What caused the decline of the Muslim Civilisation?

end of Muslim civilisation_1

The historian and former banker, Benedikt Koehler, in his lecture on ‘Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism’ appears at a loss to explain what happened to the critical inquiry and dynamic underpinning that was the distinctive feature of the Early Islamic zeitgeist (watch from 49.05).

A young Hamza Yusuf once remarked bitterly in an old lecture that he was trying to calculate the exact day when all the Muslims collectively got together and – crank! – ‘switched their brains off ‘. (I will try and locate the exact lecture in due course.) Despite his frustrations in the joke, this notion – the implication – posits the ‘Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad’ scenario. We will explore this train of thought in due course (see below).

But what is being probed is the issue that where once the Muslim world was in a position of power, leading the world in sciences, economics and culture, now the same world has fallen to an all-time low. So what happened?

الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله
All praise is due to ALLAH  and peace and blessing upon His Messenger


There have been numerous attempts at answering this question. This post hopes to relay some of the main reasons given whilst navigating through them to a series of conclusions.

Reason 1: The Barbarian Invasion of the Mongols

Often, Muslim civilisation circa 800s – 1100s CE is often hailed as the ‘greatest period’ in Muslim history books and non-Muslim academic books. (There is barely any mention of Islamic greatness in any modern (history subject) schoolbooks. But that’s another story.) From a material point of view when assessing the categories of science, economics and cultural outputs, it certainly appears that such a time-period was significantly fruitful for Muslim civilisation.

mongols destroy baghdad

The Mongol destruction of the Muslim capital, Baghdad in 1258 CE, therefore – its libraries, for instance – and its wholesale take-over of the Muslim east was catastrophic, it is alleged. This is a popular explanation for the demise of Muslim civilisation, but one that is not sufficiently accurate. See ‘Saliba’s Refutation of False reasons‘ and ‘What Went Wrong with Bernard Lewis?‘ below.

A more significant observation is to prelude the question by identifying the source or criteria of the ‘greatness’ we perceive as having been lost in the first place.

The Fruits and the Seed. A Prelude.

My contention is: might not the fact of material vitality rather be the fruits of success? That is, there was something that preceded this ‘material greatness’ that enabled the ‘fruits’ to take root and grow and manifest, which we might call the ‘seed’ of greatness. I suggest, therefore, that the seed of success, the source of vigour was in fact the Prophetic period (and the subsequent, relatively short-lived, Rashidun period, merely – but crucially – maintained the volition of this project, by-and-large, effectively.) This is hardly surprising. I do not believe this claim is particularly controversial. Muslims and non Muslims recognise, even today, the tremendous impetus the Prophet (s) had – and still has – on the Muslim civilisation.

The purpose of distinguishing between the ‘greatness’ of the Prophetic (and Rashidun) periods, as the ‘seed’ or ‘originator’ is to distinguish this from the later ‘Age of Kings’ where the ‘flowering’ took shape in the form of the ‘material greatness’ we commonly recognise as the supposed ‘zenith’ of Muslim civilisational greatness. [An outline of the Four Stages following the Prophetic period can be found here.] One could well argue, therefore, that the former greatness is in actual fact more superior to the latter because of the dependence of the latter on the other. This is absolutely critical, I believe, when assessing the answers for ‘what went wrong’.

Reason 2: Misguidance Leads to Ruin

It is no surprise, therefore, that when devastation brought the Ummayads (the first set of kings after the Rashidun period) to an end, Ibn Taymiyya, wrote: “And this al-Ja’d [bin Dirham] to whom Marwan bin Muhammad al-Ja’dee, the last of the khalifahs of Bani Umayyah, ascribed [himself], his [al-Ja’d’s] evil returned upon … [the khalifah] until the entire [Umayyad] state came to an end, for verily, when innovations which oppose the deen of the Messengers emerge, Allaah seeks vengeance from whoever opposes the Messengers and He aids them [the Messengers]…So when hypocrisy, innovations, and sin that oppose the deen of the Messenger emerged, the enemies were given ascendancy, mastery over them …

He, the Exalted said: “And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the Scripture, that indeed you would do mischief on the earth twice and you will become tyrants and extremely arrogant! So, when the promise came for the first of the two, We sent against you slaves of Ours given to terrible warfare. They entered the very innermost parts of your homes. And it was a promise (completely) fulfilled. Then We gave you once again, a return of victory over them. And We helped you with wealth and children and made you more numerous in man power. (And We said): “If you do good, you do good for your ownselves, and if you do evil (you do it) against yourselves.” Then, when the second promise came to pass, (We permitted your enemies) to make your faces sorrowful and to enter the mosque (of Jerusalem) as they had entered it before, and to destroy with utter destruction all that fell in their hands. [And We said in the Torah]: “It may be that your Lord may show mercy unto you, but if you return (to sins), We shall return (to Our Punishment).” And We have made Hell a prison for the disbelievers.” (al-Israa 17:4-8)

(The source is presented by Abu Iyaad. And the emphasis in bold is mine. And before you reject this passage simply because it’s from Ibn Taymiyya who has – for some – become associated with Muslim extremists, please check this out).

