“The reawakening to science that took place in Europe hundreds of years later was kindled by a flame that had been long tended by Islamic scholars and scientists.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos (Fox)
The Muslim societies of history were known by their contemporaries as places of pluralism, where people of different religions worked together on an unquenchable quest for knowledge, whatever the source. Intellect was prized above all things, as it was seen as the means to understand God and Creation. The Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation was a command to ‘Read!’ and investigate the depths of the mind, since God teaches humankind ‘by the Pen’ (Q. 96:1-5).
This command was the first revelation of the Qur’an, and it expressed a love for knowledge that was to become the pivot around which all the great Muslim cities flourished. That ardour for intellect was not hindered by any prejudice of race or creed. Knowledge was to be gained from everywhere, and people of all faiths lived and worked side-by-side, inspired by an interpretation of the Qur’an that said ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (Q. 2:256), and that all the world’s diverse humans should ‘come to know one another’ (Q. 49:13).
Spanning time and place, this pluralism of the mind was characteristic of mediaeval Muslim societies like Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid Egypt, Umayyad Spain, Ottoman Turkey, and Mughal India. Known for their acceptance of diversity and promotion of inter-group cooperation, these societies were composed of different groups with their own philosophies, like an orchestra of different instruments blending harmoniously to create a symphony.
That was the music echoing from the walls of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, which, by the 9th-century, was the world’s biggest library. A community of global scholars, the House of Wisdom was an unrivaled centre for the study of subjects as varied as astronomy, medicine, zoology, and cartography.
Famously, its translations of Greek texts re-introduced Greek knowledge to Europe and spurred the European Renaissance some 500 years later. Al-Khwarizmi – from whose work we get the words ‘algebra’ and ‘algorithm’ – introduced to future generations the Indian decimal system and its groundbreaking number ‘0’. It was here where scholars like the 10th-century ‘father of optics’ Ibn al-Haytham helped establish the modern scientific method through observable experiments whose revolutionary results reverberate through time to form the bedrock of modern science.
Under the Fatimids, Egypt was to become the heart of Islam’s cultural, intellectual, and scientific life. The world’s first university, al-Azhar, founded in 10th-century Fatimid Cairo, was a haven for scholars from all over the world – regardless of religious persuasion – to collaborate and debate the latest advancements in all fields of human endeavour.
In Cairo, the city founded by this Shi‘i dynasty in 969 CE, was employed a vast administrative service run by Christian and Jewish viziers, Coptic and Jewish officers, and an army staffed by Sunni Turkish as well as Christian commanders. Here, Jews and Christians enjoyed a religious freedom that reflected the modernist tendency of promotion.
Muslim Spain – known as Andalus – was a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived cooperatively, in a time of Jewish persecution in Europe. In Andalus – the place of ‘three religions and one bedroom’ – people of different faiths interacted freely to create a society that prized the pursuit of knowledge, which both symbolised and actualised for them the freedom of the human soul.
For the 10th-century nun Hroswitha, Muslim Spain was ‘the ornament of the world.’ For her European contemporaries, Andalus was the beacon of civilisation on the continent. It was a place where streets were lamp-lit for miles, where a system of aqueducts and sewers staved off the Plague, and where Averroes and Maimonides produced brilliant philosophical and scientific works that were to become standard texts in European universities for centuries.
It is that strength of the human intellect that the Qur’an aimed to harness. Its vision for humanity was of an ethical community of diverse and different individuals striving to ennoble both themselves and society through the expansion of the mind to all the world’s diverse corners.