The 21st century is seeing an unprecedented intellectual churning in the Muslim world. This has been attributed to the advent of the Internet. In the five centuries between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg, the Muslim world managed to not only isolate itself but also resisted attempts to modernise itself. But it wasn’t always like that.
The zenith of the Muslim world’s intellect was 8th-12th century Basra, Baghdad, and its House of Wisdom. Arab Science and Philosophy benefitted from the Persian, Greek and Christian influences in what is called The Age of Translation and produced stalwart non-Arabs like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al Farabi, al-Khwarizmi, Maimonides, and John of Damascus.
So why was this period more tolerant of alternative lifestyles, diverse schools of religious thoughts, a free and easy attitude towards dissent, and opposed to neither science nor free inquiry? It had everything to do with the role of sharia being negligible and the Arabs and the expanding Islamic world getting strength and prosperity due to this tolerance and acceptance.
Islam grappled with the role of reason (Mutazalism) after Arab conquests exposed Muslims to Hellenic thought, but the side of reason ultimately lost (to Asharites) in the ensuing, deadly struggle. The adherents of the Mutazili school known in the English language as “Mutazilites” are best known for denying the status of the Qur’an as uncreated and co-eternal with God, asserting that if the Quran is God’s word, logically God “must have preceded his own speech”. The movement emerged in the Umayyad Era and reached its height in the Abbasid period. After the 10th century, the movement declined.
When the Asharite school of thought (text over reasoning) won over the Mutazalite school of thought (reasoning over text), the culture of pressure on dissidents and heretics developed, which lead to eventual decay and decline. The Ottoman Caliphate which subsequently absorbed all that was left of the Arab expansionism did its own expansion to Arab lands. Since the Turkic culture was a sequestered one which initially opposed the import of the printing press and had a harem culture, it ended up strengthening the Arab tribal tradition of gender apartheid and enforced an inhuman view of women. That therein is the ‘intellectual suicide’ that the Islamic world committed in the 12th century. The sack of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sealed the destruction and the Muslim world has never risen to its former tolerance levels.
This history is not taught in schools and Universities where Muslims are in majority, forget non-Muslim ones. It is not part of Muslim folklore. Only academics who have the patience to sit in dusty libraries and spend years digging up the schisms and shifts of Islamic theology can unearth this period in Islam and then too if it conflicts with their interests of belief, they do not objectively lay it out in the open but are hell-bent in pushing it into obscurity again. There have been defenders of reason in Islam and often they have been punished, flogged, ostracized, mutilated, and even beheaded or killed for giving primacy to reason. It’s time to revive the ‘zanadiqa’ or heresy and start looking for heretics, who have been there — persecuted and terrorized primarily inside the Muslim societies.
The world keeps forgetting that Muslims are the first victims of a very regressive theology that has found takers in the disgruntled, dispossessed, disempowered, and disaffected populations of the world. The Muslim world should be made aware of their rich tradition of dissent, philosophers, and theologians who did not baulk from calling out charlatans and misleaders in their faith and were never afraid to “separate” or “withdraw” (i’tizala) from what they believed to be unreasonable schools of thought fast turning into bigotry or fascism.