The Graeco-Arabic ‘renaissance’ in medieval times: why did it fail?

Here we present selected parts from the “Journal of Islamic Research, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 2015, pp. 1-15, Editor’s Preface“, by Saer El-Jaichi.


“The Graeco-Arabic nahḍa in medieval times: why did it fail?

The Renaissance in medieval Islām took place during the reign of the ʿAbbāsid’s beginning in the 3rd/9th century until about the 7th/13th century. The extraordinary success of this Renaissance, which we know today as the “Graeco-Arabic nahḍa”, had its roots in material conditions that gave rise to power and economic wealth, which in turn stimulated the intellectual and social dynamism of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. Indeed, both power and economic wealth were crucial to the making of the Arab-Islamic culture and its leading place in the medieval world. Already during the early centuries of its reign, the ʿAbbāsid caliphate expanded its rule to the Eastern Mediterranean region, North Africa and large areas of central Asia. As a result, most of “Byzantium’s eastern trade” came under Islamic control (A. Dal, 2010: 28; H. C. Evans 2012: 4-11). The growth of trade in these newly conquered territories – which also resulted in ʿAbbāsid control of seaports and sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, as well as the Indian Ocean – led not only to economic growth and centralisation of administration but, as we now know, also to a process of cross-cultural fertilization. More precisely, the basic precondition for cultural prosperity in the ʿAbbāsid era was the prosperity in the ʿAbbāsid economy. This prosperity was a major factor behind the new Weltanschauung under which the new elite could unify despite its ethnic, cultural, and religious diversities. This trajectory of increasing complexity at the economic and the cultural levels in the cosmopolitan capital of Baġdād, beginning especially with the reigns of al-Manṣūr (714 AD – 775 AD) and Harūn ar-Rašīd (786 AD – 809 AD), fostered new forms of scholarly inquiry in response to certain epistemic demands that had not existed in the past, that is, before the phase of the caliphate’s dynamic transformation and the rise of the intellectual climate in which this transformation took shape (from the 8th and 9th centuries AD onwards). The Graeco-Arabic renaissance, which embraced “the translation movement of ancient science and philosophy from Greek into Arabic”, saw daylight precisely in the context of this climate.

Among other things – for example, the manifold contacts of the Arabs and Muslims with large parts of North Africa, West Asia and al-Andalus, as well as the previous cultures of the Mediterranean basin, including the Near Eastern Hellenistic culture – this renaissance gave expression to a tradition of science and philosophy, comprising among many others, thinkers such as Kindī, Farābī, Ibn Sīnā, at-Tawḥīdī, Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn Māğa and Ibn Rušd. Notwithstanding their differences, these thinkers shared a common oeuvre that can be defined in terms of three features: “(1) adoption of the ancient philosophic classics as an educational and cultural ideal in the formation of mind and character; (2) a conception of the common kinship and unity of mankind; and (3) humanness, or love of mankind” (cf. Kraemer 1992: 10). In addition to this tradition and, of course, the earlier religious traditions of exegesis (tafsīr), jurisprudence (fiqh) and ḥadīṯ, two other traditions developed, more or less in the same period: (1) the theological tradition, known as ʿilm al-kalām, whose development into a systematic discipline based on rational arguments is intimately connected with the school of the Muʿtazila; (2) the mystical tradition known as tasawwuf (or ʿirfān, i.e., gnosis) that favors spiritual experience rather than rational/discursive knowledge.

Without dwelling further upon the historical aspects of this picture, or entering into any further details about its multifarious implications, in relation to Islām’s wider development as a belief system (ʿaqīda), we cannot refrain from asking the question of how and why the Graeco-Arabic renaissance in medieval Islamic culture deviated from its historic progressive path.


To answer this question, several modern scholars have pointed to a number of political and ideological factors, including among other things:

