I am sure these days many decent Muslim men and women often wonder why countries with Muslim majority are so backwards technologically, militarily and politically compared with the nations of West? What is the reason for this dominance by European and American states and how can we decrease if not eliminate this imbalance?
Only a few hundred years ago Eastern, mostly Muslim, and Western, mostly Christian, societies were more or less at par in the level of development. And then while the Muslim world stood still the West surged ahead and became dominant over the globe.
Around 14th Century started what we call The Renaissance in the West. Literally meaning rebirth, this was a change, among other things, in the political, religious, technological and scientific thought and methods. A change that over the next 300 years transformed the Western world and gave them the ability to launch the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Alas such a rebirth never took place in Muslim societies.
The above transformation in the West was preceded by a change in the Western philosophical thought. We can call this a philosophical renaissance.
In conventional Islamic teaching philosophy is not considered favourably; in fact it is often openly discouraged. For philosophy itself promotes questioning, arguing and logic which is potentially in conflict with a belief in an all knowing and all powerful deity.
The Western world once had a similar rejectionist attitude to philosophy and logic.
The ascendency of the West coincided with active study and analysis of the works and methods of Greek philosophers. I have little doubt that without this there would not have been any renaissance and the technological and industrial revolution that has propelled nations of the West to be eons ahead of East, would not have taken place.
Yet the West may not have developed an understanding or even a knowledge of Greek philosophy without the help of Arab/Muslim philosophers. Ironically, the man who can be given the greatest credit for kindling the renascence of the West is a Muslim philosophers named Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West! While he was rejected and marginalized by Muslims, his work was translated and enthusiastically read in Universities of Western Europe. In my opinion this difference in reception to works of Ibn Rushd has played a significant role in the difference we see between the nations of the West and East.
Ibn Rushd's influence catalysed reformation of both Christian and Jewish religious thought and brought in the concept of rationalism in religion. In the Islamic world he was sidelined by Al-Ghazali and his theocratic concepts of religion (Sharia). This had already happened to the Muslim world by the 12th century AD and as a result while the West started a renaissance in the 14th century, followed by political reformation and finally industrial revolution in the 18th century the Muslims world just stood still or regressed.
Ottoman Turkey, the dominant Muslim power of the time when Western renascence took place (and a major world power till the 18th Century) is a prime example of a failure to establish the type of modern political and economic institutions (the former are needed for the later) that were required for industrial revolution and sustained economic growth leading to prosperity.
Philosophy or falsafa came to the Muslim world in the 9th century AD along with other Greek sciences like medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Tensions between teachings of philosophy and Islam developed more or less immediately. For philosophy not only taught the need for asking questions, even on issues that were thought to be divine commandments and thus not-questionable, but also suggested that it can reveal demonstrative truth about the world using scientific methods: something that was thought to be a power possessed by God alone.
The Muslim philosophers studied Greek masters Plato and Aristotle from early 9th Century AD.
Al-Farabi (Alfarabius in the West, 872-950 AD) from Damascus and Ibn Sina (Avicenna 980-1037 AD) from Cairo were the leading lights in not only translating Greek philosophical ideas into Arabic/Persian but in fact actively added commentaries and development of philosophical ideas based on logic and rationalism.
For a while the Muslim philosophical thoughts derived from Greek philosophy (Falsafa) were allowed to exist unmolested by Orthodox Islam. This was partly due to the fact that Muslim philosophers presented their ideas in a form that did not openly challenge the ideas of orthodoxy and partly because the Muslim world was rather liberal and tolerant of such ideas in those days. However, with the establishment of the Ash'arite system of Kalam around 1040 AD onwards all this tolerance gradually evaporated.
Falsafa was then dealt a stunning blow by Ghazali. In 1095 Ghazali completed his book Tahafut al Falasifa (Incoherence of Philosophers), with this and other writings Ghazali launched a no holds bare attack on not only the ideas expressed by Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina but on them personally declaring that such individuals are heretics (kafirs) and not Muslims!
While Ghazali himself was a man of very high intellect and knowledge his writings derailed the path of Muslim philosophical and scientific development.
Around 1150 AD Ibn Rushd completed his book Tahafut al Tahafut (Incoherence of Incoherence) which is rebuttal of Ghazali's book. Rushd also wrote other books to counter Ghazali and defend Greek philosophers and their methods.
Ibn Rushd was also the paramount commentator on the works of Aristotle and Plato. His works had a major influence on the ideas developed by Thomas Aquinas and Mosses Maimonides who are accepted as the scholars who respectively kindled the renascence in Christian and Jewish thought process.
So what exactly was the crucial difference in thought between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd that caused such a deviation between East and West?
Both Ibn Rushd and Ghazali acknowledge the importance of The Quran as an essential guide for anyone who wants to live a meaningful, fulfilling and productive life. Interestingly they both also agree that some parts of the Quran have literal meanings while some are allegorical. In general the text that deals with basic principles of a good life and incidents mentioned which are possible in a normal way have literal meanings while other parts of the text often dealing with supernatural or oblique subjects need interpretation using allegorical and not literal methods. Both Ibn Rushd and Ghazali agree that ordinary Muslims should only concern themselves with the literal part of the Quran and only a selected group of enlightened Muslims should interpret the allegorical parts of the Quran.
The difference between Ibn Rushd and Ghazali is that while Ghazali believes the enlightenment to this select group is achievable only by Divine intervention, Ibn Rushd suggests that it is the knowledge and expertise in the methods of science and philosophy that empowers individuals to seek and find the hidden treasures of the Quran.
Herein Ibn Rushd lays down the basic principles of science and progress using the Quran as an ideal launch pad . While Ghazali advocates using mystical methods to look for the hidden knowledge and truth Ibn Rushd believes that this is only possible using objective and demonstrative methods i.e. logic and science.
In other words Ghazali believes that through religious mysticism one can achieve (by the grace of God) a level of understanding different from rational truth and only this can unveil the allegorical meanings in the Quran while Ibn Rushd believes that only rational thought can unveil such mysteries.
The importance of this lies in the fact that while both methods are and can be used to search for the ultimate truth, it is only the rational method that produces a desired by-product, namely scientific and human progress.
So what is the importance (if any) this has in our present times?
In my opinion while religious and mystical experiences are important for the development of our inner world and equip ourselves to face the challenges of the real world only by adopting rationalism can we change the deplorable situation of Muslim nations.
We need to re-kindle the spirit of Ibn Rushd and start a Renaissance in Islamic thought process.