Many scholars maintain that there has been a decline in Islamic philosophical-scientific production after Islam’s “Golden Age”, lasting until the modern age. In fact, the term “Golden Age” implies a peak in development—and a peak implies valleys around it.
One can get an approximate idea about these developments if one looks at the number of important Muslim philosophers and scientists during history. The assumption is that high numbers of such persons during a period indicate flourishing philosophy and science, while decreasing numbers show decline.
Based on this assumption, a number of books and publications on the history of science and of philosophy were consulted. The number of Muslim philosophers, scholars and scientists mentioned in them were counted, and plotted in charts, by the time period they lived in.
Two of the books — David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science. The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 and Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science — are general histories of science. Both discuss Islamic science in dedicated chapters. They mention, by name, famous scientists (and some other scholars) who were living in Islamic domains (some of them Christians or Jews). Figure 1 shows the distribution of these scientists and scholars according to these two authors between the 8th and the 14th centuries.
Both books agree that there was a concentration of important scientists in Islam between the 9th and 11th centuries, after which their numbers decline. Both books also agree that there was a minor reversal of this trend in the 13th century, followed by a further decline. Weinberg (2016) writes about these trends:
Arab science had already begun to decline before the end of the Abbasid caliphate, perhaps beginning about AD 1100. After this, there were no more scientists with the stature of al-Battani, al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, and al-Haitam.Weinberg (2016), p. 116
“Natural philosophers” are philosophers who try to understand nature by thinking about it. Aristotle shaped natural philosophy until the 16th or 17th century, after which — in Europe — natural philosophy morphed more and more into natural science.
The book by Edward Grant, A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century, has a separate chapter discussing important Islamic natural philosophers. Figure 2 shows their numbers.
Grant identifies five important Muslim natural philosophers, four of whom (al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and al-Razi) lived between 800 and 1000 A.D. Only one of them (Ibn Rushd) lived between 1100 and 1200. No important natural philosopher is identified by Grant after Ibn Rushd. He writes:
From the ninth to twelfth centuries, Islam produced some great natural philosophers … They were equal to the best that yet was to come in the Latin West. And yet natural philosophy never took root in Islam. By comparison to jurisprudence and theology, natural philosophy remained a peripheral activity.Grant (2013), p. 92
Philosophers (and theologians)
Here we used the list of 117 scholars in Peter Adamson’s book Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. Most of these scholars were Muslim, but some of them were Jewish, living under Islamic rule.
Although the title implies that the book is about philosophy, in reality it covers the views and ideas of many scholars who could, maybe with more justification, be called theologians. One example is al-Ghazali whose book The Incoherence of the Philosophers heavily criticized the views of philosophers and those of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) in particular. Another example is Ibn Taymiyya, whose fame rests more on his radical, salafist-type views than on his contributions to philosophy.
In spite of this rather loose definition of “philosopher”, Figure 3 shows a trend similar to that in Figure 1 and Figure 2: a peak during the Middle Ages, and a decline afterwards. the distribution of these scholars between 700 and 1900. In fact, there are two peaks, a smaller one between 900 and 1000 A.D., and a larger one between 1200 and 1300 A.D.
Some scholars doubt that there has been a decline in philosophical-scientific production at all, at least in some disciplines like astronomy. Or, if it did occur, it happened much later, in the 16th century (Saliba, 2011). And, if it did occur, the decline has only been relative, as compared to Europe; in other words, Islamic science didn’t really decline, it only stagnated or fell back—but only relatively, as compared to Europe (Saliba, 2011, p. 254). Stagnation would mean the stop in scientific development and falling back could mean a further growth in it, but a growth slower than the European growth. Saliba blames Western “orientalists” for not bothering to investigate later Islamic science or misreading the texts (Saliba, 2011, p. 235) and thus allowing this “false” idea of a decline to creep in.
The Western authors Lindberg, Weinberg, Grant and Adamson might be accused of a pro-Western bias in picking their data in a way that it shows a decline (though such a bias at least in the case of Lindberg and Adamson is unlikely, as they are very sympathetic towards Muslim scientific and philosophical achievements).
However, we get a similar peaked curve when plotting the list of scholars and scientists in the publication Muslim Scholars and Scientists by W. Hazmy C.H., Zainurashid Z. & Hussaini R. The publication contains biographies of 69 scholars and scientists active between 700 and 1400 A.D. Figure 4 depicts the numbers of scholars and scientists from that publication, according to the centuries when they lived.
The peak in the chart is between Lindberg’s and Weinberg’s peaks, at 900-1000, and the minor peak at 1200-1300 is missing. But otherwise the general trend is the same: a peak between the 9th and 11th centuries, followed by a decline.
It would be difficult to attest a pro-Western or anti-Muslim bias for the authors of Muslim Scholars and Scientists. All three are Muslim medical doctors, with an obvious interest in demonstrating the historical importance of Muslim science (as shown in the Introduction of their paper). Furthermore, their article has been published by the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia.
Saliba’s view of no decline or a mere relative decline (as compared to Europe) is contradicted by the charts shown above. They don’t contain any comparison with European developments. In all of them there is a decline—in absolute terms—of the number of scientists and philosophers, starting after the 13th century the latest. Islamic science and philosophy wasn’t just falling back behind Europe but it was actually withering away over time.
Saliba could suggest that such measures as the number of scientists living in successive centuries is too rough a measure and that the quality of their work should also be taken into consideration. He in fact claims that the work of some Muslim astronomers from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries is far superior to the work of earlier astronomers (Saliba, 2011, p. 240). This may be true but, in order to validate it, one would need some objective measure of “quality” of scientific work in the Middle Ages. As long as we don’t have such objective standards, I suggest to stay with the simple measure of numbers of “important” scientists per century (while recognizing the subjectivity of the term “important”).
Another explanation, given for the downward part of the curve, is that the history of Islamic science in the late Middle Ages and early Modern Age hasn’t been explored as intensively as the “Golden Age” period—and thus less scientists are well-known from those later periods (Lindberg, 2007, p. 191). It is implied that if more research is done, the downward curve might disappear. Of course, if this argument is accepted, it could always be said: “if we find more data, the results will be different”, thus making any statement based on current data impossible.
Thus, based on current knowledge, the statement that there was a peak in Islamic philosophy and science sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries, followed by a decline is probably true.
Adamson, P. (2016). Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. 1st Edition, Kindle Edition.
Grant, E. (2013). A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hazmy, W., Zainurashid, Z. & Hussaini, R. (?). Biography – Muslim Scholars and Scientists. Published by: Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia N. Sembilan.
Lindberg, D. C. (2007). The Beginnings of Western Science. The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Saliba, G. (2011). Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Weinberg, S. (2016). To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper Perennial.
To be continued