1. The disintegration of ʿAbbāsid authority in ʿIrāq, in the early tenth century, and the declining hegemony of the ruling caliphal elite in power and decision-making centers at different levels, mainly as a result of civil wars, as well as territorial losses and the loss of political and economic sovereignty – which was always dependent on the security of Baġdād and other urban centers such as Kūfa, Baṣra, and Samarrā’ and the security of their frontiers. These developments, and many of these geopolitical fragmentations, which (as Šawqī Ḍayf shows) ultimately led to the creation of mono-confessional enclaves and minor – relatively independent – dynasties, in the place of the poly-ethnic, central authority in Baġdād – was greatly aided by the influx of the “semi-nomadic” Selğuk Turks into the upper levels of the caliphal administration. The Selğuks, who had been hired during the reign of al-Muʿṭasim (r. 833-844) to form a professional army for his “retaliatory expedition against Byzantium”, were very often individuals with a military background. This was in sharp contrast to the former administrative machinery of the ʿAbbāsid government, which was run by employees with administrative skills. In contrast to this latter administrative class, which somehow formed a hybrid of Graeco-Arabic and Persian culture, the rising Selğuks succeeded gradually in dominating the army and in taking charge of the political authority in Baġdād, but showed – with just a few exceptions – no serious interest in secular culture and learning; instead – it is argued – they turned to the institutionalization of orthodox Sunnī jurisprudence and theology. From this point of view, due to this Selğuk influx, the official patronage of secular – and especially Greek – learning and culture of the early ʿAbbāsids, “which favored more rationalist schools of thought”, was replaced by what is commonly called “the Sunni revival of the eleventh century.” Along with this development, which flourished at the expense of the intellectual diversity that had prevailed earlier, scholars also point to the exclusion of rationality in the field of theology due to the “permanent withdrawal of caliphal support for the Muʿtazila in the aftermath of the so-called inquisition (miḥna) instituted first by Caliph al-Mutawakkil and then by al-Qādir”. Ever since, Islamic legal and political thinking became less open to accepting the rational study of the Qurʾān, as the exegete (mufassir) remained within the descriptive task of, say, explaining the meaning of the Qurʾānic passages in accordance with “the views of the companions [of the Prophet], and the opinions of the ʿulamāʾ (aqwāl ʿulamāʾ al-salaf). This resulted in a mode of thinking, known as traditionalism, which has prevented Islamic thought from renewing itself, thus laying fertile ground for the age of decay (inḥiṭāṭ), largely by undermining the continuity and development of “the heritage of Hellenized Islam”. Furthermore, this traditionalism marginalized the discourses of the demonstrative and natural sciences, while at the same time not recognizing the priority of axiomatic rules (al-istidlāl al-burhānī) in theological and scientific matters. (…) This vision, which is rooted in the anti-rationalist and anti-philosophical Sunnī orthodox tradition, gradually became the central ideological frame of reference against which all kinds of knowledge must be legitimized.

2. The so-called “closure of the gate” of iğtihād and the prevalence of taqlīd, that is, “imitation, or adherence to the teachings of the classical jurists”. Due to this enclosure, which resulted in the formation of a fixed frame of reference within the field of the religious sciences (al-ʿulūm al-šarʿiyya), traditional ways of learning gained widespread legitimacy, both within and outside the religious education system. This, in turn, hampered the development of Arab-Islamic thought on a rational basis because of its almost exclusive reliance on transmitted tradition (naql) and consensus (iğmāʿ) rather than reason (ʿaql) and deductive inference (burhān). This whole tendency culminated towards the end of the 11th century with Abū Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī (1058–1111) whose teachings became the guiding principles of the emerging Selğuk regime, which rejected all ideas and beliefs that deviated from certain core creeds of “orthodox Sunnī Islām” as idolatrous human inventions (bidaʿ). Indeed, Ġazālī’s writings – we are told – were to play a profound role in future Sunnī thinking in two substantial ways: (i) he discouraged Muslim scholars from addressing substantive philosophical and scientific questions, or at least new points of view on the relation between faith and reason (al-naql wa-l ʿaql), between faith and free will (irāda) and (ii) led them to focus instead on methods for integrating practical morality, piety and spirituality properly into the frame of religious disciplines, first and foremost the legal aspects of Islamic law (ʿulūm aš-Šarīʿa) – as summarized in his: Revivification of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn) and The Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya-yi saʾadat). This tendency of Ġazālī’s work – which can be characterized as a theological pursuit of a “Just Balance (Qisṭās Mustaqīm)” that he envisioned as a return to the Qurʾān and the prophetical ḥadīṯ in accordance with The Standard of Knowledge in Logics (Miʿyār al-ʿilm fī fann al-manṭiq) – led Arab-Islamic thought towards a trajectory of de-Hellenization, and thus ultimately, de-rationalization. This development has played an important role in enabling the appearance of an Arab-Islamic mode of thinking, which “sought knowledge through gnostic illumination (ʿirfān)” due mainly to ancient oriental, Neoplatonic, and Manichean mystical influences. With this regression towards irrationalism, which at least in Ġazālī’s version meant the definitive refutation of Aristotelian metaphysics and natural sciences, Arab-Islamic thought has limited itself to justifying “the epistemological authority of the Qurʾān and sunna” (cf. Griffel 2009: 116), including such issues as the juridical context in which analogy (qiyās) can be applied, as well as doctrinal purity, that is, the definition of the “right belief or purity of faith […] in accordance with the teaching and direction of an absolute extrinsic authority”, all of which had culminated in the withstanding of “the intruding rational sciences” (al-ʿulūm al-ʿaqliyya al-daḫīla).”


Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus


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