History of Science and Technology in Islam



Nature,the international journal of science, with headquarters in London, has published on 2 November 2006 an issue devoted mainly to Islam and Science. The articles and items are written by Muslim and non-Muslim writers who express mainly the official points of view of some international organizations. Although some of the presented ideas are useful, yet they badly miss the point about the factors behind the decline of science in the Muslim countries. Therefore, we deemed it useful to publish here our analysis of the factors behind the decline of Islamic science after the sixteenth century. What was true in the last few centuries is still true in the present day world of Islam



The contributions of Islamic scientists and technologists in the varied fields of knowledge were fascinating and are discussed in the various histories of science[2]. These contributions, using mainly the medium of Arabic, were made by a wide variety of individuals — Muslim and non-Muslim — living in a multi­national and multiracial society.

The universal religion of Islam provided the matrix within which the multiracial and multicultural Islamic society could subscribe to a universal science. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the Islamic world was a source of strength and creativity to the movement of scientists, ideas and products.

The introduction of efficient and extensive means of transportation fa­cilitated the expansion of trade and the movement of people and ideas. These advances in transport and trade gave force to the universal precepts of Islam by facilitating the transfer of knowledge within the Islamic world; and also to the widely different cultures of India, China and Europe.

The locus of scientific creativity in the Muslim world was not fixed. Centres of considerable scientific activity flourished at different times and were generally closely associated with the seat of power. During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the capitals of the Islamic world attracted scholars and scientists. In modern parlance, there was a brain drain to Damascus and Baghdad. Once the centres of power moved to Cairo, Spain, Persia (Mongolian period) and Istanbul, the flow of scientists followed there.

During the first centuries of Islam, the rulers pursued policies which promoted rationality, communications, trade and economic prosperity. These policies increased the demand for science and technology. Almost every aspect of life — from agriculture to health and prayers — depended on some scientific or technical activity.

The decline, which set in after a combination of internal and external circumstances and conditions, caused a decrease in the demand for science and technology.


Science Thrives Only in Affluent Societies

The Thesis of Ibn Khaldun


The challenging question that is always asked is: what were the causes of the decline of scientific work in Islam, and why did the gap in modern science and technology become so great between the West and Islam from the end of the sixteenth century? This is a complex question which cannot be dealt with fully in this paper, but we shall venture to discuss some aspects of the decline which, it is hoped, will stimulate further research into this question.

At the time when scientific communities in Europe were on the increase, all the regions of Islam were witnessing the decline of science and of scientific communities. This phenomenon is discussed by Ibn Khaldūn in more than one chapter in his Introduction (al-Muqaddima).[3] He discusses the factors which are essential to the flourishing of the sciences and the other professions, and the factors which lead to their decline. One chapter carries the title: `That the Professions are Perfected and Become Plenty when the Demand for them Increases.' [4] He says that if a profession is in great demand, people will try to learn it, whereas if there is no demand for a profession it will be neglected and will disappear. `There is here another secret, and it is that the professions and their perfection are demanded by the state, which is the greatest marketplace for the professions', and the needs of the state are so great that the demands of private individuals are too small in comparison, which means that when the state declines all professions decline as well. Another chapter carries the title: `That Regions which Approach a Ruinous State will Become Devoid of the Professions.' [5] When a region becomes weakened, loses its affluence, and its population decreases, the professions will diminish, because they can no longer be afforded, until they finally disappear. He devotes a special chapter to the sciences under the title: `That the Sciences Increase with the Increase in Prosperity and with the Greatness of Civilization in a Region.' [6] After a dis­cussion of his theory he says: `Let us consider what we have known about conditions in Baghdad, Cordoba, al-Qairawan, al-Basra, and al-Kufa. When these cities became populous and prosperous in the first centuries of Islam and civilization became established in them, the seas of science rose and overflowed and scientists marvelled in the terminology and the technicalities of learning and of the various sciences, and in devising various problems and theories until they excelled over the ancients and surpassed those who came after. But when the prosperity of these cities and their civilization decreased and when their population was dispersed, that carpet, with all that was on it, was completely folded and science and learning were lost in them and moved to other regions of Islam.' In discussing the rational sciences, Ibn Khaldūn gives the same analysis, and he remarks that when the empire became established, and when Islamic civilization surpassed all others, Muslims studied eagerly the rational sciences of the ancients until they excelled over them. He remarks that during his time (the second half of the fourteenth century), the rational sci­ences in the Maghrib and in al-Andalus were diminishing because prosperity in these regions was at a low level, whereas in the Eastern regions of Islam, especially in Persia and beyond to Transoxania, the rational sciences were flourishing because of the prosperity of these regions and the stability of their civilization. Ibn Khaldūn was aware also that during his time, the rational sciences in Rome, and in Europe in general, were in great demand, and that there existed in these countries active scientific communities. [7]

The ideas of Ibn Khaldun are repeated by modern scholars. Thus Bernal in his book Science in History  [8] repeats in a similar argument that `Science's flourishing periods are found to coincide with economic activity and technical advance. The track science had followed - from Egypt and Mesopotamia to Greece, from Islamic Spain to Renaissance Italy, thence to the Low Countries and France, and then to Scotland and England of the Industrial Revolution - is the same as that of commerce and industry. Between the bursts of activity there have been quiet times, sometimes periods of degeneration. These co­incide with periods when the organization of society was stagnant or deca­dent.'


Stagnation of Medieval Science and the Need for a  Revolution


The above discussion helps to explain why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in Islam. Until the end of the fifteenth century, scientific knowledge was dominated by few major systems which became dogmatic and static. The main ones were Aristotelian physics, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, and Jabirian alchemy. Science had reached a point where further progress became extremely difficult or even impossible.[9] This explains the scarcity of important scientific progress both in Islam and in medieval Europe between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. To achieve major breakthroughs in science, it was necessary to overthrow the old dominant systems. In other words, a revolution in science was necessary. Such a revolution requires the existence of a large community of scientists who are working diligently within a flourishing economy and a stable atmosphere over a long period of time. Contrary to the world of Islam, this community existed in Europe after the fifteenth century and it continued on the rise with the increase of European wealth and population, and the domination by Europe of other parts of the world.


Islam and Science

The Wrong Diagnosis – I - The Theologians


From the nineteenth century, some writers have suggested that the decline of science in Islam was caused by the negative attitude of Muslim theologians. Thus Sachau says, `The fourth century (Islamic calendar) is the turning point in the history of the spirit of Islam. But for al-Ash`ari and al-Ghazali, the Arabs might have been a nation of Galileos, Keplers, and Newtons  [10] Speaking about al-Ash`ari, E.G. Browne compared the destructiveness of his influence to that of Jenghiz Khan and Hūlāgū. [11]  A similar point of view is adopted by George Sarton, who labels the views of al-Ash`ari and al-Ghazālī as scholasticism, which ‘were obstacles to the progress of science in the Middle Ages.[12]. Sarton says that until the sixteenth century, developments in science were taking place both in the East and the West, but after that time Western science began to grow at an accelerated pace, while Eastern civilization remained at a standstill, or even deteriorated. He concludes that the essential difference between East and West is that the latter overcame scholasticism, while the former did not.

It is true that the divergence between Islam and the West in science continued to increase after the sixteenth century, but the assumption that the opposition of theologians to science was the cause of this, cannot be sup­ported. The real causes are both political and economic, as was demonstrated by Ibn Khaldun; the decrease of interest in the rational sciences and the continued interest in the study of the religious sciences are unrelated. The former was a symptom of the economic weakness of the Islamic states and of their decreasing political power. Had there been a need for science and tech­nology, as was the case during the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire, the rational sciences would have continued to progress without interruption. In Islam, there was no single religious authority that controlled the whole educational system, and this left the system free and not dominated by orthodoxy. The rise of scientists and the flourishing of the rational sciences in the Golden Age reflected the prosperity of the empire and its strength, and the large number of mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, engineers and other kinds of scientists was in response to the needs of society and of the empire in that period. It conformed to the law of supply and demand.

It is not our purpose here to defend the theologians. It should be pointed out, however, that the debate which took place between them and the phi­losophers was not over the rational sciences. From the beginning, the study of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and the other sciences was greatly encouraged, and it was mostly undertaken by scholars who were non-philosophers and non-theologians themselves. The Golden Age of science took place at the same time as the debate between theologians and philoso­phers was taking place. The study of the rational sciences was not affected by such a debate, since the pursuit of these sciences was independent from both the theological and the philosophical studies. To illustrate our statement, let us take the reigns of al-Ma'mun and of al-Mutawakkil. Al-Ma'mun (813-833) was a staunch supporter of the Mu`tazilites and the rational sciences flourished during his reign. Contrary to him, al-Mutawakkil (847-861) was, according to one orientalist, [13] `of the strictest orthodoxy and fanatical in his orthodoxy...'. During his time `the forces of orthodoxy began to gather momentum', and the orthodox theologians , whose front was led shortly later by al-Ash`arī,put up an organized front against the Muctazilites  But, with his `orthodoxy and fanaticism',, al-Mutawakkil like al-Ma'mun `was a patron of science and scholarship and reopened the Dar al-Hikma, granting it fresh endowments. The best work of translation was done during his reign... He was a generous patron of scientific research... The best work of Dar al-Hikma was done under him, for by that time experience told, and Hunayn was surrounded by well-trained pupils.'