Putting aside the ‘politics’ – this notion about nations falling due to their mis/dis-guidance from authentic Prophetic revelation dispensed to them as a peoples is certainly normative (Qur’anic) in Islam, as the Qur’anic quote (above) signifies. And this is the case despite suggestions that it might be purely a Wahhabi position.1 This is important insofar as blaming the breakdown of the Muslim civilisation due to the proliferation of sects (as Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab was wont to do) is not necessarily an unreasonable conclusion. From the Khawarij, the first sect in Muslim history; the Shia’, the most famous sect; through to the Sufis in the middle period; and the modernising types in our time – one must sincerely ask to what extent are each group a further step away from the religion delivered to the Prophet and bestowed to us all, right now.

But this is a spiritual analysis, which is important. It is possible to also identify associated material causes. And this is now where I hope to discern what precisely they might have been.

Reason 3: Economic Growth Blocked Unintentionally by Classical Islamic Institutions


After positing the grandeur of Muslim civilisation in 1000s CE, Professor Timur Kuran‘s paper (here), explains that Islamic economic institutions ‘perpetuated themselves’ whilst becoming ‘dysfunctional over time.’ (Page 2.) He signposts three specific institutions to have become the source of the problem: 1) ‘the inheritance system which does not allow primogeniture; 2) the absence of the concept of limited liability and juridical personality; and 3) the institution of the waqf’ (cited in Amin’s paper, see Reason 4).

Kuran explains that whilst the West were able to develop the institutions of the modern economy through the 1700s, “Muslims began overcoming [Classical] Islam[ic] legal obstacles to economic development largely through secularizing legal reforms launched from the mid nineteenth century onwards.” (Page 2.) He recognises that this is not a fault with Islam [which can be defined as Qur’anic/Prophetic]. “Islam’s economic institutions did not emerge all at once, during the lifetime of the Prophet [s} …  Key elements were not present in 661 [the end of the Prophetic and Rashidun periods]. Few economic institutions are not even mentioned in the Qur’an, let alone described in detail.” (Page 3.) And, “there is no fundamental problem with Islam and an economic system based primarily on private enterprise.” (Page 18.)

The problem, therefore, can be seen to be located with what becomes ‘Classical Islam’. “The distinguishing economic features of classical Islamic civilization evolved over the next three centuries or so, and not until 1000 were the central economic institutions of the Middle East firmly in place. These institutions were to remain critical to the region’s economy up to the nineteenth century.” (Page 3.)

A later post (pending) will examine whether modern economical institutions are unquestioningly, intrinsically, a ‘good’ thing. Kuran’s assumption (in his article) is that they are.

Kuran’s analysis  identifies decline in economic terms and thus identifies the moment of stagnancy from between 1000 CE (the height of Muslim civilisation) and 1800 CE (the need for Muslims to ‘modernise’), noting that the West’s ascension took place in the 1700s CE. This presentation of decline fits precisely into the period we’d define as the ‘Age of Kings’!

Reason 4: The Misapplication of Power

An interesting review by Mohammad Amin of M. Umar Chapra’s book entitled “Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform” has supplied some very useful details that is worth pointing out:

This includes:

a) Currently, Chopra explains, despite being “rich in natural resources, [the Muslim World] produces only around 8% of the world’s purchasing power adjusted GNP.” The problem is ‘deep-rooted’ and so Chopra requires an ‘explanatory model’ for the rise and fall of civilisations. After mentioning Gibbon, Spengler, Toynbee and Kennedy, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory to the Muslim civilisation.  (Amin)

b) Amin condenses Chopra’s account of Ibn Khaldun’s concept of statecraft as follows:

  1. The strength of the sovereign does not materialise except through the implementation of the Shariah.
  2. The Shariah cannot be implemented except by the sovereign.
  3. The sovereign cannot gain strength except through the people.
  4. The people cannot be sustained except by wealth.
  5. Wealth cannot be acquired except through development.
  6. Development cannot be attained except through justice.
  7. Justice is the criterion by which God will evaluate mankind.
  8. The sovereign is charged with the responsibility of actualising justice.

