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Emet m'Tsiyon

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why Arab Intellectual Decadence & Lack of Progress?

Emile Dermenghem, a French scholarly apologist for Islam, nevertheless saw that intellectually, Arab-Muslim society had become decadent in the Middle Ages, after a relatively brief period of flourishing. He saw this intellectual decadence or stultification as a cause of the social-economic backwardness of the Arabs and other Muslims. Dermenghem wrote the passages below in the 1950s, long before Islam became a political issue of major public concern.

The decadence of Muslim religious thought, practically limited to fiqh [jurisprudence, legalism], is only equalled by the devout fervor and the amazing sureness of faith. Intellectual activity is almost entirely concerned with problems of jurisprudence and casuistry; ignorance of philosophy and of classical and modern literature is nearly complete. It is not surprising that this lack of culture is reflected in religion, depriving it of the best of its forces. The great rites . . . have come to be part of a static religion. Superstition, the fruit of ignorance, was rife. . . [p 82]
If we try to see at a turning point in history how decadence has operated, it will help us to see how to correct it. In 1169 the Almohad caliph Abu Ya`qub Yusuf summoned Averroes [Ibn Rushd] to Marrakesh. . . It was at the ruler's own wish that he undertook his great commentary on Aristotle. . . Unfortunately the third Almohad, Abu Yusuf Ya`qub. . . sent Averroes into temporary exile and had his books burnt, just as the Almoravids had burnt those of al-Ghazali. The liberal free-thinking philosophers and the Sufis or mystics were likewise condemned. Now these two schools were the living forces in the Muslim civilization of the time. They balanced one another and made progress possible. Their elimination or their eclipse brought about that of authentic living culture. Philosophy emigrated to Europe, and it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who profited from Averroes' commentary on Aristotle. Sufism took refuge in the brotherhoods and sank into maraboutism in the narrow sense. [pp 85-86] Emile Dermenghem, Muhammad and the Islamic Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, 1958), tr. from French]
Besides Averroes, other notable names of Arab or other Muslim intellectuals who made a contribution to general world culture were Avicenna [Ibn Sina] and Ibn Khaldun. Avicenna, a Persian, not an Arab, was roughly close in time to Averroes, while Ibn Khaldun died in 1406. Since then there has been no Muslim that I can think of who made any notable cultural contribution of world significance.
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coming soon: Jews in Muslim society, poems of Zion

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