Why did the Golden Age disappear? There are many reasons why, one of them being that as time move forward, during the dark ages, civilization in the Arabic world seemed to have come to a halt. After the twelfth century, Europe had much more scientific scholars compared to Arabic world according to George Sarton in his Introduction to the History of Science. As Europe began to experience The Renaissance as well as other movements of scientific enlightenment, the Arab world only stagnated and saw very little growth in fields they had become so famous for like optics and medicine, thus, their inventions had very little contributions to metaphysics or science. Bernard Lewis wrote in Islam and The West ,
"The Renaissance, The Reformation and even the Age of Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, passed unnoticed in the Muslim World."
Bernard Lewis also notes in What Went Wrong that,
"The relationship between Christendom and Islam in sciences was now reversed. Those who had been the disciplies, now became teachers; those who had been masters became pupils, often reluctant and resentful pupils".
Its very profound how a civilization that had produced such great metropolises, hospitals, libraries and walked the path of enlightenment, pretty much made a complete U-turn.
So what exactly happened that caused the decline of Islam's Golden Age? The truth is, that just like there is no black and white answer for the success of their Golden Age, there is no simple explanation as to why they decline, as Sayid Jamal al-Din Afghan once stated in the late nineteenth century,
"It is permissible...to ask oneself why Arab civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished: Why this torch has not been relit since: and why the Arab world still remains buried in profound darkness".
Perhaps one of the most significant factors could be the physical and geopolitical reasons, as the Abbasid Caliphate, considered the Islamic's Golden Age historical period, began to break down and deteriote around the 10th century due to increased eagerness to seek local, dynastic rule from their provinces as well as consistent uprisings and rebellions, especially in countries like Spain.Christians in Spain had reconquered Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248, adding further injury to the Abbasid State and in the end, by 1258, what was left of the Abbasid state was pretty much eradicated by the Mongol Invasion, led at the time by Hulagu Khan, with the Sack of Baghdad.
Although, while its true that the Mongol Invasions played a hand in their collapse, Bernard Lewis states that another, more difficult reason is to be blamed for the inevitable downfall:
The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century were blamed for the destruction of both Muslim power and Islamic civilization, and for what was seen as the ensuing weakness and stagnation. But after a while historians, Muslims and others, pointed to two flaws in this argument. The first was that some of the greatest cultural achievements of Islam, notably in Iran, came after, not before, the Mongol invasions. The second, more difficult to accept but nevertheless undeniable, was that the Mongols overthrew an empire that was already fatally weakened; indeed, it is hard to see how the once mighty empire of the caliphs would otherwise have succumbed to a horde of nomadic horsemen riding across the steppes from East Asia.
The rise of nationalism—itself an import from Europe—produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks, who had ruled them for many centuries. Turks could lay the blame for the stagnation of their civilization on the dead weight of the Arab past, in which the creative energies of the Turkish people were caught and immobilized. Persians could lay the blame for the loss of their ancient glories on Arabs, Turks, and Mongols impartially.
Who is To Blame?
Although its geopolitical decline is one of many reasons, Islam's turn away from Scholarship can be traced before the uprisings in Spain and the Mongolian Invasions. Many authors have pointed the finger at certain individuals for their roles in anti rationalist movement. The New Atlantis lays blame to individual named Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali(AKA Algazel died in 1111), one of the greatest and most influential men and voices of the Ash'arites, a school focused on anti rationalism. In fact, they maintain that he was responsible for single handedly turned Islam from the pursuit of knowledge and scientific study to religious fundamentalism. He became famous for his book, The Incoherence of Philosophers, where according to the article, he attacked Greek philosophers and their philosophies as well as Muslim scholars who followed their works. While an article in The New Atlantis, written by Hillel Ofek, along with other scholars blames him, one author from the National Opinion, Hassan Hassan, voices a different opinion about who to lay blame. In the article, the author believes that it was actually Abu Ali Al Hassan Al Tusi(1016-1092), better known as Nizam Al Mulk, who was one of the men responsible.
Nizam was famous for having created a system of education known as "Nizamiyah", where it basically devoted itself entirely on studying religion and neglected the idea of pursuing knowledge and rational thinking. Along with this close minded views, the Nizamiyah colleges adopted a secular Sunni interpretation of Islamic Jurisprudence(it is the science, study and theory of law). The author continues to explain that the choices were not aribitary, for Shia Islam was gaining fame and a small group known as Batiniyan, who favored Sharia studies, were beginining to pop up in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, for the purpose of Nizamiiyah colleges was to counter these growing, non-Sunni ideals and as a result, the Shaffi school focused on fundamentalist studies of Sharia and rejected rationalistic approach, and with the decline of the Abbasid Dyansty and the emergence of the Sejuc dynasty, the seeds of the relgious intolerance had grown, and the pursuit of knowledges and studies of math and science began to suffer. Thus, the author argues that Al Ghazali was not the one responsible, and that his works were in fact meant to help and encourage the pursuit of knowledge,
Al Ghazali's critique of falsafa was in fact meant to encourage independent inquiry. He argued that some fundamentalists, who perceive falsafa to be incompatible with religion, tend to categorically reject all views adopted by "philosophers", including scientific fact like the lunar and solar eclipse. And when that person is later persuaded of a certain view, he tends to blindly accept all other views held by philosophers.
