Ziauddin Sardar tells Mandy Garner how envious theologians recast key Islamic concepts to steal cultural authority and status from venerated scientists and artists.
Why did the study of science decline so fast in Muslim societies? "It is a major question in the history of Islam," says Ziauddin Sardar, writer and visiting professor at City University's School of Arts.
"Virtually from the 8th to the 15th century, Muslim countries led the world in science, learning and the arts, the things we associate with higher civilisation. There was a dramatic decline in the following centuries."
Part of the reason lay in colonialism and in the fact that Muslim societies do not have the kind of capitalism that promotes innovation and free thought, he says. But he thinks the most important reasons were internal to Islam, including the reaction of clerics in the 15th and 16th centuries to the perceived threat from science and the arts.
"Most people looked up to scientists and philosophers. The theologians felt left out in the cold," says Sardar, who is giving a public lecture on science and Islam at the Royal Society in December. So they narrowed key concepts in Islam to give themselves greater powers. The concept of ilm (knowledge, most specifically scientific knowledge) - for instance, which is discussed at great length in the Koran - was reduced to religious knowledge. "This was a way for the mullahs to control their power and territory, but it has had a devastating effect on Muslim societies. Muslims are conceptual people, and if you change the definition of a concept it can lead to major transformation in society," Sardar says. Other types of knowledge became less valued.
Another concept that was re-interpreted was ijma , meaning consensus. Before the 15th century, this was taken as referring to consensus from the whole of society. Ijma was required, for example, in deciding what kind of knowledge was essential for progress. But the clerics narrowed that definition to mean that only they could determine what constituted important knowledge. "My argument is that Muslim civilisation thrived because it had a very holistic notion of culture, which included scientific culture. Science was promoted as an essential part of being a Muslim. After the 15th and 16th centuries, science ceases to be part of Islamic culture, and we have a very truncated society that is obsessed by religion."
Sardar, a polymath with a background in science and the arts, believes Muslim societies need to reconnect with the essential Islamic concepts of ilm and ijma if they are to advance. He says that the most progressive Muslim movements, such as the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia, are looking at this. But there is a lot of resistance, with fundamentalists arguing that all knowledge is contained in the Koran. Ironically, several of the 9/11 terrorists had science or engineering backgrounds, but they saw science only in an instrumental way "rather than as a process of thinking, experimenting and contributing to universal knowledge", Sardar says.
Although some Muslim universities and education funders such as the Qatar Foundation are trying to promote science as an integral part of Islamic culture, Sardar argues that most Muslims think that "science is something you can buy". "But the fightback has begun," he adds, and he predicts a long multi-generational struggle.
"Islam and science: Beyond the troubled relationship", Royal Society, December 12, 6.30pm.