A fault in any part of this system can lead to decline, but for Chopra – following Ibn Khaldun – ‘the trigger mechanism was the failure of the political authority.” [Italics are mine.]

c) Chopra rejects Timur Kuran’s (Reason 3) observation that the three Islamic institutions (‘the inheritance system; the absence of the concept of limited liability and juridical personality; and the institution of the waqf’) to be an explanation for ‘economic underperformance’. Amin does not stipulate ‘why’ in his review.

d) Chopra outlines – interestingly – how Ibn Khaldun (like other classical Muslim scholars) believed Muslim history ‘took a wrong turn’ when the Rashidun period was ended by the accession of Muawiyah in 661 CE and the Ummayad dynasty (heralding the Age of Kings). However, Amin comments: “This appears rather simplistic since dynastic caliphs were in power throughout the greatest periods of Muslim civilisation which did not start to decline for another six hundred years.” The counter to this appearance or semblance of success in the materially “greatest periods of Muslim civilisation” is what I have contended above: the actuality of the ‘seed’ or source of volition for success: the project contained within the Prophetic (and Rashidun) period. And since the Prophet’s project was subverted, with the advent of Kings and their own political ambitions, clearly what good there was in the Prophet’s way to God’s good regard, begins to be sapped as that way begins to become (over time, bit by bit) ‘covered/concealed’ (Kafara – the root of kaafir, disbeliever).


Reason 5a: The Decline of Free Thinking

Moreover, Amin relays how Chopra connects the mismanagement of power with a decline in education – notably with the Ottomans. “The state financial support for education diminished as the royal courts and corruption led to resources being wasted on the luxury of the court and warfare.”

Free thinking in education, however, Chopra suggests, was also affected negatively by “the conflict between the rationalists [Mutazilites, Falasifah] and the conservatives [Ahl al Hadith] in the 800s CE. Chopra explains that as a result “there was an intellectual backlash” with two consequences:

  1. “Separation between the state (in the person of the Caliph) and the definition of Islam. Instead Islam has since been defined by consensus within the community [in Chopra’s view].
  2. The alienation of most religious scholars from philosophy and science. [Chopra] regards this as the source for the failure of science and technology to develop within the Muslim world.”

After the period of the Mutazilites there was a split and the religious scholars ceased to be closely involved with the government. The author considers that this was the main cause for the stagnation of fiqh (Islamic law).

“This led to a paradox in Muslim societies. On the one hand, there was a desire for the realisation of justice and general well-being in keeping with the demands of the Shariah, and an emphasis on the need for the state to play an important role in this and for the ulama [religious scholars] to guide and help the state in fulfilling this role. On the other hand, the ulama who were associated with the state were considered to be self-seekers and this-worldly.”

The problem here is to do with Ibn Khaldun’s first point: “The strength of the sovereign does not materialise except through the implementation of the Shariah.” But if there are issues with the ulama in their  correct guidance to the Sovereign about the implementation of the Shariah, then this too breaks the system.

Muslim philosophy

The suggestion that there was an assault on critical thinking is further maintained by Muqtedar Khan, albeit his is focussed on a later period (about 200 years later). In Khan’s article, entitled ‘The Need to Revive Islamic Philosophy‘, Khan is clear on the reason for decline in Muslim thought: “The decline of Islamic philosophy is often attributed to the backlash of Islamic jurists and purists led by the huge persona of Imam Hamidal-Ghazali. His ‘Tahlifatul alfaliisafah’ (‘The Incoherence of Philosophers’, written in the 1000s CE) is supposed to have been such a devastating critique of philosophy that since then the entire Muslim world has never strayed onto the philosophic path again. This popular reading of al-GhazaIi’s critique of the philosophers has done much damage to the development of Islamic thought.” (p3)

Khan explains that in Muslim history, “philosophy and science were inseparably linked” (p3) so that philosophers were also scientists. “Thus when we rejected philosophy we rejected science. There is no doubt in my mind that the decline of philosophy, science, rational discourse and free thinking in Muslim society is the singular cause or the decline of Islamic civilization.”  

Reason 5b: Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad


So what about the notion of a ‘Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad’, which has parallels to a failure in critical thinking. Is this the answer? And what does this even mean? In summary form, it has been explained as follows:

1. “The literal meaning of ijtihad is ‘exerting oneself’. It is a technical term in Islamic law. At first, it meant the use of individual reasoning…” (Source)

2. “The scholars at the beginning of the [9oos CE] had attained such a level of immutable consensus that further Ijtihad was [deemed] unnecessary.” (source: paraphrase of F. Rahman (66) cited by Abdullah Hassan)

3. Point 2 (above) seems to have been a notion first introduced by the German orientalist, Schacht (82). (source)

However, there is many problems with this concept. The problems include:

1. Kamali (2003) states that the “closure of the gate of Ijtihad ‘could find little, if any, support in the legal theory of Ijtihad.”