The Wrong Diagnosis – II -The Madrasa System


In a similar line of thinking, the decline of the rational sciences in Islam is attributed by some writers to the fact that the madrasa system which flourished after the founding of the Nizāmiyya Madrasa in Baghdad by Nizām al-Mulk. in 459/1067 favoured the study of theology and law.[14] But the study of the rational sciences in Islam was always undertaken independently, and the theological studies were not usually undertaken under the same teachers or at the same institutions. Astronomy and mathematics were pursued mostly in the observatories, within a community of mathematicians and astronomers, where a specialized library was available and observational instruments were in constant use. The medical sciences were studied, as they should be, in the medical school of a bīmāristān (hospital). The other sciences were studied under individual renowned scientists, most often patronized by the rulers, to whom students travelled from the far realms of Islam. The existence of these individual renowned teachers constituted what may be called a college of professors within a certain large city or a region. Let us not forget also the libraries and the academies, like Dār al-Hikma in Baghdad, which were devoted to research and to the study of the rational sciences. Most of the madrasas, on the other hand, were established by persons in power or by pious and wealthy individuals who endowed a part of their wealth to a waqf which supported the school. The purpose was always religious, and the studies were naturally mainly those of law and theology. It can be said therefore that the madrasa was mainly a college of theology and law, and it was, according to recent studies, the forerunner of the college system in Western universities.[15] But the universities which appeared in the West and which comprised several colleges for theology, law, arts and sciences, and medicine, did not develop in Islam in the same period. This is due to the fact that the madrasas which were supported by the waqf system, and with them the study of law and theology, continued to exist without interruption, whereas the centres for the study of the rational sciences, which were dependent on the strength and the prosperity of the state, deteriorated and ceased to exist with the decline of the Islamic states, and for this reason scientific knowledge did not keep in line with the quick advances of science in Europe after the Scientific Revolution. In the period preceding this revolution it was possible to speak about the achievements of Muslim scientists and compare them to those of medieval Europe. Advances in both areas were parallel and there was not a significant difference between them. But after the new discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton and the fall of the old systems of knowledge, the university in the West became the centre of the new scientific activities. For the Scientific Revolution which took place in Europe to have happened in Islam at the same time, there would have to have been in existence at that time in history an efficient system of communications between members of the scientific communities in both cultural areas. But such a system did not exist; there were no Islamic universities which comprised all branches of knowledge, and the Islamic scientific community was almost non-existent. It was only in modern times that universities on the model of the European ones started to appear in the Islamic countries. Some of the older universities, such as al-Azhar, which followed the madrasa system and were devoted to the study of Islamic law and theology, have only recently introduced science, engineering and medicine into their curricula.

Having thus established the link between the decline of Islamic science and the decline of the Islamic lands both in political power and material wealth, the question which remains to be answered is: what are the factors behind the decline of the Islamic lands? And although the discussion of this subject lies in the domain of political and economic history, and not in the scope of the history of science, yet we shall summarize what we think are the major factors in the decline.


Factors behind the Decline of Muslim Power and Prosperity

The Nature of the Land


Most of the core Islamic countries, or the lands of the Islamic Middle East, are composed of arid or semi-arid lands with some scattered inhabited lands and large uncultivated or desert areas.[16] Taking the lands of the early Islamic empire, excluding Spain, the inhabited area did not exceed one quarter of the total, the rest being barren or desert lands. Even the inhabited areas are mostly dependent on irrigation for their cultivation, since the rainfall in most of the areas is not sufficient to support agriculture. This ecology of the Middle East meant that its most productive agriculture was confined mainly to the basins of the great rivers of the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris. But the harnessing or utilization of the waters of these rivers could not be attempted by individuals, and this job had been undertaken since the days of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylonia by the strong central governments. Also in the first centuries of the Islamic empire, during the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the caliphs and the governors of the provinces gave great attention to the construction and the maintenance of the irrigation systems. And it is well known that an agricultural revolution took place in the first centuries of the Islamic empire. When the central government was weakened or disappeared, the irrigation works were neglected, and when, in addition, these works were destroyed by the Mongol invasions, as had happened in Iraq in the thirteenth century, agricultural lands became arid or turned into marshes and the whole economy and civilization of the region were destroyed.

Some changes in climate and in the rate of rainfall contributed also to the conversion of agricultural lands into arid. At the beginning of the Islamic period and until the middle of the thirteenth century, the area east of Antioch in Syria was one of high rainfall, and it saw the founding of many cities and much farming was taking place. Yet within a few centuries, the territory be­came arid.

The important consequence of this ecology is that the area is considered a poor one from an agricultural point of view. It cannot depend only on agriculture for its prosperity and for the development of its civilization.

The Nomads


Another result of the ecology of the Middle East is that the semi-arid nature of the region, and the decline and the destruction of its irrigation systems, resulted in a phenomenon which is also peculiar to it. There existed throughout the history of the civilizations of the area, nomadic tribes who utilized the peripheral lands as pastures for animal breeding. The nomadic tribes always affected the stability of the central government and the economy of the region. When the central government was strong and the economy was prosperous, the nomads were usually kept under control. Whenever the central government was weakened, the nomadic tribes would prevail and influence or dominate the various individual governments in the region causing further disorder and anarchy. With the destruction of the irrigation works and the transformation of irrigated lands into pastures or marshes, the nomads increased the areas under their immediate control, and thus the decline of civilization was further accelerated. This process of the conversion of irrigated lands into arid or marsh lands and the encroachment of nomads into previously settled areas led also to the depopulation of Iraq and Syria from the thirteenth century until the modern era.


Natural Disasters


Another important phenomenon in the social and economic history of Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the Middle Ages was the drastic depopulation caused by natural disasters.[17] In 968, the low level of the Nile caused a terrible famine which resulted in the death of about 600,000 people. Similar famines followed. One terrible famine, which was caused also by a low level of the Nile, lasted seven years between 1066 and 1072. Peasants deserted their villages and agricultural production was diminished severely. These famines heralded the beginning of a series of natural disasters which resulted in the depopulation of Egypt. In 1201 and 1202 a terrible famine was followed by plague and large numbers of people died. In many villages only empty houses remained; and in some quarters in Cairo all the inhabitants died. This was one of the major demographic disasters which befell Egypt in the Middle Ages. 

However, the greatest catastrophe in the Middle Ages was the plague of 1347, 1348 and 1349, which was known in Europe as the Black Death and which swept across the Islamic world and Europe. Thousands died every day, and the population of Egypt, Syria and Iraq was diminished by one third. The Black Death was followed by a series of plagues which continued into the nineteenth century. It was estimated that between 1363 and 1515 alone, six­teen epidemics occurred in Egypt and fifteen in Syria. 

