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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 19   16-28 February 2013

Modernity, Islamic Civilization and the Muslim World -- Part I

Professor A. R. Momin

In Western social science discourse, modernity refers to a set of distinctive social processes, institutions and ideas that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries. These include rationalism (which was epitomized in the growth of science and technology), industrialization (which brought about mechanised production), capitalism, urbanization, harnessing of new sources of energy such as steam with the use of new technology, secularization, the emergence of the nation-state (which brought in its wake the ideas of democracy and citizenship), a materialist or this-worldly orientation, and individualism. Modernity has been deeply influenced by the idea that that the world can be transformed through human intervention.

Rationality, which provided the corner-stone of modernity, refers to the process whereby one employs the most efficient and potent means to achieve a goal. It is often associated with control, calculation and measurement, and technique. The application of new technology, for example, brought about more efficient forms of food production. Modernity is closely intertwined with industrialization and industrial society. The Industrial Revolution, which took place in England during 1760-1830, led to the rise of the industrial society. Gradually, industrial production replaced agriculture as the dominant form of productive activity.

Modernity has been closely associated with the city, and the big city has often been described as a metaphor for modernity. Modernity brought about highly significant changes in social relationships, family structure, attitudes and social identities. The rapid pace of urbanization, for example, was accompanied by a shift from a close-knit community, which characterized rural communities, to an impersonal mass society. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936) aptly described this shift as Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (association).

Secularisation, which has a close association with modernity, has been embedded in the historical, political and social experience of Western societies. Essentially, the process of secularization connotes the separation of all aspects of social life and thought from religious associations and sources. The process began in England in the 16th century when there came about a shift of political power and allegiance from the ecclesiastical authorities to the state, and legal cases from Christian courts to secular courts. The process of secularization intensified during the French and Industrial Revolutions and with the rise of the nation-state in the 18th century. In the political sphere, secularism generally refers to the separation of religion and state.

The Enlightenment provided the intellectual context of modernity. The flowering of the Enlightenment came about in Paris and Scotland in the mid-18th century. The French Enlightenment produced a galaxy of brilliant physicists, philosophers and historians, including Voltaire (1694-1778), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Buffon (1707-1788), Diderot (1713-1784), Rousseau (1712-1778), Condorcet (1743-1794), Turgot (1727-1781) and D’Alembert (1717-1783). The scientific world-view, formulated by Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, had a profound influence on the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment philosophers were highly critical of medieval Christianity and held that the Christian church was against progress. They drew inspiration from the classical heritage, which had been transmitted by Muslim scientists, scholars and translators to medieval Europe. They believed in the malleability of human nature and held that it could be moulded in a desirable form through education and upbringing. They were firmly committed to the belief that reason and freedom were the most distinctive and precious possessions of man and that he could manage his affairs through the exercise of his rational and creative faculties. They espoused the ideas of equality, cosmopolitanism and secularism.

Modernization and Colonialism

There are two distinct historical and social contexts of the onset of modernity. The first relates to the context of Western societies, and the second to the colonization of vast territories in Asia, Africa and Latin America by the European colonial powers.

Colonialism generally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the mid-20th century, when almost the whole of Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, all of North and South America and Australia were conquered and occupied by the European colonial powers, including the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Italian colonial empires. A significant impetus to colonialism came from the voyages and expeditions carried out during the Age of Discovery. Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the Malabar coast in 1498 heralded the discovery of a new sea route to India. The Portuguese were the first to set up trading posts in Goa, Daman, Diu and Bombay, followed by the Dutch, the British and the French. The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the 16th century and the British colonized India, North America, Australia and New Zealand between the 17th and 18th centuries. The colonization of Africa began in the 1880s and by the end of the 19th century virtually the entire continent was under the control of the European colonial powers. During the period of New Imperialism, between the 1880s and 1914, European colonizers added some 9,000,000 square miles -- nearly one-fifth of the earth’s landmass -- to their overseas possessions. The process of colonization was greatly facilitated by the technological and military superiority and practical skills of the colonial rulers, including expertise in cartography, navigation, shipbuilding, mining and agriculture.

Colonialism had a whole set of adverse, harmful and insidious consequences for the colonized peoples, including the massive plunder and exploitation of natural and human resources, the ruthless massacre of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, the impoverishment of indigenous industries and crafts, enslavement and diseases. Nineteenth-century Europe, which was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, needed vast quantities of raw materials, especially those which were not available on the continent, for its burgeoning industries and rising trade. The colonized territories were looked upon as extremely valuable sources for abundant and cheap raw materials, as strategic trade routes and as a huge and lucrative market for the sale of European goods and commodities. The scramble for Africa in the 19th century was propelled by the easy availability of valuable raw materials and mineral resources such as copper, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, tea, tin and diamonds, and the potential acquisition of military and naval bases for strategic purposes.

The colonizers often set up plantations and farms in which cheap labour from the colonies was employed and in which control as well as profits remained in their hands. In many cases, large tracts of land were taken over by force or deceit. In Indonesia, the Dutch colonial rulers set up an agricultural system aimed at producing spices and other export-oriented commodities such as coffee. The cultivation of exotic, export-oriented produce at the expense of food grain impoverished the local peasantry and undermined the country’s ability to sustain itself in respect of food grain. Traditional industries and crafts were systematically impoverished and destroyed. The map of dozens of countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia was systematically drawn and redrawn by the European colonial powers. South Asia was divided into India and Pakistan, while Southeast Asia was divided into Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. In most of the 50 independent nation-states in Africa, the political boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the instance of the colonial rulers. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and ethnic communities that had lived together for centuries. This added to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent and fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

Colonial conquest and the ideology of colonialism were justified in terms of white supremacy and the self-styled moral obligation of European civilization to carry the torch of enlightenment and culture to the dark races of mankind. The common belief in Europe in the colonial era was that only the civilized Christian Europeans could be regarded as truly human, and all other men were rated as sub-human animals, monsters, damned souls, or the product of a separate creation. The structure of the colonial state was suffused with racism, which was reflected in the sharp distinction drawn by the colonial rulers between the white ruling class and the non-white subjects. In the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial conquests in the 15th and 16th centuries, the indigenous people were treated in the most inhuman, barbaric manner. From the time of the arrival of the French colonizers in Algeria in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission” -- the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society assumed to be steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness.

European colonial governments introduced a range of features in the colonized territories, including railways and roads, a monetized economy and a new financial system, technology for harnessing natural resources, communication networks, bureaucracy and courts. These innovations were aimed at serving the economic, political and strategic interests of the colonial powers and the smooth administration of colonized territories.

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory, which arose in the 1950s in the context of American society, was systematically formulated by Talcott Parsons, Neil J. Smelser and other American sociologists. They conceptualized modern society as a system of norms and values that are conducive to rationality, openness, democracy and entrepreneurship. Modernization theory looked upon the United States in particular and the West in general as the embodiment of modernization. Furthermore, it assumed that the process of modernization was universal in character, that it brought about a homogeneous value-orientation, institutional structures ad attitudes, and that there was a positive correlation between modernization and economic development. Until the 1970s, the discourse of modernization and development in the West proclaimed the universality and inevitability of the Western model of modernity. Accordingly, Western social scientists and policy makers applied this yardstick to non-Western, including Muslim, societies.

Modernization theory, with its linear, Eurocentric and deterministic presuppositions, has been subjected to trenchant criticism, and the critics of the theory include a number of prominent and influential Western sociologists. The critics of the theory point out that the project of modernity cannot be discussed in isolation from the historical context of European colonization and Western hegemony. The theory has been criticized for glossing over the association between modernization and the widening inequalities around the world and environmental degradation and for legitimizing Western dominance. Similarly, it has been criticized for identifying modernization with Westernization.

Modernity and Tradition

In the eighteenth century, the British statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke (d. 1797) had posited an ideological dichotomy and opposition between tradition and reason, which was elaborated by Weber and appropriated by subsequent generations of sociologists. Drawing on this dichotomy, Lerner identified reason with modernity and stipulated a universal, linear and hierarchical trajectory of societies from tradition to modernity. Lerner drew a sharp distinction between Western societies, which exemplified rationality, progress and modernity, and the traditional societies of Asia and Africa, which were dubbed as backward, steeped in superstitions and inherently incapable of attaining modernity and development on their own. In his widely-read book The Passing of Traditional Society (1958), which dealt with the question of modernity and development in Muslim societies in the Middle East, Lerner argued that the Islamic tradition seemed to be a formidable obstacle to the modernization of the region and that in the face of modernization ‘Islam is absolutely defenceless.’ He added that confronted by the West’s ‘rationalist and positivist spirit, Islam is in rapid retreat’ (Daniel Lerner: The Passing of Traditional Society. New York: Free Press, 1964, p. 45). Lerner argued that the Middle East needed to emulate the United States in order to get over its stagnation and backwardness.

The thesis of the opposition between modernity and tradition is Eurocentric, based as it is on a sweeping, unwarranted generalization and is devoid of cross-cultural validity. It betrays ignorance about non-Western intellectual and cultural traditions. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, in their book The Modernity of Tradition (1967), have criticized the dichotomy of modernity and tradition and have argued that it is based on a misunderstanding of modernity and the role of tradition in traditional societies. In the 1960s, modernization theorists believed that Confucianism was one of the most formidable obstacles to the development of China and Korea. The rapid economic development of China and Korea during the past two decades has belied such conjectures.

Modernity and Islamic Civilization

The Western discourse of modernity is deeply Eurocentric. It is embedded in the belief that all the distinctive features of modernity arose in Western Europe during the 19th century. The Hungarian political economist and philosopher Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) used the term the “Great Transformation” to denote the massive, unprecedented social, economic, technological, political and intellectual changes in Western Europe in the 19th century that marked the onset of modernity. This is a narrow, Eurocentric view. Historically, some of the key features of modernity, such as rationality, science and technology, emerged much earlier than the 19th century, during the Renaissance, and that some non-Western societies, notably China and the Islamic civilization, made a highly significant contribution to these features of modernity.

Modernity was the outcome of a fairly long series of processes, inventions and innovations, especially in science and technology, which took place in the medieval period in the West, in the Islamic world, especially in Andalusia and the Middle East, and in China and India. The foundations of modern science in particular and of modernity in general were laid during the Renaissance. Italy is generally regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, but as the eminent scientist and historian of science Jacob Bronowski has pointed out, the Renaissance was originally conceived in Islamic Spain in the 12th century.

The wide-ranging and enduring contribution of Islamic civilization to the West, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy, architecture, language and arts, has been amply documented and widely acknowledged by Western historians. The eminent British historian J. M. Roberts describes Western civilization’s debt to Islam in the following words: “…..to no other civilization did Europe owe so much in the Middle Ages as to Islam”. A significant feature of the contribution of Islamic civilization to the West in particular and to the onward march of humanity in general is the role of Muslims as intermediaries and interlocutors between different cultures and traditions and as synthesisers, catalysts and disseminators. When Muslims came in contact with the legacy of the ancients, including Greek science and philosophy, Indian mathematics and medicine, Egyptian and Roman technology and Persian literary sensibility and political wisdom, they critically sifted it, imbibed its spirit and added to it their own reflections, researches and innovations and raised the level of knowledge in wide-ranging fields to unprecedented heights. Furthermore, they did not keep the fruits of their researches and innovations to themselves but made them available to large parts of the world.

It has widely been recognised that one of the most important contributions of Muslims to Western civilization was the transmission of the scientific and philosophical legacy of the ancient world to medieval Europe. A movement for the globalisation of science, medicine and philosophy was set in motion in Baghdad during the reigns of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (754-775) and his great grandson al-Mamun (d. 833). This movement was marked by extensive translations of scientific, medical and philosophical works from ancient Rome, India, Persia and Egypt, a creative synthesis of the researches of Muslim scholars and scientists and those of the ancients, the establishment of scientific institutions, the employment of Arabic as the lingua franca of scientific communication, and the creation of a multiethnic, multi-religious community of scientists and scholars. From 622 to 1492 Arabic replaced Greek as the international language of science and medicine. Roger Bacon (d. 1293) acknowledged that almost all of Aristotle’s works were available only in Arabic translations and that without Arabic, Greek knowledge would have never reached Europe. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has remarked that “as leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalisers of science and mathematics.”

Muslim mathematicians borrowed the decimal system from India around 750 AD. Al-Khwarizmi (d. 846) synthesised the Indian mathematical knowledge with his own original researches. In the middle of the 12th century, Robert Ketton, who was well versed in the Arabic language and Islamic sciences and had worked in the libraries of Toledo, translated the mathematical work of al-Khwarizmi into Latin, whereby Latin Europe was introduced to the Arabic numerical system and algebra and algorithm, which would revolutionize computation in later years. The term algorithm was derived from Al-Khwarizmi’s name while the term algebra was appropriated from the title of one of his books on the mathematical sciences. Leonardo Fibonacci (d. 1250), a Pisan mathematician who is considered one of the founders of modern mathematics, was deeply influenced by Al-Khwarizmi and had translated his work on algebra and popularised Arabic numerals in Europe.

The main centres for the Latin translations of Arabic works on science and philosophy in the Middle Ages were Toledo and Norman Sicily. A number of European scientists and intellectuals, who played a key role in the scientific and cultural transformation of Europe and thereby paved the way for the Renaissance, were conversant with the Arabic language and Islamic sciences and some of them had received their education in the institutions of higher learning in Islamic lands. These included Gerbert (d. 1003), who later became Pope Sylvester, Constantine the African (d.1087), Alfred the Englishman (d. 13th century), Robert Ketton (d.1157), Gerard of Cremona (d.1187), Michael Scot (d.1235), Daniel de Morley (d.1210), Robertus Grosseteste (d.1253), Raymond Lull (d.1316) and Roger Bacon (d.1293). Gerard of Cremona translated more than 70 Arabic books into Latin. His translation of Avicenna’s Canon was used as a textbook in several European universities from the 12th to the 18th centuries and was printed more than 35 times in Europe. Daniel de Morlay traveled to Cordoba to learn mathematics and astronomy and, on his return, became a lecturer at Oxford. Frederck II, who played a catalytic role in the flowering of the Renaissance, was a patron of Islamic science and arts. He established colleges, on the model of institutions in Islamic lands, in Naples, Messina and Padua.

From the 12th to the 17th century, the teaching and practice of medicine in Europe was heavily influenced by the works of Al-Razi or Rhazes (d. 925), Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis (d. 1013) and Ibn Sina or Avicenna (d. 1037). One of the numerous printed editions of al-Zahrawi’s magnum opus al-Tasrif was published in Oxford in 1778. Almost all European writers on medicine and surgery from the 12th to the 18th century extensively quoted from al-Tasrif, which remained a standard textbook in surgery in all leading European universities until the 18th century. Many of the founding fathers of modern science and medicine, including Gabriel Fallopius (d. 1562), William Harvey (d. 1657) and Andreas Vesalius (d. 1564), drew upon the works of Al-Razi, Al-Zahrawi and Ibn Sina. Vesalius’s Latin text of anatomical tables contained a large number of Arabic terms.

The astrolabe, a well-known astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages used for making precise astronomical and navigational measurements, was originally invented by the Greeks but perfected by Muslim scientists and astronomers. It reached Europe via Andalusia and continued to be used for nautical observations in the West until the 17th century. Chaucer (d. 1400), the first great English poet of the Middle Ages, drew on the works of Muslim astronomers in his famous work Treatise on the Astrolabe.

Muslims acted as global carriers of ideas, innovations, technology and material culture. Muslims learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese, who had invented paper around the second century AD, in the eighth century, added significant innovations to it and disseminated it across large parts of Europe and Asia. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Spanish city of Jativa in 1150, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and subsequently into other parts of Europe. Before the 13th century paper was brought to European cities from Andalusia, Sicily and Morocco. Interestingly, the earliest European document written on paper is a deed of Sicily’s King Roger II, inscribed in Arabic and Greek. One of the oldest known paper documents in the West is the Missal of Silos, written in 1151 and is now preserved at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Burgos, Spain. The paper on which the document was written came from Islamic Spain.

Muslim scientists and engineers introduced new hydraulic and water management techniques, including the technique of irrigation in the form of acequias in medieval Spain, which made possible the cultivation of crops, fruits and vegetables and the pasturing of animals on parched and dry lands. The Spanish word acequias comes from the Arabic al saqiya, which means water conduit. The system of acequias was taken by the Spaniards in the course of onward expansion to the American southwest in New Mexico, where it is still in use. It may be pointed out in passing that traditional acequias irrigation systems provide broad ecological benefits to local communities.

A distinctive feature of modernity is what some scholars have described as time-space compression, or the shrinking of distances and the shortening of time, made possible by unprecedented developments in science and technology. It may be pointed out that this particular feature of modernity has not emerged out of the blue from nowhere. Rather, it has been made possible by a series of explorations, discoveries and scientific and technological inventions and innovations made in earlier times and in different parts of the world.

Muslim astronomers, scientists, mathematicians, cartographers, navigators and seafarers in the medieval period made an outstanding contribution to the processes that led to the shrinking of distances and the reduction of time. In the 10th century, Al-Biruni calculated the dimensions of the spherical earth with remarkable accuracy and calculated, with amazing precision, the circumference of the earth. He also worked out with remarkable precision the difference in longitude and latitude between Ghazni in Afghanistan and Mecca. Maps prepared during the medieval period greatly contributed to the knowledge about the expanse and boundaries of the earth and the location of continents and oceans. The celebrated historian of Islamic science and technology, Fuat Sezgin, has shown that Muslim cartographers combined the navigators’ knowledge with studies of astronomy and mathematics to compile maps of astonishing precision.

In 820 the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun had commissioned the preparation of a global map, in which a number of distinguished astronomers and geographers were involved. The map, which was discovered by Sezgin at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul and announced by him at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004, shows with remarkable clarity and precision the oceanic expanses surrounding the continents as well as large parts of the Eurasian and African continents with recognizable coastlines and major seas.

Muslim navigators and seafarers in the Golden Age of Islamic Science (from the 8th to he 16th centuries) undertook long sea voyages eastwards and explorations deep into Africa. By the 9th century, Arab maritime traders had reached as far as Canton in China. The sea voyages undertaken by Muslim navigators gave them a more complete view of geography than that of ancient Greeks and Romans. Portuguese and Spanish navigators drew on the knowledge and information provided by Muslim cartographers in Spain. Marco Polo, Johannes Kepler and the cartographer Nicolas Sanson were informed and influenced by Arab geography and cartography. Down to the 15th century, scientific activity in Europe was heavily indebted to the discoveries and researches of Muslim scientists, astronomers, mathematicians and cartographers. Prince Henry of Portugal established, under Muslim and Jewish teachers, a splendid nautical academy at Cape St Vincent, which facilitated the voyages of Vasco da Gama and the subsequent expansion of Europe to the farthest reaches of the earth. Shihab al-Din ibn al-Majid, who was an experienced sailor and navigator, was in Africa when Vasco da Gama arrived there. He secured the services of Ibn al-Majid as an escort and guide, who led him directly to Calicut in 1498.

Muslim navigators and explorers from West Africa and the Iberian Peninsula traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and the Americas between the 9th and 14th centuries, long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Leo Weiner, Professor of Slavic Languages at Harvard University, in his book Africa and the Discovery of America (1920), has written that Columbus was well aware of the presence of Muslim traders and explorers from West Africa throughout the Caribbean, Central, South and North American territories. The famous map of the Turkish general and cartographer Piri Reis shows the presence of Muslims in America centuries before Columbus set foot there. The map also provides a remarkably accurate measurement of the distance between America and Africa. Leo Wiener carried out extensive philological researches in Amerindian languages. He discovered scores of Arabic words in these languages, which had entered into their vocabulary 200 years before Columbus, through contact with the Muslim traders of Ghana who used to carry gold to the Americas.

The conceptualization, measurement and determination of time underwent a qualitative transformation with the invention of the clock. The celebrated British sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that the clock – a ‘time-space ordering device’ -- which permits the complex coordination of activities over time and space, epitomizes the modern era. It may be pointed out that some of the earliest clocks were made by Muslim engineers. In 197 the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid presented Emperor Charlemagne with a water clock. The first mercury powered automata clock was invented by Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi in the 11th century. In the 13th century, a Kurdish engineer, Al-Jazari, made numerous clocks, including water clocks and an elephant clock. A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock was invented by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in the 16th century. He also made an observational clock for the Istanbul Observatory with three dials, which showed the hours, minutes and seconds.

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