Imam Dr Zijad’s Corner: Islam’s Gifts: The Foundation of Renaissance (Part 1)

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To write about Islam’s gifts to humanity in a few pages, is to do injustice to the subject. However, the subject is not that well known to many people, whether Muslims or not. Therefore, even a glimpse of Islam’s major scientific and philosophical contributions would be of benefit especially at a time of a worldwide focus on Islam and Muslims and when there is a need to remind peoples of the great history of Islam and what Islam gave to the world. Such a reminder would contribute to a better appreciation of the civilizational significance of Islam to the West and to a healthier atmosphere for a dialogue of civilizations in our contemporary times.

The immensity of Muslim contributions is best presented by recapitulating some significant activities which made enormous constructive impact on Europe’s struggle to break out from the Dark Ages. Here are only two of the Islam’s many gifts to the world (some others would be mentioned in the next several issues of the SNMC enewsletter):

Religious Pluralism

From the early days of Islam, the idea of interfaith dialogue and of religious openness has traditionally manifested in Islam through an intrinsic and profound degree of Muslim acceptance and respect for other great faiths. The main formative source of Islam – the Qur’an – describes Jews and Christians as People of the Book and invites them to come to a common word among themselves.

The notion represents all those faiths, which like Islam itself, are founded upon a written scripture of spiritual revelation. The People of the Book enjoy special privileges of acceptance and respect because their legal status under Islam was infinitely better than that accorded to them by their previous rulers — the Byzantines in Syrian, Palestine and Egypt, and the Sassanids in Persia or the Visigoths in Spain.

Jews under the benevolent rule of Islam not only enjoyed safety for self and property but also gained religious liberty, economic freedom and enjoyed a marked degree of autonomy for their communities. Perhaps, the greatest benefit  Jews received under Islamic rule  was that the centuries-old prohibition against Jewish residents of Jerusalem, first imposed by the Romans and then maintained by the Byzantine Christians, was lifted by Muslims and thus  many Jews returned to the city and became its residents. Baghdad became the intellectual capital of Judaism with its Talmudic schools and the presence of court of the exiharch.

The same could be said about the large and numerous Christian communities in the Muslim Empire. Islam granted them religious freedom and put an end to Byzantine intolerance of so-called heretical Christian sects. This soon, in the Muslim Empire, resulted in a renaissance of minority churches, the rebuilding of many monasteries and to the hiring of many Monophysite Christians as officials within the administration of the new state. It is also important to note that Baghdad has been an important Christian city and home to the Nestorian, Jacobite and Melekite sects. This respect for Jews and Christians was also exhibited in Muslim Spain as well as in the Ottoman Empire later on.

Intellectual Activity

Islamic philosophy influenced the West and initiated humanistic movements of the West through helping European scholastics in harmonizing philosophy and faith. Philosophy and science were considered in the West, up to the 15th century, as antagonistic to religion. Thus, the philosophy of Aristotle, Plato, and Averroes was banned in Europe; those who preached it were burnt (Bruno) or persecuted (Keplen) or forced to retract (as Galileo did).

By harmonizing faith and science, Islam helped Muslim thinkers in making it possible to create in an unhampered environment a sophisticated civilization. It was Muslims who rekindled the flames of classical Greek science between the 8th and 13th centuries and not Christian Europe.

When Europe was in darkness, the learned scholars of Baghdad established that the Earth was a globe and measured the degrees of longitude many centuries before the so-called Age of Discovery in Europe. Muslims revived the astronomy of Chaldeans, encouraged Jewish alchemists and the science of medicine and translated into Arabic the works of Galeer, the second-century Greek physician.

Muslim historian and theologian, Tabari, in writing his Annals of the Prophets and Kings, spent more than fifteen years of his life studying at Greek and Persian texts at libraries of the Muslim Empire. The same could be said about the quality of Islamic art and architecture. Architects and mathematicians from as far as Constantinople and Samarkand came to Baghdad – the empire’s centre of learning, to study and get enlightened.

Once  Spain became part of the Muslim Empire, the intellectual  tradition of Islam  spread to the Christian nations of Europe and thus enlightenment started in a hitherto Dark Age Europe through the beacon of intellectual and spiritual light of  Muslim Spain. Hence, as Fletcher points out “Islamic scholarship became the firm foundation on which European culture was built.”

(…to be continued in the next e-newsletter – part 2)

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