One of the distinctive features of Islam is its emphasis on knowledge. The Qur'an and the Islamic tradition (Sunnah) invite Muslims to seek and acquire knowledge and wisdom and to hold men of knowledge in high esteem. The word al-Ilm, knowledge, and its derivatives are used more than 780 times in the Qur'an. The first few verses mention the importance of reading, pen, and teaching for human beings.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told Muslims “seek knowledge, even if it be in China.”
Rarely is Islam viewed as a source of inspiration and enlightenment. It was the Muslims who preserved the knowledge of antiquity, elaborated upon it, and finally, passed it on to Europe. Islam had spread from Al-Andalus in Spain to the borders of China. Islam unified science, theology, and philosophy. Muslims were commanded to study, seek knowledge, and learn and benefit from others' experiences. This inspired the Muslims to great heights in sciences, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, art and architecture. Muslim scholars began obtaining Greek treatises and started their study and translation into Arabic a few centuries after the Hijrah (622 A.D.) They critically analyzed, collated, corrected and supplemented substantially the Greek science and philosophy.
During the time of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) the Muslims built a library which contained both originals and translations of almost any then known scientific work in Sanskrit, Persian and Greek. His son, Caliph al-Mamun continued the tradition of philosophy and science and established in Baghdad his Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), a library and academy. Here the objective was to collect all scientific works, translate them into Arabic and copy and bind them into books to preserve them.
“. . . we have underestimated the importance of 800 years of Islamic society and culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance, has long been recognised. But Islamic Spain was much more than a mere larder where Hellenistic knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilisation, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavour - in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music. Averroes and Avenzoor, like their counterparts Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed to the study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards.
Islam nurtured and preserved the quest for learning. In the words of the tradition, 'the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr'. Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most civilised city of Europe. We know of lending libraries in Spain at the time King Alfred was making terrible blunders with the culinary arts in this country. It is said that the 400,000 volumes in its ruler's library amounted to more books than all the libraries of the rest of Europe put together. That was made possible because the Muslim world acquired from China the skill of making paper more than 400 years before the rest of non-Muslim Europe. Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, various types of medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities.
Medieval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians the right to practice their inherited beliefs, and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West. The surprise, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent to which Islam has been a part of Europe for so long, first in Spain, then in the Balkans, and the extent to which it has contributed so much towards the civilisation which we all too often think of, wrongly, as entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and our present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.”
Early Islamic philosophy or classical Islamic philosophy is a period of intense philosophical development beginning in the 2nd century AH of the Islamic calendar (early 9th century CE) and lasting until the 6th century AH (late 12th century CE). The period is known as the Islamic Golden Age, and the achievements of this period had a crucial influence in the development of modern philosophy and science. This period starts with al-Kindi in the 9th century and ends with Averroes (Ibn Rushd) at the end of 12th century. The death of Averroes effectively marks the end of a particular discipline of Islamic philosophy usually called the Peripatetic Arabic School, and philosophical activity declined significantly in Western Islamic countries, namely in Islamic Spain and North Africa, though it persisted for much longer in the Eastern countries, in particular Persia and India where several schools of philosophy continued to flourish: Avicennism, Illuminationist philosophy, Mystical philosophy, and Transcendent theosophy.
Some of the significant achievements of early Muslim philosophers included the development of a strict science of citation, the isnad or "backing"; the development of a method of open inquiry to disprove claims, the ijtihad, which could be generally applied to many types of questions (although which to apply it to is an ethical question); the willingness to both accept and challenge authority within the same process; recognition that science and philosophy are both subordinate to morality, and that moral choices are prior to any investigation or concern with either; the separation of theology (kalam) and law (shariah) during the early Abbasid period, a precursor to secularism; the distinction between religion and philosophy, marking the beginning of secular thought; the beginning of a peer review process; early ideas on evolution; the beginnings of the scientific method, an important contribution to the philosophy of science; the first forms of non-Aristotelian logic and the introduction of temporal modal logic and inductive logic; the beginning of social philosophy, including the formulation of theories on social cohesion and social conflict; the beginning of the philosophy of history; the development of the philosophical novel and the concepts of empiricism and tabula rasa; and distinguishing between essence and existence.
Thomas Aquinas knew of at least some of the Mutazilite work, particularly Avicennism and Averroism, and the Renaissance and the use of empirical methods were inspired at least in part by Arabic works translated into Latin during the Renaissance of the 12th century, and taken during the Reconquista in 1492.
One of the greatest figures in Islamic philosophy is held to be al-Ghazali [1058-1111], who was a jurist, theologian, philosopher and mystic. In philosophy, Ghazali upheld the approach of mathematics and Ghazali wrote many books including Tuhafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) and Ihya al-Ulum al-Islamia (The Revival of the Islamic Sciences). Ghazali's influence was deep. His theological doctrines penetrated Europe and influenced Jewish and Christian Scholasticism and Thomas Aquinas.
Another great philosopher was Ibn Rushd [1126-1198], a jurist, and interpreter of the Shari'ah. Ibn Rushd was a rationalist and wrote about religion and philosophy. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle, to such an extent that in the West he was known as "The Commentator" contributing thereby to the rediscovery of the ‘Master', after centuries of near-total oblivion in Western Europe. That discovery was instrumental in launching Latin Scholasticism and, in due course, the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Ibn Rushd's influence on Medieval and Renaissance European history is found to be greater than that of his influence on the Islamic world. A common theme throughout his writings is that there is no incompatibility between religion and philosophy when both are properly understood.
Ibn Khaldun's (1332-1395) main contribution as another leading Muslim scholar lies in the philosophy of history and sociology. The Muqaddimah, his monumental work identified psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contributed to the advancement of human civilizations and the currents of history as opposed to just the political context of earlier writers. He analyzed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group feelings, al-'Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilization and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invited the beginning of a still new 'Asabiyya in its pure form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization and analysed factors contributing to it. His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers who interpreted history through the political context, he emphasised environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionised the science of history and also laid the foundation of Umraniyat (Sociology).
For more information on the contributions by Muslim scholars see