in category History

How would you summarise what went wrong in the Muslim world?

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Masters in Education from Nottingham University in the UK. Also studied Masters in Islamic Studies and Islamic Banking & Finance. Political activist with interests in Geopolitics, History and Phil ...
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There are broadly two sets of theories relating to decline in the Muslim world, the Muslim world being the heartlands of Islam - classical and contemporary.

Classical Theories

The Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) believed internal causes had led to the decline of the Muslims. He cited three as particularly important: heretical Sufi practices, Shiite eschatology and rigidity of legal thought (mazahib).

His explanations assumed a dilution or corruption of Islamic thought. Historical evidence correlating these conclusions with a long term decline were lacking, with these alleged causes even appearing before the rise of the Umayyad and Abbasid civilisations. Importantly there was little to correlate these practices to institutions and related processes whether they be political, economic or military.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) dealt this argument a stronger blow with a more cogent explanation charting the rise and fall of civilisations using a circular causation model that encompassed socio-econo-political units along with trigger mechanisms. He attributed the original cause to the emergence of aa dynastical Umayyad rule, triggering a long decline comprising a gradual and complex sequence of inseparable events. Although his model helps to explain elements of Muslim political history well, it fails in explaining the move to modernity with balance of power shifting from the countryside to the cities aided by gunpowder and slaves who successfully defended the Islamic civilizations. Despite many Umayyad harsh practices, their era charts a civilisational rise. Following devastation and destruction in the thirteenth centuries order was restored with Ottoman rule. It is arguable that there was no general and consistent decline up to the sixteenth century but simply a number of disruptions.

The Ottomans were aware of dislocations and problems in their system. Mustafa Ali (1541-1600) for instance was a vocal critic, believed the system that did not promote men of his ability must have deep-seated flaws. The inability to enforce good governance, particularly at the frontier provinces was seen as reflective of government weakness. His views were used uncritically to bolster the paradigm of decline, measured from the golden age of Suleiman, enjoying popular support until relatively recently. With an absence of correlating trends and their effects beyond this period, his generalised conclusions are empirically questionable. Furthermore, it is no longer tenable to attempt to attribute historical causation to individual personalities.

Mustafa Naima Effendi (1655-1716) revived Ibn Khaldun's circular causation model in his "Cycle of Equity" theory, when it was felt the state was facing challenges that were inadequately dealt with. In contrast, Ahmed Resmi (1700-1783), an active political figure who had travelled beyond the borders in an official capacity, warned against the futility of rulers attempting to conquer more lands than resources allowws, as it would exhaust the subjects and have little to show. The eighteenth century saw advice move to the avoidance of wars for which the state was ill-prepared, in particular the disastrous six year war with Russia, 1768-1774, and the adoption of Western technology. This shift in discussion to address contemporary problems facing the Ottomans following centuries of growth and expansion was a shift from the decline thesis. The nineteenth century saw Ahmed Cevdet produce his history of the Ottoman Empire from 1774 to 1826. He did not consider a long-term decline, but the specific problems and challenges that required solutions, primarily the diplomatic crises of the period.

Modern Theories The late nineteenth and early twentieth century brought a host of new theories emphasizing a decline, each generally falling in one of three categories: intellectual, political and cultural.

A number of scholars, particularly Muslim, argue the Muslim world went through an intellectual decline, commencing around the twelfth century with the ceasure of ijtihad (research). To support this view, twelfth century official pronouncements prohibiting ijtihad are cited. The continued existence of jurists undertaking this activity, especially in the Shiite world, would indicate these pronouncements did not have the intended effect. However, it has not been shown how these pronouncements contributed to stagnation or decline in social institutions or processes.

Believing the causes to be systemic, Afghani and Abduh argued the intellectual decline stemmed from its deficient educational systems, which discouraged rational reasoning and suppressed intellectual curiosity, something that was in fact incompatible with Islamic teachings. The Ottomans however deemed education important, instituting madrasas in the fourteenth century, which grew in numbers and evolved in content over the centuries. The Ottoman focus on military schools, rational subjects and sciences revived from the seventeenth century onwards and increased under the tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century. Factors like economic instability, loss of territories and weakening of central government may have had more of a negative impact on scholarly activities.

