The Muslim Who Helped End Islam’s Golden Age

“These happy golden years are passing by, these happy golden years.” —Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years

In A Nutshell

During the Golden Age of Islam, the Arab world was the center of knowledge and culture. But ironically, Islam’s Golden Age had little to do with Quranic Islam—and conservative Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali called attention to this. His writings helped influence the mindset of Muslims against the philosophies of the Golden Age, while Arab nations fought off continued encroachment from Christians and Mongols.

The Whole Bushel

By A.D. 800, Islam had spread throughout parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. United by religion, this diverse domain had access to philosophies, cultural experiences, and resources that enabled it to be the world’s hub of science and knowledge for 300 years.

And intellectual center it was: Arabic astronomers named around two-thirds of constellations and stars; Arabic mathematicians developed modern numerals and algebra. The Muslims also had exclusive access to the works of the ancient Greeks, which they translated and studied. In many parts of the world, such as Spain, where the Moors had conquered, this social attitude produced a civil society in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted peacefully and exchanged knowledge.

But the religion that united these people was deviated from in order to make the Golden Age possible. Conservative tendencies within Islam were not well-represented within prominent philosophic thought.

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One Sunni theologian, Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, disdained the state of philosophy in the Muslim world. In his 11th-century document, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Al-Ghazali refuted philosophy as lacking a foundation in Islam; the philosophers, he insisted, would be wrong as long as they undermined God’s authority and denied basic Islamic beliefs with their questions and concepts.

Al-Ghazali believed that nothing could be known apart from God and Islam. Furthermore, it was futile—and wrong—to believe otherwise. Many philosophers, lacking the scientific knowledge to create a comprehensive view of the world apart from religion, were unable to refute him. Al-Ghazali’s ideas took hold. As a result of The Incoherence of the Philosophers, philosophy sharply declined among Sunnis. Incessant warfare may also have played a role in the popular swerve toward conservatism.

Al-Ghazali later devoted himself to Sufism and developing political and philosophical thought rooted in Islam. Largely due to Al-Ghazali, the foundations of the Islamic Golden Age began to crumble, and continued assaults by Mongols and Crusaders cemented the Golden Age’s fate.

Show Me The Proof

Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid
The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali
Al-Ghazali (Stanford Encyclopedia)
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Intellectual Collapse of Islam (video)