The traditions of knowledge truly stands by the simple maxims – seeking knowledge is seeking wisdom, and it belongs to whoever seeks them sincerely and truthfully – doesn’t matter who you are. And for this maxim the Prophet (saw) said: “Seek knowledge even in China” – which implies that knowledge has no boundaries and geographic limitations.
The traditions of knowledge during the Islamic Golden Age, was among the “biggest explosion” of knowledge that the human had ever witnessed in its history. It was far bigger and more influential than the Western Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, the English and Scottish Enlightenment, and even the current advancement of Scientific Revolutions that brought us the Human Knowledge in the World today.
I am saying this not to “romanticize about Islam” as some would say and do; that is to glorify the past glory, as reaction to the sad state of the Muslims world today. This is in fact not about Islam or Muslims at all – it is about knowledge and wisdom – that we as human kind gained over period of time. History is like a “chain”, small pieces of “links” locked and connected together to make the full chain. Nobody should or could deny any piece of the links – as it contributes to the build up of the whole chain; without even a single piece of the link , those chain is broken and hence no longer become the chain.
And when we look into the history of knowledge – then we will realize that the Islamic Golden Age provided very much significant number of “links” (if we want to use this parable) to development of human knowledge.
Let us take a few examples:
- Kitab Al Fihrist of Ibnu Nadim, written circa 960 CE (4th century after Hijrah); which is a monumental works of “indexation” of all works up to his time. He was a resident of Baghdad, of Persian origin. The book was written in Arabic, and it contains records of all scholars prior to his time, from the work of the Ancient Greeks, Persian, Roman (Byzantine included), and Arabic. For example, the only records of Manicheism, are only available in the Fihrist – which otherwise, there won’t be any records at all left of this ancient religion, which at one time spread all over Central Asia as well as the Chinese Empire of the time (circa 150 CE to 400 CE). As the name stands, it is the first complete “Bibliography” of the “knowledge” up to that time. Today, it still stood as the source of reference for any studies of the antiquities.
- Kitab Al Qanun fi Tibb (Canon of Medicine) of Ibnu Sina (Avincenna), written around 1025; which is the first ever comprehensive compendium of writings on medicine up to his time. Even though in accordance to the current knowledge of medicine, a lot of things that were written could be discarded (based on current medical knowledge), it remains nevertheless a major source of medical sciences (as it is first ever established by Ibnu Sina) till today. Prior to this time, medicine was a domain that were steeped in mysticism, mystery, as well as outright shamanism at times.
- When we talk about philosophy – it could almost be said that the philosophies of Greek antiquities, came almost solely through the Islamic Golden Age time – since only through the likes of Al Kindi (d. 873 CE), Al Farabi (d. 950 CE), Ibnu Sina (d. 1037 CE), and in particular Ibnu Rushd (d.1198) – the West manage to get hold of the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many others of even earlier times like Pythagoras, Euclid, Galen and so on.
- Last but not least, is off course the famous works of Ibnu Khaldun (d. 1406 CE), The Muqaddimah and his historical compendium. Which sets the basis of the study of history, sociology, as well as political science, and economy – as we understood them today.
These works and many countless other works by literally tens of thousand of scholars and authors during those times (since 700 CE until almost 1700 CE), represents so many things that we have taken for granted today; and some of us may even assumed as if they are the inventions of western civilization. In fact, what the western civilization had done, is take off from where the Muslims left off – which is exactly logically as any development of knowledge would took place. Knowledge never developed from or in a vacuum.
