomer, Shams al-Dīn al-Khafirī.[5] In other words, the ‘post-Ghazālī’ centuries were ripe with scientific discoveries and treatises that would eventually influence the European understanding of these fields.

Al-Ghazālī’s innocence is more profoundly understood in the context of his actual thoughts on causality. Although it can be admitted that al-Ghazālī may have been overzealous and extreme in is statements, many scholars have mistaken his views as anti-rationalist simply because he denied a necessary link between cause and effect. However, whether such a view can be blamed for the decline in science is questionable, especially given the fact that he still believed the there was a necessary connection, but not as an intrinsic quality of things themselves:

The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary, according to us…Their connection is due to the prior decree of God, who creates them side by side, not to its being necessary in itself, incapable of separation.[6]

So the idea that al-Ghazālī was solely responsible for the decline of scientific productivity is unsubstantiated, especially given the fact that none of his thoughts were necessarily anti-scientific. It is further claimed that his apparent “dislike for non-instrumental sciences” may have also been a cause in the decline, although there is little to no evidence for this accusation, which appears to be nothing more than a projection of the internalist’s understanding of ‘knowledge for its own sake’, a view that has never truly existed in the history of civilisations – knowledge has always been sought for ulterior motives, usually practical.

Following Saliba’s deconstruction, he offers an alternative account of the period of decline, on the basis of events that occurred around the 16th century CE. During this period, evidence of several external influences come into play, such as the de-unification of the Islamic civilisation into three independent polities, the ongoing wars with the Western world, and the migration of the West across the Atlantic in search of new wealth and resources given the Muslim’s monopolisation of trade routes and land in the southern and eastern parts of the European region.[7] Here, we begin to see the phenomena of decline manifest itself, where educational institutions for the sciences began to wane and total dependency on foreign scientific discoveries, institutions, and technology began to take hold.[8] The reaction of Muslims to the new influx of resources and wealth into Europe, their own political division, and losing ground to Western military forces (such as in Vienna), may be better called the ‘Age of Dependency’, rather than decline, since science was still valued and sought after, but this time externally to one’s own civilisational context.

Rather than looking inward for answers, Muslims took to expediency and quick results to advance their power so as to keep up with European progress. Instead of a patient and considered strategy to these new problems, the reaction resorted in a period where self-reliance, independence, and a true ‘Islamic’ science would eventually come to an end.

This ‘Age of Dependency’ manifested itself more prominently during the time of the Ottoman Empire, where the Turks attempted to modernise their societies through European invention and ideas. It would eventually become the primary feature of Muslim majority societies during the colonial and post-colonial period, with Muslims adopting a perspective of science as the ultimate universal standard of truth and knowledge – known as positivism –motivated by their utmost degradation at the hands of Western forces for nearly two centuries.[9]


[1] Meaning “the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises”.

[2] Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 239.

[3]Ross Pomeroy, “Ibn al-Haytham: The Muslim Scientist Who Birthed the Scientific Method,” Real Clear Science, March 25, 2014, accessed on March 16, 2015,

[4] Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 239.

[5] Ibid, 240.

[6] Quoted in, Hamid Zarkaysi, Al-Ghazali’s Concept of Causality: With Reference to His Interpretations of Reality and Knowledge (Gombak: IIUM Press, 2010), 210-211.

[7] Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 249-255.

[8] Ibid, 247.

[9] Positivism was formally introduced into the Muslim world by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghāni, the so-called ‘Islamic reformist’ of the 20th century, who agreed with many of the positivistic critiques of the Muslim world by French Orientalist Ernest Renan. Renan argued that Muslims (and Arabs) lagged in science because of the very inherent nature of Islam being opposed to the universal, objective nature of scienceccAl-Afghāni responded to Renan, agreeing about the nature of science, but that Islam was inherently welcoming to it. Al-Afghāni’s perspective would later be adopted by the majority of Muslim society, spurring popular ideas about how there are ‘scientific miracles’ in the Qur’an.



4 thoughts on “The Rise and Decline of Scientific Productivity in the Muslim World: A Preliminary Analysis

  1. “His main argument, as many Orientalists would have one believe, was his refutation of one of the foundational concepts of scientific inquiry: the necessity between cause and effect, although such a necessity is doubtful in certain sciences today, such as Quantum Physics.”

    Just to nitpick, it is not that causal relations are “doubtful” in areas such as QM but rather that they are considered “non-intuitive,” though contemporary philosophers of physics are leaning further away from this view as well.

  2. Salaam! interesting, maybe it is time to re -read the Qur’an in light of science as the Sufi’s really understood it. Break the metaphor of “religion”. Simple, He who is denoted by the Name Allah (SWT) is What science has discovered as “Beyond Matter” (Quantum Potential). The Material Universe and all that it is made of is enveloped in this essence…the “Photons” (Quantum Physic) if you like… the stuff of the universe and all of mankind.Yet, it is the “conscious” that that will live internally in stages after stages until infinity. So Muslim’s, must move from the “Age of Dependency” to the Age of understanding the Hereafter….

  3. I tried reading Al-Ghazali’s Incoherence, and I realized that his book only centered on minutiae and never criticizes either the philosophical nor the scientific pursuit. Those saying he was an anti-science reactionary has not read what he said.

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