2. “The idea of closure of the gate has therefore been met with significant opposition, both from scholars, particularly Islamic scholars.”

3. “That the notion of closure appears to have had particular currency within Western academia as opposed to circles of Islamic scholars … appear[s] telling.” This together with the  fact that there is much “contradiction” in the Western academic account that it “render[s] their arguments weak and bring[s] the closure of Ijtihad into clear question.” (Source)

It is worth mentioning that Malcolm Jardine who wrote a piece entitled ‘Ijtihad: Is the Gate of ijtihad Closed?’ follows Hallaq (84) in distinguishing between Full Ijtihad and Limited Ijtihad.  Though Full Ijtihad appears to no longer apply because no new  schools of thought have been generated since the classical period, to utilise Limited Ijtihad is still open for mujtahids. This is where one is free to think creatively but within the bounds of an existing school of thought. Jardine concludes that “therefore … the door of ijtihad never closed.” (source)

And yet the notion that we can only operate with Limited Ijtihad and indeed the fact that nowadays “schools have become moribund” as mentioned by Menski (06) in that the “mujtahidun of high calibre no longer exist in the world” surely suggests a ‘closing’ of something. (source)

No. Why? Because Jardine notes that even now, “there is no theoretical reason why a full mujtahid should not arise today and open a new school provided they are recognised as having the necessary qualifications.” I would add by making explicit that they also demonstrate their contribution being located succinctly/sufficiently within the ambit of Qur’anic and Prophetic Traditions.

The problems entailed with this set of reasons linked to free thought is also raised by George Saliba, (below), which suggests that this is not quite the cause but if anything, a symptom of a more significant problem.

Reason 6: The Ambivalence of Equilibrium

Abdullah Andulusi suggests in his post, ‘The making of the Modern Western civilisation and the war on Islam‘ that the reason for Muslim downfall was due to a type of complacency in their societies in the Classical period, brought on by their stability and their comfortable-living. A situation Andalusi describes as ‘equilibrium’:

“The Ottoman led Islamic civilisation and, in the far-east, the Chinese civilisation, after hundreds of years of economic and political success created an efficient equilibrium amongst their economies, social and political structures – producing great wealth, comfort and ease.

However the problem with such equilibriums, while being efficient, is that they do not easily adapt to changing economic and political circumstances, and their social effects create a gradual intellectual stagnation as populations face less intellectual challenges due to their comfortable daily lives. The large economic resources brought from colonies further sped European technological development, allowing European military technology and population numbers to begin surpassing the Ottoman’s (and Chinese)”

So the two factors cited as a result of such equilibrium is a) a ‘gradual intellectual stagnation’ that can be regarded as an internal problem for the Muslim world and b) an external problem of ‘European military technology’ brought about by ‘allowing‘ Europeans advantage over the Muslim world by presumably being naive, indifferent, or sluggish to their threat. And so by the 1700s CE the circumstances had changed so decisively that the global balance of power shifted completely away from the Muslim world.

Saliba and the Critique of the Decline of Islamic Science as The Reason


Professor George Saliba begins by stating that first and foremost, there was a decline. And the buzzword used to define what it is that is missing for the last 200 years (since the beginning of the 1800s CE) is: ‘creative genius’. He also asks ‘when’ precisely did this decline occur. His answer, therefore, can be seen to answer the question posed by Hamza Yusuf, as already cited, above. But, of course, we also need his answer as to ‘why’ it happened.

Saliba’s Refutations of False Reasons:

A) The first reason that Saliba discloses is a false, internal cause: the scapegoating of Al Ghazali, who wrote ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’. I.e. the influence of this book – it is alleged – was such that it profoundly affected Muslim civilisation in stopping Muslims to think philosophically – that is to say, critically – and it ‘killed science [in the Muslim world] altogether’. (Reason 5.) There is a lot of suppositions here.

B) The second false reason is an external cause: the Mongol Invasion (1258 CE) that devastated Baghdad (Reason 1). The destruction – it is said – was so catastrophic that it resulted in the aforementioned decline.

The problem with A) is that after Al Ghazali, we have many philosophers and scientists engaging with science after the alleged ‘death of Islamic science’. And the problem with B) is if the Mongolian devastation was so total, how do we explain the building of the largest Observatory at the time, built only a year later, amongst other scientific advances much, much later?

Saliba suggests that there was a scientific tradition that went well into the 16th century. Something, therefore, must have happened in the 1500s CE. The decline has been taking place progressively since then. He notes how the Renaissance and the scientific revolution of the 16th century in Europe was ‘deeply influenced’ by Muslim learning. Evidence: Observe how Copernicus about 150 years later adopts the same mathematics as Al-Shatir (Watch from 7:45 ).

