Some Insights into the Rise and Fall of Muslim Intellectualism


By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

God does not change the condition of a people [for the worse] unless they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an, Surah al-Ra’d, 13: 11)

OVER THE YEARS, one of the disturbing questions that has both intrigued and fascinated me—and resulting in the present book—is: Islam, as a civilization, has seen a ‘classical’ and ‘golden age’, but how, where, and “What Went Wrong” in the Islamic civilization—speaking from the perspective of intellectual legacy—that there has aroused a need of “Radical Reform”? Why, and how Muslims—who are heir to a great intellectual legacy—have faded away from the ‘intellectual map’ of the present world? What were the reasons that led the Muslims to miss their track/ route to such an extent that there is no recognition of them in the scientific field now? These questions, though very perturbing and most worrying, are not new, but have worried many Muslims, students and scholars equally, both in the past and in present as well.

For instance, looking at the intellectual map of Muslims, one observes that back in 1980s Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (d. 1986) described “the malaise of thought and methodology”, and the state of education in Muslim societies, as a “crisis”. In the same era, Syed Ali Ashraf (d. 1998) pointed towards the “Crisis in Muslim Education” and accordingly proposed the theory of “New Horizons in Muslim Education”, while as Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931) provided a “framework for an Islamic Philosophy of Education”.

Moving directly to the first decade of the 21st century, one sees that in 2003, the Arab Human Development Report highlighted that there is a “knowledge deficit” in the Muslim world, especially in the Arab societies, and thus proposed for “Building a Knowledge Society”. In the second decade of third millennium, there have been ‘calls’ for the ‘revivification of Islamic knowledge and thought’ or ‘reforms in Islamic Education’, because the picture presented by “the state of education in Muslim countries”, is very “catastrophic”; and, thus, there is cry for the ‘reform[ation] of Muslim education’ vis-à-vis ‘intellectual renewal’. Looking at this grim situation and abysmal state, there are ‘calls’ for a comprehensive and an extensive “Education Reform” through the ‘Integration of Knowledge’ process. The reason is simple but genuine, as Ziauddin Sardar puts it very powerfully as: it is “through education” that a civilisation not only “passes on the accumulated skills, knowledge and wisdom of the past to future generations”, but “preserves the cultural identity and historical legacy of a society” as well as “ensures its survival as a distinct entity”.

Though these ‘calls’—appeals and pleas—for the ‘reformation’ of education and/ or ‘intellectual renewal’ are not the first, or the only calls; but, what is important here is that the language and style of these statements clearly suggests and depicts that on the ‘intellectual map’, the Muslims “are on a sharp decline”; therefore, one sees calls for overcoming “Intellectual Dependency in Education”.

The Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the basis of Islam, and things Islamic, including the Islamic education system. From the very first word of the first revelation (Q. 96: 5), “the Message of Islam focuses upon the education of human being”. Moreover, the frequent Qur’anic references to knowledge, learning, wisdom, observation, thinking, or to pen, etc., reveal the significance of knowledge/ education—and by that way of the ‘intellectualism’. It is striking to note that the word ‘Ilm (knowledge), in its different forms, occurs over 800 times in the Qur’an. It is this concept of ‘Ilm—as Franz Rosenthal puts it beautifully in his magnum opus Knowledge Triumphant—which has “dominated Islam and given Muslim civilization its distinctive shape and complexion”; and it is the concept of ‘Ilm “that has been operative as a determinant of Muslim civilization in all its aspects”. Fazlur Rahman also puts it briefly, but very eloquently, as: “for the Qur’an, knowledge—that is, the creation of ideas—is an activity of the highest possible value”.

In between 8th and 13th centuries CE, Islamic civilization produced a great intellectual legacy, a ‘classical age’, a legacy described as “one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual history” of the world, or “one of the most brilliant civilizations in the history of humanity”. During this ‘Golden Age’, a period of over 500 years, “the spiritual, intellectual, commercial and military accomplishments of the successive Muslim empires were striking” and “the distinguishing feature of Muslim civilization was the pursuit and celebration of knowledge in all its forms: exact, experimental, and human sciences”. But it has not remained so powerful and dominant in the succeeding centuries: from 13th century onwards, especially with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad (‘Fall of Baghdad’) in 1258 CE, Muslim world has passed through “a subsequent collapse”. This ‘collapse’ was due to many reasons, both internal and external, and ranged from “long periods of instability, doubt and fear of competing civilizations and empires” to “favoring”, in time of crisis, “legislation and the imposition of limits”, etc. Such a miserable situation not only had “a negative impact of Islamic thought” but it formed “the main obstacles to an intellectual, scientific, and artistic renaissance” as well.

Considering the above context and scenario, the question that comes to mind is: How can an Ummah, for which knowledge (‘Ilm) has been given such an extraordinary status, and which was leading the whole world, for many centuries, in the intellectual field and scientific discoveries, can meet such a reprehensible failure? For Muslim intellectuals, the question of Muslim intellectual collapse has long been worrying, yielding repeated efforts to analyse and diagnose various factors responsible for this stagnation and decline. A number of Muslim intellectuals, in many eras, have attempted to analyse the causes and factors responsible for the overall decline of the Muslim, and two main reasons they mention, which are relevant in the context of present study, for the decline of Muslims after 12th century—or what I term as ‘Muslim intellectual deficit’—are “loss of dynamism in Islam after the rise of dogmatism and rigidity; [and] decline in intellectual and scientific activity”. The present work, focusing exclusively on the ‘Decadence of Muslim Intellectualism’—makes a modest attempt and substantial effort to find answer(s) to these (disturbing) questions.

The major objective of this book is to look, meticulously, on the various aspects of the theme of Muslims backwardness in academics vis-à-vis their ‘bright past’ and ‘present grim scenario’. To achieve the objective, the book is divided into following Eight (8) chapters:

  • Preface
  • Prologue: The Noble Qur’an as ‘Epitome of Knowledge’
  • Islamic Concept of Knowledge (‘Ilm)
  • Muslim Intellectual Contribution: From Formative Period to the ‘Golden Age’
  • What (and Where) Went Wrong?
  • Post-Colonial Era Challenges and the Muslim World (1950s Onwards)
  • The Other Side of the Coin: Internal Challenges
  • Some Important Muslim Research Institutes and Centres
  • Epilogue: The (Possible) Way Out from current ‘Muslim Intellectual Deficit
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The major theme of this work is, thus, to highlight, describe, and analyse the rise of ‘Muslim intellectualism’, reasons and ramifications of its fall (decadence), and to provide some (possible) remedies to overcome this ‘decadence’ and ‘deficit’ in the present scenario. In other words, it attempts to find answers to these perturbing questions: what were the reasons that led to the fall of Muslim intellectual legacy, or ‘Muslim intellectualism’; and how Muslims can rise again from this ‘slumber’ to make their presence on the ‘intellectual map’ of the 21st century global world.

Note: Excerpts from the ‘Preface’ (pp. ix–xvii) of the author’s recently published work, ‘Decadence of Muslim Intellectualism: Reasons, Ramifications, & Remedies (New Delhi: Viva Books, in association with Springs, South Africa: Ahsan Academy of Research, 2021); ISBN: 9789390054930; Pages: 224; MRP: 995/-; Amazon Link:

  • Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies in Higher Education Department, J&K. He is the author of six (6) books on Islamic intellectual tradition, Quranic Scholarship, and Islam and contemporary issues. Feedback at [email protected]  

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