These recurring famines and plagues were instrumental in diminishing agricultural production. Death wiped out a large proportion of peasants and domestic animals. Industry collapsed with the deaths of great numbers of skilled workers. This also had adverse effects on the administration and the government. The Mamelukes no longer had sufficient resources to maintain their military organization. This led to instability, corruption and oppression which helped further to accelerate the economic decay.


The Geographical Location and the Geography of the Region


The geographical factor made Iraq, Syria and Egypt the targets of continuous external attacks, aggression or intervention from the First Crusade in AD 1006 until modern times. Geographical location gave a prime strategic asset to some countries such as Japan and the British Isles, since their insular location offered protection from overland invasion. The geography of Europe and its location in the west protected it also from similar invasions. Europe's landscape was much more fractured, with mountain ranges and large forests separating the scattered population centres in the valleys, and its climate varied considerably. This had minimized the possibility that the continent could be overrun by an external force like the Mongol hordes.[18] In contrast, Iraq, Syria and Egypt were central between East and West and their flat geography made them vulnerable to external invasions from both sides.


The Crusades


Between 1096 and their final defeat in 1291 no fewer than seven Crusades were mounted against the Arab lands; one Crusade was mounted against Constantinople. The first three (1096, 1147, 1189) focused on Syria, including Palestine. The Fourth Crusade (1204) pillaged Constantinople, while the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Crusades (1218, 1244, 1250) were directed against Egypt. The last one (1270) was directed against Tunisia.

Palestine, especially Jerusalem, was considered holy for the three re­ligions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The declared object of the Crusades was to occupy the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, and to replace the native Muslim population by a Latin one. During the conquest, the Muslim popu­lation of the captured Syrian towns was annihilated by mass slaughter, and was replaced by the members of the invading armies and those who accompanied them, such as adventurers, merchants and pilgrims.

There were also other motives behind these wars. Around AD 1000, the population of Europe was growing, whereas that of the Islamic world was on the decline. The population of Europe was estimated at 38.5 million while that of the Islamic lands did not exceed 12.5. Some historians are of the opinion that `the Crusades were essentially an early experiment in expansionist im­perialism, motivated by material considerations with religion as a psychological catalyst.' [19]

The period of the Crusades was one of growth on all fronts in Western Europe. There was a growth in population and in production. The growth in profits led to the accumulation of capital and this stimulated all who engaged in trade, notably the members of the Italian commercial and banking houses.[20] The Crusades offered huge opportunities for the expansion of the great maritime cities of northern Italy — Venice, Pisa and Genoa. The conquest, and the concessions given to these cities, allowed the establishment of Italian co­lonies in the towns of the Syrian coast.[21] These colonies flourished under the Crusaders' rule, and they survived under the Muslim re-conquest and devel­oped a considerable trade both for export and import. They were instrumental in the transfer of the manufacturing technologies of some Near Eastern in­dustries and the establishment of these industries in Italy. There came a time when the process was reversed and the Italian products of these industries started to be exported to the Near East. This was probably the chief perma­nent effect of the Crusades in the Near East.[22]

The efforts to confront and oust the Crusaders, which lasted for two centuries, sapped the local economies and weakened the Arab urban centres. This enormous task required formidable military strength which could not be provided by Syria alone, with its limited human and economic resources. It was only through the unity of Syria and Egypt under the Ayyubids and the, Mamelukes, and through the military system that was adopted, that the Crusaders were finally defeated and expelled.


The Mongols


In the middle of the thirteenth century, and while the core Islamic lands were still busy with the expulsion of the Crusaders, another terrible invasion came from the East. Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and launched a devastating assault against the Eastern Islamic lands. By 1220­/1221 Samarkand, Bukhara and Khwārizm fell into their hands and were cruelly devastated. In 1221, they crossed the Oxus River and entered Persia. Genghis Khan died in 1227. In the middle of the century, a new plan to conquer all the lands of Islam as far as Egypt was entrusted to Hūlāgū, who marched with an army numbering 200,000 men according some Arabic sources. [23] In February 1258 Baghdad fell into their hands. The Abbasid caliph al-Musta`sim was killed and the caliphate was abolished. This marked the end of a remarkable era in Islamic civilization.

The most disastrous effect of the Mongol invasion was depopulation. The capture of Baghdad and several towns was followed by horrible mas­sacres. The number of inhabitants who were slaughtered in Baghdad after its conquest according to Arabic sources ranged between 800,000 and 2 million; non-Arabic sources give lower figures, but it probably exceeded 100,000. [24] There were massacres in every other city. It is beyond doubt that the conquest of Iraq by the Mongols was a demographic catastrophe. Many towns remained desolate, and there was carnage in the countryside too. According to Rashid al-Din, most of the towns on both sides of the Euphrates were devastated and destroyed.[25]

Under the Ilkhanids, there was a general and progressive decline of Iraq's population [26] The decrease of the population of Iraq and the consequences of the Mongol conquest were so catastrophic that Hamd Allah al-Qazwini ob­served that `there can be no doubt that even if for 1,000 years to come no evil befall the country, yet it will not be possible completely to repair the damage and bring back the land to the state in which it was formerly.[27] Modern research has revealed that the population of the province of Diyala, including Baghdad, had declined from 870,000 in AD 800 to 60,000 after 1258. 

Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, the Mongols continued their march and overtook Syria and according to their plan, they were heading towards Egypt which was threatened also with annihilation and destruction. The Mamelukes realized the immensity of this danger, and they stood up to the challenge. In the battle of `Ayn Jālut in Palestine, in 1259, the Mongols were defeated decisively, and their tide was checked. The Mamelukes gradually wrested all of Syria from Hulāgu and his successors. The last encounter in this era between the Mongols and the Mamelukes took place in 1304 when Ghazan,

who was already converted to Islam, was defeated. The final expulsion of both the Crusaders and the Mongols from Syria was achieved at the same time. 

Timur (Tamerlane, ruled 1370-1405) followed in the footsteps of Genghis Khan in ruthlessness, and in conducting worldwide conquests. Although he was a Muslim and claimed that his campaigns were made in the name of Islam, yet they inflicted all the horrors of barbarian devastation on the Islamic world. In 1400-1401 he invaded Iraq and Syria and sacked and pil­laged Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus. His spoils from Damascus included the learned men and the artisans whom he took back with him to his capital in Central Asia. This was a further blow to the civilization of the region.


The Loss of International Trade


The economy of the core Islamic lands during the Golden Age of Islam was a commercial and a monetary one which could quite easily have continued to match that of Europe had it not been beset by various adverse factors. A main element in the prosperity of the Islamic economy was international trade. The strategic location of the Islamic lands between East and West and their military strength enabled them to be the masters of international trade until the end of the fifteenth century. 

It is not a mere coincidence that the year 1492 witnessed the fall of Granada, and the expedition of Columbus in an effort to find a route to India which could bypass the Islamic lands where Ottoman power was on the rise. Thus Columbus discovered the New World and Spain established its authority on the greater part of the newly discovered continent. In this same period, the Portuguese were seeking also to bypass the Islamic lands to reach the East and bring its riches directly to Lisbon. The Portuguese discovered the route around Africa. There was virtually no Islamic naval power in the Indian Ocean, and they were able to occupy all the important Islamic trading posts in the East and to establish their colonies. 

The Portuguese’ presence in the East enabled them to establish direct trade with Europe, and to levy taxes on Muslim merchants and Muslim ships, but the supply of the Islamic lands with Eastern goods remained in Muslim hands. 

The situation changed at the end of the sixteenth century with the rise of Holland, England and France as the dominant forces in world trade. These countries enjoyed uninterrupted political stability and economic, technological and scientific progress. Each of them established a worldwide commercial empire based on advanced gunnery and sailing techniques, in addition to utter ruthlessness in the pursuit of profits. 

The discovery of the New World and the new routes to the East brought untold riches to Europe, which prospered on the captured gold, silver, spices and other products. The distribution of wealth between Europe and the Islamic lands had changed dramatically, and the centre of international trade had shifted from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean to the Baltic and the Atlantic. 

The rise of the commercial empires created a system of exploitation in which Europe became the supplier of high-value manufactured products and the colonized or dominated countries, including the Islamic lands, produced raw materials.[28]


The Capitulations


The core Islamic lands did not encounter a frontal military assault from the West similar to that of the Crusades until the nineteenth century. But during the intervening period, they were penetrated and invaded economically in an indirect and a more insidious and damaging manner. Even when the Muslims were victorious following the expulsion of the Crusaders, the Italian maritime cities which established their presence during the Crusaders occupation of the Syrian coast continued their presence and activities in Egypt and Syria under the Mamelukes, with damaging economic effects for both Egypt and Syria. The Ottoman sultans adopted even more harmful policies. Immediately after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Genoese in that city were given trading privileges. These privileges and immunities, which were given to foreign non-Muslim trading communities living in Muslim cities, came to be known as the Capitulations. The word means submission, surrender and subordination, which is contrary to sovereignty and independence. The Ottoman sultans thought that these concessions to foreigners would benefit the empire's economy. In 1535, the French secured commercial concessions in the empire, in addition to other important privileges. The English Levant Company acquired comparable privileges in 1580.[29]  In Persia, Shah Abbas I, who was a powerful ruler, acted in a similar manner. He granted the English East India Company similar commercial concessions. These concessions granted by Muslim rulers gave Europeans the opportunity to gain control over a large share of the economic life of Islam.

With the declining power of the Ottoman Empire, the Capitulations were confirmed and extended to give foreign powers non-commercial concessions as well, such as the right of foreigners to have their own consular courts, and the right to guard Christian holy places. In the Levant, France was granted the right to protect all native Latin Catholics. Russia and Britain claimed similar protective rights over other sectors of the native population. 

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of European imperialism led by Britain. Although British goods were invading the Ottoman Empire, yet Britain exerted powerful pressure on the Ottoman Empire and forced it to abolish the system of state monopolies. In 1838, an Anglo-Turkish treaty was signed giving Britain and the European powers the right to trade in the empire in return for a duty of 3 per cent only.[30] This treaty, known as the Commercial Code, deprived the Ottoman government of its revenue from state mono­polies. It opened the door for the foreign economic domination of the empire. Cheaper European goods invaded the markets, and the local industries were virtually destroyed. The Ottoman economy declined into that of a satellite in its relationship with Europe, supplying it with raw materials which were Manufactured in Europe and then sold back in the empire.[31]


Western Military Intervention to Thwart Modernization [32]


In the nineteenth century, some Muslim rulers realized the weakness of their economies and became aware of the urgent need to introduce reforms and to modernize. These attempts took place in the Ottoman Empire, in Egypt, and in Tunisia, and all of them were thwarted by direct or indirect intervention by European powers.  