So this leads us to the ‘Needham Question’: Why did modern science develop in the West but not in the Muslim or Chinese civilisations in the 16th century when all three were close as equals? (Watch from 12:04)

Needham’s error and the error of others that follow him is trying to answer the question with, ‘What went wrong in Islam?’ This is the wrong question. We should be asking, first, ‘What went right in Europe?’

Reason 7: Trade Routes and Business


The answer is to do with global shifts in the 1500s CE that have nothing to do with science (and critical thinking etc):

a) Major changes in the distribution of wealth and world organisation, that then leads to

b) Science as a business.

Consider the known world prior to the European ‘Age of Discovery’. All trade routes criss-crossed the Muslim world. Maxim: The more trade you have, the more a civilisation flourishes. Because of the expansion of the Ottomans into Central Europe, Europeans began to seek alternative routes to trade. With the discovery of the New World, trading via the Muslim world was dropped in favour of new routes across the Pacific Ocean instead. So how could the Muslim world support scientists and others if there was no significant wealth via trade, anymore?

Meanwhile in Europe, the Age of Discovery (scientific development from Muslim learning (Watch 20:54) enabled exploration, which in turn yielded land, resources, gold, silver) quickly became the Age of Colonisation (with the unethical, systematised mass-possession of slaves and genocides in certain areas) which lead to surplus capital. Europeans began to believe that this advantage was possible because of science. So science could be redeployed via the surplus, to raise further capital. Competitions were had with cash-rewards for specific navigational inventions, for instance, by the end of the 16th century.

23:10: Instead of having the rich becoming patrons of science as in the Muslim world, in Europe, science began to be supported as an investment, so that science became organised as a business. Patents began to become important. Academies were created to generate a pool of thinkers. One of the thinkers might end up being patronised who develops something that ends up becoming profitable. In this way it was viable to fund the whole academy. Such academies were Institutes of Advanced Research and Royal Societies, like the East India Company. The monopolies were crucial at this time and Saliba suggests that a monopoly was simply a different word for ‘patenting’. “It crystalised modern science as a problem of competing over monopolies.” (28:22)

But are monopolies ethical? Is Saliba suggesting the Muslim world should be more capitalist? (And this, despite the notion that from Islamic culture, capitalism was born, as in Koehler’s case. Perhaps we have different versions of capitalism: Islamic (proto-capitalism) and European (modern  capitalism) etc?)

So what happened in the Muslim world?

In Islam, Saliba explains that having a monopoly is kufr. There is a hadith of the Prophet (s) who said: “Whoever is asked about knowledge and withholds it will have a bridle of fire placed on him on the Day of Judgment.”

There is a punishment for those that withhold knowledge and learning from others. This, therefore, is an ethical issue, he believes. How far are we willing to allow this patenting system take over our moral values? he asks.

The West, interestingly, began to realise that this ‘monopoly/patent’ system is really immoral. So they began to reduce the duration in which something can be patented. Withholding the benefits of something to everyone at large whilst only you reap its benefits is morally problematic.

What is the implication? He asks, ‘Can Muslims resolve this by ‘relaxing’ the ethical issue?’ The International Juridical Union has been struggling with the issue of intellectual property. Can it be sold, bought and capitalised, like patents?

This is the job of the jurists who have to think about it for our modern Islamic world.

BUT there is something unusual about Saliba’s recommendation. It appears as though the issue with this hadith has already been solved:

“Whoever is asked about [sacred] knowledge and withholds it will have a bridle of fire placed on him on the Day of Judgment.” In some narrations there is the addition, “with respect to religious knowledge by which Allah benefits people.” [Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Sahih Ibn Hibban, Ibn Maja]

In terms of this hadith: “It must be noted … that these texts are interpreted by scholars to refer to knowledge that the questioner immediately needs to fulfill his religious obligations. Examples are if a scholar is questioned by a Muslim regarding whether something is lawful or prohibited; by a recent Muslim convert regarding how to perform the prayer; or by a non-Muslim regarding how to enter Islam. The threats mentioned in the above verses and hadiths do not apply to supererogatory knowledge that is not necessary, nor to secular knowledge.”

By Faraz A. Khan. Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani (source) – (Italics and bold are mine).

Are we, therefore, at a crossroads where, intellectually at least, this ‘ethical issue’ is 1. not quite an ‘ethical issue’ because the ethics is integrally protected in the hadith (Islam) and 2. it is, therefore, no longer a barrier?

What Went Wrong with Bernard Lewis?

Bringing in Professor Bernard Lewis’ analysis into this topic is important as he is a specialist in Muslim history and has famously written a book entitled ‘What Went Wrong?” in 2002 to do with the decline of Muslim civilisation. Dubbed the ‘Last Orientalist’, his views might offset our analysis from a non-Muslim perspective, in order to see if we can learn anything else.

This book was preceded by an article also called ‘What went wrong?‘ in The Atlantic Online Journal in 2002. In it he tries to explain the reasons for the current stagnation in Muslim countries by outlining and then critiquing different reasons for the demise of Muslim civilisation. However he never seems to posit his own answer. Although Lewis’ initial article is a more condensed version of his book, it does share some of the criticisms levelled at his book:

“Bernard Lewis’s ‘What Went Wrong?’ is a very bad book from a usually very good author. How a profoundly learned and highly respected historian, whose career spans some sixty years, could produce such a hodgepodge of muddled thinking, inaccurate assertions and one-sided punditry is a profound mystery…

Lewis never defines his terms, and he paints with a brush so broad that he may as well have brought a broom to the easel.”

This quote is from the opening of Professor Juan Cole’s review of Lewis’ book.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Lewis identifies that Muslims modernizers (19th century CE) “concentrated their efforts in three main [material] areas: military, economic, and political” whether via “reform or revolution” but they all failed to reverse the stagnation (that is to say, ‘decline’). Presumably, I’d say, this was because these are all material attempts at solving something that – at root – is a spiritual decline first and a material one after.

Regardless, Lewis moves on to relay how Muslims asked the question, “Who did this to us?” and again critiques all the answers. He begins by pointing out that, “it is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one’s misfortunes,” before indicating how the Mongols were often the “favorite villains.” The flaws to this argument he suggests is 1) the “greatest cultural achievements of Islam” took place, in his opinion, after the invasion and 2) the Abbasid empire that the Mongols overthrew was already declining.

Western Imperialism in 19th and 20th Century CE was a “more plausible scapegoat” because of its “political domination, economic penetration, and … cultural influence.” To identify decline in the 1800s or 1900s is too late, though. Lewis’ best analysis to this debate is to highlight how the conquests made at this time was viable because the Muslim realm was already in a state of weakness.

“The attempt to transfer the guilt to America … remains unconvincing. Anglo-French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle Eastern states and societies.”

Indeed, Lewis goes on to query how former British possession differed in their post-colonial development (e.g. between Aden, in the Middle East, and Hong Kong.) This, however, I believe is a very different question. That is to say, this question is asking how should Muslims get themselves out of the modern quandary they are in – NOW – now that modernity (or a Euro-American-centric version of it) has happened. The question we have been considering up to this point is: what were the factors that disabled Muslim civilisation from maintaining their position of power and influence prior to the Modern predicament. The two, I believe, are different problems with differing (though not necessarily dissimilar) answers. (This is a pending post, as indicated, above)

Almost in response to Saliba, Lewis asks: “Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain rather than from a Muslim Atlantic port, out of which such voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times? Why did the great scientific breakthrough occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?” Lewis offers no answer.

Saliba’s reasons, however, already possesses the answer: in terms of b) the modern scientific breakthrough didn’t occur in the Muslim domain because of the reasons Saliba has already identified to do with the European discovery of trade routes that bypass the Middle East. In terms of a) in the spirit of competition, Europe was desperate for such a discovery with the resulting genocides that followed; the Muslims – despite their ‘Muslim discovery of America‘ preceding Europe’s, were comfortable in their state of ‘equilibrium’ [Reason 5] which is negative, despite the fact that their engagement was more positive (inclusive) in trade and cultural exchange.

Muslim discovery of America


It appears that the best answer to this question, then, can be presented in a timeline like this:

1. Decline (for Muslims) is only natural after the deen of Allah’s (Islam) is dropped. This IS the definitive religious cause of Muslim decline.

2. The religion was ‘dropped’ in piecemeal fashion, politically at first (noted by Ibn Khaldun), with the advent of the Ummayads in 661 CE. This heralds the end of the Prophetic and Rashidun era and the beginning of the Age of Kings. Some of the issues raised then is still with us now. Allah Knows Best.

3. Though the controversy between the Rationalists and the Traditionalists took place in the 800s, this was not the source of decline. It may have been a materially-constituted part of that decline. Some of the issues raised then is still with us now. Allah Knows Best.

4. 900s CE: Consensus in Islamic Legal Thought means that Full Ijtihad is no longer deemed necessary, although it can be utilised at any time. Ossification begins?

5. Though the 1000s CE is said to be the zenith of Muslim material power and prestige, the controversy of Al Ghazzali and philosophy was not the source of decline. It may have become a materially-constituted part of that decline. Allah Knows Best. The issues raised then is certainly still with us now. Islamic economic institutions become set as model institutions and are perpetuated till the 1800s CE.

5. The (non Muslim) Mongols were given victory over the Muslims of the Abbasid period in the 1200s CE because Allah’s deen was not adhered to appropriately. Materially, the Abbasids were already in a state of weakness by then.

6. Despite scientific advances that rely on the great works of previous generations, that ultimately – for Muslims – was spurred on by the Prophetic mission of discovery, the 1500s CE was that time when the ascending Ottomans were pushing into Europe. But Allah’s deen was not adhered to appropriately by them. The Westerners were given space by Allah in their quest to bypass Muslim management of trade-routes to venture in their spirit of discovery and claim alternate trade-routes. This IS the definitive material cause of Muslim decline.

7. 1700s CE: The decline of the Muslim world becomes apparent.

8. 1800s CE: In a bid to solve the problem, Muslim rulers entirely drop Allah’s deen to varying extents and instead seek solutions from non-Muslims who are not even on the deen. All these material efforts serve to only exacerbate the issue. The period of European Colonisation increases and coincides with preparations for the Age of Tyranical Kings. The Westerners, ultimately, were given victory over the Muslims during the Ottoman era because Allah’s deen was not adhered to appropriately. The weakened Ottoman polity is called ‘the sick man of Europe’. The Muslim world was already, by the time of the European take-over, in a state of weakness.

1900s CE: High Modernity begins, heralding the Age of Tyrranical Kings.

2000s CE: Preparations for the Age of Dajjal?

So is Islam to blame?

Even Lewis explains that to blame Islam is not “plausible.” He says: “[in Muslim lands prior to the ascension of the West] new industries were born and manufactures and commerce were expanded to a level without precedent. There, too, governments and societies achieved a freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee Christendom for refuge in Islam.”


Chopra identifies 5 lessons from his analysis. They include:

  1. Rulers need to be held accountable to their people if they are to perform their tasks effectively. However the dynastic caliphate precluded this.
  2. The lack of political accountability led to the loss of freedom of expression, inequality before the law and the formation of a privileged class. This led to slow economic development and excessive taxation.
  3. The political authority cannot impose its own worldview on people as it tried to do during the Mutazilite (Rationalist) period.
  4. Once the people are alienated, the government has to depend on external military force which is ultimately self-defeating.
  5. Islam is not the cause of Muslim decline but has itself been a victim of lack of political accountability, corruption and repression.

So when asking well, where do we start?, Chopra maintains unequivicably: “The best place to start would be where the Prophet himself (pbuh) started – the reform of human beings.”

And since Islam is not actually the problem, Chopra does still suggest a reform of sorts that needs to take place insofar as Islam is brought back in terms of societal-priorities to its original concerns: “The fact that Islam has not been the cause of Muslim decline does not necessarily mean that there is no need for reform in the present-day understanding of Islam. The Islamic emphasis on justice, the brotherhood of mankind, and tolerance seems to have become substantially diluted in certain sectors of Muslim societies as is its emphasis on character building. … This would demand a substantial change in the curricula of all educational institutions and, in particular those of the madrasahs.”

Khan maintains that “Islamic philosophy is necessary in order to give rigour and depth to the intellectual dimension of [Islamic] resurgence.” (P2.)

However, in my opinion, all such educational reforms will be ineffectual if the political apparatus is posited against Islam. One MUST also question what is the significance of so-called ‘tactical’ bombing of Muslim nations through air-strikes and drones (Iraq comes to mind) if not to destroy the infra-structure and augment instability, despite what is presented on our daily dose of Propaganda TV. If education (or freedom, or prosperity, or modernity) is the key to developing a civilisation (even by Western standards), then such a tactic must be to waylay educational improvement and should be seen for what it is: a means to ensure Muslim civilisation is put down and its resources exploited by those currently in a position of power.

Regardless, what is certain is even education – if it is not consistent with the Prophetic Tradition – will in the final analysis be solely materially-focussed and miss the whole point of education: the defining project, life’s vocation, to walk on the siraatul mustaqim (the Straight Path) to God for the bliss of our souls in this life AND the Hereafter.

And God Knows Best.

سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين

Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.


To understand what we meant by the Four Ages, please click on ‘The Post Revelatory Age and its Discontents

To understand our current ‘Age of MANipulation’, please click here.


1“…The influence of Ibn Taymiyyah on Wahhabi thought … will throw light on the development of the Wahhabi movement and its doctrinal relation[s] … [as Ibn Taymiyyah] seems to me as a prototype for Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab.”

“The originator of the Wahhabiyah movement had been a Sufi adept in his youth, but later came under the influence of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings. Ibn Taymiyyah’s teaching(‘s) implications for Wahhabi doctrines can be described as [concerning three distinct areas, [one of which concerns] Sufi Doctrines and Practices,”: … “But he regards the idea of mystical unity with God and ecstatic aspects of Sufism as un-Islamic; therefore he rejects these teachings. It should be noted that he did not reject Sufism itself but denounced intercession, saint veneration and grave cults.”

