The Dynamism of Islam

May 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Latest, Religion


The notion that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation is untrue because no system of living could possibly prevail or prosper for so many centuries if it was hostile to innovation. Throughout world history, civilizations unable to initiate or adapt to progressive change (whether it be ideological or technological) were destroyed by Nature and replaced by other more innovation-friendly civilizations. This universe and everything in it as we can clearly see is governed by divine laws. One of those laws deals with the rise and fall of civilizations. The sunnat of Allah (swt) has been made quite clear in the Holy Quran. He says:

“And if Allah had not been repelling one set of people by means of another, the earth would have been filled with chaos. But Allah is bountiful to the world (and so repels chaos in this way)” (2:251)

And in other place in the Holy Quran it is mentioned:

“Had Allah (swt) not repelled one people by means of another people, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein the name of Allah is often mentioned, would have been demolished.”(22:40)

Islam has survived over the centuries because of its unique quality to encourage and generate change wherever needed. Iqbal discusses this very adaptability and dynamism in Islam in his book “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.” He says:

“The ultimate spiritual basis of all life, as conceived by Islam, is eternal and reveals itself in variety and change. A society based on such a conception of Reality must reconcile, in its life, the categories of permanence and change. It must possess eternal principles to regulate its collective life, for the eternal gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change. But eternal principles when they are understood to exclude all possibilities of change which according to the Quran, is one of the greatest ‘sign’ of God, tend to immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature.”

The history of Islamic civilization shows that the peak era of Islam is replete with innovators in the fields of academics, research and science, all a natural consequence of the influence of Islam.  However, it won’t be wrong to state that Muslims from the thirteenth century (C.E) onwards fell prey to intellectual as well as spiritual stagnation. Subsequently resulting in their replacement (according to the sunnah of Allah swt) from a leading world power to failed third world states.

What the Muslims need to understand is that it is not the way of Allah (swt) to change a people who do not want to change themselves.

“The fact is that Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they themselves change their own characteristics and when Allah decides to bring about retribution to a people, none can ward it off, nor can they find any defender or helper against Allah.”(13:11)

During that era of stagnation Muslims stopped all research in the fields of Islamic scholarship, world history, philosophy, science and technology. The moral and spiritual disintegration amongst the Muslim society paved the way for social, academic, scientific and ultimately political disintegration. The intellectual renaissance in Europe and its awakening from the Dark Ages (from the 16th to 18th century) roughly coincides with the period of European imperialism and colonialism over the Muslim world. This is another illustration of Allah (swt)’s sunnah of the replacement of one set of peoples with another. The Europeans received a substantial amount of knowledge from the Muslims. Jonathan Lyons in his book “The House of Wisdom” presents the Western debt to mediaeval Islamic learning.

He writes “The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard(an English scholar and scientist who learned from the Arabs and bought his learning back to Europe)and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward west into a scientific and technological superpower…….Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it………Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the West.”

The work and books of scholars like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ahmed Bin Hambal, Imam Maalik and Imam Shaafi, pioneers of Islamic jurisprudence (6th and 7th century CE) and after them Imam Bukhari and Muslim, pioneers of Hadeeth sciences and academic research (8th and 9th century CE) were given a status so sacred that none dared to do further research and add to their legacy of knowledge and research. Dr Mehmood Ahmed Ghazi in his lectures on ‘Mahazrat e Qurani’ reveals that Ibn Jarir Al Tabari (838-923 CE) is the founding father of comparative jurisprudence and that he dared to question and compare the laws of different religions when none had even thought of the benefits of such a study.

The service rendered by all these scholars to Islam is indeed priceless. Having said that, it must be understood that they never intended for the Muslims to start following them blindly. All the four imams were very careful in giving fatwas (Islamic rulings based on Islamic law) and even then they accepted that the fatwas given were applicable to the situation they were dealing with at that time. Various incidents from the lives of the Imams mentioned in books like “Tazkra e Taabieen” (The stories of the taabieen) by Abdur Rehman Rafat Pasha and “Roshan Sitaray” (shinning stars) by Maulana Yusuf Islahi reveal the intellectually flexible personalities of the Imams and how they stopped their students from writing down their fatwas so that people would not follow them blindly but do research to reach the truth. Their tolerance and respect for each other’s Madhab is also highlighted in several books. It was the true understanding of their Deen which developed the versatility and intellect to learn and grow from their differences. Muslims can prove to be the true heirs of their legacy only if they can further build upon the body of knowledge left to them by their predecessors.

Islamic theologists and reformists like Al-Ghazali (10th century CE) and Imam Ibn e Taimiyah (12the century CE) tried to revive the original teachings of Islam by doing research on the original sources of Islamic Law (Quran, sunnah, ahadeeth and the lives of the sahaba) and Ijtehaad according to the needs of their time. Both of them gained widespread following amongst the masses but unfortunately both of them were condemned and even persecuted by the “Official” (state-sponsored ulema) of their time. This trend of persecuting any dissident voice by state sponsored clergy still remains.

Ibn e Hazm(10th century CE), Ibn Asakir(11th century CE), Ibn e Rushd(11th century CE), Sibit ibn Al-Jawzi(12th century CE),  Ibn e Katheer(13th century CE), Ibn e Hajjar Al Asqalani(14th Century CE),  Ibn e Khaldun(14th Century CE) and Al Suyuti(15th century CE) are just a few prominent names from a long list of Muslim historians. Ibn e Katheer gained popularity due to the authenticity of his reports on the lives and occurrences of various caliphs and different Islamic dynasties in his famous book “Al Bidyah wa’l Nihayah,” while Ibn e Khaldun is best known for his “Muqaddimah” and is also one of the founding fathers of modern Historiography (The Study of the Methodology and Development of History). All these historians made use of the research methodology laid down by the pioneering Muhadditheen.

Allah swt’s promise to safeguard the Holy Quran and its teachings till the end of time set in motion a series of events (beginning from the time of Caliph Abu Bakar R.A) which prompted the Muslims to devise a   methodology so fine that an unauthentic report would be filtered several times through it before reaching the masses, and only the most credible reports found a place in the books of ahadeeth, specifically the Sahah e Sitta (the authentic six).

After these great historians Muslims did not progress in the study and reporting of history, thus the Western world took over from here and learned the science of history from the Muslims and expanded upon it. Someone had to take over because of the ‘replacement’ law of Allah, to keep the balance of the natural order in this universe intact. Those who adapt and change to better and innovative ways survive the test of nature.

The Muslims had rejected the printing press, labeling it ‘a tool of the devil.’ Consequently during that era from approximately the 12th century to the 16th century no printed book of a Muslim could be found, thus limiting their readership and availability. European scholars travelled to the Arab lands and translated their works into Latin, Hebrew and French. That is why now if we look back into time that era of stagnation proved to be the deathbed of Muslim progress. The masterpieces of our historians were translated and made use of extensively by the Europeans. Unfortunately, religious bias found its way into their books and the accomplishments of Islam and the Muslims were lost to the world for a very long time.

Lyons writes: “The West’s willful forgetting of the Arab Legacy began centuries ago, as anti-Muslim propaganda crafted in the shadow of the Crusades began to obscure any recognition of Arab culture’s profound role in the development of modern science.”

Muslim scientists like Al Khwarizmi (Mathmatician, Founding Father of Algebra), Abu Mas’shar Al-Balkhi (astrologer and astronomer), Al Farabi (philosopher and cosmologist), Al Beruni (mathematician, astronomer and linguist), Ibn e Sina (Philosopher and Physician), Nasir-al Din-Tusi (Mathmatician, astronomer and physicist), Jabir-ibn-e-Hayyan (Father of Chemistry), Al Kindi(Philosopher), Al Idrisi(Geographer), Ibn Al Nafis(Physician), Ibn e Battuta(explorer and geographer)  and Ibn Al Haytham (opthamologist and research scientist) are just a few out of thousands of incredible Muslim scientists without whom modern science would never have reached the heights it has today. All of them were polymaths, only a few of their specialities are mentioned above. All of them belong to the golden era of Muslim progress (7th to 13th century CE). The subjects they specialized in were numerous i.e., Physics, Medicine, Surgery, Mathematics, Psychology, Geology, Anthropology etc. They researched and invented all possible sciences of their time.    

“The Economist” on 26th January 2013 published an article called “The Road to Renewal”. The author highlights the role of Islam in promoting scientific thought in medieval Islamic lands. He says:

The caricature of Islam’s endemic backwardness is dispelled…. Not only were science and Islam compatible, but religion could spur even scientific innovation. Accurately calculating the beginning of Ramadan (determined by sighting of the new moon) motivated astronomers….”

In a research titled “Tolerance, Religious Competition and the Rise and Fall of Muslim science”(2008), the author Eric Chaney from Harvard explains how after expansion of the Islamic lands the inclusion of different cultures revealed true Islamic versatility and tolerance which in turn paved the way for innovation. He claims:

“The experience of medieval Islam suggests that diversity ‘when combined with tolerance’ can help encourage innovation and growth by preventing the dominance of innovation’resistant groups.”