The story of Mohammad Ali is an example of direct military intervention by Western powers to foil the attempt to modernize by a Muslim ruler. Mohammad Ali, who was described by Brockelmann [33] as the most im­portant man in the history of modern Islam, came to power in Egypt in 1805. He realized from the start wherein lay the power of Western Europe. So he spent his lifetime in an attempt to modernize and to build the economy of Egypt. He realized that military strength does not lie in the number of men in the armed forces or the amount of amassed imported military equipment, but in the possession and control of the means of production and not being de­pendent on Europe. So he undertook a massive programme of modernization and industrialization. 

He started by abolishing the Mameluke military system and establishing a modern army of about 180,000, in which the sons of the Egyptian peasants were recruited. He introduced a land reform in which he abolished the iqtá system and consolidated the agricultural lands as state property, and allotted them to the peasants. He encouraged agriculture and introduced the cultiva­tion of cotton into Egypt as an export crop for securing the foreign exchange which was much needed for his reforms. He made foreign trade a state monopoly and refused to apply the Commercial Code which was imposed by Western powers on the Ottoman Empire, because he believed that it would destroy the economy of Egypt.  

Mohammad Ali built many industrial factories to produce a wide range of products which were needed for the country as a whole and for the army and the navy. These included textiles, clothing, paper, dyes, sugar, chemicals, leather, glass, machine tools, pumps, guns and am­munition, and many other products. He even built naval vessels in Alexandria. The number of industrial workers reached about 400,000. He sent workers to Europe to be trained in European factories and hired foreign technicians for some industries. Missions of Egyptian students were sent annually to Europe to study and specialize. Many modern schools were built for the first time in Egypt, such as the schools for medicine, veterinary medicine, engineering, languages, secretarial services, infantry and artillery. At one time, the number of students in these schools reached 10,000, all of whom were supplied with lodging, food and stipends. The aim was to create the cadres needed to run and supervise a modern government and a modern economy, and to provide the army with the needed trained manpower. 

Muhammad Ali created a united Arab state which included Egypt, Greater Syria, Hijaz and the Sudan all of which were neighbours. Syria in particular was of immense importance as was evident to him from the history of Egypt and Syria during the previous Islamic periods. 

The major Western powers became increasingly concerned and alarmed by the threat that this rising Islamic power posed to their interests. Britain in particular regarded Muhammad Ali as a dangerous menace to its interests. Palmerston in an official correspondence to his ambassador in France wrote: `I hate Muhammad Ali whom I consider him nothing better than a barbarian. I believe that he is a great tyrant and oppressor.'  Britain was seriously alarmed by the spread of Muhammad Ali's power along the whole eastern coast of the Red Sea and along a part of the southern coast of Arabia in which they saw a threat to their route to India and the East. All the major powers saw in his economic policies and his expanding power a threat to their interests and to their markets in the Islamic lands.

Britain set about organizing the five major powers of Europe, Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia, to join an alliance to oust Muhammad Ali from Syria and to curtail his power. Even though these powers had conflicting interests, yet in this case they agreed to unite against Muhammad Ali. In 1840, the fleets of the allies led by the British, assembled off the Syrian coast to attack Ibrahim (his son). They instigated a local revolt exploiting the religious differ­ences among the population, and then landed in Beirut. Ibrahim was obliged to retreat. Then Acre was besieged, bombarded and captured. This was fol­lowed by the siege of Alexandria. Muhammad Ali realized that he was beaten. His French allies deserted him, and he could not fight the European powers alone. 

Through the terms of the Treaty of London of 1841, Muhammad Ali was obliged to leave Syria and Hijaz, and to reduce his forces to 18,000 only from 180,000 (or 250,000 according to some reports.) He had to acknowledge the validity of the treaties concluded between the Ottoman Empire and the foreign powers, including the Commercial Code.[34]


The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire

Coping with Overextension, Sustained Crusade and the Cultural Barrier


When the Ottomans were on the rise, they were always keen to encourage economic activities in the new areas which were added to their empire. In the new cities, all the trades and crafts were established as an important support for the military effort.[35] During the sixteenth century, the Ottomans were the superior military power. Their artillery and armaments were unchallenged.[36] The Ottoman and Islamic civilization in general developed unaided until it reached the point where it could not develop any longer without a great new advance or a revolution in science and technology. The Ottomans were a great power as long as their gunpowder technology was superior. Gunpowder technology was developed by the Islamic civilization from the thirteenth century until the end of the sixteenth, Nothing of significance in this technology was borrowed from the West. We can even safely say that, in general, Islamic technology in the sixteenth century represented the best that was known in that age. This is illustrated in the mechanical engineering books of Taqì al- Din, who flourished at the end of the sixteenth century in Istanbul, and who established also the advanced Istanbul observatory which was the last one in Islam. In that same age, an English traveller in Syria was studying why people in England were under the impression that the Turks were superior to people in the West.[37] 

How can we explain then the decline which followed, and why the West overtook and then surpassed the Ottomans after the sixteenth century? We have given above various factors which led to the decline of the Islamic lands including the Ottoman Empire, notably the capitulations.  