(by Professor Talip Kücükcan. The excerpt can be found here. Italics are mine.)




Filed under Arif uz Zaman: Article, Islam

7 responses to “What caused the decline of the Muslim Civilisation?

  1. I’ll defintely read this sooner or later. It needs such a clear mind, something I’m short on these days. =)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m in the process of writing some feedback for you. I’m on your second email!

      PS, Your thoughts on this post – and anything I’ve missed out, would be of interest, of course, brother.


  2. Amy

    Incredible post! JazakAllah khairan for explaining so clearly something that’s so difficult to understand. I was reading just last night about so many of the topics you have talked about, and wishing for a deeper analysis – Allah gave me that when He made me find this post today!


    • Jazakillahu khairan sister. This topic is one that is probably on many of our minds, especially if you’re Muslim. It has been bothering me for ages.

      InshaAllah this account can in the least springboard discussion. I am expecting alternative perspectives. Correct me if I’m wrong. That’s fine.

      But, so far, this formulation, or map, seems to me (on a personal level, at least) to be the clearest way through the confusion, alhamdulillah. And I had hoped that since this thought-process benefitted me, it might be worth sharing to benefit others, inshaAllah. Allah Knows Best.

      Wa salaam, sister.


  3. I agree with Chopra’s analysis : Indeed, Islam is not the cause of Muslim decline but has itself been a victim of lack of political accountability by those in the leadership positions, and their corruption and repression.

    Islam will rise from the West where there is more Accountability and Check & Balance between the Executive, Legislation, and Judiciary Powers.


    • Agreed brother. It seems Islam’s been hijacked for a while. But, I think, the truth is there, plain to see, when you scratch beneath the surface.

      Though comparatively speaking, there is more (material) accountability in the West than the Muslim world, my belief that Islam will/could/ought to rise from the West has decreased of late. I’m not being pessimistic. I think whether Islam rises from the East or West doesn’t matter, anymore. “Say, “To Allah belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path.”” (Quran 2:142). I believe Islam is already here. And it is (has always been) global. It’s just that there are forces at work, internally and externally to mask (consciously or not) the inherent good/justice/realism of Islam, globally, with a fouler picture. How to discern between the mask and the true, beautiful face of Islam is probably going to be a later post. We’ll see, brother.


  4. Very good post.
    Part of the intellectual stagnation of the Muslims was also due to their banning of the printing press for many hundreds of years. Punishable with death!
    That would be like banning the Internet today, and trying to intellectually compete with other nations.

    The Printing Press & Fall of the Muslim Ummah – Shaykh Dr. Yasir Qadhi – 2012-01-04

    1. Intellectual stagnation also results in many Muslims confusing their local habits and rulings with (Universal) Islam. Resulting in Muslims from different locales being unable to work together on higher level Islamic issues. The inability to self organize on larger scales leads to self imposed divide and destruction.

    2. Another result of this intellectual stagnation is at the same time disconnecting Islam from reality (practical implementation) leading to adopting many of the counter-Islamic thoughts and ways in practice (like usury central banking) while at the same time unable to adapt the understanding of the Muslims to the deeper and broader meanings of Islam.

    3. Paradoxically while adopting many counter-Islamics ways, the Muslims have been self isolating themselves from effectively cooperating with the good non-Muslims, or anyone they don’t fully 100% agree with. This is also the reason for the self imposed division amongst the Muslims themselves in point 1. It is like imposing a boycott upon ourselves.
    (See for example “The Kafir who Helped the Prophet – Dr. Yasir Qadhi | 1st December 2012” http://youtu.be/MvdYYHAoQRE. The lecture seems to be very misunderstood looking at the youtube comments).

    *Mental Isolation* blocks adaptation and seizing the many opportunities available.
    Cutting yourself of from ‘Universal’ Islam by thinking only your local habits are what completely represent all of Islam, leads to
    *Moral Isolation* from other Muslims and eventually the whole of humanity.
    The more moral and mental isolation there is, the more the Muslims become *physically Isolated* from others. They loose connection with resources, human capital and ideas, useful alliances etc.

    They are unable to seize the initiative to engage other people on their own Islamic terms and are forced to largely accept the ideas, ways and practices other people impose on them.

    The problem is of course multidimensional but I think the following may point towards the heart of the issue (as you have also already stated in the post)

    Sahih al-Bukhari 52 (last part) http://sunnah.com/bukhari/2/45
    … Beware! There is a piece of flesh in the body
    if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good
    but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt
    and that is the heart.


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