Organized Religion

The Tragedy of Muslim Civilization

The 2011 Nobel Prizes were announced recently at a ceremony held in Europe. It is rather sad that no Muslim was able to garner this prestigious award. After all Muslims constitute 21 percent of the total world population and are around 1.57 billion. It is an irony that so far the Muslim world has produced only nine Nobel laureates since the inception of this award by Alferd Nobel in 1895.

This statistic seems even more horrifying if the Peace Prize winners are excluded from this list which leaves it with only two Nobel laureates in the field of science namely Dr Abdus Salam in Physics and Ahmed Zewail in Chemistry. Moreover, Dr. Salam was hounded and persecuted in his home country on account of his Ahmedi faith and is not even considered a Muslim. His numerous achievements were never acknowledged. In fact the word “Muslim” was officially erased from his gravestone. On the contrary, Jews who make up 0.20 percent of the total world population at 13.2 million, have had 178 Nobel Prize winners.

This pathetic state of affairs depicts that there is something seriously wrong in the Muslim world. After all Muslims were one of the pioneers of modern science. The period between 9th and 13th century is considered as the golden age of Islam. Although some of the ideas were translated from the Greeks and Romans, there were also original concepts brought up by Muslim scientists. Al Razi made significant contributions to medicine, alchemy, music and philosophy. His work has been recorded in over 200 books and articles. Al Furabi was a cosmologist, logician and musician. Jabbir Ibn Hayyin was a cosmopolitan figure, being an astronomer, astrologer, engineer, geologist, physicist, pharmacist and a physician.

However despite this strong foundation, Muslims lost the tide. During the last 800 years there has been no major invention or innovation brought forward by the Muslim world. Western civilization is to be lauded for conceiving concepts like Quantum Mechanics, genetic engineering, theory of relativity and for creation of antibiotics, electricity, computers and a host of other modern gadgets that has made life comfortable today. Muslims on the other hand have had almost a negligible role to play in formulating such mind boggling ideas.

Zakariya al-Razi, Persian physician, scientist and philosopher. 865-925 ACE.

There has been some introspection to actually decipher the causes of the decline of intellectual vigor in the Muslim civilization. The scholars have come up with two different competing narratives. The conservatives declare the loss of faith and the debauchery, such as drinking and dancing in the Caliphs courts, as the causes for this downfall. Additionally they also lay blame on the invasion of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongol forces of Hulaku Khan whereby a treasure trove of documents and manuscripts related to astronomy, astrology, alchemy, history and on number of science subjects were destroyed.

However this is a faulty hypothesis. Science came into Islam through the spirit of tolerance and inquiry. After all that is the basis of any intellectual discipline. The early Muslim conquerors came upon the scholarly treasures of Greek and Roman civilizations. Those works were not discarded rather they were decoded and translated. Thus they became a source of considerable knowledge. It was not a divine duty but the natural human instinct of curiosity which made them acquire knowledge and wisdom from those sources. Hunan Ibn Ishaq translated Greek scientific and medical works into Arabic and Syriac during the prime of Abbasid caliphate. He was considered the most productive translator of Greek treatises of his time and became known as the “Sheikh of Translators” among the Arabs.

The reigns of Caliph Haroon ur Rasheed and Al Mammon are still remembered for their liberal outlook and research endeavors. These rulers were the noninterventionists of their time and belonged to the Mutizillah School of Thought. The Mutizillahs believed in rationalism, intellectual inquiry and reason. The application of logic and judgment to resolve theological conundrums was also one of their qualities. In their opposition was the Ashari School of Thought. The Asharis were firm believers inpredestination. They held the view that although humans possess freewill they have no power to create anything in the material world as that is the domain of God alone. The result was that there was a very bloody battle lasting over several years between predestinates and the freethinkers. In the end the Asharis succeeded. Therefore after the 14th century, and especially after Ibn Khuldun, there have been no big names among Muslim intellectuals. This is the misfortune of the Muslim civilization, one that it is yet to recover from.

About the author

Aftab Zaidi


  • I am wondering, this could be said about any non-western groups as well, for e.g. China had a total of 10-15 nobel laureates, India about 9 etc. So, rather than being a specific plight of muslims, it is more of an indication of the western bias of the nobel committee?!

    • The general trend towards more Nobel prizes in the West is more likely due to historically conferred advantages such as a head start in material resources and continuing cultural imperialism. The Jews are technically non-Western, but because of a tradition of intellectual thinking (explains the high atheism “Culturally Jewish syndrome”) and the determination to make it through hard work, they are the most represented ethnic group. Obviously, India has had low science standards for decades due to systemic poverty and the fact that higher education has been out of reach for the majority of Indians until recently (still is, for many). China has some of that, plus other problems.