The Ottomans lost their advantage in military technology after the six­teenth century, and their economy and their science and technology did not advance beyond medieval standards. In Europe, things began to change dra­matically. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the emergence of a European economy on a large scale. The geographical discoveries brought to Europe great riches from the New World and from the newly discovered trade routes with India and the Far East. Other internal factors were behind the economic progress of local trade and industry. The fertility of the land in Europe and the growth of population were among the factors behind this economic growth. 

By about the middle of the nineteenth century, the population of the Ottoman Empire was barely 17 million.[38] This included more than 5 million in the European part which was more of a liability, 6 million in Anatolia and Istanbul, 2-3 million in Egypt, about 1 million in each of Syria and Iraq, and 2-3 million in North Africa. The population of Western Europe in this same period was about 190 million which is more than 11 times the population of the Ottoman Empire.[39] And with Russia and Eastern Europe the total was 274 million or more than 16 times the size of the Ottoman Empire. Each of the following West European countries was larger than the Ottoman Empire in population: Great Britain (28.9 million), France (36.5), Spain and Portugal (19.7), Italy (23.9), Germany (31.7), and Austro-Hungary (31.3). 

In face of this growing prosperity and power of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was to falter, and to turn inward. The Ottoman army, however well administered, became increasingly unable to maintain the lengthy frontiers without enormous cost in men and money; and the Ottoman Empire, unlike that of the Spanish, Dutch, and the British later, did not bring much in the way of economic benefit. By the second half of the sixteenth century, the empire was showing signs of strategic over-extension,[40] with a large army stationed in central Europe, an expensive navy operation in the Mediterranean, troops engaged against Persia, in North Africa, the Aegean, Cyprus, and the Red Sea, and reinforcements needed to hold the Crimea against a rising Russian power. 

An important element in the decline was the cultural barrier which ex­isted between Christian Europe and the Ottomans and which isolated the empire from the revolutions which took place in science and technology. This resulted also in a hostile relationship with Europe, which was considered as a continuation of the Crusades and which sapped the energy of the empire. 

The gap between the levels of development continued to increase, and when the Ottomans realized in the nineteenth century the need to modernize, it was not as much the forces of reaction which delayed the reforms, but the obstacles which were created by the Western powers.


The Future of Islamic Science


After the Second World War, most Islamic lands became independent once again, but the scars of long colonial rule remained. These are evident in the further fragmentation of Islamic and Arabic countries into smaller states, in the injustice and oppression inflicted against the Palestinians, in the destructive invasion of Iraq, in the renewed activities to strengthen the cultural barrier between the West and Islam and to distort the image of Islam, in the current sectarian and ethnic feuds and devastating civil wars within some countries. in the economic and political dominance of foreign powers, and in the cultural domination exemplified in the use of foreign rather than national languages in higher education. 

But despite all the adversities and obstacles facing the Islamic lands, the future holds hope and promise. These lands have been the cradle of some of the richest civilizations ever known. Science appeared in the Nile Valley, Syria and Mesopotamia. It continued uninterrupted over thousands of years, reaching its peak during the Islamic period. It flowed on incessantly, and the wide gap of today started only since the Industrial Revolution, less than 200 years ago. Thus there is a solid substratum to the civilization of the Muslim world, which has indigenous and inherent cultural traditions and customs, deeply rooted in the peoples of the area. In addition, there are the crafts and industrial skills inherited over thousands of years. These inherited skills proved their importance in the wake of independence and after the Second World War, when some Islamic countries started to industrialize and thousands of work­shops and industrial plants were established in all Muslim cities. Craftsmen in even the smallest machine shops were able to manufacture the most delicate modern machinery, in no way inferior to imported or imitated versions. 

In approaching modern science and technology, we must remind our­selves of those lessons of history that help us to look to the future. For history shows that there is nothing in the content of any part of science, or indeed of technologies high or low, that cannot be nurtured and developed by any people of any type of culture. Almost no society or set of cultural conditions is hostile: on the contrary, almost all the great groups of mankind have throughout the ages made significant contributions to the common heritage of knowledge and techniques. Among the foremost of them are the peoples of Islam. 

Once we realize that the content of science and technology finds no cultural barriers, we arrive at another lesson of history. It has been established that in the past, as now, science and scientists flourish in large communities and linguistic groups rather than small, in affluent areas better than in poor. During historic times, science has indeed flourished only when an empire or a nation became mighty and rich, because it depends on the infrastructure provided by the existence of affluence. This is amply demonstrated through­out Islamic history. 

The Islamic world is rich in human resources, and some areas are rich in petroleum and other natural resources. This is fortunate because the future of science in Islamic countries depends upon the successful utilization of a combination of these two ingredients. Development in all fields within a community depends significantly on the scientific size, which is itself propor­tional to the size of the population and the gross national product. 

Individually, most of the oil-rich countries are small in size. Each cannot by itself create an effective science and technology, or an independent in­dustrial economy. Similarly, those Muslim countries which are endowed with human resources lack the capital essential for the development of science and technology and, indeed, for their general development. 

Though most individual Islamic states now realize the importance of science and technology for their future development, and though some have achieved considerable success along this road, future progress in all Muslim countries, rich or poor, depends on the extent of economic co-operation and integration among them on a regional basis.


