At a time, when Western Europe was, quite literally, plunged in darkness, tenth century Muslim Spain had paved roads with street lighting and running water.
Disease in Christendom during the Middle Ages was viewed as a punishment from God. Muslims, on the other hand, believed in the inherent goodness of people and studied disease in a matter-of-fact manner, resulting in the early removal of cataracts, invention of surgical instruments and the differentiation between small pox and measles.
When the vast majority of Europe thought the earth was flat, Muslims were busy calculating the earth’s diameter and circumference and were venturing to show, how lunar and solar eclipses take place.
Reading such comparisons, a Muslim naturally feels awed and proud at the same time. However, one must wonder, what enabled Muslims to be so far ahead of their contemporaries? The answer lies in the most fundamental elements of Islam.
Islam has a long-standing tradition of scholarship. The very first verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sa) enjoined him to read and informed him that God taught man everything that he never knew before. At another place, Allah (swt) exhorts the believers to ask Him: “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” (Ta-Ha 20:114)
The Prophet (sa) himself is known to extol the benefits of knowledge and wisdom. For example, he once said: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” (Baihaqi) Additionally, he has stated: “He who goes forth in search of knowledge is in the way of Allah (swt) till he returns.” (At-Tirmidhi)
Along with the thirst for knowledge, the use of reasoning is another vital tool for any Muslim. Allah (swt) says in the Quran:
“Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah (always, in prayer) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth (saying): ‘Our Lord! You have not created (all) this without purpose, glory be to You! (Exalted be You above all that they associate with You as partners). Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire.” (Al-Imran 3:190-191)
Hence, the seeds for an intellectual tradition were sowed from the very beginning. The Quran specified with clarity that God’s universe was not random, a mere chance, but was created with wisdom and purpose. This led Muslims to look upon the entire world as a research field, which further spurred numerous mathematical, scientific and geographical discoveries.
Islam is more than just a religion. Being a ‘way of life’, our ancestors did not confine it to the mosque, making it apparent in everyday activities of people. Muslims refined astronomy as a science, in order to offer their five daily prayers at accurate times, to predict when the crescent moon will appear, to find the direction to Makkah for prayers; in the process, and to achieve these aims, they perfected the astrolabe.
Furthermore, Islam is a universal religion – not for a few chosen people or tribes but for all people and for all times. With this collective and inclusive outlook, Muslims began to gather any and every scholarly work they could lay their hands on – be it Greek, Persian, or Indian – as the Islamic Empire grew. Then, they commenced the scrupulous task of translation and, afterwards, busied themselves in its study. With study came reformation of ideas, theories and methodologies. Hence, the Muslims enhanced scientific approaches, which enabled them to take the work of their predecessors to new heights – unlike the rest of Europe at the time, which was steeped in squalor and stagnation.
In the process, Muslims were able to achieve a magnificent balance between their worldly needs and spiritual beliefs. Indeed, today, we need to return to our basics, instead of loosing ourselves in religious nit-picking and divisiveness, which also plagued Christendom during the Medieval Ages. Once we truly internalize Islam into every aspect of our lives as a living, breathing phenomenon, then we can, perhaps, aspire towards faith-based progress again! Insha’Allah.