Sarton, Sachau and Wiet et al argued moderate views were hijacked by "pious bigots" thus enslaving thought. The eleventh century was seen as a turning point and "had it not been for Ashari and Ghazali, the Arabs might have been a nation of Galileos, Keplers and Newtons". Muslims were seen as encouraging the tradition of esoteric theology and discouraging works of secular human affairs. These views have been critiqued by a number of researchers as being ahistoric.

The historian Ira Lapidus argues the transformation of state cultural institutions during the Seljuq and later Mongol periods resulted in the formation of a new socio-political identity amongst Muslim societies. This identity began with a fusion of ArabPersian-Turkish traditions, the Islamic caliphate legacy and heritage of Persian concepts of imperial monarchy blended with Turkish concepts of political chieftaincy, law and world conquest. Turkic was maintained as part of the identity resulting in a new lingua-religio cultural identity, contradicting the Arabo-Islamic identity the Arabs had originally brought. Thus, tensions and schisms in the body politic were formed as a result and never alleviated - exploited in the nineteenth century by autonomous regions and centrifugal forces of nationalism.

The Ottomanist scholar Quataert however disputes nationalist tendencies caused the state's demise, claiming few called for breaking away from the empire with the overwhelming majority expecting and opting to remain within an Ottoman system. He believes nationalist sentiments and stereotypes were found, invented and magnified in post-Ottoman nation building.

Toland claimed Islam itself was the problem, that Mohammed ordered his followers to be ignorant "because he saw the spirit of inquiry would not favour him. This is how Islam maintained itself."

Diderot continued with the argument that Mohammed was the enemy of reason; he could not read or write and so he encouraged Muslims to hate and have contempt for knowledge that in turn secured the survival of Islam. Such views have little credibility given the detailed exposition of Mohammed's life and the progress of Islamic civilisation.

The American historian Bernard Lewis in his book "What Went Wrong?" argued cultural barriers prevented the Islamic world from entering modernity, including the place of women, absence of political secularism and resistance to the "systematic" quality of modernity, necessary for industrialisation. Alam provided a detailed refutation of Lewis's views, starting with an analysis of his prejudicial "Orientalist" approach that Edward Said criticised in the 1960s, the lack of a global context to his narrative, an ahistorical incongruence and contradictions and a lack of objectivity in his writings.

Not all scholars accepted the notion of a general decline - Marshall Hodgson in his sweeping history of Islamic civilisation in the 1960s wrote, "...in its own setting, the age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of the greatest in Islamic history. The artistic, philosophic and social power and creativeness of the age can be symbolized in spaciousness, purity, and overwhelming magnificence of the Taj Mahal at Agra. In some sense, there was a great florescence." Robert Owen also criticised Gibb and Owen's account of a decline.


Recent scholarship however, is much more critical of the all-encompassing nature of decline theories.

Toledano argues the increased scope and sophistication of Ottoman studies makes a uniform view difficult to justify, "...that the processes that unravelled during the period of so-called decline as manifestations of remarkable adaptation to changing realities, which reflect the resourcefulness, pragmatism, and flexibility of the Ottoman imperial system, rather than its ineptitude". Overemphasis on local and Arab historiography, "has managed to submerge imperial history and pronounce the virtual disintegration of Ottoman central authority, its projected power, economic significance, and sociocultural influence".

Similarly, the historian Hourani argues, "Rather than speaking of [Ottoman] decline, it might be more correct to say that what had occurred was an adjustment of Ottoman methods of rule and the balance of power within the empire to changing circumstances. By the end of the eighteenth century the Ottoman dynasty had existed for 500 years and had been ruling most of the Arab countries for almost 300; it was only to be expected that its ways of government and the extent of its control would change from one place and time to another."

Bernard Lewis concludes the change of relationship between Europe and Middle East produced a Western Upsurge theory and the Ottoman state did not suffer an absolute decline. The West relatively overtook it obviating the need for explaining a decline however raising the question, "What Went Right in the West?"

Grant then poignantly notes, "In its broadest application, Ottoman "decline" has served as a negative judgment on the Islamic world."

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