Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century

By Abdalla, Mohamad | Islam & Science, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century


Abdalla, Mohamad, Islam & Science


Recent studies in the history of Islamic science illustrate that Islam's contributions were richer and more profound than was previously thought. In their attempt to provide answers to what happened to Islamic science after the eleventh century, historians and scholars construct a simplified model that describes all branches of Islamic science in terms of failure. In this article, Ibn Khaldnn's analysis of the fate of Islamic science will be examined to show his insightful understanding of, and the failure of scholars in, understanding what happened.

Keywords: Islamic science; Ibn Khaldun; golden age of Islamic science; decline theory; handmaiden approach to history of science.

Dominant Understanding: the Decline Theory

The enterprise of science in Islamic civilization is often periodized into a golden age followed by decline. (1) The golden age is considered to have come into existence through a gigantic endeavor to acquire and translate the ancient sciences of the Greeks between the eighth and ninth centuries. The translations era was followed by two centuries of splendid original thinking and contributions, and is known as the "golden age" of Islamic science. This so-called "golden age" is supposed to have lasted from the end of the ninth to the end of the eleventh century. The era after this period is conventionally known as the "age of decline". (2)

A survey of literature from the nineteenth century onwards demonstrates that the decline theory has become the preferred paradigm in general academia. In 1883, twenty-one years after the French translation of Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-1892) declares that Islamic science (3) declined after its "golden age" because of racial factors, although he placed greater emphasis on the intolerance Islam supposedly had for reason. (4) Renan, borrowing the idea from Voltaire (1694-1778), states that "[t]he Oriental mind is incapable of rational thought and philosophy and was responsible for blocking the development of science and learning in the Muslim world." (5) Max Weber (1864-1920) suggests that Islamic science declined because the Arabs were on the whole less intelligent than the Europeans, who had a superior collective mind: "Europeans are genetically endowed with comparatively greater amounts of rationality, thereby allowing for the speedier development of a rational capitalist ethic." (6)

While recognizing that the "golden age" continued into the second half of the eleventh century, George Sarton (1884-1956) postulates that Islamic science culminated in the first half of the eleventh century. Sarton recognizes that intellectual activities were still very intense and of a high order during the second half of the eleventh century; however, he assumes that "[t]here was already a perceptible decline both in the quality and the quantity of the effort. This is not recognized at once, because the decline is very small and is hidden by the activity of some very great personalities." (7) That decline eventually set in was because "[t]he Western people found the cure, the only cure, the experimental method; the Eastern people did not find it, or did not fully understand it, or neglected to apply it." (8) In addition, he suggests

   ... perhaps, that the Eastern people, say the Muslims, had reached
   the limit of their development, that they were like those gifted
   children who startle the world by their precocious achievements
   and then suddenly stop and become less interesting, while
   others, at first less brilliant, pass far ahead of them. (9)

The decline thesis continued well into the twentieth century with slightly less absurd explanations. For example, in 1929, Sir William Cecil Dampier (1867-1952) strongly proclaims that by the close of the eleventh century "[t]he decline of Arabic and Muslim learning had set in, and henceforth science was chiefly a European activity." (10) In 1932, Max Meyerhof (1874-1945) suggests that Islamic science declined beginning from about 1100 because of the work of al-Ghazali (d.

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