      Parts of the Muslim world have had plenty of resources, especially the oil-rich Arab gulf states. But even the two Nobel prizes for science came from non-Arab nations (Pakistan and Iran). Not even the economic reasons can explain why “Muslim civilization” has thus failed. Japan, for instance, has received 18 prizes, and that too being about one thirteenth the number of Muslims.

  • Americans get highest No of Nobel prizes compared to any other country, even the combined total of all european countries is less than US. But in the same vein Americans are most religious of all the developed nations. Recent Gallop polls suggests about 60 % people in US dont beleive in evolution. It also suggests that this is more among less educated than highly educated people.

    But the silver lining is more than 50% of people below 30years believe in evolution. Recent church going statistics suggest there is decrease of church goers in < 30 age group which augurs well for science. As most of best universities and research centres in the world are in US, the scientific literacy of americans is of paramount importance to the world. The evangelical chruches with belief in the biblical inerrancy and opposition to evolution climate change anti stem cell research and over all anti science view is a threat to science in particular and to the well being of all of us. Same goes with muslims. When 21% of worlds population with so much money is not contributing to development of science and technology and spends all the time in fulfilling the medieval rituals and superstitions its is a great loss to the world.

    Richard Dawkins once said, if there was no dark ages in Europe for 1000 years we could have got internet 400years ago.

  • We need to stop looking for excusesregading our plight.We are defimitely responsilble for the stste we are in.
    Christians foght bloody battles amongst them selves. Europeans and Americans did not get to benefit from whatever was burnt in Baghdad either.
    As far as the nobel prize is concerned I think Abd-u-sattar Eidhi certainly deserves it. I wonder why it has not already happened.

  • one of the reasons is (maybe) that muslims concentrate more on prayers. five times a day is really crazy , which might be the reason for their strong belief and also the reason for less time allotment for gud education. they practically have to submit themselves to god. this leaves no room for education(just my thought).
    i have seen audios of al-rassooli(an anti-islamist, an iraqi , a researcher of islam texts). in one of his audios he said that mohammad initially said muslims to do their namaaz 50times a day and later talked to their god and made amendments and made it 25, and later reduced to 12 and finally 5. this just shows that it is a belief system which has no (or less) room for intellectual thought.

  • One more thing, Muslims are not at all willing to come out of their religious ghettos, everywhere you go, you will find ghettos of Muslims. The madrassa cannot produce Noble Prize winners, Lets get that straight first.
    Islam is always against opening up of new avenues. It is very sad how Iran and Egypt fell in the hands of Islam completely destroying Zoroastrianism and Ma’ata (peace)rspectively. . Halagu Khan destroyed Baghdad library is the same anecdote the Muslims did to the Library in Alexandria. Al-Razi, Al Beruni were all acquired knowledge from India and Indians, Arabs used to call *MATHEMATICS* to be an Indian Art.

  • we have already informed that world starts with muslims and ends for muslims..muslims means not a group of middle eastern people…and muslims don’t want a poor nobel as reward….wait and feel or see…

  • A very short article, IMHO. The author could surely have expanded more on the specific causes of such “tragedy”. I’m surprised he didn’t go into detail.

  • I completely disagree with what the journalist has written “Muslim Scientist”..It is unfair to join religion & science. Even if one wants to find the contribution of communities , it has to be ethno-linguistic communities & not religious communities…Moreover it is incorrect to call the contribution of Persians & Arabs as Muslim contribution , as much as it is incorrect to call Indian Civillizations’s contributions as Hinduism or Buddhism’s contribution.

  • There is no “Muslim” Civilization . Contributions of a Marathi guy , whether Muslim by faith or birth , remains the contribution by Marathis & also Indians in general , not any Muslim Civilization.
    The tragedy is that even ex-Muslims & other Rationalists too, continue to conflate the term “Muslim”-a faith based identity with a Civilization.
    It is stupid when an ethnic Bihari Muslim (a Bhumihaar Khanzada ,a Dalit ,a Tyagi etc) is told to look towards Avicena than his own ancient Magadha’s Aryabhatta or Varahamihira for inspiration.
    Thus the word “tragedy” in the title itself looks meaningless. When you yourself being Liberal Muslims continue to perpetuate that idea of alleged homogeneity in the name of “One Civilization” than why always blame Islamophobes.

    I do not care about ou\thers but the problem of South Asian muslims ,particularly of North-West ,has been that Liberal Muslims always remained reluctant to integrate Muslim Reformism with Hindu Reformism since the 19th century . The latter was & remains far more radical as compared to former & if were ever integrated I am sure it would have reduced socio-economic plight of Muslims & also defeated all Communalists.

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