[1] This paper is a revised version of the Epilogue to Science and Technology in Islam, Part II, UNESCO, 2001, edited by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, with Maqbul Ahmad and Albert Zaki Iskandar as co-editors. A first version was published in Islam and the Challenge of Modernity, edited by Sharifa Shifa Al-Attas, Kuala Lumpur, 1996, pp. 351-389. Related papers by the author on this general theme are the following: ‘Science and the Islamic World ” in Sience and the Factors of Inequality, edited by Charles Moraze, UNESCO, 1979, pp. 214-225; ‘Science and Technology in Islam’ in Cultures, vol. VII, No. 4, UNESCO, 1980, pp. 89-89;  “Some Obstacles Hindering the Advance of Science and Technology in the Arab Countries,’ in The Islamic World and Japan, Tokyo, 1981; “L’Islam et la science”, La Recherche, Paris, 1982,  and in the Epilogue to Islamic Technology, an illustrated history, by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald Hill, UNESCO and CUP, 1986.

[2] Notably in Science and Technology in Islam,. Parts I and II, being Volume IV of The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, edited by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Maqbul Ahmad and Albert Zaki Iskander as co-editors, UNESCO, 2001.

[3] Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddima, fifth offset reproduction, Beirut, 1984

(Arabic edition).

[4] Ibn Khaldūn, ibid., p. 403.

[5] Ibn Khaldun, ibid., p. 403.

[6] Ibn Khaldūn, ibid., p. 434.

[7]  Ibn Khaldun, op. cit., p. 481.

[8] J. D. Bernal, Science in History, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1969, I, p. 47.

[9] Aydin Sayili, The Observatory in Islam, New York, Arno Press, 1981, p.410.

[10] Sayili, The Observatory..., op. cit., p.408.

[11] E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia, 1, 1908, p. 286; see G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, New York, Krieger, 1975, I, p. 626.

[12] G. Sarton, Introduction..., op. cit., I, pp. 28-29.

[13] De Lacy O'Leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980, pp. 168-169.

[14] Sayili, The Observatory..., op. cit., pp.414-415.

[15] George Makdisi,`On the Origin and Development of the College', in Islam and the West, Articles in Islam and the Medieval West, ed. by Khalil I. Semaan, New York, 1980, pp. 26-49.

[16] Nikki R. Keddie, `Socioeconomic Change in the Middle East since 1800: A Comparative Analysis', Chapter 24 in The Islamic Middle East, ed. by A. L. Udovitch, Princeton, The Darwin Press, 1981, p.762.

[17] E. Ashtor, A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages, London, 1976.

[18] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Fontana Press, London, 1988, p, 21.

[19] Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, London, 1977, p. 150.

[20] Jacques Bernard, `Trade and Finance in the Middle Ages 900-1500', article 7 in The Fontana Economic History of Europe The Middle Ages, edited by Carlo Cipolla, Collins/Fontana, London, 1977, pp. 274-275.

[21] Jacques Bernard, ibid., p.292.

[22] Bernard Lewis, The Arabs..., op. cit., p. 153.

[23] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidāya wa-l-nihāya, Beirut, 1982, Arabic edition, XIII, p.200.

[24] Abd al-`Aziz al-Duri, 'Baghdad', in Encyclopaedia of Islam, I, p.902.

[25] The recent invasion of Iraq and its destruction is reminiscent of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, but with more disastrous results

[26] Ashtor, A Social and Economic History..., op. dt., p.253.

[27] Al-Qazwīnī, Hamd Allah. The geographical part of Nuzhat al Qnlub, composed

in AD 1340, was published in two volumes: 1. Text ed. by Guy le Strange. 2. English translation by le Strange, Leiden, Brill, 1915, p.34.

[28] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 267-275.

[29]  William McNeil, The Rise of the West, Chicago, 1963, p.614.

[30] P. Mansfield, A Histoy of the Middle East, London, Viking, 1991, p. 57.

[31] B.S. Turner,Weber and Islam, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 133.

[32] This paper was written several years before the recent tragic invasion of Iraq. History is repeating itself. The thesis of the author in this respect is thus firmly established.

[33] C. Brockelmann, History of the Islamic Peoples, English translation, London, Roudedge & Kegan Paul, 1980, p. 347.

[34] A good account of the achievements of Muhammad Ali is given by W. R. Polk, The Arab World Today, Harvard, 1991, pp. 73-81. The European coalition against Muhammad Ali is cited in most histories including Polk, op. cit., Brockelmann, History..., op. cit., and Mansfield, A History..., op. cit.

[35] Halil Inalcik, `The Ottoman Economic Mind and Aspects of the Ottoman Economy', in Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East, ed. by M. A. Cook, Oxford, 1970, pp. 207-218.

[36] John Francis Guilmartin Jr., Gunpowder and Galleys, Cambridge, 1974, p. 255.

[37] Henry Maundrell, A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem, Beirut, Khayat, 1963, p.196.

[38] Charles Issawi, `The Area and Population of the Arab Empire', in The Islamic Middle East, ed. A. L. Udovitch, op. dt., pp. 389-390.

[39] Elias Tuma, European Economic History, Palo Alto, 1971, p.202.

[40] Paul Kennedy, The Rise..., op. dt., p. 13.


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