What is important here is to identify and understand who are the innovation-resistant groups. According to “The Economist”,

“The roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.”

“The 57 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%, Israel lavishes 4.4%”

The recent change of governments in the “Middle East” due to the Arab spring, notably in Egypt have bought forth a purely Islamic movement “the Ikhwan Ul Muslimoon” despite the chagrin of some factions around the world- both secular and Muslim(not nessacarily Islamic). These groups consider Islam like a ‘Madhab’, not a holistic system of life instituted by Divine revelation. Islam on the other hand has the ability and space to absorb all kinds of cultures till the end of this world, thus making it essentially multifaceted and flexible. Iqbal quotes Professor Horten is his lectures:

“The spirit of Islam is so broad that it is practically boundless. With the exception of atheistic ideas alone it has assimilated all the attainable ideas of surrounding peoples, and given them its own peculiar direction of development.”

A more recent example of the innovation- resistant groups can be seen in Pakistan who have suddenly woken up form their slumber to save Pakistan before the upcoming elections. They consider it their religious duty to go door to door and ask the people to boycott the elections as they are a part of a Democratic system of government which is “Kufr” (disbelief). The alternative, they say, is ‘Khilafat’ (which by the way is in many ways democratic in its ethos). However, since there is no comprehensive system and candidature for khilafat at the time, one can suppose that all we can do is wait for a savior while the forces of actual ‘Kufr’ take over and ruin us. But Iqbal gives us hope:

“The spirit of Islam is bound to work itself out in spite of the rigorous conservatism of our doctors”.

Maulana Shibli Naumani in his famous book “Al Farooq” records the changes Caliph Omer ( R.A) made to the annexed Persian and Roman cities. Once they were under Muslim rule they were given full security and all of their previous Laws were restored with just the necessary changes required by the Sharia (Islamic Law). The best rule was that of the Caliph Omer in spite of all common misconceptions about the harshness and inflexibility of his personality. The caliph was very versatile and innovation-friendly because that is the beauty of this Deen. It gives us a structure and a mould and the rest it leaves to us. The Holy Quran and Sunnah become the guidelines while Ijtehad (juristic innovation) and Ijma (consensus of opinion) make way. The mould is strong because it is divine and will always stand the test of time.

Sameen Sadaf

About the author

Sameen has Masters degree in Mass Communications from the Punjab University. She is a freelance and an assistant researcher on the media monitoring cell of a non profit organisation working for the perservance of the family unit and women rights according to the dictates of the Quran.

Leave a comment »

  1. I just loved it. I was waiting for an article like this for a long, long time. Umer Toor wrote about the inferiority complex of muslims and when read this article combined with the inferiority complex. It just lifts my spirits.
    Jazak Allah for summarizing all the elements that have been forgotten by every muslim in today’s world.
    I want to have opinion from the author that what do you think are the reasons of stagnation of Islamic splendor that started after 13th century? One you have already pointed that innovation was divorced by the scholars. What other reasons would have affected this stagnancy?
    In my opinion there is a need of reconciliation of mullahs with scientists. The mullahs should recognize the role of moving forward and taking Islam from mosques to places where everything is happening. This reconciliation also involves the rethinking of where the modern development has took humanity. The innovation of today’s Islamic scholars should be to reach to a conclusion of how and where the modern world has gone wrong and how do Islam has to right it. I think this would be the greatest challenge of Muslims . This challenge of telling the world causes of the failed economic principles ( The challenge of how the social disintegration is taking place, as pointed out by maryam jameelah in her book “western civilization condemned by itself.” (,2087,2.html)
    The challenge of Karl Marx and his economic interpretation of every thing that happened in history. The challenge of Nationalism and the challenge of Freudism.
    What do you think about these challenges?
    Once Jazak Allah for this amazing article.

  2. Beautiful Piece

  3. Lovely article!

  4. Great article… In reply to Hassan Habibs statement “taking islam from mosques to places where everything else is happening” I would like to point out that it infact should be the other way meaning everything else should be brought to the mosque… The mosque is supposed to be center of excellece where besides worshipping a host of other activities can take place.. Be it the sharing of scholarly work by muslim scientists/philosophers/thinkers or research amd development in all areas of life. At the peak of the Muslim Khilafa mosques were so much more than just places of worship. You can find this information in the Book the author has made a reference of “the House of Wisdom”

  5. Thanks Omer ^

    I agree.

  6. Beautiful article. Thanks a lot.

Leave Comment