Is the 'Golden Age of Islam' still relevant today?

Polymaths from across Islamic dynasties have contributed immensely to the formation of the modern world [Getty Image
6 min read
09 June, 2021
Book Club: Professor Akbar Ahmed invites us to survey the ideas of some of the great Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers from a remarkable period of history. 

In a recent article, noted Moroccan literary writer Abdelfattah Kilito asked rhetorically: "What is the point of reading the ancients? They are not of our world. They are peacefully asleep and do not want us to wake them. Let the dead bury their dead. We may hesitate a moment in our judgement and suppose that there are, perhaps, benefits and advantages to be gained from their company."

Why indeed?  Well, there are many incentives for modern people to engage with the writings of the great philosophers and thinkers of the past – not least for the perennial human search for truth and “love of wisdom” – the literal meaning of philosophy: a commodity in scarce supply in our challenging times.  

It is within this context that the celebrated scholar, Ambassador of Islam Professor Akbar Ahmed invites us to survey the ideas of some of the great Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers from a remarkable period of history. 

In his latest book, The Flying Man, Professor Ahmed, seeks to remind readers of the importance of seeking knowledge and wisdom and illustrates how Muslim philosophers from the “Golden Age of Islam,” embodied these virtues, influenced their Christian and Jewish contemporaries and demonstrates the relevance of their ideas during times of great crisis such as our COVID-19 infected world.

The book demonstrates the universal, enduring intellectual legacy of these great philosophers – many of whom lived in turbulent times and reiterates the relevance of the ideas in our difficult, globalised reality

This short book packs a lot of information – offering vignettes of the lives and ideas of the giants of Islamic philosophy such as  Al-Ghazali (1058-1111AD), Al-Farabi (872-950 AD) and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD), Latinised as ‘Averroes.’  It also highlights the contributions of less well-known figures such as Abbas Ibn Firnas (810- 887 A.D), the world’s first aviator – the real “Flying Man,” who successfully flew over the skies of Spain over thousand years ago.  

The author notes that Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Rushd were prolific translators of the Greeks and that his attempts to reconcile science and reason with faith, were widely translated into Hebrew and Latin and extensively studied over many centuries.  

Many people would also be surprised to learn that philosopher Ibn Sina (980 -1037 AD) or Avicenna as he is known in the West, was also a physician and the first to articulate the idea of quarantine to contain pandemics – a practice so relevant to us in the age of Covid.  Ibn Sina authored hundreds of texts and his influential The Canon of Medicine became an authoritative encyclopaedia of medicine for over six hundred years.

Ahmed notes that these polymath philosophers explored a multitude of theoretical and practical issues that ranged from the relationship between the soul and physical body, the role of reason in relation to revelation to the nature of existence.  

In presenting these arguments, Professor Ahmed fulfils another aim of his book, which is to disrupt Orientalist tropes that claim Islam is anti-rational and against philosophical enquiry and instead, he points out that during the same historical period, Europe lingered in a long period of intellectual stagnation while geniuses such as Averroes and Avicenna were generating new knowledge in the fields of mathematics, medicine,  science, astronomy, in addition to philosophy.

As a result, Averroes and Avicenna, have craters on the moon named after them!. The scholarship on the Muslim contribution to advancing human civilisation itself continues to grow and can be sampled by the author's bibliographic recommendations and projects such as Muslim Heritage.com.

Learning about the contributions of these great thinkers reverses the dominant Eurocentric narrative of history which skips the Muslim contribution to philosophy and presents a linear progression from the Greeks, the Renaissance, Enlightenment to the modern-day.  

Learning about the contributions of these great thinkers reverses the dominant Eurocentric narrative of history which skips the Muslim contribution to philosophy and presents a linear progression from the Greeks, the Renaissance, Enlightenment to the modern-day.  

Many people are still unaware of the influence of Ibn Rushd on St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), one of the Catholic Church’s greatest scholars, or that the great Jewish thinker Rabbi Moses ‘Maimonides’ (1138–1204 AD), encouraged his students to read Al-Farabi’s writings. 

Professor Ahmed writes that Avicenna treated Muslims and non-Muslims alike with his medical expertise and Al-Ghazali admired Aristotle. He also explores their intellectual tensions and theological differences but argues that rediscovering these insights can help to build bridges between the Abrahamic faiths and inspire us to live up to the shared values we appear to have lost.

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This irenic message is critical in facing up to our collective existential challenges such as the Coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rising right-wing populism, racism, Islamophobia and growing global social inequality – issues that Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD), a philosopher of history and the perhaps the world’s first Sociologist, would no doubt have developed theories about.

Ibn Khaldun continues to be a subject of study for his pioneering contributions to the social sciences, particularly the importance of the empirical study, the significance of tribal solidarity and cyclical theory of social change.

The book demonstrates the universal, enduring intellectual legacy of these great philosophers – many of whom lived in turbulent times and reiterates the relevance of the ideas in our difficult, globalised reality – which desperately requires deeply learned thinkers to help us find ways of increasing human solidarity and solve our complex planetary crises.  

This study is a call to self-learning and also can be read as an implicit call for Muslim societies to invest more in education and honour scholarship as  the during that Golden Age

These philosophers ruminated on abstract ideas like the function and limits of human reason, truth, freedom, but as Professor Ahmed explains, it "also reminded us how interconnected different parts of humanity are to each other; and how the world is shaped by the quest to know each other and find ways to live in harmony while reaching for the divine each in our own way." He asks "Muslims and non-Muslims, Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic, atheist and believers" to mobilise their intelligence and pool in their resources to meet these multifaceted challenges.

Many Muslims rightly celebrate the great civilisation that they once possessed but do seem not to have a firm grasp of the details of that illustrious age.  

This study is a call to self-learning and also can be read as an implicit call for Muslim societies to invest more in education and honour scholarship as occurred during the Golden Age. He reminds fellow believers that the virtues of compassion, balance, and seeking all forms of knowledge are also forms of worship. It is a plea for greater inter-faith understanding and fruitful co-existence – something these great philosophers examined.  In concluding it is clear, reading about the wisdom of the ancients remains as relevant as ever.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid