A Saudi Muslim Intellectual's Thoughts on the Islamic Golden Age

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Translated from the original Arabic by MEMRI

In an interview published on April 23, 2009 in the Saudi Daily 'Okaz, Ibrahim Al-Buleihi, a member of the Saudi Shura Council, expresses his thoughts on the Islamic Golden Age and western civilization.

In what is surely great advice for Islam's apologists who insist on misappropriating the achievements of others or whitewashing certain undesirable aspects of the faith, he notes that self-criticism is a precondition to any change for the better.

Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations.… If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation. Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it...

My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them... Criticizing one's own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one's backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves...

...When we review the names of Muslim philosophers and scholars whose contribution to the West is pointed out by Western writers, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al-Farbi, Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, and their likes, we find that all of them were disciples of the Greek culture and they were individuals who were outside the [Islamic] mainstream. They were and continue to be unrecognized in our culture. We even burned their books, harassed them, [and] warned against them, and we continue to look at them with suspicion and aversion. How can we then take pride in people from whom we kept our distance and whose thought we rejected?...

...We have inherited certain clichés about our history and the history of other nations without reading our history critically and without reading the history of others fairly and objectively. The luminous Greek civilization emerged in the sixth century BC and reached the peak of its flourishing in the fifth century BC. In other words, Greek civilization emerged many generations before the Islamic one, and Greek philosophy was the source from which Muslim philosophers derived their philosophy. Those individuals in whom we sometimes take pride, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haytham, Al-Razi, Al-Qindi, Al-Khawarizmi, and Al-Farabi were all pupils of Greek thought. As for our civilization, it is a religious one, concerned with religious law, totally absorbed in the details of what Muslims should do and shouldn't do in his relations with Allah and in his relations with others. This is a huge task worthy of admiration, because religion is the pivot of life. We must however recognize that our achievements are all confined to this great area. Let us not claim then that the West has borrowed from us its secular lights. Our culture has been and continues to be absorbed with questions of the forbidden and the permitted and belief and disbelief, because it is a religious civilization…

...I am not against learning [from others]. What I wanted to clarify is that these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don't deserve to take pride in them, since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization.