Why the Islamic world fell behind in science

Frisian crusaders confront the Tower of Damietta, Egypt.
Frisian crusaders confront the Tower of Damietta, Egypt.

The Islamic world made significant contributions in different scientific fields up until the 15th century. These contributions are inevitably seen not only in science, but also in other fields such as art, trade and politics. So what happened to make the Islamic world fall behind in science while it rose in Europe? What are the reasons behind this downward trend?

The European assertion of why Muslims fell behind in science was the negative attitude Islamic scholars. "If there were no scholars like al-Ghazali, then there would also be discoveries and innovations in the Islamic world." While the West overcame scholastic philosophy, the Middle East failed. What the Western world actually means is the stance of these scholars against philosophers. Indeed, there was always an upward trend in scientific discipline after al-Ghazali and similar scholars. The discussions between religious scholars and philosophers were on the truth of religion, not on rational sciences.

It is true to say that the difference in science field between the Islamic world and the West increased after the 16th century. However, it would be an unsupported statement to say Muslim scholars led this. It was an issue of supply and demand. If science and technology was needed in the Islamic world with less political and financial power, developments in the rational sciences would have increasingly continued as they did in the Islamic golden age. Many mathematicians, astronomers, physicists, engineers and other scientists used to fulfill society and the state's requirements. On the other hand, there was a bright scientific life in Ottoman Empire, besides religious one, in which scholars wrote books and made innovations in every field of science.

The second issue that the Western world criticized was that madrasas mostly focused on education in theology and law. However, education in the rational sciences used to be offered as separate training in the Islamic world. To illustrate, astronomy and mathematics used to be offered at observatories with libraries filled with books in these fields and where observation tools were continuously in use. Students were trained by astronomers and mathematicians. For medicine, students were trained at hospitals, as it should be. This is why law and theology were taught at madrasas due to necessity during the period when political and financial power experienced a downward trend while education in the rational sciences did not improve. When integration with the West became inevitable, modern schools, where the teaching of such scientific fields was available, were established.

Historian Ibn Khaldun associated this downward trend to political and financial reasons. He once wrote: "Science flourishes in wealthy societies." If a region weakens, loses its power and population, then certain professions increasingly sink into oblivion until they disappear because they are not financially supported. The crowded and prosperous cities such as Baghdad, Cordoba, Kairouan, Basra and Kufa in the first century of Islam were the centers of civilization and science. When these cities' populations dropped, prosperous thinking, civilization and science shifted to other Islamic regions like Persia and Central Asia. It was at this time that science boomed and financial activities and technical advances flourished. The road of science was the same as that of trade and industry, which started from Egypt and Mesopotamia and extended to Greece and Andalusia to Renaissance-era Italy and the Netherlands and Industrial Revolution-era Britain. When a society falls, scientific advances halt and even disappear. Science requires prosperity and safety.

Toward the end of the 15th century, wisdom and science reached such a point that was hard to improve, impossible even. Until that period there were hardly any scientific advances either in the Islamic world or medieval Europe. To shake itself, it was necessary to eliminate the previous order. Europe achieved this by discoveries that made it rich and increased its population. So what happened to make Muslims fall behind in science?

Land structure: Many Islamic regions are in barren or semi-barren, steppe or desert with few habitable areas. The Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates prioritized irrigation systems and introduced agricultural reform, but irrigation systems were neglected when the centralized authority weakened. Following the Mongolian invasion, farms fell fallow or turned into marsh.

Mongolian nomads: When the central authority weakened, nomads overcame Muslims and caused chaos and anarchy. As the irrigations systems did not work and wetlands turned into grassland and swamps, the lands that these nomads claimed enlarged, leading to a population decrease in Iraq and Syria from the 13th century to the modern age.

Natural disasters: Natural disasters that occurred in Islamic cities in the Medieval Age caused social and economic depression. For example, the decrease in the Nile's water level in 968 resulted in serious drought and the deaths of 600,000 people. Famine and infectious diseases followed this. The biggest disaster of this time, the Black Death, destroyed the Islamic world more than it destroyed Europe. Egypt, Syria and Iraq lost two-thirds of their populations. Agricultural production and industry collapsed and military power weakened as well.

Geographical location: The geographical position of Islamic cities made them the targets of external assaults and interference from the crusades until the modern era. Located in the middle of the East and West, Islamic cities with flat geography were defenseless in every aspect. Island countries such as Japan and Britain had strategic advantages regarding their geographical locations.

Crusaders: To take Jerusalem and other holy cities from the Muslims, a total of seven crusades were organized between 1096 and 1291. Muslims in the captured towns were massacred. Soldiers and adventure seekers coming from Europe, and merchants and travelers settled in these towns. Economic reasons were behind the crusades for which religion was used as a psychological catalyzer. The population of Europe increased. While Europe's population was 38.5 million, the population of Islamic regions was no more than 12.5 million. The crusades were the first experience of imperialism. Both population and production in Western Europe increased and the increase in profits brought capital accumulation. The crusades provided enormous opportunity for the enlargement of northern Italian coastal cities such as Venice, Pisa and Genoa. On the other side, fighting the crusades for two centuries and exerting effort to get crusaders out of Muslim lands, crushed the regional economy and weakened Muslim cities.

The Mongols: While the Muslim world was in struggle with the crusaders, another terrifying occupation came from the east. Genghis Khan united nomadic Mongolian tribes and attacked Islamic power centers. Following 1220, Muslim cities fell and were destroyed. The Abbasid Caliphate fell to pieces after the Mongols occupied Baghdad, which marked the end of a golden age in Islamic civilization. The number of people killed in Baghdad alone was nearly 2 million. Only one-third of the population survived. Libraries, which housed hundreds of thousands of books, also had their share of this disaster.

Trade routes: The trade routes such as the Silk Road lost their importance with the European Age of Discovery. The income distribution between Europe and Islamic regions drastically changed. The international commerce centers shifted to the Baltics and the Atlantic from the Mediterranean and India. The colonies, including Islamic cities, became raw material producers. Europe was able to fund the Industrial Revolution with its colonies.

Capitulations: The Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire believed that they could financially benefit from the commercial privileges that they granted to foreign countries. When their political powers weakened, these privileges backfired and brought financial sovereignty to foreign powers. Cheaper European products flooded Muslim markets and small industry in the Islamic world collapsed.

Military interventions: The reforms that were carried out by Muslim rulers who realized their economic weakness failed due to the internal coups that Europeans supported, as well as external military interventions.

Overexpansion: Muslims reached extended borders as they sought high ideals. However, they did not have the necessary population and economic power. The population of the Ottoman Empire was 17 million in the mid-19th century, when the population was directly proportional to political power as opposed to the population of Western Europe, which was 190 million. During that time, the population of Russia and Eastern Europe was 274 million, Britain was 30 million, France was 37 million, Spain and Portugal were 20 million, Italy was 24 million, Germany was 32 million and Austria was 32 million.

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