Let me take for example, in the case of Economics – which is among the “newest” of the “sciences” that were developed. To say that the concept of human actions as “human economicus” or “human economic actions” is new, is far from accurate and correct. It was there during the Roman Empire and Persian Empire (prior to the coming of Islam), it was also there in the Indian sub-continent empires (and off course it was there in Chinese dynasties as well) – during the periods of say from 300 BCE all the way until 700 CE. These were gigantic empires that covers major parts of the world population.Land taxes as well as some forms of poll taxes were the dominant form of state finances in almost all of these empires. In fact, they have developed laws, rules and methods of how to administer the state (or empire) finances through a deliberate and comprehensive schemes, as well as massive bureaucracies to manage them. Currencies were developed and used, mainly either in Gold coins (Denar) or Silver coins (Drachma), mode of exchanges were established, marketplace were developed and regulated, international (or cross border) trades were abundant. The success and failures of the empires were dependent on the economic performance; and all military campaigned are rooted in the source of money to run expensive campaigns, and domination over territories means more income for the state. All were part and parcel of the political economic domains. When we look at it, it sounds like nothing is “new” in the sense of the issues and problems that they faced.
When the Muslim took over these empires (starting around 700 CE until all the way to 1800s), what they have done is to continue these political economic activities, with their own additions and improvements. They not only did adopt many of these practices, but also put them into better applications, driven by the doctrines of the religion of Islam. In fact, very early on, during the Umayyad Caliphs, Qadhi Abu Yusuf, wrote a comprehensive works on Kitab Al Kharaj (which is the land tax and state finances), as the guide for the Muslim empires. It remains among the major works on Islamic Jurisprudence till this day.
All these were “links” in the chains of knowledge (in this case political economy) which were further perpetuated and expanded. As an example is the issue of “debt economy” – which centers around the prohibition of Riba (usury) and the capital formation, had been around well almost 1,000 years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation. What the Muslim did, were further picked up by St. Thomas Aquinas, who was a “major student” of the work of Muslims in Spain (Cordoba), in particular the works of Ibnu Rushd, whom St Thomas admit as “his teacher”.
All of these is not to deny what had been developed in the West, where plethora of writers and thinkers took from where others left off and continue to develop their own theories and scholarly works. In fact, that is the most commendable thing to do – as human is a progressive being – the needs of today were different than that those of yesterday, and the needs of tomorrow, will undoubtedly be different than the needs of today. Hence, solutions must always be thought off, issues must be debated, methods must be found, and finally, whatever that works best, must be applied. If Capitalism is the answer to the economic problems and issues in the last 300 years, and if it could provide workable solutions and answers – then be it. It will take the momentum, and people will adopt it as their methods and means.
To say in the same way, whatever the Romans or Persians did, it was working for them for sometime (by the fact that their empires lasted more than 500 years is a clear testimony to that), and whatever the Muslims did, it was also working very well for them (by the fact that the Muslim Empires survived for almost 1200 years). In short, whatever they did, and whatever method, concepts etc. that they have deployed was working and suited very well for those period of time. There is no denial in that; and in fact, to downgrade as well as ridiculed them, is similar to ridicule Sir Isaac Newton, on his theory of gravity. His theory did works well and serve the scientific endeavor well for at least 200 years or more. What the sciences later on discovered, is due what Newton discovered. Denying Newton is to deny the current sciences. To deny the Muslims and peoples in the past of their contribution to is akin to deny the current knowledge that we have (up to this day and age), which is outright dishonest and incorrect.
The only question remains is – is there any wisdom’s of the people of the past that could remain relevant and be useful today, as well as for the future? In another word, have the human reached his zenith of knowledge and wisdom’s in the way that we have “all the answers” to “human problems”, and the methods, solutions etc. that we have deployed is the “final thing” and little more is needed to be done?
I guess, only a fool, and people who refuse to understand what knowledge and wisdom means, will agree to that. If the current dominating wisdom of the western civilization is to be entered into the chains (as links of the chains), it present only a small portion of the chain; and definitely not the entire chain. Furthermore, the “age” of the western civilization is barely 300 years old – to compare with 500 years or 1,200 years of others. The true and final test is yet to be there.
As the philosophers of today are grappling with the philosophers of antiquities, in search of their words of wisdom – the quest of knowledge and wisdom – I guess will continue to be the quest of human kind – until eternity.
[Note: I had based my discussions above, purely from Scientific view of knowledge and wisdom – and avoid any issues relating to Religion. Once we brought in religious issues, then the discussions tends to be biased towards questions of faith – which is an important issue, but should be discussed in different domain]