Al Ghazali sought to dissect such "incoherence" within falsafa; he effectively differentiated between philosophy and logic on one hand and physics and mathematics on the other. His students later noted: "Our master swallowed philosophy and could not throw it up.
Thus, its fair to say that Al Ghazali wasn't against anti-rationality, he w. as anti Greek metaphysics, which were/still are, demonstrably out of sync in regards to how the world works. He specifically praises natural science and mathematics and reason. Its also unfair to lay blame on entirely one man because he had a different opinion, when there were many other reasons(and other, more militant men who were to be blamed) as to why a Muslim society might have seen an end of its golden age. Al-Ghazali lived around the time of the Crusades, then the Mongol conquests which caused the sack of Baghdad and its library, one of the finest center of learning in the entirety of human history, up there with the Library of Alexandria. So the Muslim world was undergoing a period of huge turmoil and conflict. Not exactly the best environment for intellectual conversation. So saying that Al-Ghazali's viewpoint (and assuming, for argument's sake, that he was really anti-science, even though he most certainly was not), caused the end of this period of progress, is pretty much very naive and insulting.
While Islam, in that time, was considered its Golden Age, it was also marred with times of trouble and inequalities and intolerance to people of other faiths, despite the best attempts of other, more civilized rules. While Islam was comparatively tolerant at the time of members of other religions, the kind of tolerance we think of today was never a virtue for early Muslims (or early Christians, for that matter). As Bernard Lewis puts it in The Jews of Islam, giving equal treatment to followers and rejecters of the true faith would have been seen not only as an absurdity but also an outright “dereliction of duty.”
Jews and Christians were subjected to official second-class sociopolitical status beginning in Mohammed’s time, and Abbasid-era oppressions also included religious persecution and the eradication of churches and synagogues. The Golden Age was also an era of widespread slavery of persons deemed to be of even lower class. For all the estimable achievements of the medieval Arabic world, it is quite clear that its political and social history should not be made into a celebrated standard.
Perhaps we can establish a conclusion from all this extensive research: The Islamic world's progress didn't come to a screeching halt, but that the Western world were growing with enlightenment at a much faster rate since The Renaissance. While its true that in the early Middle Ages, Europe was in its "Dark Ages" while in the opposite direction, the Muslim world was filled with superpower dynasties with large lands and trading systems as well as wealth and fascination of sciences, medicine and math, they were far from a Utopia, and often attempted to conquer one another.
It wasn't until the 14th century when Italy, hoping to improve their way of life, followed the Muslim's philosophy of pursuing knowledge and thanks to their extensive trading, their contact with Muslims during the Crusades, and Byzantine scholars fleeing to Italy following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 AD, they received many benefits, which basically helped kick-start the Renaissance and eventually, began to spread across to other nations in Europe, creating a cultural revolution. It was also during this time that Europeans had discovered the American continents, thanks to brilliant navigators, most famous of these men being Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus. This pretty much changed the game for Europe because by discovering these continents, Europe colonized and gained an iron grip on them, thus resulting in a huge influx of wealth to these European empires, giving them the ability to improve on just about everything- from cities to building hospitals, schools, and even military. This massive amount of wealth gained from these colonization's combined with the fact that this was the beginning of when science really began to separate itself from the Church, eventually led to important scientific discoveries such as the Motion of Falling Bodies(Galileo), Theory of Gravity(Newton) and later on in the upcoming years, the Theory of Evolution(Charles Darwin), all played a large role in pushing Europe forward into what will eventually be called the Industrial Revolution.
This pretty much continued to extend the gap between Europe and the Islamic world, for Europe, once considered by many to be the student, had become the teacher, and pushed forward with the knowledge they had in hand, while the Muslim empires remained stagnant, eventually bending their knees to the European powers in the 18th century; The Ottomans before the Allies, and The Mughals before Great Britain. Perhaps if the Middle East today needed help in order to get back on their feet, they could look back at the past of their ancestors- not to romanticize their history, but to learn everything that they had offered-their knowledge, their breakthrough's in discoveries as well as looking back on their mistakes and times of social injustices, they could eventually rise and catch up with the rest of the world today.